Southeast Asia: “Whoa! Indochina’s route to independence was not easy. In fact, getting out from underneath America’s neo-colonial thumb was brutal, perhaps even savage. Remember though that the International Business Cartel employed the U.S. Military as a tool to enforce corporate rights over human rights. In other words, the American people had very little to say about what its government did overseas. However, after years of massive national protests and civil disobedience, the American public was finally able to shut down the war. Hooray for them and us!
The Second Indochina War was exceptionally devastating for my people. It was nearly impossible to follow the spiritual path in the midst of warfare. It was particularly hard to stay on the course to enlightenment with US bombs continually raining down upon our villages and rice fields killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including countless women and children.
We looked back fondly on the times prior to the European invasion when the ruling class attempted to set up conditions whereby the citizenry could attain merit. In this regard, they regularly sponsored massive public art projects, such as historic Angkor Wat and countless more. By devoting one’s life to the greater good of the community, the individual improved both his karma and the collective karma. Further, these good deeds generated waves of positivity for future generations as well.
While we may be glorifying these prior times, at least our ruling class was responsible for creating temples, rather than deliberately destroying the economy and the social fabric of society. Even more importantly from our modern perspective, they respected the sanctity of the land, especially the rice fields that provided sustenance for all citizenry, rich and poor. Understanding the importance of agriculture for our nations, they never engaged in the massive eco-destruction of all arable soil. While they may have exploited the peasantry, at least they respected their villages, as the foundation of our culture.
But no need for dwelling upon the glories of the past, for it is just that ‘past’. What went before is just a fading memory, with no reality except as collective patterns in our all too corruptible neural networks. However events from the past can leave residual traces that exert a significant influence upon the future.
On the positive side, the spectacular ruins of my Southeast Asian cultures, for instance Borobudur and the temples of Pagan, continue to draw millions of people worldwide. Despite coming from foreign cultures, these travelers regularly experience awe and wonder from the beauty that was enshrined in the architecture in a heightened state of inspiration during more enlightened times. Although the artists and culture that created these masterpieces are long gone, their achievements continue to influence the present in a constructive fashion.
On the negative side, the destructive US bombings of Indochina that obliterated our villages, rice fields, farm animals and infrastructure, the ‘rebel economy and social fabric’ as the US called it, exerted a continuing and devastating effect upon my people for years and even decades to come. On the individual level, the pain and scars from napalm lasted entire lifetimes. On the social level, it took decades and more to rebuild the infrastructure, including building, bridges and roads, that were destroyed by the relentless bombing. On the ecological level, it will take lifetimes to restore the land that was poisoned by defoliants such as Agent Orange to its former vitality and fertility.
In other words, the villages that were and are the agricultural foundation of Indochinese culture did not just reappear over night once the International Business Cartel’s American military forces retreated. Instead it took years, if not decades, for the millions of refugees from the war to return to the countryside to reestablish village life. Of course, the tens of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs left behind after the Indochina War, which had the potential to explode destructively at any time, amplified the problems of reconstruction.
Due to the many destructive residues from the war, it has been estimated that upwards of 200,000 Indochinese died of starvation in the years immediately following the war. Upon departure in 1975, one American official stated that without international aid Cambodia had only enough rice to last 2 weeks. Of course, the International Cartel cut off any aid from any Western country to punish the innocent civilians for being the ‘ocean’ in which the ‘communist fish swam’.
I cry for the lack of compassion exhibited towards the blameless women and children, whose world was destroyed by the US Air Force’s systematic bombing of their land. Besides punishing the civilian populations of these rebellious countries, the Cartel was presumably providing the world with an example of what happens to any nation or people who resists their exploitation. Knowing the Cartel and his anonymous stockholders well, I’m sure they justify their cruel behavior as a defense of property rights against the human rights of their slaves, i.e. the indigenous people that inhabited their supposed property.”
