THE WAR NOBODY WON*

– And two different attempts to make us want to understand why and how it all happened

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Collage: 30 hours of TV-time on war in Vietnam, a B&O vintage remote, and the postcard version of Catherine Karnow’s stunning Halong Bay photo.


*This blog title “the war nobody won” is stolen from Stanley Karnow’s famous and controversial prologue in “Vietnam – a History.”
The recent launch of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 18-hour documentary on ‘THE VIETNAM WAR’ has prompted me to hole up quite a few Hanoi nights over the past month.
Subsequently, I added a 13 hour re-watch of the original  ‘VIETNAM – A TELEVISION HISTORY’, done almost 35 years ago.  It has been absolutely fascinating. 
Both series are published by PBS, but very different in their approach to the war(s) in Vietnam. Burns/Novick are on a mission to captivate the viewers with a dramatic and well researched narrative, based on wartime footage (some it never seen before, I believe) and retrospective interviews with former combatants, peace activists, victims and relatives in Vietnam and in the US.  
No doubt, it has been an enormous task to put this documentary together.
It is all spiced up with a continuous score of greatest hits from the US pop music charts during the war years. The narrator is intense and (melo)dramatic. The obvious ‘story-telling gimmicks’ seem a bit too much, but if you make it to the end, you will walk away feeling wiser on the war and its far reaching implications 40 years on.
However, one very big issue is strangely missing from the documentary: The legacy of the war, i.e. the long term effects of Agent Orange and the enormous amounts of UXO’s, unexploded mines and bombs, which are still killing people in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, 40 years after the war.  Apart from a single sentence on Agent Orange, the documentary completely ignores the terrible, lingering consequences for thousands of Vietnamese and US and other allied veterans, who ‘humped the boonies’ in the sprayed areas during the war.
Likewise, the efforts carried out by VN veterans to assist the Vietnamese with UXO clearance are also left out. One should think that initiatives like the Project Renew would deserve attention in a new documentary on the war in Vietnam.
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The story of the Hanoi Spy legend Pham Xuan An would have suited well with the other ‘human interest’ stories in the Burns/Novick documentary.

Considering the Burns/Novick fascination of ‘human interest’ stories, it is also surprising, that the role of the legendary Hanoi spy, Pham Xuan An is not mentioned at all.
Being a trusted advisor of the US Ambassadors and several senior military officers, An supplied the North Vietnamese and the Southern Insurgents with the vital intelligence to prepare for the 1968 Tet  Mau Tan Offensive, the massive attack against more than 100 cities and other targets in the South.  
An even managed to become bureau chief for Time Magazine and cleverly manipulated the foreign press corps in Saigon during daily informal chats at his favorite café. Only several years after the war, it was disclosed that Pham Xuan An was also a colonel in Hanoi’s military intelligence apparatus.
It also surprising that Burns/Novick refrain from bringing post-war revelations into focus. On example: They are spending quite a bit of airtime on the1968 My Lai massacre without bringing this horrendous act into perspective.  Once again, we get the hero-and-villain story about Lieutenant William Calley, who ordered the killings, and the courageous helicopter pilot, who managed to stop the massacre after 504 old men, women and children had been killed.
Why not tell the bigger story about, what really went on in Quan Ngai province, when Tiger Force was let loose in a year-long killing spree in ‘enemy villages’, and how Pentagon bureaucrats, led by Donald Rumsfeld, subsequently sabotaged the Army’s own investigations and covered up the atrocities. The incredibly story is well documented in yet another fine piece of Pulitzer-winning journalism, and subsequently this book:

