Japanese aggression and the end of Colonialism

The rampant industrialization of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, created a new world power at the close of the 19th century. Invasions in Korea and Manchuria had already awakened the rest of the world to Japanese ambitions. When they went back into Manchuria in 1931, it was seen as bare-knuckled aggression. By 1937, they were invading China. However, the Fascist threat in Europe had the Western powers too pre-occupied to help.

Hitler and Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka in 1941. Wikimedia Commons.

Then, Hitler’s forces marched right through France and set up the Vichy collaborative government. Germany and Japan became Axis allies. Japan asked the new French government for “access” to French-Indochina. The Vichy regime complied, and Japan invaded Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma like a hot knife through butter. Their objective was to create the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, another name for Japanese empire. They were finally stopped in Burma. For a gripping account of the Burmese conflict, pick up Burma: The Longest War 1941-1945. Hollywood’s less factual version would be the memorable The Bridge on the River Kwai (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition). Eventually, the war ended and the Japanese went home.

The end of WWII brought on the Cold War, and Southeast Asia became a chess board of strategies and tactics between Western powers and Communist powers. While the US fought the Korean War to confine the spread of communism, the British and the French extracted themselves from their colonies. The Soviet Union and Communist Chinese took the opportunity to foster the growth of communist insurgencies where the opportunity presented itself. This was predominantly in the countries that had been part of French Indochina: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Vietnam’s struggle for Independence

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The Vietnamese revere Ho Chi Minh as the Father of their country.

In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh to take over the northern part of Vietnam, (Hong River valley), while the French established the successor government in Saigon, (Mekong River valley). From 1945 to 1954, they battled to a standstill, leaving Vietnam split at the 17th parallel in the mountains between North and South. A contemporary analysis of the French defeat that should have served as a warning to the US, written in 1961, is Street Without Joy: The French Debacle In Indochina (Stackpole Military History Series). For a more complete review of the entire French colonial experience in Southeast Asia, pick up Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 (From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective).

The North continued to agitate against the parade of disastrous military regimes that ruled the South. By 1964, US advisors were on the ground. By 1965, the armed forces build-up began. The heavily organized US forces fought the will o’ the wisp guerillas, in a game the Vietnamese had perfected centuries before when they threw off the Chinese domination and honed to a science against the French. By the time the US pulled out of Saigon in 1975, over 58,000 US military personnel had been killed. The defeat has been a major scar for a generation of Americans. In 1976, Vietnam was united under the socialist regime. There are a lot of recent books on this important period in the history of America and Southeast Asia. Check out Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, A Rumor of War, and The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. Even Broadway has a version, with Miss Saigon (Original 1989 London Cast). Hollywood’s contribution is Apocalypse Now (Apocalypse Now / Apocalypse Now Redux / Hearts of Darkness) (Three-Disc Full Disclosure Edition) [Blu-ray].

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In today’s Vietnam, the question is, “How much can you fit on a motor scooter?”

The fact is that the Vietnamese, descended from the Hong River dynasties, have been a proud, independent people for a couple thousand years. They lost over a million people in the war, possibly two million. The complicating filter of Cold War politics and the need to address the aggressive spread of communism created an unfortunate scenario for all sides. After World War II, Ho Chi Minh approached the Truman Administration for its assistance with independence from France. He received no response. Five years later, Russia and China saw the opportunity and offered their aid. This would tip the scales of power against the French, but, ultimately, embroil Ho’s independence movement in the crucible of the Cold War.

Today, the Vietnamese are slowly building a new economy and a more accommodating political future. It is a beautiful country with 87 million people. On a drive from port to major city, you will see everything from rice farmers with water buffalo to modern garment factories. Signs of new construction, both commercial and residential, are everywhere. Rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City is characterized as “one million cars and six million motor scooters”. And, it’s fascinating to see the interesting cargo that can be handled on the back of a motor scooter.

Western tourists are warmly welcome. This is a population that has been through a lot. They still have a one party political system. However, like China, they are evolving economically from a closed communist state to a nation of opportunity. For a portrait of this emerging nation, check out Understanding Vietnam. Another interesting resource of culturally important narratives is Vietnam History: Stories Retold For A New Generation – Expanded Edition.