Although the Cartel emerged unscathed from the war, the citizenry of each country involved in the conflict suffered tremendously. Over 50,000 American soldiers were killed, another 300,000 suffered injuries and countless others suffered long-term disability from exposure to the toxic chemicals employed by the US military in their attempt to subjugate the population of Vietnam. Agent Orange was the most notorious of these poisons with long-term effects.
Besides the individual psychological and physical casualties, the American Public suffered another permanent and long-term harm from the extended conflict. The economic and military demands of the unpopular war effectively derailed Johnson's economic program for a "Great Society". The exorbitant cost of the war at about $200 billion drained money from the social sector to fund the military sector of the country. More specifically, the voracious military industrial complex gobbled the funds that could have been employed to better the lives of average Americans.
Due to the war, the US government could no longer afford to provide the universal health care that was a standard in all first world countries, such as the European nations. A half-century later, the Cartel’s representatives continue to argue that the US government can’t afford to fund social programs due to the needs of the military. In other words, America needs a strong military to police the world for the International Business Cartel and so can’t afford to provide for its citizens.
The Indochinese countries suffered even more harshly. According to official estimates, Vietnam lost over 1 million soldiers and another million civilians over the duration of the conflict. As small countries, Laos lost ‘only’ 350,000 and Cambodia 500,000, one tenth of their population. By war’s end most of the agrarian population were refugees. Respectable sources estimate that the bombing destroyed over 10% of the arable land in each these countries. The ravaged countryside resembled a barren lunar landscape after the war. Additionally, it was also poisoned as a result the defoliants and remained dangerous due to the leftover unexploded cluster bombs. To say that the decade of fighting disrupted agriculture, business, and industry is an understatement. In other words, the Cartel was wildly successful in its attempt to destroy the ‘economy and social fabric’ of Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Due to the widespread destruction and disruption of traditional society, the going was rough after the war. It is probable that misguided communist social experiments compounded the difficulties. The Cartel’s American military forces withdrew from Indochina in 1973. By 1975, agrarian peasant based communist organizations took over political control in each of the countries. As we shall see, it was in this limited sense alone that the ‘domino theory’ was correct.
Each government followed a similar economic path. Following the example of Russia and China, their communist allies and sponsors, industry and commerce were nationalized and farms were collectivized. In other words, the government took control of the economy. Just like in Russia and China, this strategy aggravated and alienated the peasantry and the business community, both small business owners and international investors alike.
It seems that humans everywhere prefer to be in charge of their own destiny. In general, people don’t want any central government, not matter how noble its ideals, micromanaging their individual existence. Most want the state to regulate excess and ensure that the basic needs of their citizenry are taken care of, such as adequate food, housing, education and healthcare. They don’t want the central government to intrude invasively into their private lives.
Due to this nearly universal human preference for personal freedom, there is always some active resistance to agricultural collectivization and the nationalization of the economy. To suppress the resistance and ensure that government policies are followed, a police state is set up. Of course, the police state represses individual freedoms presumably in service of the greater community.
It could be argued that the communist party was forced into these seemingly drastic measures due to the extreme circumstances that followed the war. It could also be argued, perhaps even more convincingly, that compassionate intellectuals, not the average person, ran the communist party in each of these countries. The communist leaders cared deeply for the plight of the peasantry and the industrial proletariat, but they were not of the working class.
As intellectuals who had studied and written about the subject, they felt that they knew what was best for the citizenry. Perhaps they perceived themselves as strict but loving fathers, who were guiding their countries on a difficult, but necessary, course. Under this line of reasoning, the misguided policies that had ultimately negative consequences for their countries came from a sincere desire to improve the circumstances of the average citizen. The communist leaders of Indochina did not seem to pursue their somewhat unnatural course for personal gain, but for the greater good.
Democracy with its many freedoms, including personal liberty, the right to own private property and free enterprise, seems to be the default choice for humans of the working classes nearly everywhere. No matter how limited, they have some say in government and some control of their lives. Unfortunately democracy with its freedoms was not a choice for the countries of Indochina. The Cartel employed the US military to suppress and undermine elections in each country. Instead they set up repressive military dictatorships.
