Napalm Girl: an uncomfortable figure for Vietnam’s communist govt
By Eric San Juan
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, June 8 (EFE).- Used as a propaganda symbol against the brutality of the United States Army, Kim Phuc, the so-called “Napalm Girl,” is an uncomfortable image for Vietnam’s regime 50 years after the iconic photo of her running nude because of how she fled the country in search of freedom.
The photo of little Kim Phuc crying in pain from a napalm strike in Jun. 8, 1972 can be seen today at the Ho Chi Minh War Museum, where atrocities committed by Americans soldiers are exhibited, but for 20 years, the conflict’s most iconic image was missing.
The photo was in the museum in the 1980s when, according to Canadian writer Denise Chong in the book “The Girl in the Photo,” Kim Phuc herself was surprised to see it exhibited, but disappeared after she fled Vietnam and sought asylum in Canada in 1992.
The image took more than two decades to return to the museum: it did so in 2013 at the hands of author Nick Ut, who donated it on one of his many trips to his native Vietnam.
The text accompanying the photograph in the museum shows Vietnamese authorities’ discomfort. It speaks of the 9-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc “hopelessly burned” by napalm by a US attack on the village of Trang Bang where she lived, and the awards received by Ut. It says nothing about the woman that girl became.
Vietnamese press, which barely mentions the 50th anniversary of the photo in recent days, usually goes a little further by saying Phuc, 59, lives in Canada with her family, without mentioning her departure from the country or suffering from having become the regime’s propaganda weapon.
During the final phase of the war, which ended in 1975, and the harsh post-war years, Phuc continued to live her childhood and adolescence in her village of Trang Bang among the precarious economic situation of her family and the pain from her injuries.
She dreamed of becoming a doctor and at 19, 10 years after the image of her was taken, began her medical studies in Ho Chi Minh City, 50 kilometers from her village. .
It was then that the photograph that she had almost forgotten came back to life. After a harsh post-war period, Vietnam opened to foreign journalists and its leaders realized Phuc was a powerful propaganda weapon to show the consequences of American brutality.
Communist leaders of her province began to require her to serve reporters and she was forced to miss class several times a week to go to her village and speak to foreign media.
Chong said in her book how after the first meetings, a local leader reprimanded her for talking about the economic hardships the country was experiencing and ordered her to limit herself to talking about the suffering inflicted by that attack and Vietnam’s optimism at the time.
She sad the constant coming and going from the city to her village forced her to miss class several times a week and made her dream of becoming a doctor impossible. She dropped out of school “due to health problems,” according to the version she was forced to offer to the media.
She tried less demanding English studies, but her teachers weren’t flexible with her forced absences for propaganda trips and media interviews, so she had to drop out too.
Desperate from seeing her life was not in her hands, she asked for help from then Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, a man whose power was waning but who, because of the friendship that formed between them, helped her travel to Cuba in 1986. to study Spanish and pharmacology.
Phuc said she knew the Cuban hiatus would come to an end and that, as Denise Chong writes, “once she returned to Vietnam she would be more firmly held by the regime.”
“She told herself that ‘they’ would make the decisions in her life, before she herself knew them, if she ever knew them,” says the writer in her book, for the preparation of which she interviewed Phuc for dozens of hours.
In Cuba, Phuc married her boyfriend, Toan, a young Vietnamese man she met there and managed to get authorities to allow them to travel to Moscow for their honeymoon. This trip became the key to escaping the country.
During a technical stopover in Canada to return to Cuba, she saw the opportunity and asked for political asylum together with Toan, a step to obtaining the citizenship she enjoys today.
Three decades after her flight, Phuc has on occasions been able to discreetly return to her native Vietnam, one of the few countries where the anniversary of the photo and the moment that changed her life passes largely unnoticed. EFE