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‘Biased’
Predictably, Burns/Novick have received quite a bit of flack for being biased, primarily from the ‘we-fought-an-honourable-war’-opinionists in the US. For obvious reasons, the Nixon Foundation is highly critical in published comments to the episodes, dealing with the Nixon/Kissinger years. But by and large, to this blogger the Burns/Novick documentary seems to be a rather fair assessment of the consequences of Nixon’s ‘peace with honour’ strategy, and the enormous loss of lives, which followed.
An obvious weakness of the entire Burns/Novick documentary (as opposed to the PBS-predecessor) is that they are without firsthand knowledge of the war in Vietnam and therefore at complete mercy of their sources.  
The substance of several episodes seem to be largely based on interviews with wartime journalist Neil Sheehan and his Pulitzer-winning book ‘A Bright Shining Lie’.  There a very few retrospective interviews with key decision makers, partly for the simple reason that most of them are dead now.  
These weak points make the original PBS-series appear all the more stronger, even so many years after it was made. The producers of ‘Vietnam – a Television History’ contracted one of the war’s most eminent journalists, Stanley Karnow (Time Magazine) as chief correspondent for the series.
Amazing network
Karnow’s  amazing network of sources on all sides is the backbone of every episode. During the war he had regular access to the highest levels of US political and military decision-making, ranging from ‘kitchen-chats’ with President Kennedy to the inner circles of the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
This also made Karnow a target of criticism for being biased in favor the US in his coverage during and after the war. For the very same reason left leaning professor Noam Chomsky and others fired away on the original PBS documentary.
The US-bias attacks on Karnow did not stop the Hanoi leadership from allowing him back in 1981. He became one of the first American journalists to make a first hand report from post-war Vietnam. PBS and the viewers would benefit enormously from the sources, which Karnow had developed among the senior decision makers in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese authorities gave Karnow full access to almost everyone on his bucket list, except the enigmatic wartime chief negotiator Le Duc Tho and Hanoi’s master spy Pham Xuan An.  (Coincidentally, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I received the same khong duoc – “no-no” on the same requests,  when walking a few years later in Karnow’s footsteps through the Hanoi maze of government offices).
Nevertheless, virtually all the sources you are missing in the Burns/Novick documentary, you will find in abundance in the original PBS-series.  
Compelling interviews with all sides
The 35 year old documentary is by no means outdated. The analysis stands clear and solid, along with in-depth interviews with some of Hanoi’s famous warlords,  General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
Representing the US side, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, General William C. Westmoreland, and CIA chief Willam Colby are among those sharing their reflections on the war that led to so much death and suffering in Vietnam and in the US. 
My recommendation to fellow Vietnam nerds, on which documentary to hole up with: Take both of them with you. If this is not enough, both documentaries come with just as compelling book companions, which are equally different in approach.
The Burns/Novick book is glossy and coffee table-size with lots of dramatic color shots.  The text is a quality compilation of works by real Vietnam expert writers.  
Stanley Karnow’s classic is an eminent brick of a book. 800 pages are waiting for you, and once you are done with it, you will be looking for a volume II. 

VIETNAM LAUNCHES ‘ONLINE TROOPS’ FOR CYBER WAR

Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre newspaper have looked into, how the government is stepping up its measures against the perceived dangers of social media, including a 10.000 strong ‘cyber force’ unit, controlled by the army:

“On top of efforts to regulate content on social media, a Vietnamese general has revealed that the country had employed a cyber task force to fight the dissemination of false and derogatory information on the Internet.

Force 47 consists of more than 10,000 “core fighters” against hostile forces in cyberspace, according to Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

“As forces and countries suggest using cyberspace to fuel real war, [Vietnam] should also stay vigilant against wrongful views in every second, minute, and hour,” the three-star general said at a meeting on December 25.

With hostile forces having employed the Internet as a new medium for their effort to sabotage Vietnam, the country’s army has acknowledged that it should ready its forces for warfare in cyberspace alongside the conventional military, Nghia added.”

Click here to read the full story

HANDING DOWN THE PAIN

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US Poet Laren McClung spent a decade collecting the testimonies of fellow writers, who inherited the sufferings of the war in Vietnam from their parents.  A formidable achievement which deserves global attention

The casualties, the suffering, the misery and the destruction. The story has been told so many times about those who fought in Vietnam and those who got caught up in the war. The voices of the immediate victims, combatants and civilians, are all too familiar. We know their numbers must be counted in millions.

Now, there is more, a lot more to be included in our understanding of war and the trauma that follows.

With the 2018 publication of ”Inheriting the War” a new dimension is added to the human price still being paid in Vietnam, the US and elsewhere by thousands of descendants of veterans, civilian victims and refugees all over the world.

