Episode 106: The Killing Fields of Democratic Kampuchea

Here is the next episode of the podcast at last!  I couldn’t go anywhere yesterday, because the area where I live is covered with ice and snow, so I finally had time to finish Episode 106.  At the beginning of the episode, I will explain what kept me from finishing it at the beginning of February, as I had originally planned to do.  Today the topic is Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, the grim period known as “the Pol Pot Terror” or “the Killing Fields.”  And because I was a teenager when these events were happening, I will tell you how they have affected me even to this day.



This is your friendly neighborhood podcaster, currently at home because of all the ice and snow my neighborhood has been getting for the past couple of weeks. As you know, I like to begin an episode by giving a shout-out to those listeners who made donations recently. Since the previous episode, I have had to replace my computer (more about that in a minute), and I made a call for donations on the podcast’s Facebook page to cover the cost of the new computer. Boy, did you respond! Over the past month, donations have come in from Louis E., Dan M., Brian E., Louis C., Caroline L., and Torsten J. Thank you for coming to the rescue in my hour of need! Of course, this episode is dedicated to all of you.

And that’s not all. If you’re a regular listener, those names should sound familiar. In fact, all but one of the donors have given before! Moreover, we have some promotions to mention. Louis E. and Torsten J. gave in 2020, and now that they have given in 2021, they have received the coveted water buffalo icon next to their names, on the Podcast Hall of Fame page. As for Louis C, he gave multiple times in 2019 and 2020, so now with a 2021 donation, he has become the second donor eligible for my newest icon, the ever-popular icon representing the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar! Thank you for your support, all of you, and to quote Tiny Tim, God bless you, every one. May the climate be fair and conductive to prosperity, in the places where you live. And now we have a show to get to, so let’s roll with it!

Episode 106: The Killing Fields of Democratic Kampuchea

Greetings, dear listeners, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Sorry for the delays, this episode was originally scheduled to be released on February 1. But instead, I only started recording it on February 1. If you saw the messages I posted on the podcast’s Facebook page you know what happened. For the rest of you, here’s the story.

If you are joining us for the first time, this podcast is more than four and a half years old. I have recorded everything on a laptop that I bought in 2015. It certainly served me well, but on Monday, January 25, 2021, it gave me a warning that the hard drive was about to fail. Then the hard drive did fail 24 hours later. Thanks to the warning, I did not lose anything that mattered; I managed to back up all my data onto three external hard drives.

<Backup sound>

I took the laptop to the computer store where I bought it because they also do repairs. At first I thought they could just replace the hard drive and I would be good to go, but after looking at it, they said they found some motherboard problems that could cause the laptop to fail again later this year. So I ended up buying a new laptop on Friday, and spent the following weekend configuring it to suit my needs, an uphill task because the old laptop ran on Windows 7, while the new one uses Windows 10. Also, the new one doesn’t have a CD drive, so at some point I will have to get an external CD drive to plug into it. Finally, this episode may sound a little different from previous ones, due to the new configuration.

Now one of the podcasts I listen to is The Eastern Border, by Kristaps Andrejsons. He lives in Latvia, and talks about life in the bad old Soviet Union, told by someone on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In college I majored in Russian history, because this was during the Cold War, and it seemed like a good idea to learn how the other side thinks, so this podcast is right up my alley. A month or two ago, Kristaps’s computer failed under similar circumstances to mine. I was one of those who sent money to help him get back on his feet. Now I know how he feels, except that he lost his work to the hard drive failure, and had to start from scratch.

The new computer cost me $400 plus tax, so any donation you can make to get me through this tight spot will definitely be appreciated. More about that at the end of this episode.

By the way, I have noticed in most movies and TV shows that the good guys use Macs, while the villains use PCs. It even happened with Star Trek. In my favorite scene from the fourth Star Trek movie, “The Voyage Home,” Scotty tries to use a Mac computer from the 1980s by picking up the mouse and saying into it:


I guess this means I am with the dark side.

<Hans, are we the baddies?>

Okay, enough with the digression! Over the course of more than one hundred episodes, I have given an ongoing narrative about the history of the eleven nations between India, China and Australia. Now you can say we’re in the home stretch, because I have gotten at least as far as the mid-1970s with all of them. Therefore all the events I will be talking about today have happened in my lifetime, and maybe yours as well. In the case of two countries, Singapore and Malaysia, I have gone all the way to the present, so if I talk about them again, it will only be a casual mention.

Now we are returning to the area that got most of our attention from Episodes 71 to 96 – Indochina. When I covered Singapore and Malaysia, the stories had happy endings; those countries are successful today. Now I believe it is time to look at how the three countries of Indochina – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – have fared since the Second Indochina War ended, in 1975. While I would say that Vietnam has made a complete recovery from the war, all three have faced real challenges. In the case of Cambodia, the story is a hair-raiser for sure!

Here is a disclaimer. When I first launched this podcast, nobody had recorded anything on Southeast Asian history, except for a few clips from college professors about the Vietnam War, that ended with reading assignments and other class work. Indeed, I told you that was one of the reasons why I chose to talk about this subject. Since then I have listened to one podcaster besides myself talk about Cambodia’s outstanding achievement, the Angkor civilization. I covered that in Episode 7 of this podcast. In addition, I have heard Dan Carlin’s series on World War II in the Pacific, which he isn’t done with yet, and I have heard two podcasts discuss what Pol Pot did in Cambodia. Therefore what I cover today will sound familiar to those of you who listen to the same podcasts. I will give you the facts about the Khmer Rouge terror, of course, and then, since I am old enough to remember the events in this episode, I will distinguish this podcast from the others by also telling you how I saw the situation in Cambodia at the time.

If you missed the previous episodes I recorded about Cambodia, or feel you need to brush up on what you know about that country, you should at least listen to the episodes I recorded about the Cambodian phase of the Second Indochina War, because this episode begins with the end of that war. The wartime episodes are 91, 92, part of 95, and part of 96. Also, today’s story is one of the grimmest I have to tell in the whole podcast series. While I will continue to keep the podcast family friendly, there will be a lot of violence in today’s episode, so if you listen with small children, listener discretion is advised. All right, if everyone is ready, let’s go.


Communists are expected to behave brutally when they take over a country, but nobody expected the holocaust that the Khmer Rouge inflicted upon Cambodia, or as they renamed the country, Democratic Kampuchea. In fact, what the Communists did in places like Russia, China and Cuba looked like fainthearted reforms, by comparison.

We saw in Episode 96 that the Khmer Rouge were welcomed as they entered Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, on April 17, 1975, because this meant the war was over. Instead, the horror planned by the Khmer Rouge began on the same day, with the total evacuation of Phnom Penh. Every man, woman and child was ordered out into the countryside. They were told that because the Khmer Rouge had captured the city, the Americans would now certainly bomb the place. No one was given time to pack; they were simply ordered at gunpoint to leave. Nobody was exempt, not even those too old or sick to walk on their own. Patients were dragged from their hospital beds and pregnant women were forced to give birth along the road. No matter what their condition, all had to keep moving or risk being shot. Under the scorching hot Cambodian sun, thousands dropped dead along the road, and their bodies were left to swell in the heat.

Overnight, every city in the land became a ghost town. The city dwellers were assigned to farms or public works projects, which usually meant building dams and dikes, or digging irrigation canals. The new villages they were settled in usually lacked food, farm tools, and medical care. Once they reached their destinations, they were made to work as slaves for 12-15 hours a day. They were separated from their families, given only watery rice gruel to eat most of the time, and treated worse than the farm animals. These workers lived in constant terror of being reported for even minor acts, such as taking a coconut from a tree or allowing cattle to graze in the wrong field. Many starved to death before the first harvest. During the next four years an estimated two million Cambodians, one fourth to one third of the prewar population, perished, either by malnutrition, disease, exhaustion–or by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, who tortured and killed without a second thought anyone showing the slightest resistance.

Podcast footnote: You gotta do what you gotta do. Starving Cambodians forced into the jungle from Skuon, a town thirty miles west of Kampong Cham, tried eating giant spiders, which in that area can grow up to six inches long. They found that when you fry them and apply the right spices, the arachnids are delicious, so the local residents still eat fried spiders today, long after the famine of the Khmer Rouge years ended. And they’re not the only ones; Cambodians driving across the countryside will make it a point to stop at Skuon for a plate of the local delicacy. End footnote.

The purpose of all this was a diabolical social experiment. We saw in a previous episode that since the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge headquarters had been in the northeast corner of the country, where the government in Phnom Penh couldn’t get at it, and that leaders like Pol Pot had come to admire the simple peasants living around them. Now their ultimate goal was to create an agrarian utopia, where just about everyone was a peasant. According to Pol Pot, five classes of people existed in pre-revolutionary Cambodia: peasants, workers, bourgeoisie, capitalists, and feudalists; I’m guessing that the last category means the royal family, and those who work for them. Now, as defined by the 1976 Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea, there would be three classes: workers, peasants, and “all other Kampuchean working people.” In practice, however, there were hardly any workers, because the cities had been evacuated, and the country’s few factories were closed. The one important group that still counted as “workers” were the laborers on large rubber plantations, and because most of them came from the Vietnamese minority, the Khmer Rouge did not trust them. Most of the population was lumped into two categories. Those who lived in the rural areas that the Khmer Rouge controlled before 1975 were called “Old People,” while those from the recently captured cities were “New People”; the Old People were treated somewhat better, because they had already been converted to communism, and thus were seen as more trustworthy. Still, according to the testimony of refugees, there were cases where the Old People also had to endure forced labor, indoctrination, the separation of children from parents, and random executions.

From the Khmer Rouge point of view, every element of civilization from the pre-1975 era must be eliminated, so a new, more perfect society could be built from nothing. Cities were useless–empty them! Schools don’t teach students how to grow rice, so close them. Trade is evil, so abolish all markets. Abolish money. Abolish the postal system, to keep out evil foreign influences. Abolish private transportation and land ownership. Abolish religion and marriage, so the people will work harder, eat less, and produce fewer children. From now on, their only family should be Angkar Loeu, “The Organization On High,” what the Khmer Rouge leadership called itself. Destroy contaminating foreign inventions, like cars, jewelry, TV sets, air conditioners, and anything else that represented wealth, class, or individuality. Turn the National Library into a pig sty. Destroy contaminated people: former enemy soldiers, teachers, physicians, ethnic minorities like the Vietnamese and the Chams, anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language . . .


In other countries, after the communists took over, they sometimes allowed a transitional stage where patriotic capitalists worked with them to help the nation recover from the war it had recently undergone. With Russia, for example, this took place during the 1920s, and it was called the New Economic Policy. But the Khmer Rouge did not permit any part-capitalist stage like this. Norodom Sihanouk, the former Cambodian king and the figurehead Khmer Rouge leader, wrote that in early 1975, while the Cambodian Civil War was still going on, he, Khieu Samphan, and Khieu Thirith, the sister of Pol Pot’s wife, went to visit the premier of China, Zhou Enlai. At this point, Zhou Enlai was sick with cancer, and would die from it less than a year later, in January 1976. Zhou warned them not to attempt to achieve communism suddenly through one “great leap forward,” without intermediate steps. China had tried that in 1958; the result was a disaster, a man-made famine that killed at least 30 million people. Sihanouk wrote that Khieu Samphan and Khieu Thirith, quote, “just smiled an incredulous and superior smile.” Unquote. Later, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen, the chief of the Khmer Rouge secret police, boasted to Sihanouk that, quote, “we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.” Unquote.

There was even a rumor that the ancient ruins of Angkor had been torn down by the overzealous Khmer Rouge; fortunately that turned out to be false. To symbolize the start of a new age, the Khmer Rouge proclaimed 1975 Year Zero, and proclaimed the start of a new community that would be cleansed of “all sorts of depraved cultures and social blemishes.”

Podcast footnote: Although the Khmer Rouge spared the old temples, they did use them as bases. They also planted hundreds of thousands of landmines in the grounds near the temples, and in a future episode I will tell you about the man who singlehandedly removed many of them. Nowadays, Cambodia’s splendid monuments suffer from two problems. The first and most serious problem is vandals, who have removed hundreds of sculptures and sold them on the black market.

The second problem is a strange one — nude tourists. In the twenty-first century there have been cases where foreign visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park have taken pictures of themselves naked among the ruins. Probably the most notorious example appeared in 2015, on the website of a German photographer, Simon Lohmeyer. It shows a naked couple at an Angkor temple, wearing only monkey masks. The photo came with the caption “Hakuna Matata”; fans of “The Lion King” know this means “no worries.”

Because tourism to Angkor is a major source of income for Cambodia, and the temples are still a place of worship and meditation for Buddhist monks, the agency in charge of park security, the Apsara Authority, is not amused. Tourists caught with their pants down (literally) are likely to be fined and deported, and maybe banned from returning to the country. It is not clear what is causing this disrespectful behavior. Tourists may be inspired by the relief sculptures of topless women at the sites; in medieval Cambodia, Khmer women often wore nothing above the waist. Also, the tourists may think the ruins are a good place to do a live-action performance of a Disney movie like “The Jungle Book” or “The Lion King”(which would explain the “Hakuna Matata” incident), or this may be part of our culture’s current obsession with taking selfies. Now, has anyone heard if Indonesia is having this problem with the Borobudur temple? End footnote.


What I’m going to tell you next is partly personal. I have noticed that most of my fellow podcasters are left-of-center politically. So far I have kept my political views out of my podcast recordings, or at least I think I have kept my views out, so I am coming into the open about it now. I’m a right-wing conservative. But back in the late 1970s, when I was young and full of beans, I was very liberal like you other podcasters. Even borderline socialist. What caused me to cross the political aisle? It has been said that “a conservative is a liberal who was mugged the night before.” If there is one thing you can call my “mugging moment,” it was the way in which the news media reported on the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia.

How did the outside world react to the Khmer Rouge experiment? At first they knew nothing about it. The international press had been expelled from the country when Phnom Penh fell. I remember Time Magazine managed to produce a story about the evacuation of Phnom Penh, but they didn’t know where the urban population was going, or what they would do when they got there. Then the Time reporters left, and all of Cambodia fell silent. The Vietnamese didn’t know what was happening, because as we saw in a previous episode, their forces pulled out of Cambodia before the war ended. Whatever the Khmer Rouge was doing, now escaped becoming public knowledge.

Then gradually the rumors started, brought out of Cambodia by refugees who were physical and psychological wrecks. At the beginning of 1977, a book telling the stories of those refugees, entitled Murder of a Gentle Land, was published. I read part of that book, so I knew that something very wrong was going on in Cambodia. But the response of most foreigners was different. The news media blamed all the bad rumors on CIA misinformation. I remember in particular reading a magazine article that flat-out denied reports about the Khmer Rouge abolishing the institution of marriage. There were also discussions among intellectuals about how the Khmers are not like the Vietnamese, so naturally they will have a different approach to Communism. In the name of fraternal solidarity, they were just practicing different means to reach the same ends.

Speaking of fraternal solidarity, when war later broke out between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, it showed me that the “universal brotherhood” communists talked about was nothing but a myth. Centuries of bad relations between Khmers and Vietnamese would not be erased overnight, just because both had a change in government. From that time on I have moved to the right politically. I left the Democratic Party in 1984, and the Republican Party in 2006, as both major American parties have become more like each other, turning into a “Uniparty” that does not care about what the people want. Now I am an independent conservative, like the talk show host Michael Savage. So if I let any bias creep into my recordings after this, you will know where I am coming from.


We saw in previous episodes that Prince Sihanouk spent most of the Cambodian Civil War in China, where he enjoyed a rather comfortable exile. After the war ended, he took his time, waiting several months before coming home to Cambodia. When he arrived, he was so appalled at what the Khmer Rouge had done that he quickly returned to China. When he visited a second time in 1976, he was arrested. As he had once predicted, some day the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t need him anymore. Still, they couldn’t just kill someone that famous, so they placed him under house arrest in Phnom Penh, and there he remained until January 1979. He was far more visible than his communist partners, but he never had much influence over them.

With Sihanouk’s arrest, Khieu Samphan became the second president of Democratic Kampuchea. I remember that at the time, the outside world thought Khieu Samphan was the real Khmer Rouge leader, but it turned out he was a front man, too. The ultimate leader was Pol Pot; it was always Pol Pot’s orders that were being carried out. Long-time listeners will remember meeting Pol Pot in Episode 91; his original name was Saloth Sar, and he had been hiding in the jungle since 1963. He did not show himself to the outside world until March 1976, when he was elected to a seat in the Khmer Rouge parliament that represented rubber plantation workers. One month later he became Democratic Kampuchea’s prime minister. It wasn’t until 1977 that Pol Pot was revealed as the leader of Angkar Loeu, and that the organization’s real name was the Kampuchean Communist Party, or KCP. But after that he remained a mysterious figure. How mysterious was he? He had covered up his past so successfully that even his own family did not recognize him. And in 1978 a team of visiting reporters from Yugoslavia, another communist country, asked him, quote, “Comrade Pol Pot, who are you?” Unquote.

In September 1976, Pol Pot gave a speech mourning the death of the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, and he announced that the Khmer Rouge was on the side of China in the rivalry between China and the Soviet Union; here he declared that Angkar Loeu was “Marxist-Leninist” and that it enjoyed “fraternal relations” with the Chinese Communist Party. Then a year later, in September 1977, Cambodian radio broadcast a five-hour recorded speech where Pol Pot told the history of the Kampuchean Communist Party. He stated that the KCP was seventeen years old and that it had been founded on September 30, 1960. However, we know there had been a few communists in Cambodia previously; this podcast mentioned them in Episode 91. They had called themselves the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, KPRP for short, and the movement’s founding date had usually been given as September 30, 1951 – nine years earlier to the day. We also noted that this movement had been given aid by Ho Chi Minh’s communists, the Viet Minh, and took orders from them. September 1960 was the date of the KPRP’s second party congress, and it was around then that younger, pro-Chinese communists like Pol Pot began to take over the movement, replacing its older, pro-Vietnamese founders. Apparently Pol Pot was now spreading the idea that Cambodian communism had always been led by folks like him. He was also covering up the fact that during the war, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists were brothers-in-arms, and that he couldn’t have conquered Cambodia without help from Hanoi.

Unlike other dictators, Pol Pot did not pull any absurd stunts; today he is only remembered for the ghastly slaughter while he was in charge. However, Pol Pot did show a common characteristic with other dictators; he thought enemies were plotting against him everywhere. Before long, the Khmer Rouge began employing spies, which were usually children, to report on any activities that might be interpreted as working against the revolutionary movement. Sure enough, traitors were “discovered,” and large numbers of real or alleged associates were identified in forced confessions. As “enemies” of the revolution were arrested and tortured into confessing their allegedly traitorous activities, they were also required to supply the names of people they were associated with and who were part of their supposed “network.” Of course the confessions extracted this way were unreliable; they came from people who would say anything to end the interrogations they were subjected to.

By 1977, the leadership’s distrust of others had become outright paranoia, and the purges of suspected traitors increased. Even the ranks of Khmer Rouge party members were purged; Pol Pot showed a racist attitude when he called his rivals, quote, “Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds.” Unquote. As the number of victims and their families increased, prisons were set up, and here they were tortured and murdered. The most notorious of these prisons was a former high school in Phnom Penh, called simply S-21.

Podcast footnote: The warden running S-21 was Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch (“Doyk”). He died of old age last year, and I shared his obituary on this podcast’s Facebook page. He was probably one of the most brutal men you have never heard of. End footnote.

Out of an estimated 15,000 prisoners who were sent to S-21, only seven survived. The prisoners were photographed and tortured to produce confessions. Like the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge kept copious records of their victims. If you go to Phnom Penh today and visit S-21, now called the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, you will see hundred of photos taken of the prisoners, and the beds used to restrain them. After the prisoners died, their corpses were carried by truck to mass graves outside Phnom Penh. As of 2016, the Documentation Center of Cambodia listed 19,733 mass grave sites. Because of the mass graves, and the human bones littering the countryside, we often use the phrase “the Killing Fields” to describe this period in Cambodia’s history.


If the Khmer Rouge had minded their own business, they probably could have done what they wanted within Cambodia’s borders indefinitely, and let the rest of the world think whatever it wanted. But it was an external enemy, namely the Vietnamese, who brought down Pol Pot, thanks to his inability to get along with any foreign power besides China. We have seen that in the Sino-Soviet dispute, Pol Pot took the side of China, preferring Maoism over Leninism, but the Vietnamese communists joined the Soviet Bloc as soon as the Second Indochina War ended. As a result, the Khmer Rouge began persecuting ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, seeing them as enemy agents. And as early as May 1975, right after the war, there were border clashes between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, and attacks on each other’s offshore islands. Then in 1977 there were Khmer Rouge attacks on Thai villages, along the Thai border. Of course the Khmer Rouge couldn’t get along with Thailand, because the Thais were not communist; on the contrary, the Thais still have a king even now, and for much of the twentieth century, the person running the show in Thailand was a right-wing military strongman. The murder of Thai villagers, including women and children, was the first widely reported concrete evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities. One of my sources even mentioned clashes along the Laotian border, showing the Khmer Rouge couldn’t get along with any of their neighbors.

The bloodiest clashes were along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. In September 1977, border fighting resulted in as many as 1,000 Vietnamese civilian casualties. Because of the recent war, Vietnam had one of the largest armies in the world at this date, and they had not had much to do since the war ended, so Vietnam retaliated, by launching air strikes against Cambodia, and by sending a ground force of 20,000 men across the border in October. However, Khmer Rouge resistance was tougher than expected, and the Vietnamese defense minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap, felt compelled to commit an additional 58,000 reinforcements in December. Then on January 6, 1978, the Vietnamese began an orderly withdrawal from Cambodian territory. Apparently the Vietnamese believed they had “taught a lesson” to the Khmer Rouge, but instead, Pol Pot declared this was an even greater “victory” than the 1975 victory against his non-communist opponents. Now it looks like Pol Pot got the idea that he could invade Vietnam and recover the Mekong delta region; long-time listeners will remember that this territory, the southernmost part of present-day Vietnam, belonged to Cambodia before the year 1700.

In mid-1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia again, advancing about 30 miles before the arrival of the rainy season forced them to turn back. In November, Vorn Vet, the deputy prime minister of Cambodia’s economy, launched a coup. It failed, and Vorn Vet was executed in the S-21 prison. By now there were tens of thousands of Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese refugees on the Vietnamese side of the border. On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced that Vietnam was organizing the refugees into a rebel army, the KNUFNS, meaning the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation. The leader of this force was Heng Samrin, a former division commander in the Khmer Rouge army, but you didn’t have to be a communist to join; any Cambodian who opposed Pol Pot was welcome. Still, the KNUFNS was too weak to overthrow the Khmer Rouge on its own; the Vietnamese would have to do most of the fighting, with the KNUFNS forming the satellite regime that would be established afterwards in Phnom Penh.

Vietnam launched an all-out invasion of Cambodia on December 25, 1978. The force consisted of 120,000 soldiers, combined armor and infantry units with strong artillery support. They advanced in five columns. Two of the columns came from the part of South Vietnam called the Central Highlands by Americans; they drove on the eastern provincial capitals of Stung Treng and Kratié. The third column advanced from Tay Ninh Province to the river port of Kampong Cham. The fourth column was the most important; it followed Route 1 from Ho Chi Minh City to another important river port, Neak Luong, and after taking it, marched on Phnom Penh. The fifth column started from Ha Tien, Vietnam, and captured the ports on the coast, thereby cutting off access to the sea.

The Khmer Rouge tried to stand their ground and fight. But because of the party purges, their units no longer had experienced commanders, and they withered under sustained pounding by Vietnamese artillery and air strikes. Many troops simply scattered before the Vietnamese offensive, to regroup later in western Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge chose not to defend Phnom Penh, and it fell to the Vietnamese on January 7, 1979, just two weeks after the offensive began. After taking the capital, Vietnamese units pushed into western Cambodia in two columns, to capture the western cities of Battambang and Siem Reap; then they met at Sisophon and continued marching to the Thai border, where there was heavy fighting in March and April. Here in the least accessible areas, the Khmer Rouge issued a new call to arms, and began an insurgency against the new government in power, just as they had done against the former governments of Prince Sihanouk and Lon Nol. Thus, Vietnamese troops would have to stay in the country for the time being.

On the diplomatic front, Vietnam at first denied having any troops in Cambodia, claiming that the KNUFNS had achieved its swift victory all by itself. Yeah, right. But when called before the UN Security Council, Hanoi’s representative admitted to the Vietnamese presence, and cited several Western press reports of Pol Pot’s atrocities, suggesting that Vietnam had overthrown a nasty dictatorship which no one loved, in the name of human rights.


It’s time to feed the baby, so I’m going to stop here. Because of the delays I had getting started on this episode, it will probably be the only episode coming out in February 2021. Fortunately, February is a short month. For next time, I think I will go to Vietnam and catch you up on what had happened in that country since the Second Indochina War ended, in Episode 96. For example, the last time I mentioned Vietnam in Episode 96, I was still talking about North and South Vietnam, but in this episode I only talked about one Vietnam. Would you like to know how they came together? Of course you would, and then we will be in a good position to continue the narrative about Cambodia, after Pol Pot was overthrown. Join me as we go into the Third Indochina War.

This podcast has no sponsors, and runs no ads; it depends on donations from listeners like you to keep on running. I told you at the beginning of this episode about the latest donations; if you would like to become a donor, the simplest way to make a donation is through Paypal. Just go to the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode, and click on the gold “Donate!” button. For that you will get your first name at the beginning of the next episode to be recorded, and your first name will be added to the podcast’s hall of fame page; there’s a link to that on the Blubrry.com page, too. If you have donated before 2021, giving again will make you eligible for the coveted icon of Walter the Water Buffalo, next to your name. And if you have donated in two previous years, giving again will get the new, ever-popular Shwedagon Pagoda icon placed next to your name as well! Or you can give a small amount each month by becoming a Patreon donor. Just click on the Patreon link on the Blubrry.com page, to go to my Patreon page. Currently there are sixteen Patrons; who will be the next to join?

And of course, you can help the podcast by promoting it; that won’t cost you anything. You can write a review, if you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows reviews. If you’re on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss updates and additional content from me. Lately, besides telling about my computer problems on the Facebook page, I have shared articles about the ongoing coup in Myanmar, which appears to be undoing the progress that country has made towards democracy. Finally, tell others by word of mouth; you never know who may want to give the podcast a listen. And as I always tell you, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 105: Malaysia, Another Success Story



This episode completes the historical narrative for another Southeast Asian nation.  Here we see Malaysia from 1970 to 2021.  In fact, one of the events covered, the 1MDB scandal, blew up after I started recording this podcast in 2016.  Although Malaysia is not as rich as Singapore or Brunei, it comes in a respectable third place, and here you will learn how they did it.




Hello, this is your friendly neighborhood podcast host, and what a turnout for donations to the podcast at the beginning of the year!  Since the last episode went up on New Year’s Day, there has been not one, not two, not three . . . oh, did you think I was going to stop at four?  No, not four, but FIVE donations to the podcast, from Russell I., Ben G., Caroline L., Lindy S., and Brian E.  Russell and Ben got honorable mentions for making donations last year, so that means they now get the Water Buffalo icon next to their names on the Podcast Hall of Fame page!  Russell and Ben, it’s good to hear from you again, and I also enjoyed the emails Russell sent me, telling about his trip to the Philippines.  As for Brian, he met my challenge; he is the first to donate for three years in a row, so I have made a new icon to commemorate that.  This icon features the most famous attraction in Myanmar, the 328-foot-tall golden Shwedagon Pagoda!  If you don’t remember the details on that pagoda, I believe I talked about it in Episode 24.  Brian, I hope you like the new icon next to your name.

Now before I forget, this episode is dedicated to all five of you.  Here in Kentucky I am currently snowed in, so if you’re in a place that gets winter, may your winter be a mild one.  May all of you enjoy success at the next endeavors you set your minds to, and may this be the start of a lucky trend that sees you through the whole year.


Episode 105: Malaysia, Another Success Story

Greetings, dear listeners, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky!  Well, I’m not going to say that 2021 is as bad as 2020 was, but it certainly got off to a turbulent start, didn’t it?  Let’s hope that when 2020 went out the door, it did not put on a wig and come back, disguised as 2021.  Of course, you must have heard about the unpleasant transition between presidencies in Washington, DC.  Meanwhile, the Internet connection was out in my house for a whole weekend, and after that a minor cold further delayed me getting started on recording this episode.  And on top of all that, my 62nd birthday came and went in the middle of the other events.  Therefore I can say it has been a busy fortnight.

Before we begin today’s topic, I need to correct an error from the previous episode.  This is a reminder that the podcast is a learning experience for me as well as for you!  Last time I stated that the current president of Singapore is Tony Tan.  Well, not anymore.  My source on that is obviously out of date.  Although Mr. Tan is alive as I record this, his term in office ended in 2017, and he was not allowed to run again, due to a constitutional amendment passed in 2016, that reserves the presidency of Singapore to Malay candidates.  Sometime in the past I mentioned that the population of Singapore is three-quarters Chinese, and it was a major reason why Singapore could not remain part of Malaysia; like I said, the Malay majority on the mainland fears drowning in a sea of Chinese.  It looks like this amendment is an effort to be fair to Singapore’s minority groups, what we call “affirmative action” in the United States.  Anyway, Mr. Tan’s successor is Halimah Yacob.  She is the first woman president in Singapore’s history, and the second Moslem president (the first was Yusof Ishak, in 1965).  All right, enough with Singapore.  The previous episode covered Singapore’s history all the way to the present, and now I want to try doing the same thing with Malaysia.  This could be a challenge, since in terms of land area, Singapore is the smallest country in Southeast Asia.  Countries with more land and more people naturally generate more events worth talking about.

The last time the podcast featured Malaysia, we got as far as the year 1970.  If you want to refresh your memory on what happened there in the quarter-century between World War II and 1970, the episodes you need to listen to are Episodes 69 and 98.  And if you haven’t listened to those episodes before, now is the time to listen to them, in order to keep track of what is happening in this episode.

Here is a quick recap.  The colonial power in this area was Great Britain, and before the war they had managed the Malay peninsula well.  For that reason, the Malays did not develop a nationalist movement before World War II.  Long-time listeners will remember that the Philippines produced a nationalist movement in the late nineteenth century, and nationalist movements appeared in Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam shortly after the twentieth century began.  When the Malays got a nationalist movement, it was a partly a reaction to the communist guerrillas that got organized during the war, among the Chinese community living in the Malay peninsula.  The communists had first fought the Japanese, and now they launched a revolt when the British returned, much like the revolt the communists in Vietnam were fighting against the French at the same time.  Unlike the French, the British succeeded in getting most of the native population to cooperate with them, and thus were able to put down the uprising, which they called the “Malayan Emergency.”  Meanwhile, the Malays formed a political party, which they called the UMNO, the United Malays National Organization.  After the 1950s began, the Chinese and Indian communities on the Malay peninsula started political parties of their own, and they formed a coalition with the UMNO, known as the Alliance.  The Alliance won the first election held, in 1955, and it put forward a plan for how its members would work together after independence; the British gave their blessing to this, and granted independence to Malaya on August 31, 1957.  The leader of the UMNO, Prince Tengku Abdul Rahman, became Malaya’s first prime minister.

But that’s not the end to the independence story, because the British had three more colonies nearby:  Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, also called North Borneo.  There was also the mini-sultanate of Brunei, which was officially a British protectorate.  Although Brunei had its own government, Britain controlled its defense and foreign policy, so it might as well have been another colony.  Reasoning that these territories could not stand on their own if they were turned loose, Tengku proposed that they be given to Malaya, which, with its resources of tin and rubber, and a carefully worked out government, had a fighting chance of survival.  Britain agreed, but the sultan of Brunei said no to this transfer, so Brunei stayed with Britain for twenty more years; we will come back to Brunei in a future episode.  The other territories were handed over in 1963.  Since this nearly doubled the size of the Malay state, it was given a new name; we no longer call it Malaya, but Malaysia.

During his time as prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman saw the end of the “Malayan Emergency,” the transformation of Malaya into Malaysia, the stormy union with Singapore that ended with Singapore’s expulsion, a territorial dispute with the Philippines over Sabah, the brush war with Indonesia that we call the Konfrontasi, and the creation of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which Malaysia is one of the five original members.

