The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war


February 14, 2019

The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war

by Nguyen Khac Giang, VEPR

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/02/07/the-mekong-region-is-caught-in-a-tug-of-war/

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For the Mekong countries, including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, 2018 was a big year both domestically and regionally. Key developments from last year will inevitably continue to shape the politics of the region in 2019. In terms of domestic affairs, the most worrying trend is the consolidation of autocratic power in almost all countries.

 

In Vietnam, the sudden death of president Tran Dai Quang in September 2018 created a huge power vacuum, which was filled by Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. By merging the two most powerful positions in Vietnamese politics, he has become the strongest Vietnamese leader since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, edging the communist state towards the Chinese model of centralised rule.

Cambodia, in theory a multi-party democracy, has practically become a one-party regime after an election that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party win all parliamentary seats in July 2018. He is now one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government, having held the premiership for 33 years since 1985.

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Things are no better in Thailand. Four years after seizing power, the military junta has made — and broken — five promises to hold a general election to establish a civilian government. Even if the sixth promise is fulfilled in February 2019, it will be difficult to sen Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.e swift change, as the junta will exploit all means available to dominate the electoral process.

In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

 

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In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

The autocratisation of the Mekong region has significant implications at a time when its giant neighbour China continues a long march to the south. China has committed billions of US dollars in concessional loans and credit to Mekong countries via the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), an ambitious initiative which was launched in 2016. But the LMC’s actual impact remains to be seen. While the LMC is ostensibly aimed at creating a ‘shared future of peace and prosperity’, China can use it as part of a carrot and stick strategy due to its largely opaque and non-binding frameworks.

It should be noted that Beijing has a record of working closely with autocracies. Beijing has helped leaders in Central Asia guard against ‘colour revolution’, provided African autocrats with an alternative model of development and has aided socialist Venezuela in crisis. A less democratic Mekong region will be more exposed to China’s strategy of buying influence, which often involves closed-door negotiations and dealings.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

The LMC, as well as other established regional mechanisms such as the Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong Initiative, have also failed to address the core issue which theoretically binds Mekong countries together: transnational water management. In July 2018, a section of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed, reportedly killing 34 people, leaving 97 missing and displacing 6000 others. The collapsed part of the dam was only an auxiliary section and the whole project is built in one of the Mekong’s tributaries instead of the main stream. Needless to say, it could have been an even greater catastrophe.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

In Vietnam, for example, hydro dams are considered to be time bombs ticking over the head of the Mekong Delta on which 90 per cent of Vietnam’s rice exports depend. Despite the incident, the Laos government resumed its dream of becoming ‘a battery for Asia’ by permitting work to continue on several hydro projects. Beneficiary countries of the hydropower boom such as Thailand and China gave condolences and support to Laos but continued building their own dams. China, for instance, has built 7 and has plans for a further 21 dams on the Mekong — plans formulated without consultation with lower-Mekong countries.

The ongoing trade war between China and the United States also has the potential to impact the Mekong region both economically and politically. If the trade war accelerates, investors will consider countries like Vietnam and Thailand, and to a lesser extent Cambodia, as shelters to circumvent higher tariffs and other technical barriers. Exports from the Mekong region to the United States, many of which are substitutes for Chinese goods, will also benefit from the trade dispute. On the other hand, the region also bears the risk of a flood of Chinese goods into domestic markets, which is already a big issue.

More broadly, the Mekong region will continue to be a battlefield for influence between the two global superpowers. The rumour that China seeks to build a military base in Cambodia, although dismissed by Hun Sen, should be a serious warning for Washington. Of the five Mekong countries, only Vietnam is wary of China’s charm offensive due to a lingering sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea. The superpowers’ tug-of-war will perhaps come to play a key role in shaping the region’s development trajectory.

Nguyen Khac Giang is the lead political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

POL POT: THE END by Nate Thayer


January 20, 2019

READ THIS: https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/pol/pilgerpolpotnus.pdf

POL POT: THE END By Nate Thayer

POL POT: THE END

COVER STORY

Far Eastern Economic Review

By Nate Thayer

August 7, 1997

In a stunning journalistic achievement, REVIEW correspondent Nate Thayer comes face-to-face with the elusive Pol Pot, architect of Cambodia’s killing fields. In a story packed with exclusive photos, Thayer describes Pol Pot’s jungle “trial,” and reveals the turmoil within the Khmer Rouge. Separate stories profile Pol Pot, introduce the new Khmer Rouge leadership, and shed new light on Cambodia’s deadly July coup and the suspected drug baron who financed

 

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24: On History’s Front Line

Pol Pot caused the deaths of more than a million Cambodians. But when he turned on his longtime military commander, Ta Mok, that was one Cambodian too many

By Nate Thayer in Anlong Veng, Cambodia

After a series of furtive rendezvous, using coded messages over mobile phones, I slipped into one of the most impenetrable, malarial-ridden and landmine-strewn jungles of the world: Khmer Rouge-controlled northern Cambodia. I was hoping to interview Pol Pot, one of the century’s most notorious and elusive mass murderers.

What I did not fathom, as I entered the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng at 12:12 p.m. on July 25, was that I was about to witness nothing less than history.

“Long live! Long live! Long live the new strategy!” hundreds of voices chanted in unison. The clenched fists of the crowds pumped toward the sky, as a smiling middle-aged Khmer Rouge cadre led me toward an open-air mass meeting hall. Old artillery pieces and a captured Russian tank stood nearby.

“Crush! Crush! Crush! Pol Pot and his clique!” shouted the crowd on cue as we approached, their fists striking down towards the ground.

There, slumped in a simple wooden chair, grasping a long bamboo cane and a rattan fan, an anguished old man,  frail and struggling to maintain his dignity, was watching his life vision crumble in utter, final defeat.

This was how the “people’s tribunal’ began for Pol Pot, reviled around the world for personally orchestrating a reign of terror that left more than a million human beings dead and shattered the lives of many millions more.

The crude podium held a microphone, and crackling loudspeakers—powered by a car battery lying on the earthen floor—began to spew humiliating public denunciations of the long-time Khmer Rouge leader.

A shocking number of participants stood on crude wooden stumps, sat in home-made wheelchairs, or were missing eyes—sacrifices to the revolutionary cause of Pol Pot. Others, their arms blown off by landmines, were unable to join the frequent clapping as speaker after speaker denounced the man once venerated as “Brother Number One.”

