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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 19 - Indo-China

Indo-China is a vast territory, 40 times the size of France, extending 1,200 miles north to south, and 1,000 miles east to west.  It is bounded on the west by the Andaman Sea, to the south by the Straits of Malacca, and on the eastern side by the Gulf of Tongkin and the South China Sea. It comprises the lands of Burma, Siam, Malaya, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  These countries are each blessed with a soil capable of producing any kind of crop, free of barren, desert lands, richly watered by innumerable rivers, lakes and streams, possessing mineral wealth, situated before an ocean of vast islands, and (apart from Laos), endowed by nature with numerous, superb, natural harbours which are the rendezvous of traders from west and east.   Francis Garnier the explorer, compared the peninsula to a human hand with extended fingers which roughly indicate the course of five great rivers, - Song Koi, the ‘red’ river through Tong-king, Me-kong through Laos and Cambodia, Me-nam through Siam, and the Salwini and Iriwadi through Burma.  The upper basins of the rivers are separated by mountain ranges. 

                                                From the Catholic Encyclopaedia, Indo-China, 1910

Thailand and Vietnam which have populations of 62 and 80 millions are similar countries in many aspects, - religion, climate, geography, and natural resources. They are divided into 76 and 58 provinces, and have land areas of 514,000 and 329,000 sq kms respectively.  The main differences today lie in their economic performance and colour of government.  In GOP, Vietnam lags far behind Thailand, and it is a communist state with some reforms and compromises to permit private ownership, foreign investment, and a free market, while Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary style government. In 1939 Thailand dropped its former name of Siam, for its present name which means “land of the free”, reflecting the fact that it has never been conquered or colonized.  Thailand is a prosperous free market country.  Vietnam was the scene of much conflict and was divided for many years, but its former northern and southern entities were finally united into a single state in 1976.  

                                    Varintip Sooppipat, Thailand and Vietnam, 2002

We arrived in Vietnam during monsoon season which meant 24 hours of rain.  All the beautiful scenery was covered in clouds.  We strolled around Hanoi and sailed 2 days in Halong Bay.  In central Vietnam we visited Hue which was at the DMZ demilitarised zone that once separated the north from the south.  There we visited the Vin Hoc tunnels built by the villagers after their houses were bombed.  Some families lived in them for 4 years.  At Ho Chi Minh city we went into the War Remnant museum.  The photographs were of many horrific actions by U.S. soldiers, including rape and butchery.  What does a war or patriotic passion do to human beings ?  It surely brainwashes minds and makes beasts of people.  We went by boat down the river Mekong and delta, where were floating markets, coconut farms and little rice wine and rice paper plants.  We continued into Cambodia and Phnom Penh. At the Tol Sleng museum, a former school, we saw where for 4 years, people were chained, starved, and tortured to death under Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge.  I cannot describe what I saw.  It was too extreme.  And it happened so recently in 1975 – 79.  From its black recent history, we moved to view a more positive and impressive part of Cambodia’s ancient civilization, - the Angkor temples, - the largest temple complex in the world.  . . . . .

            From Mariette’s Story, an internet-posted account of one woman’s impressions


Phalla Song was secretary to the UN FAO Representative in Phnom Phen at the time I was leading a project there for that organization.  Her attractive, pleasant, quiet demeanor gave no hint of the personal traumas she had endured in her youth.  On a car trip together to a reception by the Mekong River, I asked her (as I had asked other Cambodians of her generation) about the period of the Khmer Rouge and the notorious rule of Pol Pot. 

Her father had been a Professor of Languages at the University in Phnom Phen.  Like all others in the city, the family was driven out when the Khmer Rouge entered in 1975. They were sent to work on rice paddies not too far from the city.  Being an educated person, her father would have been marked out for elimination, no matter how the family may tried to conceal their former role in society.  So it was not long before the soldiers came and took him off “to attend a meeting”.  Both young Phalla and her mother had a good idea of the real intent of the Khmer Rouge.  When a soldier returned later with his clothes, she knew for sure he had been shot or otherwise killed.  But no-one dare show pity or sorrow in front of the army which would have punished or killed them for the display of sympathy for the victim.  Phalla, just eleven years old, waited for an opportunity and in the late afternoon went away from the paddies to a Mango tree nearby.  She climbed up into the tree, and suitably hidden, wept for her father.  When she had no more tears to shed, she returned to the commune where she showed no emotion in front of the others. 

map of Cambodia

Shortly after, Phalla’s mother was moved to a different commune, and she was left to care for her infant sister.  The child still needed nursing, but this was not possible.  Just getting food for the baby was extremely difficult.  Sometimes Phalla got a little bit of rice porridge, and on a rare occasion a sympathetic worker would give her a sliver of sugar cane for the child to suck.  But Phalla persevered against all odds.  She said that the attitude of the workers at the start of each day, was, - “if only we can survive till night-time, it will be something”.  And each morning they would thank God they were still alive.  I asked Phalla if her baby sister survived the prolonged ordeal.  She turned to me with a beautiful smile, and responded, “Yes, - and she was married, just last month”.  

When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, and the Khmer Rouge retreated, Phalla and her sister escaped and somehow traced their mother and some more members of the extended family.  They made their way eventually to the Thai border where they managed to find a refugee camp that accepted them.  They hoped that the stay in the camp would be short, and that they might even be accepted in another country, but they were to spend ten long years there. The atmosphere in the camp was not good as it was infiltrated by the Khmer Rouge, in collusion with the Thai army.  “We dared not speak any language other than Khmer,” related Phalla, “though we could speak Vietnamese and French, if the Khmer Rouge heard us, we could be dealt with, even in the camp.”

Finally, with the settlement reached in 1989, Phalla and the family were able to return to Phnom Phen.  They had lost practically everything from their past life.  Now married with a family of her own, today she helps to support them in a modest home and on limited income.  I asked her for her view on all that happened, and her hopes for the future.  “I don’t care who runs the government”, she said. “I don’t want big things for myself.  All I want to see is peace, -  and genuine democracy”.

Phalla’s story can be repeated by thousands of her generation, with variations in the particular experiences of cruelty, hunger, exploitation and inhuman wickedness that was perpetrated by the followers of Pol Pot, and his army of ignorant but fanatical teenage soldiers.  How could that cultured, gentle, educated man (according to all who knew him as Saloth Sar before), - how could he unleash such brutality and barbarity.  His was to be the purest and most successful form of communism, and to convince his supporter, China, of its success, he shipped rice abroad while the people starved at home.  Readers will have seen the “Killing Fields”, film, and some will have read accounts like “Sideshow”, and “The Quality of Mercy”, by William Shawcross.

Ieng Sari, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister.  He was finally tried for his crimes in 2011. He refused to cooperate in the trial, claiming he had been pardoned by the King.

Pol Pot’s Foreign Minister Ieng Sary visited Jakarta in 1979.  I was staying at the Hotel Indonesia when his cavalcade arrived.  Indonesia always treats foreign officials with oriental respectfulness, - whatever their private thoughts about them.  Sary emerged from his limousine and into the Hotel foyer, garlanded with flowers and escorted by a troop of young ladies in national costume. I did not realize immediately who it was, but I will never forget the look of ugly delight and embarrassment on that brutal face, as if he could not believe his good fortune in being treated with such lavish honour after all he had been party to.  I agree with C S Lewis and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that evil can never be fully concealed.  It will always reveal itself in some ways, explicit, implicit or Freudian. 

