Med beundringsværdig stædighed har Eva-Marie Møller i årevis kæmpet for at kaste lys over den endeløse tragedie i Burma, senest med bogen ’Oprør i Myanmar’. Det er oplysende og bevægende journalistik af den aller bedste slags.
”Soe Nay er utrættelig, han sender hver dag nye forfærdelige fotos. Denne gang sender han fotos af en mor, der er blevet dræbt af skud. Hun ligger livløs på gaden, mens hendes baby forsøger at kravle op på hendes lig.”
Sådan lyder et enkelt af de forfærdende vidnesbyrd med ubærlig foto-dokumentation, som dagligt tikker ind på DR-journalist Eva-Marie Møllers mobil. Efter det seneste militærkup, er det umuligt for hende at komme tilbage og rapportere direkte fra demonstrationerne overalt i landets større byer. I stedet har hun samlet en lille kreds af seks burmesiske venner, der rapporter direkte til hende. Nogle er professionelle reportere, andre er blevet ’borger-journalister’.
Lad mig straks komme med en varedeklaration: Dette er ikke en objektiv anmeldelse. Eva-Marie og jeg har været kolleger og venner gennem snart 40 år, tror jeg. I mit hjem i Hanoi står en dedikeret udgave af hendes første lille mesterværk ’Kinas korte forår’ fra 1989, hvor hun rapporterede fra demonstrationerne på Den Himmelske Freds Plads i Beijing sammen med fotografen Marianne Leth. Til deres store frustration blev de kaldt hjem et par dage før massakren, der bragte demonstrationerne til ophør, af en redaktionschef, der ikke troede at der var flere nyheder at hente på den sag.
Men det forhindrede dem ikke at levere en af de bedste beretninger, der findes om det kinesiske studenteroprør.
Jeg tænker, at det er den samme stædige drivkraft, der ligger bag Eva-Maries nye bog. Hun kan ikke være der selv, men så låner hun andres øjne og ører og lader dem tale uden filter. De seks korrespondenter har fået bogens første 40 sider stillet til deres rådighed med deres abrupte, hjerteskærende snapshots fra et land, hvor gaderne endnu gang er blevet en ulige slagmark mellem de tungt bevæbnede enheder fra Burmas regeringshær, Tatmadaw og de ubevæbnede repræsentanter fra Burmas Generation Z, de unge som ikke vil finde sig i at se deres land og et spirende demokrati blive rullet tilbage til fortidens diktatur.
I den internationale presse svirrer rygterne om, at de unge vil alliere sig med Burmas etniske minoriteter og gå til væbnet modstand. Selvom det forekommer håbløst at sætte sig til modværge mod verdens næststørste hær, er der tilsyneladende noget om snakken:
”Den 9. maj sender Soe Nay en video, hvor unge fyre i en øde skov lærer at skyde efter fotos af Minh Aung Hliang (juntaens leder),” fortæller Eva-Marie Møller.
Over de følgende 100 sider får læserne den helt store Tour de Horizon med Eva-Marie Møller og hendes burmesiske venner. Læserne inviteres med til forårets demonstrationer i København, hvor jeg selvfølgelig mødte Eva-Marie og hendes båndoptager – igen var hun såmænd den eneste danske journalist blandt nogle hundrede burmesiske flygtninge foran Glyptoteket. Det kan godt være, at Eva-Maries venner tager sig noget forhutlede ud, mens de skutter sig i deres godt brugte overfrakker, men øjnene brænder, mens de råber appellerne om støtte til deres fængslede nationale ikon Aung San Suu Kyi og hendes eksilerede skyggeregering, NUG.
Og nu vi er ved Aung San Suu Kyi, så er det indlysende udfordring for Eva-Marie og os andre, hvordan vi skal forholde os til hendes bratte fald i verdens omdømme. Det er så snublende nemt bare at tage afstand fra Suu Kyi, fordi hun ikke fik standset hærens brutale forfølgelser af Rohingya-muslimerne. Men denne bekvemmeligheds-fælde falder Eva-Marie ikke i. Hun slipper godt fra et ærligt forsøg på at nuancere sagen med respekt for den umulige situation, Suu Kyi tydeligvis er i.
”I dag stiller mange spørgsmålet, om vi i Vesten har mistolket Aung San Suu Kyi. Men omvendt skal man huske, at hun ligesom mange andre asiatiske statsledere er en autoritær politiker. Det virker som om, vi i vores verden har villet have, at hun skulle være lige som os – en vestlig demokrat,” skriver Eva-Marie med reference til Suu Kyis buddhistiske værdisæt, som tydeligvis er stærkt præget af burmansk nationalisme.
Selvfølgelig får vi også den fortræffelige historie om Eva-Maries eget illegale interview med Aung San Suu Kyi i 1991, der nær var endt med en arrestation i lufthavnen. Eva-Marie havde gemt kassettebåndet i sine trusser og filmrullerne i sin BH. Heldigt nok undgik politiet de mere sensitive steder under kropsvisitationen inden udrejsen. Regningen kom snart efter, da Eva-Marie offentliggjorde interviewet. Juntaen sortlistede hende, og i de følgende 13 år kunne hun ikke rejse ind i Burma. Pudsigt nok, fik Eva-Marie mange år senere en officiel undskyldning af Burmas informationsminister.
Bogens anden halvdel adskiller sig markant fra de første siders reportageagtige snapshots, der bliver fulgt op af en række selvstændige kapitler med refleksioner og analytiske interviews med Burma-eksperter, deriblandt Helene Maria Kyed og Danmarks ambassadør John Nielsen, der kommer med deres bud på de mere eller mindre dystre fremtidsscenarier, der tegner sig for Burma.
Hertil kommer en kort og præcis gennemgang af, hvordan det internationale samfund, herunder Danmark har reageret på den seneste udvikling i konflikten.
Hermed bliver bogen også oplagt til brug i undervisningsmæssigt øjemed, i det omfang som man nu kan få gymnasier og højere læreanstalter til at interessere for Burma. Under alle omstændigheder bogen bruges til at få noget mere Burma ind under huden.
