VietNamNet Bridge – On March 14, 1988, China sent many warships to attack and invade Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef) of Vietnam, killing 64 unarmed soldiers on duty on the island. Gac Ma contributed to Vietnam’s woeful and majestic history with the image of the soldiers who held each other’s hands to protect the national flag in the bullet rain from China. "The Gac Ma circle of immortality" has become an icon of patriotism.
From the left: Dr. Nguyen Nha, General Le Ke Lam, VNN reporter and Dr. Hoang Viet.
To commemorate the Gac Ma 1988 event, VietNamNet talked with Ass. Prof, Dr., Brigadier General Le Ke Lam, former Real Admiral, former director of the Naval Academy, Dr. Nguyen Nha, a historian and Dr. Hoang Viet from the HCM City Law University.
VietNamNet: 28 years have passed since the event of Gac Ma. Our readers want to better know what happened on March 14 of 1988.
General Le Ke Lam
General Le Ke Lam: Prior to the event of Gac Ma, we all know that in February 1979, 600,000 Chinese troops invaded the six northern border provinces of Vietnam. In March they withdrew but they then fired thousands of 100mm and 120mm mortars to Vietnam each day.
In1987 they began to increase activities in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea), particularly in the Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands) of Vietnam.
Truong Sa has an area of 160,000 km2, including 100 islands, reefs, and coral reefs. In 1988, Vietnam managed nine islands and 12 coral reefs. When China began its activities in the East Sea, there was no uninhabited island, only rocks and underwater coral reefs.
Chinese ships ran around the area for years to find and occupy coral reefs of strategic significance. By March 1988, they had occupied the reefs of Chu Thap (Fiery Cross), Chau Vien (Cuarteron Reef), Subi, Gaven and on March 14, 1988, we lost Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef).
Gac Ma is a reef, but it has a strategic location in the middle of the islands controlled by Vietnam. Vietnam understood this so we arranged some engineers there. On the evening of March 13, 1988, there were 48 sappers on the reef. When the Chinese soldiers landed on Gac Ma and saw the flag of Vietnam there, they rushed to plug it off. Vietnamese sappers tried to defend our national flag. A fight by daggers occurred between the two sides. Immediately, Chinese soldiers standing not far from the site fired at 48 soldiers on the reef with submachine guns.
About 5-6 km from the Gac Ma Reef were two Vietnamese freighters numbered 604 and 605, which had transported sappers to the reef. These ships were provided to Vietnam by China during the war of resistance against the US. Chinese warships fired at these ships until they sank, killing 16 officers and soldiers on board. Other soldiers on the ships were rescued by rescue ships of the Naval High Command.
The massacre of 64 Vietnamese officers and soldiers on March 14, 1988 took place like this.
Dr. Nguyen Nha: When the Gac Ma event occured, I was a lecturer of the History Faculty of the HCM City Teacher Training College.
For me, the event of Gac Ma in 1988 is a woeful and majestic chapter in Vietnam’s history. From the event of Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) sea battle in 1974 to the Gac Ma event in 1988, within 14 years China invaded Vietnam three times.
|Dr. Nguyen Nha.|
And in the history of the war of aggression throughout history, perhaps this is the cruelest war. As Rear Admiral Le Ke Lam has just told us, 64 unarmed sappers had to confront a mighty force, with warships and modern weapons. They resiliently fought and sacrificed to defend the flag of Vietnam. The image was so tragic and I think that the future generations must know and remember it.
But recently, when I taught a post-graduate course on the history, students said they did not know about the event of Gac Ma. If even history lecturers do not know about the event, how about students? That's a sad thing.
VietNamNet: As a researcher of the East Sea conflicts, could you tell us why the Chinese attacked us at that time, Dr. Hoang Viet?
Dr. Hoang Viet: China's military art is they attack others based on the times. At that time, Vietnam’s position was the lowest. After the events in Cambodia, we were embargoed by the US and the ASEAN turned its back on us. Vietnam's relations with China was very poor after the 1979 border war.
Vietnam was almost isolated in the international arena. The only mainstay of Vietnam at that time, the Soviet Union, was in a serious crisis. Therefore, China chose the best time to take action. When the Gac Ma event occurred in 1988, the international community almost said nothing. That is the point we need to regard.
VietNamNet: The Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) battle in 1974 occurred when the South Vietnamese government was an ally of the United States while the Gac Ma 1988 event occur when we were an ally of the Soviet Union. These are the two largest superpowers of that time. What essence of the relations of ally was reflected through these events and what lessons could we learn from them?
Dr. Hoang Viet: The foreign and defense policy of Vietnam today is three no's: not join any military alliance, not allow any country to put military bases on the territory of Vietnam and take no military action or the use of force or threat to use force against other countries. Many people have questioned why Vietnam has made this policy. I think the tragic events that occurred in the past are part of the answer.