We saw in Episode 69 that the plan for independence was to have the country’s ethnic Malays control the government, while the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Indians, controlled the economy.  You can say that plan worked too well.  By the end of the 1960s, impoverished Malays resented the economic success of the Chinese, while the Chinese resented the political privileges granted to Malays.  In the 1969 general election, the Alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, and when two opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party and the Gerakan, or People’s Movement, held a parade to celebrate in Kuala Lumpur, it led to a full-scale riot; Malay gangs looted Chinese businesses, killing hundreds of Chinese in the process.

Tengku retired in 1970, and Tun Abdul Razak took his place.  That is where our narrative broke off on Malaysia, at the end of Episode 98.  Since present-day Malaysia regards Tengku as the country’s founding father, you would think the government would hold onto his house in Kuala Lumpur, and maybe turn it into a museum, but in an interesting twist, the government of the Philippines acquired the house in 1987, and now it is part of the Philippine Embassy in Malaysia.


The new prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, enlarged the Alliance in 1973 by inviting some opposition parties to join, and he called the new coalition Barisan Nasional, or the National Front.  The National Front won the next two elections decisively, in 1974 and 1978.  Ethnicity, however, still dominated the political scene, and two major opposition parties remained, the previously mentioned Democratic Action Party and the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party.

To end the problem of ethnic unrest, the government decided that the Malay community needed to achieve economic parity.  In other words, the Malays needed to be as rich as the Chinese.  Therefore in 1971 the government introduced a socio-economic affirmative action plan, which it called MNEP, the Malaysian New Economic Policy.  The goal of MNEP was to put 30% of Malaysia’s corporate wealth in the hands of the Malays and the forest tribes within 20 years.  To do this it carried out a massive campaign of discrimination in favor of the Malays, which handed key jobs in the army, police, civil service and government to Malays.   Similar rules were applied to education, scholarships, share deals, corporate management and even the right to import a car.

By 1990, the target year, the Malay share of corporate wealth had risen to 19%; it still had a long way to go to reach the 30% target.  Poverty did fall dramatically, though.  A new Malay middle class appeared, and nationalist violence by Malay extremists receded.  Unfortunately, the MNEP policy led to cronyism, and discrimination against Indians and Chinese has increased.  Finally, it is now half a century since MNEP was introduced, and while the forest tribes – the Orang Asli of the peninsula and smaller tribes in Sarawak and Sabah – are supposed to benefit from these policies, these groups lag far behind peninsular Malays when it comes to poverty, employment, education and health care.

Both prime ministers in the 1970s were sickly individuals.  Tun Abdul Razak died from leukemia in January 1976, while seeking medical treatment in London.  He was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Datuk Hussein Onn.  Hussein got along well with the Chinese and Indian parties in the National Front, despite ongoing racial tensions; for that, he is now fondly called Bapa Perpaduan, or the Father of Unity.  In early 1981 he underwent coronary bypass surgery; that prompted him to step down, and his deputy, Mahathir bin Muhammad, took over.

The 1970s also saw a resurgence of the communist uprising we covered in Episode 69.  The Malayan  Communist Party broke into three factions in 1970, and while the two new factions did not last long, the party’s core faction declared that 1975 would be, quote, "a new year in combat."  Unquote.  It looks like they launched the new offensive in response to Malaysia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Communist China in June 1974; they were letting the world know that the end of China’s isolation from the non-communist world would not stop their own struggle.  However, the situation for the communists had not improved since we last heard from them.  Whereas there had been 8,000 communists in the 1950s, Malaysian government sources and the CIA estimated that in 1976, there were just 2,400 communist insurgents on the Malay peninsula, and most of them were near the border of Thailand.  Another 1,000 were in the Borneo state of Sarawak, belonging to a separate organization called the North Kalimantan Communist Party.  Therefore the Malaysian government did not feel the need to declare a “state of emergency” as the British had done.  Instead, it introduced a series of programs designed to improve the economy and get the people involved in maintaining security, like the Security and Development Program, or KESBAN, Rukun Tetangga, or Neighbourhood Watch, and the People’s Volunteer Group.  The ultimate goal of these programs was to get the people to look to the government, rather than the rebels, for a better future.  Not only did the programs work, the communists could see that they were fighting a losing battle, because Malaysia was prospering on the world stage, and communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and its satellite states at the end of the 1980s.  Mahathir urged them to lay down their arms and join the other Malaysians in developing the country.  After a series of negotiations between the Malaysian Government and the Malayan  Communist Party, with the Thais acting as mediators, the two sides signed a peace accord in Hat Yai, Thailand on December 2, 1989; here the communists finally agreed to lay down their arms.  A similar peace agreement was reached with the communists in Sarawak on October 17, 1990.

Podcast footnote: In the first week of 2021, a news story came out of Malaysia about the owner of two restaurants getting in trouble with the authorities, because he decorated the restaurants with a Chinese communist theme, putting in wallpaper and posters that featured scenes from the Cultural Revolution, and a picture of Mao Zedong.  Just who thinks this is a good idea?  A few years ago, I heard about a communist-themed restaurant in Monterey Park, California, called Private Party Restaurant, where the waiters wore Red Guard army uniforms, complete with red armbands and caps with red stars on them.  I don’t know if that restaurant is still in business, as I record this episode.  End footnote.


So far, Mahathir bin Muhammad has been the longest-lasting prime minister of Malaysia; he held the job twice, for a total of twenty-four years.  His predecessors had been in charge when South Vietnam fell to communism, and from them Mahathir inherited the problem of tens of thousands of refugees, sailing to Malaysia from Vietnam.  Most of these “boat people” were ethnic Chinese, and since Vietnam stopped getting along with China when the Second Indochina War ended, these people weren’t welcome in Vietnam anymore.  Still concerned about the Chinese replacing the Malays as the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, the Malay government did not want these refugees either, and threatened to shoot them on sight.  Most of them ended up being held on small offshore islands until other nations agreed to take them in.  In April 1989 the government stopped accepting Indochinese refugees, period.

Under the Mahathir administration, Malaysia’s economy went into overdrive, growing from one based on two commodities, tin and rubber, to one firmly rooted in industry and manufacturing. Government monopolies were privatized, and heavy industries were encouraged.  Among the heavy industries, steel manufacturing failed, while Malaysian autos were successful but heavily protected; presently the two most successful Malaysian car companies are Perodua and Proton.  In addition, multinational companies were persuaded to invest in Malaysia, to promote trade, drilling for oil, tourism, computers, electronics, and science.  And that’s not all; Mahathir also gave the country some outstanding landmarks, through several mega-building projects.  The most famous project raised the Petronas Twin Towers.  From 1996 to 2004, the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world, until the Taipei 101 and the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai surpassed them, and today they are still the tallest buildings in Southeast Asia.  Other projects built Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the North-South Expressway, the Sepang International Circuit, the Multimedia Super Corridor, the Bakun hydroelectric dam, International Islamic University Malaysia, and Putrajaya, a new city for the executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

The downside of Mahathir’s time as prime minister was that the main media outlets became little more than government mouthpieces, because like some other Southeast Asian leaders we have met, Mahathir believed that the only democracy that would work in Malaysia is a controlled democracy, with a strong leader in charge.  A 1983 constitutional conflict between him and the hereditary sultans led to a compromise that largely took away from the sultans their right to veto legislation.  What’s more, the once proudly independent courts appeared to become subservient to government wishes.  Mahathir also permitted widespread use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to silence opposition leaders and social activists, most famously in 1987’s Operation Lalang, when 106 people were arrested and the publishing licences of four newspapers were revoked.

To balance all this, I will give you a quote from the memoirs of a former Law Minister, Zaid Ibrahim.  Quote:  "In my heart, I cannot accept allegations that Dr Mahathir personally was a corrupt man.  Corrupt people are never brave enough to speak as loudly as Dr Mahathir.  Wealth is not a major motivation for him.  He only craves power."  End quote.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Malaysian economy grew at an average rate of 8 percent a year.  The only interruption to that growth came with the 1997 Asian currency crisis, and the recession that followed.  Mahathir blamed it all on unscrupulous Western speculators like George Soros, who had undermined the economies of the developing world for their personal gain.  Mahathir pegged the Malaysian ringgit to the US dollar, bailed out what were seen as crony companies, forced banks to merge, and made it difficult for foreign investors to remove their money from Malaysia’s stock exchange.  As a result, Malaysia recovered from the economic crisis more rapidly than other Southeast Asian nations, and that further bolstered Mahathir’s prestige.

During the currency crisis, Mahathir had a falling out with the deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.  In addition to being deputy prime minister, Anwar was also finance minister and president of International Islamic University Malaysia, and everyone knew he was being groomed to become the next prime minster.  In early 1997, Mahathir even appointed Anwar as acting Prime Minister, while he took a two-month vacation.  But then the currency crisis struck; Mahathir and Anwar argued over who was responsible for the crisis, and what to do about it.  The UMNO Party held its quadrennial general assembly in 1998, which is Malaysia’s version of what we call a presidential convention in the United States, and there a book entitled 50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister was circulated; it accused Anwar of homosexuality and corruption.  The police were instructed to investigate the claims; Anwar was dismissed, arrested, convicted of corruption and sexual misconduct, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Opponents of the regime responded by merging two older political parties to found a new party, the People’s Justice Party, led by Anwar’s wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.  At the next election, in 1999, the People’s Justice Party only won five seats in Parliament, but it has done better since then, and it remains an important faction in Malaysian politics to this day.


Mahathir bin Muhammad’s term as prime minister ended on an unexpectedly bad note. Two weeks before he stepped down, in 2003, he hosted a summit for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Putrajaya, and said this.  Quote:

"We [Muslims] are actually very strong, 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out.  The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million [during the Holocaust].  But today the Jews rule the world by proxy.  They get others to fight and die for them.  They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong so they may enjoy equal rights with others.  With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries.  And they, this tiny community, have become a world power."  End quote.

He went on to call Israel "the enemy allied with most powerful nations."  This was shocking because Southeast Asia is not a place known for anti-Semitism.  Longtime listeners will remember from Episode 44, for instance, that around 1,200 German and Austrian Jews escaped the Holocaust by going to the Philippines, and there even Japanese soldiers left them alone.  Until the beginning of the twenty-first century, local Moslems had not given Israel or the Jews much attention, because their presence in Southeast Asia was insignificant; there have never been more than a few thousand Jews in the entire region.  Predictably, Israel and Western nations called Mahathir’s speech "gravely offensive," while Moslem leaders and politicians defended it.


Mahathir’s hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, was widely respected.  Five months after taking over, in March 2004, elections were held, and he led the National Front to a landslide victory.  Although he smashed the opposition parties, he also freed Anwar Ibrahim, leading to hopes that future prime ministers would be less authoritarian.  Whereas Mahathir is feisty, Abdullah is pious and mild-mannered, taking a non-confrontational, consensus-seeking approach to all issues.  He set up a royal commission to investigate corruption in the police force, and he promised no more grandiose projects, thereby scrapping plans for a new bridge between Malaysia and Singapore, to replace the existing Johor-Singapore Causeway.

The National Front was used to ruling with a two-thirds majority in parliament.  Although it won the next election, in 2008, it lost the two-thirds majority, and opposition parties gained control over five of Malaysia’s 13 states, including two that were critical to the economy, Selangor and Penang.  This persuaded Abdullah to step down in the following year.  As you probably expected, he was succeeded by his deputy, Najib Abdul Razak.  Najib was the closest thing to a political blueblood that the country could have; he was the son of the second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, and nephew of the third, Hussein Onn.  He had been groomed for this role ever since he first entered national politics in 1976, at the age of 23, to fill his father’s seat in parliament.


Najib devoted his administration to economic reforms, such as cuts to government subsidies, a loosening of restrictions on foreign investment, and reductions in preferential treatment of ethnic Malays in business.  The cuts to the subsidies caused the cost of living to soar and made Najib unpopular, while unstable oil prices and the fallout from the 1MDB scandal, which I will cover in a minute, led to a depreciation of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit.

Before the 2013 election, it was pointed out that Malaysia’s electoral system was inherently unfair, with unbalanced constituency sizes in different districts, a lack of access to the media for opposition parties, and possible gerrymandering.  When the votes were counted, the results were similar to those of the 2008 election; the National Front lost seven seats in parliament but retained its majority, so Najib stayed as prime minister.  Najib blamed the losses on what he called a “Chinese tsunami” of voters, and three days later, it was reported that 120,000 people gathered at a stadium outside of Kuala Lumpur’s city limits, to protest the election results.  Anwar Ibrahim had led the opposition in the election, so later in the same year, he was charged with sodomy for a second time and sent to prison again.

Two news events during Najib’s next term put Malaysia in the world spotlight.  The first was the loss of two airliners.  On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, also known as MH370, took off from Kuala Lumpur to go to Beijing with 227 passengers and a flight crew of 12.  To go from Malaysia to China, an airplane has to fly due north, but once this flight got over the South China Sea, it turned west, flew over the Malay peninsula and the Andaman Sea – and then just disappeared.  Presumably it crashed somewhere in the South Indian Ocean, after it flew out of reach of radar.  Over the next few years, a few pieces of wreckage washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean that could be from the plane, but the crash site was never located.  Moreover, we don’t know if the plane was intentionally steered off course, meaning we can’t tell if this tragedy was an accident – or an incident.  Another airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, was lost on July 17, 2014, but in this case we know what happened; the Russians shot it down with a surface-to-air missile, when it passed over the part of eastern Ukraine that is a war zone between Ukraine and Russia.

The other event was the assassination of a member of North Korea’s ruling family in Malaysia.  Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, disqualified himself as a possible successor, when he tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001, using a fake passport.  When you’re a supervillain-in-training, it’s okay to be cultured; you may remember the scene from the Star Wars movie Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine attended an alien water ballet.  But you can’t let others know you like Mickey Mouse!  Kim Jong-Il banished him to China, and made his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, his heir.  After that Kim Jong-Nam lived a playboy lifestyle, with two wives, a mistress and three children.  He traveled from country to country to keep ahead of any North Korean agents.  That worked until February 2017, when two prostitutes walked up behind him in Kuala Lumpur airport and wiped a lethal dose of VX nerve poison on his face.  And that’s not the strangest part of the story; the women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese, swore they had no idea they were committing an assassination, and actually thought that they were taking part in some kind of YouTube prank show!  Murder charges against them were dismissed in 2019.  The Indonesian woman was released immediately; the Vietnamese woman pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of "voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means," and was sentenced to three years in prison, but ended up only serving one month before she was released as well.


Now back to the prime minister.  If you think Najib may have been hiding something, you’re right, and it came out in the open in 2015.  The minister of finance owned an investment fund called 1MDB, which is short for 1Malaysia Development Berhad.  This fund had been established in 2008, for the purpose of turning Kuala Lumpur into a global financial center.  However, over the next few years the fund racked up huge debts, possibly reaching as high as $12 billion US dollars, and foreign agencies like Standard & Poor downgraded the bonds issued by 1MDB to junk status.  Allegations were made in several newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, that part of the debt came from the transfer of millions from the fund to the accounts of the prime minister and people close to him like Jho Low, his financier.  Najib responded with a number of controversial acts, to tighten his grip on power.  He replaced the deputy prime minister, closed two newspapers, passed a value-added tax called the Goods and Services Tax, and pushed through parliament a controversial National Security Council Bill, that provided the prime minister with unprecedented powers.  The new powers were used to purge critics from his ruling party.

Najib’s denials of any wrongdoing were met by scepticism from the public, who started calling him “The Man of Steal”; here steal is spelled S-T-E-A-L.  The prime minister and his government got what was coming to them in the 2018 election.  For the first time, the National Front went down in defeat, at the hands of one of its former members – surprise! – former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad.  Calling for Najib to resign, Mahathir had left the UMNO Party in 2016, formed his own party, joined an opposition coalition called Pakatan Harapan, and ran as its candidate for prime minister, with Wan Azizah, the wife of his former political enemy Anwar, as the deputy prime minister candidate.  This is probably the most remarkable comeback in Southeast Asian history, and at 92 years old, Mahathir became the oldest leader of any nation in today’s world.  Wan Azizah in turn became Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister.

Two months after the 2018 election, Najib was arrested by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which was investigating how 42 million ringgits, or US$10.6 million, went from a company named SRC International, to Najib’s bank account.  Soon Najib was charged with abuse of power, multiple counts of criminal breach of trust and money laundering, and tampering with the 1MDB audit report.  He stood trial, and on July 28, 2020, the High Court convicted Najib on all seven counts of corruption, and sentenced him to twelve years in prison and a fine of 210 million ringgits (that’s $49.3 million in US dollars).  The missing money was traced to luxury real estate, a private jet, Van Gogh and Monet artworks – and even a Hollywood movie, The Wolf of Wall Street.  A few days before the conviction, the US bank Goldman Sachs reached a $3.9 billion settlement with the Malaysian government for its role in the enormous corruption scheme.  According to the most recent sources I could find, Najib has not gone to jail; he appealed the initial verdict, as you might expect, and he has to stand in four more trials, for charges he has not yet been tried for.  This process could go on for years.

As for Mahathir, his second term as prime minister was much shorter than the first.  As promised, he pardoned Anwar Ibrahim, the Goods and Services Tax was done away with, and he launched investigations into the 1MDB scandal.  But in February 2020 he resigned, because a new ruling coalition was formed that included the UMNO Party, and Mahathir did not want anything to do with them anymore.  As I record this, Mahathir is 95 years old, but I won’t declare him retired permanently; he fooled us once before!  He was succeeded by the Minister of Home Affairs, Muhyiddin bin Haji Muhammad Yassin, who comes from the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, and is going by the title of acting prime minister until the next election can be held.

One way you can measure how well nations are doing nowadays is by measuring the average income of their citizens, what we call the per capita income.  If you do it with Southeast Asia, Singapore comes out as the richest nation, because of all the commerce and industry it handles, and Brunei wins the Number Two spot, because it shares a lot of oil money among a small population.  Because of the diversification mentioned earlier, Malaysia comes in a healthy third place for the region.  According to the International Monetary Fund, Malaysia’s per capita income as of 2020 is $10,192, better than average by Third World standards.  The Mahathir administration called its ultimate goal "Vision 2020," meaning that it wanted Malaysia to become a First World nation by 2020.  Of course, the date for reaching the goal will have to be pushed back, due to all the unpleasantness we experienced in 2020.  And with Malaysia’s government recovering from a huge scandal, it is too early to say when the country will acquire a First World political system – meaning multi-party democracy, a free press, an independent judiciary and the restoration of civil and political liberties – to go with a First World economy.  If it can pull that off and keep ethnic tensions to a minimum, it will definitely remain one of Southeast Asia’s happiest places.


All right, we did it!  I said we were going to try to finish the Malaysian part of our narrative in this episode, and we succeeded in making it all the way to the present.  In fact, with the 1MDB scandal, most of the events occurred after I launched this podcast.  Since the previous episode finished up on Singapore, we now have two countries down, nine more to go.  But I think it will take more than one episode to finish the next country we visit.  Next time I plan to return to Indochina, to look at what has been happening in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos since 1975.  Boy, a lot has been going on there, starting with a Third Indochina War involving Vietnam, Cambodia and China.  And in the case of Cambodia, I haven’t told the most horrifying story yet.  Join me to hear what happens in Indochina after the Americans leave and the Vietnam War ends – if you dare!

You heard all about the recent donations to the podcast at the beginning of this episode.  Can you afford to support the podcast, too?  If so, the simplest way is to make a donation through Paypal.   Just go to the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode, and click on the gold “Donate!” button.  The donation will encourage me to dedicate the next episode to you, and your first name will be added to the podcast’s hall of fame page; there’s a link to that on the Blubrry.com page, too.  Since we’re still near the beginning of the year, if you have donated before, giving again will make you eligible for the coveted icon of Walter the Water Buffalo, next to your name.  And for those who have the Water Buffalo icon already, if you give again now, you will win the new, ever-popular Shwedagon Pagoda icon next to your name as well!  Or you can give a small amount each month by becoming a Patreon donor.  Just click on the Patreon link on the Blubrry.com page to go to my Patreon page.  Another Patron just joined the team last week, bring the total number of Patrons to 17.  Way to go!

And of course, that’s not all you can do.  If you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows you to write reviews, by all means add one.  That will make it easier for potential new listeners to discover the show!  If you’re on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss updates and additional content from me.  And as I always tell you, spread the word about the podcast in the real world.  If I can do it, so can you.  Once again, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 104: Singapore, Success Despite the Odds

I don’t know if this blog still has any regular readers.  If there are any left, sorry about keeping you waiting on this announcement.  I did upload Episode 104 on the evening of January 1, but shortly after that, the Internet service failed in our house.  Our ISP could not send over a work crew to fix it until the following Monday, so Leive and I were shut out of cyberspace for the whole weekend.  It turned out the fiber optic cable, which had been buried in the backyard in the summer of 2018, had failed, so it was replaced.  Then my birthday came and went, and now I am getting over a minor cold (not COVID, I swear!).

By the way, if you test positive for CORVID, it means you are turning into a crow.


Anyway, the latest episode covers the recent history of Singapore, from 1965 to the present.  Listen to it and enjoy!




This episode is dedicated to the last donors to the podcast for 2020, Philip O. and Christophe M.  Naturally I added your names to the Podcast Hall of Fame page.  Make another donation later on, and you will qualify to have the coveted water buffalo icon next to your names!  A new year is a time for new beginnings, and new opportunities, so may both of you see your paths blessed in 2021, and for that matter, the whole decade of the 2020s.  Now sit back, grab some food, coffee or tea if you wish, and listen to what your donations helped make possible.  If you’re ready to begin, so am I.

Episode 104: Singapore, Success Despite the Odds

Greetings, dear listeners, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky!  If you are listening to this around the time I recorded this episode, we finally have 2020 behind us, so Happy New Year!


Of course I don’t know what the new year will bring, but I will be optimistic.  Right now I am imagining a restaurant somewhere that is open to in-person dining, and not under a COVID-19 lockdown.  There a waiter brings a wine bottle that says on the label, “2021.”  One of the guests sitting at the table says, “I have not tried it before, but it just HAS to be better than the awful slop in the last bottle!”


But I know you didn’t turn on this podcast just for laughs.  You’re here for the latest episode on Southeast Asia’s recent history.  Today we are going to look at the richest country in present-day Southeast Asia, the city-state of Singapore!  The last time we talked about Singapore, we got as far as the year 1965, and because there aren’t any wars to talk about in the fifty-five years since then, I believe we will finish with Singapore today, going all the way to the present!  When it became independent, many people thought it would not survive on its own, but it beat the odds and prospered.  That explains the title I picked for today’s episode; an alternate title could be, “How I Did It, by Lee Kuan Yew.”  Now where else have we encountered Singapore in the podcast?

We first heard from Singapore in Episode 11; it was founded in 1299.  Under its first rulers, it didn’t amount to much; it was just a fishing village that happened to sit in a superb location, right at the end of the Malay peninsula.  Then in 1819, a British officer, Thomas Stamford Raffles, acquired Singapore for Britain; this was covered in Episode 23.  Under British rule, Singapore was a very successful commercial port, until the Japanese conquered it in World War II; we covered that battle in Episode 37.  The Japanese held Singapore for the rest of the war, and were forced to give it back upon the war’s end.  For the late 1940s and 1950s, the British were mainly concerned with repairing the damage inflicted on Singapore during the war.  However, a nationalist movement sprang up in Singapore at the same time, because Singaporeans realized that while the British Empire had once been great, it was now past its peak, and the war showed that they could not count on Britain to defend them from every enemy that might come along.  Therefore Singaporeans would have to defend themselves.  Britain agreed; unlike Indonesia and Vietnam, Singapore would not have to fight a war for independence.  Instead, Britain handed over Singapore, along with the colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo, to the Malay peninsula, which had been independent since 1957.  Together, these territories formed a new nation, the Federation of Malaysia.  However, putting Singapore in that union didn’t work out, and twenty-three months later, on August 9, 1965, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia.  Thus, Singapore may be the only former colony in today’s world that had independence forced on it.  It has gone its own way since the political divorce with Malaysia.

Events in the twenty-year period from World War II to independence were covered in Episode 98.  If you haven’t listened to it already, I strongly urge you to listen, because there I introduced Lee Kuan Yew, the fellow who did more than anyone else to make Singapore the rich and successful republic it is now.  In fact, I urge you to stop this recording and listen to Episode 98 now.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you here.


Are you done listening to Episode 98 now?  Good, now we can proceed with today’s narrative.


The way Singapore both survived and grew under Lee Kuan Yew is one of the success stories of the modern era.  Independence came in the middle of the hostile period called the Konfrontasi, between Malaysia and Indonesia.  Go back to Episodes 97 and 98 if you want to refresh your memory on that conflict.  Singapore had been a target for Indonesian terrorist attacks, while it was part of Malaysia, and there was concern that Indonesia would attack the city-state again.  On the other side, conservatives in Malaysia’s UMNO Party did not want Singapore to go; they might force Singapore back into the union under unfavorable terms.  And that wasn’t all; Singapore also faced high unemployment, a shortage of land and housing, a lack of education, and the challenge of developing the economy and industry on an island without natural resources.

The first five years after independence, from 1965 to 1970, saw the government practice what it called the “Policy of Survival.” To meet challenges from abroad before they happened, Singapore immediately sought international recognition from the rest of the world.  Before 1965 was over, it joined the United Nations and the British Commonwealth of Nations.  Then in 1967, Singapore became a founding member of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and it joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1970.

Although foreign policy was important, Singapore concentrated its attention on economic development.  The main industry remained commerce, because Singapore is situated on the world’s busiest shipping lane.  But the fortunes of commercial states rise and fall with those of their trading partners.  We saw in Episode 6, for example, that Srivijaya, the first major Indonesian state, made a living by trading with the Arabs and the Chinese, and it ceased to prosper when its partners fell on hard times.  Therefore Singapore diversified its economy.  The Jurong Industrial Estate, an already existing industrial park, saw huge expansion, and five new industrial parks were built.  Tax incentives were introduced to encourage foreign investment, and oil companies like Shell and Esso were invited to build oil refineries, so that in the mid-1970s, Singapore became the third-largest oil refining center in the world.  For those of you too young to remember, Esso was the old name of ExxonMobil, back in the 1960s.

And that’s not all; tourism and banking were encouraged as well.  An example of building for tourism is the Marina Bay Sands resort.  This is the world’s most expensive casino property, valued at $8 billion if you include the land under it.  Completed in 2010, the resort is the most easily recognized building in the city; it has three towers with a huge cantilevered platform, looking like a flat-bottomed boat, on top of the towers.  And an expansion project was recently completed at Changi Airport; each year it is rated the best airport in the world.  All this farsightedness in economic planning paid off when the Asian currency crisis struck in 1997; Singapore suffered far less than its neighbors did.

Most important of all was the public housing program, which helped with related problems like crime and health issues, when enough people got homes of their own.  Before independence, in 1960, the Housing Development Board was set up to manage the huge building projects that were initiated to resettle the city’s squatters.  In 1968 the Central Provident Fund Housing Scheme was introduced, allowing residents to use their compulsory savings accounts to purchase apartments from the Housing Development Board, thereby increasing home-ownership.  By the mid-1990s, the city-state had the world’s highest rate of home ownership.  When it came to education, the government made English the language of instruction, and emphasized practical training to develop a competent workforce that was well suited for industry.


To deal with the challenges his city-state faced, Lee Kuan Yew increased his own power and that of the PAP, the People’s Action Party.  A master politician, Lee smashed the opposition every time elections were held, effectively making Singapore a one-party state.  From 1965 to 1981, the PAP held all the seats in Parliament.  As time went on, he took an increasing interest in managing even the smallest details of daily life, especially social behavior.

I have been in some offices where they have a sign, usually in the break room, that says, “Your mother does not work here.  Please clean up after yourself.”  Well, the Singapore government rules over its people the way your mother and father ruled over you.

In 1971, Lee Kuan Yew closed two newspapers, charging that communist Chinese agents bribed the editors.  To limit congestion he taxed everyone who owned cars, as well as parents who had more than two children.  In 1979 he launched a campaign to get Singapore’s Chinese population to speak Mandarin, though most of them belong to families that came from the southern half of China, where other dialects besides Mandarin are spoken.  In 1992 Lee Kuan Yew’s successors outlawed gum, declaring it a public nuisance to clean up, especially in the train stations.  Most recently, in 2019 the government announced it was banning ads for packaged drinks with a high sugar content, in an attempt to reduce cases of diabetes and obesity in its aging population.

Podcast Footnote:  A popular T-shirt in Singapore says "Singapore is a FINE city," with emphasis on the word “FINE.”  This refers to the laws that can fine you up to $500 for littering, spitting, picking flowers, feeding the neighborhood monkeys, wasting water, and not flushing the toilet.  By the way, those last two laws, about wasting water and flushing the toilet, may contradict each other.  End footnote.

Of course there have been abuses when so much power is concentrated in the hands of one political party.  Foreign organizations like Amnesty International occasionally accused the PAP of imprisoning or torturing dissidents.  Drug pushers are punished by hanging.  In 1994 an American teenager, Michael Fay, was beaten with four strokes from a rattan cane for spray-painting cars and stealing signs, and it got worldwide attention.  The local media is subject to strict government censorship – freedom of the press and freedom of speech aren’t things Singaporeans are very familiar with.  But most Singaporeans do not object, because in return they have been given unprecedented prosperity.  When Singapore became independent in 1965, the per capita income was less than $320, making it a typical Third World country with an uncertain future; according to the International Monetary Fund, the per capita income is now $58,484, the sixth highest per capita income in the world.  Therefore we call Singapore one of the "Four Asian Dragons"; like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, it has done very well by imitating Japan’s modern, free-market economy.  The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Singapore as the second freest economy in the world, right after Hong Kong, and the Corruption Perceptions Index routinely ranks Singapore as one of the world’s least corrupt countries.


To offset all this success, the Singaporean government has one failure–it cannot manage love.  In the late 1940s and 1950s, Singapore had its own baby boom, with population growing at a rate up to 4.4% a year.  After independence came, the government responded to this with family planning programs.  The fertility rate fell immediately, and in 1975 it dropped below the replacement level, meaning there were now fewer births than deaths.  That is why I mentioned a little while back, that Singapore now has an aging population.  Although Singapore is the third most crowded place in the modern world, after Macau and Monaco, a shrinking population is cause for alarm, when the surrounding countries are bigger, not always friendly–and their populations are growing.

Every year on August 9, Singapore’s independence day, or as they call it, “National Day,” Lee Kuan Yew would make a speech announcing what he wanted to see in the upcoming year.  For the 1983 speech, he lamented that declining birth rates and the large number of graduate women remaining single or marrying uneducated men could cause Singapore’s talent pool to shrink.  Deciding that it was all right for smart, wealthy people to have as many kids as they wanted, he now launched the "Graduate Mother Scheme" to entice graduate women with incentives to get married, and grant graduate mothers priority in the best schools for their third child.  To help educated women find educated husbands, ads were placed in overseas newspapers, offering inducements to professionals who immigrate.

One year later, in 1984, Lee Kuan Yew set up a government agency, the Social Development Unit, to promote dating.  The Social Development Unit has offered tea dances, wine tasting, cooking classes, cruises, screenings of romantic movies, and advice to lonely hearts; it even published tips on where and how to have sex in cars!  On top of all that, the government tried cold cash, offering $6,000 to $18,000 for each child born.  None of it worked, thanks to Singapore’s work ethnic; students are so busy with their studies, and adults are so preoccupied with making money, that they have little time and energy left for romance and babies.  In the first thirty years after the agency’s founding, about 30,000 couples got married after meeting at state-arranged events; that’s 1,000 weddings a year in a population that is now 5.7 million, not impressive.

The Social Development Unit was renamed the Social Development Network in 2008.  If you want to amuse yourself, the Social Development Network’s website is at http://www.sdn.sg .  That’s http://www.sdn.sg .  The dot-sg means it is a Singapore-based website.  Naturally, foreigners found it silly that the Singaporean government is playing the role of matchmaker, though other developed countries will have to face the problem of dreadfully low birthrates very soon–if they aren’t in trouble already.