“Our ultimate goal today is that the international community should understand that we are no longer Khmer Rouge and we are not Pol Potists!,” roared Ta Neou, the governor of the approximately 60,000 civilians who live in the area, which was under Pol Pot’s control until weeks ago.

The carefully orchestrated performance evoked the image of a grainy, black-and-white film clip from China’s Cultural Revolution. But the message was starkly different. “Long live the emergence of the democracy movement!” shouted individuals in the crowd, periodically interrupting leaders offering carefully crafted speeches at the microphone. A chorus would repeat the slogan, followed by prolonged applause by the roughly 500 participants. “Crush! Crush! Crush! Pol Pot and his murderous clique!”

Pol Pot sat alone, near three other manacled loyalists. Many in the crowd of women, children, and uniformed guerrillas seemed more interested at gazing at the first Westerner they had ever seen than in watching the traumatized old man sitting alone in a chair.

Each speaker, seemingly chosen to represent a sector of society—a farmer, an intellectual, a soldier, a woman—got up to denounce and humiliate Pol Pot “and his clique.”

Pol Pot often seemed close to tears as the vitriol was unleashed. In contrast,  three  younger army commanders put on trial alongside him had menacing, almost arrogant expressions, staring coldly into the eyes of the speakers, the crowd and the visiting reporter.

“We have sacrificed everything for the sake of the movement,” Ta Neou continued, “Our parents and all of us are children of peasants and farmers, we have sacrificed everything for the sake of the movement, but at the end we kill each other.”

Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia for more than three years and ruled the Khmer Rouge for more than three decades, is genuinely finished. He has been denounced and imprisoned by his own movement. Not for the 1975-1978 Cambodian genocide, but for turning on his own comrades in an attempted purge in June, according to speakers at his trial.

Those commanders, led by longtime military commander Ta Mok, struck back and took Pol Pot prisoner after the purge failed. The tribunal sentenced Pol Pot to life imprisonment, but ruled out turning him over to international courts, where he could face charges of crimes against humanity.

The Khmer Rouge of Anlong Veng have good reason to try and distance themselves from the notorious Pol Pot. They want to attract international support for their struggle to unseat Cambodian premier Hun Sen. That is why they let a foreign reporter witness the show trial, the first time a journalist had entered Anlong Veng and left alive.

Yet lengthy interviews with Khmer Rouge cadre left little doubt that his ouster was authentic. Still, the cadres clearly saw it as a tragedy, and continued to treat the 72-year-old Pol Pot with Gentle respect.

The fall of Pol Pot underlines the view that the Khmer Rouge movement that ruled Cambodia in the 1970’s essentially no longer exists. The original leaders have largely been replaced by younger ones less steeped in communist ideology, and the movement has fractured into numerous factions, many of whom are allied with the mainstream political parties contesting power in Phnom Penh.

“It no longer makes any sense whatsoever to call whatever remains a Khmer Rouge movement,” says Stephen Heder, a Cambodian Scholar at the University of London’s School of Advanced International Studies. “Because of the realignment of forces over the last several years, the concept of a Khmer Rouge movement as we know it no longer has any meaning.”

But that doesn’t mean the Khmer Rouge have become irrelevant in Cambodia. The aggressive courting of Khmer Rouge factions by Cambodia’s rival premiers, Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was central to the July 5-6 coup in Phnom Penh. In fact, the REVIEW has learned, the Khmer Rouge finalized their alliance with Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party on July 4. Worried that the balance of power would be tipped in his rival’s favour, Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh the next day.

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Photo: Nate Thayer

 

Pol Pot also opposed those negotiations, and it led to his downfall, according to Khmer Rouge cadre interviewed in Anlong Veng. Virtually the entire leadership favoured a political deal with the royalist Funcinpec, but Pol Pot was opposed, said Gen. Khmer Nuon, who is now the Khmer Rouge’s army chief of staff.

“Domestically and internationally, Pol Pot has his own personal problems to take care of,” Khem Nuon said, referring to Pol Pot’s blood-soaked reputation. “He has no way out. That is why he keeps dragging this movement toward the darkness.”

The visit to Anlong Veng opened an unprecedented window into the inner workings of one of the world’s most secretive guerrilla movements. The Khmer Rouge have splintered dramatically since July 1996, when forces in western Cambodia, representing almost half the movement, broke with Pol Pot’s northern forces headquartered at Anlong Veng. The western split was headed by Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s brother-in-law and longtime comrade-in-arms.

Khem Nuon said the western split was aimed against Pol Pot himself, but the 72-year-old leader blamed his top leaders—Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, and Son Sen—for losing the west by failing to heal the rift. “ So Pol Pot asked Mao—over there,” Khem Nuon explained, pointing to a young Khmer Rouge cadre standing listening to the interview,” to shoot Ta Mok and burn him—last October—to leave no evidence.”

The grim-faced young cadre, who looked capable of such a deed, nodded in agreement with his commander. But he didn’t carry out Pol Pot’s order. Because Ta Mok, who is known to the outside world as “The Butcher,” is immensely popular with the troops and civilians under his control. So Much so, Khem Nuon said, that Pol Pot saw him as a threat. “All the combatants here are under Ta Mok and they really like him a lot because he is so helpful to them in terms of standard of living. He built roads, bridges, dams within this area,” Khem Nuon said. “This is the reason Pol Pot wanted to get rid of Ta Mok.”

Pol Pot turned to two senior military field commanders, Gen. Sarouen and Gen. San, and attempted to consolidate power against Ta Mok. He called a mass meeting on February 25 of this year, and had them declared the new political and military leaders, replacing Ta Mok, Khem Nuon said. “What is the main cause that steered our people to rise up against Pol Pot? One, the leadership and the grip on power by Pol Pot was so long. All the power was within his hands,” Khem Nuon said. “Pol pot took decisions without even consulting the top leadership.”

About the same time, according to Cambodian government sources and diplomats, secret negotiations accelerated between envoys of Prince Ranariddh and elements of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng. Most of these efforts were conducted by Ta Mok loyalists—often behind Pol Pot’s back—and the top royalist military commander, Gen. Nyek Bun Chhay. By May, the faction agreed in principle to join in alliance.

Increasingly isolated, Pol Pot launched a desperate attempt on June 9 to scuttle the peace deal by purging Ta Mok and other top leaders. That night, longtimeDefence Minister Son Sen and 14 of his relatives, including a five-year-old child, were shot dead by Sarouen’s men, according to both Khmer Rouge and intelligence sources. “On the 9th of June at 12:15 a.m., Pol Pot issued a direct order to take two Toyota pick-up trucks loaded with 20-30 soldiers to kill Mr. Son Sen,” said Khem Nuon.