The American poet Laren McClung has spent a decade tracing the descendants through their poetry and prose. Her formidable endeavor is now available in 400 pages of compelling reading. 60 poets and authors from around the world has contributed to the book with their personal stories on the impact that the war in Vietnam still has on their lives – more than 40 years after the last combat casualties occurred.

”Even though I wasn’t alive during the war, I have been living through it since I was born,T.K. Le sums up her perspective in a single sentence. Even though she grew up in California in a Vietnamese refugee family, a caucasian coworker jokingly  labels her “Viet Cong” at a cocktail party.

“I could talk to my coworker about how my parents were both refugees and about the life and death decisions they had to make at ages younger than ours. I could talk about the My Lai massacre, about the systematic rape of entire villages that meant even less than “just making a point.” Agent Orange, burning skin, land mine amputees, and all the dead children. But I won’t satisfy her with the gratuitous imagery of a war I never knew.”

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The acclaimed writer Andrew Lam recounts his conversations with a woman, who spent years in one of Hong Kong’s infamous refugee camps:

I ran out of tears so now I just laugh when I can,” she said. Her sons, who share the same history as their mother,now live in Santa Ana, California. Their mother, on the other hand, has become a living ghost.”

The refugee camps in Hong Kong are long gone, but Andrew Lam’s essay The Stories They Carried contains one haunting testimony after another, like the fate of a former officer in the South Vietnamese army, Diep Tran and his son:

When he and his son finally reached Hong Kong, he lacked the USD 3,000 cash demanded by a screening official. In protest, his son, Anh Huy, committed self-immolation in front of the UNHCR official. Tran showed me his son’s photos. One is a smiling teenager. The other is a picture of a burnt, bloodied corpse flanked by grim looking Vietnamese men.

Hanoi based poet Ngu Tu Lap, was too young to fight in the war, but his childhood memories continue to torture him:

 While I played with a snail

In a bomb shelter filled with rain

The women disappeared without a sound

 Thirty years later I still see them

Millions of breasts cut from sufffering bodies

Fallen to earth like young coconuts

Full with milk even in the grave

 Thirty years later they still come back

To prepare the alluvial fields for corn

Their tears falling like crystals.

A FATHER’S WAR NO MORE

Adam Karlin sets out to find his father’s war in Vietnam. Only to find a country, very different from what his father, author Wayne Karlin experienced during the war and described himself in his instant classic Wandering Souls.

Adam Karlin encounters Nha Trang, a former fishing village which is now full of beach resorts ”with pink-faced Russian tourists who throw endless reserves of money and insults at locals.”

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 At the top of Da Nang’s Marble Mountain, Adam Karlin finds the proper place to pay homage to the man, who inadvertently saved his father during the war:

I said a prayer to Jim Childers, a helicopter gunner who switched missions with my dad and was subsequently killed. My father touches his name every time he visits the black wall in Washington D.C.

 Nguyen Phong, etnic Vietnamese, relates a childhood experience in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. He still carries the memory of an old man in the market, who had asked a band of teenage soldiers to leave him alone.

”These Khmer Rouge kids in their war-customes stung like wasps. They seized him by the arms and dragged him into the market, where among the bitter melon and durian, he was clubbed with riffle butts and kicked by twelwe little feet, shod in sandals cut from old tire…

…I had seen a man beating a child before. But never had I seen af child beating man a man. With every strike, the earth seemed to wobble on its axis.”

Once the Khmer Rouge kids were fed up with the beating, one of them killed the old man with his bayonet.

THE AMERICAN DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE 

Pulitzer prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Symphatizer) offers this observation, as a response to being labelled an ’immigrant writer’:

”Immigrants are the story of the American dream, of American exceptionalism. Refugees are the reminder of the American nightmare, which is how so many who were caught under American bombardment experience the United States….….I had breakfast with a former Vietnamese ambassador in Hanoi and she said that Vietnamese ”boat people” were economic refugees, not political refugees. Probably every single Vietnamese refugee would disagree with her.”

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Cope – An advocacy center for UXO victims in Vientiane, Laos.