Og så til sidst: Jeg skriver konsekvent Burma, hver gang jeg skriver noget om dette forunderlige land, som jeg har gjort det i de sidste 40 år, senest med dette blogindlæg om Burmas tragedie. Betegnelsen ’Myanmar’ er generalernes opfindelse, ligesom de også har omdøbt den fine gamle hovedstad Rangoon til Yangon – og så i øvrigt flyttet hele regeringen op i landet til det besynderlige misfoster af en by med navnet Naypyidaw. Også den sag kan man læse om i Eva-Maries fine bog.
Eva-Marie Møller: Oprør i Myanmar. 156 s. Forlaget Mondogrande.
At 66, Pham Tuan Phan’s resemblance with his father is striking. The fiery eyes with the same handsome facial features, the thick greyish hair. We are meeting at a Hanoi café to talk about Vietnams late Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
I decline the offer of a beer: “Phan, beer in the middle of the day makes me too sleepy.”
Phan’s pleasant laughter starts quietly, a bit on the deep side. Gradually, his laughter expands with a mild thunder and spreads to soften his sharp eyes. Phan is so much his father now that it catapults me in a flash, all the way back to the 2nd of June 1984, my first meeting with the legendary Silver Fox, as we Western journalists called him.
This first encounter with the Silver Fox took off with that hearty laughter – his of course.
“So, what do you Danes prefer – Vietnamese or Chinese hospitality?”
The same morning,Thach had read an article in Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) describing my meeting with the not so friendly Chinese artillery at the border. The situation was tense, after the Chinese had shelled the small border town Ha Giang the week before. My photographer and I were on patrol with a Vietnamese reconnaissance team, when the Chinese suddenly opened up with artillery at us. We ran for our lives, and it had all been rather scary.
Flowers and grenades
The incident had taken place on my 29th birthday, which started very nicely with flowers and cakes from our Vietnamese hosts. The next day, the circumstances were shrewdly edited into a frontpage headline, where a Danish reporter was quoted: “Vietnam received me with flowers, China with grenades.”
Thach gave me a wink and another friendly grin.
At the time Minister Thach was one of the very few Vietnamese senior politicians who spoke excellent English.
Once done with the friendly laughing about our Chinese lesson at the border, and the bitter green tea properly served, Nguyen Co Thach signaled with another welcoming gesture that he was ready for my questions.
I barged right in.
“It is more than five years since the Vietnamese troops moved into Cambodia. Your critics in the West are wondering if you are ever going to leave again. “
“The Vietnamese troops will not leave Kampuchea, until Pol Pot’s forces are totally eliminated. The struggle against Pol Pot is also a matter of self-defense in the same way as when the Soviet Union, the USA, France and England marched all the way to Berlin to crush Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.”
Thach was in no mood to be interrupted and continued.
“During Pol Pot’s terror regime, the entire population was at the risk of starving to death, and hundreds of thousands, even millions died. During the genocide, doctors, teachers and many others were executed. Neither hospitals nor schools were functioning when we arrived in Phnom Penh.
Now, it is only 5 years since the Pol Pot regime was brought down.
The food situation still needs improvement, but no one are starving anymore. As of now, 1,6 million students are back in the schools, and health care is improving as well. We have been able to assist our neighbors coming back on their feet, even though Vietnam’s own resources are limited. We are still poor. The US lost on the battlefield, but the Americans continued the war against my country with diplomatic, economic, and political means. This has grave consequences for Vietnam, but it will never stop us from assisting our friends in Kampuchea.
In January 1983, a delegation of US senior diplomats visited Kampuchea. Of course, they oppose Vietnam’s military presence, but they had to admit that the conditions for the Kampuchea people have improved immensely in recent years.”
Vietnam – a Soviet tool?
Nguyen Co Thach reached out for his tea, giving me a small window to charge back.
“Among western decisionmakers the situation is assessed quite differently. Some have claimed that Vietnam is merely a tool in the Soviet strategy to create a regional stronghold. Some even claim that in practice, you are now the foreign minister of a new Soviet Republic of South East Asia.”
The Foreign Minister responded with another shot of booming laughter.
“Is that what they say about my country and myself? Few other countries have been subject to so many attempts of foreign domination as Vietnam. Every time, we fought back at great sacrifice. With a history like ours, how can you even think that Vietnam would give into domination from any foreign power. China, France, and the US all tried without success.
On the contrary, the Soviet Union respects the independence of Vietnam. We know who our friends are in this world, but we have no wish to have enemies among Western countries or elsewhere. Let me give you an example: In 1976, Vietnam became a member of the World Bank. The Western countries were very happy to welcome us in the bank.
In 1979, when the US and their allies instigated the economic blockade against Vietnam, we applied for membership of COMECOM, the organization for economic cooperation between the socialist countries.
As a matter of principle, we would like to have a cordial relationship with the US and all other countries in the world. As of today, Vietnam is a member of the World Bank, even though we do not benefit from the programmes of the bank, and the COMECON.
We are not isolating ourselves from other political or economic systems. Now tell me, what is the case of your own country, Denmark? I believe you are only member of the World Bank. So really, how can you insinuate that Vietnam represents a bias against the West. The bias seems to be on your part, right?”
This time Thach’s laughter came with another friendly wink. Years later, I learned that the Foreign Minister had already submitted a strategy proposal to the Prime Minister under the heading: “How to get more friends and fewer enemies.”
A Vietnamese puppet?
“Western critics are saying that the Heng Samrin government of Cambodia can only survive by the force of the Vietnamese army. They even call Samrin a Vietnamese puppet.”
“China, the US, and some Western countries are saying this as an attempt to cover up their own foolish decision to support Pol Pot. They know very well that Pol pot is a criminal and a mass murderer. Heng Samrin oversaw the popular rebellion against Pol Pot from the very beginning in 1977. The broad resistance against Pol Pot has certainly not been fabricated by Vietnam. You are looking at a direct result of Pol Pot’s genocide against his own people.
China is giving massive military assistance to whatever is left of Pol Pot’s army. The Heng Samrin government currently has a huge task rebuilding Kampuchea. If Vietnam remove our troops prematurely, it will make the situation even more difficult for Kampuchea.”
While the Foreign Minister sipped his tea, I found another prepared question in my notebook.
