Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - Vietnamese Catholics and Buddhists held a memorial service for the heroic soldiers who lost their lives in the 1970s defending a group of islands in the South China Sea that are still at the centre of a dispute with Beijing.
For decades, the Vietnamese government has banned public demonstrations in memory of the soldiers and the tens of thousands of civilians (at least 50,000) who died along the northern border with China in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.
The Communist Party, which is closely tied to its Chinese counterpart, has always banned these ceremonies and commemorations. This year, Da Nang provincial authorities pre-empted a public event scheduled for last Saturday.
This decision has led to dissatisfaction and unhappiness among locals and represents "an insult to the nation" according to Professor Dinh, a prominent historian and researcher.
In spite of the official ban, at least 200 people - mobilized by activists from the No-U Group - gathered recently at Hanoi's Ly Thai To monument (commemorating the national hero who moved the capital to the city) to honour the north and south Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives "in the fight against the Chinese invaders."
Last Saturday, the Paul Nguyen Van Binh Clu - established in memory of the late Archbishop of Saigon at the time of the War - celebrated a Mass to remember the tribute paid in blood to defend the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Scholars and researchers emphasise that the Communist government has a responsibility "to promote national reconciliation and patriotism," by protecting the waters and islands that belonged to the national territory "before the Chinese invasion."
A non-Catholic researcher who attended the Mass added that despite differences of religions and ideologies, "we must preserve the value of unity" against Chinese imperialism. For Prof Tuong Lai, a Buddhist, all faiths desire peace, justice, and patriotism for the new generations.
For Fr Le Quoc Thang, secretary general of the Commission of Justice and Peace of the Vietnamese Church, unity and patriotism are also values that are essential for peace and development in Vietnam.
Rich in natural gas and oil, the islands in the South China Sea are a strategic hub for international maritime trade. Their ownership has led to a dispute between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Vietnamese historians claim that the Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam and this "since the 17th century". However, as a result of a Chinese naval attack on 17-19 January 1974, they have been under Beijing's control.
In 1988, following a Chinese naval attack on the Spratly that killed 64 Vietnamese border guards, China seized seven atolls. For Vietnamese nationalists, the victims of the attack "heroes"
In the past, protests by patriotic Vietnamese also provided a venue for open criticism against the Vietnamese government over its "accommodating" attitude towards Beijing.
In 2011, activists, intellectuals and members of civil society took to the streets on several occasions, chanting slogans and brandishing placards and posters. However, the communist regime suppressed the demonstrations by force, conducting arrests and searches in private homes.