Pol Pot was born as Salong Sar in the small rural village of Prey Sbor in Steung Saen District of Kampong Thom Province in 1925, or possibly 1928.  I was in the village in 2010 when leading a team conducting demonstrations of improved farm technologies for poor and marginal families in four provinces stretching from the Thai to the Vietnam border.   I was fascinated by the children of Prey Sbor playing  their after-school games, and splashing around in the small stream nearby.  I wondered if over 85 years before, a small Saloth Sar engaged in similar innocent childhood fun, and I mused on the events and influences that shaped his early life, and turned that carefree youngster into the callous brute who brought the Khmer Rouge horrors to that lovely land. Families were to be torn apart, children robbed of their youth and innocence, a whole generation denied education and opportunity, countless thousands tortured for no reason other than insane dogma, and up to 2 million murdered or starved to death.

What potential for good or evil lies in little children, even in a poor remote rural village, and how important it is to protect them from infection by false doctrines of a utopia to be achieved through tyrannical, despotic Marxism, or right-wing militarism that would bomb nations into submission to gain control of their resources.  The last century has seen more than its share of each of these evils.

Cambodia’s Holocaust

Educated in Paris like his early hero Ho Chi Minh, Saloth Sar joined the French Communist party and later its Indochinese counterpart.  As a young man he had served with the anti-French resistance in Vietnam, and had obtained the scholarship in Cambodia in 1949.  He returned from France in 1953, joined the Cambodian branch of the communist movement, the PKRP, and got a private school job teaching history and geography.  As his sister served in a dance troupe at the Royal Palace, he had regular access to Sihanouk’s court.  In 1966 he visited China where he received considerable support and slowly began to weaken his ties with Vietnam.  By 1968 his armed organization the Khmer Rouge was fomenting unrest in 11 of the 18 provinces, and had near complete control of the mountain region bordering Vietnam.  Strangely it received some support from the U.S. army in South Vietnam. 

Beginning 1969 the US started secret bombing raids on Cambodia.  The raids were illegal as the US had not declared war on Cambodia, but they were ordered by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. When news of the raids was leaked, Kissinger ordered surveillance and phone tapping of suspects to uncover the source.  By 1973, over 539,000 tons of ordinance had been dropped on Cambodia, (three and a half times what was dropped on Japan during the war), and 600,000 Cambodians perished.  Later the CIA reported that the bombing had been militarily ineffective and succeeded only in increasing support for and the popularity of, the Khmer Rouge.  By 1973 with help from China, the Khmer Rouge numbered over 100,000 and controlled 60% of Cambodia’s rural territory.

By 1975 Saloth Sar had renamed himself “Pol Pot” and hidden his former identity.  He was also known as “Brother Number One”.  The Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh in April, and proceeded to drive its inhabitants into the countryside where families were separated and made to work in rice-field collectives and labour brigades.  Foreigners were expelled, embassies closed, the currency abolished, and newspapers, schools, worship services and private property were outlawed by the new all-powerful authority, - the “Angka” (or Angkar).   Educated people and former members of the government, military, police, schools, churches and mosques, were executed.

Brother Number One, Pol Pot (Saloth Sar)

From that dreadful “Year Zero”, Pol Pot directed a ruthless programme to “purify” Cambodian society, and to establish a totally self-sufficient Maoist agrarian state.  The agriculture communes became “killing fields” where no opposition or deviation was tolerated.  Uneducated peasants and children of teenage years and younger were put in charge and made into soldiers or overseers of callous brutality.  Within the collectives, workers, and even children, were regularly required to spy on and report each other to the authorities.  Over 20 dreadful detention and interrogation centres were established.  Only seven of 14,499 detainees survive the experience.  Around 1.5 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, or died from starvation or overwork in the collectives.  On a visit to China in 1977, Pol Pot received pledges of more support. 

On Christmas Day 1978, the Vietnamese, annoyed at repeated attacks over its border by the Khmer Rouge, invaded Cambodia, and by 7th January they captured Phnom Penh and drove Pol Pot’s forces into the north and west.  China then invaded Vietnam to punish the country for attacking the Khmer Rouge, but pulled back after March.  While the Vietnamese were in actual command in Cambodia, the US and China continued to support the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government and the rightful holders of Cambodia’s seat at the U.N.  In 1980 the World Food Programme donated $ 12 million in food to Pol Pot’s forces. 

By 1982 the Vietnamese army started to withdraw, but did not fully do so for 6 years.  A new coalition government (including remnants of the Khmer Rouge) was recognized by the West, China, and the ASEAN countries.  An international conference was held in Paris in 1989, and a peace treaty finally signed by the four internal factions in Cambodia.  King Sihanouk returned to the country.  Elections were by held by 1993 but the Premier Hun Sen refused to give up control.  Around this time the Khmer Rouge forces, greatly weakened, split into factions.  The “Angka” turned upon its own cadres in a bout of irrational paranoia, and some 200,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials were executed.  Pol Pot went into hiding but continued guerrilla operations from near the Thai border.  In 1996, Ieng Sary, “Brother Number Three”, defected to the Cambodian armed forces.   Pol Pot had his Defence Minister and long-time colleague, Song Sen, executed in 1997.  Then finally Pol Pot himself died the following year, 1998, and the nightmare came to a close. 

It has to be asked how the civilized world allowed the genocide to happen.  But as with Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, Stalin’s Gulag prisons, and the mass murder or manipulated deaths of innocents in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, North Korea and Sudan, they just looked the other way at the time, or if they knew of it as some governments did, it was not considered prudent or in accord with real politic to intervene. 

                       Two of Pol Pot’s million-plus victims                        Relics of the killing fields

Khmer Rouge soldiers.  They were mostly young village boys with no education.

We should also question ourselves and take a hard look at our own societies to see if we are permitting or fostering attitudes and behaviour that might pave the way for social conflicts of the worst kind.  How could gentle, beautiful Cambodians turn on their own people and massacre innocent women, children and old people ?  How could similar things happen in Rwanda, or in Sri Lanka, where ordinary people suddenly attacked their life-long neighbours without provocation, because the violence was given official sanction. However, we should be careful before we point accusing fingers.  Our own societies have their dark seams of evil prejudice, racism and intolerance, some of it permeating cultural and socio-historical organizations.

Our daughter-in-law recently attended an Orange Order dinner in Scotland.  She came away horrified at the ugly racist songs and jokes directed against Catholics, and which have fuelled the IRA / UDA violence for the past century. 

In the case of Cambodia, I believe that the United States government and military prepared the way for Pol Pot by the carpet bombing of the eastern part of the country, and the undermining of King Sihanouk, as inscrutable as he was.  For reasons that are still hard to understand, the USA suppressed information on the Khmer Rouge atrocities, and when Vietnamese forces drove that insane army out of power, America still smarting over the debacle in Vietnam, continued to support the Khmer Rouge government’s seat at the United Nations, (as did communist China), and provided Pol Pot’s forces with covert support in food and arms through its eager and money-hungry ally, Thailand.  I wrote to my Member of Parliament at that time, protesting at the British Government’s tacit support for the Khmer Rouge.  Malcolm Rifkind, later to be Foreign Secretary replied in his usual courteous way.  He included a response from the Foreign Office that I thought unworthy of an intelligent administration.  In effect it castigated the Vietnamese for being an unelected regime in Phnom Penh.  But how that then made the murderous Khmer Rouge an acceptable and democratic government was a mystery to me.