Could it be that military repression by the ruling classes actually spawned communist movements throughout the globe? It certainly seems to be true that Western repression spawned the communist movement in Cambodia. According to most reputable sources, the communist party in Cambodia was insubstantial until after the US bombings began.
“In 1969, there were ‘no more than 4000 active Khmer Rouges guerillas in Cambodia. … The Americans continued bombing Khmer Rouges positions in Cambodia until August . … This frightful onslaught destroyed the country, driving half of the population into the cities as refugees, but it did not deter the Khmer Rouges …. On the contrary, it encouraged their fanaticism and hatred of the Americans and their ‘puppets’. … The Khmer Rouges had 50,000 soldiers [by the last months of the war in 1974].” (Moderate observer Patrick Brogan, pp 148-9, The Fighting Never Stopped, 1989)
What about elsewhere?
Virtually all experts agree that the Russian communist revolution of 1917 was due to the oppressive centuries-long rule of the Tsars. Western imperialism certainly encouraged Chinese communism. Sun Yat Sen sought US support in attaining self-rule and establishing a democracy in China early in the 20th century. His movement attracted a large following of intellectuals and members of the business community. This Chinese urge for a democratic political system gradually faded out, as it was manifestly apparent that the international politico-business community, a.k.a the Cartel, was more interested in supporting local dictators than the democracy movement. European/American political/business interests initially allied themselves with the Manchus and then with Chiang Kai Chek’s army. With no immediate assistance forthcoming and the Western powers instead supporting repressive military regimes, the communist movement supported by Soviet Russia moved in to fill the vacuum.
Before he was a communist, Ho Chi Minh requested that the indigenous people of Vietnam be given equal rights to the colonial ruling class at an international conference in Paris. When denied this option by the Western democracies, he immediately looked to Communist Russia for support in his quest to obtain basic freedoms for his people. Although it is impossible to change the past, it is interesting to speculate on what might have happened if the Western democracies had granted Ho Chi Minh’s reasonable request. Ho Chi Minh was arguably the central figure in Indochina’s communist movement. He both organized and led Vietnam’s communist party. He also trained the leaders of the Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist party. Further, these parties provided role models for the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. When Ho Chi Minh saw the futility of assistance from the Western powers in obtaining justice for his people, he turned to Russian communism as his only alternative.
With the Western powers lending no support for the democracy movement, but instead undermining or actively suppressing it, the compassionate intellectuals of Southeast Asia looked to Soviet Russia and then Red China for assistance and as role models. However, the communist political system had no antecedents. The 20th century was the first time it had been tried anywhere. As such, communism could be called the social experiment of the 20th century. Although repressive, most of the leaders were not corrupt in the sense of seeking to enrich their families and friends. In some senses, they could be called political scientists who could perform social experiments on entire countries.
Many, if not most, of the experiments were failures, in the sense of not achieving the intended result. Massive relocations, eliminating the family unit and employing party members to perform professional duties were immediately and particularly disastrous for the local economy. It took decades to discover that agricultural collectivization, the nationalization of industry and the central government’s nearly absolute control of the economy were equally unsuccessful social experiments. Following China’s lead Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia each attempted many of these solutions after the war to achieve social justice and equality. Their social experiments concluded with the same disappointing results for both the local economy and indigenous population.
While the top-down communist economic model was generally unsuccessful, the communist governments were able to maintain political control because the citizenry perceived positive intentions on their part. The noble, although misguided, intentions of the communist leadership provided a stark contrast to the self-serving intentions of the military dictators that the Cartel-driven US government installed. However, it would be a lie to say that the agrarian population of Southeast Asia attained immediate relief after US forces left. Instead times were difficult for many years to come. While many of these difficulties were due to the lingering after effects of the war, many others were due to the government policies of their new communist governments.
Let’s review the events in Indochina after the war.