Now I am going to digress at length, to explain the last statement.  When it comes to demographics, one trend that doesn’t get much attention is that the birthrate of the human race is falling.  In fact, most of the world’s population now lives where the birthrate is below the 2.1 kids per couple needed to keep the population growing, or at least stable.  The trend started in Japan and Europe, after both became some of the most crowded places to live in today’s world.  When communism fell in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations, the trend spread to the ex-Soviet Bloc for two reasons.  First, communist governments used to reward mothers who had many children, and when the Iron Curtain came down, those cash prizes and medals disappeared.  Second, those countries now acquired a high emigration rate, as those who could leave did so.  China pushed its birthrate down below the critical 2.1 figure with a harsh one-child policy, that led to sex-selection abortions and female infanticide.  In most of the places I just mentioned, the population has stopped growing and is now shrinking.

In doing the research for this episode, I looked at the website data.worldbank.org to get the latest figures for birthrates worldwide.  Unless I missed somebody, the only developed nations that currently have a birthrate above 2.1 are Israel and South Africa.  For all other advanced nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the birthrate is now below the critical number.  If their populations are still growing, you can thank immigration for it, not natural births.

How does this apply to our area of interest, Southeast Asia?  Well, in five of the eleven countries that I define as “Southeast Asia,”the birthrate is now below 2.1 per couple.  Those countries are Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam – and Singapore.  The other countries – Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines – have birthrates above 2.1, but how long will it last?  Slate.com wrote “About That Overpopulation Problem,” an article about declining birthrates, in January 2013, and here is what it said about Singapore’s case.  Quote:

"No one’s figured out how to boost fertility in countries where it has imploded.  Singapore has been encouraging parenthood for nearly 30 years, with cash incentives of up to $18,000 per child.  Its birthrate?  A gasping-for-air 1.2."

End quote.

Since that article came out, Singapore’s birthrate has slipped further, to 1.1.

In 1797, Thomas Malthus wrote Essay on the Principle of Population, which warned that because population grows geometrically, while food production grows arithmetically, the world community will not be able to grow indefinitely; at some point famine and disease will strike, and then we will fight wars over dwindling resources, causing misery for everyone.  In the more than two hundred years since that essay, educated people have agreed that a growing population combined with shrinking resources is a serious problem.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Malthus seemed to be making a good point; population mushroomed from just over 700 million people in his day, to 7 and a half billion in our own time.

What Malthus didn’t factor in was that population growth can be controlled.  In fact, solutions to population growth became available in his time.  First, we can control population just by educating girls.  Once a woman has a diploma or college degree, she will probably want to pursue a career, rather than spend the best years of her life barefoot and pregnant.

Second, Malthus lived when the Industrial Revolution was getting started in England.  In agricultural societies, large families are good; having many children means extra hands to work on the farm, allows you to make alliances with other families by marrying your sons and daughters to theirs, and provides a guarantee that somebody will look after you when you get old.  But in cities you have psychological overcrowding, and children need to go to school for many years, in order to gain the skills needed to survive in a more complicated society, so children were no longer seen as an asset, but as a liability.  Moreover, parents had fewer kids, because they were busy with college and careers, and they often delayed marriage.  All this has caused birthrates to decline, whenever a nation’s livelihood has switched from agriculture to industry.

So why should we be concerned about population growth coming to a halt or even shrinking?  Because a nation’s economy cannot grow while its population is shrinking.  The government cannot function very well, either; all social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, run on the premise that more people will put money into the program than take money out, but in a society where the elderly are the largest demographic, this won’t happen.  In 2011, a blogger named David Goldman (known online as "Spengler"), wrote a book about demographics, entitled How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too).  Here is how he explained that depopulation can be worse for society than overpopulation.  Quote:

“The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings.  The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care.”

End quote.

As I record this, birthrates are still high in Africa, India and much of the Middle East, but eventually they will come down, too.  If these demographic trends continue, world population will peak at around 8 billion, sometime in the second half of the twenty-first century, and then start to decline after that.  Most alarming of all, once depopulation begins, it may be impossible to stop it.  Where depopulation has taken place, the median age of the population has risen, meaning that a lot of folks will be too old to have kids.  If this death spiral is not stopped, world population could drop to 3.5 billion in 2200, and 1 billion by 2300.  If a shrinking population isn’t a problem yet where you live, just wait!



Whew, demographics can be a heavy topic!  Let’s end this digression, and return to the narrative.  I mentioned earlier that for much of the time when Lee Kuan Yew was in charge, the People’s Action Party controlled all the seats in Parliament.  This wasn’t always achieved just by winning elections; opposition politicians and trade unionists were often accused by the government of being involved in subversive communist struggles, and were detained in prison without trial.  One politician, Chia Thye Poh, was detained for 23 years without a trial.

That solid lock on the government ended in 1981, because one member of Parliament stepped down, and when a special election was held to replace him, to everyone’s surprise, the PAP candidate lost.  Then when the next general parliamentary election took place, in 1984, a second seat was won by a candidate from an opposition party.  Parliament had 79 members at that time, and the PAP still held 77 seats, but Lee Kuan Yew acted like this was a major defeat.  He warned that if this trend continued, he would not run for prime minister anymore.  The scare tactic worked; with the next general election, in 1988, the PAP recovered the seat it had lost in 1981.

Lee Kuan Yew could beat the opposition, but he could not stop the march of time.  He finally stepped down in 1990, when he was 67 years old.  I mentioned in Episode 98 that Lee was the longest-serving prime minister in the history of any nation, holding that job for 31 years.  He wanted Tony Tan, the minister of education, to succeed him, but the other senior party members, including Mr. Tan, outvoted him and chose the deputy prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.  Lee went along with this; afterwards he would refer to Goh as, quote, “My Prime Minister,” unquote.

Even so, Lee was not in a hurry to ride off into the sunset.  He remained leader of the PAP until 1992, and stuck around in the Cabinet as senior minister, a job specifically created for former prime ministers.  Then when Goh Chok Tong retired as prime minister in 2004, Lee became a Minister Mentor, so that Goh could become the new senior minister.  Minister Mentor is a job without powers or responsibilities, and from here Lee gave advice on everything from good manners to diet.  His main activity was a second campaign to encourage young Chinese people to learn Mandarin, which he called Huayu Cool!, or “Mandarin is Cool!”  In 2005 he published a book called Keeping My Mandarin Alive, where he confessed that he promoted the Chinese dialect because he didn’t learn it himself until he was in his thirties, and later had to re-learn it because he didn’t use it enough.  Quote: “…because I don’t use it so much, therefore it gets disused and there’s language loss.  Then I have to revive it.  It’s a terrible problem because learning it in adult life, it hasn’t got the same roots in your memory.”  End quote.  Lee Kuan Yew retired from public life altogether in 2011, and died in 2015, at the age of 91.


Now let’s move on to what Lee’s successors have been doing.  One of Goh Chok Tong’s first acts was to add an amendment to the constitution that gave some power to a Singaporean president.  According to the constitution, Singapore has two heads of state, a president and a prime minister.  Until now I haven’t mentioned the president because while Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister, the president was a nobody, serving in a strictly ceremonial position.  Now with the new amendment, the president was given two additional responsibilities, to control the treasury and choose key civil service appointments.  Officially this was a safety measure; by splitting power between two people at the top, it would be less likely for a "rogue government" to take over from the PAP and spend the country’s cash reserves.  The PAP candidate for president in 1993, Ong Teng Cheong, expected only token opposition, but won with just 60% of the vote, nearly a dead heat by Singaporean standards.  Running against him was the former head of the Post Office Savings Bank, who had to be persuaded by the PAP to stand in the election.  The votes he garnered were not only protest votes against the PAP, but also a "thank you" message from the common people, because he had protected their savings by keeping savings account interest rates up when the economy was bad.

Singapore watchers expected Ong to be a party loyalist, who would not make waves.  Instead, he chose to be an activist, taking his job seriously.  Almost immediately, Ong, Goh and Lee (who had not yet retired at this point) argued about what the president could and could not do, in a rare show of disunity.  Then personal problems doomed Ong to a one-term presidency.  His wife died of cancer in 1998, and though he recovered from lymphoma in the same year, the PAP used his health as an excuse to announce that it would support somebody else in the 1999 elections.  The presidents since Ong have given the PAP far less trouble.  As I record this, Tony Tan has served since 2011 as Singapore’s seventh president.

While Goh Chok Tong was at the helm, Singapore went through the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2003 SARS epidemic, and foiled plots by Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group that bombed Bali in 2002.  As I mentioned earlier, he retired from the prime ministership in 2004.  Singapore’s third prime minister was Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, and he still holds that job as this recording goes out.

Events so far under the younger Lee’s administration include the legalization of casino gambling, the reestablishment of the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008, and the hosting of the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics.  Three presidential elections have been held since Lee took over — in 2005, 2011, and 2017.  Parliamentary elections have taken place in 2006, 2011, 2015 and 2020.  For the 2020 election, eleven parties and one independent candidate participated, but only two parties won anything.  Of the 93 parliamentary seats, the PAP won 83, and the other 10 went to the Worker’s Party, a group with a center-left inclination.  Those who remember how the PAP performed in the past will call this election a defeat!  And you thought you had heard about all the unpleasant surprises in 2020!  Thus, the PAP is slowly loosening its paternalistic grip on the city.  The next few years will tell us if it is ready to set Singaporeans free from the cage.



Well, we’re not going to have to talk about Singapore any more in this podcast, because we are done with Singapore!  Yes, after 104 episodes, we have finally finished the history of a Southeast Asian country, covering it all the way to the present.  In the past, I usually discussed Malaysia and Singapore in the same episode, so I think the next episode will be about Malaysia.  Will I be able to finish that country as well?  Join me next time to find out!

If you enjoyed this episode and can afford to support the podcast, consider starting the year off right by giving a donation through Paypal.  Or if you would rather contribute a small amount every month, consider becoming a Patron, by going to my Patreon page!  The Paypal button and a link to Patreon can be found on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode; I also posted those links on the podcast’s Facebook page, a couple months ago.  On Patreon we now have 15 excellent Patrons supporting the show!  Who will be Number 16?

If you can’t afford to donate, or if you are already a donor and would like to do more, here is what else you can do.  You can write a review.  You can“like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook.  Last and best of all, you can tell others about the show; family, friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances, and so forth.  I look forward to meeting you again soon with another episode.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 103: Indonesia Under Suharto


Episode 103 of the podcast is now available, just in time for Beethoven’s 250th birthday!  Today we look at Indonesia during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  This was the time of Indonesia’s long-lasting second president, Suharto.




This episode is dedicated to William S., and Robb F., for generously donating to the podcast.  It has been more than a month since the podcast last received any donations, so thank you for ending the dry spell, especially in this difficult time.  And since William has donated before, he now receives the coveted water buffalo icon, next to his name on the Podcast Hall of Fame page!  May both of you achieve all your goals in this season.  Or, to quote a blessing from the Old Testament Book of Numbers: “The LORD bless you, and keep you.  The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”  End quote.  And then when this season is done, Happy New Year to you as well.

<Beethoven clip>

Hello, and welcome to the History of Southeast Asia Podcast!  I am your host, Charles Kimball.

Episode 103:  Indonesia Under Suharto

Greetings, dear listeners!  If this isn’t the first time you listened to this podcast, you must have noticed the opening music was different.  I played the first 30 seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because the day I uploaded this episode, December 16, 2020, is Ludwig Von Beethoven’s 250th birthday.  Yes, that great composer would be two and a half centuries old if he was alive now!  Here is your dose of culture for today.


Now what about your dose of history?  Well, you’ve come to the right place for that.  For the past six episodes the podcast narrative has been covering Southeast Asia’s recent history, events that happened when some of you were alive.  We did episodes on Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma and western New Guinea.  Now we are going back to Indonesia for another round.

In the previous episode on Indonesia, Episode 97, we covered the country during the rule of its first president, Sukarno.  Go back and listen to Episode 97 if you want to know what happened in the first two decades after Indonesia achieved independence.  Although Sukarno and Suharto had similar-sounding names, they ran the country very differently.  Sukarno was a flamboyant leader, and his presidency was a turbulent time for the country.  By contrast, Suharto was much quieter, more low-key, and so was the country under him, largely because the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, had been destroyed in the 1965 uprising.  Because of this, I expect this episode will be about the same length as Episode 97, though Suharto ruled for 32 years, almost twice as long as Sukarno.


Suharto was born on June 8, 1921, in a village in East Java.  We noted in Episode 97 that like many Indonesians, Suharto used only one name.  Seventy years later, in 1991, he and his wife went on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and because of that, he is sometimes called Hadji Suharto, or Hadji Mohammed Suharto, but those are titles, not proper names.

Suharto’s early life was a classic “rags to riches” story, starting out as a peasant, becoming a soldier, rising through the ranks, and eventually reaching a point where he could seize power and become president.  He was the only child from his father’s second marriage, but he had 11 half-brothers and sisters.  His father was a village irrigation official, who controlled the local water supply for rice growers.  When he was five weeks old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and the parents divorced soon after that.  During his childhood, he moved from his mother’s home to an aunt’s, to his father’s, and to his stepfather’s.  At one point he stayed in the house of Daryatmo, an Islamic teacher who also practiced mysticism.  Suharto saw Daryatmo as his mentor, and kept him around as an adviser after he grew up.  Suharto would praise Daryatmo in his autobiography, “My Thoughts, Words and Deeds.”  When Daryatmo died in January 1998, some people predicted that Suharto would not last long in power without him, and sure enough, Suharto’s presidency ended just four months later.

But we’re getting ahead of the story.  As a child, Suharto was so poor that he once had to change schools because he could not afford the shorts and shoes that were the required uniform.  Thus, he only got as far as middle school by the time he was eighteen years old.  His first job was with the bank in his village, but he resigned after he tore his only set of work clothes in a bicycle accident.

We saw previously in this podcast that Indonesia was a Dutch colony in the early twentieth century, and in May 1940 the mother country, the Netherlands, entered World War II because Germany invaded the homeland.  Therefore Suharto decided to pursue a military career.  First he joined the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, but this force surrendered to the Japanese in March 1942.  Then he joined the Japanese-sponsored Volunteer Army, reaching the rank of commander by the end of the war.  When the Japanese surrendered, he disbanded the regiment he led, went over to the Indonesian nationalists, and joined the army they were setting up.  Because of his wartime experience, Suharto was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel, and his background as an army officer made sure that henceforth, he would be both anti-colonial and anti-Communist.

Podcast footnote: Unlike Sukarno and other Indonesian nationalists, Suharto doesn’t appear to have had much interest in fighting colonialism, or in any other politics, before World War II.  This is because he had little contact with Europeans, and maybe no contact at all, during his youth.  Consequently he did not speak any European languages as a child, and only learned Dutch after joining the Dutch military in 1940.  End footnote.

Halfway through the Indonesian war for independence, in 1947, Suharto married Siti Hartinah, a minor member of a Javanese royal family, the family of the sultan of Solo.  Indeed, many Indonesians would only accept Suharto as their leader because he had married into royalty.  Eventually they would have six children.  Likewise, when Siti died in 1996, the royal link was broken, and Indonesians started talking about Suharto losing his legitimate right to rule.

After independence came in 1949, Suharto attended the army staff and command school, and was promoted to brigadier general.  For most of the decade and a half after that, he was stationed on Java, but in 1950 he led the Garuda Brigade in suppressing a revolt on Amboina, and that meant spending a year in Makassar, on the eastern island of Sulawesi.  I am mentioning this because during that time he adopted one of his neighbors, a thirteen-year-old boy named Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, “B. J. Habibie” for short.  Remember that name, Habibie will appear again at the end of this episode.  Then as soon as that campaign ended, Suharto led his troops against a rebellion of Islamic fundamentalists in central Java.

From 1954 to 1959, Suharto commanded the Diponegoro Division, the troops in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces.  Here he met two prominent businessmen, Liem Sioe Liong and Bob Hasan, and got involved in a series of “profit generating” enterprises, conducted primarily to keep his poorly funded military unit functioning.  This may have involved opium smuggling, and  Army anti-corruption investigations followed, but instead of being brought before a court martial, a senior general had him transferred to the army Staff College in Bandung, West Java.

By 1962 Suharto was a major general, and he returned to Makassar, this time to lead the army, navy and air force units that raided western New Guinea, until that territory was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule; we talked about that event in Episodes 97 and 102.  After this, Suharto commanded the army’s new Strategic Reserve Force, and was holding that position in Jakarta when a failed coup attempt killed six generals in 1965.  I mentioned in Episode 97 that Suharto survived the coup because he wasn’t at home when the assassins came looking for him; but I didn’t tell you where he was; he was visiting his three-year-old son in the hospital, who had recently been scalded.

Okay, that’s Suharto’s life story up until he replaced Sukarno as president, at the age of 46.  Now let’s cover his long-lasting presidency.


Suharto dedicated himself to rebuilding the country and reversing many of Sukarno’s policies. Relations were normalized with Malaysia; you may remember the “Confrontation” following Malaysia’s creation, that we talked about in Episodes 97 and 98.  Also, Indonesia had quit the United Nations over the Malaysia issue, and now it rejoined the UN.  While Suharto was in charge, the rest of the world did not hear much from him or Indonesia.  Whereas Sukarno was left-leaning, Suharto was pro-Western, and he only appeared in the foreign media when he met with more visible heads of state.  One example of Suharto in the news was when he hosted the 1994 G-7 Conference, the annual meeting of leaders from the world’s seven richest nations, in Jakarta.  This G-7 conference was also an example of Suharto’s moves to attract foreign investment, something that hadn’t interested Sukarno much.  Sukarno had called his program for Indonesia “Guided Democracy,” and now Suharto called his policies “The New Order.”

To keep Western nations friendly, Suharto had to pay lip service to democracy.  But he did not want to join Sukarno’s political party, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, or PNI.  For him, Sekber Golkar, a political club founded by a group of army officers in 1964, was more to his liking.  Sekber Golkar meant Joint Secretariat of Functional Groups; when elections were held in 1971, the name was shortened to just Golkar, meaning Functional Group.  The 1971 election was rigged to make sure Golkar would win a commanding majority of seats in the legislature; civil servants were expected to vote Golkar, and regional administrators were required to deliver "quotas" of Golkar votes.  Sure enough, Golkar won 236 of the 360 seats, an almost two-thirds majority.  Second place went to Nahdatul Ulama, an Islamic party, which got 58 seats.  After the election, Suharto forced the merger of the parties that ran against Golkar.  The four Islamic parties were lumped into one group called the United Development Party, and five other parties, including the PNI, were formed into the Indonesian Democratic Party.  This arrangement allowed Suharto to easily win reelection every five years.

In Episode 100, I mentioned how new strains of rice and new farming techniques greatly increased rice harvests in the 1960s, creating what we call the “Green Revolution.”  As a rice-growing nation, Indonesia benefitted from the Green Revolution, and more profits came from the boost in world oil prices in the 1970s, because Indonesia has the largest oil reserves east of the Persian Gulf.  Together, the rice and oil booms allowed the economy to grow at a rate of 6% a year, about twice the rate of population growth.  However, all was not well in the business sector. In 1975 the state-owned oil company, Pertamina, defaulted on paying loans worth $10.5 billion, and the crisis threatened to bring down the whole economy.  It took the dismissal of Pertamina’s corrupt director, project cancellations, renegotiation of loans, help from the West and rising oil prices to save the situation.  Then when oil prices stagnated in the early 1980s, Suharto introduced reforms across a wide range of sectors to cut production costs and improve the competitiveness of Indonesian exports.

The economic boom of the 1970s meant the country’s poorest people weren’t starving anymore,but otherwise only about 10 percent of workers earned enough to enjoy a real improvement in their standard of living.  Most of the profits went to those who were rich already, especially the president’s family, friends, and business associates.  Thus, Indonesia developed a kleptocracy, very much like what the Marcos family ran in the Philippines at the same time.  Suharto’s six children amassed huge holdings in industries like airlines, petroleum, banking, automobiles, etc., estimated at between $6 billion and $30 billion in value.  Foreign companies that did business in Indonesia often had to hire junior members of the Suharto clan as "consultants" to grease the wheels.  The economic inequalities were made worse by the growth of the population to more than 200 million, despite a relatively successful family-planning program in Java.  This made Indonesia the world’s fourth most populous country, after China, India and the United States; by itself, Java has more people than most nations.  Largely because of the crowding and poverty, rioting occurred in several Indonesian towns in the 1990s.

Whatever else can be said about Suharto’s Indonesia, it was more stable than Sukarno’s.  There were two reasons for this:  revolutionary fervor was now a thing of the past, and the Suharto government was more repressive than Sukarno’s had been.  When he first took over, Suharto got along with the student movement, which was tired of Sukarno, but the students turned against him when they saw his government become authoritarian and corrupt.  There were large student demonstrations challenging the legitimacy of the 1971 elections.  Students also protested the costly construction of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, a theme park in Jakarta, in 1972, and they protested the 1974 visit of Kakuei Tanaka, the Japanese prime minister.  Finally, in 1978 there were demonstrations against the lack of term limits to Suharto’s presidency.  The regime responded by imprisoning many student activists, and even sent army units to occupy the university campus of the Bandung Institute of Technology, from January to March of 1978.  After the occupation ended, Suharto issued the decree on "Normalization of Campus Life," which prohibited political activities on-campus not related to school work.

Suharto was largely successful at promoting national identity over regional identity.  We noted in previous episodes that the Indonesian people had trouble seeing themselves as one nation, because they had not been united in the past, except for a brief union under the fourteenth-century kingdom of Majapahit; rule under foreigners like the Dutch and the Japanese didn’t count.  However, to unify the country, he committed serious human rights violations, especially in western New Guinea, East Timor and Aceh.  We covered the western New Guinea repression in Episode 102, and now we will look at the other two.


The last time we looked at Timor was in Episode 59.  Longtime listeners will remember that during the colonial era, that medium-sized island was divided, with the Portuguese ruling the east and the Dutch ruling the west.  Over the centuries the boundary between east and west wavered a bit; the current border was only drawn in 1914, by a ruling from The Hague.  Under the Portuguese, East Timor was a sleepy and neglected outpost, largely administered by a traditional system of local chiefs.  Before the twentieth century, the Portuguese only had firm control in the capital, Dili.  The main exports were sandalwood and coffee, and investment in infrastructure, health, and education was minimal.  Lisbon mainly used the island as a place to exile criminals, especially political prisoners.

With World War II, the Japanese occupied the island, and the native Timorese suffered badly under the occupation.  Then after the war, everything pretty much returned to the way it was previously, except that those killed during the war stayed dead.  That was the situation until 1974, when a coup in Lisbon toppled the Portuguese dictatorship; the new government, the first successful democracy in Portuguese history, decided to give away Portugal’s ancient colonial empire.  The last Portuguese governor over East Timor, Mário Lemos Pires, was appointed on November 18, 1974.  One of the first things he did was legalize political parties, and schedule elections to create a local legislature.  Three parties soon appeared that had significant support.  The Timorese Democratic Union, or UDT, was for keeping ties with Portugal, but it wasn’t clear if they meant some form of autonomy under the Portuguese flag, or maintaining a special relationship with Portugal after independence.  The Frente Revolucionária do Timor Leste Independente, FRETILIN for short, was a leftist group that wanted rapid progress to independence.  Finally, the Timorese Popular Democratic Association supported joining Indonesia.

The election took place on March 13, 1975, with FRETILIN and the UDT emerging as the dominant parties.  The two nearest countries, Indonesia and Australia, now watched developments on Timor with concern.  So did the United States, which saw Suharto as a bonafide anti-communist, and did not want Indonesia destabilized by a new left-wing government next door.  Those of you who listened to the Indochina War episodes will remember that this all happened right around the time that Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos fell to communism.  Then on August 11, the UDT staged a coup, because FRETILIN was becoming the most popular party.  Governor Pires fled to Atauro, a small offshore island north of Dili.  Here he tried to broker an agreement between the two parties, and waited for instructions from Lisbon, which never came.  Meanwhile, Indonesia began a series of political and military activities to destabilize and annex East Timor, which they called Operation Komodo, after the Komodo dragon, the giant lizard found on four nearby Indonesian islands.  In October 1975, in the border town of Balibo, two Australian television crews reporting on the conflict were killed by Indonesian forces, after they witnessed Indonesian troops sneaking into Portuguese Timor.

Gradually, FRETILIN gained control over East Timor, forcing the UDT to flee to the Indonesian side of the island.  Still, FRETILIN wanted the Portuguese to return and re-establish order; they expressed this by flying the Portuguese flag over their offices.  Instead, Portugal stayed out of the conflict, so FRETILIN decided to take matters into their own hands.  On November 28, 1975, FRETILIN made a unilateral declaration of independence, proclaiming the Democratic Republic of East Timor, with a member of FRETILIN, Francisco Xavier do Amaral, as the first President.  This was not recognised by either Portugal, Indonesia, or Australia; the countries that did recognize the new state were either left-wing or communist:  Albania, the Cape Verde Islands, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe.  In response, Indonesia had the leaders of all parties in East Timor, except FRETILIN, sign a declaration calling for union with Indonesia.  Though it was signed on the Indonesian island of Bali, it was called the Balibo Declaration.  Xanana Gusmão, East Timor’s new press secretary, described this as the “Balibohong Declaration,” a pun on the Indonesian word for “lie.”

To Jakarta, the events on Timor looked too much like communism coming back to Indonesia, so on December 7, only nine days after independence had been declared, the Indonesian army invaded East Timor.  Many years later, in 2001, declassified documents revealed that the invasion came with the blessing of the Americans.  On the day before the invasion, two US leaders, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford, completed a visit to Jakarta.  It turned out that Kissinger and Ford urged Suharto to take over the former colony quickly, so the world would not see that the Indonesians were equipped with US-made weapons.  Australia also sided with Indonesia.  Portugal and the UN condemned the invasion, but that did not keep the Indonesians from annexing the area as their 24th province.  Human rights groups claimed the Indonesian army, disease and famine may have killed more than 100,000 people, about one sixth of the population, during the annexation.

By 1976 there were 35,000 Indonesian troops in East Timor.  FALINTIL, the military wing of FRETILIN, fought a guerrilla war that enjoyed success in the first few years, but weakened afterwards because of the lack of international support.  By 1989, Indonesia had things firmly under control and opened East Timor to tourism.  But then on November 12, 1991, Indonesian troops fired on protesters gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili to commemorate the killing of an independence activist.  Because the shooting was captured on film, it provoked international condemnation, and the embarrassed Indonesian government admitted to 19 dead, though it is more likely that 270 were massacred.  Only now did world opinion begin to shift in favor of the Timorese, mainly because the Cold War was over, so East-West politics no longer got in the way.  In 1996 Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta, two Timorese dissidents, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to resolve the conflict.


Now let’s skip to the west side of Indonesia, for a look at Aceh.  This territory, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra, has been mentioned more than once in past episodes.  In Episode 11, I said Aceh was probably the first part of Indonesia to convert to Islam, and the Acehnese tended to follow a strict, fundamentalist form of Islam, rather than combine Islam with ideas from other religions, as the rest of Southeast Asia does.  Then when foreigners arrived, the Acehnese resisted them bitterly, first the Portuguese in Episode 12, then the Dutch in Episode 22, and then the Japanese in World War II.  For the Indonesian War of Independence, Aceh was quiet, because the Dutch did not go there, and because President Sukarno promised that Aceh would be an autonomous part of the Indonesian state, with the same Islam-based laws that had been in place for centuries.  But instead of keeping that promise, Sukarno tried to merge Aceh with the neighboring province of North Sumatra, a move which would have created a territory with a large, Christian minority.  Therefore, the Acehnese saw the Java-based Indonesian government as just another foreign occupier.  In other words, while the separatists in western New Guinea and East Timor were Christian, and did not want to be part of a nation with a majority Moslem population, the separatists in Aceh felt that Indonesia was not Moslem enough!

In Episode 60, I told you about Darul Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist movement that revolted against the Indonesian government in 1949.  Aceh’s governor, Daud Beureu’eh, joined the revolt in 1953, and thus Aceh became a rebel-held area.  Jakarta quickly retook the cities, but resistance continued until 1959, when many supporters accepted a peace agreement that declared Aceh a "Special Region," with autonomy in religious, educational, and cultural matters.  Daud himself stayed in a guerrilla base until 1962, when he was granted amnesty.

In the 1970s, many American oil and gas companies got permission from the Jakarta government to exploit Aceh’s natural resources.  Because of that drilling, today 15 percent of Indonesia’s oil and natural gas comes from Aceh.  However, the Acehnese felt they were not represented in the agreements.  One of them, a former member of Darul Islam named Hasan Muhammad di Tiro, applied for a pipeline contract in a new Mobil Oil gas plant, but was outbid by Bechtel, an American engineering firm.  This inspired di Tiro to organize a new separatist movement among his old Darul Islam contacts.  The movement, called Gerekan Aceh Merdeka or the Free Aceh Movement, was proclaimed in 1976, and it called for an independent Aceh.  This time, however, the movement did not have enough followers to fight government forces effectively, and from 1980 onward, di Tiro was forced to live in exile in Sweden.  Likewise, the government did not take a chance with Daud Beureu’eh, the previous Acehnese rebel leader; he was taken to Jakarta and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The government was able to keep a lid on Aceh for most of the 1980s, but then starting in 1989 there were a string of security incidents, prompting the government to send 12,000 soldiers, in a program called Operation Red Net.  The regional commander at the time spelled out the military’s basic policies by saying, quote, "I have told the community, if you find a terrorist, kill him. There’s no need to investigate him … if they don’t do as you order them, shoot them on the spot, or butcher them."  Unquote.  Naturally that led to a number of human rights abuses.  Amnesty International reported that between 1989 and 1992, about 2,000 people were killed by military operations in Aceh.

According to one writer who was in Aceh before the trouble started, the 1989 attacks began when a religious leader from Malaysia came to Aceh and, quote, "used several economic and social arguments to whip the young men into a state of eager anticipation at the prospect of a glorious holy war to liberate Aceh."  Unquote.  The leader told the young men, many of them students, that Jakarta was siphoning off Aceh’s natural resources without putting money back into the region, forcing the Acehnese to live in poverty.  Aceh’s residents also resented the government’s policy of “transmigration,” where the people of overcrowded Java are encouraged to move to the outer islands.  This includes Aceh, where the Javanese newcomers settle in the cities and take the best jobs.  Because of these resentments, the second phase of the rebellion, after 1989, enjoyed large support from the Acehnese people.  This support was demonstrated in 1999, when half a million, one eighth of Aceh’s population, demonstrated in Banda Aceh, the capital, calling for a referendum on Aceh’s future.  But we will stop covering the Aceh rebellion for now, since it continued into the twenty-first century.  You will have to listen to a future episode to find out how it turned out.


Suharto’s most visible opponents were not separatists on the outer islands, but closer to home: Moslem groups that never accepted government control, and university students alienated by the government’s corruption and human rights violations.  In the early 1990s many dissidents turned to Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late Sukarno.  The government engineered a split in the Indonesian Democratic Party in 1996, which caused Sukarnoputri to be removed as chairperson of the party, and kept her from running in the next election.  The party’s supporters rioted in Jakarta, but it was only a taste of things to come.  Although Sukarnoputri did not enjoy widespread support, she was the first figure in a generation to challenge the incumbent president.

In the early and mid-1990s, Asian officials boasted that they had created a self-perpetuating Pan-Asiatic prosperity zone.  According to them, a dynamic economy in one Pacific rim country would stimulate the rest; Japanese savings became investments in the surrounding nations, which were in turn used to export goods to the West, especially the United States.  There may have been some truth to this, but such a network also caused massive inflation, collapsed currencies and widespread bankruptcies when one member faltered.  In this case it happened with Thailand, in July 1997.

Of all the countries affected by Thailand’s currency collapse, Indonesia was hit the hardest.  The economy imploded; thirty years of economic gains were wiped out in a few months, and the Gross Domestic Product dropped 15%.  The monetary unit, the Rupiah, was already one of the world’s most devalued currencies; now it went into free fall, dropping in value from 2,300 Rupiah per US dollar to as low as 17,000 Rupiah per dollar, in February 1998.  For what it’s worth, as I record this in 2020, the Rupiah is valued at 14,130 to the US dollar, so after 22 years, it has only made a partial recovery.