The Tragedy in Cambodia

Young Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia with Mao Zedong, in 1956. US Army Center for Military History, via Wikimedia Commons

In a side show to the Vietnam War, the end game in Cambodia also resulted in brutal civil war. Its effects are still evident to international travelers. For the current generation of young Cambodian adults, the atrocities of this upheaval are still fresh memories, and some wounds are still healing.

In the late sixties, the North Vietnamese were using Cambodia, with silent acceptance from Prince Sihanouk, as a supply route to support the Viet Cong in the South. This was known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. By 1968, they were helping to shape a communist militia known as the “Khmer Rouge” (Red Khmer). In 1970, opponents of this accommodating policy, led by Lon Nol, staged a coup, sent the Prince into exile and tried to dislodge the Vietnamese. To protect its franchise, Vietnam invaded and, by 1975, the Khmer Rouge, with strong support from North Vietnam, had ousted the Lon Nol crowd. 

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Cambodia has a ways to go to catch up with Vietnam

This was a time of strict Communist orthodoxy, with important influence from Moscow and Beijing. The New Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of the notorious Pol Pot, launched their own version of agrarian communism. They emptied the cities, closed schools and temples, and forced the population to work on collective farms. They destroyed anything smacking of intellectual activity, even targeting citizens who wore glasses as being too smart for the communal good. Somewhere between one and two million Cambodians, about 10-20% of the population, were killed or starved in this massive failure. Male opponents, in particular, were eradicated. The catch-phrase of the Khmer Rouge was “To keep you, there is no profit. To kill you, there is no loss”. Our tour guide recounted that his family lost four adult males, leaving behind an extended family of four females and five kids. That he has any sense of humor today is a testament to human resilience.

In the ultimate political reversal, the Khmer Rouge bit the hand that fed them. They  started to purge the Vietnamese out of their organization and started to attack Vietnamese camps near the border. Bad move! The Vietnamese, again, invaded to protect their interests in 1978. It took all of two weeks for the Khmer Rouge to be routed and reduced to an insurgency hiding in the mountains. Ten years of Vietnamese occupation followed. Interestingly, our tour guide reported this period as a time of “assistance” from the Vietnamese, to bring welcome stability to this political wasteland. The international community chastised the Vietnamese. The Western powers set up economic sanctions and, in 1979, China actually staged a slap-on-the-wrist invasion of North Vietnam, just to make sure the Vietnamese curbed any imperialist notions.

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Foreign investment is starting to consider Cambodia

With the advent of peace talks in 1989, the Viets withdrew. The UN took over. Sihanouk was restored in 1993 along with elections for a constitutional monarchy. By 1997, it was time for another communist coup. This time Hun Sen took charge and he still heads the People’s Party of Cambodia with a short leash. At least there is peace. Pol Pot died in 1995 and the last of the Khmer Rouge disbanded in 1998. Amid all these fresh wounds, Cambodia is slowly emulating the market reforms of China and Vietnam. There is a very hesitant optimism as foreign investment starts to create new jobs. The huge tourist magnet of Angkor is clearly the best thing they have going, though they may begin to develop some natural resources.

To put the Cambodian experience in perspective, the US population in 1975 was about 215 million people. Imagine if President Gerald Ford had taken military control of the country, forced a massive relocation out of our cities unto the farm, closed all universities and murdered anyone with a grade point average over B+. After purges, starvation, policy failures and plain brutality, 30 to 40 million Americans died. Then, the British invaded and occupied the US for ten years, with peace finally restored by Bill Clinton, who then fell to a coup in 1997. That’s how recent and dramatic the Cambodian civil wars were. 

Like the Vietnamese, the Khmer have a proud heritage. They once had one of the strongest nations on earth. In the last seven hundred years they have been buried under a heap of indignities. Hopefully the current peaceful period and the regional role models will help them create some prosperity, if they can avoid all the buried land mines. Some well-regarded titles about this chilling civil war include:  Survival in the Killing Fields, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.), and When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge.

The socialist government of Laos, another holdover from the Vietnam War, is still tightly controlled. It is slowly opening up as a participant in regional economics. As tourism to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam increase, Laos will benefit, as well. Intrepid travelers report that it is beautiful and interesting. 

The British Colonies Emerge

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Modern day Singapore could be another planet!

