Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Vietnam mourns death of sacred turtle and speculates on omens for ruling communists


Demise of ancient reptile in Hanoi lake as party delegates prepare to choose new leaders prompts grief and questions

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Cu Rua the sacred turtle may have been as old as 120 years
Cu Rua the sacred turtle may have been as old as 120 years Photo: EPA
The death of a venerated turtle in Vietnam has led to an outpouring of national grief – and has unnerved communist rulers gathering in Hanoi for a rare party congress.
So inauspicious was the timing of the giant reptile’s demise that state media removed initial coverage about the death, apparently under pressure from communist authorities.
Party members will meet in Hanoi for the next eight days for their five-yearly congress to choose new leaders amid a power battle between conservative and modernising factions.
But the passing of the popular turtle, that lived in the famous city centre Hoan Kiem lake, was viewed by many as an alarming omen in a country that is officially atheist but also deeply superstitious.
Cu Rua had lived in the lake since the 19th century
The creature weighed in at approximately 440lbs (200kgs) and was affectionately known as "Cu Rua" ("Great Grandfather") although it was actually a female.
It was revered as symbol of the country’s struggle for independence from foreign invaders.
Indeed, Cua Rua was held in such high esteem that officials may decide to honour the turtle in the same manner as the country’s famous and human independence hero Ho Chi Minh – by embalming it.
The turtle would be preserved at the Vietnam National Museum, while the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh lie in state in a mausoleum that is a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi
As party delegates arrived in Hanoi to choose a new party leader, president and prime minister, many Vietnamese were lighting incense at temples for Cu Rua to mourn the loss.
At the congress, Nguyen Tan Dung, the reformist prime minister who favours closer ties with the United States, is battling to replace Nguyen Phu Trong, a conservative apparatchik, in the party’s top job of general secretary.
Nguyen Phu Trong (left) and Nguyen Tan Dung
Speculation on such party machinations are off-limits in Vietnamese media. But blogs and social media were abuzz with talk that Cu Rua’s death did not portend well at such an important time for one of the world’s five remaining ruling communist parties.
“This is bad news for many people in Hanoi,” proclaimed the Thanh Nien newspaper.
Cu Rua may have been as old as 120 years, meaning it had lived in the lake since the 19th century, although many Vietnamese believed it was seven centuries old.
Only three other members of the critically endangered swinhoe softshell turtle – commonly known as the Yangtze giant softshell – are believed to exist in the world. One lives in another Hanoi lake and two are in China.
In Vietnamese folklore, a fabled turtle in the lake was the custodian of the magic sword with which 15th century hero Le Loi vanquished Chinese foes.
In recent decades, sightings were so rare that any appearance by Cu Rua at water level was considered a good sign.
But when he started to surface frequently five years ago, scientists realised that Cu Rua’s health was being harmed by the lake’s growing pollution and the invasion of its habitat not by Chinese forces but of small, non-native turtles.
The public outcry prompted official efforts to clean the lake and nurse the reptile back to health.
Cu Rua’s body was fished from the waters after being discovered on Tuesday evening and for now remains in a temple on a small island in the lake.

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