A former U.S. infantry captain told me of the CIA support for Pol Pot’s troops which was substantial and active up to the mid-1980’s, from bases in Thailand.  He personally was witness to the operations which had the cooperation of the Thai government.  His own explanation was that the U.S. government and military had such deep animosity towards Vietnam following its effective defeat of American forces, that for some 20 years thereafter, it would support any army, country, or rebel group, that would oppose Vietnam.

But to go back to Cambodia, - that land has probably recovered better from the wars and bloodshed, than has Vietnam.  Its soil was not contaminated, or its forests defoliated as happened to its eastern neighbour.  Today, the population is surprisingly young.  One sees few elderly people.  The young folk are eager to learn.  English is becoming the lingua franca of the educated class.  There is widespread computer literacy, and even taxi drivers and operators of “motos”, motorcycle taxis, have mobile phones.  True, there are some of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge still around, and even holding positions in government. But that is unavoidable when the regime covered the whole country.     

Independence monument, Phnom Penh

Urban area, Phnom Penh

The Director of Fisheries, Nao Thuok, told me how he drove ox cart-loads of bamboo from the mountains and forests north of Siem Reap, to the urban areas and work camps for the Khmer Rouge.  “Only”, as he told me with a rueful smile, “I was the ox” !    He also had to cut and cart huge stones to make grinding stones for the rice mills.  This heavy labour was accomplished on a tin-can size amount of rice per day during harvest season, and half of that during the pre-harvest season.  Another staff member Chap Piseth, was a member of a children’s work camp.  They received a bowl of cooked vegetables per day, with a few grains of rice mixed in.  To stay alive they ate banana tree trunks and even raided rice fields to chew on the immature grain heads.  His knee swelled as large as his head, and he suffered constant eye trouble.  His eyes he treated with urine, and once he got some sugar palm and sugar cane which when boiled up gave a vitamin soup that reduced the swelling in his knee.  After the Vietnamese army drove the red guards off, he had to search for days to find his parents, but eventually they were reunited.   

I asked Nao Thuok if he ever came across former Khmer Rouge guards after the conflict period.  He said it happened rarely.  One reason was that the khmer rouge engaged in self-destruction, eventually killing each other.  To maintain a Maoist policy of ‘constant revolution’ Pol Pot would send in new teams of camp guards regularly.  The new teams would displace and then interrogate and eventually kill the former camp guards, accusing them of betraying the movement in some way.  After the hostilities, some former guards and soldiers were killed by the villagers who had witnessed their crimes.

former US Ambassador, John Gunther Dean.      I was to use his Cambodia office building years later when it had become the offices of the Fisheries Department.

Over a thousand years ago, Cambodia’s rulers embarked on a colossal public works project, - one that would vie with the pyramids of Egypt, or the great wall of China.  An enormous complex of temples was constructed at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap on the north side of the Great Lake of Tonle Sap. The millions of tons of enormous stones were dragged many miles though the forests by elephants, or floated on rafts up the rivers and lake.  They were then carved to complex designs and depictions of the people and their rulers.  The temples reflect both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and worship. Astonishingly the enormous and extensive wonder of Eastern civilization, was deserted and abandoned for hundreds of years.  This may have been due to defeats by invading forces from the north and the west.  The region may have been difficult to defend.  Whatever the reason, the magnificent ruins were left to the forest.  Enormous trees grew over the walls, their long roots embracing them like the tentacles of a giant octopus, and even dislodging some of the huge stones.  Explorers came across the ruins in the nineteenth century, and they have fascinated the world since.    

                 Angkor Wat temples                                  Floating village on the large Tonle Sap lake

The past survives in the ornate and impressive river festival each year when dozens of huge canoes powered by thirty or forty men in matching brightly coloured shirts, race each other at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, before the monarch and local dignitaries and thousands of Cambodians in festive spirit. 

Racing canoes at the annual water festival

The water and forest resources of Cambodia are vital to the nation, and also to its neighbours, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.  The Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, and the huge Great Lake of Tonle Sap (the largest freshwater body in south-east Asia), form what has been well described as the fish basket of Indo China.  UNESCO declared the whole basin as a biosphere reserve in 1997, and this in turn has attracted the attention of donors and development banks.  But the region is under serious threat from plans to construct dams on the Mekong river in Laos and in China.  The Tonle Sap basin produces a quarter of a million tons of fish a year, and supports 300,000 fishers and their families, and is the basis of the rural economy for over 3 million persons who live in the basin. 

The lake must have been connected to the sea in millenniums past as indicated by its unique variety and range of aquatic creatures.  There are now populations of freshwater shrimps, crabs, cockles, clams and sardines.  The lake also boasts stocks of the giant Asian catfish and giant carp.  These wonderful creatures are nearing extinction due to the intense fishing effort which involves the use of many hundreds of tiny mesh-sized traps, weirs, barriers, fykes, seines, trawls, dredges, gill nets, lift nets, and cast nets.  The stone carvings around the walls of Angkor Wat, depict most of the species known today, but also some that are now apparently extinct.  Many more species will be lost if effective management measures are not put in place.  This the government is seeking to do with international assistance. 

         Map of the great lake of Tonle Sap                                            Canoe on Tonle Sap

             Harvesting fish on Tonle Sap                                    Live fish in a cage on the lake

My biologist colleague, Dr Garry Bernacsek, was so fascinated by the stone carvings of fish around the Angkor Wat temples, he photographed every one of them, then proceeded to identify each species.  The results were fascinating.  Most of the species carved nine centuries ago, are still with us.  There were a few marine species depicted in the frescoes.  And there were a few fish that are apparently now extinct.  Garry’s expertise and attention to detail were invaluable in helping us to construct a detailed management plan for the whole lake and its adjacent river systems and flooded forest.  We had previously worked together in Sri Lanka, and at FAO Rome.  During his early years with that Agency, he produced a comprehensive account of African fisheries that in its integrated focus on the biological, economic and social aspects, was far ahead of its time.  Very sadly for me, and tragically for his life’s work, Garry died of Hepatitis A and Dengue fever in a Bangkok hospital on July 1st 2006.  He was buried near his parents’ home in Toronto, Canada. 

Processing fish from Tonle Sap

Cambodia’s forests are under threat from loggers, from local inhabitants who need regular supplies of fuel wood, and who sometimes cut down trees to create new rice fields.  A German member of my Cambodian team, Peter Degen, made an excellent and moving (though disturbing) film of the devastation and social distress caused by ruthless uncontrolled logging.  The fishers also utilize huge amounts of forest brushwood to create ‘brush-parks’ to attract and trap fish, and also the large fyke traps which extend into the flooded forest, and river barriers constructed at locations or “lots” that are leased from the government for fishery purposes.  Deforestation results in soil erosion and the transport of silt into the shallow lake and rivers.  The whole delicate and vulnerable environment needs to be protected, not just for the people of the Kingdom of Cambodia, but for all the world, since it is a unique basin of biodiversity.