 Deborah Paradez, daughter of a US Vietnam veteran, devotes a poem to the omnipresent dangers of UXO’s – unexploded mines and bombs in the entire region. The UXO’s still find their victims all too often in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In Laos, a farmer digs

for bamboo shoots

and his spade strikes

a cluster bomb

startled from its mud-cradle

At night the hollow poles rise

And answer to the wind.

Who knows how many more will surface by morning.

 

Bao Phi brings us to a scene, he has been carrying with him for years:

 I am teenager, shopping with my mom for groceries at Cub foods. In the parking lot a Vietnam veteran starts shouting at a Hmong family, two parents and two kids. ”I fought for you people, you owe me!” he screams at them. They don’t look at him, they keep walking, their shoulders turn in towards each other as if they are trying to make themselves as small a target as possible. I see this and I want to say something, but I don’t. I feel like an unlit match.

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Ben Quick, son of US veteran, is a second generation Agent Orange victim.

His father patrolled day in and day out in the areas, defoliated by the dioxin-contaminated chemicals, more than 72 million liters were sprayed over Southern Vietnam in a futile attempt to deny the Viet Cong cover and food. After the war, Ben was born with some of the all too typical disfigurements – in his case a deformed hand, which he has been trying to keep out of sight, ever since he became conscious of his handicap:

Lying in bed at night before sleep takes hold, I’ll notice my left hand resting underneath the ruffles of the blanket while my right hand sits bare and comfortable on top. Or I’ll think about a class I’ve taught on a particular morning, coming to a sudden realization that all gesturing and hand-waiving was done with one arm. I will pause for a moment and make a mental note. Sometimes, I will curse.

Ocean Vuong is trying to come to terms with the sudden suicide of his uncle.

There should be tears. There should be a reason. It’s 7:34 PM on New Year’s Eve. I am lying in my kitchen in Astoria, New York, my cheek pressed to the cold tiles. My mother has just called. My child, she says in Vietnamese, her voice barely a gasp, your uncle has killed himself. It was not until she heard herself say those words did she start wailing into the phone. I open my eyes and see only the blue and yellow tiles on the kitchen floor. Little blue flowers on tiny sun-lit fields. When did I fall? Is that my voice? I did not know I could sound like that: Like an animal that just learned the word for God…..

….When someone dies their silence becomes sort of a held note, a key on the piano pressed down for so long it becomes an ache in the ear, a new sonic register from which we start to measure our new, ruptured lives.

 

Karen Spears Zacharias has the final chapter with her essay The Man In The Jeep – a symbol of the dreaded visitors, who came to more than 58.000 American families during the war: The US Army officers who brought the ultimate grievous news from Vietnam to the relatives at home.

Karen recalls her last conversation with her father before he went to war.

”Why are you crying, honey?

”I am scared,” I answered.

”Scared of what?” Daddy walked over and sat down on the edge of my bed.

”That you won’t come home!” I wailed. Like monsoon rains, powerful tears rushed forth.

”Karen,” Daddy said, smoothing matted hair back from my wet cheeks. ”I’ll come back. I promise.”

 …Daddy kept his promise, in a way. He did come back. Via airmail, in a cargo plane full of caskets.

 I am typing these final words during my descent to Hanoi’s Not Bai Airport 1 January, 2018. These days,  B52 bombers have been replaced by Boeing Dreamliners and the competing A 350’s. The SAM anti aircraft missils on the ground have given way to McDonalds, Starbucks and friendly immigration officers.   Better still, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the USA both benefit from the immense value of their new strategic partnership.

Yet, there are so many people around us, who continues to inherit the suffering of a war that ended more than four decades ago.

I am thinking that this eminent book  does deserve to come out in Vietnamese – for obvious reasons. And in any other language spoken.

 Laren McClung (ed.): Inheriting the war. 415 pages. WW Norton & Co. 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIETNAM’S CRAPITALISTS

Today, I hand over my blog to the official VIETNAM NEWS and this unusually sharp op-ed on ‘CRAPITALISM’ – i.e. the endemic corruption in Vietnam.

 

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A Vietnamese nouveau riche on a Sunday stroll in his Rolls Royce on Lao diplomatic license plates. A common practise to evade the heavy taxes on luxury cars in Vietnam.