“Vietnam’s military presence in Cambodia has provided the US and its allies with the pretext to establish the economic blockade against Vietnam. Your own people are paying a high price for your support to the Heng Samrin government.”
For the first time during the interview, Nguyen Co Thach nodded in agreement.
“We do indeed pay a very high price. We have an important issue in common with our friends in Laos and Kampuchea: We are struggling against ongoing Chinese expansionism. If we do not maintain our struggle for freedom and independence, we shall pay a much higher price in the future.”
Another round of tea gave me room for a new shot to fire against the Foreign Minister.
“Chinese leaders have stated that Vietnam bears the responsibility for the present conflict between the two countries because of Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia.”
“It could be that the Chinese provocations are an attempt to heighten the fighting spirit among Pol Pot and his loyalists. But, the current conflict is based on a long history of Chinese aggression towards Vietnam. It is no coincidence that many of the streets in Hanoi are named after heroes, who sacrificed themselves to stop the Chinese invaders. In the past 1.000 years the Chinese have invaded us at least 10 times, most recently in 1979.”
“We saw many Vietnamese troops during a visit to the border areas. Is Vietnam preparing for another invasion?”
“Well, you had your own experience, running from a Chinese artillery strike yesterday in Ha Giang. I am glad that our army brought you back safely from your encounter with the Chinese.
Let me assure you that it will not be easy for China to invade Vietnam. They only succeeded once; all other attempts have failed. I am an optimist by nature. We have also experienced long periods of peace with China, once even for as long as 350 years. Vietnam continues to work for the best possible relation with China, but history has taught us to prepare for the worst-case scenario as well. “
And human rights?
A discreet gesture from my escorting officer, Le Mai, signaled that time was up. But I could not leave without having brought up the human rights issue, a core element in the intense Western political barrage against Vietnam’s communist leadership.
“Vietnam is often criticized for its human rights record. Some western observers have compared your re-education camps to Nazi-regime concentration camps?”
“Really? Let me remind you that several senior Nazi leaders were executed after the VWII. Even today, 40 years later, Israeli Nazi-hunters are trying to track down the remaining Hitler era criminals. Maybe this is why the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, chose to predict in public that we would create a blood bath after liberating Saigon.
I suggest you look at facts rather than western allegations. In Vietnam no US collaborator was executed, even though some of them committed the cruelest crimes against the Vietnamese people. Instead, we sent them for re-education, and most have been released already.
There is still a few remaining in custody, people responsible for massacres against innocent civilians during the war. From time to time, we receive requests from the US government to release them. We have even offered to release them for resettlement in the US. The Americans said no thank you. They did not want to have these criminals roaming freely in their own country. “
Nguyen Co Thach wrapped up the interview by offering me a plane ride to Phnom Penh to see for myself that Cambodia had not been turned into a Vietnamese prison camp.
“If you dont believe me, go look for yourself, he said with a final laughter.
“Excuse me, I have to go borrow a suit from the government storage – I am due for a meeting with a UN delegation. We have to save on everything – even my clothes – because of the Western embargo.”
The mass graves of Cambodia
We did take Thach’s advice and later visited Cambodia. By coincidence we met a truly gruesome sight a few kilometers from Phnom Penh. From a distance it looked like some farmers were watering white cauliflower. As we got closer, we realized that they were cleaning skulls – thousands of skulls. Bones were neatly stacked all over the area. Vietnamese army medics and Cambodian workers were cleaning up yet another shallow mass grave.
As always, my photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen did what he had to do. While his camera shutter clicked away, I vomited behind our car.
Some Western editors wrote our reports off as communist lies when we returned with the documentation – just a couple of naive Danish reporters stuped by the Vietnamese propaganda machine. The same editors responded similarly to our Agent Orange material.
Then – and now – let Ole Johnny’s pictures speak for themselves.
Over the coming years I had the privilege of another two sessions with the Silver Fox. I never managed to corner him. Not even when his government signed a deal with the Shell corporation on oil-exploration in the Vietnamese offshore oilfields – at a time when many countries shunned Shell because of their activities in Apartheid South Africa.
“It is easy to be choosy for rich countries like your own, we have 65 million people to feed,” Thach shot back with his familiar fiery eyes.
The same fiery eyes, I recognized again almost four decades later in a mug shot, taken by French police in 1940 after they arrested the 19-year-old Thach in Nam Dinh, his home province a 100 km, south-east of Hanoi.
His young face is battered from the brutal beatings. Incredibly, there is no trace of any fear in his eyes.
The French prison guards almost beat him to death, followed by days and nights of brutal torture in a futile attempt to make the young Thach disclose the identity of his comrades.
As a matter of fact, he did not even know the real names of his comrades. The leader of the party cell had given him the cover name ‘Co Thach’, meaning ´corner stone’.
Actually, Thach was born as Pham Van Cuong, in one of the thousands of desperately poor families of rural Nam Dinh.
During his five years in French military prisons, Nguyen Co Thach was secretly trained by senior fellow revolutionaries, among them Le Duc Tho, who later became Vietnam’s chief negotiator, with Thach as his assistant, in the 1968-73 marathon peace talks with the US in Paris.
It was in those days that the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, singled out Nguyen Co Thach as his greatest concern because of Thach’s superb diplomatic skills. Mr. Kissinger probably had no idea, how Thach had been trained the hard way during decades of underground political activity against the French, subsequently serving as one of the key decision makers since the beginning of the war with the US backed Saigon regime.
Self-taught in English and French, Thach was also more eloquent than Kissinger himself, putting the hot-tempered US chief negotiator at a basic disadvantage at the negotiation table.
Nguyen Co Thach’s distinguished career is well known in Vietnam. During and after the war with the US backed Saigon regime, he held numerous key posts within the party apparatus and in the government and rose to become deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, the same dual senior responsibility being held by his son Pham Binh Minh for the past decade.
“More friends – fewer enemies”
After my last interview with Nguyen Co Thach, I continued to follow him at distance. He continued to make his in mark on the diplomatic scene and in international media, pursuing his ‘more friends – fewer enemies’ strategy. Obviously, improving relations with the US was a key element. He personally engaged himself in the MIA issue, making it a key priority for the Vietnamese government to assist the US in finding the remains of Americans killed in action and repatriating their remains to the families in the US.
