HOW TINY LAOS GAVE BIRTH TO CIA’s GLOBAL KILLING MACHINE

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The cast of characters could have been straight out of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

  • The highly skilled ’old Asia hand’ and intelligence operative who hatches a great plan to win a war against the forces of evil – ending up loosing the war and his self respect in the process.
  • The local guerilla hero who turns into a ruthless despot, sacrificing thousands and thousands of his own people in the process.
  • The intoxicated ex-marine who decorates himself with cut-off enemy ears and put their heads on spikes to impress his local followers.
  • The megalomanic US ambassador who sidetracks the generals and insists on personally managing a secret war, then lies to Congress and gets away it.
  • The President who expands this illegal war into History’s most violent rain of death over one of the world’s smallest and most backward countries.
  • The hundreds of thousands innocent people who get killed or wounded in the process.

Tragically, these are all real life characters from the all too real world, as portrayed in US journalist cum historian Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest dig-in piece A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA.

This is not the first time Kurlantzick digs into the darker CIA secrets.

In The ideal Man – the tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war, Kurlantzick put forward a solid attempt to uncloud the decades long mystery of former intelligence agent and precious silk manufacturer Thompson’s legendary life and sudden disapperance during a morning jungle hike.

In the book about Thompson, Kurlantzick disclosed fascinating details about the unfortunate symbiosis of arrogance and ignorance in CIA corporate management, when it came to the complex realities of SE Asia.

However, Kurtlantzick ended up with more questions than answers for obvious reasons, given the thick clouds of secrecy regarding the Thompson’s repeated showdowns with his former masters and his later mysterious disappearance.

Bombed every nine minutes

In Kurlantzicks new book on CIA’s decade long secret war in Laos, he does not leave a stone unturned in this compelling and scary documentation on, how the war in Laos turned the relatively marginal and small-budget Office Of Strategic Services (OSS) into the CIA, in turn to become the world’s biggest killing machine, commanding a hundred thousand paramilitary experts and guerillas in Laos – and Air America the biggest air fleet in the world as well.

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More than 80 million unexploded bombs are left in Laos. Visitors are advised to stay on the cleared paths on the vast Plain of Jars.

The numbers are staggering: Laos was bombed by CIA operated airstrikes every nine minutes for a decade, until it all ended with the US withdrawal from the SE Asia battlefields. 850.000 bombing missions were carried out over Lao territory. 20 tons per capita.

Ever since then, tiny Laos holds one undisputed world record – as the most bombed country per capita in the global history of warfare.

There were three reasons for this monstrous act:

  • Repeated futile attempts to disrupt North Vietnamese transport through Lao territory of soldiers and arms to the war zones in Southern Vietnam.
  • Bombing the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces, who were engaged in toppling the Royalist Lao government and at the same time fighting the CIA funded Hmong guerilla army.
  • Unloading US bombers on their return to bases in Thailand, if they had been unable to deliver their payload on designated targets in Vietnam.

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Here is Lath, who guided me around in COPE, a small rehabilitation for UXO-victims in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Five years earlier Lath had picked up one those small anti-personel bombs, exhibited here. The explosion tore off his hands and blinded him for life.

In the process, so-called ‘collateral damage’ – killing of civillians – skyrocketed to enormous proportions.  Several US relief workers in Laos tried to alert congress as well as US media to the rapidly growing, undeclared war in Laos.  Stories did appear now and then in the media, but it never caught real public attention.

It played out the same way in Congress.  The secret bombing campaigns were managed by the CIA with the involvement of several US ambassadors.  One of the esteemed diplomats, ambassador William Sullivan, went as far as to actually taking over the management of the war effort, sidelining the CIA chief in Laos.

According to Kurlantzick, Sullivan’s personal involvement did not prevent him from denying the US involvement in the Lao war under oath at congressional hearings.  He got away with it. Upon the completion of his tenure in Laos, Sullivan went on to become one of  Secretary of State, Henry Kissingers trusted advisors on the war efforts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

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COPE rehabilitation center in Vientiane.

The devastating consequences of the Lao bombings  have lingered on for decades. Still today, Laotians are being killed and maimed by UXO’s – unexploded bombs. An estimated 80 million of the small anti-personnel bombs are believed to be scattered all over the country. They are still taking their toll, mostly on unsuspecting children, who picks them up as toys.

President Obama pledged USD 100 mio. in support to UXO-clearance during his visit to Laos in 2016 – the first ever of a US president.  Certainly a nice gesture, but a very small drop in the ocean.

The bigger, ugly picture

Even though the human suffering in Laos  is a story, which deserves to be told again and again, the bigger perspective in Kurlantzicks book is an even more disturbing part:

The war in Laos dramatically changed the CIA from a mere intelligence agency with a very limited budget to a virtual killing machine with enormous resources – a machine that has been launched with sketchy justifications again and again ever since – with only few requirements of public or political accountability – in virtually every corner of the world.

The strike against Allende’s Chile, The Iran-Contra scandal, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan – you can add to the list yourself.  Over and over again the same denials or sketchy justifications of the undeniable.  The occasional public scandals have not put much limitation to the defacto autonomy of the CIA.

These days, any collateral damage can probably be explained away by a reference to the global war against islamic extremism.  The members of the different oversight committees in Congress and the Senate have always been sensitive to being exposed as naive or – even worse – being “sympathetic with the enemy”.

With CIA’s track record in Laos and beyond, it is very disturbing indeed – not least with the mindset of those elitist individuals who may exert some direction on this organization, whose operations are mostly  beyond parliamentary control or public insight – like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was very much in charge along with President Nixon during the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

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Kissinger and Nixon both denied consistently that the US waged a secret war in Laos.

“The Laos thing”

Kissinger probably never lost a minute’s sleep over the human suffering he unleashed, while working for bigger goals. When he was confronted with the huge civilian casualties on the Plain of Jars, where thousands of families with a 700 year history were wiped out: “You mean, the Laos thing,” Kissinger responded and  dismissed the tragedy as a minor issue.

Kissinger did have a case, if you look at proportions. ‘Only’ some 800 CIA operatives and contractors were killed in Laos, and Lao casualties were probably only close to a million. In neighboring Vietnam more than 58.000 Americans laid down their lives along with an estimated 4 million Vietnamese casualties.

Even though the US intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was a failure with huge consequences for millions of people, including US citizens, it may be argued that it all happened out of the best and loftiest intentions – to save the world from Communism.

It also a fact that it never became a personal failure for the individuals who managed the ‘Laos Thing’.  Kurlantzick documents how the Laos war was internally evaluated as a CIA success story.

Internal CIA assessments argued that the war in Vietnam would have been lost years earlier, if the CIA had not managed to tie down an estimated 70.000 North Vietnamese elite troops in a ground war in Laos with the ferocious Hmong guerillas, funded by the CIA and led by Van Pao, the legendary war lord, who later was evacuated to USA along with his surviving guerillas and their families.  According to the CIA rationale the incessant bombings were essential support to the war on the ground.

As a consequence of this ‘succes story’ Laos became a career platform for several CIA senior operatives, who then went on to prominent corporate positions at Langley or as station chiefs around the globe, where they continued a vast number of activities, often of a paramilitary nature.

Kurlantzick names the bastards in great detail.

He deserves great praise for bringing the implications of ‘the Great War in Laos’ to the public’s attention.

Joshua Kurlantzick: A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA. 323 pg. Simon&Schuster.

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THE SOE SYNDROME IN VIETNAM

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I hand over my blog today to the Thanh Nhien newspaper, lashing out against the State Owned Enterprises in today’s top story. The story is written by the Bloomberg Hanoi office. 
 
Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises were once its biggest employers, the largest revenue earners, the main growth drivers. Now, in criticism rarely seen since the nation was unified 40 years ago, their dominance in the economy is being debated.
Dissatisfaction with state companies has been simmering in recent years, particularly after the global financial crisis when they were blamed for amassing piles of bad debt that crimped lending. As the government tries to spur economic growth, lawmakers are pressing for a rethink of these firms and greater support for private-sector businesses, instead.
“We need to change our mindset on the concept of state enterprises,” said Tran Du Lich, a member of the National Assembly economic committee and a lawmaker. “The government needs to stop giving preference to state companies and create a more balanced policy for all sectors in the economy.”
The view that the state sector should be taken down in influence is gaining currency decades after the “Doi Moi” reforms of 1986 brought market-oriented change to Vietnam. While Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is aiming for record share sales this year, a leadership transition in 2016 limits the possibility of a complete overhaul of the inefficient and sometimes corrupt state companies that have held back an economy forecast to be among the fastest growing in the region.
State companies’ contribution to Vietnam’s gross domestic product fell to less than a third last year from about 56 percent before the reforms, while the private sector contributed 43 percent to GDP last year, data from the statistics department showed. SOEs also had only about 10 percent of the total workforce in 2014, while the private sector had 86 percent.
Leading role
The government has come under increasing pressure to overhaul the system after state-owned Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group, now renamed Shipbuilding Industry Corp., defaulted on a $600 million offshore loan in 2010, prompting concern the country’s banking system may collapse. Two former executives at Vietnam National Shipping Lines were sentenced to death in 2013 for embezzlement.
The parliament in 2013 considered a revision to the constitution to remove language stipulating that the state sector will have the “leading role” in the economy. Lawmakers eventually adopted a watered down version that affirmed their dominant position to protect workers’ welfare, they said then.
While the number of state companies has more than halved to about 5,600 now from 12,000 in 1990, they still take up almost half of public investment, tie up 60 percent of bank lending and make up more than half the nation’s bad debt.
“State enterprises are no longer competent enough to play the key role in the economy,” said Le Dang Doanh, an economist and former government adviser in Hanoi. “They use up a lot of resources, but their contribution is not in proportion. The government must encourage private enterprises more for the sake of the economy.”
Limited resources
Efforts to boost the private sector have yielded mixed results: while foreign investment into Vietnam has surged in recent years, it is directed primarily at export-focused makers of apparel, shoes and electronics. Success elsewhere has been limited, in contrast to the global ascent of Chinese companies including mobile phone maker Xiaomi Corp. and e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. that also circumvented a system favoring state enterprises.
In Vietnam, government support for private companies is “negligible and inconsistent,” and they face many challenges including limited financial resources as most banks favour state firms, said Hoang Van Dung, vice chairman of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hanoi.
Very reluctant
Despite the growing resentment of SOEs, there may be little political will to alter the landscape significantly, with a leadership transition looming next year, said Christian Lewis, Asia analyst at Eurasia Group in New York.
“Politicians will be very reluctant to challenge the wealthy and powerful vested interests in the state-owned sector at a time when they need financial backers and backroom influence,” Lewis said. While more companies are being partially privatized, the volume of state ownership is not seeing a precipitous drop, “indicating that the government is not willing to give much ground on ownership and management questions,” he said.
Six of the top 10 companies by market capitalization on the benchmark VN Index are still partly state-owned, compared with four out of five in 2000 when the index was established with five stocks.
Their continued dominance “is evidence that the government doesn’t want to loosen its grip on SOEs,” said Nguyen Dinh Cung, head of the planning and investment ministry’s Central Institute for Economic Management in Hanoi. “The state sector is still considered as key for the economy. That view must be changed since this has affected policy making and left the private sector at a huge disadvantage.”

AGENT ORANGE: A LETTER FOR OBAMA

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Hoan was born with one hand and missing both lower legs. One out of thousands of 2nd generation Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

In 1975, peace finally arrived in Vietnam. A long and bloody war came to an end, but not for all. Still today, thousands of Vietnamese, American and allied soldiers – and their families – suffer from Agent Orange exposure. The deadliest toxic ever invented by man.

Hoan giggles:

”It was a coincidence which gave me the idea to write a letter to the President of the United States. I googled him one day and stumbled on a public letter, which he had written to his daughters during his election campaign. He said that he had entered politics to make the world a better place for his daughters – actually all daughters on this earth.

So I thought I would tell him: “I am right here in Vietnam. We are a lot of daughters who could use your help.”

Hoan never got a reply from the White House.

“I don’t mind. I know he is very busy”, Hoan says with another burst of shy laughter, tapping the table with the fingers of her one hand which  she was born with some 20 years ago in Da Lat.

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Hoan wrote to Obama. She has yet to hear from President of the United States.

Hoan is one of more than 400.000 Vietnamese, who have been officially registered as 2nd generation Agent Orange Victims in Vietnam. Agent Orange was a dioxin contaminated defoliant used massively by the US Army and Airforce during the war in Vietnam.

Approximately 72 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed over Southern and Central Vietnam in the years 1962-1971. The exposure to Agent Orange is widely believed to have caused a continued disaster for thousands of Vietnamese as well as US and Allied soldiers, who fought in the contaminated areas.

In the US alone more than 40.000 Vietnam veterans claim that they and their families are victims of dioxin related diseases.  Dioxin, or 2,3,7,8 Tetrachlorodbenzodioxin, is thought to be the strongest ever synthetic poison, so far developed.

For more than 50 years, scientific researchers have suspected that dioxin may cause a broad range of cancers, other very serious diseases and birth defects. Since 1978, dioxin contaminated pesticides have been banned in the US, but in previous years they have been used extensively around the globe for agricultural as well as military purposes.

In Vietnam they were used by the US forces in an unprecedented scale and with  the strongest concentrations ever.  This went on for years in spite of strong concerns, voiced by the scientists who had developed the pesticides for use on a much more limited scale.

The never ending story

Agent Orange was also the reason that this observer came to Vietnam as a young journalist more than 30 years ago. Other reporters from all over the world have filed thousands of stories in the past 4 or 5 decades about Agent Orange. Even though the faces of the victims are different, the stories are the same. To me this is the most scary part: It just goes on and on. Most recently the Danish anthropologist Tine Gammeltoft published the book ‘Haunting Images’,  the disturbing result of a major study among pregnant Vietnamese women and the nationwide fear of having children with birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange.

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Hoan is sharing a room with other victims at the To Do hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.

In 2010, I set out to get a wider picture of the disastrous consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam. What you are reading here  is the outcome of 5 years of visits all over Vietnam to cities and villages, which are still affected. The information in this blog also draws on several hundred reports and assessments by others. (If you google ‘Agent Orange’ you will get a very good idea of the enormous amount of information.)

Here come the voices of the victims, as I heard them.

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Hoan has passed a BA in English. Her dream is to become a doctor, like her foster mother.

We return to Hoan at her hospital ward in Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam until 30 April 1975.

Hoan always seem to be more than happy to receive visitors at her ward in the Tu Do hospital.

“Please come up with me to see our room. It is much better now than the last time you came to see me.” Hoan leads the way up the stairs to the 3rd floor with an impressive speed.

Her only hand takes a strong grip on the rail and her two leg stumps does the rest of the job pushing her body upwards as fast as we can climb the stairs on our legs.

“I never use the elevator. I try to do a lot exercise to stay healthy. My dream is to become a doctor like my foster mother,” Hoan says.

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Hoan move up the stairs as fast as anybody in spite of her handicap.

She is sharing the room with 11 other victims, some of them appears to be just a few years old. Here and there, a twisted arm or leg sticks out through the bed rails looking like branches on a naked tree. Some faces are heavily disfigured, several of the patients are obviously severely retarded.

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Tu Do hospital has been completely renovated, but the suffering remains as bad as ever.

The victims are not very different from the ones I met more than 30 years ago, when I first came to meet Hoan’s foster mother, the legendary Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong.

In those days the Tu Do Hospital was a rundown 3rd world institutition of the worst kind, with extremely poor facilities.

A hopeless battle

Dr. Phuong was fighting what seemed to be a hopeless battle to save her patients. Many of them were young women brought in from the countryside with strangely abnormal foetus, developing in their uterus, often along with malevolent tumours killing the mother and the baby.

Some of the babies made it into this world. One of them, Hoang Kim from Tay Ninh, I have never been able to erase from my memory. Born without eyes, tears of pain from a kidney disorder were running from her empty eye sockets. Her screams  haunted me for years.

Dr. Phuong and her colleagues did not have much to offer except words of comfort to the young patients, most of them sharing beds. The privilege of a solitary bed was reserved for those, who had violent spasms of pain or only a short time left to live.

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A dying patient in Tu Do hospital, 1984. Dr Phuong inserted. (Photo: Ole Johnny Sørensen).

We walked with Dr. Phuong in a stench of fear and death in wards with no aircondition and not a wind to clear up the air in there. She was like an Asian replica of Florence Nightingale walking from bed to bed, now and then stopping at length, quietly caressing the hand of a crying patient.

Next, she showed us her collection of ‘evidence’: Dozens of  foetus in big jars with the most unbelievable malformations.  Small monsters swimming in yellowish fluid. An unbearable sight of the kind which stays with you forever.

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Dr. Phuong ‘s collection of evidence in 1984. (Photo: Ole Johnny Sørensen)

More than 30 years later, the Tu Do hospital has been completely renovated. The wards are air-conditioned, the beds and equipment are relatively new, and the medicine supply has improved greatly. But the suffering seems to be the same as before.

The impossible dream

Hoan is an exception to the general misery of the Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

She seems to accept her predicament, never uttering a word of complaint. She is full of energy and as lively as any young Vietnamese woman with that thirst for knowledge, which is so common among the new generation of Vietnamese.

”I am studying English very hard. I have really used the dictionary, you brought me the last time. When I am done with my BA in English, I will apply for the medical university,” Hoan says, her eyes sparkling with anticipation of a dream to come true.

Later the same afternoon I am sitting in her foster mother’s living room.

“Hoan will never become a doctor.  Her health is not good at all, and with her handicaps no hospital would ever accept her, if she did manage to complete medical school,” Dr. Phuong states drily.

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Doctor Phuong has retired from the hospital and now a full time lobbyist for Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims.