The International Monetary Fund put together a foreign aid package totaling $38 billion, one of the largest ever.  In return for the emergency aid, Suharto had to agree to major structural reform, a realistic budget for the upcoming year, and to cut back on crony deals, like the clove monopoly controlled by Suharto’s son, Tommy.  Those turned out to be promises he couldn’t keep, as his family stood to lose under any sort of austerity program.  An ailing bank controlled by his son was shut down, and it quickly reopened under a new name.  In January 1998 he announced a good-times budget that called for a 32 percent increase in spending, and an end to special tax breaks for family-owned businesses, but he still would not close them down.  However, he did end government subsidies that kept down the price of oil and foodstuffs like rice, guaranteeing that the poor would have to shoulder the cost of reform.  In one year the number of Indonesians living below the poverty line jumped from 20 million to 100 million (almost half the country’s population).

Suharto was now 76 years old, and talked about retirement, but instead he ran for a sixth term in February 1998.  The opposition parties and student demonstrators demanded that he step down, but since there was no obvious successor, and because the local and international business communities were so used to Indonesia’s brand of crony capitalism, the outcome was never in doubt.  Suharto won again, and then he acted as if nothing had changed.  Caught between skyrocketing prices, tumbling wages, and millions losing their jobs, people took to the streets in protest.  At first the demonstrations were confined to campuses, but in April violent rioting erupted in the streets of Medan, then other cities.  230 were killed when a looted shopping mall caught on fire, and an estimated 500 more died in other riot-related violence.  Chief among the victims were members of the Chinese community, always scapegoats when something goes wrong in Southeast Asia.

Podcast footnote:  Many of Indonesia’s Chinese are Christians, so the violence took on a religious element as they were raped and killed by the country’s Moslem majority.  A member of the Indonesian Chinese community, James Riady, made headlines in 1996, for making illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of US President Bill Clinton.  End footnote.

Throughout the turmoil the army reminded everyone that it was on the side of the government.   Tanks and army trucks appeared on the streets, but demands for Suharto’s resignation increased. Student demonstrations would not go away, so on May 12, while Suharto was away on a visit to Cairo, soldiers swapped rubber bullets for live ammunition and shot dead four students at Trisakti University in Jakarta.

Jakarta erupted – in three days of rioting and looting, over 6,000 buildings in the city were damaged or destroyed and an estimated 1,200 people died.  Law and order collapsed.  Mounting evidence pointed to General Prabowo, Suharto’s son-in-law, using military goon squads to spearhead attacks on Chinese shops and Chinese women.  He did this to create a situation where it looked like Suharto had “saved the nation.”  However, Prabowo’s plan backfired and, following Suharto’s fall, he was dismissed from the army and sent into exile for a few years.

Although the riots subsided, anti-Suharto demonstrations increased, and the army threatened to shoot troublemakers on sight.  The country looked on, fearing massive bloodshed.  But as Suharto clung to the presidency, some of his ministers and even the soldiers supporting the president could see that he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Therefore the soldiers simply stood by and watched when rioters threw things at the villas and offices of Suharto’s hated children and associates.  By now Suharto was a president only in his palace, and after ministers and soldiers put pressure on him to resign, he stepped down on May 21, 1998.  Vice-president B. J. Habibie, now 63 years old, took his place; remember him?  Habibie was hardly a change, since as we saw earlier, he was Suharto’s stepson.  Still, he began the country’s transition to a new era, by liberalizing Indonesia’s press and political party laws.

Like his predecessor Sukarno, Suharto was never healthy again after leaving the presidency.  He rarely appeared in public, and his family spent much of their time fending off corruption investigations.  Suharto suffered from strokes and heart and intestinal problems, so while there was talk about having him stand trial, it never happened.  He died on January 27, 2008, at the age of 86, and he was buried alongside his wife, in the central Java city of Solo.


That’s all for today.  This is the last episode planned for 2020, which so far has been the strangest year of my life, and probably yours, too.  Just think about it; if 2020 was a movie, it would be narrated by Rod Serling, the script would be written by Stephen King, and it would be directed by Alfred Hitchcock!  It has been a great year for launching new podcasts, though.  While some of the older podcasts I listen to have suffered interruptions, due to COVID-19, the pandemic has encouraged people stuck at home to get started on their shows.  Yesterday I heard that the number of podcasts available online has jumped, from 750,000 in 2019 to 1.6 million now.  If you are listening to this, chances are you are also listening to a podcast that began in 2020.  Since I am planning to complete the next episode around New Year’s Day, go ahead and listen to those other podcasts, and celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Saturnalia, or whatever other holiday you observe at the end of the year.  Then join me next time as the podcast goes to Singapore and Malaysia again.  I plan to begin 2021 with at least two episodes, to bring the narrative on those countries up to the present.

If you are listening to this episode after 2020, kindly disregard everything I just said in the past minute.

December is a slow month for podcast donations, no doubt because people are so busy with the holiday season, so I have one more reason to be thankful for the donations from William S. and Robb F.  If you enjoyed this show and would like to join William and Robb on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, you can make a donation of your own, using Paypal.  Just go to the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode, click on the gold button that says “Donate!”, and follow the instructions from there.  This reminds me, I have to repost the Paypal link on the podcast’s Facebook page, for those who listen to the podcast on other websites and apps besides Blubrry.

Those who donate in more than one year get an icon next to their names on the Podcast Hall of Fame Page, representing Walter the Water Buffalo!

<Carabao sound effect>

With the new year approaching, here’s an easy way to win the coveted water buffalo icon, if you are listening around the time this episode was uploaded.  Make a donation now.  It doesn’t have to be a large one, maybe just $5.  Then after 2021 begins, make another donation like it, and the water buffalo icon is yours!  Those of you who have Walter the Water Buffalo already, make a donation in 2021, and force me to come up with a new icon, just for three-year donors like you!

You can also become a Patron, by going to my Patreon page!  There is also a link to my Patreon page on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode.  One new Patron joined the team since the previous episode, bringing the total number up to fifteen.  Way to go!

Now we are at the point in each episode where I tell you the ways to support the podcast that don’t require money.  Write a review, if you get the episodes from a website or app that allows reviews.  “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook.  Recently a number of folks angry with Facebook have moved to other social media sites; I am thinking of setting up another podcast page for them, on MeWe; stay tuned for that!  And when you’re with others and the conversation runs out things to say, you can mention the podcast.  Spread the word the old-fashioned way!  Thank you for listening, Happy New Year in advance, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 102: Western New Guinea, Forgotten War, Unwanted People



This episode goes all the way to the eastern extremity of Southeast Asia — western New Guinea.  Geographically speaking, it’s really part of the South Pacific region of the world, but it has been considered part of Indonesia since the Dutch claimed it, nearly two hundred years ago.  Now we will look at what has happened there since the Dutch handed over western New Guinea to Indonesia, in 1962.  Can we call this the last Southeast Asian colony?




<Play Mark Vinet Sound clip>

No, you did not download the wrong podcast!  What you just heard was the promo for a new history podcast I discovered recently.  Mark Vinet tells American history the way I like to hear it.  American history should not begin with Columbus, Jamestown, or even George Washington, but that is how most people tell the story.  In my opinion, it should begin with the first Americans crossing over from the Old World, during the ice age.  That way equal time is given to the Native Americans, who had all of the Americas to themselves until the Europeans arrived.  Mark Vinet has done that here, and I will continue to listen with interest to hear how he tells the North American story, once the Europeans show up.  He asked me to mention the History of North America podcast, so after you are done listening to this episode, go over to anchor.fm and check out his show.

This episode is dedicated to Brin-Brin.  Brin-Brin is not a donor to this podcast, like everyone else I have dedicated episodes to.  Brin-Brin was the third member of this household, after my wife and I.  Brin-Brin was a parrot, a 24-year-old yellow-naped Amazon parrot, to be exact.  His name is short for Brindisi, the name of my wife’s father.  He lived with us for thirteen years, and had more personality than you would expect from a bird.  In fact, I would call him the silliest pet my family ever had.  Sometimes I would even have to close the door to the room where I record this podcast, so you would not hear him on the recordings – he was that loud!  His favorite trick was to hang upside down by one leg, wiggle his wings and let forth a horrifying scream, like this:

<Brin-Brin sound clip>

Once he startled my son-in-law, by screaming behind his back!  Here is what my son-in-law later said about it.  Quote:  “Oh, Brin-Brin, I so enjoy our time together.  The way you randomly scream like a woman in travail.  Don’t ever change.  By the by, he hates it when I sing.”  End quote.

Another time he screamed during October, when we had a visitor, and the visitor thought he had walked into a spook house!  Out of everyone, Brin-Brin was closest to my wife.  They developed some kind of psychic bond when they first met, he wanted to eat whatever he saw her eating, and he was a constant companion to her, especially in 2011-2012, when I worked at a contract job in another state for ten and a half months.

Alas, a month ago Brin-Brin fell ill, and he passed away on November 17, 2020.  May the three of us be reunited again, on the other side of life.  And now let’s go to the episode you have been waiting for.


Episode 102:  Western New Guinea, Forgotten War, Unwanted People

Greetings, dear listeners, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky!  I hope you are staying happy and healthy in these turbulent times.  Let me begin with a disclaimer.  No animals were harmed in the making of this podcast.  However, a lot of electrons weren’t as lucky.  Even the occasional centipede that gets into my office is left alone.  Just yesterday I saw a picture of an American soldier in Vietnam, holding a centipede as long as his arm.  Yikes!  Thankfully, the centipedes around here are nothing like that; only a couple inches long, and I don’t think they are poisonous.

But seriously, lately we have been bouncing around quite a bit in Southeast Asia.  We spent Episode 100 in one of the countries farthest east in the region, the Philippines.  Then for Episode 101 we went to the country that is farthest to the west, Burma.  Now we are going east again, this time to the extreme easternmost place that anyone considers to be part of Southeast Asia: New Guinea.  This is going to be a special episode.  We will focus our attention on the western half of New Guinea, due to the ongoing state of unrest in it, since it became a territory ruled by Indonesia.  Although this podcast still has some things to discuss about the rest of Indonesia, we will save that for another time.
When it comes to talking about New Guinea, I do it with some hesitation.  I think I told you that in the earliest episodes of the podcast; it’s because from a geographical perspective, I don’t really consider New Guinea part of Southeast Asia.  I consider it part of the South Pacific region.  However, since at least the nineteenth century, New Guinea has been tied in with Southeast Asia, thanks to the actions of the Western colonial powers.  Here is a recap of New Guinea as it appeared in the podcast so far.


When the Dutch conquered Indonesia in the nineteenth century, they also claimed western New Guinea.  At that date, only the coast of the island had been explored; Europeans had no idea what was in the interior.  Everything they did know about New Guinea told them to stay away:  the climate, diseases, difficult terrain, isolation, unfriendly natives, and risk all around.  For those reasons, the first European outposts on the island failed; the Dutch could not plant a successful colony here until 1898.  The Dutch persisted because they felt they could use western New Guinea as a buffer zone, to defend the resource-rich Indonesian islands they held already.  That’s why they built Hollandia, the capital of the West New Guinea territory, only a few miles from the territory’s eastern border.  The British encouraged the Dutch move on New Guinea, because it made the Dutch forget about colonizing Australia, a continent they had discovered, but which was now completely claimed by the British.

New Guinea is a huge island; in fact, it’s the second largest island in the world, after Greenland.  On the island’s east side, other colonial powers moved in.  The thinking here was that any landmass this big had to have resources worth exploiting.  In the early nineteenth century some British, French and American whalers and traders came to New Guinea, seeking the same commodities that had attracted them to other parts of the Pacific: whales, sandalwood and sea cucumbers.  The sea cucumbers were dried and taken to China, because the Chinese considered sea cucumbers a delicacy, and could not get enough of them.  The whalers and traders gave iron and steel tools, cloth and fish hooks to the natives they met, and the tools fueled a population boom, because they made more efficient farming (meaning larger harvests) possible.  Unfortunately the traders also introduced devastating European diseases, and when the natives acquired guns, there was an explosion of warfare and head-hunting.  Late in the nineteenth century, Germany claimed the northeastern quarter of the island, calling it Kaiser Wilhelm Land, while the British took the southeastern quarter, naming it Papua.  Because many of the British settlers came from the nearest part of Australia, Queensland, Britain transferred Papua to Australian rule in 1902, one year after Australia was granted independence.  Then when World War I broke out in 1914, the Allies conquered the German part of New Guinea, and upon the war’s end it was handed over to Australia as well.  Thus, by 1919 New Guinea was divided into two roughly equal parts, with the Dutch ruling the west and the Australians ruling the east.

The Dutch considered western New Guinea part of their Indonesian colony, what was then called the “Dutch East Indies,” so when the Japanese invaded Indonesian islands like Java and Borneo, they invaded New Guinea, too.  Therefore, when I was covering World War II, I felt compelled to devote three episodes to the World War II battles on New Guinea:  Episodes 45, 46, and 47.  Thirty years after the war ended, Australia merged eastern New Guinea with several islands to the east, the Bismarck Archipelago, and Bougainville from the Solomon Islands, to form the nation of Papua New Guinea.  Now let’s go back to the west side of the island and see what its postwar fate was.

What happened here, between 1945 and 1962, was covered in Episodes 60 and 97.  The Dutch found out the hard way that World War II had changed the world.  When they returned to Indonesia, they found an unruly native population that did not want them back.  Foreign powers like the United States supported the Dutch while Japanese soldiers needed to be disarmed and removed from the islands, but once the Japanese were gone, foreign sympathies shifted to the Indonesians.  By the end of 1949 the Dutch realized that pacifying the Dutch East Indies was a task beyond their strength, and pulled out of the islands – except for western New Guinea.

In Episode 60, I told you the excuses the Dutch gave for keeping western New Guinea.  First of all, the natives, called Papuans by anthropologists, were not ready to govern themselves.  Many New Guinea tribes did not even have any contact with outsiders until after the twentieth century began.  What’s more, while Indonesians are Moslem and part of the Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian race, the Papuans are Melanesians and mostly Christian, thanks to the work of missionaries.  Indeed, the conversion of the Papuans to Christianity can be considered the greatest success of twentieth-century missionaries.  Anyway, the Dutch argued that the local population did not want to be ruled by people of another race and religion, and that allowed them to hold onto western New Guinea all the way through the 1950s, until Indonesia applied enough military and political pressure to get the United Nations to step in.  Under UN and US supervision, the Netherlands and Indonesia negotiated a settlement, called the New York Agreement, in 1962, and western New Guinea was formally handed over to Indonesia.


At this point, I am going to digress from the narrative in a big way, maybe as long as fifteen minutes, to give you some background on the Melanesians, for the benefit of the listeners who are not familiar with the Melanesians or the South Pacific region.  The Melanesians are one of the three basic ethnic groups that colonized the South Pacific, many centuries ago.  The other two groups are the Australoids and the Austronesians, whom we have met in this podcast already.  The Australoids went to Australia, where they are called Aborigines, and they also went to a few other places like the Andaman Islands; the Negritos of the Philippines are Australoids, too.  The Austronesians are the main ethnic group of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.  One branch of the Austronesians, called the Polynesians, went on to explore the rest of the Pacific, and colonize the islands that didn’t have inhabitants already.  They went as far south as New Zealand, as far northeast as Hawaii, and as far southeast as Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island.  Now what about the Melanesians?

The Melanesians live in an arc of islands in the southwest Pacific, between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn.  Their domain includes easternmost Indonesia (places like Halmahera and Timor), New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.  Melanesia means “black islands,” and the Melanesians are dark-skinned, varying in color from tan to black, depending on the tribe.  Their most unusual feature is that many Melanesian children, especially on the Solomon Islands, have blond hair, which darkens when they grow up.  This has been traced to a different gene from the one that causes blond hair in people of European ancestry.  Since blond hair also appears in some Aborigine children, it is tempting to suggest that Melanesians and Australoids are related.  Most likely they had a single tribe as a common ancestor, which migrated from Asia, and they split into two groups on the way, one going to Australia, the other to New Guinea.  Along that line, a big surprise came when the DNA of Denisova Man, a Siberian cave man, was examined in 2010, and 4 to 6 percent of the genome was the same as that of modern Melanesians, meaning that they are the closest living relatives to the Denisovans.  Does this mean that ancestors of the Melanesians came from the heart of Siberia?

By far the most important Melanesian island is New Guinea, because of its size; it has more land than any other place in the South Pacific besides Australia, and consequently is home to the most people as well.  Therefore you can think of New Guinea as a home island or base camp for the Melanesians, from which they went forth to settle other islands.  Before Europeans discovered New Guinea, it was known as Papua; that is why the residents are called Papuans.  However, we don’t know where the name Papua came from.  One theory claims it came from the sultan of Tidore, the ruler of one of the nearest Indonesian islands; supposedly he described New Guinea as a land without a kingdom by combining the words papo (to unite) and ua (a negation), to get a word meaning “not united.”  A simpler theory asserts that Papua is a Malay word meaning “frizzy-haired,” referring to the afro hairstyle of the natives.

The first Europeans to meet the Melanesians considered them wretched, because of their primitive lifestyle.  But compared with the Aborigines, the Melanesians were better off; whereas the Aborigines were at a Paleolithic, or old stone age level of technology, when Europeans contacted them, the Melanesians were at a Neolithic, or new stone age level.  This means the Melanesians did some farming, instead of simply gathering whatever edible plants they could find.  In other parts of the world, farmers usually got the biggest yields from irrigated fields of grain, but on New Guinea, the crop most often grown was a root vegetable, taro.  You may have heard of taro under other names, dasheen or elephant ears.  Taro was never grown on a large scale — usually it is grown in garden-sized plots.  This was because the men continued to hunt; New Guinea does not have any domesticated animals for them to raise, and instead of staying in one spot, a tribe might pull up its stakes and move, in search of better hunting and farming grounds.  As a result, a taro-based economy could feed 10-100 people per square mile, compared with more than a hundred people per square mile fed by farms growing millet, wheat, rice or other grains.  Still, taro allowed the Melanesian population to grow large enough to keep most of the island for themselves, when others came to New Guinea.

Papuans also cultivated sago palms, or cycads, for their edible parts.  And while today the various species of bananas and plantains grow wild all over India and Southeast Asia, it now looks like they were first grown in Papua New Guinea, so we can thank the Melanesians for bananas, too.

The most important thing to remember about the Melanesians is their incredible diversity.  Just as no individual person can be seen as a typical example of the whole human race, so no Melanesian tribe can be called typical of the rest.  We mentioned already that their skin color can vary; in addition, tribal structure can vary from near-anarchy to chiefs who enjoy hereditary rule.  It is easy to understand what causes this diversity.  Melanesians are physically isolated in small communities; they either live on small islands, or if they are on New Guinea, the jungles and mountains running across that island make transportation very difficult.  So unlike the wide-ranging Polynesians, most Melanesians do not venture more than a few miles from home, either by land or sea, and communication between Melanesian communities is irregular.

Because of their diversity, we can only apply a few generalizations to the Melanesians.  One has to do with the tropical, hot and wet climate on their islands; thanks to that, the local plants and animals come in tremendous variety, like the people.  Unfortunately, this also means the Melanesians are plagued by many pests, parasites and diseases, making life on their islands short and difficult.

Languages are another example of how diverse the Melanesians can be.  In today’s world, the human race speaks an estimated 7,117 languages, and according to one count, 1,319 of them, nearly one in five, come from Melanesia.  Thus, New Guinea and the other Melanesian islands are the most linguistically diverse place in the world.  One curious fact about Melanesian languages is that almost half of them did not get started with the Melanesians.  While about 800 of their languages have been traced to New Guinea, and are thus called “Papuan languages,” most of the rest are Austronesian in origin.  Evidently when the ancestors of the Polynesians came to Melanesia, many Melanesians learned their languages and forgot their own; gradual changes in grammar and vocabulary over the centuries explains the rest.  Call it “language evolution” if you wish.

In number of users the Papuan languages range from Western Dani, which has 180,000 speakers in western New Guinea, to languages that may only be spoken by one tribe.  Many of the latter have never been described or put down in written form.  One organization doing something about this is the Wycliffe mission; their ultimate goal is to translate the Bible into every language used in today’s world by 2025.  On three occasions I met Victor Schlatter, a retired Wycliffe translator who spent three decades in Papua New Guinea, translating the Bible into the indigenous languages.

The westernmost Papuan language was Tambora, spoken on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.  Tambora went out of use not because its speakers switched to another tongue, but because they were suddenly wiped out in a natural disaster.  In 1815 the local volcano, Mt. Tambora, exploded; this was the greatest eruption in modern history, and it spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that it temporarily cooled the world, making 1816 the “year without a summer.”  Within a few years Tambora was a dead language, and only one list of Tamboran words was collected before the eruption.  The present-day inhabitants of Sumbawa speak two Austronesian languages.

The tendency to stay at home made Melanesians and their communities unfriendly to outsiders.  Strangers were not to be trusted, and trade routes were short because traders were not willing to go great distances with their goods.  Melanesians also believed in and feared sorcery.  All this meant that it was easy to start a quarrel between two villages, but warfare was usually limited to raiding and an occasional battle; conflicts were caused by real and imagined grievances, not by greed or a lust for conquest.  On the other hand, because the inhabitants of a village are usually related to one another, many groups require that their members marry people from other villages, to prevent inbreeding; Melanesian marriages also usually require the payment of a “bride price” to the bride’s father by the prospective son-in-law.

Melanesian economics and social structures are simple.  In the typical tribe or village, aside from the chief, there is not a great difference in wealth or political power between individuals.  Wealth is usually measured by the amount of food someone possesses at any given time, and since food cannot be hoarded or stored indefinitely, one’s “net worth” will go up or down depending on whether his food baskets are full.  Sometimes an individual can use hard work, marriages with the right families, and/or patronage to produce enough food for a feast, or raise buildings that the whole community can use.  Anthropologists call such a person a “Big Man,” and he enjoys considerable influence without power, for he only remains “big” as long as he can successfully compete with other ambitious folks trying to do the same thing.  Once a “Big Man” retires, dies, or is outdone by somebody else, his authority vanishes; the “Big Man” status cannot be inherited or passed down to a relative.

Before the missionaries arrived, the Melanesians were animists; instead of believing in a pantheon full of gods with specific personalities, they believed spirits, demons and ghosts were present everywhere, and most of them were unfriendly.  Along that line, when the tribes in the New Guinea highlands first met Europeans, they thought these were the ghosts of their dead ancestors returning to the community.  Some modern-day Papuans will jokingly say the same thing about white tourists.  Anyway, in the old-time religion, ceremonies and rituals were performed not to worship the spirits, but to control them, either to keep evil away or to bring success in an undertaking.  Thus, the tribes did not have priests but they had sorcerers who claimed they could work magic; these folks were widely feared.  And that wasn’t all; in keeping with the xenophobia mentioned previously, several New Guinea tribes practiced headhunting or even cannibalism.

Podcast footnote:  I remember when Pope John Paul II visited Papua New Guinea, the crowd that came to see him carried signs that said, “Me laikum you, Pop!”, which is pidgin English for “I like you, Pope!”), and other signs said, “Don’t worry, we won’t eat you.”  Fortunately, today’s visitors don’t have to worry about losing their heads.  End footnote, and the end of this long digression.



Now let’s proceed with the narrative.  After they took western New Guinea, the Indonesians still needed to make the annexation look legitimate; at least they wanted everyone to think the natives approved of it.  In 1969 they held a controversial plebiscite, called the Act of Free Choice.  This was expected to be a “one man, one vote” affair, but an Indonesian general declared that most of the natives did not know enough about the modern world to vote on their status, and then he picked 1,026 tribal elders (out of a population estimated at 800,000) to do the voting.  Under pressure, which included detentions and threats to kill them and their families, they voted publicly and unanimously to become Indonesian citizens.  The United Nations accepted this result, and Indonesia officially incorporated western New Guinea into their state.  At first the territory was renamed West Irian, and then Irian Jaya; at the beginning of the twenty-first century it was divided into two provinces, called Papua and West Papua.  Hollandia, the capital of Papua, has also undergone several name changes.  First it became Kota Baru, meaning New Town, in 1962, then in 1964 it became Sukarnopura, after then-President Sukarno, of course, and at the end of 1968, it was given its present-day name, Jayapura, because Sukarno was no longer president.  Jayapura is a Sanskrit name, meaning “City of Victory.”

Since taking over, Indonesia has ruled western New Guinea at least as brutally as Spain ruled its colonies in the Americas, and maybe as badly as Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled the Congo.  In the nineteenth century, the Dutch squeezed Java for whatever profit they could get, as we saw in Episode 22, and today the Indonesians do the same thing with western New Guinea.  The territory’s main resource is metals; the American- and British-owned Grasberg mine is the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine in the world, and it pumps almost as much money into the economy as Indonesia’s more famous oil wells.  During the 1970s and 80s, 1.2 million Indonesians from Java and Sumatra were resettled here, to dilute western New Guinea’s Papuan majority.  The newcomers dominate the local economy in urban centers, and may have reduced the Papuan share of western New Guinea’s population to 48.7%, if the recent census data I have seen is accurate.  Naturally the Papuans see this as colonization, in order to further marginalize and subjugate them.

Most Papuans have rejected the result of the 1969 plebiscite, calling it the “Act of No Choice.” Those supporting independence argue that the Papuans were never consulted when the 1962 New York Agreement was signed.  Therefore western New Guinea technically became independent when the Dutch relinquished their rule.  Since then, Papuans desiring independence have expressed themselves with the Morning Star flag, which has thirteen blue and white stripes, and one big white star on a red vertical band.  Opposition to Indonesian rule was organized in 1965, as the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM; the English name is Free Papua Movement.  So far the main thing the OPM has demanded is a new plebiscite.  This time it would be a real referendum on self-determination, with every adult West Papuan allowed to vote; preferably the United Nations would oversee the whole procedure.  The Indonesians have in turn stated that one election is enough, since the UN declared the first election valid, and that the Papuans should not be independent because they are an inferior, primitive race.  Likewise the first two Indonesian presidents of the twenty-first century, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri, opposed independence but granted a “special autonomy” status for both provinces of western New Guinea.


The Indonesian response to West Papuan resistance has been violent, to say the least.  Since 1963, a series of reports have trickled out of Western New Guinea, telling of government-approved killings, imprisonment, torture, and attacks on villages.  There were riots in the city of Manokwari, when the OPM was founded in 1965.  For several years Indonesia banned the Morning Star flag; Papuans who flew the flag could be charged with treason and imprisoned for up to twenty-five years.  Now under Papua’s Special Autonomy Law, ratified in 2002, the flag may be raised so long as the flag of Indonesia is also raised and it is higher than the Morning Star flag.  In other words, Indonesia wants to treat the Morning Star flag like just another provincial flag.  While there hasn’t been an all-out rebellion or war of independence, some isolated uprisings have taken place, and when the armed forces put them down, some refugees fled across the border into Papua New Guinea; occasionally the fighting has spilled across the border as well.  Against this, the OPM and other armed groups are deeply divided, poorly equipped, and do not have international support, so they are a nuisance, rather than a threat, to the superior Indonesian military on the island.


Podcast footnote: From what I can tell, the separatists in western New Guinea do not want to join Papua New Guinea, even though the people of that nation are relatives of theirs.  I am guessing they feel that way because in the 45 years since it was created, Papua New Guinea has not been a successful nation.  There has been political instability, a rebellion on the island of Bougainville, and in Port Moresby, crime and unemployment are so bad that the capital looks like a real-life version of the game “Grand Theft Auto.”  End footnote.

On three occasions, a native conference to work out the details of self-government, called the Papuan People’s Congress, has been held in the city of Jayapura.  The first congress was the most successful, because it happened in 1961, during the brief period when the United Nations was in charge of western New Guinea, so the Indonesians could not interfere with the proceedings.  Here the Morning Star flag was raised, and a political manifesto declaring independence was issued.  But after Suharto became president of Indonesia, underground armed resistance was the only opposition possible, because the Suharto government reacted violently to any form of organization it did not control.  Consequently there was no above-ground political progress during Suharto’s long-lasting presidency.

Then in 1999, as part of the democratization movement that sprang up after Suharto’s downfall, another separatist organization got started, called the Papua Presidium Council or Presidium Dewan Papua – PDP for short.  This group sought to work peacefully for Papuan sovereignty, since the ongoing terror and human rights violations aren’t getting anybody anywhere.  The PDP dominated the Second Papuan People’s Congress when it took place in June 2000; this congress proceeded without incident, and Jakarta even paid 1/3 of the costs.

But after the second congress, a conflict broke out between the PDP and OPM.  The peak of the conflict came on August 30, 2000, when a member of the OPM, Simon Awom, closed the PDP office.  It was later revealed that the command to close the PDP office came from the OPM commander in chief, Mathias Wenda, from Vanimo, a town just across the border in Papua New Guinea.  Meanwhile, there was a military buildup in western New Guinea and a crackdown on independence supporters.  In November 2001 the PDP leader, Theys Eluai, was murdered by members of the Indonesian Army special forces command.  By 2011 there were more than 30,000 national police and military stationed on the island, as an occupying force.  A Third Papuan People’s Congress was held in 2011, and this time the armed forces did not wait for the congress to end before taking action; they arrested participants in the congress, and fired into a peaceful pro-independence demonstration, killing six and injuring dozens.


Violent incidents continued on a low scale throughout the second decade of the twenty-first century.  The most recent incident I could find anything about took place in December 2018.  My source for this is the website GlobalSecurity.org, and I will read you the paragraph they wrote about it.  Quote:

“Indonesian security services have launched an operation targeting separatists in the province of Papua after 31 construction workers were shot dead, authorities said on 04 December 2018.  ‘This is the worst attack launched by the armed criminal group recently amid intensified development by the government,’ Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz told The Associated Press.  Police are trying to recover the bodies, but Diaz said the separatists had scattered them throughout the district, which is known as a rebel stronghold.  The workers were employed by the state-owned construction company Istaka Karya as part of a government-sponsored infrastructure project aimed at fostering economic development in the region.  Indonesian Public Workers Minister Basuki Hadimuljono said work stemming from the infrastructure project would be ‘suspended given this incident.’”

End quote.

Estimates of the total number of Papuans killed, raped and tortured since the 1960s range from 100,000, according to an Amnesty International report, to 800,000, with 500,000 as the most often cited figure.  Almost every West Papuan has a relative who became a victim of Indonesian reprisals.  In many communities it has become impossible to separate the activists from everyone else, because they all support the Free Papua Movement, in effect saying, “We are all OPM.”

West Papuan refugees report that a campaign of cultural genocide, as well as physical genocide, is being waged against them, and that environmental damage to the countryside has resulted from large areas of rainforest being cut down, similar to the deforestation problems in the Amazon basin and on Madagascar.  Most of the deforestation is done to make more room for strip mines, or for plantations growing palm nuts and other tropical crops.  The Papuans are upset about the deforestation because they view their forests as sacred communal lands.  For example, the previously mentioned Grasberg mine has turned a sacred mountain into a bare crater and poisoned the local river system.

Podcast footnote:  The deforestation has happened because with today’s transportation technology, New Guinea’s interior is more accessible than it ever was in the past.  Many of the species threatened with a loss of habitat were only discovered recently.  In my lifetime, more new plants and animals have been discovered in Indonesia than anywhere else.  I am reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel “The Lost World,” so I have called Indonesia “the real Lost World.”  A lot of the exotic newly discovered species, from giant rats to glamorous birds, come from western New Guinea.  End footnote.

Over the years some West Papuans have escaped to Australia, and because it is dangerous to protest against the Indonesian government at home, most demonstrations for West Papuan independence are now held in Australian cities.  However, Australia is reluctant to accept Papuan refugees; usually they are detained on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, while the Australian government decides on a case-by-case basis who to allow in.  Both major Australian political parties, the Labor and the Liberal Parties, support this cautious approach.  The reason is that during the Cold War years, Australia and Indonesia were allies against communism, and today’s Australians do not want to jeopardize that relationship now.  Other nations have not put much pressure on Indonesia either, partially because Indonesia doesn’t really have any enemies in today’s world, and partially because the situation in western New Guinea has not been publicized as much as the crises in other places, like the Middle East.  Finally, the Indonesians have shown that they are not influenced much by local protests or international opinion; you will hear another example of that in a future episode, when I tell you how they treated East Timor.  If there is going to be any chance of the West Papuans achieving self-determination, the behavior of Jakarta and the outside world will have to change, because the indigenous population cannot achieve it on their own.