Nguyen Co Thach made himself available to an endless stream of American delegations, visiting Vietnam: War veterans, business delegations, senior politicians, and many others. Traveling abroad, he was seen shaking hands with the US Secretary State James Baker, and prominent senators John Kerry and John McCain, who had spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi in Hoa Lo, one of the former French colonial prisons, where Thach and thousands of other Vietnamese revolutionaries had been incarcerated.
John Kerry’s senior assistant, Frances Zwenig later put Nguyen Co Thach in the league of South Africa’s president Nelson Mandela, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the US civil rights hero, senator John Lewis.
Behind the scenes, Nguyen Co Thach, worked tirelessly to develop Vietnam’s diplomatic apparatus to be able to cope with all the challenges, coming with Vietnam’s new international role. In the dual role as deputy Prime Minister, he was involved in the domestic strategies to develop Vietnam’s economy.
In 1991, Thach retired suddenly, officially because of ill health.
According to the rumors he was asked to step aside to make room for a more flexible and pragmatic generation of shrewd Vietnamese politicians, who took charge in taking Vietnam further down the road of reform – ‘doi moi’.
Personally, I consider this rumor false, Nguyen Co Thach was one of the very first senior Vietnamese leaders to investigate, what Vietnam might be able to learn from Western economic management models.
Other rumors had it that Thach had been removed to pave the way for improved relations with Beijiing – Thach had been a very harsh and very public critic of China, possibly since 1972 when chairman Mao cut a deal with President Nixon – at the expense of Vietnam.
Whatever, the real reasons behind his retirement, ill health was certainly a factor soon to become disruptive in his life. A complicated heart surgery marked the beginning of the end. On 10 April 1998, he was laid to rest at the Mai Dich cemetery along with other famous Vietnamese leaders.
The belated honors
Surprisingly, in February 2007 the Silver Fox resurfaced posthumously, when his widow, Phan Thi Phuc, received The Gold Star on his behalf, one of the highest honors of the state for ‘comrade Thach’s lifelong contributions to the revolutionary cause’. The ceremony was chaired by Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet.
Thach’s son is visibly moved, when I ask him how he felt to be there, when his father was belatedly honored for his lifelong service to the revolution.
Phan tells me that not everyone would find it appropriate to name his father The Silver Fox. During the colonial war, the Vietnamese applied the same nickname for the Head of French military intelligence, and that was no compliment.
In return, I share with Phan that Thach’s own staff called him the Silver Fox as well. The nick-named had apparently been re-introduced by Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, known as very sympathetic to Hanoi during the war.
As my own tribute to Nguyen Co Thach, I now have a photo in my office of dong chi Thach in front of the Bo Ngoai Giao – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, probably the most beautiful of all the beautiful colonial buildings still to be seen in Ha Noi.
Thach stands there grinning with me and a fellow Danish journalist, Jørn Ruby. That morning Jørn and I had joined forces to catch the old fox. He escaped again without too much effort, even taking the trouble to walk us to our car.
His father’s son
Back at Luk Lak restaurant this splendid spring morning, Phan shows me a beautiful photo of the Thach family from around 1964. Mother, Father and the three children dressed up for the event. Thach is incredible handsome and his wife more than a match for her husband. Surely the clothes are rented for the occasion.
To the very left in the photo, Phan’s youngest brother, Pham Binh Minh is standing at the age of five.
These days, Pham Binh Minh is serving in his father’s former position as Foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister. Occasionally, I meet him.
Once I waited with him in line for the restroom, on the airplane from Vientiane to Hanoi. I showed him a screenshot of my blog with a few photos of his father and myself in the meeting room, next to his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was very surprised to meet a Danish former journalist, who had stories tell about his father.
In another and more memorable occasion, Pham Binh Minh, represented his government at the celebrations the 20thanniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. The Minister delivered a very cordial speech highlighting the friendship between the former enemies.
During the gala dinner, we chatted a bit about his father.
Pham Binh Minh just smiled, when I asked him, what his father might be thinking, watching from above, while his son congratulated Thach’s old adversaries in Washington D.C.
In the absence of a reply, I imagined that laughter once again, and Nguyen Co Thach saying with his customary chuckle:
“Well, my youngest son still has one more challenge to solve, left for him by me: How to deal with China?”
A goldmine of knowledge
Thach’s upcoming 100-year birthday 15th May has opened a virtual gold mine of new bits and pieces, shedding light on his life and times.
There is an abundance of articles about him in Vietnamese press, interviews with people, who knew and worked with him. The director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard, professor Thomas Vallely is crediting Nguyen Co Thach for the ultimate success to reestablish relations with the United States. Scores of senior diplomats from around the world have come forward with their praise of what they call a superb diplomat.
In Vietnamese media the praise is of course abundant as well, disclosing new details about the difficulties, Nguyen Co Thach were facing during more than a decade of economic embargo and isolation. I thought it was a joke, when Thach told me had to borrow his official clothes from the government storage. It was not.
Nguyen Co Thach’s former assistant Dinh Thi Minh Huyen still remembers, how Thach’s delegation struggled with the financing during the UN General Assembly in 1980. Especially the female members of the Vietnamese delegation, suffered from the cold. To save hotel cost Nguyen Co Thach had insisted to stay in an apartment with his staff.
“Our minister saw how miserable we were. He decided to allocate USD 150 for each of us three women to buy warmer clothes. That was a month salary for me as a diplomat in those days. One day, Nguyen Co Thach tip toed into our meeting room without his shoes on. He did not mind at all that we could see the holes in his socks,” ba Huyen told a reporter in an interview, celebrating Thach’s 100th year birthday.
Suddenly, by chance I become one of the contributors. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has learned that there is a foreigner in Hanoi, who spoke with Thach on several occasions. Next, I find myself being filmed for a documentary about Nguyen Co Thach.
“Who else on the world scene would you compare Nguyen Co Thach with”, the film director asks me.
“When it comes to Thach’s style in dealing with adversaries, the former US president Bill Clinton represents something similar – always covering sharp messages with a disarming, easygoing manner. Intellectually, Nguyen Co Thach was in the league of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.”