In a bloodless takeover, Laotian communists seized control of the government of Laos in mid-1975. In December of the same year, they declared an end to the 600-year-old monarchy. The Pathet Lao replaced the kingdom with the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
The government was dominated by a small cohesive group of communist leaders who had been fighting for independence since the early 1950s. They had a long and intimate relationship with their allies, the Vietnamese communists. Some had even been trained by Ho Chi Minh. All spoke Vietnamese and some had Vietnamese wives. Because of their shared struggle, they had a common worldview with the Vietnamese communists. As such, they were heavily influenced by Vietnamese policies through the late 1980s.
Following the Vietnamese lead, the Laotian government created agricultural collectives and nationalized industry. Immediately after the war, they sent as many as 30,000 Western collaborators to ‘reeducation’ camps. They also employed other repressive measures to quell dissent. Due to the disastrous conditions after the war combined with difficult economic and political conditions, upwards of 10% of the Laotian population fled across the Mekong River to Thailand in the years immediately after 1975.
On the positive side, the new Laotian government also provided for universal education and didn’t interfere with traditional animist beliefs, ancestor worship or the practice of Theravada Buddhism, the national religion for centuries. Further, Lao replaced French as the national language. Although they maintained strict control of the economy, the government actively encouraged traditional Laotian culture. This government continues to be in charge of Laos. The healing process continues.
The process was more difficult for Vietnam and most difficult for Cambodia.
Like Laos, the 2nd Indochina War had depopulated Vietnam; bombed her once fertile rice fields into a toxic and dangerous wasteland; and obliterated the country’s infrastructure, i.e. roads, buildings, bridges and the like. An agrarian-friendly government was finally in place after so many generations of struggle. Yet much work needed to be done for the healing to even begin. Even with a supportive political system, Vietnam was not a pleasant place to be at this time. Even the simplest tasks were complicated.
Aggravating these inherent problems, the communist leaders inflicted some well-intended, but inappropriate, plans upon the nation. Inspired by China’s example, the rulers had already centralized the North Vietnam’s economy. Shortly after unifying the country, the new communist government attempted to institute the same policies in the south. As to be expected, the commercial sector resisted the top-down control by a central government, especially in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976).
Due to growing resistance to their socialist programs, the communist government became increasingly repressive. Up to one million Vietnamese ‘collaborators’ were sent to re-education camps to be ‘rehabilitated’. An equivalent number of citizens, mostly city dwellers ‘volunteered’ to be relocated in ‘New Economic Zones’. In other words, they were required to travel to the bombed-out countryside. To survive, they had to reclaim the poisonous and dangerous countryside or clear the jungle. Of course, these harsh circumstances were frequently fatal, especially for the inexperienced city folk. Opposition to this extreme and frequently lethal communist social experiment met with execution. There could have been as many as 100,000 executions during the decade following the war.
Adding to Vietnam’s difficulties, Nature began attacking the barren countryside. With no vegetation to hold back the rushing water from annual monsoon rains, Vietnam experienced major flooding in the late 1970s. With their irrigation system devastated by the aerial barrage, the Vietnamese also had no way to contain and direct the runoff from the storms. As such, they experienced drought-like conditions along with the flooding. Both of these natural hardships decreased the already small food supply.
Further, the US cut off aid to Vietnam during this time of hardship. Many suggest that the Cartel was punishing Vietnam for winning the war. To exhibit their overriding control of global politics, the Cartel-directed US officials even blocked other international humanitarian offers of assistance, including from the United Nations.
In the first few honeymoon years after the war, most Vietnamese remained put. Due to the increasingly repressive measures of the government combined with innately difficult living conditions, many Vietnamese chose to leave the country. Because US bombing had devastated all of Indochina equally, Laotians and Cambodians became refugees in Thailand. With Laos and Cambodia denied them, the Vietnamese left by boat to whichever country that would accept them.
There were millions of these Vietnamese boat people, as they were called. Most suffered tragic fates. Many were lost at sea; pirates preyed upon others; even if the boat people survived the difficult voyage, the host nation frequently denied them residence. Conditions were terrible for these unfortunate souls.