The killings sparked several days of turmoil, with commanders fleeing into the jungle in disarray. But they rallied behind Ta Mok and trapped Pol Pot and his band of 300 remaining supporters on June 15, Khem Nuon said. Four days later, they had surrendered.

With Pol Pot neutralized, the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership moved rapidly forward to finalize a secret, tactical, political and military alliance with Ranariddh’s political faction. The two factions were allies against Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh government in a decade-long guerrilla war before Cambodia’s 1991 peace treaty.

The deal was closed July 4 in Anlong Veng. Hun Sen, learning about Funcinpec’s new alliance through his agents, launched his deadly coup the next morning, according to Cambodian political cadres and Asian intelligence sources. It has tipped Cambodia, which enjoyed four years of relative peace after 1993 United nations-sponsored elections, back into the throes of the warfare that seems to define this nation of 10 million people.

Hun Sen has claimed the entire tribunal was stage-managed by Pol Pot himself. Khem Nuon paints a very different picture, but he did say that Pol Pot had ‘consented’ to having a foreign reporter witness the mass meeting, as a way of acknowledging his guilt for moving against his comrades.

Pol Pot did himself confess to me clearly, after his arrest,” Khem Nuon said. “ When I met him the first time, he embraced me and burst into tears and said: ‘It is the right thing comrade that this has happened,’ and then he cried. It was on June 21, 1997, and he told me: ‘I am wrong, comrade, all the mistakes were made by me, alone,’ and then he cried.”

“ Pol Pot told me that this is the end of his life, he has nothing left, but he begged me to allow him to live,” Khem Nuon continued. “ I also want to make clear that if Pol Pot was vested with any credibility or respect, he would not have shown up and let you see him like you just did today.”

: I told him this morning that you were going to be here,” to witness his condemnation, Khem Nuon told the REVIEW. “ I told him that we want to prove to the world that we no longer want to associate ourselves with him. Then he consented.”

As the “People’s Tribunal of Anlong Veng” continued into its second hour, the new leaders somberly paced on the outskirts of the crowd, concerned by the deteriorating health of a now clearly weak and traumatized Pol Pot. Guerrilla officials acknowledged that Pol Pot suffered from serious heart disease and high blood pressure long before the events of recent days.

Khem Nuon said relatives and friends of those killed on June 9-10 wanted the blood of Pol Pot and his co-defendants San, Khon, and Sarouen—said to have carried out the murders on his orders. “ You notice that here today nobody was allowed to carry a weapon to this meeting, otherwise they would have been killed by the mob already,” Khem Nuon said.

But the cadre who overthrew Pol Pot seemed anguished as they watched the white-haired old man, who was dressed in loose cotton clothes with a blue-and-white Cambodian scarf looped around his neck. Confusion and sadness were etched on men who had spent their entire adult lives following Pol Pot from Cambodia’s jungles to its capital and back again.

“ We have put an end to the leadership which has betrayed our organization and the people,” Mak Ben, a bespectacled French-educated economist, dressed in a green Chinese-style military uniform, said from the podium. “ They are completely gone, as of right now, the Pol Pot regime has ended.”

“ Having acknowledged the betrayal of our group in recent months by Pol Pot and his clique,” the loudspeaker roared into the nearby forest, then Pol Pot’s crimes were read out. They included the murder of Son Sen, the attempted murder and ‘detention’ of Ta Mok and Nuon Chea, and “destroying the policy of national reconciliation,” a reference to the attempt to block the Funcinpec deal.

“These are the criminal acts—the betrayal by Pol Pot and his clique—against the people, the armed forces, and our cadre. In conclusion, we all decide to condemn and sentence this clique to life imprisonment.”

He immediately was helped up, unable to walk unassisted, by a guard in Chinese-style military fatigues. “ get someone under his other arm, get him more help,” Khem Nuon ordered. Patting his heart, Khem Nuon added: “ I am worried that he may die from the stress.”

Some people respectfully bowed, as if to royalty, as Pol Pot walked 25 meters to a waiting vehicle. “ I said what I said with a very heavy heart,” said Tep Kunnal, an emerging political leader, as he walked slowly away with his head bowed after denouncing Pol Pot. “ It is very, very difficult for me, but it had to be done. Before there were two dangers for Cambodia. Pol Pot and the Vietnamese puppet Hun Sen. Now there is only one.”

The cadres suggested that I ask Pol Pot questions while he was led away, but balked at translating when told the questions I wanted to pose. “ I cannot ask such a question to the leaders. You must ask them in Khmer yourself. It is better.”

Pol Pot, perhaps never to be seen alive again, was helped into a Toyota Landcruiser with tinted windows—captured booty from UN peacekeeping soldiers prior to the 1993 elections. Seconds after the trial ended, a torrential rain began.

 

POL POT UNMASKED: He was obsessed with secrecy and total control

By Nate Thayer in Bangkok, Thailand

Far Eastern Economic Review

August 7, 1997

Pol Pot, Aka Saloth Sar whose name is synonymous with the Cambodian genocide, exercized total control over the Khmer Rouge for more than three decades from behind a wall of impenetrable secrecy.

By putting him on trial, his former comrades-in-arms have unmasked a man who shunned exposure, even when he was premier of Cambodia. They have also broken the vice-like grip on the movement he retained through a combination of charisma and utter ruthlessness.

Born to a peasant family in Kampong Thom on May 18th, 1925, Saloth Sar—Pol Pot’s real name—was educated at a Buddhist monastery before entering technical school in Phnom Penh. His clandestine life began in his teens, when he joined the anti-French resistance movement in Indochina during World War ll.  By 1946, he was a member of the underground Indochinese Communist Party.

In 1949, he won a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris, where he was active in radical student politics. His studies, apparently, took a back seat and he failed his exams three years in a row. He spent one summer picking grapes in Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he may have acquired his radical communism that challenged Soviet-style orthodoxy.

It was also during his sojourn in France that he charmed Khieu Ponnary, whose sister was married to Ieng Sary, another future Khmer Rouge leader.

Returning to Phnom Penh with no degree, Pol Pot taught at a private secondary school and wrote articles for left-wing publications that he signed, “The Original Khmer.” His underground activities went farther than that, however. He became a senior member of the Cambodian Communist Party at its founding congress in 1960, and was named secretary in 1963 after the mysterious death of Tou Samouth.