“If you could speak with Nguyen Co Thach today, what would you say to him?”
Right there between the glaring spots and the cameras, I have now idea how to respond.
In the following days the question keeps coming back to me: What would you say to him?
I decide to pay another visit to Nguyen Co Thach’s grave at the Mai Dich cemetery, where he was laid to rest with state honors along with other prominent leaders of his generation.
I have been told that according to Vietnamese legend, you can communicate with the dead, if you burn incense for them. When you light up the incense sticks, the dead will listen to you until one third of the incense is left. This will give you a window of opportunity for several minutes to pray for their well-being in the after-life as well as your own and the well-being of your loved-ones.
Standing there among the hundreds of graves in the beautiful Mai Dich cemetery, I understand that this is neither the time nor the place to chase the Silver Fox with more questions. I should have done my job, when I had the chance with him many years ago.
Nguyen Co Thach is resting in peace now, just like it should be.
The SoHa online media has kindly invited me to share my take on the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam. Please click here for the Vietnamese version . The original English text is below.
How the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam defined 40 years of a foreigner’s life
By Thomas Bo Pedersen
Vietnam and its people are many things to me. Most of them heart-warming and beautiful. So much that I dare to call Vietnam ‘Que Houng thu hai cua toi’. My second home.
I have some very close friends here, who continue to give me more, than I ever thought that I would have.
All the good things are a stark contrast to the very reason, why I came here as a young journalist almost four decades go: To report on the lethal legacy of war, Agent Orange.
During the so-called American War, the US Airforce sprayed 72 million liters of herbicides to defoliate the jungle and to destroy the food supply for the guerrillas operating from the countryside. Most of the herbicides were known as Agent Orange, contaminated by dioxin, by far the most potent synthetic poison, ever developed in a laboratory.
Even though I spent weeks of research before my arrival, nothing could really have prepared me for the actual experience, when walking the rounds at the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh along with Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong and her patients, young women who had come in from the countryside.
THE DYING WOMEN
Two girls in every bed and occasionally two girls under the bed as well. Only the ones who were dying or in great pain could have their bed alone. Many of them with unborn babies – mother, and foetus both with malignant tumours and other unspeakably terrible diseases.
Dr. Phuong stopped to hold the hand of a young girl, crying, and gasping from pain.
“I can do nothing for her or the many others, except trying to ease the pains during the time they have left,“ the doctor told me.
I remember the orphanages as well, full of children with mental and physical disabilities. Until then, I did not know that human arms and legs could look like branches of an old tree.
During the following month, my photographer and I went all over Vietnam to record the long-term consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam. We went on to include the desperate calls for help from American war veterans and their families, suffering just as much from exposure to Agent Orange.
When I returned to Europe and published my first reports on Agent Orange, they were written off by some as communist propaganda. The US Embassy in Denmark went out of their way to destroy my credibility with a discreet phone call to my editors sharing the concern that the reputation of my newspaper was damaged by my unfounded allegations.
This first experience with the Agent Orange cover-up fueled an anger inside of me which has continued to burn ever since. Over the years, I have continued to use every opportunity, to highlight the ongoing suffering of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam and elsewhere. I have written hundreds of articles, given many lectures, and been involved in fund raising in my own small way.
AN ODYSSEY OF MISERY
At one point, I set out to gather evidence, how Agent Orange continues to affect the Vietnamese people. It became an odyssey of misery, which I have never been able to put behind me. I visited several villages in the North with many former soldiers who had returned from the contaminated battlefields in the South decades ago.
In provinces like Hai Duong, Thai Binh and Nam Dinh, I met scores of 2nd and 3rd generation victims, and their desperate parents, who all asked the same question: Who will take care of our disabled children, when we are dead?
The same happened among the poorest of the poor in the Central Highlands and in Da Nang, where people suffered from continued exposure of chemicals, which had seeped into the ground under the former US Airbase. The dioxin contamination level there was more that 300 times the safety limit.
A LETTER TO OBAMA
At the Tu DU hospital in HCMC I got myself the sweetest young friend, Hoan, born without lower legs and with one arm only. She had just written a letter to US President Barack Obama ask him to help the Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. She never received any reply from the White House, but then again, in a way she did get a belated response from the president.
In 2016, during Obama’s official visit to Vietnam, he became the first US president ever to officially acknowledge the Agent Orange issue in his ‘Remarks to the Vietnamese people’.
Prior to this the US has never officially admitted any responsibility for the Agent Orange tragedy, even though they have given medical support to affected US veterans and their families-
In all fairness it must be said that the US government also – and for more than a decade – has supported the clean-up of the Da Nang airbase as ‘an environmental support’ project and sponsored several programmes to support programmes for disabled Vietnamese, without officially acknowledging any link to the Agent Orange exposure. For that reason, Obama’s speech was a very important change of US policy.
Most recently, the US has also committed support to the clean-up of the former US airbase in Bien Hoa, which will be a huge challenge financially as well as timewise. Good news, indeed.
A NEW HOPE
Unfortunately, funds are still far from sufficient to assist the thousands of victims in Vietnam and elsewhere. Some hope is growing, now that a Vietnamese woman in France has sued the US companies, who produced Agent Orange.
The hope is based on the fact that a janitor in the US recently won a court case against Agent Orange manufacturer Monsanto. The court awarded him a compensation of USD 289 million. He had contracted cancer due to his exposure of similar kind of herbicides, which he used for clearance of weeds on the school premises, where he worked for decades.
My own pessimism is based on the previous court cases by Vietnamese victims, refused without exception by US judges. We shall wait and see, what happens now. In the meantime, thousands of people have died in Vietnam from cancers that used to be rare in this country. 2nd and 3rd generation are abundant. Just visit Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City or the ‘peace villages’ in the North and see for yourself.
From time to time, I reunite with Dr. Phuong, most recently 3 weeks ago. At 77, she is supposed to be retired. Nevertheless, she came late for her appointment with me because she had performed emergency surgery on three complicated cases the same morning. They might not have been due to Agent Orange, but Dr. Phuong is adamant that we have not seen the last victim yet of this lethal legacy.