And with that, I will have to leave the story of Western New Guinea unfinished, because this time we made it all the way to the present!  Maybe some day I will do a future episode, to cover developments that haven’t happened yet.  In the meantime, I believe I will go back to the rest of Indonesia, and see how close I can bring it to the present.  I should at least be able to cover Suharto’s presidency in the next episode.  As long as a more entertaining podcaster doesn’t come along, join me for that.

There haven’t been any donations to the show since the first week of November.  That is why I had room at the beginning of this episode to give a tribute to the family parrot.  Now let’s end the dry spell.  If you enjoyed this episode and can afford to support the podcast, consider giving a donation, using Paypal.  Or if you would rather contribute a small amount every month, consider becoming a Patron, by going to my Patreon page!  The Paypal button and a link to Patreon can be found on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode; I also posted those links on the podcast’s Facebook page, a couple months ago.  On Patreon we now have 14 fabulous Patrons supporting the show!  Will you become the next one?

If you can’t afford to donate, or if you are already a donor and would like to do more, here is what else you can do.  You can write a review.  You can“like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook.  Last and best of all, you can tell others about the show; family, friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances, even the delivery boy who brings your next meal, now that the COVID-19 lockdown has closed your favorite restaurant.  Those are your assignments until we meet again.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 101: Burma, A Ne Win Situation



With this episode, the second hundred episodes of the podcast will begin!  Today we look at Burma from the 1950s to 1988, going up to the point just before the country was renamed Myanmar.  During this period, the country had only two leaders, U Nu and Ne Win.  U Nu tried unsuccessfully to turn Burma into a socialist state, while Ne Win was a dictator who did some wild things because he was also superstitious.




This episode is dedicated to Benedict P., and William L. N.  Both of them made donations to the podcast in early November 2020.  Benedict, it is good to hear from you again, and William, welcome to this happy podcast!  As I record this, today marks 35 years since my wife and I got married in the Philippines, so I hope both of you have something to celebrate as well.  May your steps always be guided down the path to success.

Episode 101: Burma, A Ne Win Situation

Greetings, dear listeners, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky!  Did you hear the episode number? #101!  This is where the second hundred episodes of the podcast will begin.  Today you are going to hear some of the craziest stories from Southeast Asia’s recent history.  In the previous episode we looked at the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, one of the easternmost countries in the region.  Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were mainly interested in getting other people’s money, so sometimes we call their government a kleptocracy.  Now we are going to visit the Southeast Asian country that is farthest to the west – Burma, or as it is usually called today, Myanmar.  A dictatorship was set up here as well, but whereas the Philippine leaders were motivated by greed, the leader of the Burmese dictatorship had a very different motivation – superstition.

Our last episode that covered Burma’s history was Episode 63.  There we covered the path Burma took to independence after World War II.  The colonial power, Great Britain, tried for a while to hold onto its empire, the so called “Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets,” but with its chief colony, India, getting ready for independence, London soon realized that keeping all the other colonies was unrealistic.  However, the British had trouble accepting the leaders that the Burmese wanted, for the main nationalist group, now called the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, or AFPFL, had fought on the side of the Japanese for most of the recent war.  Eventually they did accept the leader of the nationalists, Aung San, but then tragically, he was assassinated in July 1947, six months before independence was scheduled to take place.  Aung San’s death went a long way towards explaining the troubles that have happened since then, because he was the only leader the Burmese people liked very much.

Independence would come at 4:20 AM on January 4, 1948; that time was chosen by the country’s astrologers as the most auspicious, or luckiest moment.  Even so, revolts broke out all over the land, and for a while it looked like the new nation would disintegrate just as it was being proclaimed.  At one point, one of the rebel groups, the Karen tribe, had soldiers only four miles from Rangoon, the nation’s capital.  Other minority groups in revolt besides the Karens included the Mons, the Pa-O, and the Arakanese, both Moslem and Buddhist Arakanese factions.  In addition, there were disgruntled communist factions, and thousands of Nationalist Chinese soldiers crossed the border as refugees, after the communist takeover of their homeland.  Some of the Nationalist Chinese became drug lords in the opium-growing area where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet, the infamous “Golden Triangle.”  Eventually the government was able to take most of the country back, but it could not stamp out the revolts completely.  In fact, the Karen revolt is still going on as I record this, seventy-one years after it began.

The time frame covered by today’s episode runs from the 1950s to 1988, almost two full generations.  However, it won’t take as long to cover this period as it would, if we were talking about another country.  The main reason for this is Burma’s isolation; I told you in a previous episode that for most of my lifetime, Burma was ruled by a military junta that got along with almost nobody, and was damn proud of it.  Consequently Burma saw few visitors, and the outside world rarely heard from it or the Burmese people.  Many of the events that would have become news stories in other countries, went unreported when they happened in Burma.  For instance, when I was a kid, about the only time I saw a news story from Burma was in 1975, when an earthquake severely damaged Bagan, the ancient city of pagodas that was featured in Episode 9.  And speaking of the Burmese people, I grew up in Florida, an American state with a large, ethnically diverse population, but I was in my 40s before I met someone from Burma.  Finally, there is the matter of geography.  Away from this podcast, I don’t have to tell too many folks that Thailand used to be called Siam, but while it has been thirty-one years since Burma was officially renamed Myanmar, I still regularly have to let people know about the name change, even more often than I have to tell them that the Tuva district of Siberia used to be an independent state called Tannu-Tuva.  

Another factor that makes today’s story easier to tell is that for the first forty years after independence, from 1948 to 1988, Burma was run by only two people, U Nu and Ne Win, so we won’t have to talk about many changes of government.  We have met U Nu and Ne Win before in this podcast; like Aung San, both of them came from the Thakin Society, the group of college students in the 1930s who were Burma’s most successful nationalist movement.  Indeed, I referred to U Nu as Thakin Nu, until he succeeded Aung San and became the first post-independence prime minister.  Now in this episode we won’t get to the point where Burma’s name was changed to Myanmar, but we will stop right before that happens.  Therefore I don’t plan on using the name “Myanmar” for most of this episode.

One more thing.  Before beginning today’s narrative, I will apologize in advance for mispronouncing any Burmese names.  That is probably unavoidable for a native English speaker like me.  I have said before that I find Burmese names a challenge.  Okay, if you’re ready, let’s go.



We saw in previous episodes that the time when the British Empire ruled Burma was not its finest hour.  In fact, it was so bad that after Burma became independent, it did not join the British Commonwealth of Nations, Britain’s club for former colonies.  The anti-Western feeling in independent Burma was so strong that it rejected capitalism and tried to build the country along socialist lines.  Both U Nu and his successor, General Ne Win, developed a national policy that combined socialism, Buddhism, and isolationism, calling it "the Burmese Way to Socialism."

U Nu’s main accomplishment was a Buddhist revival.  From 1954 to 1956 he hosted the Sixth World Buddhist Council, the first international convention of Buddhist monks and scholars that had been held in nearly a century.  He traveled abroad often and became a respected spokesman for the Nonaligned Movement.  Refusing to take sides in the Cold War, he attempted to serve as an intermediary between East and West, and was judiciously fair in his dealings with other countries; for example, Burma was one of the first nations to recognize both Israel and Communist China.  In the countries that were divided by the Cold War – Germany, Korea and Vietnam — he refused to send diplomats to either side.  U Nu’s greatest diplomatic triumph was good relations with China; in 1960 he signed a treaty of friendship with the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, and settled a border dispute that had bothered both countries for much of the 1950s.  Another statesman who made Burma look good was one of U Nu’s advisors, U Thant; first he was the Burmese ambassador to the United Nations, and then he became the third UN secretary general, serving from 1961 to 1971.

On domestic issues, however, U Nu was only a mediocre leader.  The economy never recovered to its pre-World War II levels, and just as the civil unrest was dying down, the economy began to fail.  Thus, he had to postpone indefinitely his plans to make Burma the first welfare state in Asia.  In 1954 he proposed a constitutional amendment making Buddhism the state religion, a move that offended the country’s Christian and Moslem minorities.  Now he learned how hard it can be to please everybody.  To placate the non-Buddhists, he offered equal time for the teaching of all three religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, in the schools.  That caused so much trouble from the monks that he banned all religious instruction, a move that caused more demonstrations all over the country.  He was forced to capitulate and allow only Buddhist instruction; one observer commented that he became a victim of the very sentiments that, as a patron of Buddhism, he had fostered.

1956 saw new elections, which the AFPFL won.  However, the leftists formed a coalition called the National United Front, or NUF, which was led by Aung Than, the older brother of Aung San; they won 37% of the vote and 48 of the 250 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.  Remember what I said about Aung San being the only popular Burmese politician?  Now that popularity rubbed off on his family.  That is why Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, has gotten so much attention in recent years.

In 1958 the AFPFL split into two factions, known as the "Clean" AFPFL and "stable" AFPFL.  U Nu led the “Clean” faction, while two other politicians, Kyaw Nyein and Ba Swe, led the “Stable” AFPFL.  Because the “Stable” AFPFL was the larger faction, they tried to force U Nu out of office with a no-confidence vote.  U Nu narrowly escaped defeat by a margin of eight votes, because the leftist NUF supported him.  Meanwhile, one of the minority tribes, the Shans, was threatening to secede, now that the ten-year waiting period they had promised Aung San was over, and the states containing ethnic minorites had not received the autonomy promised to them.

Faced with losing control over the country, U Nu turned to General Ne Win for help, in October 1958.  Ne Win was sworn in as prime minister, and for the next 15 months he led a caretaker government that put Burma’s house back in order.  At the time, this was a popular decision, because Ne Win did not have the democratic responsibilities that he would have been saddled with, had he been a civilian, so he was able to make dramatic improvements to the country’s internal stability.  Then in February 1960 another election was held, which U Nu’s faction won easily, and Ne Win returned the government to civilian rule.  Remarking on his victory, U Nu said, quote, "I guess people like us."  Unquote.


Once U Nu was back, however, the old problems came back with a vengeance.  Having had his taste for power satisfied once, Ne Win did not wait for permission to take over for a second time.  On March 2, 1962 he staged a coup, arrested most of the civilian politicians, scrapped the constitution, dismissed Parliament, and began ruling by decree.  U Nu was taken to an army camp outside of Rangoon, where he was kept for the next four years; the country’s new leaders euphemistically called this “protective custody.”  A 17-member Revolutionary Council was established, and the disorderly AFPFL was replaced by the Burmese Socialist Program Party, the BSPP, which now became the only legal political party in the land.  And that wasn’t all; the All Burma Student’s Union, an organization uniting all student groups in the country, was banned, the press was muzzled, and the country was closed off to the rest of the world.  In this way Burma’s long rule under the military began.  It’s not completely over, even today.  Officially the country is no longer ruled by a junta, but the armed forces still play a part; according to the current constitution, 25% of the seats in the legislature are appointed by the military and the rest of the members are elected.

Podcast footnote: I believe I referred to Ne Win as Thakin Ne Win, when I introduced him as a Burmese student and nationalist in the 1930s.  In doing the research for this episode, I found that was inaccurate.  Ne Win was born under a different name, Shu Maung, so the name he really used in college was Thakin Shu Maung.  Also, his date of birth is uncertain; my sources give it as July 10, 1910, May 14, 1911, or May 24, 1911.  Wikipedia considers the 1910 date the most likely; it came from a biography written by Kyaw Nyein.  For the biography, Kyaw Nyein interviewed surviving members of the Thirty Comrades, the thirty Burmese nationalists who got military training from the Japanese, so they could lead a pro-Japanese army, after Japan invaded Burma in 1942.  Each of the Comrades took a nom de guerre, and the name Shu Maung chose for himself was Bo Ne Win, meaning “Commander Bright Sun.”  After the war, like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, he stuck with the nom de guerre for the rest of his life, so I will keep calling him Ne Win for the rest of the time he is in the podcast.  End footnote.

Under the Burma Socialist Program Party, Burma experienced one-man misrule.  Ne Win imposed socialism more aggressively than U Nu did, by nationalizing all land, commerce and industry.  In February 1963, the Enterprise Nationalization Law was passed, nationalizing all major industries and prohibiting the building of new factories.  In addition foreigners, especially Chinese, were prohibited from owning land, sending money abroad, getting business licenses and practicing medicine.  Rice marketing was made a government monopoly and peasants were paid less than a third of the market value for their crop.  This mass nationalization caused vast numbers of people to lose their jobs, and many everyday commodities became available only on the black market.  Nevertheless, Ne Win called what he was doing “healthy politics.”  He and his generals had little, if any, knowledge of economics, and they didn’t seem interested in learning more; they preferred driving the country to ruin, over stepping down in favor of somebody who could do a better job.  Later Ne Win would admit to journalists that his policies had been misguided but that, quote, “it was like having caught hold of a tiger’s tail… there was nothing else to do but hang on to it.”  Unquote.  To get the minds of the people off the economy, Ne Win staged rounds of persecution against ethnic Chinese in Burma, forcing at least 100,000 Chinese to leave the country.  We saw in other episodes of this podcast that the Chinese have been a convenient scapegoat for Southeast Asian leaders to blame their problems on, much like how Jews have often been treated in Europe.  Still, it’s a bit surprising that Ne Win persecuted the Chinese, because he had Chinese ancestry.

Ne Win also had a puritanical streak; he closed dance halls, prohibited beauty contests and horse races, and insisted on punctuality and industriousness.  Such behavior did not go over well with the easygoing Burmese, and that caused the economy to go from bad to worse.  Per capita income sank from $670 in 1960 to a low of $200 in 1989.  The most recent figure I could find for the per capita income put it at $6,707 as of 2019, meaning it is still well below the worldwide average; among the 200 or so nations in today’s world, this figure ranks 128th.  Most of the population have continued practicing subsistence farming to avoid starvation.  Under British rule, Burma was the world’s largest exporter of rice, but it stopped exporting rice in 1973; now it is known as the world’s second largest grower of the opium poppy, after Afghanistan.  The country is rich in farmland, teak, rubies, natural gas, even oil, but is usually classified as one of the poorest nations in the world.  Most homes are bamboo huts, and under Ne Win, the government ignored public works, resulting in a country full of crumbling buildings.  Outside of Rangoon, most of Burma did not have electricity.

Though Ne Win has been gone for many years, if you visit Burma today, you can still see the effects of him neglecting the infrastructure.  According to the 2013 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, Burma was ranked 146th out of 148 places for the quality of its infrastructure.  Today most of the roads remain unpaved, and even now, only 50% of the population has electricity, giving Burma one of the lowest electrification rates in Asia.

Podcast footnote:  Years ago I read the science fiction stories of Keith Laumer.  Before he became an author, Laumer was a US diplomat, so he wrote stories about diplomats in space.  In the 1970s, twenty years after he was stationed in Rangoon, he described the former Burmese capital this way.  Quote:  "Once the garden city of the East, now the garbage city of the East."  Unquote, and end footnote.

Before Ne Win took over, Burma had isolationist tendencies; under him they became downright xenophobia.  Few countries were harder to get into.  In the 1960s tourists were not allowed to stay in Burma for more than 24 hours, so I am guessing that the only attraction the tourists got to see was Rangoon’s great pagoda, the Shwedagon.  In the 1970s the time allowed to tourists was increased to one week, so they could visit places outside of Rangoon, like Bagan.  Burma even quit the Nonaligned Movement that it helped get started, after the 1979 meeting.  That year’s session was hosted in Havana by the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, who can hardly be called a nonaligned head of state; understandably, the Burmese charged that the meeting was tainted by superpower politicking.  Indeed, I remember the Yugoslavian leader, Josip Broz Tito, made the same accusation, claiming that he was a better representative of Third World interests than Castro.  Ne Win locked out the modern world everywhere; under him Burma had no high-rises, nightclubs, or neon signs; even Coca-Cola was unknown.   No new cars, trucks and busses were available while Ne Win was in charge, so the Burmese became mechanical geniuses to maintain the vehicles they had.  Offices could not get computers or even typewriters, so they kept their records in dusty ledgers, like they were still in the early nineteenth century.

In March 1974, Ne Win decided it was time to reorganize the government, so he disbanded the Revolutionary Council and renamed the country the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.  A new office, that of president, was created, Ne Win was elected to fill it, and he vacated his previous job of prime minister so it could be filled by someone else.


If all Ne Win did was oppress the people and make himself rich, we would be done talking about him now; most dictators do that, after all.  However, he was also superstitious, and he let that affect national policy. We have seen that, like the kings of ancient and medieval times, Burmese politicians consult astrologers and soothsayers – they picked the time and date for the country’s independence, remember.  But reliance on fortunetellers didn’t stop there.  The BSPP kept a Board of Astrologers — an actual government agency! — and Ne Win heeded their advice, even when it was insane.  He would cross bridges backwards to protect himself from evil spirits, and one report asserted that he bathed in dolphin’s blood, because he believed it restored youth and energy.  When the astrologers warned Ne Win of an upcoming bloodbath, and told him how to prevent it, he followed their instructions:  he stood with a pistol in front of a mirror, stomped on meat to symbolize the blood they were talking about, and then shot his reflection in the mirror, which was supposed to stop any assassination attempt.  I guess he didn’t believe the superstition about a broken mirror causing seven years of bad luck!

One day in 1970, Ne Win grew concerned that his regime was leaning too far to the left politically, meaning the government was too friendly to communists.  His soothsayers told him that was because the Burmese, like their former British masters, drove on the left side of the road.  So to compensate for that, Ne Win suddenly ordered everyone to drive on the right from now on, though their vehicles and the roads weren’t set up to handle the change in traffic.  On the day that law went into effect, Burma experienced a country-wide demolition derby.  Today, 50 years later, Burma is still having problems you don’t see in other countries that drive on the right side of the road.  Because of Burma’s long-term isolation, and because the cheapest vehicles the Burmese can get are used ones from Japan, another country that drives on the left side of the road, cars still have their steering wheels on the right side, and busses still have doors on the left side.  This means that drivers have large blind spots behind them, and passengers have to dodge traffic in the middle of the road while getting on or off a bus!

To make sure that Burma’s population would never be absorbed into one of its two big neighbors, India and China, Ne Win outlawed all forms of birth control.  In case you’re curious how that worked out, the Indians and Chinese outnumbered the Burmese by nearly 47 to 1, and Burmese mothers have never been able to catch up.

There weren’t many things the Ne Win regime did well, but putting down dissent was one of them.  One source of dissent was a statesman we mentioned already, U Thant.  After U Thant retired from being the UN secretary general, he stayed in New York City, because he did not get along with Ne Win, and there he died of lung cancer in 1974.  His body was flown to Rangoon, as you might expect, but the only official who came to the airport to receive it was U Aung Tun, the deputy minister of education.  In fact, the deputy minister was subsequently fired for doing that job.  On the day of the burial, tens of thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects as the coffin passed, but the government did not give U Thant a state funeral, and it tried to bury him in an ordinary cemetery.  Before that could happen, a group of students stole the coffin, buried it on the former grounds of the Rangoon University Students Union (a building Ne Win had dynamited in 1962), and they built a temporary mausoleum over the grave.  Then the students gave anti-government speeches, until government troops stormed the campus, killed some of the students, removed U Thant’s coffin, and reburied it in a mausoleum near the Shwedagon Pagoda.  Since this was an appropriate resting place for the secretary general, he has remained there to this day.  Meanwhile, riots broke out on the streets of Rangoon, leading to a declaration of martial law over the city.  When it was all over, the end result was that the government put down the U Thant funeral crisis so forcefully, that scarcely a murmur of dissent was heard again, until the late 1980s.  Ne Win was less successful in dealing with the various rebels on the periphery of the state – mostly Karen tribesmen, communists and opium warlords – but since they were too weak to threaten Rangoon, the interior of the country enjoyed peace.


In 1981 Ne Win, now 70 or 71 years old, stepped down as president, and was succeeded by a like-minded general, San Yu.  However, he retained most of his power by staying on as party chief, and in September 1987 he singlehandedly ruined the economy with one more trick.  The astrologers he trusted told him that nine was his lucky number, so he issued new denominations of the Burmese monetary unit, the kyat, in 45 and 90-kyat bills, because those numbers are divisible by nine, and he declared four other denominations (25, 35, 75 and 100-kyat notes) non-legal tender.  Ne Win believed this move would let him live to be more than 90 years old, but because he did not allow the exchange of old currency for new currency, most of Burma’s cash instantly became worthless.  As you might expect, this enraged the whole country, and riots broke out in Rangoon and Mandalay.  Students were the most upset of all, because their savings, which they intended to use to pay for tuition, had just been wiped out.  Though the government restored order, and the Burmese media said little about the unrest, the protesters remained angry, and kept each other informed by word of mouth.  At the end of the year, the United Nations added Burma to its list of “Least Developed Countries.”

More protests occurred, after 1987 became 1988.  The first one began at a tea shop, on March 12, 1988.  Here students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology argued with some other young people over the music playing on the sound system in the shop, got into a brawl, and one student was injured.  The next day, students protested this incident at a local police department, because the student had been injured by the son of a BSPP official, and in the clash that followed, one student was killed.  Then on March 16, another string of demonstrations began at Inya Lake, the largest lake in Rangoon; when riot police attacked the students here, dozens died and hundreds were arrested.  The government tried to stop this trend by closing all schools, including the universities, but when the schools reopened in June, more demonstrations and more crackdowns took place.

Eventually Ne Win decided the game was up for him, so on July 23, 1988, he resigned as head of the BSPP, appointed police chief Sein Lwin as his successor, and legalized political parties.  But Sein Lwin was a despised general; he was known as the “Butcher of Rangoon,” for commanding an army unit that massacred 130 Rangoon University students in July 1962.  True to character, the general declared martial law.  Meanwhile, in his outgoing address, Ne Win warned the protestors, quote, “When the army shoots, it shoots to kill.”  Unquote.


Led by the students, the Burmese people made plans to stage a massive general strike.  August 8, 1988 was chosen as the most auspicious day for the strike to begin, because that date had four number 8s in it, so today we call it the “Four 8s Uprising,” or “8888 Uprising.”  Each day after that saw hundreds of thousands across the country taking part in demonstrations.  Soldiers in remote parts of the country were called to Rangoon; they and the police shot at protesters, killing a few, but they did so halfheartedly.  In response, the protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and raided police stations for firearms.  On August 10, soldiers chased protesters into Rangoon General Hospital and then began shooting the doctors and nurses who were treating the wounded.

Not knowing what to do, Sein Lwin resigned on August 12.  He had only been president for 17 days.  The protesters were jubilant, but unsure about their next move.  In the end they demanded that Dr. Maung Maung, the only civilian who held a senior position in the government, be appointed as the next president, and this was done on August 19.  However, the demonstrations continued; one demonstration in Mandalay on August 22 saw 100,000 people participate.

It is at this point that Aung San Suu Kyi, someone you probably have heard of already, enters the story.  I mentioned earlier that she is the daughter of Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, but for the first 43 years of her life she stayed out of politics, living abroad with a British husband and two sons.  Around the time of Ne Win’s resignation, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma to take care of her ailing mother, and she was persuaded to make a speech to the protesters.  She did so on August 24, during a rally at Rangoon General Hospital.  Because she made a good impression, she spoke again on August 26 at the Shwedagon Pagoda, in front of a crowd that numbered at least half a million people.  Here she called for both democracy and a non-violent solution to the conflict.  I was able to find one quote from the speech, and here it is.  Quote:

“The entire nation’s desires and aspirations are very clear.  There can be no doubt that everybody wants a multi-party democratic system of government.  It is the duty of the present government to bring about such a system as soon as possible.”

End quote.

With that speech, Aung San Suu Kyi immediately became the leader of the democracy movement.  Former prime minister U Nu joined the demonstrations as well.  An American congressman, Stephen Solarz of New York, was also there.  Solarz had been in the Philippines during the 1986 People Power Revolution (don’t worry, I will cover that in a future episode), and his presence in Burma was taken to mean the US government was giving its blessing to the democracy movement.  More demonstrations took place in September, with violence escalating from both sides.  In Rangoon, much of the city government collapsed and the local administration was taken over by ordinary people.

Burma’s attempt to set up democracy abruptly ended on September 18, 1988, when the commander of the army, General Saw Maung, seized power, and announced that a 19-member group, the State Law and Order Restoration Committee, or SLORC, would replace the BSPP.  Violent crackdowns to break up the demonstrations began across the country the next day.  By the beginning of October, the protest movement had collapsed, and Burma was back under martial law, the way it had been for the past 26 years.  To keep the students from organizing further protests, the military junta closed the universities again; this time they stayed closed until the year 2000.

The government reported that 350 protesters had been killed when it restored order, but this seems like an absurdly low number.  We can’t get an exact number of many were killed, because many of the bodies were cremated, but estimates of the dead usually range from 3,000 to 10,000.  In other words, there were more deaths in the 1988 Burma demonstrations, than there were at the more famous Tiananmen Square crackdown in China during the following year.  Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and more people were imprisoned or simply “disappeared.”  Thousands escaped arrest by fleeing the country, and thousands more fled to the mountains, where they joined the ethnic armies locked in long-running revolts against the Burmese army.  Finally, on the border of Thailand, a group of students formed a rebel army of their own, called the All Burma Students Democratic Front, to continue the struggle alongside the other rebel armies.



We’re going to have to end today’s narrative on a grim note, because we have run out of time.  Don’t worry, things in Burma will get better before the story of Southeast Asia is over.  And with Aung San Suu Kyi, this isn’t the end of her story; it’s really just the beginning.

Even so, we have some other places in Southeast Asia to visit first, before we continue with Burma/Myanmar.  I think the next episode’s stop will be western New Guinea.  That was the last colony the Dutch had in this part of the world, and in Episode 97 I told you how Indonesia acquired it.  However, Indonesia’s rule over the western half of that huge island has not been a happy experience for the local residents, and at some point I should tell that story, so this is as good a time as any to do it.  And then we will go back to the countries in the region for another round, covering even more recent history than we did last time!

This podcast is entirely listener-supported; there are no commercials interrupting the narrative.  Did you hear any commercials?  Nope.  Therefore, if you enjoyed this episode and can afford to support the podcast, consider making a donation through Paypal.  Just click on the gold button that says “Donate!”, on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode.  That’s for one-time donations.  Now if you would rather give a small amount, say, $1 to $10 each month, this podcast has a Patreon page, too, and there is a link to it on the Blubrry page as well.

And that’s not all you can do to support the podcast.  If you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows reviews, by all means write a review.  On Facebook, there is the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it if you haven’t already.  Besides announcing new episodes, I use it to share content that has to do with Southeast Asia; for example, I posted a link to a news story about the election that took place in Myanmar while I was recording this episode.  Finally, tell anyone you know who may like the show:  friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, whomever.  As I have said before, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 100: The Philippines, A Dictatorship Made For Two


Turn your clock back an hour (if you are in a place that does that), and tune in to the podcast!  After four years and four months, here is the podcast’s 100th episode!  Today we go to the Philippines, to look at those islands from 1957 to 1981, a period that includes the first part of the Marcos dictatorship.  And then listen in to hear how I will celebrate, because completing 100 episodes is a big deal for any podcast.




This episode is dedicated to Sebastian R. and Louis C., for the donations they made to the podcast.  Louis, you donated twice before, and of course it’s good to hear from you again.  I hope both of you are especially glad to be mentioned on the 100th show!  In a few days, this crazy election should be over in the United States, and then a few weeks after that, this crazy year will be over, too.  May both of you remain healthy, wealthy and wise, as this fall becomes winter, and winter becomes spring.  And now let’s go to the show everyone has been waiting for.  Are we ready with the music?  Of course we are!

Episode 100:  The Philippines, a Dictatorship Made For Two

Mabuhay, dear listeners!  If you’re new to this podcast, that means “Greetings” in Tagalog, the most widely used language in the Philippines.  Well, after four years, we made it; this is the big 100, the centennial episode!


I have commented before that it’s a big deal when a podcast makes it to one hundred episodes.  It shows real commitment, of time, labor, and if you’re not uploading your recordings to a free host like Soundcloud, you are committing some money.  For example, if you record one podcast episode a week, and do not take any time off, it will take you nearly two years to get to 100; how many things are you still interested in doing, after two years have gone by?  With this podcast, it took four years and four months, from the summer of 2016 to the fall of 2020.  Yes, I will be doing something  special to commemorate this event, but I am saving it for later in this episode, after we get done with today’s historical content.

Now what kind of commitment have I given, besides four years and four months of time?  I ran the available numbers, and here are the results.  From Episode 0, the introduction, to Episode 99, the latest episode before this one, I wrote scripts totaling 915 pages.  On those scripts are 525,137 words – more than half a million!  And the combined length of all the recordings, up to Episode 99, is 74 hours, 45 minutes, and 46 seconds.  That’s more than three days nonstop.  Now I know some people listen to podcasts to get through times at work when there is nothing happening, when they have to stay in a “hurry up and wait” mode; heck, I’ve done it myself.  To all of you, I want to thank you for putting up with me for that long, and I am thankful I didn’t bore you silly.  Oh, what am I saying?  If you got bored, you wouldn’t be listening now!  All right, what does the podcast have for today?

If you have listened to the other recent episodes in this podcast, you know that currently we are covering the recent history of Southeast Asia, since the 1950s.  Episode 97 was about Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.  Then we did the same thing for Malaysia and Singapore with Episode 98.  Thailand had its turn in Episode 99, where we covered that country as far as 1976.  Now it is time to cover my wife’s homeland, the Philippines.  Today I plan to go from 1957 to the beginning of the 1980s.  The main event in the Philippines during this period was the Marcos dictatorship, in which Imelda Marcos played a role as important as her husband Ferdinand did; that is what inspired this episode’s title, “A Dictatorship Made for Two.”  In fact, the HBO network produced a documentary on Imelda last year, called “The Kingmaker.”  Ferdinand and Imelda ran the country for twenty years and two months, all the way to 1986.  Therefore you will have to wait until another episode to find out how the dictatorship ended.  Now if you’re ready, sit back and enjoy the ride!

<roller coaster sound effect>

We last talked at length about the Philippines in Episode 62.  For those who did not listen to Episode 62, here is a recap.  That episode covered the islands in the aftermath of World War II.  On July 4, 1946, less than a year after the war ended, the United States granted independence, after ruling the Philippines for nearly half a century.  But you could describe it as a state of “dependent independence.”  Because the Philippines did not recover from the war before independence came, the Filipinos were heavily dependent on a foreign power to help them, and the Americans were happy to give a hand.  That aid, however, came with strings attached.  Financial aid, for a start, often came in the form of high-interest loans, which of course were difficult to pay down.  The United States was the new nation’s largest trading partner, and the terms of that trade were highly favorable to the Americans.  The Philippines also supported US foreign policy, which in those days was preoccupied with fighting communism wherever it appeared.  For that reason, the United States maintained its military bases in the Philippines, with the benefits of providing more than $100 million in rents every year, and thousands of jobs for Filipinos.  The two most important bases were Clark Air Force Base, and Subic Bay, the largest US Navy base that wasn’t in US territory; both of them were located north of Manila.  We saw in the episodes on the Second Indochina War that American troops, ships and aircraft stopped at these bases, on their way to and from Vietnam.

We also saw in Episode 62 that the Philippines had its own communist uprising, the Hukbalahap Rebellion.  At first the Philippine government could not put down the rebellion, but in 1953 they got a new president, Ramon Magsaysay.  One of the reasons why Magsaysay was elected was because he was the most pro-American candidate; he was discovered by an agent from the US Central Intelligence Agency, Edward Lansdale, and promoted by him.  Magsaysay proved to be a superb leader; he knew most of the rebels were not doctrinaire communists but landless peasants, and thus he got them to lay down their arms by offering them land.  Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash, leaving his work unfinished.  Now the Americans, especially the CIA, wanted another president like him.  And that is where Episode 62 ended.

For eight years after Magsaysay, 1957 to 1965, the Philippines muddled through the rule of two mediocre presidents, Carlos Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal.  Both of them did little to solve the country’s problems, both were uncharismatic, and both ran corrupt administrations, inspiring little hope for the future.