In classic post-colonial fashion, the British tried to glue together their Asian colonies of Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, in a new Crown Colony, the Union of Malaysia. Political turf battles began immediately, compounded by a communist insurgency. Finally, in 1963, the four territories were combined in an independent constitutional monarchy. Singapore was far too self-reliant and was promptly expelled in 1965. Both Singapore and Malaysia have prospered with their particular brands of capitalism. For a comprehensive review of the complex building of Malaysia, check out Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore. For a collection of classic Malaysian folk tales reworked by contemporary authors, see MALAYSIAN TALES: Retold & Remixed.

Singapore has become one of the economic success stories of the Twenty-first Century. In fact, though China has been in the headlines more, Singapore, with its international perspective, its multi-cultural population, its English speaking capabilities and its strict rule of law, has become a significant center for capital and investment.

Singapore Gafoor Mosque

Mosques and Temples and Cathedrals! Oh, My! Singapore has it all

The tiny island nation is one of the world’s perfect destinations for international travelers. The downtown core is modern, safe, and clean. There is a sense of tolerance here that is a role model for ideologues everywhere. In one day, visitors can visit a host of Hindu and Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques and Christian churches. The cultural neighborhoods have a wonderful, vibrant, exotic feel. Little India, the Arab Quarter and Chinatown are fascinating to explore.

At the same time, there are sparkling new resorts, including the signature cricket wicket of the Marina Bay Sands Resort, and the stunning towers of the Financial District. This is a city poised on the edge of greatness. The economic ascendance of Asia is about to propel Singapore to the head of the class. It probably represents the most comprehensive and comprehensible introduction to Asia for non-Asians. And, there is world-class shopping, from the most expensive luxury brands on Orchard Street, to the trendy boutiques of Arab Street, to the massive emporium of Mustafa Centre, and the quiet inexpensive shops of Little India, there is something for everyone. In short, it is a perfect place to spend three days before or after a cruise.

One man has led modern Singapore until very recently and has been instrumental in shaping policies and development for the island nation, Lee Kuan Yew. His autobiographical review of the development of his nation, written in 2000, is entitled From Third World to First : The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. For an updated set of observations, written in 2010, near the end of his 50-year career, pick up Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation (Giants of Asia series).

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The mix of cultures in Singapore is impressive

No centralized government is without its critics. One of the most well-known commentators on Singapore’s controlled society has been the playwright, Kuo Pao Kun. With selections like “The Coffin is too Big for the Hole”, he pokes fun at the complexities and continued search for a national identity for Singapore. Interviews (Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun)

The other British colony, Burma, came out of WWII intact. By 1948, it was relinquished by the British and became the independent Union of Burma. This government was overthrown in a military coup d’etat in 1962. The country closed into a repressive state almost as absolutely as North Korea. The isolation of the regime and its regressive policies were brought to light by the devastation from Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Many of us remember the headlines of failed attempts to get aid to stricken villagers. In a very rare instance of positive political transformation, the military leaders have begun the process to relinquish their grip and let popular politics and market economics revive their country. The process is still in early stages. For a comprehensive treatment of 3,000 years of Burmese history, right down to the current events, pick up A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations. For a collection of essays from the current opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, see Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings.

Thailand, Independent through it All

Finally, we come to the one country that was never colonized, Thailand. Its constitutional monarchy also continues. It has had occasional financial crises, a military coup, and some political unrest recently. However, it remains one of the strongest of the Southeast Asian nations.

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One cannot have too many Buddhas

Thais greet each other with the expression “Sawadee” (pronounced something like Soo weh Dee). Hands are pressed together in the sign of the peaceful lotus flower. The more distinguished the addressee, the higher the hands are held, from chest level for casual greetings to eye-level for royals and monks. Our tour guide quipped that Thailand was “95% Buddhist and 100% superstitious”. Days of the week are associated with colors, planets and specific patron gods. If you, like the recently deceased king, were born on Monday, your personal color is yellow. That means your important possessions should also be yellow. If you can’t afford a yellow car or scooter, a bumper sticker that says, “This car is yellow” will take care of you. The luckiest number is nine, representing the eight cardinal compass points and the ninth direction, up to heaven.

For a beautiful book on Thailand, pick up Thailand: The Golden Kingdom. The inexperienced traveler may do well to brush up on Do’s And Don’ts in Thailand. For snapshots of life in modern Thailand, pick up Travelers’ Tales Thailand: True Stories. For more traditional Thai legends, see Tales from Thailand. Finally, for a history of Thailand, check out A History of Thailand. Above all, get a guide who knows where they are going.