It was my great fortune to spend this morning with one of Vietnam’s towering giants, soldier, writer, scholar and so much more, Huu Ngoc, now 104 years of age. I met him twice before, in 2004 and 2010.
His living room in Cau Giay district is simple at first glance, but filled with the treasures of a truly amazing life.
Stacks of his 37 books and thousands of articles are everywhere. Huu Ngoc happily shows his latest book, the two-volume “Cao Thom Lan Gio”. It is 1.000 pages written by hand at the age of 99, and typed by younger relatives.
“It is definitely my last book. I cannot really see well enough to write anymore, Ngoc says in fluent English with a slight French accent.
On the wall, there is a big black and white photo of himself with his beloved wife Trinh and their daughter Dich Van. The family had just been re-united after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which led to the collapse of French colonialism in Indochina.
Ngoc fought there in the final battle, while his wife took care of the wounded as an army nurse. His beloved Trinh passed away some months ago, and their daughter just turned 70.
Next to the family photo, there is a small blurred photo. A very young Huu Ngoc is standing there between President Ho Chi Minh and Vice President Ton Duc Thang and a high-ranking delegation from the German Democratic Republic.
“Our leader was in desperate need of a translator. He was fluent in French and English, but the Germans only knew their own language. I had learned German from a German prisoner of war, who had fought with the French, so i jumped in as Uncle Ho’s personal translator,” Huu Ngoc says with a grin.
LET ME SHARE with you some excerpts from our wide ranging conservation this morning, carried out at around 90 decibel or so, due to Huu Ngoc’s fading hearing.
Here is what he had to say about China and the legacy of Confucianism: “The Chinese have believed for 21 centuries that the almighty emperors all are sons from heaven. They still believe that, and the present emperor, called President, certainly aims to rule the world.”
ON THE AMERICANS: “They are our friends, but they are not good readers. So when I wrote my very thick book “Wandering through Vietnamese culture”, I asked my wonderful friend Lady Borton for help. She cut down the American version of my book to one third to help me, and her fellow Americans to understand my message.”
ON UPSETTTING the Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller during his official visit to Vietnam in 2004: “I tried my best to humour the minister and help him understand why we did not welcome French colonialism.”
“Uncle Ngoc, As you may recall, I was there as a note taker from the Embassy. Do you remember what you said to him?”
“Tell me, young friend.”
“You know, our foreign minister at the time had very close personal ties to France, and he became upset, because you talked so much about French brutality and exploitation. Then he asked you, if you did not have anything good to say about the French.
You replied:”Oh yes, Minister. I can mention one thing. You see the beautiful Vietnamese lady over at the door. Look at her Ao Dai and the nice cut exposing a small triangle of her beautiful skin right above her thigh. Before the French the Ao Dai looked more like a soldier’s tent. I am very grateful to the French for introducing that beautiful cut!”.
ON A HAPPY and long life:”Uncle Ngoc, when we met the last time in 2010, you gave me a very important advice to follow to achieve a good life.”
“Yes I remember. I told you to be strong as a tiger. I hope you listened well.”
“Uncle Ngoc, you also reassured me back then that the future is always better than the past.”
“Yes, I think I said so. If you still believe that, you are a bigger optimist than me!”
Uncle Ngoc then challenges his failing eye sight and writes a personal dedication for me in his 665 pages “Sketches for a portrait of Vietnamese culture.” The book was a present from my ex-wife in 2002, and with Ngoc’s dedication in it, I am concerned she might steal it back.
Never the less, Uncle Ngoc then starts singing an old military song for us as his farewell salute.
The above is written with a very big thanks to the eminent Toui Tre journalist Huong Hoang, who helped me find Huu Ngoc again on this rainy Saturday morning in Hanoi.
Such a beautiful afternoon seeing my friend Hoan again. When I first met her 11 years ago at the Tu Du hospital, she was struggling as hard as any Agent Orange victim, born without lower legs and one hand only. Today, she came riding on her own motorbike to meet me at a Saigon cafe.
“When I told the doctors, I wanted my own motorbike, they said “No! How can you drive safely with one hand and no legs?!” But I had seen other disabled people ride a motorbike, so I insisted. Now, I have my artificial legs from Germany. It took me a year to learn to use them with a lot of pain, but they are fine now. I only have problems, when my legs are renewed. Then it takes me another three months to get used to them.”
A decade ago I gave Hoan the best English dictionary, I could find. These days, she speaks fluent English, and a great deal better than my insufficient Vietnamese, even though Hoan acknowledged some improvement on my part. When we first met, Hoan was living at the hospital with 11 other kids in the room.
In those days her big dream was to become a doctor, like her famous stepmother, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong. “I had to give up my dream. I accepted that you cannot be a doctor with one hand only and no legs.”Instead, Hoan became a software specialist, and now she works at the Tu Du hospital writing code. She moved out from the ward several years ago.
“I have a good salary, and I rented a house with my friends. I also have my own business selling different things. My friends in Australia were so amazed to see how well I can do in business.”
A message for Obama – and Biden
Hoan became famous as a teenager, when she wrote a letter to US president Obama and asked him to help the Agent Orange children in Vietnam. Obama never replied, but Hoan was invited to testify with her stepmother before the US. Congress.
I asked her if she has a message for the new president, Joe Biden.
“Oh yes, and I am willing to travel to the White House and tell him. There are so many victims from poor families, who cannot take of themselves like I can.” My beautiful friend continues to pursue her dreams to help other victims. When I asked her, what her next dream is, she giggled and looked at me with those sparkling eyes: “I want to get married with a good husband, who will work with me to help those in need.”
Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong came late for our reunion today. She performed three operations this morning, and the last one was a bit difficult, she told me.
“But doctor Phuong. At our last reunion 10 years ago you told me you would retire soon!” I said to her.
“I am 78 now, so I only accept complicated cases,” she explained today.
Since 1969, Dr. Phuong has assisted thousands of Vietnamese women with abnormal pregnancies. Today, I gave her this beautiful portrait of herself by photographer Ole Johnny Soerensen, from my first interview with her in 1984.
I have never been able to put behind me the unspeakable nightmare she was dealing with: Young pregnant women dying on her day after day in the Tu Du Hospital, because of their exposure to Agent Orange. Two young girls in each bed, and sometimes another two girls on a mattress below the beds.
