Episode 115: A New Beginning for Indonesia


This episode of the podcast is the last one planned for Indonesia.  Here we look at events in the world’s largest archipelago, from 1998 to the present.  Listen and you will understand what is going on in a large nation that often does not get much attention in the outside world.




This episode is dedicated to Graeme J., Victor Y., and Russell I.; all of them recently made generous donations to the podcast. And this is the fourth time Russell has donated this year; wow, that must be a record! Maybe I should make an exception to the rule, and give him the ever-popular Shwe Dagon icon already, on the podcast’s Hall of Fame Page.

Remember a couple of episodes ago, when I mentioned that summer can be a slow time for business? Well, those contributions tell me that a new season is on the way! Here in the northern hemisphere, the new season is called fall or autumn, a time of harvest. So to all three of you, may you have an abundant harvest in whatever you produce for a living. And now, let’s hear what is on the agenda for today!

Episode 115: A New Beginning for Indonesia

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 115th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! I will begin today’s episode with two apologies. First, let me apologize for keeping you waiting for the past month, on the Facebook page as well as wherever you listen to this podcast. For the first couple years after I launched the podcast, I had no trouble keeping up with my self-imposed schedule of two episodes per month, even when I was working a day job at the same time. But then real-world matters got in the way, and in case you were going to ask, yes, my wife thought I was committing too much time and effort to the show. Also, if you have listened recently, you know that for the past year the podcast has been covering Southeast Asia’s recent history — events that have happened since 1975 in Indochina, and since the 1950s in the rest of the region. With each of the latest episodes, I have been finishing up what I have to say about one of Southeast Asia’s countries, so my research has been a little more intense than it was in the past; I don’t want to forget any story or detail that might be considered important at a later date, since I may not be talking about that country again. The result is that I now find it’s all I can do to upload one episode a month. But nobody said making a podcast on this subject would be easy!

I have noticed a similar trend in the podcasts I listen to. I won’t give any names here, but there are some podcasters who used to be quite prolific, and I have barely heard from them in the past year. Sometimes, but not always, they will give a reason for their silence. When I am on the road, I like to listen to other podcasts, but because of the slowdown, there have been a few days recently where I had nothing new to listen to, so last week I started listening to two new shows. And I just heard that this week, a new podcast will get started about Asian-Americans in Kentucky; I’ll have to tell my wife about that one.

The other thing I want to apologize for is my mispronunciation of Southeast Asian names in this show. It turns out I do that more often than I thought. Now my wife lets me know if I mess up a Filipino name, and sometimes she can help with Malay and Indonesian names, because their languages are related to Philippine languages. But alas, nobody where I live will let me know when I mispronounce Vietnamese, Burmese or Thai names. Sorry about that.

Now where were we? Oh yes. The country we will be finishing up today is Indonesia. Of the eleven countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is the largest, in terms of land area and population. It also probably has the greatest resources, especially spices and oil. Of course the spices don’t matter as much as they did in centuries past, but the oil is certainly important in today’s world; we talked about that in previous episodes. But while Indonesia has been blessed with land, manpower and resources, it has also had the greatest challenges in the region. The main challenge has been getting its 270 million people to see themselves as one nation, as opposed to a collection of tribes that may or may not be under an outside ruler. Today Indonesia is more stable than it was in the first years after independence, but can we say it is going to stay that way?

Long-time listeners will know this podcast has done several episodes on Indonesia already. Unlike some of the other countries, I won’t begin by going back and listing all the episodes here. I will just list the four most recent episodes, those about events that have happened since World War II. Episode 60 covered the four-year struggle for independence against the Dutch, the colonial power that had ruled all of Indonesia as a colony before World War II. Then for the first forty-nine years after independence came, Indonesia had just two heads of state, but while they gave themselves the title of president, they were really dictators. Episode 97 talked about events under the first leader, Sukarno, from 1949 to 1967. Episode 102 was a special episode, covering western New Guinea after Indonesia annexed it, and the struggle of its natives for independence. Finally, Episode 103 covered events under the second leader, Suharto, from 1967 to 1998; sometimes Suharto’s presidency is called the New Order Era. Don’t get that confused with the New World Order, that Americans sometimes talk about! If you have not listened to those four episodes yet, I recommend you do so now, especially Episode 103, because today I will be making more than one reference to things that happened in 103. That episode ended with Suharto’s vice president and stepson, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, “B. J. Habibie” for short, becoming the next president. Since then Indonesia has behaved more like a democracy should; that is why I chose “A New Beginning” as today’s title. All right, if everyone is ready, let’s go!