A significant number of these boat people were of Chinese ethnicity, even though they had lived in Vietnam for generations. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese ran many businesses. The Hoa, the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam, controlled much of the retail trade especially in the south. In early 1978, the desperate communist government began nationalizing the business sector and collectivizing agricultural in the south. Specifically, the government raised taxes, restricted trade and confiscated businesses.
Fed up with these socializing tendencies and repressive conditions, upwards of 250,000 Hoa ultimately left Vietnam for China. Initially they traveled by land. However, as conditions worsened for the Hoa after China attacked Vietnam in 1979, most escaped by boat. The tragic tale of the boat people during the late 1970’s and the early 80s was but one of the tragedies of the continuing after effects of the Indochina War combined with well intended, but misguided, communist policies.
Although the social, political and economic difficulties for both Laos and Vietnam were excruciating during the years immediately following the second undeclared Indochina War, Cambodia’s gargantuan problems dwarfed them. To attain a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of the social mayhem that was to follow for Cambodia, let us review the context. The communist parties in both Vietnam and Laos were both well-organized political units that had been cooperating and organizing the peasantry of these 2 countries for decades. As such, older and experienced leaders led the resistance movement against the colonial powers. After achieving independence, these same mature individuals assumed leadership of their respective countries.
In contrast, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist party, was primarily a reaction to the US bombings. Recall that their army grew from the thousands to the tens of thousands during the several years of the US’s undeclared war on Cambodia’s agrarian population in the early 1970s. In general, the older generation of Cambodians hadn’t joined the communist revolution, perhaps due to Prince Sihanouk’s somewhat benevolent leadership. However, this same older and mature generation was exterminated and disabled by the thorough and continuous bombings. What remained was a population of young men and women who were furious about the destructive consequences of the war. It was these angry youths who assumed control of Cambodia with the fall of Lon Nol’s regime.
These enraged young people were mad at the imperialist west and perhaps even more so at the Cambodians suspected of being collaborators. Because the US bombing targeted the agrarian population and left the cities intact, the fanatical youth suspected all city dwellers of being collaborators. In revenge for the devastation of their land, one of their first acts was to send the residents of the cities and towns into the countryside to experience the dangerous and denuded landscape first hand. Further the uprooted youth was vengeful and violent. Many of the deaths that occurred in the following social chaos were due to the cruelty of these inexperienced communist cadres. Now that we have a context, let’s look at the specifics.
Despite incessant bombings from the US Air Force and abundant military aid to Lon Nol’s oppressive regime, the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Phen, the capitol of Cambodia, in April 1975. Within a year, they had formed a new government and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. Almost immediately after assuming control of the country, the communist forces required the inhabitants of the cities and towns to go on forced marches to take up residence in the countryside. This ‘relocation’ program resulted in the deaths of thousands, if not tens of thousands, city dwellers.
‘Relocation’ is the euphemistic name for a cruel strategy that was employed by both Western colonial powers as well as Communist nations. The idea is to disorganize pockets of resistance by relocating the residents elsewhere. England employed ‘relocation’ programs in Burma and the US in Vietnam. In both cases, the inhabitants of entire ‘enemy’ villages were scattered about the country or moved closer to the city. England and the US employed this strategy to undermine the social structure of the entire country. Colonial masters always employ ruthless measures to put down slave revolts.
While the Cartel’s Western countries employed this strategy against the agrarian population, the Communist countries used it against city folk. Cities tend to be more commerce oriented and resent communist interference in their business. While the farming community also hates government control, they hate slavery even more. To defuse resistance by the business, professional, scholarly and technical communities who tended to live in the city, China under Mao relocated these individuals to the countryside. Inspired by Mao, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, employed this same relocation strategy on Cambodia’s commercial and intellectual class. In both cases, this strategy was disastrous for these individuals and for the country’s future.
Within their first year in power, the youthful and fanatic Khmer Rouge initiated what could be called the most radical, rapid and devastating social experiment in history. The largely bourgeois leaders abolished money, markets, and private property. Their regime closed schools, hospitals, shops, offices, and monasteries. Publication ceased and travel required permission.
