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Page 33
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Merle Ratner - ¡Presente!

By Nadya Williams

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For an American to be honored upon passing with an official memorial is quite rare in Vietnam. However, both respect and love were well-earned by Merle Ratner's life-long devotion to the victims of the American War. She was only 13 in 1970 when she was first arrested in her native New York City for protesting the war. Unlike most Americans who demonstrated until the war's end in April 1975—then dropped out—Merle's commitment did not stop or waiver.

Had her death at 67 on Monday, February 5th, been a peaceful and natural one, there would surely have been sad remembrances in Ha Noi among the organizations she so faithfully supported. But death came suddenly and violently as she was walking in the early evening across an intersection near her home in lower Manhattan, bringing food to an elderly friend. She died instantly, struck by a large truck making a rapid turn. Her husband of 44 years, Ngo Thanh Nhan, was just a few blocks away in their apartment, awaiting her return.

The February 16th online memorial in Vietnam's capital of Ha Noi was beautifully organized, principally by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations—VUFO, and by VAVA—the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin. Merle Ratner's global reach was such that within a few days, the link to attend the moving tribute to her virtually circled the globe. A large solemn room was filled with official representatives, with a raised platform at one end holding a large photo of her surrounded by flowers. Going to the podium on the side, each speaker bowed deeply in front of her shrine before and after delivering their eulogy. All Vietnamese spoke in English, and all were men, except for one woman who spoke close to tears. Her husband Nhan was the last to talk via Zoom from their home in New York. Speaking only in Vietnamese, his voice breaking, this writer felt and, strangely, "understood" every heart-rending word he uttered.

We in San Francisco's Veterans For Peace chapter had met Merle and Nhan several times, starting in 2005 as they escorted small groups of Vietnamese whose lives had been severely damaged by Agent Orange/Dioxin. These delegations toured the country, stopped in Washington, DC, for meetings, and ended up in New York City to coincide with a 2004 lawsuit against the manufacturers and users of the deadly weapon of war.

Merle co-founded the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, which fought to make both the US government and chemical corporations compensate people in Vietnam for the legacy of congenital disabilities and cancers caused by the toxic chemicals the US military used during the war. Not surprisingly, the suit was rejected in the New York Circuit Court, and an appeal to the Supreme Court was not accepted for a hearing. This spring, a major lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and others is on appeal in Paris, France. An estimated three million suffer today as gene-warping Dioxin continues to cause severe congenital disabilities in the Fourth Generation since the war. After many years of struggle, many American veterans now receive some compensation but nothing for their affected children or grandchildren.

More recently, Merle supported the development of a new generation of Vietnamese leftists in the US, organizing study groups, making trips to Vietnam, and developing strategies through VietLeft Power. Merle had served on the Brecht Forum/Marxist School board, a movement education center. She was most recently a board member of the Laundry Workers Center, a project that advocates on behalf of low-wage laundry and food service workers. Before her death, Merle was working as a New York City public school substitute teacher and was finishing up a master's program in labor studies. "She loved her kids, the job, and the challenge," Nhan said. "I'm greatly affected by this loss," he added. "She helped me understand American politics and the lives of poor people." So many owe a huge debt of gratitude to Merle Ratner. She was the last person that should have left us so soon.

Only three days before her death, the Vietnam News Agency published an interview with Merle: https://en.vietnamplus.vn/us-activist-cpv-stands-as-linchpin-behind-every-vietnams-success/279202.vnp

Nadya Williams is an Associate Member of VFP, San Francisco Ch. 69 and Director of Communication.

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