Between the elections of 1998 and 2004, Indonesia saw four presidents, and none of them made it through a complete term. The first was Suharto, who only lasted in office for two months after the 1998 election, as we saw in Episode 103. There, I made the first Episode 103 reference already! Anyway, “B. J.” Habibie turned out to be a caretaker leader, lasting only for one year. Students demanded immediate elections and the abolition of military appointees to the parliament, and when these demands were ignored, they marched on parliament. Meanwhile, Moslems burned churches in Jakarta, and Christians in the eastern islands retaliated by attacking mosques, leading to Christian-Moslem violence in West Timor, the Moluccas and Borneo; the three separatist regions of East Timor, western New Guinea and Aceh saw more unrest as well.

Podcast footnote: We saw in previous episodes that when the Dutch ruled Indonesia, they gave preferential treatment to residents of the South Moluccan Islands, the area formerly called the Spice Islands, because unlike other Indonesians, they were mostly Christian. Consequently the Moluccans were not in a hurry to become independent, and when independence came to all of Indonesia, they decided they wanted a state of their own, called the Republic of South Maluku. Here the dispute started with religion; the Moluccans did not want to be part of a unitary state run by Moslems. Another factor was the clash of perspectives; the Indonesian nationalists, who were mostly Javanese, saw the Moluccans as collaborators with the Dutch, while the Moluccans saw the Javanese as collaborating with the Japanese during World War II.

I told you that the Republic of South Maluku was suppressed by the Indonesian armed forces in 1950; what I didn’t tell you was that unrest continued afterwards, though on a smaller scale than what was going on in East Timor, western New Guinea and Aceh. There was a guerrilla struggle until 1962, which also failed to make headway, so 12,500 Moluccans fled to the Netherlands with their families, and they set up a government in exile. To their surprise, the Dutch did not support their movement, and in the 1970s the Moluccan exiles responded by staging a handful of terrorist attacks in the Netherlands; the targets were trains, the Indonesian ambassador’s house, and the Indonesian embassy.

One of the books I used as a source for this podcast had a photo of a Moluccan separatist when he was arrested, and it described him with these words. Quote: “The stereotype revolutionary. He is young, fanatical, and he has failed. In this case he is a South Moluccan who has occupied the Indonesian embassy in The Hague in 1970. He himself has never been to the South Moluccas, which his family left before he was born. He is poor, and his group has minimal resources. His answer is to make his protest by political and revolutionary terror.”

End quote. Not much was heard from the Moluccas after that until early 1999, when a petty argument in the city of Ambon triggered Christian-Moslem clashes for the next three years in those islands. As many as 10,000 were killed and 700,000, or one third of the region’s population, were forced to flee their homes. The Indonesian government responded by dividing the Spice Islands into two provinces in 1999, called Maluku and North Maluku.

The latest incident I could find any information on took place in 2007. While Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was presiding over a government ceremony during the 14th National Family Day event in Ambon, a group of people entered the place, performed a traditional dance, and waved flags of the Republic of South Maluku. For Jakarta, this was a major embarrassment, and a year later, a court sentenced the leader of the independence movement to life in prison. We have seen in other episodes that Southeast Asian conflicts often don’t have a definite ending date, so it’s too early to tell if this is the last we have heard from the Moluccan separatists. Now that we’ve gotten ahead of the narrative, end footnote.


Because of all the previously mentioned unrest, Habibie backed down in early 1999, and allowed elections for both East Timor and the country as a whole. This was way ahead of schedule; new elections were not required until 2003. When the national election took place in June, it showed that the party Suharto founded, Golkar, had lost its teeth; instead of getting at least 70 percent of the vote, as it always did in the past, it pulled in just over 20 percent. Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party came in first place, but it had a third of the votes, not a majority. In fact, because forty-eight parties had participated, no one got a majority. As for East Timor, Habibie declared that it should not leave Indonesia, but to nobody’s surprise, the East Timorese overwhelmingly voted to secede in September. Pro-integration militias trained and paid by Jakarta immediately resorted to a scorched earth policy that killed thousands and left most of the territory’s infrastructure ruined. This caused foreigners to put pressure on Habibie, until he allowed a United Nations peacekeeping force to enter East Timor and restore order. From here it was a small step for East Timor to become completely independent, but that’s a topic best saved until this podcast runs an episode about East Timor; look for that in the near future.