Unlike most of his predecessors, who came from Luzon, the largest island, Carlos Garcia was born on Bohol, one of the central islands.  He served as Magsaysay’s vice president and secretary of foreign affairs; he also was chairman of the Southeast Asian Security Conference, held in Manila in September 1954, which led to the creation of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.  With Magsaysay’s death, Garcia moved into the Number One spot.  Later in the same year, Garcia won the next presidential election, allowing him to enjoy his own four-year term in office, from 1957 to 1961.

Garcia persuaded the legislature to outlaw the Communist Party of the Philippines, something his predecessors never got around to doing.  However, the chief problems of his administration were the economy and the previously mentioned corruption.  Therefore he launched the Filipino First Policy, which was intended to make the Philippine economy less dependent on foreign nations, especially the United States.  The main feature of this was an austerity program that reduced imports and increased domestic food production.  His administration also passed the Bohlen–Serrano Agreement, which shortened the lease of the American military bases from 99 years to 25 years, and made the renewal of the lease come up every five years.  So if you are wondering why the Americans had to abandon Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in the early 1990s, you can thank the Bohlen-Serrano Agreement for that.  Finally, Garcia played a part in reviving Filipino cultural arts.  Despite these achievements, he couldn’t do anything about the corruption, and even encouraged it.  For example, when Japan offered to pay for war damages by giving the Philippines nearly $300 million worth of ships and industrial machinery, Garcia promised the equipment to his followers even before the agreement was signed.  That is why he didn’t win, when he ran for re-election in 1961.  His vice president, Diosdado Macapagal, ran against him and won the race.

Podcast footnote: One of the most remembered episodes of the Cold War came in 1960, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Nations headquarters in New York.  Here he met the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, for the first time, and they immediately became BFFs – Best Friends Forever.  Then when the chief Filipino delegate to the UN, Lorenzo Sumulong, made a speech about the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, Khrushchev got so mad that he took off his shoe and banged it on a desk, while giving his response to Sumulong!  Apparently Khrushchev did all the shoe-banging while sitting at a delegate’s desk.  The famous picture of him holding a shoe above the General Assembly podium is a fake; the original, unaltered photo showed him raising his fist.  End footnote.

Unlike most Filipino politicians, Diosdado Macapagal came from a poor peasant family.  Thus, his nickname was “the Poor Boy from Lubao,” referring to his home town.  His father had scraped to send him to high school, college and law school, but he had to drop out after two years, due to poor health and the money running out, so he became an actor.  Then a wealthy brother-in-law financed his return to law school, and he excelled.  All this happened in the 1930s, when the Philippines were under US rule, and he was invited to join an American law firm, a great honor for a Filipino at that time.  Instead, he became a legal secretary, first to President Manuel Quezon, and then after the Japanese took over, to President Jose Laurel.  After the war ended and independence came, he joined the foreign service.  For one of his first assignments, in 1948, he led the Philippine team in negotiations for the transfer of the Turtle Islands, from British to Philippine rule; we talked about that transfer in Episode 98.  In 1949 he was called home so that he could run for a legislative seat representing Pampanga, his home province.  He won easily, and in 1957 he was chosen to be Carlos Garcia’s vice presidential candidate, because his poor but honest background looked good; by contrast, Garcia was a sugar baron.

While Macapagal was vice president, Garcia treated him like he didn’t belong in the government, banishing him to a run-down office and giving him a beat-up car that kept breaking down.  Therefore Macapagal dressed simply and made himself look frugal and puritanical, in contrast to the president.  When he ran for president in 1961, he gave himself a slogan that would have worked for any politician campaigning as a populist:  “Honest Mac, the poor man’s best friend.”

Macapagal was president from 1961 to 1965.  When his term began, he declared “a new era for the common man,” which was modeled after the New Deal of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He even used FDR’s campaign song, “Happy Days are Here Again” as his own theme song.  To show he was serious about cleaning up the government, he banned his family from engaging in business, put the presidential yacht up for sale, and introduced a series of plans, starting with land reform.  These failed to do the job; politicians remained corrupt and their supporters demanded privileges.  In Manila, gangs protected by politicians were able to smuggle in everything from automobiles to air conditioners to textiles to cigarettes.  Once a group of thieves disguised themselves as firemen, walked onto Clark Air Base, and stole a fire engine, with the US military police saluting them as they drove it through the gate.  The crime rate increased as well.  Manila suffered 800 homicides in 1964, while New York City, a community six times larger, suffered less than 600 in the same year.

Macapagal tried to distract the public by playing on nationalist sentiments.  First he picked on an old scapegoat, the Chinese, expelling several of them, even if they were naturalized citizens.  Then he deported an American businessman, Harry Stonehill, who had made a $50 million fortune in the Philippines from real estate, tobacco and other businesses.  Supposedly he did it with help from Filipino politicians, including members of Macapagal’s cabinet.  To everyone’s relief, Stonehill took his secrets with him.  Ultimately, Macapagal failed to solve the country’s social and economic problems because his initiatives were hindered by a Congress controlled by the rival Nationalist Party.

Podcast footnote: Originally, the Philippine Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, the day when the Americans granted independence.  However, as you know if you are an American, the 4th of July is also the American Independence Day; the Americans wanted the Filipinos to celebrate on the same day as they did.  Macapagal changed the date to June 12, because Filipino revolutionaries had declared independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.  The 4th of July is still a holiday, though; now it is called Philippine-American Friendship Day.  Who wants to cancel an excuse to have a good time?  End footnote.

During this time the Philippine government functioned as a noisy version of the US government it was patterned after. The Manila press reeked of sensationalism, and politicians could be very vocal when expressing their opinions.  I will read you a quote from Stanley Karnow, a former TIME-LIFE correspondent for Southeast Asia; he reported an example of a clash between politicians on his first assignment to the Philippines, in 1959.  This is a lengthy quote, and it comes from Karnow’s book on Philippine history, In Our Image.  Quote:

<Read Karnow quote>

End quote.

Every trick in the book was used at election time, like using "gold, guns and goons" to influence the voters, ballot box stuffing, and adding names from tombstones to lists of people who voted.  Control of the government changed hands between the Liberal and Nationalist Parties with every election, but since both parties derived their support from the landowning upper class, there was hardly a difference between them.  In effect, both parties were political clubs for the elite of Philippine society.  Neither party had an ideology, and personalities mattered more than issues.  To give one example, a Liberal named Ferdinand Marcos supported Macapagal in the early 1960s, but as the 1965 election approached, they stopped being friends, and Marcos switched to the Nationalist Party.  Without hesitation, the Nationalists nominated Marcos as their presidential candidate, and he beat Macapagal to become the sixth president since independence.  All things considered, the best thing about the presidents who served before 1965 is that only one of them, Manuel Quezon, was elected more than once.

Today Macapagal is not remembered so much for his legacy, but for his two daughters, who also entered politics.  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a senator, and eventually became the first Philippine president of the twenty-first century; of course we will mention her again in a future episode of this podcast.  The other daughter, Cielo Macapagal-Salgado, twice served as vice-governor of Pampanga, the family’s home province, from 1989 to 1992 and from 1995 to 1998.


Okay, since we mentioned Ferdinand Marcos a minute ago, it’s time to introduce him, because for the rest of this episode, and maybe the next episode about the Philippines, he will be the most important character.  Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Sr. was born in 1917 in Ilocos Norte, the northernmost province on the island of Luzon.  The son of a school supervisor, he went to law school as soon as he grew up, and here he scored so high on the exams that he was accused of cheating, until he refuted the charge by reciting the legal texts he knew by heart.

Marcos first gained national attention in 1938 when he and three other men were accused of murdering a political rival of his father.  He was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years in prison, but acting as his own lawyer, Marcos won his release by delivering an emotional address, arguing to be released on bail, so that he could finish law school and prepare an appeal to the Supreme Court.  Marcos wore a white sharkskin suit and white shoes on that day, to symbolize his purity, and in his address, Marcos quoted William Shakespeare, Herman Melville and Henry James; instead of pleading his innocence, he declared that the verdict was technically flawed.  The judge, moved to tears, felt that the country needed more bright young men like him, and granted his request.  At the same time, Marcos gained the admiration of everyone who heard what he did, not only for his defense, but also because he had defended the honor of his father, something that is always important in Asian societies.  By the way, the judge in that case was Jose Laurel, the future pro-Japanese president during World War II.  More than three decades later, when Marcos declared martial law, he would return the favor by not touching the property of the Laurel family, while confiscating the assets of other rich families.  He did not even bother the son of Jose Laurel, Salvador Laurel, when the younger Laurel turned against him, and ran for vice president in 1986.

When World War II came to the Philippines, Marcos was activated to serve in the US armed forces as a 3rd lieutenant.  He took part in the siege of Bataan, was captured by the Japanese, and survived the infamous Bataan Death March, which we covered in Episode 41.  But then he was released from a Japanese prison camp four months later, in August 1942.  The only explanation for why the Japanese let him go comes from some papers published by The Washington Post in 1986, which suggested that it happened because his father, who by now had been a congressman and provincial governor, had "cooperated with the Japanese military authorities."

No one knows for sure what Marcos did during the next two years.  Later he claimed he was the war’s greatest hero, leading a force of 8,000 guerrillas called Ang Mga Mahárlika, which is Tagalog for “The Freemen.”  US Army investigators have found no records from the war years mentioning Marcos or the guerrilla unit, and thus declared that the story is completely false, but Marcos told it so many times that he came to believe it himself.  Marcos also claimed he received 33 medals and other decorations, but the US Army only admitted to giving him two.  In December 1944, after the Americans returned to the Philippines, Marcos was able to rejoin the US Army, and he reached the rank of major by the end of the war.

Podcast footnote: In 1978, a senator named Eddie Ilarde proposed renaming the Philippines Maharlika, to get rid of a piece of the country’s colonial past.  We noted all the way back in Episode 14 that the name “Philippines” comes from King Philip II of Spain.  Of course Marcos liked the idea, and promoted it, leading a Philippine newspaper to ask its readers this question: “Would you like to be called a Maharloko?”  The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, believes the Marcos war story – he would – and he brought the issue up again in February 2019, when he said he would like to see the islands renamed Maharlika.  However, the name change would require amending the constitution and overhauling the government offices, businesses and documents that use the Philippines as the country’s official name, and most present-day Filipinos are against the name change, so don’t expect it to happen any time soon.  End footnote.

From 1946 to 1947, Marcos served as a special assistant to President Manuel Roxas, and thus got started in politics as a member of the party Roxas founded, the Liberal Party.  In 1949, at the age of 32, Marcos became the youngest member of the legislature by appealing to the provincial pride of the voters.  Quote:  "Elect me now and I promise you an Ilocano president in twenty years."  Unquote.  In 1954 he married a former beauty queen, Imelda Romualdez, and on the day he was sworn in as president, she got more attention than he did.  Together Ferdinand and Imelda made an attractive couple; they were often compared with John and Jackie Kennedy.

When the 1965 election arrived, Marcos won by a margin of 600,000 votes, out of eight million cast.  An estimated 5 percent of those ballots were rigged, and fifty people died in election-related violence, making this a quiet election by Philippine standards.  When Marcos was sworn in on December 30, 1965, the guests included the vice-president of the United States, Hubert Humphrey, showing that the US government approved of the new president.


President Marcos promised economic development, improved infrastructure, and good government to the people of the Philippines.  Thus, his first term in office saw a number of public works projects, like the construction of new highways, a bridge between the islands of Samar and Leyte, and hundreds of new school buildings.  For Manila, he arranged for the construction of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, by appointing a six-member board which promptly elected first lady Imelda Marcos as its chairperson.  However, in a sign of things to come, the cost of building the Cultural Center bloomed dramatically, from 15 million pesos in 1966, to 48 million pesos by December 1968.  Imelda had to seek $7 million from the United States in order to finish the project before the 1969 election.  Finally, Marcos pledged military help to South Vietnam and the United States, sending 10,450 Filipino soldiers to fight in the Second Indochina War.

The 1960s was the time of the Green Revolution, a worldwide movement that combined the latest technology with newly developed plants to vastly increase agricultural production.  Along that line, in the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI, had been founded in 1960, to reduce poverty and hunger, and to make sure that rice cultivation remained environmentally sustainable.  Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, it introduced several new varieties of rice.  The most successful variety, introduced in 1966, was IR8; it required fertilizers and pesticides to grow, but produced much larger yields than older varieties.  IR8 allowed the Philippines to double rice production under the Marcos presidency, and for the first time, the Philippines became a rice exporting nation.

Marcos had promised to rid the country of crooked politicians, but eventually he would outdo them all.  He got rid of the old political parties and introduced in their place a party he controlled completely, the New Society Movement.  Likewise the old oligarchy of upper class families was swept away, to be replaced by an oligarchy of families that were friendly to him.  Imelda became governor of Metro Manila, Minister of Human Settlements, and chairperson of 23 other agencies and corporations; this gave her an unflattering nickname, the "Iron Butterfly."

<Play Iron Butterfly clip>

No, her nickname had nothing to do with that band!  Imelda’s brother Benjamin Romualdez first became governor of Leyte (his family’s home island), then ambassador to China, and finally ambassador to the United States.  The president’s sister, and later his son, were governors of Ilocos Norte.  His daughter joined the legislature.  His brother Pacifico led the Medicare Commission and 20 different private companies.  A third cousin, Fabian Ver, was named Chief of Staff of the armed forces.  Other friends and relatives were placed in charge of key industries, like coconuts and sugar.  Whoever got those jobs returned the favor with enormous kickbacks.

The Filipinos began to suspect that something was not right when Marcos won reelection in 1969.  Twelve candidates ran for president that year, but most of them failed to get more than a few hundred votes.  The only one who gave Marcos a serious challenge was Sergio Osmena, Jr., the son of the former president by the same name; nevertheless, Marcos managed to win with 61% of the votes counted.  Now the constitution only allowed a president to have two four-year terms in office, so during his second term, Marcos looked for ways to change that, so he could rule indefinitely.

From 1969 onward, the economy did not perform as well as it did previously.  Part of this was because of the building projects from the first term of Marcos; like the Cultural Center, they required huge foreign loans, and this led to a balance of payments crisis in 1969 and 1970.  In fact, students began protesting the Marcos presidency in February 1970, only two months after the second term began.  For one of the first demonstrations, a group of students drove a fire engine into a wall of the presidential palace.  Inflation reached a rate of 18% a year, while volcanic eruptions and earthquakes disrupted the lives of many.

As the economic misery of the people got worse, it was translated into political unrest.  As early as 1968, a group of disgruntled students and former Huk guerrillas got together to form another communist movement, the New People’s Army (NPA for short).  Unlike the Huks, who concentrated themselves in one area, the NPA spread its members out to every province of the country.  They murdered and plundered freely, but were a more disciplined force than the police or the army, and they won followers by dispensing a rough form of justice against unpopular local officials, unfaithful husbands, and anyone else the common people disliked.  In 1972 a Moslem guerrilla movement, the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, launched a campaign in the south to create an independent state for Philippine Moslems, named Bangsa Moro.  And the anti-government demonstrations turned violent, with bombs and grenades thrown at politicians.

By 1972 Manila seemed to be slipping into anarchy.  In September, unidentified gunmen ambushed an empty car that was supposed to be carrying the defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile.  Years later Enrile admitted that he staged the incident to get a reaction from Marcos.  Sure enough, it played into the president’s hands perfectly.  Marcos blamed the current wave of violence on the communists and on September 21, 1972, he imposed martial law on the country.  He closed down newspapers, radio and television stations, censored those that remained in operation, seized control of the airline and public utilities, placed a nighttime curfew on Manila, and jailed six thousand political rivals, journalists, professors and students, branding them communists or communist sympathizers.

I have a sound clip from the speech Marcos gave, following his declaration of martial law.  It comes from a podcast called “Long Distance,” which tells the stories of Filipinos living abroad.  Here is how he described what he was doing.

<Play Marcos clip>

The most vocal critic of the Marcos presidency was Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr, also known by the nickname of “Ninoy.”  We met Aquino in episode 62, when he was a young news reporter, just getting started in politics.  Nevertheless, he came from one of the powerful old families that Marcos was trying to uproot.  His grandfather was a general under Emilio Aguinaldo, at the beginning of the twentieth century; his father, also named Benigno Aquino, had been a senior member of the government, under Manuel Quezon and Jose Laurel.  He really got under the president’s skin in 1969, when in one of his speeches, he called the Cultural Center "A Pantheon for Imelda" and "a monument to shame," while describing Imelda as "a megalomaniac, with a penchant to captivate."  It is now believed that had the 1973 elections taken place, Ninoy Aquino would have become the next president.  Instead, he was one of the first arrested when martial law was declared.  Most of the others arrested were eventually released, but Aquino, whose only crime was running ahead of Marcos in public opinion polls, languished in prison for seven and a half years.  Now able to get what he wanted, Marcos introduced a new constitution in 1973 that allowed him to rule for life, with unlimited powers during emergency situations like this one.

Podcast footnote: This is for you sports fans in the audience.  During the martial law period, in 1975, the Philippines hosted one of the most famous boxing matches of all time, “The Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier.  End footnote.

There is something of a tradition in Asia that gives approval to heads of state that take away freedom and give an improved standard of living in return.  The twentieth century saw benevolent dictators like that in Turkey, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.  For this reason, most Filipinos in 1972 thought that martial law was the proper solution to the country’s problems, and even Aquino admitted that he might introduce some kind of authoritarian regime if he became president.  If Ferdinand Marcos behaved in the above manner, he might have gone down in history as a good leader.  But instead he and Imelda used their new powers to live extravagantly, impoverishing the Philippines in the process.  The government got nothing done without huge bribes being paid, either to the president or someone else in the inner circle.  He amassed a hidden fortune in gold, real estate, and Swiss bank accounts, estimated to be worth billions–all the time receiving only $5,600 per year as an official salary.  Imelda gave lavish parties that looked like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and went on megabuck shopping sprees whenever she traveled abroad.  One of my sources reported that in Geneva, Switzerland, Imelda spent $12 million on jewelry in just one day, and I have heard that when she entered an American department store, employees would close the store, to keep all other customers out until she was done shopping in there.  The rest of the country had to pay the bill for this, and the economy took a nosedive; from 1983 to 1985 the gross domestic product dropped a rate of -5% a year.

For an example of the corruption and waste of the Marcos era, you only have to look as far as the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.  This is the only nuclear facility in the country, and as the name suggests, it is located on the Bataan peninsula, near the entrance to Manila Bay.  The story begins in 1973, when OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, first quadrupled the price of crude oil, then stopped selling oil to the countries which supported Israel in that year’s Middle East war.  To keep future overseas events from threatening the country’s energy supply, Marcos decided that nuclear power, rather than fossil fuel, was the way to generate electricity, and set up a presidential committee to raise the funds needed to build a power plant with two reactors.

Two big American corporations, General Electric and Westinghouse, wanted to build the nuclear power plant, and sent proposals for it.  The General Electric proposal offered detailed specifications on how the power plant would work, and estimated it would cost $700 million, while the Westinghouse proposal said they could do it for $500 million, without offering any specifications.  The presidential committee liked the General Electric proposal, but Marcos overruled them and chose the Westinghouse proposal.

Construction on the power plant started in 1976.  By then problems in the construction had been found, and the plan had been changed to one reactor, rather than two.  By 1984, when the reactor was nearly complete, $2.3 billion had been spent on building it, and neither Westinghouse nor the government gave much explanation for why the project was costing so much.  But what killed the project were fears about what could go wrong, after it became operational.  It turned out the reactor was dangerously close to a geologic fault, meaning it could get damaged by an earthquake, and it was also too close for comfort to volcanoes like Mt. Pinatubo.  Finally there was the news of nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States, and at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.  For those reasons, the government that came after Marcos decided not to let the reactor go hot.  They sued Westinghouse for alleged overpricing and bribery, but those charges were rejected by a United States court.

And thus, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant has sat unused, a concrete white elephant, for nearly thirty-five years.  The money spent on the plant has become the country’s biggest debt, since obviously they can’t give the nuclear reactor back.  Proposals have been looked at to convert it to a coal, oil, or gas-fired plant, but it appears it would be more economical to build a new conventional power plant from scratch.  Recently the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute has said that the plant can be unmothballed and put to use, the catch being that the cost of rehabilitating the facility will be anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion.  With Imelda Marcos you saw Philippine taxes at play; now with the Bataan power plant you can see Philippine taxes at work!


The United States generously gave aid during the Marcos years, and asked no questions, convinced that only Marcos could keep the country (and the US bases) out of communist hands.  This was the heyday of the time when Washington cultivated good relations with any foreign government that was pro-US and anti-communist, even the dictators.  One of the first foreign dictators to get this treatment was Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who took over Nicaragua in 1936.  President Franklin Roosevelt allegedly said this in 1939, to explain why the United States was supporting Somoza.  Quote:  "He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch."  Unquote.  Now the United States treated Marcos the same way.

Marcos ended martial law on January 17, 1981, because Pope John Paul II, a famous spokesman for human rights, was about to visit the Philippines, and it would look bad if martial law continued while the pope was there.  I remember at that time, when Ferdinand gave the speech announcing the end of martial law, Imelda cried as if their presidency had just ended.  Then in June another election was held, the first in twelve years, and needless to say, Marcos won easily, with 88% of the votes.  Another US vice-president, George H. W. Bush, attended the next inauguration, and praised Marcos for his quote, "adherence to democratic principles."  Unquote.  Actually, it no longer mattered whether there was martial law or not, since Marcos still ruled by decree and could rig elections as much as he pleased.  As one of the opposition leaders, former president Macapagal, put it, the lifting of martial law after 8 years was, quote, "in name only, but not in fact."  Unquote.


Cut!  That will have to be a wrap, because we have gone overtime, compared with most of the other episodes.  We still have a few years to go on the Marcos presidency, so that will be a topic for a future episode.  But since this podcast labors to keep all the stories of Southeast Asia in chronological order, now we need to bring Burma up to where the other countries are in the narrative.  Therefore the next episode will cover Burma in the 1960s and 1970s, showing us the wacky things that can happen when a superstitious dictator is in charge, who believes everything his astrologers tell him.  How wild will the stories get?  Join me next time to find out!

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I promised something special at the end of this episode to celebrate 100 episodes, and now it’s time to do it.  I am going to do something that I have never done before, and will probably never do again.  I am going to rap!

For the younger listeners in the audience, I remember when the first rap song came on the radio.  That was “The Rappers’ Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, and it hit the airwaves where I lived in the fall of 1979.

<Play song clip>

I was twenty years old at the time, and thought, “Well, well, a song where the artists talk in rhyme instead of singing.”  To me this was an interesting novelty song, and that was all.  Little did I know that a whole new genre of music was getting started right there!  Before 1979 was over, I heard songs from two more rappers, Sequence and Kurtis Blow, showing that rap wasn’t going to go away as fast as it appeared, and the rest is history.  Now in the forty-one years since then, I have never tried rapping myself, so I’m sure this will be so bad, you will think it’s funny.

Now fast forward to 1985.  That year America’s best-playing football team, the Chicago Bears, had its players record a rap song, “The Superbowl Shuffle.”  It not only became a hit, but it also motivated Da Bears to win the next Superbowl, in January 1986.

<Play song clip>

Then one month later, the People Power Revolution came, toppling the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.  Of course I will tell you all about that in a future episode of this podcast.  At the time, I had recently gotten married, and was waiting for my new wife to get her passport and visa, so she could leave Manila and come to the United States.  She was delayed, due to an unexpected government holiday!  A local radio station commemorated the news from the Philippines by playing a parody of “The Superbowl Shuffle,” called “The Marcos Shuffle.”  Though I only heard it once, I committed it to memory, and now here’s my rendition of “The Marcos Shuffle.”  Cue the music!

We are the Marcos shuffling crew,
Shufflin’ on down, to Honolulu!
We’re so bad, we had to leave,
But we still got some money, up our sleeve.

The name’s Ferdinand, and he’s the Prez,
He won the election, or so he says.
But we didn’t come to make the feathers ruffle,
We only came to do the Marcos Shuffle.

We aren’t here, for the needy,
We’re only here, for the greedy,
But don’t you worry, everything will be great,
‘Cause we got ten billion in real estate.

We are the Marcos shuffling crew,
Shufflin’ on down, to Honolulu!
We’re so bad, we had to leave,
But we still got some money, up our sleeve.


Thank you, thank you very much.  Thank you also for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 99: Thailand Experiments With Revolution



This podcast episode looks at Thailand from 1957 to 1976.  Here attempts are made to replace the military dictatorship with a true Western-style democracy, but the civilian government is too unstable to last, showing that the Thais still have much to learn.



This episode is dedicated to Torsten J., Zibidu D., (I hope I said your name right), and Gabriel S.  All of them made donations to the podcast in October 2020, and all of them now have their first names on the podcast’s Hall of Fame page.  Torsten, you gave earlier this year, so it’s good to see you again.  And Gabriel, your last donation was in 2019, so you have now earned Walter the Water Buffalo, our water buffalo icon, next to your name!  You are all wonderful people, may you always be blessed with the right amount of rainfall during your rainy season; not too much, and not too little.  Now let’s begin the episode that you and other donors have made possible.  Hit it, Hal!

Episode 99: Thailand Experiments With Revolution

Greetings, dear listeners!  Today we are going to cover what happened in Thailand, the unconquered kingdom, from 1957 to 1976.  If you listened to the previous episodes about the country, especially Episode 27, you know why I call it “the unconquered kingdom.”  Whether you call it Thailand or its older name, Siam, it is unique because it is the only place in Southeast Asia that has never been ruled by a Western nation.  Because of that, it has avoided the culture shock that hit some other non-Western nations, and was able to modernize at its own pace, allowing its traditional institutions, especially the monarchy and Buddhism, to enter the modern world more or less intact.  You can compare Thailand with its neighbors.  To the west, Burma, also known as Myanmar, lost its king when the British took over in 1886, and has not been a very successful nation since it regained its independence.  To the east, the politics of the outside world pulled Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam into some of the most terrible wars of the twentieth century, and currently, it looks like only Vietnam is making a complete recovery from them.

The last time this podcast talked about Thailand was more than 30 episodes ago, in Episode 61.  If you haven’t listened to Episode 61, it can’t hurt to hit the pause button on your device now, go listen to that episode, and then return to this one.  In Episode 61 we looked at Thailand immediately after World War II, and saw how the Thais escaped punished from the Allies, for taking the side of Japan during the war.  Then we covered the mysterious death of King Ananda Mahidol Rama VIII; there’s an unsolved murder for true crime story fans in the audience.  His eighteen-year-old brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej, now became King Rama IX.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts when his parents were there in 1927, Rama IX has the distinction of being the only monarch from anywhere to be born in the United States.  In 1933 he and his mother moved to Switzerland, and Rama IX was enrolled in a Swiss school.  But before he finished school, World War II broke out, so he spent the whole war, and most of his childhood, in Switzerland.  In fact, he did not return to Thailand until May 1950, nearly four years after his reign officially began, so the country could hold his coronation and the long-delayed cremation of his brother.

Rama IX will rule as king for a long time; seventy years, in fact.  However, Thai monarchs do not hold absolute power anymore; a military coup in 1932 saw to that.  Therefore, Rama IX was not allowed to do much of anything during the first part of his reign.  Instead, Field Marshall Plaek Phibun Songgram was in charge, for most of Thailand’s postwar years.  Phibun had run the country as prime minister during World War II, and was forced out of office in 1944, because the Thais realized that Phibun’s favorite foreign power, Japan, was going to lose the war.  But he made a comeback by staging a coup in 1947, and ruled until 1957, when another general, Sarit Thanarat, overthrew him in a bloodless coup, and took his place.  Phibun’s main legacy was that he hated communism, and his foreign policy kept Thailand on the side of the United States throughout the Cold War years.  Now let’s pick up where Phibun left the story.



Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat was born in Bangkok in 1908, but grew up in his mother’s home town in northeastern Thailand, and thus considered himself a member of the Isaan, Thailand’s Lao-speaking community.  His father, Major Luang Ruangdetanan, was a career army officer best known for the work he did on the side, translating Cambodian literature into Thai.  When he grew up, Sarit followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the army.  He was a major when Thailand entered World War II, and at the end of the war, he was the commander of Thai occupation troops in the Federated Shan States of eastern Burma.  Long-time listeners may remember that eastern Burma was one of the neighboring territories that the Japanese transferred to Thai rule during the war, and the Thais had to give them back after the war ended.  From 1951 onward, Phibun Songgram ran Thailand as the lead member of a triumvirate; the other two members were Sarit, who served as deputy minister of defense and commander in chief of the army, and Police General Phao Siyanon, who led the paramilitary police department and acted as the strong arm of the regime.

Over the course of the late 1950s, the economy got worse, official corruption became more blatant; and Phao’s ruthless attacks on political rivals, the Chinese business community, and civilian political figures got out of hand.  Elections were held on February 26, 1957, in which more than twenty-five political parties participated, but the party representing the military won, because Phao manipulated the elections in Phibun’s favor.  As you might expect, the other parties and the press accused the government of rigging the vote and using goons to terrorize both candidates and voters.  Phibun declared a state of emergency, but Sarit disassociated himself from the winners when he commented that the 1957 elections, quote, "were dirty, the dirtiest.  Everybody cheated."  Unquote.  Then the government discredited itself by failing to respond properly to a serious drought in the northeast.  Refugees fled to Bangkok to escape the resulting famine, and so many arrived that students and monks had to set up emergency help stations.  At first the Minister of Agriculture said there was nothing to worry about; the migration of northeasterners to the capital was normal, and so was their tendency to eat frogs and lizards.  Later two surveys of the northeast were conducted by helicopter, and the reports from both said the land was all right.  Eventually the Phibun government was persuaded to send 53 million Baht to the drought-stricken area; I believe that was worth $9.5 million in those days, or $89 million today.  Apparently it was too little, too late, for that was when Sarit staged his coup, to kick out Phibun and seize power for himself.

Soon after the coup, Sarit became seriously ill.  Leaving Deputy Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn in charge, he flew to the United States for treatment.  While he was away, the parliamentary government got almost nothing done, and the economy remained in bad shape.  Therefore, when Sarit returned in October 1958, he staged a second coup, with Thanom’s consent, to put himself back in charge.  This time he declared martial law, to stop the chaos caused by undisciplined politicians; Parliament was dissolved, the constitution was abolished, and political parties were banned.  Under these conditions, he ruled until he died unexpectedly from liver failure in December 1963.

Concerned with where the nation was heading, Sarit acted in a number of ways to improve and modernize Thai society.  He dedicated himself to making Bangkok clean and orderly by repairing streets, removing hooligans, outlawing the sale and use of opium, and by bringing prostitution under control.  He banned pedicabs because he thought they were old-fashioned and uncivilized. All opponents of his regime were denounced as communists and detained for long periods without trial or bail; that move by itself brought stability to Thailand for the next 15 years.


Sarit justified his actions by inventing an ideology that has been followed for most of the time since.  The way he saw it, an abstract constitution would not work well in Thailand, where most people still respect traditional authority.  What Thailand needed was a strong leader who was firm but also concerned for the welfare of the people.  The king was once that authority figure, but nobody wanted a return to absolute monarchy, so a separation between crown and government had to continue.  The king did, however, play an important role as a symbol of the nation and the people, and the government was only legitimate while it had the king’s approval.  Sarit felt that democracy had failed in Thailand, so he intended to rule according to "Thai ideologies", not imported Western political theories, choosing as his model the supposedly benevolent despots of his country’s past.

Along those lines, Sarit reminded the people of their Buddhist heritage, which got the monks to support his program, and started to give back some of the powers that had been taken from the king over the past generation.  During the years of Sarit’s rule, King Rama IX became more visible, while still a figurehead, by attending various public ceremonies and personally handing out diplomas to all of the nation’s university graduates.  Sarit also revived some traditional ceremonies for him, which the kings had performed in the past, but had been neglected more recently.  At other times the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, kept busy by traveling to every corner of the country and meeting with ordinary people, to find out how they can improve their lives.  The king, himself an engineering graduate, liked to build various projects like roads and bridges, and often paid for them out of his own pocket, to avoid burdening the government’s budget.  The people in return loved them, for these rulers served as well as led.

