March 14, 2016 – A commemorative event for a 1988 naval battle between Vietnam and China in the Spratly Islands turned into a brief protest in Hanoi today.
More than 100 people marched around the Vietnamese capital’s Hoan Kiem Lake, chanting anti-China slogans and claiming Vietnam’s sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands.
“Spratly belongs to Vietnam! Paracel belongs to Vietnam”, the crowd chanted. Some carried the banners reading “Gac Ma 1988 – the country won’t forget”.
The protest was small, but significant given Vietnam’s history of preventing or breaking up demonstrations. While anti-China sentiment is strong among the public, it is a sensitive issue for the ruling Communist Party.
The Johnson South (Gac Ma) Reef Skirmish on Mar 14, 1988 between Chinese and Vietnamese forces resulted in the deaths of about 70 Vietnamese sailors and the sinking of two Vietnamese ships.
The South China Sea battle, however, has never been taught at Vietnamese schools and both sides have different accounts of what occurred. Estimates of the number of deaths still vary.
Territorial disputes between the two nations remain within the same region. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry last month accused China of taking actions that threaten peace and “accelerate militarisation”.
“Many young Vietnamese people don’t know about this anniversary because the truth has been covered. Even elderly people don’t have any information about this battle”, said Le Trong Duc, 34, one of the protesters in Hanoi.
Some 150 protesters also took to the streets in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, holding banners listing the names of the dead soldiers.
Chu Vinh Hai, one of the protesters, said on his Facebook page that the commemorative event occurred without any intervention by local authorities.