Every five years, the Indonesian constitution requires the president to deliver a speech called the presidential accountability report. That was due in 1999, but when Habibie gave the report, it was rejected by the parliament, largely because he had not fought hard enough to keep East Timor. As a result, Habibie announced he would step down. Megawati Sukarnoputri was expected to succeed Habibie, because she was the daughter of former president Sukarno and because of her party’s showing in the recent election, but the other parties put together a large enough coalition to keep her from becoming president. The coalition rallied behind Abdurrahman Wahid, the candidate of the largest Islamic party, Nahdlatul Ulama, so on October 20, 1999, Wahid was sworn in as president, and Megawati was sworn in as vice president.


And now here is another long podcast footnote, to wrap up the career of Habibie. Back in the 1950s, Habibie went to college in Europe, first in the Netherlands, then finishing in West Germany. He received an engineer’s degree, and worked for the German company Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm until Suharto invited him to come back to Indonesia in 1974. After his return, he ran more than one high-tech enterprise, and in 1978 he was appointed to the Cabinet as State Minister of Research and Technology. He held this post, and also that of Chair of Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology, for twenty years, until 1998, when he became vice president.

That interest in technology explains something I heard about Habibie while he was president — he was the first head of state anywhere to have his own home page on the Internet. Sure, by the late 1990s there were websites about other government leaders, but those were government websites; if you wanted to learn about the president of the United States, for instance, you would go to the official White House website, WhiteHouse.gov, rather than to a homepage the president had personally set up. For those too young to remember the Internet in those days, I’ll let you know that before the 1990s, only computer scientists had even heard of the Internet. It was after the 1990s began, that computer technology became user-friendly enough for the masses to get on the Internet; in my case, I started going online in 1997. Well, Habibie started working on his website while he was a Cabinet member; unfortunately I don’t know if he did the HTML coding himself, or if he got a computer nerd to do it for him. Later, when he was president, a senior aide noted that he would use the Internet, quote, “late at night to read foreign publications and communicate by email.” End quote.

The website’s URL was habibie.ristek.go.id/ . Unfortunately it is no longer accessible, presumably because Habibie is no longer president, and he died in 2019. I tried going to Archive.org, the website that saves copies of webpages that don’t exist anymore. Archive.org didn’t save much; all it had was a single page that showed a plain grey background, the initials “BJH,” and a MIDI file named Lagu, that played an easy-listening tune. However, I found an old CNN article, dated November 30, 2000, that described what else used to be on the site. Quote:

“The Indonesian president’s homepage announces ‘BJH’ in stiffly proportioned letters, with ‘Bachurrudin Jusuf Habibie’ laid out underneath in gold. Welcome to the vanity fair. Marvel at the longest c.v. ever compiled, and enjoy the celebrity photos (B.J. with Jimmy Carter, B.J. with Margaret Thatcher). But step back into the bahasa pages for the full treatment. A 27-part biography of Habibie’s life and career. A huge monument to his 60th birthday bash. Hundreds of obscure writings on technology dating back decades. And presidential policies? Not yet. This is the site of the leader of the world’s fourth-largest nation, but maybe running Indonesia is keeping him tied up. Then again, maybe he is just deciding whether that 1986 paper on industrial policy would look better in lime green text on a black background or yellow on eggshell blue.” End quote. I believe by “c.v.” the author meant “resumé.” End footnote.


Back to the narrative. Abdurrahman Wahid had been an opponent of Suharto, so his rise to power signaled a break with the politics of the past. An eccentric, nearly blind Moslem cleric, he professed a moderate, sometimes even liberal interpretation of Islam, rather than the extreme fundamentalist view that is popular in Aceh and parts of the Middle East. To start with, he promoted the rights of Indonesia’s minorities, including non-Moslems and the much-abused Chinese community. And in the 1980s, he was one of the few Islamic leaders who defended the author Salman Rushdie, when others condemned him for his book “The Satanic Verses.” To his critics he responded, quote: “Those who say that I am not Islamic enough should reread their Koran. Islam is about inclusion, tolerance, community.” Unquote. As president he even tried unsuccessfully to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He did this because he felt that if Indonesia can have relations with communist countries, which are officially atheist, it should also have relations with a country that expresses a belief in God. Those of you familiar with Middle Eastern politics will know that for most Moslem countries, having anything to do with Israel is a big no-no.