Now in her seventies, dr. Phuong has retired from the hospital,  and she does look like a grandmother in her sofa with a stuffed tiger, for her own grandchildren to play with on their visits. But  Dr. Phuong is in fact very busy this afternoon, preparing her testimony at a congressional hearing in Washington DC.

She bears no resentment against Americans.

”We have many American friends these days. Doctors, veterans and their relatives, congress men and NGO activists. They support us a lot. I see no reason to blame the Americans. The responsibility for this disaster lies with a few senior decision makers, and most of them are gone a long time ago,”Phuong says.

Her words prompt the big WHY – what on earth made the US unleash this nightmare for generations to come – even victimising the American GI’s, who fought in Vietnam?

The answer lies in the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

Kennedy: Tell me how to win this war

It is 1961, and the situation is going from bad to worse in Vietnam. Increasingly alarming reports about Communist progress have reached the White House. The US protegé, South Vietnam’s autocratic President Diem has not achieved much besides turning his government into a family affair.

Diem’s basic disadvantage is being a devout catholic with ties to the former French colonial regime. He has no chance of getting popular support in a country, where 95% of the population are buddhist with a strong element of nationalism. Diem is seen as a puppet of foreign powers with ulterior motives.

Diem’s brother Nhu is in charge of the entire security apparatus, and he uses it without hesitance in suppressing any kind of  opposition to Diem’s rule. His wife ‘Madame Nhu’ acts as Vietnam’s First Lady to support the unmarried President.

When Buddhist monks start burning themselves in the streets of Saigon, Madame Nhu is interviewed  by US networks stating on camera that she does not care about ‘these monks barbecuing themselves’.

As suppression in the South becomes even harder,  the opposition spreads far beyond Diem’s communist foes.

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President Diem’s government was a family affair, with his sister-in-law Madame Nhu playing the role as First Lady, seen here while inaugurating a training course for female self defence groups. Her husband, Nhu, controlled the security forces during President Diem’s rule. Diem and his brother were murdered during a military coup on 2 November 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

Kennedy has also seen reports from his advisors on the ground about the poor morale in the South Vietnamese army. Many officers appear to be notoriously corrupt, and their subordinates seem to be a very poor match for the determined Viet Cong guerrillas.

Some CIA analysts on the ground in Vietnam express their concern that South Vietnam might collapse. Kennedy needs to know what it takes to win the war in Vietnam and puts together a team of special advisors, headed by his brother Robert F. Kennedy and the highly regarded general, Maxwell Taylor, who is also the President’s top military advisor.

The team produces an extensive catalogue of proposals to turn the events in Vietnam. Among them is a plan to prevent the guerillas from hiding in South Vietnam’s dense tripple canopy forests and at the same time deny them food supply.

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With president Kennedy’s approval Operation Ranchhand takes off in early 1962. During the next decade these C-123 planes carry out almost 20.000 spraying missions, delivering 72 million liters of Agent Orange, contaminated with extremely high levels of dioxin.

Operation Hades turn into Operation Ranchhand

The team highlights how the British successfully uncovered the hide-outs of the communist guerillas in Malaya with an extensive defoliation campaign in the 1950’ies.  Pentagon affiliated scientists are already involved in a classified research programme, code named ‘Operation Hades’,  a reference to the realm of the dead in Greek mythology.

In late 1961, president Kennedy approves the defoliation programme under the much less controversial code name ‘Operation Ranchhand’.  The four targets are a matter of record.

  • To defoliate the dense jungle areas where the guerilla bases are believed to be located in Southern and Central Vietnam;
  • To defoliate river banks and road sides to reduce the risk of ambush;
  • To defoliate the perimeters of the American bases to avoid Viet Cong commando attacks;
  • To destroy rice fields and other crops, where ever the farmers are believed to supply the enemy with food.

In Vietnam, the pesticides become known as Agent Orange, simply because the barrels are marked with an orange color code.

According to numerous statements from veterans, Agent Orange was considered a relatively harmless weed killer.

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Agent Orange riverside spraying from a US patrol boat in the Mekong Delta.

GI’s wearing Agent Orange canisters on their bare backs, spraying without face masks, were a common sight on the base perimeters.  Former pilots and ground personel have testified that they did not receive any kind of safety instructions in handling the pesticides.

“We often flew spraying missions at very low altitudes with open windows because of the intolerable heat, becoming totally drenched with the stuff. On the ground you could smell the Ranch Hands from a very long distance,” pilot Charles Hubbs stated to his lawyers in one of the early class action law suits against the producers of Agent Orange, primarily Dow Chemicals and Monsanto.

As the spraying missions accelerated with the war, so did reports about massive environmental destruction and acute poisoning cases in the target areas. At one point, a CBS war correspondent, Dan Rather was asked to look into the controversy.

Rather went to interview Ranch Hand commander Ralph Dresser, who volunteered to take a sip of Agent Orange straight from the barrel.

“I grant you the stuff tastes bad, but it is harmless to humans,” Dresser supposedly said to the baffled journalist.

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“I died in Vietnam without knowing it,” former pilot Paul Reutershan stated in one of his last interviews. His ordeal and death from liver cancer became a symbol of the US veterans in their struggle to be recognised as victims of Agent Orange.

As the war escalated, the spraying missions further intensified moving beyond Vietnam’s borders into Laos and Cambodia, following the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail – the military supply lines from the North to the South. The level of dioxin was also increased to optimise the efficiency of the spraying.

In 1971, Operation Ranch Hand was finally aborted after almost 20.000 spraying missions in Vietnam. The controversy in the US continued to grow with the increasing number of veterans who attributed very serious health effects to their exposure to Agent Orange.

“I died in Vietnam without knowing it,” former pilot Paul Reutershan said in one of his last interviews before dying from a rare type of liver cancer.

He became a symbol of the US veterans in their struggle to be recognised as victims of Agent Orange. Most recently, in 2014, flight crews that never set foot in Vietnam, also claim to have been exposed at dangerous levels, now claiming support for treatment and compensation for disabilities.

They have been serving for years in the old C-123 planes, which apparently never were cleaned properly after the spraying missions in Vietnam. Blood and tissue tests have reportedly confirmed traces of dioxin in the crews.

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Northern Thai Binh displays rural beauty, but the province is also believed to be the home for thousands of 2nd generation Agent Orange victims.

The boys from the North

The disastrous consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam stretch far beyond the sprayed areas in the South. At first, it might be hard to imagine during the idyllic 100 km day trip from Hanoi to Thai Binh province.

It is indeed Postcard Vietnam –  a beautiful ride through endless rice fields, complete with pretty farm girls on bicycles, lazy water buffaloes, and expanded fishing nets drying and glowing like gold in the afternoon sun.

Thai Binh and the other Northern provinces were never sprayed during the war, but still the effects of Agent Orange appear to be devastating. Thai Binh is known to be the province which sent most soldiers to fight in the South. Thousands and thousands fought in the contaminated areas for years, many went to war as teenagers on both sides of the war.

While 2-3 million Vietnamese are believed to have been killed in the war, thousands returned to their families. Apparently, Agent Orange travelled home with them.

In the years after the war Vietnamese doctors noted a dramatic increase in rare cancers and other serious ailments among the returning soldiers. Then came an equally dramatic increase in miscarriages and uncanny birth defects. As of today, more than 5.000 Agent Orange victims are registered in Thai Binh. Similar numbers are claimed in Nam Dinh, Thai Nguyen and Hai Duong provinces.

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Hang (35) lives her life in a small shed next to the family house in Thai Binh. Her parents seldom take her out. She suffers from chloracne, a painful skin disease and is severely retarded.

In a Thai Binh village, we encounter Hang (35), datter of a veteran from the war in the South. She is severely retarded and suffers from chloracne, an extremely painful skin disease, which makes her legs look like open wounds from her feet to the hip. Chloracne is a rare condition, but also very common among US veterans from the war.

Hang’s family keeps her in small shed most of the time next to their house.

“The neighbours do not like to see her. They see her as an omen of bad luck, they seem to be afraid that her sufferings can be passed on to them,” Hang´s mother says with tears running during most of the interview.

A few kilometers away, we encounter Gam (33).

She is lying on the ground growling like an animal –  retarded, blind and very dirty.

“Don’t come to close to her. She can be very agressive. She does not understand human language. We never let her in the house anymore. My husband is very week and afraid of her,” Gam’s mother says.

In the following days we meet the same kind of misery – disease, loneliness, poverty and very little support from the local community.

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Gam is living like a wild animal outside the family house. She can be very agressive, and her sick father is afraid of her.

 The time bomb in Da Nang

A visit to Da Nang in central Vietnam is no less disturbing.

Da Nang was home to the biggest US airbase during the war. Enormous amounts of Agent Orange were stored here for the spraying missions. Thousands of used barrels were left rusting here, with the remaining contents seaping into the ground.

In present day, environmental experts from Canadian Hatfield Consultants have documented dioxin levels of 365.000 ppt (parts per trillion) –  365 times the safety level in the US. This time bomb has been there next to a densely populated area for at least four decades.