It was then that his secret life became his whole life. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, no longer content to belittle the Cambodian communists as “me Khmer Rouges”—“My Red Khmers”—was stepping up police pressure. Pol Pot and his comrades fled into the jungle, leaving no trace. “When a secret is kept secret, 50% of the battle is won,” Pol Pot once said.

Twelve years later, after fighting first Sihanouk’s army and then American-backed troops of Gen. Lon Nol, the battle was won. On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot’s army of peasants, clad in simple black-cotton uniforms, marched into Phnom Penh. Finally, Pol Pot could put his ideas into action.

The result was one of the most brutal and disastrous social experiments in history. After emptying the capital at gunpoint, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge tried to transform Cambodia into a communal agrarian utopia, but instead turned the country into a vast slave-labour camp. More than one million Cambodians—out of a population of some 7 million—were executed, tortured, or starved to death under the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

The educated were the first to be slain. But later, as the reign of terror turned on itself, waves of purges decimated the ranks of Khmer Rouge cadres. Anyone who could pose a threat to Pol Pot was killed.

Through it all, Pol Pot stayed behind his mask. When it was announced in 1976 that Pol Pot had been named premier of “Democratic Kampuchea,” as the country was renamed, American intelligence officials—who had been fighting the Khmer Rouge for years—could not figure out who he was.

“Secret work is fundamental,” Nuon Chea, the party’s number 2, told a visiting Danish delegation in 1977, the only time Nuon Chea was seen in public.

Nevertheless, a personality cult started to spring up around him in May 1978, pushed by cadres eager to show their loyalty as purges spiraled. Tens of thousands of Khmer Rouge cadres were executed as Pol Pot eliminated competition. His power was clearly growing,  David Chandler says: whereas he was addressed as ‘Elder Brother Pol” or “Brother Number One” soon after taking power, that gradually changed to “Uncle Secretary” or “party centre” to “Leading Apparatus” to, finally, the “High Organization.”

Pol Pot’s radical ideas were nourished by a five month sojourn in China in 1965-66, when the country was in ferment leading up to the Great proletarian Cultural Revolution. His admiration for the Gang of Four was mutual: Pol Pot went to China after his 1975 victory and met Mao Zedong, who congratulated him on his speedy revolution.

While Pol Pot’s thinking may have been influenced by his foreign experiences, at its root it is deeply Khmer. And in Pol Pot’s case, that means a visceral hatred of Vietnam, the much larger neighbor that seized the Mekong Delta from the medieval Khmer empire. Egged on by that HATRED, Khmer Rouge guerrillas carried out raids into southern Vietnam, triggering the December 1978 Vietnamese invasion.

Pol Pot again fled into the jungle, after ruling for three years, eight months, and 20 days. Reverting to form, he took the code name “81.” Until July 25, 1997, he hadn’t been seen by foreign journalists since 1979, when he was filmed by Naoki Mabuchi, a Japanese photographer with close ties to the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot officially retired from his official posts in 1985, but there was never any question that remained in total control of the movement. Cadres who have heard him speak say he is an amazing orator, making speeches so resonant in revolutionary and patriotic spirit that they bring his listeners to tears. Yet he refrained from appearing publicly.

Now, it appears Pol Pot has lost both his mask and his powers. That doesn’t auger well for the movement he helped found, and which is now in danger of segmenting further. As Nuon Chea said in his 1977 interview: “The leadership apparatus must be defended at any price…as long as the leadership is there, the party will not die.”

 

POL POT: THE END

COVER STORY

NEXT GENERATION: Khmer Rouge put on a new face

By Nate Thayer in Anlong Veng, Cambodia

Far Eastern Economic Review

August 7, 1997

A tiger, according to Gen. Khem Nuon, can indeed change its stripes. And if foreigners doubt that the Khmer Rouge movement has  done just that, he said, they should come and see for themselves in the jungles of Northern Cambodia.

That is the message that the movement’s new military chief-of-staff wanted to send in an unprecedented interview at his headquarters of Anlong Veng. “ From now on, we are going to open this area free for foreigners, so they can see the real facts about our movement,” he said.

Anyone who accepts that invitation will find a mixed picture. Clearly, the purge of Pol Pot and a generational transfer of leadership has profoundly changed the secretive movement. In the interview, Khem Nuon spoke with openness about the past “crimes” and future plans, and he showed no interest in communist ideology.

At the same time, however, the group continues to sound the drum of rabid anti-Vietnamese ultra nationalism, and remains bent on the overthrow of Cambodian premier Hun Sen. Some of the older leaders who orchestrated the 1975-78 Cambodian reign of terror still wield influence, and younger cadres talk of “democracy” rang hollow against the backdrop of a Cultural revolution-style show trial.

The movement is opening up for a reason: It wants to build alliances both within the country and overseas for its crusade against Hun Sen and the “Vietnamese aggressors” that it claims are still occupying the country. Specifically, it wants to join forces with Funcinpec—whose leader co-Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was ousted by Hun Sen in a July 5-6 coup—as well as with other political parties opposed to Hun Sen.

But Khem Nuon and other new leaders are aware that if they’re going to have any hope of winning Western support, they have to break with the movement’s blood-soaked past. “ The reason we put an end to the Pol Pot regime is because we want the international community to see and help us in our struggle with other movements in order to fight against Hun Sen and the Vietnamese,” Khem Nuon said.

To an international community that equates the Khmer Rouge with genocide, it’s going to be a hard sell. But Khem Nuon says the Khmer Rouge—or, more precisely, Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea Party—no longer exists. The movement is now called the National Solidarity Party.

“ If they still call me Khmer Rouge they haven’t seen what I have just done. I am the one who destroyed Pol Pot, who has been in power for many years,” he said after the group’s longtime leader was publicly denounced. “ Even the United States and the Vietnamese failed to get rid of him, but I can. So how can you call me the Khmer Rouge?”

In an unprecedented admission, he said that “crimes” had been committed during the Khmer Rouge’s nearly four year rule of Cambodia. But even when pressed, he would not go much farther, Blaming individuals rather than the group. “ We do condemn those who have committed crimes, which were not right,” Khem Nuon said. “ At the time I committed no crimes, only Pol Pot and some of his close people. Now they are gone, while Pol Pot is arrested. Some of them have defected to the Vietnamese side, and the rest I don’t know where they are.”

According to Khem Nuon and other Cadres, the movement is now led by a nine-member standing committee that includes only one member of the old guard: Khieu Samphan, the head of the committee, a diplomat who for years has been the public face of the Khmer Rouge. Khem Nuon, who’s aged about 50, is the second-ranking member, but his power is bolstered by his being the top military figure.