Wahid’s admirers often called him Gus Dur; Gus is an honorific title and Dur is an abbreviation made from the second syllable of his first name. But he was also informal, impulsive, and a jokester, who could be totally unpredictable. This led Indonesians to joke that there were three things you could never be certain about: life, death and Gus Dur. He tended to fall asleep at public meetings, and at one parliamentary session, instead of reading his own speech, he gave it to an aide to read because of his blindness; nevertheless, during the reading, he dozed off more than once. In what appeared to be a planned tactic, the aide who woke him up gave him a hard candy to suck on each time.

Wahid lasted a bit longer than Habibie, but was even less effective. His attempts to deal with political infighting, reform the government, clean out corruption, and put Suharto on trial were prevented by those who had much to lose from such actions. Likewise, efforts to bring peace to the most troubled areas got nowhere. Here is how he described his situation, in a speech made 18 months into his term. Quote: “After becoming president, it became apparent that before me there was nothing but jagged debris, the ruined wreck of the former administration,— an enormous foreign debt, an economy in disorder, social injustices, conflagrations and accusations springing up everywhere.” Unquote. Finally, Wahid’s health was deteriorating, so in July 2001, the upper chamber of the parliament declared him incompetent, and voted unanimously to impeach him and remove him from office. Megawati Sukarnoputri was sworn in next, as the country’s first woman president.


Although stability returned after Megawati Sukarnoputri became president, otherwise she proved to be an example of the Peter Principle, having risen to her level of incompetence. By following a “Don’t rock the boat” policy, she allowed corruption, human rights abuses and military abuses to continue. In addition, the international “War On Terror” spilled over into Indonesia soon after the twenty-first century began. One week after the infamous September 11 attacks in the United States, President Megawati visited US President George W. Bush, and made a call for American investment. But for her that meeting was a no-win situation; after she returned, the Islamic right criticized her cooperation with America’s war in Afghanistan, while the nationalist left criticized her for inviting foreign investors. Then the Al Qaeda terrorists began backing Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamist group that claimed to be the successor of Darul Islam. Longtime listeners will remember Darul Islam from Episodes 60 & 97, when it rebelled first against the Dutch, and then against the Sukarno regime. Whereas Darul Islam tried to establish a Moslem fundamentalist state in part of Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah wanted to establish one over all of Southeast Asia. Jemaah Islamiyah’s worst terrorist attack was the Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which killed 202 people, 4/5 of them European and Australian tourists. The group is thought to have also pulled off a second Bali bombing in 2005, and attacks on hotels and the Australian embassy in Jakarta, in 2003, 2004, and 2009. And finally, on January 14, 2016, at least three militants detonated explosives in or near a Starbucks cafe in Central Jakarta, and threw a grenade at a police post nearby, destroying the post and killing at least 3 men. As a result, foreigners have been reluctant to visit or invest in Indonesia, giving the government one more reason to crack down on terrorist cells in the country.

Because of the problems mentioned — a weak economy, violence from separatists and terrorists, and political corruption — the public lost confidence in Megawati, and the Indonesian Democratic Party did badly in the April 2004 elections for the legislature, with Golkar, the former ruling party under Suharto, winding up with the largest number of seats in the lower chamber. Three months later Megawati survived the initial round of voting in the country’s first-ever direct presidential election, but she was easily defeated in a runoff vote by her opponent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of the Democrat Party. Because his name was so long, Yudhoyono was usually called by his initials, “SBY.” He was already well-known, having served as a reform-minded general under Suharto, and as Coordinating Minister of Political and Security Affairs under Wahid and Megawati.


The defining moment of SBY’s presidency came on December 26, 2004, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the Bay of Bengal. The resulting tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean in all directions, striking the coastlines of Asia and Africa, and causing widespread death and destruction. In the Pacific, tsunamis happen often enough that an early warning system has been set up, but the Indian Ocean had no such thing, so everybody was taken by surprise. As many as 230,000 may have been drowned in that disaster; because the epicenter of the earthquake was just west of Sumatra, 70 percent of the casualties were Indonesian, especially around the port of Bandar Aceh. The United Nations sent in rescue and relief efforts, but the efforts of four nations working together (the United States, Japan, Australia and India) proved quicker and more effective.

Surprisingly, the oil-rich nations on the shores of the Persian Gulf did not help at first, though most of the tsunami victims were Moslem. Saudi Arabia, for instance, was more interested in backing the Palestinian cause; at the time it was paying as much as $25,000 to the family of each suicide bomber who blew himself up in Israel. The Islamic nations finally contributed to the tsunami relief effort, after they were shamed into doing so by the nations that were already helping out.