Anti-Communism continued to influence Thailand’s foreign affairs.  When the Second Indochina War began, Thailand allowed the United States to establish several military bases in support of the US campaign in Vietnam.  We saw in the episodes on that war how important the bases in Thailand were.  The first base was the U-Tapao Airport, located 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, southeast of Bangkok, and American aircraft began operating out of here in 1959.  The nearest community to U-Tapao was a fishing village named Pattaya, and the presence of the base put Pattaya on the map – literally.  Today Pattaya is a city with more than 100,000 people, and the center of an urban area that is home to a population of one million.  Anyway, in 1965 the Americans expanded the airport to accommodate B-52 bombers for their missions over Vietnam.  And after American troops started going to Vietnam, U-Tapao was also used as a Rest and Recuperation destination for the soldiers; the comedian Bob Hope visited U-Tapao more than once on his tours to entertain them.  Because the soldiers had money, and did not know how long they would stay alive or remain in one piece with all their limbs attached, they didn’t mind spending their money on something pleasurable.  The girls of Pattaya figured this out and took care of the G.Is, their limbs, and their money.  Today the US armed forces still use U-Tapao from time to time, but the air base is now overshadowed by a naval shipyard and a civilian airport.

On July 31, 1961, Thailand got together with the Philippines and Malaya (soon to become Malaysia) to form the Association of Southeast Asia, or ASA.  Officially this was an anti-Communist alliance, but there already was another organization for that, SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, so the ASA mainly promoted cooperation between its three members.  In 1967 the ASA was replaced by an organization that over the years has been more successful, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  The original five members of ASEAN were Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Thus, ASEAN acted like an economic version of SEATO until nations that weren’t pro-Western joined it.

The Sarit government’s first priority was economic development, and the standard of living climbed impressively during this time.  Sarit also prospered, perhaps too much; he left behind fifty mistresses and a fortune worth $150 million, which included large holdings in various companies, 8,000 acres of land, and several houses.  That was 150 million in 1963 dollars; allowing for nearly sixty years of inflation, all that would probably be $1.6 billion today.  Of course Sarit did not acquire that wealth honestly, but since Sarit was a better ruler than all the generals who came after him, the public felt Sarit may have been worth the price.  He was succeeded by his deputy prime minister, General Thanom Kittikachorn, who ruled by martial law for much of the following decade (1963-73).


By continuing Thailand’s pro-American, anti-Communist foreign policy, Thanom made sure that generous amounts of foreign aid kept coming in from the United States.  However, North Vietnam and China punished Thailand for its pro-US stance by arming communist guerrillas.

Foreign communists had begun setting up communist organizations in Thailand as early as 1927.  In a previous episode, I told you about Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh going to Bangkok in 1928 to do that.  Communism was outlawed in 1933, the year after the coup that cut the monarchy down to size.  During World War II, the communists, like those in other parts of Southeast Asia, opposed the Japanese.  After the war Thailand’s civilian leader, Pridi Phanomyong, legalized communism and established relations with the Soviet Union, but after the military took over, the Communist Party of Thailand was outlawed again.  During the 1950s, the communists stockpiled weapons, and in the early 1960s they assassinated 17 Thai officials.  They weren’t ready for an insurrection, though, and Thai communists went to training camps in Laos, North Vietnam and China, to prepare for the time when their insurrection would begin.  That time came in 1965, with a series of insurgent attacks in the northeast, near the Laotian border.  Because they started on the periphery of the country, many of the communists came from non-Thai minorities, like the Lao.

And that wasn’t all; there were more communist guerrillas in the far south, near the Malaysian border; these guerrillas were the last survivors from the failed communist uprising that took place in Malaya in the 1950s.  Now these guerrillas rose up against the Bangkok regime, too.  Finally, closer to home, the country’s students, educated in far greater numbers than ever before, were becoming familiar with Western values.  They wanted political progress, but instead they saw corruption being carried out under Thanom and his deputy prime minister, Praphas Charusathien.  Praphas in particular was known for obscure financial transactions and political intrigues, while sitting on the boards of 44 companies.  Instead of doing something about this, Thanom strengthened his alliance with Praphas, by allowing a marriage between his son and the daughter of Praphas.


Thanom’s government experimented very cautiously with introducing the elements of democracy.  A new constitution had been promised back in 1959, but it was not completed for nearly ten years, until the king commented that it was time to restore the National Assembly and put a new constitution into effect.  As a result, in 1968 the new constitution was announced, and new elections were held in February 1969.  Those elections established a new legislature, dominated by Thanom’s party, the United Thai People’s Party.  But during the next two and a half years, Thanom became concerned over domestic and foreign developments.  Besides the issues already mentioned, the Nixon administration was now pulling out of Vietnam and normalizing relations with China; both events threatened Thailand’s security.  In November 1971, Thanom carried out a coup against his own government, thereby ending the experiment in parliamentary democracy.  The constitution was suspended, political parties were banned, Thanom began ruling by decree again, and the military took full charge in suppressing opposition.

While this was going on, the students became organized.  In 1968 the National Student Center of Thailand, or the NSCT, was founded to represent and coordinate the students’ actions, especially between universities.  At first it acted cautiously, concentrating its attention on community services and counseling new students; during this time it even produced a television show which praised the king.  And it carefully chose which issues it would get active on.  For example, in November 1972 the NSCT began a campaign to boycott Japanese goods.  This was a strategic move as it did not attack the Thanom government, but it showed the public what the students could do.  For a week the students handed out leaflets in shopping centers that proclaimed an "Anti-Japanese Goods Week," presented a ten-point economic plan on what they expected from Thanom, and staged a protest march.  This violated the ban on political parties, but the government could not crack down as long as the NSCT did nothing but play up nationalist sentiments.

Matters soon came to a head, though.  In April 1973 a military helicopter crashed near a wildlife sanctuary in western Thailand, killing everyone aboard.  It turned out the victims were an illegal hunting party of senior military officers with family members, businessmen, and a popular film star.  Students from Ramkhamhaeng University published a satire on the hunting scandal that revealed some of the details, arousing nationwide public outrage.  Those students were expelled in June, and demonstrations were launched that not only called for reinstating the students, but also demanded a real constitution, for a change.  The government tried to put a damper on this by closing the universities, but the protests only snowballed after that.


On October 13, 1973, an estimated 400,000 people attended a mass demonstration, which marched from the Democracy Monument to the Parliamentary Building in Bangkok.  The demonstrators included farmers and residents of Bangkok, as well as students.  They demanded the release of recently arrested students; representatives of the government agreed to this demand, and promised a new constitution by October 1974.  This prompted the demonstrators to disperse, but the next day, 250,000 of them gathered together again, and marched on the royal palace, to seek advice from the king.  King Bhumibol asked the protestors to disband, so the crowd was not allowed into the palace, but there weren’t enough exits for them to quickly leave the palace grounds, either.  Early on the morning of October 15, bombs exploded near the royal palace, and the police began attacking the students, because the crowd was not leaving fast enough.  The government brought in tanks, helicopters and foot soldiers to support the police, killing more than 100 demonstrators.  At this point the 45-year-old king intervened, getting involved in politics for the first time; he took the side of the demonstrators, and ordered the Cabinet to resign.  Remember, no government in Thailand is legitimate without the king’s approval, so that evening, Thanom, his son, and Praphas, the so-called “Three Tyrants,” fled the country, going either to Singapore or the United States.  At 7:15 PM, the king went on radio and TV to announce the government had resigned, and that ended the demonstration.

The first prime minister to follow was appointed by the king; normally prime ministers are elected, and only three times in Thai history has the king chosen one.  He was Sanya Dharmasakti, a former president of the Supreme Court and the current president of Thammasat University; most of the student demonstrators came from here.  Sanya appointed a drafting committee to write the promised constitution, and because he was the country’s first civilian leader in 26 years, a new democratic era seemed to be beginning.  He stayed in office until February 1975, and was succeeded by Seni Pramoj, a great-grandson of King Rama II.  However, one month later Seni was defeated in an election and replaced by his younger brother, Kukrit Pramoj.  Kukrit’s achievements were a national minimum wage, the repeal of anticommunist laws and the ejection of US military forces from Thailand, which we will talk more about in a minute.  He lasted in the top spot for thirteen months, until April 1976, and then Seni regained the seat.  Thus, Seni would be in charge when the 1976 crisis occurred.

Podcast footnote: Seni Pramoj has been in this podcast before, but I did not mention his name until now.  He appeared in the narrative all the way back in Episode 37.  When Thailand declared war on the United States during World War II, Seni was the ambassador to the United States.  It was his job to deliver Thailand’s war declaration to Washington, but he hated Japan, and he refused to do it.  This suited the Roosevelt administration just fine, because the Americans had nothing against the Thais.  Instead, Seni helped found the Free Thai movement, Thailand’s government in exile.  Because the Americans never got the official war declaration, the Thais were able to say with a straight face after the war, that they and the Americans have never been enemies.  As for Seni’s brother Kukrit, he played the prime minister of Thailand in the 1963 movie The Ugly American, twelve years before he became the prime minister in real life.  End footnote.

Despite its best efforts, the civilian government could not bring stability.  1974 saw demonstrations against Japanese-made trade goods while the Japanese prime minister was visiting, followed by anti-Chinese riots.  When the 1975 elections were held, 42 parties sponsored 2,193 candidates for 269 seats in the Assembly, making sure that no party would win a majority.  I already mentioned there were three prime ministers in three years – that’s a formula for instability – and likewise the coalitions they put together came apart at least once every year.  Meanwhile, the communist victories in Indochina forced Thailand to rethink its foreign policy.  With its own communist insurgency growing, there was a very real concern that Thailand would degenerate into another Vietnam-type situation.  To nip this in the bud, the American servicemen in Thailand were ordered to leave, except for a few advisors, and most of the US bases were turned over to Bangkok.

Podcast footnote: Time Magazine ran a cartoon when the Americans had to go.  It showed Uncle Sam walking from Vietnam to Thailand, carrying a jet fighter.  Behind him Vietnam is a wasteland, marked with bomb craters and broken trees, while Thailand looks like a garden.  An unnamed Thai official tells Uncle Sam, “Please leave, we can’t afford your help.”  End footnote.


While feuding politicians entertained or exasperated the middle class, leftist students became more radical, alienating the monarchy, the bureaucracy, and the public with their behavior.  In September 1976 Thanom returned from exile, not as a general or a former prime minister, but as a Buddhist monk; he had shaved his head, and was wearing the robes of a novice monk.  He became respectable when the royal family visited him.  Leftists protested Thanom’s reception and then insulted the royal family.  At Thammasat University, the battleground from three years earlier, the students staged a skit depicting the police killing two students, and conservatives charged that one actor looked like the Crown Prince.  That was a big no-no!  In Thailand, lèse majesté is both a serious crime, and an unforgivable sin.  Previously, the king had supported the revolution, but now he turned against it.  So did much of the population, in a right-wing backlash.

On October 6, 1976, the police and right-wing paramilitary civilian groups assaulted a group of 2,000 students holding a sit-in at Thammasat.  The police were armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers, armor-piercing rounds and grenades, weapons that are more appropriate in a war zone.  Official records report that 46 students were killed in the massacre that followed, but many believe the real death toll was more than 100.  In addition, more than a thousand were injured, 3,094 were arrested, and dead bodies were desecrated.  The military stepped in, dismissed Seni Pramoj as prime minister, and restored order by declaring martial law, annulling the constitution, banning political parties, and censoring the media.  The Thai people were revolted by the barbarity of this episode, and that made them more politically moderate in the years that followed.  Many idealists “dropped out” of Thai society and joined the communists in the hills, who now called themselves the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand, or PLAT.

Podcast footnote: I mentioned that the 1976 trouble started with Thanom returning from exile.  Both he and Praphas were eventually allowed to come back and spend their last years in Thailand, on condition that they never get involved in politics again, so they retired in peace.  In case you’re curious about Thanom’s new-found religion, he did not stay a monk for long.  End footnote.

Nobody was held accountable for the violence on October 6, and most of those arrested were released without charges.  The main exception were eighteen protest organizers who were held for two years, and only released when they were given an amnesty.  The massacre became a non-event in Thailand, because most people did not want to talk about it; it was never mentioned in school textbooks, and it faded quickly from the national consciousness.  But it wasn’t forgotten completely.  In fact, the Thais rediscovered the tragedy in 2020.  While I was working on this episode, the 44th anniversary of the massacre came up, and Thammasat students marked the event with an exhibition of “then and now” photographs, putting together pictures of the old bloodletting with pictures taken of the same places more recently.  And because there is a new round of protests going on in Bangkok right now, today’s activists have made speeches in which they compared the events of 1976 with those of today.  A Facebook page dedicated to the massacre was set up in August, and it registered 1.3 million visits in the first two months.  And visits to an online memorial website have gone up 13-fold.  On the other side of the political aisle, conservatives have launched a group called Thai Pakdee — Loyal Thais — with the declared goal of protecting the monarchy from “nation-haters” who want to replace the monarchy with a republic, by digging up the history of what happened long before today’s students were born.  One thing’s for sure; with the political debate in present-day Thailand, we haven’t heard the last word yet.



Would you believe we are out of time already?  To summarize this episode, Thailand’s experiment with revolution in the 1970s didn’t work.  After it ended, the country had the same type of government as before; the military was running the show, and the king was watching from the sidelines.  Most of the Thai people decided that if they can’t have both law & order and democracy, they will just go with law & order for now.  You will have to tune into another episode to find out if they transition to democracy later on.

But that won’t be the next episode.  Coming up next is the centennial episode, the big #100!  For that one I plan to cover the Philippines in the 1960s and 70s, the period right before and during the Marcos dictatorship.  And because 100 episodes is a big deal for any podcast, I plan to do something special as well; join me next time to find out what that will be!

While you’re waiting, if you are enjoying the podcast and have the means to give it financial support, consider doing so.  Currently this podcast has no sponsors, it depends on you the listeners to keep going.  Donations are made with the help of Paypal, and on the Blubrry.com page hosting this show, I have put a gold button that says “Donate!”, which links to Paypal.  If you get this podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or one of the other podcatchers, you will have to go to Blubrry to do this, since I can’t put the Paypal button anywhere else.  Blubrry is spelled like Blueberry without the “Es,” B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.  The whole URL for the website is https://blubrry.com/hoseasia/ .  Once you’re there, go to any page hosting an episode, click on the gold button, and follow Paypal’s instructions.  Those who give by Paypal will have their first names added to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page.

Another way you can give is by becoming a Patron of the podcast.  Go to Patreon.com and sign up to contribute a small amount each month, from $1 to $10.  Now currently I don’t have T-shirts, coffee mugs or any other merchandise to give, like what some other podcasts are offering, but if you join, you will still have the satisfaction of knowing you did a good deed today.  The Patreon URL is https://www.patreon.com/HistoryofSoutheastAsia .  History of Southeast Asia is all one word.  I have also posted Patreon links on the Blubrry pages for the most recent episodes, and also on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook.  However you choose to give, thank you in advance for your support.

And of course, there are ways you can help the show that don’t cost anything.  I just mentioned the podcast’s Facebook page, and currently 667 people have “liked” it.  I know the podcast has more than 667 listeners, so if you’re not one of the 667, stop what you’re doing and like the page now!  If you get the show from anywhere besides Blubrry, you can write a review.  And you can spread the love by telling others about the podcast, like I do.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 98: Malaysia and Singapore Get Organized



For the latest episode of the podcast, the narrative goes to Malaya, which was last covered in Episode 69, and to Singapore and the British-ruled areas on the north side of Borneo.  We will hear how Singapore became independent, and how Malaya became Malaysia.



This episode is dedicated to Bao V.N., who made a generous donation to the podcast.  Bao, I am guessing you liked the recent episodes about Vietnam, so rest assured, sometime in the next few months I plan to cover events in Vietnam after the war.  Thank you for your support.  Your gift ensures that the podcast will continue past Episode 100, which now is only a month away.  May your kindness bring rewards, wherever you go.  And now let’s begin the episode for today.

Episode 98:  Malaysia and Singapore Get Organized

Greetings, dear listeners!  I will begin with a correction from last time.  At the end of the previous episode, I said Burma, also known as Myanmar, was going to be the next topic, but then I remembered that when I last talked about Burma, in Episode 63, I also talked about the conflicts that threatened to tear it apart in the 1950s, so we’re farther ahead on that country than I originally thought.  Therefore I decided that we need to look at what happened around the Malay peninsula next.  After all, we haven’t talked much about Singapore so far in this podcast, and it’s about to become a major player in Southeast Asia.  Moreover, we did cover how Malaya became independent in Episode 69, but if you look at a modern map of Asia, you won’t see a country named Malaya.  You will see a larger nation called “Malaysia” instead, so you’re probably wondering, “What’s up with that?”  Finally, does everyone remember a little state called Brunei, on the northwest coast of Borneo?  The last time we mentioned Brunei, it was a British protectorate; what’s going to happen to it when the British get out of the region?

Previously in the podcast, we saw six Western Nations establish colonies in Southeast Asia: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France and the United States.  Spain, France and the Netherlands are now completely out of the game, and if we hear from the United States after this, it will be because there are still US military bases in the Philippines.  If you’re a Filipino nationalist, don’t worry, the American day of reckoning is still on the way.  Portugal has one colony left, half of the island of Timor, and we’ll also get to it in a future episode.  That leaves Britain, which at the end of the 1950s, was holding onto three colonies: Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, also called North Borneo.  You can count Brunei as a fourth colony if you want, but it was really a protectorate, since Brunei had its own sultan and he was in charge of local affairs.

If you need to re-listen to some old episodes to know what is going on here, I recommend Episode 23 for how the British took over, Episodes 37 and 58 for World War II battles in the area, and Episode 69 for the Malay peninsula’s path to independence.  Okay, are we ready to continue?



Before World War II, Britain had administered Singapore separately from Malaya.  Singapore was part of a colony called the Straits Settlements.  The first days after the war saw violence, as residents practiced looting and revenge-killing until British soldiers arrived, and set up a British military administration.  Besides restoring order, the British had to repair the infrastructure destroyed during the war, which included electricity, water and telephone services, and the harbor facilities at the Port of Singapore.  High food prices, unemployment and workers’ discontent culminated in a series of strikes in 1947, which caused massive stoppages in public transport and other services; only after that did the economy begin to recover.  By then, the military administration was gone.  On April 1, 1946, the Straits Settlements were dissolved, and Singapore became a crown colony.  The other two Straits Settlements on the peninsula—Penang and Malacca—became part of the Union of Malaya, and the small island of Labuan, which had previously been a coaling station for British ships, was transferred to North Borneo. The Cocos Islands and Christmas Island were transferred to Australia in 1955 and in 1958, respectively.

The failure of Britain to defend Singapore during the war had destroyed its credibility as an infallible ruler in the eyes of Singaporeans.  As a result, the years after the war saw a dynamic nationalist movement develop and call for independence.  Since the Labour Party in Britain was in the process of turning India loose, it was willing to gradually increase self-government in Singapore and Malaya.  In July 1947, separate Executive and Legislative Councils were established in Singapore.  The Legislative Council had twenty-two members; most of them were appointed or nominated by chambers of commerce, but an election was promised for six of the Legislative Council’s seats in the following year.  When the election took place, on March 20, 1948, three seats were won by the Singapore Progressive Party, a conservative group, and the other three seats were won by independents.  Although the population was 940,000 at this time, voting was restricted to 23,000, those who were British citizens and registered to vote.

Three months after the election, a communist revolt broke out in neighboring Malaya, what is now called the Malayan Emergency.   We talked about the Malayan Emergency already, in Episode 69.  The British response was to impose tough measures to control left-wing groups in both Singapore and Malaya.  They also introduced the controversial Internal Security Act, which allowed indefinite detention without trial for persons suspected of being "threats to security."  This halted progress on self-government until the British got the upper hand against the communists, and felt they could relax restrictions again.  In the meantime, another Legislative Council election was held in 1951.  This time the number of elected seats was increased to nine, and the Singapore Progressive Party won six of them.

Late in 1953, the British government appointed a commission under Sir George Rendel to review Singapore’s constitutional position and make recommendations for change.  The Rendel proposals were accepted by the government and led to a new constitution that gave Singapore a greater measure of self-government.  This included the creation of the first left-wing political parties in Singapore.  Two of them you will want to remember:  the People’s Action Party, or PAP, and the Labour Front, or LF.


Here I will digress from the narrative to introduce Lee Kwan Yew, one of the new politicians that appeared in the mid-1950s.  Lee Kwan Yew will play such an important role in Singapore’s history, that from now on, I won’t be able to talk about Singapore for long without mentioning him.  A fourth-generation Singaporean, he was born in 1923, and given the name was Harry Lee Kwan Yew, but he dropped the “Harry” when he went into politics; only his family and closest friends called him by his first name.  Though his ancestry was mostly Chinese, English was his first language; he learned Japanese during World War II in order to stay alive, and only began to learn Chinese in 1955, when he was 32 years old.

Lee Kwan Yew had two close calls while Singapore was under Japanese occupation.  The first happened in early 1942, when the Japanese army rounded up Chinese men for questioning, and Lee was told to fall in and join the selected group of Chinese.  Sensing that something wasn’t right, Lee asked for permission to return home to collect his clothes first, and incredibly, the Japanese guard agreed.  As it turned out, the group of Chinese men were taken to a beach and shot, as part of the Sook Ching Massacre.  The other near miss came because of his wartime job; he worked as a Singapore Administration Service officer, listening to Allied radio stations, writing down what he heard, and passing it on to a Japanese office.  Late in the war, he learned from these transmissions what the Japanese did not want their subjects to know – Japan was going to lose the war.  From this he got the idea that the Allies were going to launch an amphibious assault to take back Singapore, the way they had done in places like the Philippines, and feared there would be a bloodbath when the Japanese made their last stand.  To avoid this, he made plans to purchase a farm on the Malay peninsula and move there with his family.  However, a lift-boy in his office told him his file had been taken out by the security department, meaning that Japanese security personnel were watching him, so he abandoned the plan, knowing the Japanese would try to stop him if he acted on it.  The whole wartime experience convinced Lee that Singapore needed to be free of all foreigners who were pushing them around – the British as well as the Japanese.

After the war, Lee went to England and studied law at Fitzwilliam College, a school under Cambridge University.  In 1950 he was admitted to the English bar, but instead of practicing law there, Lee returned to Singapore to do so.  At first he worked in the law firm of John Laycock, one of Singapore’s oldest law firms, for $500 a month.  That would be worth more than $5,000 in today’s dollars.  He also worked as a legal advisor to the trade and students’ unions.  Laycock also happened to be the president of the Singapore Progressive Party, and Lee got his first political experience here, as an election agent for Laycock in the 1951 election.

Lee first became famous in Singapore during the Fajar trial in May 1954, when members of the University Socialist Club were arrested for publishing an article named “Aggression in Asia,” in the club’s magazine, The Fajar.  The article was considered seditious, and this was the first sedition trial in colonial post-war Malaya.  Lee acted as the junior counsel for the defense, and after a three-day trial, the defendants were released.  The Straits Times proclaimed this as a, quote, "tremendous victory for freedom of speech."  Unquote.  The trial made Lee a hero in the eyes of Singapore’s Chinese community.  Six months later, Lee got together with some members of the University Socialist Club again, and they founded the People’s Action Party.


Now back to the main narrative!  New elections took place in 1955, and the presence of the new parties made them more lively than the elections held previously.  In addition, the number of registered voters had increased to 300,000.  Many of the new voters were ethnic Chinese, who were showing an interest in Singapore’s politics for the first time.  The purpose of the election was to fill 25 out of 32 seats in the Legislative Assembly, which had replaced the Legislative Council.  The Labour Front won 10 seats, the Singapore Progressive Party won 6, and the People’s Action Party won 3.  This is the last time we will hear from the Singapore Progressive Party, so you don’t need to remember them for the final exam.  David Saul Marshall, the leader of the Labour Front, became Singapore’s first Chief Minister on April 6, 1955.

Podcast footnote: Although David Marshall was born in Singapore in 1908, his parents were Sephardic Jews, who had recently immigrated from Baghdad.  Baghdad, of course, was part of the Ottoman Empire in those days.  As far as I know, David Marshall is the only Jew who ever ran a Southeast Asian state.  End footnote.

Marshall’s term in office was a turbulent one.  He received little cooperation from both the colonial government and the other local parties.  What’s more, social unrest was on the rise, and in May 1955, the Hock Lee bus riots broke out, killing four people and seriously discrediting Marshall’s government.  This was followed by riots among Chinese students in early 1956.  In April 1956, Marshall led a delegation to London to negotiate for complete self-rule, but the talks broke down because the British, concerned about communist influence and labor strikes, were not ready to give up control over Singapore’s internal security.  Thus, Marshall resigned on June 6, 1956.  After his resignation, he accepted an offer from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to visit China.  He ended up staying for two months, because he was contacted by a representative from a group of over 400 Russian Jews living in Shanghai.  Shanghai had acquired a Jewish community in the early twentieth century, first when Russian Jews went there to escape pogroms in their homeland, and then when German and Austrian Jews came there to escape the Holocaust.  The Japanese had left them alone when they occupied Shanghai during the war, but now Communist Chinese authorities refused to let them leave.  Marshall spoke with Zhou about this, and managed to get them released.

Marshall was replaced in Singapore by Lim Yew Hock, Marshall’s deputy and Labor minister.  Lim Yew Hock launched a crackdown on communist and leftist groups, using the Internal Security Act to justify imprisoning many trade union leaders and pro-communist members of the People’s Action Party.  The British approved of Lim getting tough on his opponents, and when Lim sent his own constitutional mission to London in 1957, it succeeded in negotiating the main terms of a new Singapore Constitution. On May 28, 1958, the Constitutional Agreement was signed in London.

By now Malaya was independent, and the British took a new look at the remaining colonies in their once-mighty empire.  Back in the British Empire’s heyday, its most important colonies were India and the Suez Canal, but India was now independent as well, and the Suez Canal had been nationalized by Egypt.  With both of them gone, it seemed pointless for Britain to hold on to the rest of its empire, but what should be done with the colonies was not clear.  Local politics would decide the matter in each one.

For Singapore, the Constitutional Agreement expanded the Legislative Assembly to fifty-one members, all of which would be chosen by popular election, and the Prime Minister and cabinet would control all aspects of government except defense and foreign affairs.  Elections for the new Legislative Assembly took place in May 1959.  This time the People’s Action Party won a landslide victory, taking forty-three of the fifty-one seats.  They pulled this off by courting Singapore’s Chinese-speaking majority, especially those in the labor unions and radical student organizations.  The PAP leader was Lee Kuan Yew – remember him? – and because of the election, he became the first Prime Minister of Singapore.  With Lee Kwan Yew’s rise to power, Singapore’s colonial era was all but over.  Lee would be the longest-serving prime minister anywhere, running Singapore for the next 31 years, from 1959 to 1990.

The PAP at this stage was an uneasy combination of moderates and communists, and its message was more socialist than anything else, so its victory worried foreign and local business leaders.  Many Singapore-based businesses responded by moving their headquarters to Kuala Lumpur in Malaya.  However, their fears about Singapore going communist did not become a reality.  Lee Kwan Yew turned conservative, once he had the responsibilities of running the city; he realized that Singapore was most likely to prosper if he continued the free-market capitalism that it enjoyed under British rule.  Therefore the main activity of the new Minister of Finance, Goh Keng Swee, was to encourage foreign and local investment.  The education system was revamped to train a skilled workforce and English, rather than Chinese, was promoted as the language of instruction.  To eliminate labor unrest, existing labor unions were consolidated, sometimes by force, under a single umbrella organization, called the National Trades Union Congress, which was overseen by the government.  The biggest domestic problem was a shortage of housing, since the island did not have much room to build new homes, and this was solved by building upward; more than 25,000 high-rise, low-cost apartments were constructed during the first two years of the housing program.  Meanwhile, tensions rose between the moderate and communist factions in the PAP until the party split in 1961, and those who were pro-communist left to form a new political party, called the Barisan Sosialis.

To the British, a Malayan state without Singapore in it looked a little odd, and they wanted Singapore to join Malaya.  So did Lee Kwan Yew, because he didn’t think the island city-state could stand on its own.  However, the Malayan prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman, wanted nothing to do with the busy port.  The reason was racial; the Malays still feared drowning in a sea of Chinese.  Malaya was successful because, as we saw in Episode 69, its Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities had carefully worked out a system that spelled out what each group could have.  Singapore’s population was 76% Chinese, enough to upset the balance and turn Malaya into a new Chinese state if the city was included in the federation.


Okay, so far we have just talked about Singapore; what was going on with the Borneo territories?  In Episode 23 we saw that the Sarawak territory had been acquired by a British citizen named James Brooke, in the mid-19th century.  Brooke, his nephew Charles, and Charles’ son Charles Vyner, ran Sarawak as their personal domain, earning themselves the nickname “White Rajah.”  Charles Vyner Brooke stayed away in Australia during World War II, and when he returned in April 1946, the question of succession came up.  The third White Rajah did not have a son, and the nearest relative who could inherit Sarawak was his nephew, Anthony Brooke.  Charles Vyner did not get along with Anthony, so instead of bequeathing Sarawak to him, Charles Vyner gave Sarawak to the British Colonial Office, in exchange for a sizeable pension for him and his three daughters.  From Singapore, Anthony Brooke led a five-year campaign to revoke Sarawak’s new colonial status.  In 1949 the second governor of Sarawak, Duncan George Stewart, was fatally stabbed by Rosli Dhobi, a local nationalist who wanted Sarawak to become part of the new Indonesian state, and the British intelligence service, MI5, suspected Anthony Brooke had something to do with the assassination.  No evidence of involvement by Anthony was ever found, but because of the suspicions, he was not allowed to visit Sarawak again until 1963, after Sarawak had been turned over to Malay rule.

As for North Borneo, also called Sabah, its pre-war capital, Sandakan, was totally destroyed in World War II.  The British Colonial Office had to pay the cost of rebuilding after the war, and the capital was moved to Jesselton, modern-day Kota Kinabalu.  When the neighboring Philippines became independent in 1946, the United States and Britain negotiated the status of the Turtle Islands, seven offshore islands that Britain had administered previously, and they were transferred to the Philippines in October 1947.  In case you’re wondering, the Turtle Islands got their name because they are a major nesting area for sea turtles, and for that reason, the area has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1996.

For both Sarawak and North Borneo, the tribesmen that lived in the interior, called Dayaks, did not get along well with the Malays living on the coast, but they were too primitive to go it alone, so the British concluded that the best future for the two territories was a union with Malaya.  The local politicians were won over by promises to protect their interests, and Britain prepared to transfer Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei to Malayan rule.

On May 27, 1961, the Tengku of Malaya astonished the public by reversing his stand; now he proposed a union of Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo, Brunei AND Singapore.  His reasoning was that an independent Singapore, with a leftist or socialist government, would pose a greater danger to Malaya than the incorporation of the island into an expanded Malayan state.  A referendum on the terms of the merger was held in Singapore on September 1, 1962, and it showed the people’s overwhelming support to go ahead.

The merger would more than double the size of the Malayan state, so it would need a new name.  Those of you familiar with European history will know that after World War I, the kingdom of Serbia was greatly enlarged by adding territories to it that had previously been held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire:  Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.  Because of those gains, Serbia was given a new name; first it was the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and then it became Yugoslavia, the “land of the South Slavs.”  Likewise, Malaya now needed renaming, so henceforth it would be called Malaysia.  On July 9, 1963, the leaders of Singapore, Malaya, North Borneo, and Sarawak signed the Malaysia Agreement to establish the Federation of Malaysia.

Sarawak was officially granted self-government on July 22, 1963, and so was North Borneo on August 31.  Originally the plan was to declare the creation of Malaysia at the end of August, but because of objections from the Philippines and Indonesia, the formal date for the union of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo was postponed to September 16, 1963.  To resolve the issue of how the people of Borneo felt about union, a United Nations  fact-finding team went to Sarawak and North Borneo; to nobody’s surprise, it reported two months later that almost everyone approved of the merger.

Wait a minute; Brunei is missing!  Wasn’t it also supposed to become part of Malaysia?  Well, yes, but the sultan of that tiny state, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin III, opted out.  In 1959, when he was expecting to join Malaysia, the sultan had established a legislature, with half its members nominated and the other half elected.  Elections were held in September 1962, and all of the contested seats were won by the Brunei People’s Party, an opposition group.  This party, which got part of its support from Indonesia, called for government by the people, rather than letting the sultan run the show, and it opposed the creation of Malaysia; instead, it wanted Brunei, North Borneo and Sarawak to join together as a separate state, called the North Borneo Federation.