After 10 years of preliminary investigations followed by negotiations between the US and Vietnam, a project has been initiated to remove 200.000 m3 of contaminated soil with an estimated cost of more than USD 40 million.

Hatfield consultants have also identified two other heavily contaminated areas, which served as supply bases for the Ranch Hand missions: The former Bien Hoa air base (262 times over the safety limit) and the former Phu Cat base (266 over the safety limit). In addition, some 20 other, presumably less serious ’dioxin hotspots’ await further investigation, if funding can be obtained.

So far, the US government has only granted funds to clean up the former base in Da Nang. It is labelled an environment project, and compensation to victims is not included.

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Toan (right) has a dream to become a graphics designer. He and his younger brother Tan get weaker and weaker due to the gradual disintegration of their bone structure.

According to the local chapter of VAVA (the national association for Agent Orange victims) the dioxin contamination is taking its toll. They suggest we visit Toan (18) and his younger brother, Tan.

The walls in their one room house are decorated with fading family photos and school achievement certificates, obtained by the two boys, before they became too weak to follow classes properly in the local school. Both of them suffer from an irreversible detoriation of their bone structures, which emerged a few years ago.

The youngest brother is the weakest one, now barely able to brush his teeth by himself. Toan’s mom tells us about her son’s hopeless dream to become a graphics designer.

Every morning she carries him out to her motorbike and brings him to school.

“He cannot sit for long, so they allow him to lie down during the lessons. The teachers have asked me, why I keep bringing him there. It’s what keeps him alive,” Toan’s mother says.

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Nhan is the size of a toddler, but his 10 years old. His dead twin sister has her place at the family altar.

In another house we meet a little boy, Nhan, sitting on the floor. He looks like he is in his first year, but we are told that he is 10 years old. A picture of a clone is on the family altar – his dead twin sister.

A few hours later, we visit Trinh, severely retarded and clutching a barbie doll with strangely deformed hands, with the looks of animal claws.  Her mom is distracted several times during the interview trying to take care of Trinh’s younger brother, paralysed from birth and continuously suffering from painful spasms.

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Trinh with her barbie doll.

Next, we are with Phung and her paralysed, retarded daughters, 18 and 15 years of age.

“What will happen to them, when my husband and I are gone. Who will take care of them,” Phung asks.

Her husband tells us that she has developed a severe depression over the years from exhaustion and fear of the future.

The poorest of the poor

There are more stories to tell – of even deeper misery – in the Central Highlands of Vietnam among the marginalised ethnic minorities.  The Hmong’s, the Bana’s, the Flower Thais and the Black Thais all  have one thing in common: For centuries they have been at odds with the Kinhs, the vast majority of Vietnam’s population.

This historic rivalry for land and ressources in Vietnam were exploited by French as well as US intelligence in the wars against the Vietnamese. Ethnic minorities served as very important recruitment pools for the the foreign war effort in Vietnam, and even in peace time there is a strong undercurrent of mutual distrust between the Kinh and the minorities.

The relationship is even more tense between the Kinh’s and the minorities, who converted to catholic church during French colonial rule.

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The ethnic minorities are the poorest of the poor in Vietnam.

Open ethnic conflicts are rare these days, but the differences manifest themselves in the poverty levels. Just an hours drive from the provincial capital of Kontum province in the Central Highlands, the roads turn into trails. Now, homes are primitive bamboo huts without water or electricity.

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Xe Dang and her retarded, blind daughter lives together in a primitive bamboo hut.

In one of the huts, we meet Xe Dang, an old woman who struggles to take care of her blind and retarded daughter.

“You have come with the blessings of God,” she says with a toothless grin, when we hand over a couple of packs with small milk cartons and straws.

In a Bana minority village we are invited to visit Byus (9), who has spent his entire life in bed.  He has an enormously swollen head. His aunt are telling their story between sobs.

“Buy’s father has lost his eyesight, and my sister is the only one earning money in the family. She is out now collecting cow dung to sell it to the farmers.”

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Buy’s aunt is taking care of him. His mother is collecting cow dung for selling to the farmers..

A propaganda ploy?

When I give lectures on Agent Orange, I am often asked: “Are you sure that you are not just promoting communist propaganda? Can we really believe these numbers? Some doctors have testified in court proceedings that there is no link between Agent Orange and these sick people.”

Surely, the Agent Orange issue has been used by Hanoi on numerous occasions during the decades, when the US were still seen as an enemy. It is also likely that numbers have been vastly exaggerated in politically biased reports – some have claimed the number of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam to be more than 4 million people.  And yes, several doctors have testified that no scientifically solid evidence has been provided so far of the link between Agent Orange and the human misery among the exposed.

The American Cancer Society has conducted several studies of claims by US veterans and concluded that the evidence is not there. Several court cases against the US Government and the manufacturers of Agent Orange have been dismissed in the US, Korea and Canada.

Hence, the sadness and frustration, which is reflected on websites like this one: http://www.agentorangequiltoftears.com/

The circumstantial evidence is of enormous proportions, starting with the very early alarm bells, coming from the scientist, professor Arthur W. Galston, who developed the dioxin contaminated pesticides in the first place. He voiced his strong concerns publicly on many occasions, after Operation Ranchhand took off. His warnings were ignored, and eventually he turned against the entire war effort in frustration.

Hundreds of indicative findings by doctors and scientists are pointing in the same direction, as Galston did 50 years ago.

In developed countries, the precautions against dioxin exposure of our own citizens clearly indicate that there are very serious reasons to be alarmed.

Today, it is also apparent that the US government and health authorities share the concerns related to Agent Orange, even though they refrain from stating it directly.

Otherwise, the Defence Department would not have established a limited medical aid programme for Vietnam veterans, who are believed to suffer from exposure to Agent Orange. The US government would not have accepted Agent Orange to be on the agenda at the presidential level in the ongoing dialogue between the US and Vietnam. And the new ambassador to Hanoi, Ted Osius would not have highlighted the US assistance to the clean-up in Da Nang in his message on the Embassy website on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of normal relations between the two former enemies.

It has taken decades to move the US to officially address just a few of the issues, related to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

In the meantime, concerned US Citizens have stepped in with massive support in Vietnam. Organisations like the Ford Foundation and East Meets West have done a tremendous effort to assist the victims in Vietnam. The Bill and Melinda Gates Fund have financed a state-of-the-art research laboratory in Hanoi. Several US veteran groups are doing successful aid projects at the village level.

You can find more info about them here:

http://makeagentorangehistory.org/agent-orange-resources/agent-orange-timeline/

Sadly, these initiatives are too limited to be of any real consequence for the thousands of people, still suffering in Vietnam. If you visit the villages in Thai Binh, Hai Duong, Nam Dinh, Kontum or elsewhere in Vietnam, it will surely break your heart.

As a northern veteran, Thang quietly told me:

“I fought for 10 years in the war. When peace came, I destroyed my own family. We have two handicapped children, who cannot take care of themselves. The world is just waiting for us to die.”

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Thang: “The world is waiting for us to die.”

Thomas Bo Pedersen,

Hanoi, April 2015.

Et uddrag på dansk kan læses her:

http://www.b.dk/globalt/agent-orange-og-brevet-til-obama

EFTER SEJREN

FYRRE ÅR EFTER VIETNAM-KRIGENS SLUTNING STÅR LANDET OVERFOR NYE ENORME UDFORDRINGER

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40 år efter Saigon-regimets sammenbrud, markerer Hanoi fortsat sejren massivt med monumenter som denne skrotbunke af nedskudte amerikanske fly.

Den 30. April er det 40 år siden, at den første tank i rækken af nordvietnamesiske larvefødder tog fejl af bykortet over Saigon. Den sovjetisk byggede T54 tank fra den 203. brigade skrumlede videre i den gale retning på vejen mod den sydvietnamesiske præsident ’Big’ Minh’s palads.

Minh selv var blevet indsat en uge forinden, efter den egentlige præsident Nguyen Van Thieu var flygtet over hals og hoved til London – ifølge forlydender med 14 tons guld om bord i flyet.

Så i stedet blev det tank nr. 2, der som den første bragede gennem præsident-paladsets porte. Om bord var en nordvietnamesisk senior-journalist, oberst Bui Tin fra Hærens dagblad. Han blev som den højest rangerende officer skubbet frem i forreste række for at modtage præsidentens kapitulation.

”Jeg vil gerne overdrage Dem magten,” sagde præsidenten til Bui Tin, der bistert bed ham af: ”Det kan De ikke, De kan ikke overdrage noget, som De ikke har,” lød svaret.

Bui Tin selv var dybt bevæget bag den barske mine. Han var draget i krig som purung soldat og deltog i det sidste afgørende slag mod franskmændene i 1954 i Dien Bien Phu-dalen.  For ham var Saigon ikke faldet – den sydvietnamesiske hovedstad var befriet efter 25 år i krig for Bui  Tin’s vedkommende.