Finally, because the hardest hit area was Aceh, the tsunami put the Aceh separatist movement out of business; in 2005 the rebels negotiated a peace settlement with the government. They may have seen the tsunami as evidence that Allah wasn’t on their side after all.

Unfortunately, the Indian Ocean tsunami wasn’t the only natural disaster to hit Indonesia in the early twenty-first century. This is because of the country’s location on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” which makes both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions likely. In May 2006, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake shook central Java, leaving more than 5,700 dead and 37,000 injured. Then in September 2009, another major earthquake and its aftershocks occurred off the coast of Sumatra, killing more than a thousand people and injuring thousands more in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. October 2010 saw two disasters: a tsunami struck the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, killing some 500 people, and Mount Merapi, a volcano in central Java, erupted for several weeks. The eruptions caused the deaths of 353 people, forced at least 130,000 to evacuate the area, and the ancient Borobudur temple, which I described in detail in Episode 6, was covered with volcanic ash. The most recent disaster I know about occurred in September 2018, when a three-meter-tall tsunami, triggered by a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, hit the central part of the island of Sulawesi, killing nearly 1,350 people.

Despite all this, SBY succeeded in improving the economy and increasing political stability during his first term, which allowed him to get re-elected in 2009, and his party got enough votes to form a majority coalition in the lower chamber of the legislature. However, corruption remained a serious problem, and more acts of terrorism could happen, though the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah was shot to death in 2009. And while the military no longer acts like it is the most important branch of government, it is still very influential. Even now, attempts to bring corrupt officials from previous administrations to justice rarely result in convictions, sometimes because of the possibility that a crackdown would implacate members of the present-day government as accomplices. But no one ever said a multibillion dollar corruption syndicate, that has been around at least since the 1960s, would be easy to remove.


Some of you may remember that I spoke at an online conference called the Intelligent Speech Conference in June of 2020, and when I was asked which Southeast Asian country deserves more attention from the outside world, without hesitation I said Indonesia. This is because of Indonesia’s size; only three countries — China, India and the United States — have more people, and together Indonesia’s islands and the seas surrounding them cover a part of the world as large as the continental United States. However, Indonesia rarely makes headlines, whether the news is good or bad. One of the bits of good news is that Indonesia got along exceptionally well with the United States, while Yudhoyono was president. This is because his second term took place when the US president was Barack Obama. Back when Obama was a child, he spent four years in Jakarta, because his mother’s second husband was an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro; Obama took the last name of his stepfather, and thus was known as Barry Soetoro. During those years, Obama attended a government-run school where he received some instruction in Islam, and a Catholic private school where he took part in Christian schooling; thanks to both schools, he became a fluent speaker of Bahasa Indonesia, the official language.


From 2010 to 2012, Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product grew by more than 6 percent, and inflation fell to less than 5 percent. However, those promising trends stopped in 2013; then economic growth slowed and inflation increased. Some corruption scandals emerged in the Democrat Party, leading to public disillusionment with SBY’s government. So for the 2014 elections, Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party did the best; the PDI won the largest share of legislative seats, and its candidate, Joko Widodo, was elected president. Born in 1961, he represented a new generation of leadership. Unlike his predecessors, Joko Widodo, also known by the nickname Jokowi, was not very well known before he ran for president; he was the first president who did not come from the military, or the political elite. Before going into politics, he first worked for a wood pulp mill in Aceh, and then established his own furniture factory in Surakarta, his hometown. From this obscure beginning, he rose to get elected first as mayor of Surakarta in 2005, then as governor of Jakarta in 2012. In these positions he came to be known for making unannounced, impromptu visits, to check on the efforts of local administrators or to see local conditions first-hand. His running mate, Jusuf Kalla, came from the Golkar Party, and he had been vice president once before, from 2004 to 2009. The second-place finish in that election went to a former general, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo frightened both Indonesians and foreigners because of his authoritarian tendencies and acceptance of Islamists. He had the advantages of name recognition, an upper-class family, a record of military service, and a billionaire brother to pay for the Prabowo campaign. What’s more, Prabowo disputed the election results, but Jokowi managed to overcome all of this to win. Later, the rivals of Jokowi successfully put together a majority coalition among the other parties in the parliament to oppose the PDI. Still, for 2015 Indonesia’s economic performance was solid, if slightly lower than expected.