The Brunei People’s Party formed its own army, the North Kalimantan National Army; or if you would rather use the Malay abbreviation, TNKU.  In December 1962 the TNKU launched a revolt, by attacking the town of Seria, where a large oil deposit had been discovered in 1929.  They occupied Seria and the oil installations, which were operated by the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation, but an attempt to capture the sultan and Brunei Town, modern Bandar Seri Begawan, failed, and that doomed the rebellion.  The British had two companies of Gurkha warriors stationed in Brunei, and they not only sent in reinforcements, but also called on the Dayaks to support them; 2,000 Dayaks responded, forming a militia that kept the rebels from escaping to the Indonesian side of Borneo.  Ten days after the revolt began, it was all over.  By then the sultan had outlawed the Brunei People’s Party and condemned the TNKU for treason.

Afterwards, the sultan was nervous about losing British support, in case another revolt broke out.  He also realized he had much to lose if he joined Malaysia’s royalty club.  We saw in Episode 69 that Malaysia has a rotating monarchy, where each of the nine sultans in the Malay peninsula gets to be king of the whole country for five years.  If the sultan of Brunei was placed in the back of this line, he might have to wait as long as 45 years before he could take his turn as king.  Finally, the sultan balked at joining Malaysia because of Brunei’s oil; the profits from the oil wells would have to be shared if Brunei was part of another country.  To summarize all this, Brunei was peaceful and prosperous as a British protectorate, and the sultan chose to keep Brunei that way for another twenty years.  We will come back to Brunei in a future episode of the podcast.


Back to Malaysia.  We saw that the birth of Malaysia was denounced by two of its neighbors, Indonesia and the Philippines.  The Philippines resurrected an old and dubious claim to North Borneo; back in the nineteenth century, before the British took over, the southernmost Philippine ruler, the sultan of Sulu, claimed North Borneo as part of his realm.  The president of the Philippines, Diosdado Macapagal, suggested that because Malaysians, Filipinos and Indonesians all had the same ancestors two thousand years ago, the three nations should be united in a Malay superstate, which he called "Maphilindo," but Malaysians and Indonesians didn’t care for the idea. 

Podcast footnote: While I recorded this, my wife, who is from the part of the Philippines near North Borneo, reminded me from another room of the house that Sabah belongs to the Philippines!  End footnote.

As for Indonesia, it claimed all of Borneo, calling it Kalimantan in the Indonesian language, and as we saw in the previous episode, President Sukarno denounced Malaysia as a "neo-colonial" idea, because British troops remained in Malaysia after its creation.  Indonesia at the time was suffering from a depression, and to get the minds of his people off the economy, Sukarno launched a low-intensity, undeclared war to destabilize, and hopefully bring down Malaysia.

This conflict lasted for three years, from 1963 to 1966.  The Indonesian foreign minister, Dr. Subandrio, gave it the name Konfrontasi, meaning confrontation, to indicate this wasn’t an all-out war; there were no big battles or movements of armies.  Accordingly, my sources call it the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, or the Borneo confrontation.  It mainly involved Indonesian commandos sneaking into Malaysia, where they carried out bombings and other subversive activities.  In response, three nations from the British Commonwealth, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, sent troops and military aid, and that kept Malaysia alive during this critical period.  Most of the action took place on Borneo, with Indonesians infiltrating Sarawak and North Borneo, and thousands of Indonesian regular troops massing along the borders.  However, in August 1964 a unit of a hundred troops crossed the strait between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, only to be quickly captured by Commonwealth forces.  The same month saw 96 paratroopers dropped in the state of Johore, about 100 miles north of Singapore; it took a month for Malaysian and Commonwealth forces to capture or kill 90 of the 96 parachutists, while losing two men during the action.

Probably the largest clash in the conflict was the battle of Plaman Mapu.  On April 27, 1965, a crack Indonesian battalion launched a surprise attack on a British hilltop base, half a mile from the border of Sarawak.  It was repelled after a two-hour firefight.  Two British soldiers were killed and eight were wounded, while the Indonesians suffered at least 30 casualties, so this counts as another British victory.

From June 1964 to early 1966, British, Australian and New Zealander special forces on Borneo carried out their own series of covert raids, called Operation Claret.  Here helicopters were used to move the troops across the border; their objectives were to detect Indonesians about to enter Sarawak or North Borneo, and to stop them when possible.  Although Claret was a successful operation, it had to be kept secret because a state of war did not officially exist between Indonesia and the Commonwealth countries.  If Indonesia had discovered Commonwealth troops fighting on Indonesian soil, it might have declared war, thereby escalating the conflict.  In addition, Indonesia could have started a second war on New Guinea; the eastern half of that huge island was under Australian rule until 1975, when it became the nation of Papua New Guinea.  For those reasons, the Claret patrols were under orders to leave no prisoners behind, alive or dead, and to keep out of sight of civilians.  Afterwards, Britain did not admit that Operation Claret had taken place until 1974, and Australia did not admit it was involved in the operation until 1994.

I mentioned in the previous episode that the Confrontation ended with the downfall of Sukarno in Indonesia; his successor, Suharto, realized that the conflict was costing Indonesia a lot of money, and they had almost nothing to show for it.  The two countries agreed to stop fighting on June 1, 1966, and they signed a treaty in Jakarta on August 11.  With the treaty Indonesia also granted diplomatic recognition to Malaysia, eliminating the reason for the conflict in the first place.  The death toll for the whole Confrontation was 590 Indonesians and 114 Commonwealth troops killed.

One of the worst incidents of the Confrontation happened on March 10, 1965; when three Indonesian marines planted a bomb in the MacDonald House, a bank in the middle of Singapore that also happened to be the oldest fully air conditioned building in Southeast Asia.  The resulting explosion killed three and injured 33.  One of the marines managed to escape, while the other two were arrested four days later.  Because they were not wearing uniforms, the marines were treated as common criminals, rather than prisoners of war; they were tried, sentenced to death, and hanged in 1968, two years after the Confrontation ended.  Riots broke out in Jakarta on the day of the hanging, and the Singapore embassy was ransacked.  Relations remained tense between Singapore and Indonesia until 1973, when Lee Kwan Yew visited Jakarta and scattered flowers on the graves of the two saboteurs.  Suharto responded with a visit to Singapore in 1974.


I will finish today’s narrative by telling you how the union between Malaysia and Singapore went.  Not too good!  Despite the best of intentions, it only lasted for 23 months.  The first problem came almost immediately.  During the 1963 Singapore state elections, a local branch of the United Malays National Organization, the leading political party in Malaysia, ran candidates, though earlier, the UMNO had reached an agreement with the PAP to stay out of Singaporean politics for several years.  Although the UMNO lost all the races it entered, the PAP retaliated by running nine candidates for parliamentary seats that represented the mainland, not Singapore; only one of them won.

A more serious problem was racial tensions between the Malays and Chinese.  Chinese and Indians in Singapore protested Malaysia’s policy of discriminating in favor of Malays, which is guaranteed by the Malaysian constitution.  At the same time, the federal government accused the PAP of mistreating the Malays in Singapore.  During the Confrontation, Indonesia conducted seditious activities to provoke the Malays against the Chinese.  This may have been the cause for the bloody race riots that first took place on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on July 21, 1964; twenty-three people were killed and hundreds were injured.  During the unrest, Singapore was under a curfew, and the price of food skyrocketed because the transport system was disrupted, causing further hardship.  The situation escalated to the point that talks between the UMNO and the PAP broke down, with abusive speeches and editorials on both sides.  Extremists in the UMNO called for the arrest of Lee Kuan Yew.

Because the Malaysia-Singapore Union wasn’t working very well, Tengku Abdul Rahman decided that a national divorce was the answer.  Singapore’s finance minister, Goh Keng Swee, had become skeptical of the union’s economic benefits for Singapore, so he was the one who convinced Lee Kuan Yew that the separation had to take place.  UMNO and PAP representatives worked out the terms of separation in secret, to prevent British interference until the separation was done.  On August 9, 1965, the 126-member Parliament of Malaysia voted unanimously in favor of a constitutional amendment expelling Singapore from the federation.  A tearful Lee Kuan Yew announced in a televised press conference that Singapore had become a sovereign, independent nation.  The speech is mainly remembered for this line.  Quote:  "For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories."  End quote.

As it turned out, both Malaysia and Singapore were better off without each other.  Because the Malays are still mostly farmers, most of the profits from the tin and rubber industries go to the Chinese and Indians instead.  In 1968 the government announced a rural development program, called the New Economic Policy, NEP for short, in the hopes of raising the Malay standard of living to a level closer to that of the Chinese and Indians.  The government also continues to discriminate in favor of the Malays for the same reason; for example, the civil service is required by the constitution to hire four Malays for every non-Malay hired.  Tengku Abdul Rahman retired in 1970, and his successors have maintained Malaysia’s ethnic, economic and political balance to this day.  The only time it threatened to fail was after the 1969 elections, when bloody riots against the Chinese and Indian communities killed at least 200.  The government declared a state of emergency, which lasted until 1971; Parliament did not meet during that time.


Okay, that does it for today.  I hope this episode cleared up some confusion about Southeast Asia’s geography.  For the next episode, I plan to visit Thailand.  The last time this podcast visited the unconquered kingdom, it was the 1950s, and the Thais were having trouble finding a government that worked for them, now that they no longer have an absolute monarchy.  Will they get it right in the 1960s and 70s?  Join me to find out!  And the next episode after that will be Episode 100, the podcast’s centennial!  Will you join me for that one as well?  Of course you will!

This podcast is entirely listener-supported – there are no commercials interrupting the narrative – so if you enjoyed this episode and can afford to support it, consider making a donation through Paypal.  Just click on the gold button that says “Donate!”, on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode.  That’s for one-time donations.  Now if you would rather give a small amount, $1, $3, $5 or $10 each month, this podcast has a Patreon page, too, and there is a link to it on the Blubrry page as well.

And that’s not all you can do to support the podcast.  If you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows reviews, by all means write a review.  On Facebook, there is the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it if you haven’t already.  Besides announcing new episodes, I use it to share content that has to do with Southeast Asia; most recently I posted a map of Malaysia and the surrounding countries, so you can keep track of all the places mentioned in this episode.  Finally, if you aren’t under quarantine because of COVID-19, tell anyone you know who may like the show:  friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, whomever.  And while you’re doing that, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 97: Indonesia Under Sukarno




Today’s episode begins a series of episodes on the recent history of Southeast Asia.  We will start by looking at Indonesia from 1950 to 1967, when Sukarno was the country’s first president.





This episode is dedicated to Jonathan M., and Louis E., for the donations they made to the podcast.  Jonathan, you said in your email that you are currently in Albania.  I remember the bad old days when Enver Hoxha ran Albania, and was amazed that a real-life version of the dictatorship from the novel “1984" could exist.  Nowadays I hear that the country is friendly to tourists, and it doesn’t cost much to visit, so a future trip there is on my bucket list.  And Louis, you have donated twice before, but it is always good to see you again!  May both of you continue to go against the flow of the world, and continue to prosper in these crazy times.  All right, let’s get today’s show started.  Play the opening music!

Episode 97:  Indonesia Under Sukarno

Greetings, dear listeners!  Unless you just discovered this podcast and are listening to it for the first time, you will notice a change with this episode.  For most of the past thirty-three episodes, those numbered 64 through 96, the topic has been the two Indochina wars fought in the mid-twentieth century, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  And before that, I spent most of Episodes 36 through 58 telling World War II stories.  Therefore I said this podcast will attract three kinds of history buffs:  those interested in Asian history, those interested in military history, and those interested in American history.  I said “American history,” because the United States was heavily involved in both World War II and Indochina.  Now that we’re done with the big wars, this podcast will go back to just being an Asian history podcast.  Let’s see if any of the military and American history buffs stick around to hear the end of the Southeast Asian story.

This episode marks the beginning of the final era in our narrative, what I am calling “Recent History.”  For each of the eleven countries in the region, we will be looking at events that have occurred in them over the past few decades; there’s a good chance you were alive when they took place.

Now where were we with each country, the last time we talked about them?  With Burma, nowadays called Myanmar, we broke off when independence came, in 1948.  For Indonesia, we got as far as 1950.  In the case of Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand, we reached 1957.  With the three countries that used to be French colonies – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – we made it to 1975.  And finally, we need to talk about how Singapore, Brunei, and East Timor became independent, how Sarawak and Sabah merged with Malaya to create Malaysia, and how Indonesia acquired western New Guinea.  Yes, all that will fill several episodes to come.  Are you ready to get started on it?

For this phase of the narrative, I have decided to start with Indonesia.  One reason for that is because it has been a long time since we last talked about the Indonesian islands.  The last time was in Episode 60, more than a year and a half ago in real time.  The other reason is because Indonesia and Burma were important players in the Nonaligned Movement, and here I will be telling Indonesia’s role in getting the movement started.

If you are looking for previous episodes on Indonesian history, to refresh your memory on how the archipelago got to where it is now, I introduced the ancestors of today’s Indonesians in Episode 2, covered the kingdoms of medieval Indonesia in Episode 6, and explained how Islam became established as the main religion in Episode 11.  Then we covered the period of Dutch rule in Episodes 17, 22, and 33.  In Episode 33 I also introduced the Indonesian nationalists, especially Sukarno.  For World War II battles, go to Episodes 39 and 58.  And finally, we took care of the Indonesian struggle for independence in Episode 60.  Pause this episode here if you need to listen to any of those, or if you want to move on now, let’s go!

To refresh your memory, during World War II the Indonesian islands, which the Netherlands called “the Dutch East Indies,” were occupied by Japan, and the Japanese still controlled most of the archipelago when the war ended.  Then came the Indonesian War of Independence, which was an on-and-off conflict between 1945 and 1949, where three rounds of fighting were interrupted by periods of negotiations.  During the battles, the returning Dutch usually prevailed over the Indonesian nationalists, but it was the negotiations that mattered the most, because foreign powers like the United States put strong diplomatic pressure on the Dutch to negotiate in good faith.  As a result, the Dutch granted independence to most of the colony in December 1949, only keeping the western half of New Guinea.  At first, independence followed the Dutch plan, where instead of having just one government, the Indonesians were organized into a confederation of sixteen states, called the United States of Indonesia.  Sukarno, the leading nationalist, found himself in charge of just the largest state, on Java and Sumatra.  This arrangement led to more conflict, this time between Indonesians, so eight months later, in August 1950, Sukarno got rid of the confederation, and replaced it with a unitary government, based on Java and called the Republic of Indonesia.  The new system has lasted for the seventy years since then, with just minor changes.

Okay, now that we’re caught up, let’s continue the narrative!



The Indonesians were not quite used to the idea of being one nation when independence came. Before the Dutch arrived, the only king who ruled the whole archipelago was Hayam Wuruk of Majapahit, in the fourteenth century.  Then the Dutch colonial adventure lumped together dozens of tribes, with diverse languages, religions, and political opinions.  The limited amount of unity that was shown while they were fighting the Dutch disappeared with independence, to be replaced by petty bickering between the political factions.  Divisions were caused by regional differences in language, customs, morals, religion, the influence of Christianity and Marxism, and fears on the Outer Islands of political domination by the Javanese.

Another problem was the sorry state of the war-ravaged economy.  The population was growing but food production was low and the export economy was damaged, because many plantations had been destroyed during the war.  There was still the oil industry – we saw in previous episodes how important Indonesian oil is – but one of the terms of independence was that the Indonesians restore the concessions the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation had before the war.  This meant that most of the profits from Indonesian oil went to foreigners.  Inflation was running wild, and smuggling was costing the new government badly needed foreign currency.  Adding to the economic troubles were the facts that the literacy rate was low, and there was a shortage of skilled workers; this made an economic recovery more difficult.

The good news was that by now, there were some native-run oil companies.  In 1947, former nationalist freedom fighters had created more than one oil company on Sumatra, of which the most important were Permiri and PTMN.
Between December 1949 and March 1957 there were seven coalition governments, each trying (not very successfully) to maintain internal security and develop the economy.  During these years Sukarno sat above it all as a figurehead leader.  The political chaos forced the postponing of the first elections until 1955.  When the elections took place, there were two rounds of voting, on September 29 and December 15, and twenty-nine political parties participated.  The first round created a new legislature, the 257-member People’s Representative Council, to replace the provisional legislature that had existed since independence.  The second round created the 514-member Constitutional Assembly, to write a permanent constitution.  In both rounds, Sukarno’s party, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, the PNI, did best; the other parties that got more than 10% of the vote were the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, and two Islamic parties, the mainstream Masyumi, and the more fundamentalist Nahdatul Ulama.  However, no party won even 25 percent of the seats in either race, and that was a good sign that more trouble was on the way.  For example, the talks over the new constitution deadlocked over the issue of whether the constitution would include Islamic law.


Into this confusion Sukarno stepped in, bringing order and increasing his personal power at the same time.  He started with reforms in the economy, and with foreign policy ventures.  With the economy, Sukarno directed it in a socialist direction, away from Western capitalists.  To give the people a sense of national identity, he built grand buildings and monuments.  The most impressive of these monuments are the National Monument, and the Masjid Istiqlal.  The National Monument is a 433-ft. tower in the middle of Jakarta, which looks like a cross between the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and the Space Needle in Seattle.  The Masjid Istiqlal, which means “Independence Mosque,” is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, and the sixth largest mosque in the world.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the mosque could hold 200,000 worshipers, when all the rooms and open spaces were used; I don’t know how many it can hold now, when social distancing is practiced.  Construction on both monuments started in 1961, and they weren’t finished until the mid-1970s, long after Sukarno’s presidency ended.  Unfortunately, Sukarno could not create a viable economic system to lift Indonesia out of poverty; the monuments did not give the people the things they needed the most, like food or spare parts.  Because he never changed his political gears from revolution to rebuilding, his monuments became substitutes for real development.

Under Sukarno, Indonesia followed a course of stormy nationalism.  He regularly gave captivating speeches, the type you would expect to hear from a romantic revolutionary.  In these speeches, he declared that Asia had been humiliated by the West, and that Indonesia was still threatened by the remnants of Western imperialism.  The three greatest threats he saw came from the British, because they created a new nation, Malaysia, from their nearest colonies; the Dutch because they continued to occupy western New Guinea; and the Americans because of their military bases in the Philippines.

During a 1945 speech, Sukarno announced five moral guidelines for governing Indonesia, which he called the Pancasila.  Those guidelines were nationalism, internationalism, consent, social justice, and belief in God.  Now he simplified his ideology to a cluster of slogans and abbreviations that anyone could remember:  continuing revolution, Manipol (Political Manifesto), Ampera (the Message of the People’s Suffering), Nasakom (the unity of nationalism, religion, and communism), and others.  Western music, dancing, and institutions like the Boy Scouts were replaced with Indonesian substitutes.  At the same time Sukarno was one of the world’s more visible leaders, traveling around the world on costly junkets, and living like a rajah, one of the monarchs from the times before the Dutch came to Indonesia.  In the rest of the world at this time, the main conflict was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Sukarno gave a voice to the new nations that did not want to take sides in the Cold War.  In 1955 he hosted the leaders of 29 African and Asian nations at a conference in the city of Bandung on Java, and this event, which promoted the doctrine of neutralism, started the Nonaligned or Third World Movement.  Seven years later he sponsored a series of Asian sporting events as an alternative to the "imperialist-controlled" Olympics.  But all this was done with no concern over whether the country could afford these expenses.  To pay his bills Sukarno printed new money constantly, and abolished many subsidies, leading to massive increases in the cost of public transportation, electricity, water and postage. Economic plans failed miserably and inflation ran at an annual rate as high as 600%.

Because Western-style democracy was not working well for Indonesia, Sukarno declared that it would only lead to anarchy.  In its place he offered what he called "Guided Democracy," where a president with considerable power would be balanced by a national council of advisors that represented not only political parties but various professions:  workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, businessmen, religious organizations, the armed forces, youth and women’s groups, and so forth.  What Sukarno imagined here was a national version of the government by consensus that had always been practiced on the village level.  Although the political parties were not abolished, democracy as we know it would not return to Indonesia until 1998.

To make his “Guided Democracy” work, Sukarno had to please as many people as possible.  This included the communists; by the early 1960s, the PKI had more than one million members, making it the third largest Communist Party in the world, after those of the Soviet Union and China.  However, the army was fiercely anti-communist, because many of its commanding officers had been trained in the United States; they even called themselves “the sons of Eisenhower.”  When it was suggested that the PKI be excluded from the government, Sukarno declared, quote, "I can’t and won’t ride a three-legged horse."  Unquote.  Therefore he juggled three political balls constantly:  the military, his own party, the PNI, and the communists; his talents allowed him to do this for years, but disaster struck when those three factions finally became unbalanced.

Not everyone approved of Sukarno’s policies.  The export-producing Outer Islands felt the Jakarta government discriminated in favor of densely-populated Java.  In December 1956 the vice president, Muhammed Hatta, announced his retirement, largely because he saw Sukarno’s shift to “Guided Democracy” as a blatant power grab.  His retirement came as a shock, because he came from the west coast of Sumatra, and the people of the Outer Islands saw Hatta as their main representative in a Javanese-dominated government.  December 1956 also saw several local army commanders on Sumatra and Sulawesi launch revolts, their goal being to establish a government that cared for them, not the communists.  The rebels on Sulawesi called themselves Permesta, meaning Universal Struggle Charter, while the rebels on Sumatra set up a government called the PRRI, or Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia.  The US Central Intelligence Agency sent airplanes to assist the rebels, until one of their pilots, Allan Pope, was shot down and held prisoner for four years; that blew the CIA’s cover!  Finally, there was more than one unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sukarno.

The defense minister, General Abdul Haris Nasution, put down the rebellions in early 1958, though guerrilla activity continued for three more years.  Next, Sukarno proposed bringing back the revolutionary constitution of 1945, because it gave the president special powers to deal with emergencies like this.  He urged this course in a speech to the Constitutional Assembly.  When the Assembly failed to produce the two-thirds majority needed to approve this change in constitutions, Sukarno introduced it by presidential decree on July 5, 1959, a move that probably wasn’t legal.  In 1960 the elected parliament, the People’s Representative Council, was dissolved and replaced by another parliamentary body that was appointed by, and subject to the will of, the president.  Incidentally, this move brought the military into the government for the first time.  The Supreme Advisory Council, another non-elected body, became the chief policy-making body.  Then in 1963 Sukarno proclaimed himself president-for-life.


Indonesia has shown a remarkable aggressive streak in a world that considers international cooperation better than international competition.  This was first displayed in 1957, when Sukarno got tired of waiting for the Dutch to get out of western New Guinea, and launched his own campaign to take it.  He ordered a 24-hour strike against Dutch-owned businesses in Indonesia, banned Dutch publications, prohibited the landing of planes from the Dutch airline, KLM, at Indonesian airports, and nationalized the holdings of 246 Dutch companies, including Royal Dutch Shell; this led to a mass exodus of 40,000 Dutch citizens, who had stayed in Indonesia after independence.  A military agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 made warships and warplanes available, and he used them to land paratroopers on New Guinea.  To defuse the situation, the United Nations took control of the Dutch half of the huge island in 1961, and handed it over to Indonesia one year later.

The Indonesian government renamed western New Guinea, calling it West Irian or Irian Jaya, and it considers the matter settled permanently.  The natives, called West Papuans, disagree, and there has been an independence movement among them since the mid-1960s.  I am thinking of recording a special episode about western New Guinea in the new future; watch for it!

What’s more, it looks like giving western New Guinea to Indonesia wasn’t enough to satisfy Jakarta.  Maps were published that changed the name of the Indian Ocean to the "Indonesian Ocean," called Papua New Guinea "East Irian," and even renamed Australia "South Irian," to the dismay of the Australians.

When Britain created the nation of Malaysia, Indonesia refused to recognize it.  We have noted in previous episodes that ethnic Malays and Indonesians are related, and have cultures so similar that it can be difficult to tell them apart, so there was some talk about uniting Malaysia with Indonesia to form a “Greater Indonesia.”  Sukarno denounced Malaysia as a British puppet state, and called its existence an act of neo-colonialism.  This led to a three-year guerrilla war from 1963 to 1966, called the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, the Borneo confrontation, or to use the Indonesian/Malay name, Konfrontasi.  We will talk more about this conflict in the upcoming episode about Malaysia.  Then when Malaysia joined the United Nations Security Council in 1964, Indonesia became the first (and only) nation to resign from the UN.  The same expansionist tendency appeared once more after Sukarno left office, when Indonesia conquered Portuguese Timor in 1975.  That is also a subject for a future episode.


Podcast footnote: The United States didn’t like Sukarno very much.  Washington felt that Sukarno was too friendly to communists, and in the darkest years of the Cold War, the Americans did not believe that a neutral foreign policy was possible; the attitude was “You’re either with us or against us.”  The Bandung conference was denounced as a communist meeting, largely because the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was one of the most visible guests attending it.  For the 1955 elections, the CIA gave $1 million to the Masyumi Party, hoping it would come out ahead of the PNI.  The money was wasted; both the PNI and PKI did better than Masyumi, and the CIA never found out how the money was spent.

Later on, Sukarno was seen more than once with an attractive blonde flight attendant who turned out to be a Russian spy.  There are reports that when Sukarno visited Moscow, he had an orgy with a group of Russian flight attendants, and the KGB filmed it.  According to Tim Lister, a CNN reporter, the Russians later tried to blackmail him with the movie, but Sukarno did not react the way they expected.  Quote:  “When the Russians later confronted him with a film of the lurid encounter, Sukarno was apparently delighted.  Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.”  End quote.

Instead of learning from the Russian failure, the CIA also tried it, seeing character assassination as a legitimate trick.  They made a pornographic movie that supposedly showed Sukarno having sex with a blonde woman, and called it “Happy Days.”  However, the actor playing Sukarno did not look enough like the president to be convincing, and after they shot some footage of the actor wearing a Sukarno mask, the CIA dropped the whole idea.  “Happy Days” never appeared in cinemas, and it is not known if any copies of the film exist today.  And Ayyyy!, the movie had nothing to do with the TV show “Happy Days,” which starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.  End footnote.

Speaking of women in his life, Sukarno openly supported polygamy.  Because Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, Sukarno had four “official” wives, and maintained a “de facto” marriage with a fifth wife.  And Sukarno once bragged to a U.S. diplomat that he was, quote, “a very physical man who needed sex every day.”  Unquote.  According to Peter Arnett, in his book Live From the Battlefield, when Sukarno came to Washington to meet with another famous womanizer, US President John F. Kennedy, he shocked his hosts by demanding that they provide him with prostitutes.  Over the course of the 1960s, his playboy lifestyle gave him a collection of diseases, causing him to age rapidly.  In 1965 Sukarno faltered in the middle of a speech and had to be helped from the platform, before the eyes of shocked thousands.  Both the military and Western nations became concerned that the communists were preparing to seize power, should Sukarno die at this time.  There were violent clashes in 1964, between communists and the army in central and east Java, and on Bali.  The military began seeking an alliance with Islamist leaders, who also disliked the communists because communists are atheists on principle.  Tensions increased further in April 1965 when the Communist Party leader called for arming the peasants, and Sukarno agreed with him.  Thus, there was a feeling by everyone that time was running out.


On the night of September 30, 1965, a group of junior army officers kidnaped six generals, murdered them, and threw their bodies down a well.  Led by Colonel Untung Syamsuri of the palace guard and backed by elements of the armed forces, the insurgents took up positions around the presidential palace and seized the national radio station.  At dawn the coup leaders, who called themselves the 30th September Movement, announced they had seized power to prevent a military coup against the president.  Next, they announced the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a "Revolutionary Council."  Sukarno, significantly enough, had spent the predawn hours at a nearby air force base, making friendly small talk with the men who killed his generals.  The leader of the Communist Party, Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was also there.

Two top-ranked officers managed to escape death. Defense Minister Nasution fled a hail of bullets that killed his daughter, then he scaled a wall and took refuge in the Iraqi embassy.  The other was General Suharto, the commander of the army’s strategic reserves.  Like many Javans, Suharto used only one name.  Anyway, he either was lucky enough or smart enough to be away from his house when the killers assigned to him arrived.  Now he took command of the armed forces, launching a counter-coup against the conspirators.  Within 24 hours he had broken the 30th September Movement and gained control of Jakarta.  Although the 30th September Movement seized control of two other cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta, on the same day, they had concentrated most of their efforts on Jakarta, so when Suharto took back the capital, it meant the coup had failed.  On October 3 the bodies of the murdered generals were found, and two days later they were buried in a public ceremony led by Suharto.

The communists insisted that the violence was an internal affair of the army, they were not involved in it, and they knew nothing about the coup before it happened.  Nobody else believed that, and the army and civilians launched a vendetta of unmatched proportions against the communists.  Estimates of the number killed in the slaughter range from 80,000 to more than a million, with half a million as the most likely figure.  The violence mainly took place on Sumatra, Java and Bali, where countless innocents were caught in the army or mob attacks; rivers in central and eastern Java were said to have been dammed by bloated corpses.  The innocent victims included ethnic Chinese Indonesians, whether they supported the Nationalist government on Taiwan, or the Communist government in Beijing.  Also, there may have been as many as 250,000 people arrested and sent without trial to prison camps, for alleged involvement in the coup.  In Episodes 33 and 60, I told you about the Indonesian Communist Party getting crushed, when it staged revolts in the 1920s and 1940s; now in the 1960s, it went down for the third and last time.

We will probably never know who organized the coup, or what it sought to achieve.  After it was over, the army put forth the official story, which was that the Communist Party plotted the coup, and used disgruntled army officers to carry it out.  Then there was the theory we heard from the Communists, that it was an internal army affair, led by younger officers against the older leadership.  Still other theories suggest that the CIA planned the coup, because of what happened to the Communists in the aftermath, or that British intelligence did it to stop the war with Malaysia.


Sukarno tried to save himself with his old act of balancing leftist and rightist factions.  After the coup he formed a new cabinet, dismissing Nasution and hiring a number of communist sympathizers.  That made Sukarno look pro-communist to many.  Nasution refused to step down, and student protests increased.  On March 11, 1966, while Sukarno was meeting with his cabinet in one of Jakarta’s presidential palaces, troops surrounded the building.  Sukarno and two of his ministers tried to escape by taking a helicopter to another presidential palace, but three pro-Suharto generals went to this palace as well, and they got Sukarno to sign a document that transferred his powers to Suharto.  We do not know who wrote the document, or whether Sukarno had been forced to sign it at gunpoint; anyway, it meant that Suharto was the acting president now.  The first things Suharto did in that position were to purge the government and the army of Sukarno loyalists and to begin impeachment proceedings against Sukarno on the grounds of communism, economic negligence, and "moral degradation"; the latter was a reference to all the women Sukarno kept around.  During the next few months, the PKI was officially banned, the Konfrontasi with Malaysia was ended with a treaty, Sukarno’s political prisoners were released, and Indonesia quietly rejoined the organizations Sukarno had pulled out of: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

Sukarno was stripped of his president-for-life title on March 12, 1967, and one year later, in March 1968, Suharto was elected to take his place.  Suharto would run the country for more than thirty years.  As for Sukarno, he was kept under house arrest in the palace where he had signed over his powers.  Two of my sources claim that he was not allowed to have proper medical care, and that led to his death from kidney failure, on June 21, 1970.

During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, many Moslems go on pilgrimages to places associated with Mohammed, his family and descendants, and other Moslem saints.  This custom is called ziyarat.  In recent years, Sukarno’s grave on east Java has become one of the holy places they visit.  What’s more, some Indonesians think the grave is just as important as the graves of the Wali Songo, the nine saints who spread Islam in Indonesia.  I don’t know how this happened, inasmuch as Sukarno’s career was completely political; there was nothing religious about it.  I will finish by saying that many of the problems Sukarno faced are still afflicting Indonesia today, and his oldest daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was the country’s fifth president, serving from 2001 until 2004.


Well, I trust you found that interesting!  Now we are out of time, so we will continue Indonesia’s recent history in another episode.  It won’t be the next episode, though; we need to catch up on the other countries of Southeast Asia first, and I have chosen Burma for our next stop.  Join me next time, as we look at the wild and weird things that have happened in Burma, even before its name was changed to Myanmar!

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