                   Cambodian rain forest                       Logging of Cambodia’s precious timber

Logging truck


map of Vietnam

I suppose the Cambodia story really began in Vietnam.  It was, like Cambodia, a French colony for some years after the war.  The nationalists under Ho Chi Minh, and his armed forces chief, General Giap, gradually drove the French out of the country. I well recall the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when that French outpost was over-run by nationalist Viet Minh [Many years later I was to work with a fine Vietnamese colleague, Dr Pham van Minh, whose father was killed in the fighting with the French before the final assault on Dien Bien Phu.].  Our newspapers presented the story rather like the sacking of Rome by the Huns, Goths and Vandals.  It was the end of civilization in Indo-China for a while.  I also recall a Giles cartoon in the Daily Express, somewhere around the period.  A London newspaper vendor was calling out to women shoppers struggling to get home through wind and rain, - “Read all about it ma’m, - yellow peril getting nearer !”.    

French troops at Dien Bien Phu

             Vietnamese troops at Dien Bien Phu           Robert MacNamara with President Johnson

So the French eventually withdrew, and the United States began to send military forces to south Vietnam.  They supported corrupt and sometimes inept governments in Saigon, and refused to allow free elections to take place.  President Kennedy, elected in 1960, began to increase troop assignments while in office.  It is debatable if the huge increase that took place under President Johnson and his Secretary of defense Robert MacNamara, would have taken place had Kennedy lived.  Certainly he had his misgivings, but I suppose we will never know.  The troop deployments continued under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger while they searched for the illusive “peace with honour”.  It seemed to me that all they wanted was to save themselves loss of face.  But what a price to pay.  Or more accurately, - what a price others had to pay.   MacNamara later admitted that the fears that motivated America to go to war in Vietnam, were false, and that the methods used to prosecute the war were self-defeating.  But there was little apparent remorse or shame for his role in the bloody conflict.

I have mentioned earlier, the conversations I had with the ex-CIA officer Clay Kelly.  He was in Vietnam through most of the war.  Part of his job was to fly over the “Ho Chi Minh trail” to detect movements of troop and supplies.  He claimed to me that much of the bombing of this area was worthless.  Most of the material came up the Mekong river or directly down by land within Vietnam, from the north.  He also claimed that enormous shipments of generators, vehicles, bulldozers and other equipment, disappeared, having been shipped abroad again from the ports shortly after arrival.  Prior to the re-shipment, the paint would be scratched or the odd window broken, - but the vehicles and machinery were still intact and functioning.  He tried to protest about this to General Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker but they refused to listen, and in his words, treated his reports with smiling contempt.  But some individuals or groups must have been amassing enormous sums of money from the illicit re-allocation of war materials.    

             One of the Vietnam war’s worst images                                           Viet Cong prisoner
              – napalm bombed children      

Below : Summary execution of a Viet Cong soldier
A film clip of the incident was played on American TV, adding to public doubts about the war.

                   Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta                US soldiers in action in Vietnam

The war cost 330,000 American lives, and over 4 million Vietnamese (1.5m soldiers and 2.5m civilians), not to mention the horrific casualties in Laos and Cambodia.  One of my students in Rhode Island, a lanky, reserved New Englander, was killed just 3 weeks after arrival in Vietnam.  I can see young Webster to this day, tall, serious, sincere, quietly going about his work.  He was among those who voluntarily presented me with a pewter mug engraved with the University crest.  I still have it in my study.  Why did he have to die; why did those hundreds of thousands have to die?  What was it all in aid of?   Would Vietnam have been any different today if the United States had just left it alone?  -  Probably not. -  The madness of war! 

The latter phrase is not just mine.  It has been echoed by many respected figures who have seen conflicts first hand.  No less a military man than General Eisenhower, the Commander of the Allied troops in World War 2, came to a similar conclusion.  His son, John S. D. Eisenhower, wrote that the most fundamental conviction of his mind from his experience of that conflict, was the cruelty, wastefulness and stupidity of war.

The respected American newsman, Walter Cronkite, no ‘bleeding heart liberal’, was with the US troops and General Eisenhower in Europe during World War II.  Interviewed about his impressions on the 40th anniversary of D Day, he said that his overwhelming conclusion was of the folly and madness of war; of civilized people killing each other brutally in large numbers. “There has got to be a devotion to peace like we never had before”, said the veteran reporter.   When asked if there was such a thing as a “good war”, he said that no war could be good.  Many frontline soldiers on both sides of conflicts have expressed similar sentiments.  The Pulitzer prize winning war cartoonist Bill Mauldin, creator of the GI characters, Willie and Joe, has also spoken of the insanity and the pointlessness of all wars.    

              Willie and Joe cartoon by Bill Mauldin           GI’s Willie and Joe.  Their creator came to
                                                                                deplore the insanity and pointlessness of war

I spoke to South Vietnamese Fishery Officers just after the US pulled out of the country.  They said that the countryside was so pitted with bomb craters, neither farming nor fish farming were possible.  In the chaos following the American withdrawal, former members of the South Vietnamese forces had a difficult and uncertain time.  One of the naval officers, Do Tan Minh, was married to nurse, and they had a little daughter.  Life became so uncertain and replete with danger, they decided to flee the country.  Together with an uncle, they acquired a 23 foot boat, accumulated some stores of food, fuel and water, and sailed out one night, into the South China Sea.  They sailed eastwards for a few days, but though they passed a number of foreign ships, none would stop or take them on board. 

Then they ran into a storm.  It raged for some days, and one night was particularly rough.  Do Tan thought the little boat would not survive.   He was so sure they would perish that night, he told me later, he cried out to God to save them.  But when dawn broke, the wind abated, and they were still alive.  However, by then they had run out of fuel and water. They were soaking hard grains of rice in sea-water to try to make it palatable.  More ships passed, but ignored their signals for help.  Eventually one Scandinavian vessel stopped.  The Captain refused to let them on his ship, but ordered his crew to give them water, food and fuel.  He also informed them the course and distance to Manila.

So the little boat sailed on for three days more, and eventually arrived at Bataan near the then Subic naval base.   Its occupants were taken by the Philippine authorities to a refugee camp where they joined thousands more “boat people” who had already arrived.   They were given a small place to sleep marked out by string.  That was all.  No furniture and no utensils.

I mention the story because we came to know the family while in the Philippines.  An American ex-G.I. who was helping at the camp on a voluntary base, came to our house and asked if we could spare anything.  I showed him some wooden crates in which we had shipped our goods.  He asked if he might have them and we readily agreed, and also contributed clothes and other necessities.  For the next year and a half, Do Tan and his wife and child slept in one of our packing cases, - and enjoyed a degree of privacy that was possible for few others in the camp.

They were hoping to be accepted as refugees in Australia or America, but were constantly turned down due to his relatively low rank in the South Vietnamese navy.  We lost touch with them, but in mid-1979 we were flying home for 2 months leave, and were traveling west to east, from Manila via Tokyo and the USA to Europe.  After the jumbo jet took off from Manila, I wandered up to the back of the plane.  I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard someone call my name.  It was Do Tan Minh, smiling broadly.  His family was on board, and they were headed for Alabama where a Baptist church had agreed to sponsor them.  For them at least, the hardships and uncertainty were over. For millions of refugees today, all over this war-torn world, - the ordeal continues.   