Yet Khem Nuon freely acknowledges that older leaders such as Gen. Ta Mok and Nuon Chea, who were key members of the murderous 1975-78 Khmer Rouge regime, still have a say in “all important matters.” Khem Nuon, who did military training in China, is the right-hand-man of the one-legged Ta Mok. “I’m the one who is in charge of the armed forces right now, but I keep consulting him all the time,” he said.

Once Hun Sen is driven out, the National Solidarity party would be happy to participate in democratic elections, Khem Nuon said. Tep Kunnal, another top-ranking standing committee figure, also spoke of liberal democracy as desirable. It seems that the new generation is driven less by communist ideology than by the ultra nationalism that has long under laid politics in a country squeezed between more powerful neighbors.

Khem Nuon claims there are 10,000 guerrillas and 60,000 civilians loyal to the movement around Anlong Veng. “Our movement is pure and clean,” he said. “ I hope the international community will help us.” For starters, he urged, “ Please ask them to stop calling us ‘Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.’”

 

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POL POT: THE END

COVER STORY

 

By Nate Thayer in Samrong, Cambodia and Bangkok

Far Eastern Economic Review

August 7, 1997

 

At the jungle hide-out along the Thai-Cambodian border, Gen. Serei Kosal, stuttering and wide-eyed with fear, relates five-days of flight from Phnom Penh through the Cambodian countryside. He was one of the top military officers targeted for arrest by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s second prime minister, who deposed the first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in the July 5-6 coup.

Gen. Serei fled the capital on the morning of July 5 by commandeering a military aircraft to the western city of Battambang. From there, he travelled three days by foot with no food until he reached resistance-controlled zones along the Thai border. Claiming 700 troops under his command, he vowed to organize guerrilla war.

He was lucky to have escaped: The coup left scores dead, including two of his fellow generals, and hundreds arrested. Thousands of others are fleeing or in hiding.

“ We need a safe haven to protect our people from killing and arrest,” said Serei, dressed in borrowed shorts and shoeless. “ Hun Sen is hunting down our people, killing them, arresting them. Why hasn’t the world condemned the coup makers and acted in support of democracy and against the dictators?”

His bewilderment is shared by other Ranariddh loyalists who are flocking to north and northwest Cambodia to seek sanctuary and organize guerrilla resistance. They are joined daily in these jungles and remote villages near the Thai border by opposition-party members, journalists, and other civilians. Many relate harrowing tales of witnessing summary executions, atrocities, and the arrest of anyone suspected of affiliation with Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party.

From their accounts and evidence gathered by human rights officials, a grim picture is emerging of torture and summary execution by Hun Sen and his cohorts, many of whom are former Khmer Rouge soldiers who took part in the “killing fields” of the late 1970’s. Equally disturbing are allegations that foreign embassies refused help to Cambodians who feared for their lives in the first days after the coup when many of the killings occurred.

International human rights officials in Phnom Penh say they had confirmed 36 executions by mid-July and were verifying a dozen others. “ We have had many cases of bodies found, hands tied behind their back, with bullets in the head. But sometimes we arrive too late for the bodies and there are only ashes. They are literally incinerating the evidence,” said a senior Western human rights investigator in Phnom Penh. United Nations officials say they know of another 30 Funcinpec supporters who were tortured and forced to drink sewage.

Investigators say at least 617 people have been detained in Phnom Penh and another 271 are known to have been arrested outside the capital. They say the evidence beginning to trickle in is “only the tip of the iceberg,” but includes specific information linking Hun Sen’s top lieutenants to unspeakable acts of torture and murder.

Gen. Chau Sambath, a military advisor to Ranariddh, was captured while trying to flee the capital by motorcycle. According to human rights officials and Cambodian intelligence officers, Sambath was taken to Hun Sen’s personal compound on July 8 where he was tortured, then executed. The sources say his fingernails were pulled off and his tongue ripped out before he was killed by Gen. Him Bun Heang, chief of security for Hun Sen and head of his personal bodyguard. “ They wanted to know the military radio frequencies of Funcinpec leaders, so they tortured him at Hun Sen’s house,” said a senior Cambodian military intelligence officer. “ They pulled his tongue out of his head with pliers when he wouldn’t talk.”

Another Funcinpec general, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior Ho Sok, was executed on the grounds of the ministry by the bodyguards of National Police Chief Gen. Hok Lundy, a loyalist of Hun Sen. According to Amnesty International, Ho Sok was arrested “ while attempting to find a country that would give him asylum.” He had taken refuge at the embassy of an ASEAN country, but was expelled at the request of Hun Sen’s aides and arrested as he drove to the luxury Cambodiana hotel, where many foreigners and Funcinpec officials had fled in the days after the coup. A Ministry of Interior spokesman confirmed the killing, saying it was done by “people who were angry with him.”

At least five bodyguards of Gen. Nyek Bun Chhay, the commander of Funcinpec forces, had their eyes gouged out while they were under interrogation, then executed, according to Western human rights officials and Cambodian military sources. After 14 days of flight through the countryside Nyek Bun Chhay has since arrived at the jungle headquarters and commands the resistance army.

Hundreds have already arrived in Thailand, including scores of Funcinpec officials, at least 24 members of parliament, journalists associated with independent newspapers, and officials of other political parties.

“The soldiers came to my house with rocket launchers looking for my steering committee members, putting their pictures on TV and posted in military offices,” said Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s most prominent opposition politician and head of the Khmer Nation party. “ There is a campaign to destroy the KNP. The soldiers told people at my office ‘ We will not even let a baby asleep in a hammock stay alive.’ This is real Khmer Rouge language We cannot operate anymore. Democracy is finished.” More than 1000 of his party workers are now amassed at a jungle encampment along the Thai border under the protection of Funcinpec troops still loyal to Ranariddh.

“Killing and repression are going on on a very large scale. Hun Sen is a murderous Prime Minister,” Ranariddh told the REVIEW in Bangkok on July 20. “ I hope that the U.S. congress will call for a cessation of all aid to Hun Sen.”

But international condemnation of the coup has been decidedly muted, with the major donor countries still considering whether to support a government controlled by Hun Sen. If he maintains a credible coalition by co-opting ministers from Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party, he may win that support.