Det var med en klukkende latter, at Bui Tin fortalte os historien i Hanoi i 1985, mens han endnu var krigshelt og blandt den håndfuld fra Hanois inderkreds, der talte med vestlige journalister. Bui Tin havde også et par kornede fotos fra det berømte intermezzo i præsidentpaladset, og senere blev selve ordvekslingen da også bekræftet af den sydvietnamesiske præsidents tidligere adjudant, der også var til stede i præsidentens arbejdsværelse.

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“De kan ikke overdrage noget, som De ikke længere har.” Sydvietnams sidste præsident Minh (tv) fik klar besked af Bui Tin i præsidentpaladset den 30. april 1975.

Vi mødte den tidligere adjudant  nogle uger senere i Saigon, hvor han på Folkekomiteens foranledning stillede op som et synligt bevis på, at man viste overbærenhed overfor det tidligere regimes topfolk. Han var sluppet med at tilbringe nogle år på den hårde skolebænk i en af genopdragelses-lejrene, hvor mange af Saigon-regimets embedsmænd var havnet, fordi de ikke havde nået at flygte, inden Hanoi tog magten i hele landet.

Fra helt til forræder

Bui Tins status som krigshelt ændrede sig brat til forræder, da han et par år senere kastede sig ud i et voldsomt opgør med kommunistpartiets ledelse i bogen ’Following Uncle Ho’. Hans påstand var, at partiledelsen under partisekretær Le Duan havde forrådt revolutionens udgangspunkt, ja Onkel Ho selv.

Siden da har Bui Tin levet i eksil i Paris. Når hans gamle fædreland har noget at fejre, er Bui Tin kendt for at dukke op i et af de store internationale vestlige medier med et svidende angreb på Hanoi’s nuværende magthavere. Skulle Bui Tin fare i blækhuset igen, vil det næppe skabe mange krusninger på vandet.

Kun meget få vietnamesere aner, hvem han er. I dag er det kun et mindretal af de 95 millioner vietnamesere, der er gamle nok til at huske det vi kalder Vietnam-krigen. Magthaverne i Hanoi synes at sidde sikrere i sadlen end nogensinde før.

De vietnamesiske eksil-organisationer er stort set ophørt med at eksistere, bortset fra nogle die-hard grupperinger i ’Little Saigon’ (Garden Grove) i det sydlige Californien og i Paris. Selv topfolkene fra det tidigere sydvietnamesiske regime rejser i vore dage uden problemer til Saigon for at fejre det traditionsrige vietnamesiske nytår med slægtninge.

Der er ikke megen klangbund tilbage for de eksilerede, antikommunistiske aktivister at hente i selve Vietnam, selvom forsøgene stadig bliver gjort, ofte gennem kontakt til frustrerede vietnamesiske bloggere her i Vietnam. De får sjældent skrevet mange linjer, før de bliver standset og stillet for en dommer.

I vore dage er der heller ingen hjælp at hente hos de vestlige regeringer, der tidligere støttede eksil-grupperingerne med både penge, logistik og endda våben, når der ellers var nogen, der var naive nok til at kaste sig ud i Rambo-aktioner ind over den vietnamesiske grænse.

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Den røde linje viser, hvordan Kina definerer sine hav-rettigheder til stor utilfredshed ikke bare i Vietnam, men også hos Kinas øvrige små naboer i regionen.

USA er ikke længere blot Vietnams største eksportmarked, men også en uhyre vigtig strategisk allieret i Vietnams forsøg på at holde Den Store Nabo mod nord, Kina, stangen i de skærpede stridigheder om havrettighederne i ’Øst-havet’, som Vietnam kalder Det Sydkinesiske Hav.

I 2014 leverede USA endog inspektions-skibe til Vietnam som gavebistand – tankevækkende i betragtning af, at det faktisk var Hanois påståede angreb på amerikanske flådefartøjer i Tonkin-bugten, der blev brugt som forklaring på landsættelsen i 1965 af de første amerikanske tropper i Da Nang.

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Amerikanske officerer bliver modtaget i Hanoi med fuldt honnør og under drabelige overskrifter i Vietnamesiske medier om en mulig krig med Kina.

Vietnam ifølge Hjortlund

Som min gode ven Preben Hjortlund altid siger med sit nordjyske lune, der stadig er intakt efter næsten 25 år i Vietnam: ”Da jeg kom hertil, kunne Vietnam ikke gøre noget rigtigt i Vestens øjne. Nu kan de ikke gøre noget forkert!”

En herværende vestlig ambassadør er dog ikke helt enig i den betragtning.

“Der foregår skam stadig en kritisk dialog med vietnameserne om bl.a. menneskerettigheds-situationen i Vietnam,”siger han.

Vietnam er forlængst sluppet ud af rollen som paria-stat og betragtes nu som en på alle måder agtværdig partner i det internationale samfund, og ikke mindst som et godt investeringsland og et løfterigt marked for alverdens virksomheder.

Så det vietnamesiske regime – og de 95 millioner vietnamesere – har faktisk en hel del at fejre her i 40-året for Vietnam-krigens slutning. Først og fremmest en gevaldig social og økonomisk fremgang, der har løftet millioner af mennesker ud af den dybeste fattigdom.

Intet andet udviklingsland har som Vietnam formået at reduceret antallet af absolut fattige i FNs definition fra 80% til under 10% – først og fremmest ved egen kraft. Vietnams evne til at til at tiltrække udenlandske investeringer synes umiddelbart ganske imponerende i lyset af den benhårde konkurrence om at tiltrække investorer i det asiatiske vækst-drøn.

De hastigt stigende lønomkostninger – også i Vietnam – skræmmer ikke investorerne helt væk, fordi Vietnam i dag også kan konkurrere på andre investerings-parametre som kvalitet og effektivitet. Mens Japan i dag er den største investor, er USA  i dag Vietnams største eksprtmarked med det samlede EU som en tæt nr. 2.

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Dan-Viet 1-færgen, en af de 16 færger som Danida har finansieret i Mekong-deltaet. Nu afvikler Danmark og mange andre donorer sine bistandsprogrammer, fordi Vietnam med sine økonomiske vækstrater ikke længere har brug for udviklingsbistand.

Trade not aid

Efter 15 år med massiv udviklingsbistand, er de udenlandske donorer i fuld gang med at afvikle deres programmer – fordi Vietnam kan selv på næsten alle områder. ”Trade – not aid” er ikke en kliché i Vietnam – det er selve dagsordenen. Det afspejler sig også i det dansk-vietnamesiske forhold, hvor hvor to årtiers Danida-strategier er lagt endeligt på hylden til fordel for en ny sammenhængende dansk linje, der giver første-prioritet til kommercielt og kulturelt samarbejde.

Tidligere tiders omfattende danske  bistandsprogrammer til en halv milliard kroner om året, er nu reduceret til klima-området. Der er tale om en næsten utrolig udvikling – i hvert fald for os, der oplevede Vietnam i de første årtier efter krigen, hvor det så ud som Hanoi var i fuld gang med at tabe freden.

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Ba Dinh pladsen i det centrale Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh ligger fortsat i mausolæet i baggrunden – betalt og designet af Sovjet i de år, hvor Vietnam var tæt allieret med Sovjet og næsten totalt isoleret fra den vestlige verden.

”Amerikanere uden dollars”

En flyvetur fra Hanoi til Moskva i 1985 står stadig som et lyslevende symbol for mig. Jeg var gået om bord i en nedslidt Aeroflot-maskine, som hostede sig op over den Røde Flods delta sammen nogle hundrede radmagre vietnamesiske gæstearbejdere i plasticsandaler på vej mod Sovjetblokkens stålværker og kulminer som billig arbejdskraft.

Her og der i maskinen klemte nogle store russiske brød sig ned i sæderne på vej hjem til en hårdt tiltrængt orlov fra sliddet som sjakbejser på den gigantiske Thang Long bro og Hoa Binh kraftværket – to monumentale demonstrationsprojekter, der skulle vise broder-solidariteten i den socialistiske lejr.

Det var tydeligt for enhver, at der ikke var mange venlige følelser mellem broderfolkene – heller ikke på dette meget personlige plan i et lille, overfyldt fly. I virkelighedens verden var frustrationerne mange og gensidige. Dengang i 10-året for krigens afslutning var udviklingsprocessen aldrig rigtigt kommet i gang.

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Ris – både før og nu rygraden i Vietnam’s økonomi.

De østeuropæiske venner var som andre før dem forbandede over vietnamesernes evindelige insisteren på selv at træffe de afgørende beslutninger uden indblanding. Vietnameserne på deres side var også skuffede. Godt nok fik titusinder af vietnamesere sig nogle på den tid brugbare uddannelser på tekniske skoler og universiteter i Moskva, Østberlin, Prag og Budapest.