I have given my impressions of Vietnam’s history, and of the Vietnam war, in the early part of this chapter.  I would now like to to describe my personal experience of that land and its people, from my work there in 2005 and 2006.  And I would like to add some further comments on American policy and actions towards that beautiful land, by respected and informed U.S. observers.  But let us begin with a simple account of the history of the land the Chinese called “the far south”.

Above : Vietnamese boat people refugees risking their lives to escape

Boat people in a Hong Kong refugee camp

Vietnam was for centuries under Chinese domination.  That may partly explain its long suspicion towards China, and the Chinese attitude of coolness towards its small and poor neighbour. North Vietnam was known as Van Lang to the Chinese of 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.  Hanoi was formerly Au Lac, the capital of a warlord state, until a Chinese potentate annexed much of the red river valley and created Nam Viet which comprised south-western China and north Vietnam.  For a thousand years from 111 BC, China ruled Vietnam, beginning with the era of the Han dynasty.  Independence first came to Vietnam in 938 AD under Ngo Quyen who defeated the Chinese at the battle of Bach Dang River. 

South Vietnam was a separate state in that period, and it was influenced chiefly by Indian traders, rather than Chinese warlords.  South Vietnam also came under the influence of the Khmer Cham rulers who built the massive Angkor Wat temples in the Tonle Sap valley near Siem Reap.  More than ten Vietnamese dynasties ruled North Vietnam until the French imposed their colonial power on both north and south towards the end of the 19th century.  The dividing line between north and south Vietnam was mostly around the 17th parallel (latitude 17°north), at the northern end of the present day province of Quang Tri.

Commemorative monument at the 71st parallel

Shortly after the French assumed control of Vietnam, a boy was born in Hue Province to a minor mandarin who had been dismissed for anti-colonial sympathies.  The child, Nguyen Sinh Cung, was to undergo a number of name changes through his life, but he became Vietnam’s greatest leader under the the title of Ho Chi Minh.  At the age of 21 he left Vietnam on a steamship bound for France, and began an itinerary period traveling around Europe and north America.  For a while he served as a pastry chef in the Carlton Hotel in London.  He issued a petition demanding democracy and independence for Indochina, and caused some consternation at the Versailles Peace Conference.  In 1920 Ho became a founder member of the French Communist Party.  He traveled to Moscow in 1923 at the invitation of the Bolshevik Government, and following some political training, went back to China and Indochina where he traveled around fomenting revolutionary movements. 

The French at one time placed a death sentence on him for founding the Vietnamese Communist Party, but though he was briefly imprisoned in both Hong Kong and China, Ho escaped their efforts and returned to Vietnam in the early 1940’s to lead his people towards independence.  (I have often wondered whether any of the American diners in the Carlton Hotel, London, or any of the French diplomats having their photographs re-touched in Paris, (around 1912 – 1922), had any notion that the little oriental who served them, would one day defeat the might of both their military forces.)

From the end of the second world war, the French sought to re-establish their control over Vietnam.  They poured up to 250,000 troops into the country, and bolstered them with 300,000 south Vietnamese recruits, and received $ 350 million in support from the United States.  From 1945 to 1954 the Viet Minh attacked and harried the French troops until the final crucial battle of Dien Bien Phu, in 1954.  France’s strategy was to lure the Vietminh into an open battle where French firepower would be superior, but the enemy proved to be much too clever to fall for the trap, and instead, by tactical maneovers and repeated attacks by fearless national soldiers, the tables were turned.  There, in the mountains near Laos, the Viet Minh troops under General Vo Nguyen Giap (who amazingly, is still alive at the time of writing in 2007), defeated the French forces in three separate major attacks.  The Viet Minh suffered heavy losses, but pressed the attacks until on the 7th of May 1954, the last of the defending French army surrendered.  France had lost close on 100,000 men, and Vietnam double that number.  

Following the French defeat, the Geneva Conference was held, resulting in the Geneva Accords of July 1954.  Under these accords, the country was divided at the 17th parallel along the Ben Hai river, where a demilitarized zone was established.  Nationwide free elections were to be held in 1956, but this never happened due to American fears that Ho Chi Minh would win, and to the blatant rigging of plebiscites by the South Vietnamese government of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.  These events paved the way for America’s ill-fated intervention in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973.  President Nixon had hoped that the South Vietnamese army would hold out after U.S. troops left in 1973, but it took only two years for that regime to collapse, thus Ho Chi Minh’s forces took over the south in 1975, and the country was formally reunited in 1976. 

The old bridge over Ben Hai river at the 71st parallel.  With my wife is Professor Nguyen Minh who lost his father in the war with the French before the battle of Dien Bien Phu

United Vietnam borders on three countries, - China to the north and north-east, Laos to the west, and Cambodia to the south-west.  The longest border is with Laos from which it is separated by a series of mountain ranges, chiefly the Annam Highlands.  The main northern river, the Song Hong or Red River, originates in China, the main central river, the Ca, originates in Laos, and the main southern river, the Mekong, enters Vietnam from Cambodia, having traveled from China and through Laos.  The country is long and narrow, with a 3,000 kilometre coastline, and is only 50 km wide at its narrowest point.  The population now numbers over 80 million.  More than half of the population is less than 25 years old.  That means that over 40 million Vietnamese were born after the end of the American war and the reunification of the country.  They have no living memory of those events, and I reckon, though I am no sociologist, that peoples of Asia and Africa are more ready to forgive and forget than those of Britain and the USA. 

Myself with Director Pham Hai of the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and one of his economists, Mr Trung.  This was a rare moment of relaxation near his home, for Pham Hai who suffered a stroke shortly after.

My own travels through Vietnam left me with impressions of a beautiful land, impressive mountains, fertile lowlands, abundant forests, and some bays and beaches that would compare favourably with any that Hawaii has to offer.  Hanoi is a quaint little city, full of parks, lakes and French cafes.  It is a paradise for shoppers seeking oriental curios.  And its range of restaurants would satisfy any diner.  Saigon is more commercial, - a typical modern prosperous business city of the orient.  In Hanoi the houses are tall and narrow, - a reflection of the property tax that bases rates on the street frontage of each building.  The old capital of Hue retains much of its ancient glory, including the enormous fortress and palace complex that extends over several acres. 

the old citadel at Hue, the historical capital of Vietnam

There is a second revered national leader who was largely responsible for Vietnam’s economic recovery over the past 15 years.  He was Nguyen Van Linh often referred to as the second Ho Chi Minh.  Amazingly he won the confidence of the leaders and people of Vietnam as he argued the case for economic liberalization.  An economics professor, he became a senior advisor to the government for several years.  In addition to charting a new economic direction for the country, he managed to change the law on Presidential tenure which was reduced to a maximum of two 5 year terms.  The result of implementing Van Linh’s ideas has been a gigantic leap forward for the country that had experienced 20 years of stagnation and starvation after the end of the war in 1975.  Now, almost all malnutrition has been eliminated, and poverty that exists chiefly in the rural mountain and coastal areas is being steadily reduced.  I was personally involved in the government’s determined efforts to improve livelihoods for the poor communities of the central provinces, and can attest to the sincerity and professionalism of its efforts. 

the West Lake at Tay Ho, Hanoi, near where I lived for a year

the tomb of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.  Actually his ashes were buried in three locations

I stayed for a period in a hotel by the west lake, Ho Tay, near the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, and the Long Bien rail bridge over the Red River.  The bridge and surrounding area was heavily bombed during the American war.  The worst bombing by the Nixon / Kissinger administration took place on Christmas Day 1972 when hundreds of innocent women and children were killed in a mad, cruel and pointless exercise.  What message did that send the Vietnamese people about ‘Christian’ nations and the season of peace and goodwill ?  By the west lake is a plaque remembering a local anti-aircraft battery that brought down some American aircraft, including the one that Senator John McCain parachuted from.  McCain was active in the US Presidential race of 2004.  He served over 5 years in the North Vietnamese prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.  After the war he pressed the U.S. government to normalize relations with Vietnam.  When we lived in Italy we knew another former prisoner of war, an ex-USAF Captain who then served as a military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Rome.   He occasionally shared with us, when asked, some of the experiences of his incarceration in Hanoi.  