These days, the nightmare has become sort of manageable. “We have very advanced equipment now, so we can detect abnormal foetus at a very early stage with a much better chance of saving lives,” Dr. Phuong says.
Over the years, she has taken the agony of the Agent Orange victims to the US congress, often accompanied by her adopted daughter Hoan, who was born with no legs below the knees and one hand only.
Much has happened since the first time we met. In those days the US government denied all allegations from Dr. Phuong and her colleagues as communist propaganda.
In the past decade, the US have donated as much as USD 400 million to the clean-up of Agent Orange contaminated sites. And more funds are on the way.
“We do need more funds,” says Dr. Phuong. “We need support for 2nd and 3rd generation victims. We want to create jobs for victims, who can work in spite of their disabilities. I want to help them to get married as well to have a normal life to the extent possible.”
Let us give it up for Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, a true heroine for us all.
– This morning I received the news that my own government of Denmark is now recommending all Danes to consider leaving Burma, or Myanmar as the Junta renamed this suffering nation. Other countries, like my second home Vietnam, have started evacuating their citizens from Burma. 300 Vietnamese just arrived safely here.
Surely, other foreign governments will do the same. I am not out this morning to blame governments or the frightened foreigners, who are running away from the killings in Burma. I am writing this, because I have very, very strong fears, what will happen next. Because I have seen it all before. I have seen what Tatmadaw (The killing machine of the Burmese generals) will do, when they operate without any restraint.
They kill, they kill, they kill – that’s how they deal with dissent, whether it is students, Buddhist monks or just any bystander, who happens to be present.
I was one of a handful of journalists, who found our ways to sneak into Burma to report from the ongoing slaughter, which swept across the country some 30 years ago. What we found our editors barely believed, that’s how bad it was.
Thousands had fled into the jungle, finding shelter with the Karen insurgents, who had fought the Burmese generals since World War II, or they were in hiding with the Shan guerillas. Other thousands were less fortunate. Here is what a catholic priest told me:
“I plead with President Bush, the UN, all the powers of the world to help us. They are closing the schools, the universities, the churches and the temples. People are disappearing without a trace. They have built new crematoriums next to the prisons. The chimneys are billowing with smoke day and night.”
Sadly, the world largely ignored the cries for help, including my own government. As typical for a young journalist and as pathetic as it might have been, I wrote a very angry op-ed in my newspaper, targeting the Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlüter for his silence on Burma. I doubt that he ever read it. The piece was buried on page 18.
Some governments did even worse. The Polish arms corporation Polski Zaklady Lotnicze sold 20 heavily armed MI2 helicopters to Tatmadaw. Poland’s own liberation hero, president Lech Walesa did nothing to stop the deal.
Swedish Bofors delivered state of the art patrol boats to Tatmadaw. The Swedish Prime Minister did not intervene.
The lethal shopping spree of Tatmadaw was largely financed by the French oil company Total with the full acceptance of the French government. Total got the first foreign oil concessions from Burma in return.
To make matters worse, the Thai general and later Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh let his son put together the infamous ‘blood for teak’-deal, which ensured Thailand a huge amount of precious Burmese teak wood. They paid by forcibly returning Burmese refugees in Thailand to their destiny at the hands of Tatmadaw.
I remember a disheartening talk in Copenhagen with the late Michael Aris, the husband of Burma’s incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi. He had come to Denmark in an attempt to alert the Danish government to the carnage in Burma, invited by the Danish Burma Committee. No one but the committee bothered to listen to Michael Aris.
I am burdening my friends with all of this, as I see the writings on the wall on an early Tuesday morning in Hanoi. Honestly, the latest news from Burma kept me up much of the night. I am hearing long forgotten Burmese voices, as foreigners are scrambling out of Burma once again. A friend in Rangoon just messaged me a screen shot to show me, how his internet is going down. The Darkness is coming back.
In the short run, I am sure we will see a bit of uproar in the media and elsewhere, as the situation gets worse now in Burma. The generals might be a little cautious, until the world’s attention turns elsewhere due to other calamities.
I hope I am wrong, but I fear that I am right: Once the darkness engulfs Burma again, the killings will be systematic and on a much larger scale, as we have seen before.
The Tatmadaw will do so, because they know it works.
How her grandfather’s furniture workshop and years of global encounters have inspired the amazing works of Dutch artist Petra de Vree. In recent years, Vietnam has been her focus.
The first thing you would notice in Petra de Vree’s living room is the incredibly beautiful dining table, big enough to accommodate 12 people. The table is in massive wood and looks like it weighs half a ton. She designed it herself during her years in Bolivia.
“The carpenters had a Caoba tree brought directly from the forest, a tree big enough to cut a 14 feet piece of wood,” says Petra.
The texture and smell of fresh wood in processing has played an important role in her creative efforts since her childhood in a small, pittoresk village in the Netherlands.
“My grandfather was a furniture maker and my father a carpenter, and early on I started making things out of leftovers in their workshop. At the same time, I often went with my father to pick vegetables, getting the feeling of soil in my hands. This led me into the magic of clay.”
Petra does not work with just any clay. She prefers the black clay of her own country.
“When we left for Bangladesh in 2014, I brought 600 kilos of Dutch clay with me, and the remaining clay moved on with us, when we moved to Hanoi in 2017. I still have enough for a year or two.”
Petra’s unique clay sculptures has indeed resonated around the world, wherever she has lived and worked as an artist. Her works are clearly inspired by the local scene, be it Ghana, Bolivia, Nepal, Guatemala, Bangladesh or most recently Vietnam.
Petra’s husband is a biologist and an anthropologist with a long career in Dutch development assistance programmes around the world for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Along their way through the world, she has set up her own space as a professional artist.
Lady of the Lamps
“In Ghana the called me ‘The Lady of the Lamps’, because I started a lamp production in cooperation with the local blacksmith,” says Petra with a grin.
In Bangladesh, they made this fascination documentary The Beauty of Clay , where you can learn more about her works.