The ambivalence of major Western governments was foreshadowed by the reaction of their embassies in Phnom Penh during the coup—a response that has been criticized bitterly by Cambodian and human rights officials. They say the American and Australian embassies refused entry to Cambodian government officials who sought refuge on embassy grounds. The U.S. embassy also “flatly refused” requests of political asylum for some members of parliament or to issue them with emergency visas.

“We begged visas from Western embassies. We begged them to open their gates for people who were clearly targeted for persecution, and the Americans, the Australians, flatly said no,” said a foreign human rights official in Phnom Penh. “ These are the embassies who have pushed people to exercise their rights, have said they supported human rights and free expression and opposition politics, but when these very values are trampled upon and those who exercised their  rights were targeted, they did nothing to help.”

American embassy sources said they had no clearance from Washington to offer political asylum and claim they were not approached directly by any Cambodians for sanctuary on embassy grounds.

The U.S. also set up a sanctuary on the grounds of the Cambodiana hotel in downtown Phnom Penh during the fighting that raged in the city. Some Cambodian parliamentarians who have since fled the country said they were denied access to the sanctuary in the hotel’s ballroom. The correspondent for Voice of America, Cambodian citizen Som Sattana, was refused access to the ballroom by embassy personnel, despite having received death threats, according to human rights workers. He has since left the country.

“We set up a U.S. embassy reception centre at the Cambodiana hotel early on Sunday (July 6) for American citizens,” said an embassy spokeswoman, who added: “ We were not open for visas during the fighting.”

The able to flee are regrouping in newly formed resistance zones in northern Cambodia. Several thousand heavily armed troops backed by tanks and artillery control a swath of territory across several provinces abutting the Thai border, including the contested northwestern provincial capital of Samrong.

Hundreds of Funcinpec members, exhausted from days of trekking across the country to reach Funcinpec-controlled areas, spoke of being hunted by Hun Sen’s forces. “ They are arresting people in their houses, in the jungle, along the road—anybody they think works for Funcinpec,” said Sok Nuon, a policeman who fled from Kampong Chhnang province.

Gen. Long Sereirath, formerly deputy commander of the 5th Military Region in the north, fought his way out of Siem Riep city four days after the coup. He said he went without food for three days before reaching Samrong. “ We will blow up key bridges to keep them from coming north with artillery,” he said, but added that his forces were desperately low on ammunition.

His commander, Lt. Gen. Khan Savouen, who is now leading resistance forces, appealed for foreign assistance from his front-line command post near national Route 6 in Siem Riep province.” We will fight even if we don’t get foreign assistance,” he said, surrounded by Russian T-54 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Heavy fighting raged a few kilometers away and his position was overrun the day after the REVIEW interviewed him.

November 12, 2011

 

POL POT: THE END

COVER STORY

 

2018 in Environmental Review for Southeast Asia


November 10, 2018

By: Gregory McCann

ttps://www.asiasentinel.com/society/2018-environmental-review-southeast-asia/

As 2018 comes to a close it is worth taking a look at the environmental trends throughout the year, with a special emphasis on those within the last six months or so, in order to gain an understanding of what has been happening to this region’s natural heritage and so that we might know what to look for in 2019—and how to address the upcoming challenges.

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A lloincloth-clad tribesmen blockading blockading logging roads in Malaysian Borneo.

While we can say that a lot has been happening everywhere, and this is especially true for Malaysia. The country produces durian that Chinese consumers covet. This means rain forests that are currently home to tigers are being converted into plantations so that more and more of the spiky, pungent fruit can be sold to China. That means bad environmental news, with China the driver. Furthermore, clearing forests will drastically reduce the number of pollinators such as bats and other wild animals, which will in turn lower the durian’s quality.

Another fruit—palm oil—is almost always the whipping boy for conservation problems in Malaysia (and beyond), however, the country is making headway in its own sustainable certification program, which attempts to incorporate Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) into development blueprints across Malaysian Borneo. Nonetheless, huge development projects in Peninsular Malaysia are pushing the environment to the breaking point, with gargantuan Chinese-funded residential projects such as Forest City across the strait from Singapore serving as a striking case in point.

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However, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently shut down several Chinese Belt and Road projects.  Malaysia also wants to ban importing plastic waste, as well as single-use plastic straws. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Even without the durians-to-China issue, tiger numbers are tumbling fast, scenic Langkawi island is coming under so much stress that it may lose its Unesco status, while in Sarawak the forest-dwelling Penan indigenous group continue to block bulldozers and fight for their traditional lands.

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Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located in the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia

However, a rehabilitated Bornean orangutan was successfully rewilded in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary, the first orangutan to fully return to the forest after such a long spell in captivity and rehabilitation, and a clouded leopard was sighted within the vicinity of a local hospital.

Across the Strait in Indonesia ecological issues are festering as well. While a new species of songbird has been identified on Rote Island, five other bird species have lost their protected status. The endemic Sumatran laughing thrush is fast disappearing, while the Helmeted Hornbill is relentlessly persecuted in Indonesia. The caged bird trade is bringing many species to the brink of extinction in the archipelago, and biologists say many forests where they work are becoming increasingly “quiet.”

Forest fires raged in South Sumatra and Riau provinces in 2018, and Chinese developers are stubbornly pushing ahead with a hydroelectric dam in the , home to the rarest species of orangutan in the world. The Critically Endangered Sumatra rhinoceros is still in big trouble but there is a movement on to save it, while a pregnant Sumatran tigress was caught and died in a pig trap in Riau.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a major palm oil problem, but the country’s anti-graft department says it’s ready to take action against transgressors who are felling natural forest and breaking other laws. Sadly, the Bali government wants to build an elevated highway right on top of some of its last undeveloped sandy beaches. The small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra has spewed lava and ash this year.   Widespread deforestation, poaching, overfishing, and plastic pollution has been taking over this island nation. Indonesian Presidential contender Prabowo has said that if he is elected to office he will review China’s Belt and Road plans, which could include a cancellation of the , and a court in Aceh recently threw down its stiffest penalty to date for two men caught trying to sell a tiger pelt.

Asia Sentinel recently reported on the surprising number of wildlife to be found in Singapore today. Thailand also received high environmental marks in a recent Asia Sentinel critique, however, Thai-language media recently uncovered a story about a Vietnamese national caught with tiger bones in the kingdom— particularly worrying report as Vietnamese poachers are among the most tenacious in Asia.