Men vietnameserne så også østblokken tage sig godt betalt for den broderlige bistand ikke bare med billig arbejdskraft, men også med råvarer, ris og alt, hvad det forarmede Vietnam ellers kunne byde til gengæld. Da russerne så samtidig krævede flåde-rettigheder på den gamle amerikanske base i Cam Ranh Bay, ramte det Vietnam der, hvor det gjorde mest ondt.

Frustrationerne blev krystalliseret i et sviende øgenavn til de sovjetiske venner: ”Nguoi my khong co do la” – ”Amerikanere uden dollars”. ”Hvordan skal de nogensinde få et land ud af det her,” tænkte jeg i flyvemaskinen, mens vi krydsede henover Laos, endnu et sønderbombet land i regionen efter USA’s meningsløse krig. Oven på den militære fiasko havde USA stor succes med at videreføre krigen med diplomatiske og økonomiske midler.

Vietnam betalte en høj pris for den militære tilstedeværelse i Cambodia – straffen for opgøret med Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge var en total vestlig blokade, som ramte hårdt, meget hårdt. Nogle kamin-passiarer i ugerne forinden med Vietnams legendariske premierminister Pham Van Dong og udenrigsminister Nguyen Co Thach havde kun bidraget lidt til min forståelse med deres umådeligt venlige overbærenhed overfor en vestlig journalist, der stillede alle de forkerte spørgsmål. Jeg på min side fandt det ufatteligt, at de vietnamesiske militære sejrherrer havde så lidt begreb om at bygge et samfund i fred op.

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Den legendariske vietnamesiske udenrigsminister Nguyen Co Thach i 1984: “USA viderefører krigen mod os med politiske og økonomiske midler efter at have tabt på slagmarken. Og Kina viser igen sit sande ansigt.”

Det er egentlig også tankevækkende, at det i dag er udenrigsminister Co Thach’s egen søn Pham Binh Minh, der sidder i faderens stol og repræsenterer Vietnams pragmatiske diplomatiske balanceakt i den nye verdensorden.

Så sent som den 18. april deltog han som vicepremierminister i det amerikanske handelskammer’s AMCHAM gala-middag i anledning af 20-året for etableringen af diplomatiske forbindelser mellem Washington og Hanoi. Minh afleverede en særdeles imødekommende tale, hvor han fremhævede den vitale økonomiske og strategiske betydning, som USA i dag har for Vietnam.

Den amerikanske ambassadør Ted Osius kvitterede med en tale helt uden hentydninger til amerikanske forbehold i samarbejdet med den tidligere fjende. I stedet udtrykte han helt konkrete forventninger om øget samhandel og flere amerikanske investeringer i Vietnam.  Der faldt også nogle klokke-klare ord om den strategiske betydning, USA tillægger Vietnam i lyset af Kina’s stadigt mere offensive regionale politik.

Miraklet i Vietnam

Efter dette lange historiske svinkeærinde stiller vi straks om til det nye buldrende Vietnam, der med fuld ret har slået omverdenen med beundring. Siden Vietnam med afsæt i Doi Moi-processen sadlede om og gradvist slap de dengang 75 millioner vietnamesere løs i en slags markeds-økonomi, er landet som forvandlet. Vækstrater på 6-7% år ud og år ind, kun overgået af den store nabo mod Nord.

Millioner af nye arbejdspladser er skabt i den private sektor, og de udenlandske investorer er rykket ind i stort tal. Ved årtusindskiftet var de udenlandske investeringer på under 2 mia. USD. I 2009 satte de en foreløbig rekord med 66.7 mia. USD i investerings-tilsagn.

I de senere år er det også væltet hertil med magtens mænd og kvinder, der alle er kommet for at se det vietnamesiske mirakel: Statschefer fra alle lande af betydning, topchefer fra verdens største koncerner, Hollywood stjerner, rock’n roll-ikoner, sportsstjerner – listen er meget lang.

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Bill Gates er blot én af Vietnams mange prominente gæster i disse år.

Pressefrihed med lynlås

Selv ærkekonservative tænketanke som amerikanske Heritage Foundation giver Vietnam meget høje karakterer for ’business freedom’ – nu på højde med verdensgennemsnittet og langt foran Kina. Selv om Vietnam fortsat er en klassisk kommunistisk etparti-stat, er det ubestrideligt, at parlamentet har fået en reel rolle i den politiske proces. Ministre – inklusive premierminister Nguyen Tan  Dung – bliver jævnligt grillet af de ’folkevalgte’. Den vietnamesiske presse sætter i stigende grad fokus på korruption og magtmisbrug.

Vietnamesiske journalister siger nu med et grin: ”Tidligere var vores læber syet sammen med ståltråd – nu har vi fået en lynlås i stedet, så systemet kan lukke for os igen, hvis vi går for vidt.” Så ja – meget er forandret og det meste til det meget bedre i de over 30 år, som jeg har kendt Vietnam.

Også jeg bøjer mig i respekt for dette hårdt prøvede land, og ikke mindst for vietnameserne selv for deres kraftpræstation. De har om nogen fortjent den fremtid, som mange generationer af deres forfædre kæmpede og døde for uden at efterlade andet end nye uafhængigheds-krige til deres børn og børnebørn.

Det store MEN

Og nu kommer så det meget store MEN – som er sagt ud fra en helt grundlæggende sympati med vietnameserne. I hele Vietnams udviklingsproces gennem de sidste årtier har svagheds-tegnene været tydelige. Og der er også blevet talt om det i årevis: Den manglende konsistens i den social-økonomisk livsvigtige reformproces, den udsigtsløse klamren sig til de store tabsgivende statsejede virksomheder, manglende udvikling af nøgle-sektorer som uddannelse og sundhed, den systemiske korruption, de tikkende miljø-bomber under både vand, land og by – senest er Hanoi kommet på den tvivlsomme liste over Verdens 10 mest luftforurenede byer.

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Hanois største sø Ho Tay (Vestsøen) er stærkt forurenet – en del af prisen for Vietnams voldsomme økonomiske vækst.

Det bliver heller ikke bedre af, at den vietnamesiske økonomiske elite slår sig løs på et surrealistisk højt og meget synligt niveau: En søndag formiddag overhørte jeg i Hanoi Club en slående udveksling af indkøbs-tips, hvor to vietnamesiske kvinder diskuterede shopping-mulighederne.

Den ene fremviste en rødt indfarvet krokodilleskinds-taske, køb på udsalg for DKK 100.000 (ja hundrede tusind) hos Serrangano i Ly Thai To-gaden, den anden havde udskiftet sit out-datede Rolex ur med en ny model til dobbelte. Imens hundsede de utålmodigt med den svedende servitrice, der formentlig tjener omkring DKK 400 om måneden.

Hanois mest udsøgte restaurant Beau Lieu på det gamle koloni-hotel Metropole har vine på kortet til DKK 35.000 (Ja fem-og-tredive-tusind) flasken. Diamant-besatte Vertu-mobiltelefoner bliver solgt i Hotel Melias butiksarkade for over en halv million kroner stykket. De vietnamesiske dollar-millionærer kæmper en forgæves kamp for at få udgifterne til at slå til.

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Rolls Royce har åbnet salgskontor i Hanoi og har over 100 kunder på venteliste. Danske Bang & Olufsen er også repræsenteret i butikken med det nye Beovision Avant TV, der her kan købes for DKK 300.000 for 85″ versionen.

Senest har Rolls Royce åbnet en salgsafdeling i Hanoi. Her troner en forgyldt en af slagsen sig lige indenfor vinduerne. Den er ikke til salg, men importeret til formanden selv. Hvis man kan nøjes med en sort RR i den ’lille’ Ghost-version i stedet, skal man væbne sig med tålmodighed. I skrivende stund er der over 100 på venteliste til biler, der koster fra fem millioner kroner og opefter.

Til dem som måtte ane smålig misundelse i denne beretning bør det tilføjes, at excesserne og den manglende styring af samfundsøkonomien samlet har udløst et uhyggeligt dræn i Vietnams valutareserver og i perioder store underskud på handelsbalancen.

Vinashin skandalen

Rolls Royce’rne, urene og vinene er trods alt for småpenge at regne, hvis man ser på, hvordan de store statsvirksomheder lænser landet for ressourcer. Skandalen omkring skibsværfts-koncernen VINASHIN er det mest groteske eksempel. Ledelsen har på ganske få år skabt en kortfristet gæld på næsten 30 mia. DKK, og efter flere års undersøgelser er det fortsat ganske uklart, hvor pengene er blevet af.

Koncernledelsen er fornylig blevet stillet til ansvar med fængselsdomme på 20 år til VINASHIN-formand Pham Thanh Binh og knap så hårde straffe til hans kumpaner. Men det er en ringe trøst for landet, hvis kreditværdighed er blevet nedgraderet som en direkte følge af VINASHIN-kollapset. Og VINASHIN er blot ét eksempel. Rækken af skandaleramte statsvirksomheder vokser støt.

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VINASHIN formand Pham Thanh Binh i sine velmagtsdage, mens han viser en dansk marine-delegation rundt på Bach Dang skibsværftet i Hai Phong. Han afsoner nu en dom på 20 års fængsel for ‘økonomiske forbrydelser’, som det hed i dommen.