 

In a Đà Nẵng plot that has thickened steadily over the last several years, police are seeking a 42-year-old real estate tycoon, Phan Văn Anh Vũ, for criminal charges of “revealing State secrets.”

For the moment, we are not privy to what the nature of the “State secrets” was, but how did a private sector businessperson happen to access them in the first place?

Then, that the tycoon, who made a name for himself with possession of several former State-owned lands in desirable locations scattered across the third largest city in Việt Nam, gets an inside tip to flee the clutches of the law screams his guilt, and raises troubling questions with some obvious, even more troubling answers.

This man, who has since been referred to as a Đà Nẵng “mafia” by the public and sections of the media, was not just a formidable figure in the real estate market, but also someone who was alleged to be able to wield certain influence on the decision-making of the city’s top authorities.

The “gifts,” like the luxury car and houses that his company’s given to Đà Nẵng’s former disgraced Party Secretary Nguyễn Xuân Anh, are never really free.

The nexus between politicians and businesspeople is one that has not received due attention, with the anti-corruption focus mainly trained on public sector’s officials.

Vũ’s case, a tear in the veil that allows a glimpse into the ugly underbelly of the rapidly developing economy, is a high-profile wake-up call to a problem in the country that has never been identified and named for that it is: crony capitalism.

How many Vu’s?

This begs more questions: how many Vũs lurk in the system, and how will they and conniving officials be brought to justice?

To think that this Socialist republic, established by dint of the sacrifice of “rivers of blood and mountains of bones,” can fall victim to an ugly mutation of its capitalist antithesis, which has also been called “crapitalism,” is not just sad, it is deeply worrying. It would be no exaggeration to say that the nation’s success depends on its ability to deal effectively with this problem.

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The crapitalists are undermining the virtues of Vietnamese socialism, says this op-ed.

Crapitalism’s advent

Crapitalism is not a new phenomenon, in Việt Nam or elsewhere; and in certain cases, it has been institutionalised: K-Street and the revolving door between politicians and plum corporate placements come to mind immediately.

While it is natural for businesses and government to form relationships and hold dialogues with each other, understand each other’s legitimate needs and demands, and so on, we cannot accept that crapitalism is a natural extension of this process.

In Việt Nam’s case, it was in the twilight of the nation’s shift to a market-oriented economy that this corruption took root and fester.

The way the spoils of this immoral enterprise are shared is a clue to how the system is corrupted. Businesses get huge profits through under-the-table deals with or favouritism from the government, officials involved get pecuniary and other benefits, such as securing managerial positions in a business.

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State owned EVN accused of tax evasion.

“Too big to fail”

Then, when the businesses grow to become important players in the local economy, they want to “go to extreme lengths to intervene in certain State management affairs,” as the new Party Secretary of Đà Nẵng, Trương Quang Nghĩa, who replaced the ousted Xuân Anh, put it.

This reminds me of the “too big to fail” corporations that caused the crippling 2007-2008 global financial crisis. That they were bailed out and rewarded, with US taxpayers’ money, instead of being punished for their reckless ventures, only shows how entrenched crapitalism is.

It’s counter-productive to think that these types of alliance only happens with ‘evil big corps.’ No, it’s the phenomenon that can be seen almost everywhere on a daily basis.

In Việt Nam, we have actually been seeing the insidious impacts of crapitalism for some time: projects that blatantly lacked required criteria like proper environment impact assessments and adequate financial strength have been running despite ongoing violations like wrongful use of land. How could this have happened so regularly, so blatantly, if certain authorities had not been bought?

The recent controversies regarding Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) traffic projects have to do with a stark lack of transparency. With a cash-strapped State budget and the need for infrastructure development, it’s understandable that the private sector is brought in under concessions agreements.

However, the deliberate lack of public information and transparency in the bidding process used to select the most suitable and capable project investors has made this practice a hotbed of corruption.

Government inspectors and auditors have found that in many cases, incapable investors – in terms of both finance and technological qualifications, still ‘won’ the bids.