Just a few weeks ago, Petra’s works were exhibited at Hanoi Studio Gallery. A sculpture, titled ‘Da Song’ (Vietnamese for Living Rock) struck me immediately as perfect addition to my own modest art collection. The asymmetric and rough features are obviously inspired by Halong Bay, topped off with the fine features of a human face. Inevitably, the ‘Da Song’ moved in with me yesterday, now sharing my magnificent view of the Red River.
Female strength and beauty are recurrent themes in Petra’s works throughout her career:
“Born between two boys I liked the kind of games they were playing, or other things they were doing, so I played with them. But if they gave me a certain roll because of being a girl I felt the injustice of not being a boy. Deep inside I knew I would be capable to do the same as them or what was expected from them. Nowadays I like to show with my sculptures the talents of women. It makes me really happy to see the younger female generations, women like Jacinda Ardern and Amanda Gorman, taking their space and being a positive inspiration for girls.”
In Hanoi, Petra has also started her own art courses in her To Ngoc Van studio. Some 20 students are learning how to cope with the mysteries of ceramics. From the works, I saw there, including a nicely crafted dragon, it looks like Petra will leave another living legacy behind here, when she and her husband move on to their next destination.
– DET KRÆVER IKKE DET STORE TALENT AT OPSPORE ULOVLIGHEDER. DET GÆLDER OM AT AFSLØRE DE LOVLIGE URIMELIGHEDER.
Sådan lød en af de centrale journalistiske ambitioner, som jeg og andre unge journalister fik venligt, men bestemt terpet ind af vores læremester Jørgen Flindt Pedersen, som døde i dag 80 år gammel.
Det var en meget stor dag, da Jørgen ringede til mig i maj 1988: “Det er en bedrift, at du har skrevet en nuanceret bog om Egon Weidekamp. Vi har lige mistet Lasse Ellegaard. Kunne du ikke tænke dig at træde i hans sted?”
Jeg revnede af stolthed den dag og tilgav Jørgen det fuldt og helt, da jeg senere fandt ud, at vi var hele tre journalister, der blev hyret til i fællesskab at fylde Fyrtårnet Ellegaards journalistiske vandrestøvler ud.
Det blev nogle fantastiske år på Det Fri Aktuelt under Jørgens utrættelige journalistiske indpiskning. Han havde meget svært ved at holde sig til sin egen jobbeskrivelse som Chefredaktør.
Han ville være med selv på de dagsorden-sættende historier. Jeg husker en dag, hvor jorden for alvor var begyndt at brænde under fødderne på finansmanden Klaus Riskær Pedersen, som på et tidspunkt havde arbejdet som researcher for Jørgen i DR. Med Jørgens hjælp fik jeg en interview-aftale med den belejrede Riskær i hans herskabslejlighed dør om dør med Amalienborg. I sidste øjeblik stod Jørgen ved mit skrivebord med et: “Har du noget imod at jeg tager med?”
Min rolle blev i praksis at tage noter og skrive artikel-udkastet, og det blev selvfølgelig et af de bedste interviews jeg nogensinde har haft en aktie i. Et andet typisk Jørgen-øjeblik kom, da han modstræbende bevilgede mig en reportage-rejse for at besøge alle borgerkrigens parter i Cambodia. “Det er en rigtigt godt koncept du har lavet, jeg ville bare ønske det var mig selv, der skulle afsted,” sagde han – og mente det.
Mennesket Jørgen kom jeg for alvor til at mærke, da jeg knækkede sammen efter nogle barske oplevelser i journalistikkens tjeneste og blev sygemeldt. Et par dage senere lå der et håndskrevet brev postkassen. Jørgen fortalte, hvordan han selv var brudt sammen med et angstanfald på Storebæltsfærgen og var bogstaveligt talt blevet samlet op fra gulvet af folketingsmedlem Birte Weiss, som tilfældigvis var med samme færge. “Siden da har jeg altid gået rundt med stesolider i lommen, og det skal man ikke skamme sig over,” skrev han.
Et stærkt vemodigt minde er Jørgens tale ved redaktionschef Rolf Gecklers begravelse. Rolf var ikke fyldt 35, da han tabte kampen mod kræften. Jørgens farvel til Rolf var noget af det mest ubærligt smukke, jeg har hørt.
Vore veje skiltes, da Jørgen blev direktør på TV2, og jeg selv kort efter forlod journalistikken til fordel for Udenrigsministeriet. Der gik næsten 20 år, før vi blev genforenet i Hanoi, hvor han og Birgitte boede hos mig. Jørgen medbragte et eksemplar af sine erindringer ‘Hjerteblod’ med en dedikation, som gjorde mig lige så kisteglad som dengang med Ellegaard. Jeg sidder og bladrer i den nu, mens tårerne triller mere end en anelse.
Under Jørgens første besøg herude arrangerede vi en aften for herboende danskere, hvor Jørgen fortalte om sine oplevelser, da han dækkede Vietnam-krigen for TV-Avisen. Han tryllebandt en fyldt sal inde på Hilton-hotellet. Jeg havde også Jørgen og Birgitte med på min ‘Hanoi History Mystery Tour’, og han kvitterede året efter med en magisk rundvisning i sit elskede Kerteminde.
Det var også ved den lejlighed, at Jørgen kom med forslaget om, at vi sammen skulle lave den ultimative dokumentar om de infame langtids-følger af ‘Agent Orange’, som det amerikanske luftvåben sprøjtede ud over Vietnam. Jørgen havde allerede spottet hovedpersonen: 20-årige Hoan, der var født uden ben og med en arm. Hun havde skrevet til præsident Obama og bedt om hjælp på vegne af hundrede tusinder vietnamesiske ofre. Jørgen havde synopsen i hovedet, og få måneder senere var han og Birgitte tilbage i Hanoi.
Vi diskuterede projektet videre i detaljer, mens han lige lavede en dokumentar-udsendelse om en dansk, pensioneret lærer der knoklede som frivillig på et provinshospital i Bao Loc. På den sidste dag i Hanoi, gav han mig en liste at arbejde videre med. “Vi ses snart igen,” sagde han. Men det gjorde vi ikke. Nogle få måneder senere fik jeg den triste meddelelse om hans slagtilfælde. Endnu tristere er det at vide, at Jørgen nu er helt væk.