Det vejer selvsagt tungt den anden vej, at myndighederne med nogen forsinkelse nu er begyndt at skride dramatisk ind. Vinashin-opgøret har fået sin parallel indenfor vietnamesisk skibsfart – Vinalines – hvor formanden er blevet dømt til døden for omfattende korruption.

Hans bror står til livstid efter at have forsøgt at smugle ham til USA. Stifteren af en af Vietnams største banker, Asia Commercial Bank, Nguyen Duc Kien har fået 30 års fængsel for mandatsvig. Den ordførende direktør for Ocean Bank, Ha Van Tham og en stribe andre ledende bankfolk  er varetægtsfængslet, mens omfattende anklageskrifter er under udarbejdelse. Den tidligere chef-inspektør for det statslige anti-korruptions-kontor, Tran Van Truyen, er blevet klædt af i fuld offentlighed og tvunget til at tilbagelevere en håndfuld offentlige ejendomme, som han og familien havde ranet til sig.

OceanBank

Ocean Bank’s CEO er bare en enkelt af de ledende bank-direktører, der pt er varetægtsfængslet for mandatsvig.

Formanden for det nationale energiselskab EVN, Dao Van Hung, er blevet fyret på gråt papir – efter EVN under hans ledelse har formøblet USD 2 mia. i såkaldte non core investments – i.e. ejendomsspekulation. Og sådan kan man blive ved. Vietnamesisk presse bidrager næsten dagligt med nye eksempler, ikke mindst online-udgaverne af de Ho Chi Minh City-baserede aviser Than Nhien og Tuoi Tre fører an med nye afsløringer. Også Planlægnings- og Investeringsministeriet (MPI) går til makronerne via sit officielle talerør Vietnam Investment Review.

Vincomnightsendcover

Det nye Vincom Center i Saigon dominerer total bybilledet. Et af de mange mega-projekter i det moderne Vietnam. I forgrunden ses det gamle rådhus, som stammer tilbage fra kolonitiden.

Meget tyder på, at der omsider er sat en egentlig kampagne i gang for at dæmme op for det hæmningsløse spild af knappe ressourcer og den systemiske korruption, der ofte er forbundet hermed. Det er på høje tid. I de senere år er det blevet smerteligt tydeligt, at det store flertal af landets befolkning efterhånden betaler en meget høj pris for magthavernes synder – så høj at partisekretær Nguyễn Phú Trọng offentligt har advaret imod, at korruptionen er en tikkende bombe under partiets troværdighed.

Norge trak stikket

Det dystre billede gør også indtryk på de udenlandske investorer, som Vietnam har så hårdt brug for. Det er godt nok kun hver femte vietnameser, der er ansat i en udenlandsk ejet virksomhed, men de udenlandske virksomheder tegner sig faktisk for 60% af landets eksport, så Vietnam har kun dårligt råd til at skuffe udenlandske investorer.

Blandt dem der har trukket stikket, er det norske statsejede energiselskab SN power, som i december 2014 lukkede sit Vietnam-kontor i frustration over investerings-vilkårene efter mere end tre års resultatløse forhandlinger om norske milliardinvesteringer i vandkraft.

Danske op- og nedture

Også danske virksomheder har brogede erfaringer.  Generelt har der været betydelig succes med sourcing af produktion i bred forstand til Vietnam.

Det gælder f.eks. møbelvirksomhederne Scancom og Tropic Dane, smykkevirksomheden Jule Sandlau og arbejdstøjs-producenten Mascot, som jeg selv arbejder for. Kombinationen af dygtig vietnamesisk arbejdskraft, moderne maskinpark og ledelses-systemer kan give rigtigt gode resultater, men det er ikke nogen given ting. Aalborg Industries valgte således at lukke og slukke for deres kedelfabrik i Hai Phong, nogle få år efter at deres nye fabrik var taget i brug.

VaekstStrategi

Den danske regering har lavet denne vækstmarkedsstrategi for Vietnam for at understøtte bl.a. det kommercielle samarbejde. Adskillige danske virksomheder har oplevet store vanskeligheder med Vietnam som et marked, hvorimod det er gået væsentligt bedre for de virksomheder, der har satset på at producere i Vietnam.

Danske virksomheder, som satser på det vietnamesiske marked, har også meget blandede erfaringer. F.L. Smidth havde i mere end tre årtier betydelig succes med at sælge store produktions-anlæg i skarp konkurrence med tyske og kinesiske leverandører.

Men nu er markedet for nye anlæg mættet, og det er langt vanskeligere at gøre en god forretning på grundlag af serviceaftaler og dyre miljøfilltre, uanset at der er hårdt brug for dem. ARLA har drejet nøglen om i Vietnam med store frustrationer efter et kostbart forsøg på at trænge ind på det vietnamesiske marked.

Entreprenørvirksomhederne Per Aarsleff og MT Højgaard trak sig efter nogle kostbare satsninger indenfor vandforsyning, kloakering, rensningsanlæg og brobyggeri. Ingeniørfirmaet Grontmij-Carl Bro gav op efter mere end 10 års forsøg på at skabe forretning for konsulent-ydelser. Selv Danmarks største koncerner som Carlsberg og A.P. Møller gruppen har haft store vanskeligheder i Vietnam.

I Carlsberg har skiftende koncern-direktører underskrevet hensigtserklæringer over næsten 20 år med vietnamesiske bryggerier om at bane vej for større investeringer og dermed indflydelse til Carlsberg.  Men processen kommer ikke rigtigt ud af stedet, fordi vietnameserne måske nok er stærkt interesserede i Carlsbergs moderne teknologi, men ikke vil aflevere bestemmende indflydelse til en udenlandsk investor.

Carlsberg har haft langt større succes med den model i nabolandene Laos og Cambodia. Der sælges ikke meget Carlsberg øl, men opkøbet af de lokale øl-mærker og distributions-aftaler med bl.a. Pepsi er blevet en guldgrube af de helt store for den danske bryggeri-koncern.

APM terminals har haft en smertefuld oplevelse til mange hundrede millioner kroner med koncernens havne-terminal i Cai Mep, primært fordi partneren Vinalines ikke har overholdt aftalerne om at levere meget væsentlige dele  af forretningsgrundlaget, herunder at få lukket de gamle utidssvarende terminaler, som Cai Mep efter planen skulle have afløst med moderne kraner og en langt bedre placering ved Saigon-flodens udmunding.

Den nye terminal vil formentlig blive en fantastisk forretning – men først den dag hvor godsmængderne er tilstrækkeligt store. Andre danske virksomheder ser mere positivt på tingene. NOVO er blandt de  nyere investorer, der satser meget på Vietnam. Novo ser også de skarpe vietnamesiske medarbejdere som en meget væsentlig, ny rekrutteringsbase.

På uddannelsesområdet har en stribe danske uddannelses-institutioner fået blod på tanden, efter Niels Brock med en vis mængde dødsforagt har været pionerer i et samarbejde med Vietnams Foreign Trade University. Danske/europæiske virksomheder skeler nok også til den succes, som store asiatiske investorer har haft i Vietnam.

Samsung stormer frem

Det hører selvfølgelig også med i billedet, at andre investorer er mere end tilfredse.Koreanske Samsung tegner sig nu for mere end 11% af Vietnams samlede eksport fra koncernens fabriks-kompleks i Bac Ninh, tæt ved Hanoi. Det går så godt, at Samsung har endnu to fabrikker på vej – en under opførelse i Thai Nguyen provinsen og en på tegnebrættet tæt ved Ho Chi Minh Byen. Projekter til 15 milliarder kroner – stykket.

Japanerne er også i gang med en ny bølge af investeringer i både nord og syd. Japan er derfor også blevet langt den største investor i Vietnam – og iøvrigt også den største yder af bilateral udviklingsbistand. Den franske direktør for det regionale Airbus selskab fortæller med stolthed, at Vietnam Airlines som de første i verden har skrevet kontrakt om leverancer af selskabets nye generation af mere energivenlige fly.

Dette understøtter Vietnams erklærede drøm at blive Asiens næste hightech-nation ved at tiltrække de store udenlandske koncerner, som har de ressourcer, Vietnam ikke selv har. Men den vej bliver lang. Mere end to tredjedele af de udenlandske investeringer i Vietnam er fortsat i de lowtech brancher, der som de første rykkede ind, fordi Vietnam havde én ting at byde på: Billig arbejdskraft.

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Coca-Cola har satset massivt på Vietnam med både produktion og storstilet afsætning. Efter en årrække med store underskud har Coca Cola nu fået en skattesag på halsen i Vietnam, fordi koncernen er mistænkt for at fuske med de interne afregningspriser i koncernen. De vietnamesiske skattemyndigheder har valgt at procedere sagen i medierne uden at fremlægge nogen dokumentation for mistanken.