“It’s obvious that there are powers that backed these [investors] up,” said Hoàng Ngọc Giao, Director of the Institute for Policy Studies, Law and Development. Former deputy head of the National Assembly Office, Nguyễn Sỹ Dũng, has called some BOT projects, a product of illicit power and money trade, ‘muggers’ who’ve preyed on the public.

Shady investors

Then there’s the ongoing equitisation process – divesting State capital and privatising State-owned enterprises (SOEs). We should pay heed to the experience of the former Soviet Union, when many SOEs and their assets were pocketed for scrap value by overnight magnates with close ties to compromised high-ranking officials.

Twenty years into the equitisation process, it was only this year that the Government decided to make public the list of SOEs to be divested from and the equitisation ratio for each year. The change is welcome, but wasn’t it the obvious thing to do a long time ago? The intentional withholding of information regarding the real value of the SOEs – especially land areas under their management – would allow shady investors to buy them at low prices.

Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has several times warned of the need for “careful valuation to avoid losses of State assets.”

Crony capitalism destroys a healthy business environment — it perpetuates the practice of bribes and grafts, forces honest businesses to choose between going bankrupt or “going with the (low) flow.” It is the most unfair form of competition, and most importantly, it distorts policies and the rule of law while lining the pockets of certain groups of people at the expense of national interests.

When a miniscule percentage of the position gets filthy rich, we can safely assume the rest have to pay the price, or at the very least, not get what’s due.

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The bright side

Spearheading a vigorous anti-corruption campaign, Party General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng has on multiple occasions warned that corruption seriously threatens the very legitimacy and even the “existence” of the Party and the State.

“Vested interests groups,” as he called them, typically have goals that are inimical to public interest.

Rather belatedly, the nation’s governing apparatus has officially recognised that anti-corruption campaign should also extend to the private sector, which, since the opening up of the economy, has been treated as a holy cow for the most part. A draft law with a two-pronged approach that deals with corruption in both private and public sector is being completed.

It’s surely a laudable efforts, we cannot be blind to the difficulties and complications that this recognition entails.

For instance, how can the government strike a balance between its promises to cut red tape and foster a ‘better, more transparent business environment,’ without causing a lot of hassles for businesses?

The solutions to thwart crony capitalism and corruption are out there in the open – greater accountability and transparency, more qualified, independent watchdogs that are part of checks and balances needed in a system, robust rule-of-law, and unrelenting, decisive punishment. But tying all this into a powerful anti-corruption weapon would require a strong and unwavering political will. — VNS
Read more at http://vietnamnews.vn/opinion/op-ed/420212/crony-capitalism-subverts-socialist-aspirations.html#m62r8RyxpxpbLkEU.99

 

THE BURNING MONK

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On 11 June 1963 his holiness Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in protest against the persecution of buddhist peace activists by South Vietnam’s Diem regime. AP photographer Malcolm Browne was tipped off by the monks that something was going to happen at the corner of Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street and Cách Mạng Tháng Tám Street. His photo went around the world and became instrumental in turning public opinion against the Diem regime.

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Malcolm Browne’s photo, 11 June 1963.

In the words of president Kennedy: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Predictably, Malcolm Browne was awarded the Pulitzer prize and the slot as World Press Photo of the year, even though most prestigous newspapers, including the New York Times, refused to publish it.

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Now, at the very same spot a massive memorial overlooks the intersection, where Duc vanished in flames. Here
 is how Vietnam’s present rulers have since embraced the sacrifice of Duc – the first of 6 monks to ‘barbecue themselves’ – as stated in contempt by Md. Nhu, the de facto First Lady of South Vietnam, until her husband and his brother were assinated a few months later in a coup against Diem by his own generals. A coup which had the quiet backing of the US Embassy in Saigon, and possibly the White House. 

Once celebrated by the US as the “Winston Churchill of Asia”, Diem was found shot along with his brother in the trunk of a car.

A VOICE FROM BURMA

Today, I hand over my blog to a Burmese columnist with something at heart in these tumultuous times for his country, formerly known as Burma.
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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during his recent visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Britain is Still Being Beastly to its Former Colony Myanmar
By KYAW PHYO THA, The Irrawaddy
 
 
There is usually no harm in reciting lines or verses from your favorite poems. But it can matter what you read, where you read it, and who you are. If you are not careful, you could make a gaffe or insult those around you. Take the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for example.
 