With Mao’s Chinese social policies informing their actions, all Cambodians were required to wear peasant clothing; the agrarian population was favored at the expense of the business, professional, and scholarly classes; society was collectivized and the entire adult population was required to work in the denuded, polluted and dangerous rice fields presumably to double rice production. With no mature leadership to mitigate the excesses and impatience of youth, the results were disastrous.
Atrocity followed atrocity. The ruthless repression of any form of resistance to their revolutionary communist programs included mass executions. From 1975 until 1979, careful research indicates that upwards of 750,000 Cambodians, about 15 percent of the total population, died from unnatural causes. Note: discredited estimates that were transmitted, and frequently repeated, put the mortality rate in the millions. Regardless of which source is true, the carnage was massive.
Some liken Pol Pot’s regime to the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Analysts point out that Germans were executing Jews in a type of genocide. To indicate the supposed parallels between the two regimes, pundits coined a new word, ‘auto-genocide’, to indicate that Cambodians were killing Cambodians.
However, the use of the word ‘auto-genocide’ is misleading, if not inaccurate. Pol Pot’s regime was practicing genocide on the Cham and Vietnamese populations. His intent was not to exterminate Cambodians or the elite class. Instead he was just a fanatic communist performing a devastating social experiment. Any who resisted or were suspected of undermining his plans were executed, even if they had been loyal members of the party. In fact, a careful and detailed study estimates that the number of direct executions was about 200,000. The rest of the Cambodians who perished during the Khmer Rouge rule, perhaps as many as 550,000, died from other non-natural causes.
Much of the population died inadvertently as a result of misguided communist strategies, such as forced marches and relocation. There is yet another factor in the massive number of deaths. A US State Department document written during this time reports that ‘massive social change’, not genocide, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Cambodians by 1977. Many of these people died from disease, overwork, malnutrition and starvation.
While some of these premature deaths were a result of ill-conceived government policies, many more were due to the lingering after effects of US saturation bombing, which included defoliants and 80,000 unexploded cluster bombs. These bombs turned much of the arable land into a dead and dangerous lunar landscape. Immediately after the Khmer Rouge assumed control, a high American official predicted that one million Cambodians would die of starvation and disease due to the devastation.
Because most of the deaths during the Pol Pot era were not due to executions but were instead due to social disruption and the after effects of the Indochina War, it would be hard to argue that the regime encouraged or practiced auto-genocide on the citizenry. While violently suppressing dissent just like the Cartel’s military dictatorships, the government was not targeting Cambodians. In fact, it would be much easier to claim that the US Air Force was practicing genocide on Indochina’s agrarian population.
The immediate deaths from US bombing far exceed the number of executions by Pol Pot’s army. In Cambodia alone, war-related deaths are estimated at between 500,000 to 1 million during Lon Nol’s Cartel supported military dictatorship. When the figures from Laos and Vietnam are added to the total, the number of casualties, both civilian and military, rises into the millions. However, the Cartel’s Air Force didn’t only wage war on Indochina’s agrarian population; they deliberately and systematically destroyed the arable land as well. The devastating eco-destruction from the war with the defoliated and dangerous landscape added more deaths in the hundreds of thousands to the total. Due to these dual policies, it could easily be argued that the Cartel’s US military forces were attempting to exterminate the agrarian population of Indochina.
In summary, the 1970s was a terrible decade for Cambodians. The second half under Pol Pot’s fanatical communist regime was certainly miserable. However the first half under Lon Nol’s Cartel supported military dictatorship was equally devastating due to the incessant, systematic and thorough bombing. More importantly, these bombings laid the foundations for the 2nd stage of social chaos and destruction.
While Cambodia suffered the most, all of Indochina reeled from the aftermath of the Second Indochina War in the latter half of the 1970s. By most standards, the following decade was also difficult, as it was filled with war and a massive exodus of refugees. But considering what they had been through, the 80s were a welcome relief for the people of Indochina.