Making matters worse, a new and improved road through Kaeng Krachan National Park will likely lead to greater disturbance to the forest’s wildlife, while a few provinces to the north a Burmese national gunned down a binturong. There is rising sentiment to build a Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. A large crocodile was caught off the Krabi coast, a whale shark was recently spotted of Koh Racha, and local conservationists have thus far succeeded in fending off a new marina development project in Phuket. However, the deluge of Chinese tourists into the kingdom is pushing Thailand to its breaking point, and it was largely Chinese tourists who are responsible for the closing of Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, which remains closed indefinitely so that it can recover.

In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 Dam has been such a disaster that its main financer, the World Bank, has thrown in the towel and walked away.  In Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos contributing author Glenn Hunt remarks: “For one of the pillars that was supposed to be the primary source of income, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.” With about 140 dams either under construction or on the drawing board in its quest to be the “battery of Asia,” Laos faces the potential for most disasters and large-scale environmental and social degradation in a country that has already lost its wild tigers, leopards and many other species.

Despite the tragedy that unfolded in Attapeu province when a large dam collapsed, Laos remains bullish about constructing more dams. And the dam-building frenzy is harming the environment and wildlife all around the country. And while a recent Guardian write-up describing the fantastic-look Nam Et-Phou Luey ecotourism program up in the north of the country describes a healthy tiger population in this region, perhaps the author was given old data.

Wild elephants are reportedly being skinned alive in Myanmar to satisfy a new Chinese demand—for “blood beads,” which are blood-filled chunks of elephant fat. The previous link provides a window into some twisted tastes: “The online trader wants his customers to know the elephant was skinned quickly, with blood still fresh in its veins.” Chinese demand for elephant skin used in bags in jewelry was already shocking, but things can always get worse when it comes to wildlife.

But in more uplifting news from the country, Irrawaddy dolphins are being given greater protection, and the government is also cracking down on illegal wildlife trade in the city of Yangon.

Taking note of how poorly elephants working in tourism are treated across Asia, Vietnam has launched the region’s first “ethical elephant experience.” The country has also taken an interest in seeing that its shrimp farming industry become more sustainable, while the government also recently signed a deal with the EU that promises a reduction in illegal logging (though some in neighboring Cambodia have serious doubts about this). We reported earlier this year that Vietnam’s wildlife is in rough shape, and things haven’t taken much of a turn for the better since.

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Virachey National Park—A major tourist attraction in Cambodia

And finally, Cambodia.  A recent camera-trap check in Virachey National Park so delighted the Ministry of Environment that he shared some of the photos on their Facebook page; even the Thai media took notice of the results. Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year that Cambodia is probably the last hope for Indochina’s wildlife, and this still holds true, despite the fact that nearly 110,000 snares were found in a single national park. A man was recently killed by a wild boar near the Cardamom Mountains, while Kratie province is cracking down on illegal mining, and at the same time the central government is demanding that villagers who grabbed national park land return it.

In other news from the region, the Maubere tribe of Timor-Leste is bringing back ancient customary laws to help protect its forests, seas, and coastline. Chinese demand for logs is wiping out the forests of the Solomon Islands. India is losing tigers and elephants, while two elephants were struck by a train and killed in Sri Lanka.

As always, China casts a menacing shadow over Southeast Asia, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Mekong River and in the South China Sea. The region, with the help of the US and Japan, must find a way to manage Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond, and the some of the numerous dams that it has planned for the region have to be cancelled or scaled down.

Beyond that, Chinese citizens have to be educated about wildlife product consumption, including shark fins, tiger parts, bear gallbladder, elephant skin and blood, and much more, which have no known scientific value. And in a shocking and disturbing announcement,  China has said that it will lift its decades-old ban on the trading of tiger parts and rhino horn, a move that will almost certainly put these species in greater danger.  Or else one of the most biologically rich regions of the world loses everything that made it so special.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

Book Review: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam


October 14, 2108

By: John Berthelsen

https://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/the-road-not-taken-edward-lansdale-and-the-american-tragedy-in-vietnam/

There was a time when Edward Lansdale was arguably the most famous American in Asia, ostensibly the model for the hero of the novel “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer and widely thought of – erroneously – as the protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” both books about a US aid official in a war-torn Southeast Asian country, in Greene’s case Vietnam.

Today, Lansdale, who died in 1987, is largely forgotten. But during the 1950s and 1960s, he was a legend, a man who literally single-handedly turned around the Philippines, ending the Communist Hukbalahap revolution and installing as president Ramon Magsaysay, an incorruptible and effective leader in a shambolic country.  Purportedly an officer with the US Air Force, he was actually on a kind of permanent loan to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As Max Boot writes in this impressive, extremely well-researched biography, the decisions  by generations of American planners stretching from the Kennedys to Richard Nixon to ignore Lansdale’s advice on how to handle wars of rebellion and insurrection were beyond tragedy. Lansdale’s advice, which worked in the Philippines, was to combine clever propaganda with a dedication to democracy, of making sure that all levels of society had a stake in its success, and finding credible local political figures to work with.

It wasn’t just the Road Not Taken, the title of Boot’s 713-page history. Refusal to heed Lansdale resulted in what would arguably be the loss of Vietnam and the death of 2.5 million Vietnamese along with 56,000 Americans who should never have been there in the first place and who, once there,  did absolutely everything wrong.

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After his triumph in the Philippines, Lansdale was posted to Vietnam, where he took on the task of shepherding a truncated country in chaos after partition following the departure of the French, as a million Catholics fled the north. He became mentor to Ngo Dinh Diem, wreaking order out of the disarray and putting South Vietnam, as it was known, on what appeared to be a solid footing before he returned to the US in 1956

That was pretty much the end of Edward Lansdale’s effectiveness. He was posted back to the United States as the Kennedys and the hawks took over.  A long procession of Americans who knew little of the country’s history and cared less decided that Diem was a liability, saddled as he was with his autocratic brother and the brother’s harridan wife Madam Nhu. On Oct 31, 1963, with the Kennedys’ acquiescence, Diem and his brother were murdered in an armored personnel carrier.

On that same day, ironically, Lansdale was officially retiring at the Pentagon. As Blow writes, “While colleagues were delivering flowery toasts and speeches in honor of Lansdale, (Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara walked in. And he kept on walking, striding purposefully forward, one polished wingtip after another, never looking at what was going on through his polished spectacles, much less stopping to join in the tributes to a man who had left behind a successful advertising career to devote the last 21 years of his life to his country’s service.”

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It was McNamara, of course, who was the architect of America’s descent into the folly of the Vietnam War.