What has become known as the “Hanoi Hilton” is the Hoa Lo prison which was built by the French colonial government 1904 to house Vietnamese prisoners.  During the American war, up to 300 US servicemen were interned there, mainly USAF personnel whose aircraft were shot down over North Vietnam.  Today the Hoa Lo prison (the name means ‘fiery furnace’), is mostly gone, replaced by a high rise building called the Hanoi Towers.  A part of the Hoa Lo remains as a tourist exhibit at the rear of the new building.  It is somewhat strange to shop or dine in the large modern store above where many internees from both America and Vietnam, endured years of harsh imprisonment.

In the province of Quang Nam I met a former Major in the North Vietnamese army who at the age of 70 was building up a small integrated farm on a coastal area of poor sandy soil and brackish water.  Despite the environmental conditions he was producing cashew nuts, elephant grass (for hay), cows, pigs, goats and chicken, plus a variety of fish from large ponds that had been dug by hand.  He talked of his experiences through the American war and also the later invasion of Cambodia and defeat of the Khymer Rouge.  He mentioned living rough for years in central Vietnam, sleeping in the bush, and as he put it, occasionally “sleeping beside dead bodies”. 

The Cambodia experience was in some ways more difficult as the Khymer Rouge, unlike the Americans, used guerrilla tactics similar to the Viet Cong.  In Cambodia also they faced the danger of thousands of land mines and vicious bamboo traps that were designed to maim rather than kill.  The Major said that he was wounded 8 times during his 20 years of fighting.  

Few Americans spoke more eloquently or powerfully against the Vietnam war than the Rev Martin Luther King. And few others had researched the issues it involved more thoroughly than he, from the political, moral, social, national and theological standpoints.  Any who are interested should read his address, “Beyond Vietnam”, delivered in Riverside Church New York in April 1967.  It is applicable nearly 40 years later, to the Iraq war, as it was to Vietnam.  

What is left of Hoa Lo prison, the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’

I include a brief edited extract below :

 “It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.  If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam”.  It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.   I have to live within my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  The relation of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.  Do they not know that the Good News was meant for all men – for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative? 

Have they forgotten the One who loved His enemies so fully that He died for them?  I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.  Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed there is the vocation of sonship and brotherhood.  The Father is deeply concerned for His suffering and helpless and outcast children.  We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy”, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. 

As I ponder the madness of Vietnam, my mind goes to its people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three decades.  It is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries. They languish under our bombs.  They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.  They wander into hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury.  They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting their mothers.  So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children.  We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village.  What do they think as we test our latest weapons against them?  Where are the roots of independent Vietnam we claim to be building?  Now there is little left to build on save bitterness. 

I should make it clear that while I try to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam, I am as deeply concerned about our own troops as anyone else.  We are submitting them to the brutalising process of war and adding cynicism to the process of death.  Somehow this madness must cease.  I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.  I speak as a citizen of the world that stands aghast at the path we have taken.  I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: the great initiative in this war was ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours. 

The war in Vietnam is a symptom of a deeper malady within the American spirit.  In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.  We have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in several countries.  The need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Central America, and why napalm and Green Berets forces have already been in action against rebels in Peru.  The words of the late President John F Kennedy come back to haunt us.  Five years age he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”. 

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued the self-defeating path of hate.  We have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.  If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  If we make the right choice, we will be able to speed the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  

Martin Luther King, courageous fighter for truth, justice and peace

Overall now, reminders of the war in Vietnam are few, most of the damaged buildings and infrastructure having been repaired or rebuilt.  Some large bomb craters remain, and parts of former forests have not recovered from the effects of Agent Orange which was sprayed in enormous amounts (and at enormous cost) from the south to the north.  Informed foreign observers tell me that though it has impacted negatively on the vegetation, soil and water for 40 years, it was of next to no positive help to the U.S. war effort. 

Chemical Warfare

The United States engaged in chemical warfare in a number of countries, but particularly in Vietnam where two types of chemical weapon were especially potent, and resulted in many civilian deaths as well as military casualties.  They also had a devastating effect on forestry and vegetation, - an effect that continues to this day, some 40 years after their use.  The two chemicals in question were Napalm and Agent Orange.

Napalm, or naphthenic palmitic acid, was invented or developed by an American chemist in 1942, and was used extensively by American troops against the Japanese in the Pacific, after tests had showed its effect on enemy morale.  It is a jellied form of petroleum or kerosene that is extremely inflammable, and can be fired from hand-held flame throwers, or used in bombs dropped on to enemy troops.  Its use against civilians was banned by the United Nations in 1980.  The U.S. did not sign the ban, but claimed that it had destroyed its napalm arsenals.   However, as confirmed by the Pentagon, napalm was used in MK77 and other bombs dropped on Iraq in 2003.  Colonel James Alles of Marine Air Group 11 recorded its horrific effect on Iraqi soldiers guarding a bridge that was bombed, and stated :   “The Generals loved Napalm.  It had a big psychological effect”. 

Agent Orange was one of ten herbicides that the U.S. military used in Vietnam.  They were each described by colours, and came to be known as the ‘rainbow chemicals’.  It was the presence of Dioxin, a by-product of Agent Orange’s manufacture, that made it so lethal to humans.  It has been recognized by the U.S. Veterans organization to cause a range of serious illnesses including cancer of the lungs, throat and chest organs, and of the prostate gland. It also resulted in Hodgkin’s disease, chloracne, multiple myeloma, and type 2 diabetes.  (The pictures of children deformed by the residues of that chemical, would break the hardest heart, but most Americans have never seen them, and the military deny that there were such effects).  It was responsible for spina bifida in babies, and in infants it caused sudden deaths from its effect on the immune system.  It was a powerful defoliant and was used to deny cover to Viet Cong forces, but even the U.S. military eventually admitted that it had hardly any impact on enemy operations.  Over 19 million gallons of the lethal substance was sprayed on Vietnamese forests, around Saigon, along the Cambodian and Laos borders, and north of Da Nang up to and beyond the 17th parallel. 

So many American military personnel who served in Vietnam, suffered from exposure to the chemicals sprayed on the countryside, a November 1990 U.S. Veteran’s Department Staff Report stated,  “It is the war that will not end.  It is the war that continues to stake a claim on its victims decades after the conflict has ended.  This never ending legacy of the war in Vietnam has created deep feelings of distrust of the U.S. Government among many veterans and their families.  The (government displayed) a lack of honesty in studying the effects of these toxic herbicides, and in particularly Agent Orange.  It also made a conscious effort to cover up information and to rig tests results with which it did not agree.”