When the Foreign Secretary visited Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda earlier this year during an official trip to Myanmar, the 53-year old Conservative Party member tolled a huge bell and recited lines from the poem Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling: “The temple-bells they say/ Come you back, you English soldier.” (In fact, “Bojo” made a mistake, it’s British, not English in the poem.)
 
His impromptu recital was recorded and featured in a documentary on Britain’s Channel 4. In the video, Boris Johnson was interrupted by British ambassador to Myanmar who said “probably not a good idea” and “not appropriate” in a stern voice after reminding the Foreign Secretary he was on microphone.
 
Yes, it is inappropriate and insensitive for Boris Johnson to recite those lines in a country that was colonized by the British from 1824 to 1948.
 
To make matters worse, the person uttering “come you back, you English soldier” was not just an ordinary citizen but the Foreign Secretary from the country that annexed Myanmar through three bloody wars and oppressed local resistance.
 
Were it not for UK Ambassador Andrew Patrick’s interruption, the Foreign Secretary may have continued with the lines “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud / Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd / Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!”
 
Referring to the Buddha as the “Great Gawd Budd” at one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country would have been an act of sacrilege.
 
Who knows why the Foreign Secretary uttered lines from the colonial poem. Probably, he is a great fan of Rudyard Kipling or felt nostalgic for the age of British imperialism. Whatever the case, a British Foreign Secretary’s recitation of the colonial poem in the country where they once colonized is an insult to the country and hurts the feeling of its people.
 
Adding to Myanmar people’s dismay, the release of the video footage coincides with a time when Britain, along with many other countries, has been actively criticizing the Southeast Asian country and its popular leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the country’s treatment of the self-identifying Rohingya issue, which is in face the result of a bad colonial legacy left by the British to Myanmar people.
 
If the British hadn’t encouraged Bengali inhabitants from Bengal Province of India (now Bangladesh) to migrate into the then sparsely populated and fertile valleys of Rakhine in the 1800s, Myanmar today would be in a very different position in the controversial issue.
 
While the British government has been repeatedly criticizing the Lady for her silence on the issue as well as for not doing enough to defend the minority self-identifying Rohingya, St Hugh’s college of Oxford University, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics between 1964 and 1967, removed the painting of the Nobel laureate from its main entrance as the college received the gift of a new painting. It’s questionable why the portrait was taken down amid criticism on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s on the issue.
 
On Tuesday, Oxford City Council withdrew an honor granting Aung San Suu Kyi the Freedom of Oxford as it was “no longer appropriate” for her to hold it given to her response to the self-identifying Rohingya issue.
 
Of course it would be annoying for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to see those kind of responses from the UK, which was in some ways her second home, spending nearly two decades studying and raising a family there with her late British husband.
 
For the majority of the Myanmar people, the actions of Oxford City Council and Oxford University were deliberate insults to the woman whom they have elected as their leader.
 
It’s interesting to ask why Britain’s government and civil organizations are united in humiliating Myanmar and its leader unlike many other western countries like the US, which is taking a much more supportive role by offering assistance to implement the recommendations made by the Rakhine State Advisory Commission to help the country tackle an issue spawned by British colonial rule.
 
Is Britain under the mistaken impression that it has the right to bully the country because it once colonized it?
 
Rather than pointing fingers at Myanmar, the British should be mindful that when it comes to the self-identifying Rohingya issue, their forebears were responsible for the encouragement of mass migration from India to Myanmar for cheap farm labor. It should be noted that they did it for the interests of British Empire, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 when rice demand was high in Europe.
 
Myanmar had no chance to solve the problem of migration encouraged by Britain under authoritarian rule from 1962 to 2010. The former quasi-civilian government made little success in tackling the issue despite their efforts after 2012.
 
Undaunted, the country’s first democratically elected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is now trying to fix it amid other problems the country is facing such as bringing peace with ethnic armed groups. Please be aware that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is just 18 months old.
 
It is very unfair to today’s Myanmar, struggling to cope with the problems the British left behind while being criticized by those responsible who ignored their wrongdoings they did in the country more than a century ago.