Lansdale didn’t leave the service of his country. He was instead put in charge by the Kennedy brothers of attempting to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba, something Lansdale from the start said would be folly. He argued against the disastrous attempt by the Kennedys to invade Cuba, using CIA operatives and anti-Cuban exiles, which ended up one of the administration’s worst embarrassments.  Dubbed Operation Mongoose, the campaign against Castro was characterized by loony attempts to poison El Jefe, to lay dynamite charges in seashells near where Castro swam and other stupidities

Lansdale would be rehabilitated somewhat by Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and would return to Vietnam to head pacification efforts in a country that already was too far gone to be saved. US troop levels climbed and continued to climb. Lansdale was looked upon as a woolly-headed liberal by most of the establishment in the country – and by the press establishment as well, with the disdain particularly full-throated by David Halberstam of the New York Times and other establishment press figures.  I was there at the time as a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, and Lansdale was pretty much a shadow. Few ever went to see him. We all were too busy covering the war by that time although a few still believed in his attempts to mold the country into something other than sadly what it became – a killing ground.

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Of course, the folly of the war was never in doubt. And the bigger problem was how American foreign policy followed Vietnam down the rabbit hole.

”The key American shortcoming, in the early twenty-first century, as in the 1960s, was the inability to constructively guide the leaders of allied states in the direction desired by Washington. The Kennedy administration had seen a downward spiral into a hostile relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem after Lansdale’s return home at the end of 1956. Something similar happened with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the Bush and Obama administrations. What was missing was a high-level American official who could influence those allies to take difficult steps such as fighting corruption without risking a blowup or backlash. Lansdale believed such tricky tasks could be accomplished by a ‘person who was selflessly dedicated to the ideal of man’s liberty, was sustained by spiritual principles of his own faith, was demonstrably sensitive to the felt needs of the people of a foreign culture and had earned their trust.’”

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Lansdale pulled it off twice. But reading Boot’s account, particularly of Vietnam, as official after official came and went, knowing nothing of the country and willfully refusing to learn while piling on the ammunition, is heartbreaking.

Boot was one of George Bush’s Vulcans, a right-wing neocon. But this book, written while he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a remarkably level-headed and astute  account of how US foreign policy went wrong and how it remains tragically wrong today. The US remains tied up in Afghanistan 17 years after it entered, with no idea how to extricate itself. Nor is the country’s foreign policy any more nuanced or intelligent anywhere else.  With the current administration, which has emptied out the State Department, it is unlikely to get any better any time soon.

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda


September 8, 2018

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda

by Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times
 
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Justin Wood, Head of Asia-Pacific, Member of the WEF Executive Committee told reporters on September 6 (Photo: VNA)

 

The World Economic Forum of ASEAN will discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by a wide range of new breakthroughs. Chheang Vannarith writes these new technologies are revolutionary due to the speed, breadth and depth of anticipated change they will bring and warns that if Asean leaders do not think regionally, they will miss out on opportunities and fail to address growing challenges.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is going to take place in Hanoi on 11-13 September, with the participation of, if nothing changes, seven state leaders from ASEAN member states, namely State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

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The main theme of the forum this year focuses on how Asean can embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which generally refers to technological revolution in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. This is a new, critical area of regional cooperation as Asean moves towards building a genuine people-centered, people-oriented community.

Opportunities are present, stemming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we need to be aware of and get ready to face emerging challenges such as job losses and disruption, inequality and political instability, and cyberattacks. With the accelerating pace of change and transformation in almost all dimensions of social, economic and political landscapes, Asean member countries need to accelerate their comprehensive reforms, especially regulatory reforms, in order to grasp the benefits and overcome the challenges.

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Information and knowledge sharing is critical to building national and regional capacity in navigating through these transformations and uncertainties. The less developed economies like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar need more international support in building their digital infrastructure and human capital to survive and stay economically competitive. If not, they risk being left far behind. Be aware that widening the development gap within the region will prevent the realisation of a genuine regional community and could potentially trigger regional division and instability. A two-tiered ASEAN is not a healthy ASEAN.

The report by the World Economic Forum and the Asian Development Bank in 2017 suggests that regional governments must be fast, agile, experimental, inclusive, and open in developing an ecosystem for digital integration. Being inclusive in policy design and execution has been one of the main shortcomings in regional integration in Southeast Asia since regional projects are chiefly led by political ruling elites with low participation from the private sector and civil society. It is commonly said that ASEAN is an elite-driven regional project.

How to transform this unprecedented breadth and depth of technological revolution into a source of inclusive and sustainable development remains the top challenge for ASEAN and its member states. It is proven that inequality is one of the root causes of political and social instability and ASEAN must develop a strategy to link technology with the narrowing development gap – one of which is to promote “an inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

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The new Cambodian government to be formed today has included digital economy into its development agenda for the next five years, with the expectation that it will help Cambodia to compete with other regional countries within the context of intensifying market competition, the gradual collapsing of labor-intensive manufacturing industry, and the concentration of market power by multinational companies.

The local enterprises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will face mounting challenges to remain competitive in the market that will transition to virtual products and services than real ones. Technology remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many SMEs in the region and there is an urgent need to develop a support mechanism, both financial and technical support, to assist SMEs in utilizing the benefits accorded in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Another interesting agenda of the forum is the dialogue session on the future of the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. The leaders from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam will present their views on the current state of regional development and integration in the Mekong and the management of the Mekong River. There are increasing concerns that hydropower dams being constructed and planned along the mainstream of the river will severely affect the livelihoods and ecosystem in the whole Mekong River Basin. The recent dam collapse in Laos has prompted riparian countries to review their hydropower projects.

The two downstream countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, are the most affected countries. They have put certain pressures on upstream countries, particularly Laos, to conduct trans-boundary environmental and social impact assessments before constructing dams. Data sharing on water flow and quality is another key area of cooperation, especially in the dry season. There are many outstanding issues and emerging challenges that the Mekong countries need to overcome and find suitable solutions for all. A win-win cooperation must be real on the ground, not only in diplomatic statements. The perception of the local people, not the ruling elites, is the best indicator to reflect and prove whether a development project is a win-win project.

ASEAN and other sub-regional institutions such as the Mekong River Commission share one common weakness which is the lack of implementation and enforcement. Policies abound – either in the form of blueprints, declarations, or joint statements – but implementation is lacking. Next week, ASEAN leaders will share their perspectives on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Mekong River. It will be a reminder that people want to know concrete actions and solutions that benefit whole societies and not small groups of political and business elites. That is what inclusiveness is all about.

Chheang Vannarith is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

 

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.