At least seven American chemical companies were involved in the production of Agent Orange which they constantly claimed was ‘harmless to humans’.  Nevertheless, following pressure by Veterans and their families, and growing adverse publicity, they paid $ 180 million in out of court settlements to victims.  But the U.S. Government has never admitted that its use of the chemical caused any diseases in its soldiers or among the civilians residing in the areas that were sprayed.

Surprisingly, there is little sign of anti-American feeling in Vietnam today.  Even those who lost family members during the conflict, display no indications of anger or hostility.  A lot of Vietnamese, particularly in the south, have aspirations to emigrate to America, as do many people in S.E. Asia and Indo-China.  China is the major trading partner, due to its proximity, and exports an enormous variety of household, mechanical, medicinal, artifacts and clothing goods to Vietnam, but there is little love for the large northern neighbour that has dominated its former colony for centuries. 

Above : Senator John Kerry, veteran of the Vietnam War which he came to deplore

In April 1971, John Kerry spoke before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  “In our opinion, there is nothing in South Vietnam that threatens the United States of America. To attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam to the preservation of freedom, is the height of criminal hypocrisy.  Recently in Detroit we had over 150 honourably discharged and highly decorated veterans testify to war crimes committed in South-East Asia.  They told how some had personally raped, cut of ears, cut of heads, applied electric power to human genitals, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages, poisoned food stocks, and ravaged the countryside beyond what was done by the bombing power of our country. We saw first-hand how monies from American taxes were used to prop up a corrupt, dictatorial regime.  We saw America lose her morality as she coolly accepted a My Lai massacre and clung to the image of GIs handing out chocolate bars and chewing gum.  We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and placing a cheapness on the lives of orientals.

We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service.  The Administration’s denial makes us determined to undertake one last mission, - to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this this land these past ten years and more. So thirty years from now when our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or an eye, and small boys ask ‘Why’, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’, and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but a place where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”*  

Halong Bay in the north of the Gulf of Tonkin which gave its name to the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution that was based on false charges concocted against small North Vietnamese patrol boats.

Coastal vendor offering us sea snakes for lunch

Myself at Halong Bay

I could not resist taking this snap of women in typical pose at a Hanoi market


Thailand  and the  Tsunami

The tsunami disaster of Boxing Day 2004, shook the whole world to its foundations as we were made to appreciate the immense forces of nature, and our own vulnerability.  Over 300,000 persons lost their lives, and together with the aftershock earthquake that struck North Sumatra and Nias Island barely 3 months later, the total toll in lives is probably well over 340,000.  The cost in destruction of homes, fishing boats, and coastal infrastructure, is incalculable.  Fortunately, the whole world responded with remarkable generosity and millions upon millions were pledged and donated.  The biggest pledges were by governments such as those of the USA, Britain, Japan, and others in Europe, Scandinavia and Australasia.  But six months after the event, little of those enormous pledges has materialized.  This illustrates why the UN Secretary General was unimpressed by the pledges, and pleaded instead for money on the table.   One year after the tsunami, there is a rush to spend some of the money, but sadly there is a corresponding lack of vision or practical ideas on how best it might be used. 

map of Thailand

What has been delivered well and promptly, in Sri Lanka, Banda Aceh, Thailand, SE India, and the Andaman Islands, are hundreds upon hundreds of charitable donations and items of practical assistance from numerous individuals, churches, missions, charities and organizations like OXFAM, the Red Cross, Tear Fund and World Vision.  Even a small Scottish charity like Blythswood, that formerly had Eastern Europe as its focus, was able to ship thousands of tons of clothes and household goods to the stricken areas within a very short space of time.

From the start, I established and maintained contact with officials and volunteers in the countries concerned, and was asked by the fishing industry to assist them in selecting the most appropriate types of equipment and assistance, and in identifying the more reliable and trustworthy vehicles of delivery.  The government invited me to attend a consultative meeting in London, and numerous individuals in UK, Ireland, and the tsunami hit countries, liaised regularly with me on the organization of contributions in money and kind. 

I made known my interest in assisting the relief efforts on the spot, as I was familiar with practically all of the coastal areas and their fishing communities.  It was Thailand that first requested my services in April 2005, through a European project, originally designed to improve fishery management, but modified early that year to direct assistance to fishers and fishing communities that had suffered loss.

The tsunami struck Thailand’s islands and coastal areas on the Andaman seaboard.  The area hit by the huge sea wave includes 6 Provinces, 25 Districts, 95 Tambons (sub-districts), and 40 Villages.  To date it is confirmed that 1,952 Thai persons lost their lives, but a further 1,998 are missing, making a possible total of lives lost of just over 3,950.  The number of children made orphans by the disaster came to 1,172, including some from outside the 6 province area.  A total of 3,302 homes were completely destroyed, and 1,504 suffered partial damage.  The value of fishing craft, gear, fish cages, ponds, and fishery facilities, lost or damaged, came to over 1.8 billion Baht (£ 25 million).  Damage to farm lands and crops amounted to 6.6 million Baht (£ 93 million).  Livestock losses came to 17.6 million Baht (£ 25 million), and small business premises damage to 13.1 billion Baht (£ 18.7 million).   

Tsunami wave striking the Andaman coast

Wherever there was a belt of trees, however thin, this broke the force of the incoming tsunami

Banda Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost Sumatra province was the region to suffer most horrifically in the tsunami disaster.  Sri Lanka’s east coast and south coast endured the next highest losses in life and property.   Losses in Thailand amounted to over 8,000 persons, half of them Thais, although many of that number are still listed as missing.  Sadly, many bodies will never be recovered.  Over 700 children were orphaned by the disaster.  A total of 4,800 homes were hit by the enormous wave.  3,300 were destroyed completely, and 1,500 suffered partial damage.  Over 6,700 fishing boats were damaged or lost, along with tens of thousands of nets, fish cages and fish ponds.  This amounted to an enormous disaster by any yardstick. 

Tsunami wave coming in towards Phuket                  Damage caused to boats at Ranong

            Wreckage on land by the harbor                                       Large boats turned over in port

Initial compensation sums from Thai Government emergency funds, were paid to survivors and to families of fishermen lost.  Practical help was provided to communities by a range of charities and NGOs which were prompt to respond.  My role in the CHARM / TRS [Coastal Habitats and Resources Management  / Tsunami Rehabilitation Support, an EU financed Project] was to identify genuine fisher victims and damaged villages, and to allocate appropriate practical help to repair vessels, provide equipment, re-equip fish farmers, and assist fisher women to re-establish their curing and retail ventures.   I was made particularly responsible to develop and implement workable arrangements for the fishers to manage their operations and protect their fishing grounds in cooperation with the national fishery patrol service. With the enthusiastic and dedicate assistance of a fine Thai fisheries counterpart, Thewan Thanamalarat, groups of fisher volunteers were organized and trained in six coastal provinces, and were equipped with life saving equipment, CB radios, binoculars, first aid kits, charts and signal flags.  Shore communication centres were established and fitted out to act as the base for all operations, and the repository of data and information on fish catches, illegal fishing reports, marine habitat changes, and environmental facts on the local mangrove, sea grass, and coral resources.  The facilities provide each participating community with the tools and skills to respond to future marine disasters, as well as the training and facilities to monitor the condition of their coastal zone and its fishing grounds. 