Some researchers have said that Vietnam suffered the "curse of geography" when it is adjacent to a very big neighbor as China. Vietnam also understood the cost of a smaller country in the chessboard of the great powers.
And the story of the Hoang Sa battle in 1974 and the Gac Ma 1988 showed us one thing that allies has a certain value and the decisive value is the intrinsic value of Vietnam.
Let’s take Cam Ranh as an example. Cam Ranh is one of the best bases in the world so any major country wants it. America once owned Cam Ranh, then from 1978 we signed an agreement to lease Cam Ranh to the Soviet Union. In 2001, Russia returned Cam Ranh to us. Since then, a lot of big countries said they want to rent this port, but we do not lease it to anyone. Instead, Vietnam opens the port for military ships of all countries to come to repair or take logistics.
By the way, we often say that the Soviet Union, China helped us in the two wars. Actually no one helps others impartially at all. That is the historical truth. If they helped us impartially, in 1988 Vietnam would have had forces to confront China in the Spratly Islands. However, they only helped Vietnam build the coastal forces, not reaching beyond 200 nautical miles.
We are always grateful to the Soviet Union and China for their assistance in the two wars but we must remember that they have never helped us to have advance weapons, only defensive weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles. MIG 21 aircraft and small ships were enough to defend our coast while at that time Egypt had MIG25. We did not have money to buy modern weapons, so we only had such weapon.
What does that fact tell us? Vietnam cannot rely on anyone but itself, its internal force, which is the power of the people. Our country has 95 million people in the country and 4.5 million people overseas. This is tremendous power. If we can combine them into one, we can solve all challenges.
VietNamNet: All of you have confirmed that Gac Ma event in 1988 was a tragic history of the nation that we are not allowed to forget. But as Dr. Nguyen Nha said, even history teachers did not know about the Gac Ma 1988 event. Recently, an online newspaper made a survey, which revealed that of 7 people, only one person knew about the event of Gac Ma. Our textbooks did not have a single line about it, why?
General Le Ke Lam: I do not know why but it is true that the Border War 1979 and the Gac Ma 1988 events have not been diffused by the media, especially in comparison to the wars of resistances against the French and Americans.
We often talk that the nation had to undergo 30 years of wars but to me and many other military historians, as well as those who witnessed the war in 1979, our nation’s long march in the twentieth century had to last more than 40 years. A lot of blood poured down. In the northern border, thousands of officers and soldiers were killed. Then in the short massacre on Gac Ma Reef, 64 soldiers were sacrificed.
I suggest to the leaders to consider adding these two major events in history to educate our children to understand and know that our country experienced two other fierce fightings. There is no reason that we forget the merits, forget blood and bone of those who fell defending every inch of border land and each island of the Fatherland.
We must also tell the people of China. I believe that there are many Chinese people of honesty, integrity who do not agree with the leaders of China in 1979 and 1988.
Secondly, I recommend taking February 17 and March 14 as the anniversaries of the martyrs who died for the country. Some said that these anniversaries are about China's blood debts against Vietnam and they could negatively affect the friendship with the people of China.
I think this is only one sided view. Because we still talk a lot about the war against the French and then against the US but it does not affect the current friendship with the people of France and the US.
President Ho Chi Minh once told us that we fought the French and American colonialists, not the people of these countries. In these two wars, many French and Americans took to the streets to fight for Vietnam. It’s similar to the people of China. The truthful people and those of great learning would protest China's leaders who have ambition of expansion and hegemony, who want to turn the East Sea into the pond of their own.
A clear demonstration is Mr. Li Ling Hua, a Chinese historian, has publicly opposed the U-shaped line. And there are many other Mr. Li Ling Hua.
Therefore, we commemorate these days to honor the spirit of national pride, so that every citizen keeps it in mind to unite together. But we are not against China and the Chinese people. Vietnam is always friendly and is willing to do business with China.
Dr. Nguyen Nha: I agree with General Le Ke Lam that if we do not tell these events to the younger generations, we are guilty with history and the souls of soldiers who sacrificed for our country.
Dr. Hoang Viet: Scientifically, the history is to respect the truth. The Border War in 1979 and the massacre of Gac Ma in 1988 must be returned to historical truth.
Secondly, as they are historical facts, publicizing them in the textbooks and even the media is very ordinary.
As General Le Ke Lam said, we talk about the past does not mean that we freeze the future or the present. The past happened so it cannot be denied, but we are willing to foster the present and future friendly relations. Currently, China is in a comprehensive strategic partnership of Vietnam so this is no bad thing at all. Are we being too cautious?