For at fortsætte sin udviklingsproces har Vietnam et næsten desperat behov for at modernisere alle sine sektorer, og det vil kræve mega investeringer, hvis Vietnam skal blive i stand til at erobre en mere rimelig andel af værdi-kæden i moderne produktion.

Dertil skal der på det politiske niveau skabes nogle ordentlige rammebetingelser for at styre denne udvikling. Det sidste bliver i sig selv en kæmpe opgave for regering og myndigheder. Det er ikke bare et spørgsmål om at få lavet disse lovkomplekser, de lokale myndigheder får ofte og med rette meget lave karakterer for at implementere de allerede vedtagne reformer.

Investorerne står ikke længere i helt så lang en kø for at opfylde Vietnams drøm. Kampen for at fastholde og tiltrække nye investorer bliver hårdere og hårdere, og de mere udviklede økonomier i Asien kaster alle deres ressourcer ind i kampen.  Uanset at Vietnam ikke bærer hele skylden selv for at sakke bag ud på det felt,  så skal landet slås endog meget hårdt i de kommende år  i skarp konkurrence med Asiens mere udviklede økonomier for at tiltrække investeringer. Fishing-01 Alene i verden

På en måde kan man sige, at Vietnam i dag står næsten lige så alene med gigant-udfordringerne, som de gjorde i 1975 – denne gang ikke på grund af politisk isolation eller manglende erfaringer med at opbygge et samfund i fred eller krigens enorme ødelæggelser. Ensomheden skyldes nu, at der under de nuværende globale forhold næppe bliver tale om håndsrækninger af større omfang.

Ganske vist vil der stadig være en 8-10 mia. USD om året fra Verdensbanken, ADB og de bilaterale donorer. Det vil utvivlsomt også være en kæmpe vitamin-indsprøjtning til Vietnams økonomi, når Frihandelsaftalen med EU falder på plads, forventeligt allerede i år. Vietnam står også til at få stor nytte af den kommende Transpacific Partnership aftale (TPP) sammen med USA, Japan og de andre store vækst-økonomier i Asien.

Men i alt væsentligt bliver det vietnameserne selv, der skal løse opgaven – sådan som Ho Chi Minh skal have sagt dengang, nogle ledende partikammerater forsøgte at overtale ham til at sige ja tak til massiv kinesisk bistand for at smide fransk kolonialisme på porten. Og for at gøre det endnu mere dystert her til sidst: En afgørende forskel på dengang-og-nu er så også, at Vietnam i dag er fuldt eksponeret til verdensøkonomien og alle dens brutale elementer via sin internationale integration. Derfor kan Vietnam meget vel komme til at opleve et stigende antal udefra kommende økonomiske problemer skylle ind over landet.

DungObama

Premierminster Nguyen Tan Dung ses ofte i selskab med verdens mægtigste mænd. Han er favorit til at overtage posten som partisekretær i 2016. Dung’s datter er iøvrigt gift med en vietnamesisk-amerikansk venture-kapitalist.

Så der er ingen vej uden om for det Vietnam, som i de kommende uger skal have lov at fejre 40-året for Sejren. I begyndelsen af 2016 skal partikongressen vælge ny ledelse. I skrivende stund skal et tyst opgør om magten i fremtidens Vietnam være i fuld gang.

 

quandoiposter

“Vilje til at kæmpe – vilje til at vinde,” hedder det på denne plakat fra Nha Trang i det centrale Vietnam. Plakater som denne præger gadebilledet i alle vietnamesiske byer, også i vore dage.

AGENT ORANGE – CONTINUED SUFFERING

Please click on ‘AGENT ORANGE’ to follow me on a visit to the present day Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. Scroll down below the photos to read the full historical account of the infamous ‘Operation Ranchhand’.

THE DEADLY LEGACY OF AGENT ORANGE

Vietnam and I go back quite some time. I have come to know and admire this country after dealing with Vietnam and its people for almost 30 years.

As for many others in my generation, it was the prolonged tragedy of the Vietnam War that caught my attention on a country so far away from my own. More specifically it was a legacy of war – so unimaginable in its sheer horror – that brought me to Vietnam for the first time in 1984. The legacy of ‘Agent Orange’.

The journey

The  legacy took me on a 2 year journey ranging from the inner workings of scientific warfare and senior policy making in the White House to the victims of maybe the most destructive and meaningless part of what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’. In short: Operation Ranchhand – its official Pentagon codename.
In an increasingly desperate effort to locate and neutralize the hidden bases of their elusive enemy, the US air force sprayed a total of 72 million liters of dioxin contaminated pesticides over the forests and rice fields of Southern and Central Vietnam.

Thousands of hectares of forest and fields vanished, but the military objectives were never achieved. Operation Ranch Hand may have been long forgotten as a waste of effort and funds, if it were not for the harm it did for generations to come.

Walking the rounds with Dr. Phuong

I first heard about Agent Orange from a Danish trade union official. In 1982,  he told me about his visit to the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.  He had brought back with him a few amateur photos of poor quality from the hospital ward and from the basement collection of abnormal foetus. The unborn monsters (and this is what they were) had been removed from young Vietnamese women, who had grown up in the heavily sprayed areas in Southern and Central Vietnam.

The trade union official had a very hard time controlling his emotions, while he told me about what he had seen among the patients of dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong.

Dying side by side
A few months later I realized my self that nothing could really prepare the human mind and heart for the experience of walking with Dr. Phuong on her rounds among the young girls that lay there two-and-two in the hospital beds. Some were dying side by side with others, who desperately clung to the hope for life without pain and fear.

A few girls had a bed of their own – those that were expected to die within hours.

Many other heart breaking scenes followed in hospitals, orphanages and in utterly poor villages, where I collected the facts and figures of a disaster of unbelievable proportions.

My companion, press photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen recorded everything in photos so horrifying, that most of them were considered unfit for publication by our editors.

Among them were the pictures of 4 year old Kim – a little girl in Tay Ninh, who had been born without eyes. Tears were constantly streaming out of her empty eye sockets – due to the agony of a rare liver cancer that was to kill her a few months later.

Thousands still suffer on three continents
The worst of it all may be that is still with Viet Nam today, what we encountered 30 years ago. Even though the last spraying missions by the US air force was carried out in 1972, thousands of people still suffer the consequences even today. In the past four years  I have visited victims all over Vietnam – in Hai Duong, Thai Binh and Nam Dinh provinces in the North, in Da Nang and Kontum in central Vietnam, and in Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh City in the South. The pictorial journey on this site represents only a few of the thousands of people, who are still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

Waiting for an army to die

Most Agent Orange victims are Vietnamese, but not all. Large numbers of American soldiers and allied troops from Australia and Korea were also exposed to the deadly herbicides.

To this day the price is still being paid by victims across three continents – as vividly described in “Waiting for an army to die” and “Gi Guinea Pigs” – possibly the saddest and angriest books you could read about Agent Orange.


And just for the record – the outcry of the US veterans and their families was sufficiently embarrassing for the producers of Agent Orange to set up a compensation fund of USD one billion 30 years ago to assist the US victims with their medical bills.Only a few years ago, the Pentagon followed suit with a very limited compensation scheme, which makes it possible for US veterans to apply for assistance to pay their medical bills.

No compensation has ever been paid to the poor Vietnamese farmers by corporations like DOW Chemicals and Monsanto, who made huge profits on wartime deliveries or by the US government, who ordered the deadly chemicals.

For years it was left to the Vietnamese themselves and a handful of NGO’s to clean up this mess. Only recently, the US Embassy in Hanoi has approved funding (USD 3 mio.) in order to clean up one of the worst ‘dioxin hot spots’ in Da Nang, where the dioxin levels are still a 100 times higher than the legal limit in the US.

The US Department of Defence has also – belatedly – recognized that there is a direct link between dioxin exposure and a number of serious diseases, found among US veterans, who are now eligible for financial support. No such scheme is available for the thousands of victims in Vietnam.

In all this misery, I did manage to find a living symbol of courage and hope: A young student, Tran Thi Hoan – who sent a letter directly to president Obama to appeal for assistance to the Agent Orange victims. The US government has yet to reply. Hoan has taken the victim’s case to Washington D.C. several times as a witness for US congressional committees. An elderly, pleasant looking lady often joins her on these campaign trips for the Agent Orange victims. This is Hoan’s stepmother – non other than the now retired dr. Ngoc Thi Ngoc Phuong from Tu Du Hospital.

Hoan wrote to Obama from her ward in Thu Do hospital.


Hoan shares her room at the hospital with 12 other victims.

WEST LAKE FISHING HAZARDS

These days, the fishermen at Hanoi’s legendary Ho Tay – West Lake – are taking big risks on their health. Three major hospitals as well as thousands of households are discharging their waste directly into the lake.

When I first arrived in Hanoi 30 years ago, Ho Tay was sorrounded by the famous flower villages. Early in the morning you could se hundreds of women wading in the breast deep water searching for snails and herbs.

The Ho Tay villages have long since given way to Urban development, including Ciputra International City, the Golden Westlake Complex and others.

LakeFishing