Thewan Thamalarat who led a rescue team at Ranong and reporting to the Governor on the recovery operation

Yet, while these models are relatively inexpensive and their replication up and down the tsunami threatened coasts, would do much to lessen the impact of new disasters; at the time of writing (2005), the bodies sitting with hundreds of millions of tsunami relief funds in their hands, seem devoid of practical ideas for their use.  So instead of similar effective inputs and measures, the money is being wasted on hugely expensive and hopelessly theoretical studies or bureaucratic exercises of little genuine relevance.  After nearly half a century in development work I still am astonished by the propensity of bureaucracies to avoid giving practical help if there is an abstract alternative. 

40 ton boats were smashed against each other                                Vessel sunk in the harbour

Above : This patrol vessel was swept one mile inland from the sea

Visits to fishing villages on the west coast and on the islands offshore, gave me plenty opportunity to meet with the people and hear first hand from them, their experiences when the tsunami wave hit, and the subsequent losses they suffered.  Rural peasants all over the world, whether farmers or fishers or small traders, are remarkably resilient people, and one could not but admire how they were rebuilding their lives and their communities. Personal tales of loss and bereavement were particularly poignant.  The province of Ranong, north of Phuket, experienced the worst of the damage in Thailand, though the scars of the destruction are being covered by new constructions, and by nature’s ability to replace devastated areas with fresh growth.  

With Thewan and his team, providing safety training to fishers

         Fishing boats equipped with safety apparatus               Search and rescue exercises at sea

I knew Thailand and its fisheries through long association that began with my service in the UN South China Sea Programme, of which Thailand was a member.  In 1979, after the turmoil in Cambodia, I was asked to review fishery extension services in Thailand, and was taken on a tour of the coastal areas by national officers.  The itinerary took us to the Cambodian border on the east of the country, the Myanmar (Burmese) border to the north-west, and the Malaysian border at the south of Thailand.  We were accompanied by an armed guard for the whole of the trip as each area visited had security problems.  But to my surprise, the most dangerous area was not the Cambodian border where the Khymer Rouge still ruled, nor the Myanmar border behind which the ruthless military junta held sway, - but the Malaysian border which suffered from serious instability due to the local majority Moslem population that had a long-standing dispute with the Thai government.  This problem is now well known, but at the time of my trip it was being kept quiet by both the Thai and Malaysian governments.  Tanks, gun emplacements, pill boxes and military camps were strewn all around the three southern border provinces.  This festering problem has erupted in violence in recent years, and like the Philippine Mindanao problem, it could do with genuine efforts to examine all the issues and to achieve mutual understanding.

Thewan Thamalarat, former naval officer, now Thai fishery extension and training officer, who did much valuable post-tsunami rescue and rehabilitation work

My admirable Thai counterpart officer for the tsunami rehabilitation and MCS work, a tough and highly principled ex-naval officer, told me how he was assigned from the Thai Navy to assist the Thai Air Force during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.  His extensive naval training in security patrolling, deep sea diving and photography, was considered most useful to military reconnaissance.  He was flown over Cambodia in a single engined plane, dodging anti-aircraft fire, SAM missiles, and even MIG fighters at times, to photograph troop movements and deployment in the country.  His considered thoughts after 26 years, were that the USA feared Vietnamese communism more than the Cambodian variety, though it was never as brutal, and so pressure was placed on Thailand to be the buffer state protecting the rest of Indo-China from that threat.  As events transpired, apart from the Cambodia incursion (which was a great blessing to the Cambodian people, and indirectly to the rest of the world, none of whose powerful states was prepared to tackle the Khymer Rouge menace), Vietnam showed no interest in spreading its Marxist ideas to other states.  Indeed, its own brand of communism has been watered down to become more like Cuba’s than China’s. 

Thailand is one of the very few developing countries in the world, which was never colonized.  It is believed to have been founded in 1238, and was known as Siam from the mid 14th century until 1939 when it took its present name.  It has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932.  During the war it was allied with Japan, and after the war became an ally of the United States.  There was considerable fear in the USA during the Vietnam war, that Thailand was a key country in a line of possible dominos that might fall to communism if it spread from Vietnam and Laos to Cambodia, then Thailand and thence into the Malay peninsula.  In the event this did not happen.  In fact it was Vietnam itself that could be said to have halted the fall of the dominos when it invaded Cambodia and crushed the Marxist regime of Pol Pot in 1978.   But it got no thanks or recognition for this from either the USA or Britain who both supported the ousted Khymer Rouge regime and opposed its loss of a seat at the United Nations.     

Thai refugee camp for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge

Cambodian inmates of a Thai refugee camp

As a result of the troubles in Cambodia and in Burma, Thailand has had to cope with a huge refugee problem on its doorstep.  Cambodian refugees numbered nearly a quarter of a million around 1980, and today there are tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar on Thailand’s north-west border.  The tale of Thailand’s dealings with its neighbour governments, and with the UN High Commission for Refugees, and related organizations, is replete with accounts of appalling opportunism and manipulation of the situation for its own ends.  Horrid cruelties were perpetrated against vulnerable boat people by criminal elements in the Thai and Malay marine fleets.  Nevertheless, it must be recognized that Thailand did accept huge numbers of refugees, and continues to do so.  I find this to be in stark contrast to the paranoia we find in England at a few hundred asylum seekers.  Many of the Thai people have shown genuine compassion to the unfortunate displaced persons.  Some traveled regularly to the refugee camps with bundles of rice and medicine to relieve their distress.  Again I cannot forget the outcry in the city of Glasgow when a mere 12 asylum seekers were housed there a few years ago.  The City council soon sent them back to London. 

Celebrations and ceremonies in Thailand are beautifully elaborate

Thai culture resembles that of Japan in its respect for authority, for age, and for the monarch.  As in Japan, you do not enter a house wearing shoes, which should be left at the door.  Traditional ceremonies are important, and are attended with enthusiasm and respect.  Never having been a subject race, the Thais are a rightly proud people in the best sense of that term.  They are intensely loyal to their King, and one has to be in the country during a Royal occasion to feel the strength and sincerity of their national devotion.  Practically every citizen you meet speaks with pride, admiration and affection, of “my King”, as they refer to him.  King Phumipol Adulyadat himself lives up to all their expectations, and exhibits wisdom, character and leadership, that each befit his royal status. When I first heard that the Hollywood film The King and I, was banned from all cinemas in the country, I put it down to over-sensitivity.  But having come to appreciate the genuineness and universality of the people’s love for their monarch, I see that silly Hollywood film as an insulting foreign parody of what is most respected in their culture. 

King Phumipol Adulyadat, the highly respected Thai monarch

Like other Asians, the Thais are extremely hospitable and welcoming of foreigners, though some of us offend their sensibilities and try their patience to a considerable degree.  Thai food, (genuine Thai food), is exquisite, flavours ranging from the subtle and delicate to the fiery and powerful.  They possess the oriental distaste for confrontations which are viewed as extremely rude and unpleasant.  If problems have to be resolved between persons or groups, they have other more passive and face-saving ways of achieving redress. 

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