At the beginning of his presidency, Jokowi announced that clamping down on corruption would be one of his top priorities and a necessary step to attract more foreign investment to the country. He also pushed a nine-point plan for Indonesia that emphasized helping the poor by improving public services, implementing land reforms, and developing more-affordable housing, among other measures. On top of that, he has promoted infrastructure projects to build highways, railroads, airports and other transportation facilities to make it easier to get around in the Indonesian archipelago.

At the same time, however, Jokowi’s presidency has been a disappointment for advocates of reform and democracy. Shortly after his first term in office began, he brought back the death penalty, which had been suspended under his predecessor. Within six months of his election, as many as 14 people had been executed, despite a massive international outcry. Moreover, Jokowi seems to condone extrajudicial killings against suspected drug dealers. Like the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, he sees illegal drugs as one of the country’s most serious problems, requiring a brutal response. In fact, Duterte has visited him more than once in Jakarta. Of course I will have more to say about that, the next time this podcast runs an episode on the Philippines.


Pollution is expected in a place with crowded cities, but Indonesia’s worst pollution comes from rural activity. From June to November in 2015, dozens were killed by respiratory illness and accidents, due to poor visibility caused by severe haze. The haze occurs annually during the dry season and is largely caused by illegal fires from slash-and-burn practices, especially on South Sumatra and Borneo. This time the haze also drifted across borders and across the sea, to neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Speaking of crowding and pollution, Jokowi announced in April 2019 that he intended to move the capital, to some place away from Java. Then in August he made another announcement, that the new capital would be located in eastern Borneo. By the way, in case I haven’t told you before, Indonesia calls the part of Borneo that it rules Kalimantan. An exact location for the new capital has not been declared, except that it will be between the regencies of North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara. Also, as I record this, the name of the new city has not been announced yet. The president said that he is doing this because with the possibility of sea levels rising from global warming, Jakarta could be flooded in the future. Maybe so, but I think Jokowi also wants to escape overcrowding, since he is talking about moving to a relatively undeveloped part of the country. At 42,000 people per square mile, Jakarta competes with cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore for the dubious title of being the world’s most densely populated place.

The 2019 election was a rematch between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi won again, but it looks like they have buried the hatchet, because after the election, Jokowi appointed Prabowo as defense minister. This has alarmed those concerned with human rights, because of Prabowo’s past record; when he was a military commander in the 1990s, Prabowo was accused of permitting the abduction and torture of as many as 23 pro-democracy activists, 13 of which simply disappeared. He has been banned from visiting the United States because of these alleged crimes. Also disturbing is the vice president for Jokowi’s second term; Jokowi passed over reformist candidates and chose Ma’ruf Amin, a hardline Islamist, for the number two spot.

Okay, the last thing we need to talk about how Indonesia has fared under the COVID-19 pandemic. The answer is, not very well! From January 3, 2020 to August 31, 2021, there have been 4,089,801 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 133,023 deaths, as reported to the World Health Organization. And as of August 24, 2021, more than 91 million vaccine doses have been administered. Most of the cases have occurred since June 2021, due to the delta variant, causing Indonesia to be declared a new epicenter for the disease. The administration’s response has been slow and self-contradictory, with major administration figures issuing statements about the saving power of prayer and Jokowi himself looking afraid to take decisive but unpopular steps to combat the pandemic. For a while in early 2020, Indonesian officials reacted the same way that Vietnam’s leaders did, insisting that their country had precisely zero cases. For his annual State of the Nation Address in August 2021, Jokowi pledged to improve COVID-19 testing and treatment, and said the pandemic has changed Indonesian culture in ways that would be a foundation for advancement. Most recently, while I was working on this episode, the president has lowered restrictions on shopping malls and factories, because the number of infections in the hardest-hit areas is now decreasing.



Well, that takes care of Indonesia for this podcast. The history of another Southeast Asian country has now been told completely. Whose story still needs to be finished? Our narrative has four countries left — the Philippines, East Timor, Myanmar and Thailand. Join me in roughly a month as we go to one of those nations and tell its most recent history, until we get to the point where history becomes current events. Maybe I should call the next episode “The Story of the Day Before Yesterday.”

Since we are in the home stretch, I am thinking of having another Question & Answer episode soon; it has been at least year since the last one. For some of you, there surely must be some item that I did not say enough about. Think of whatever questions you may have about Southeast Asia, preferably about its past, but at this point I will consider questions on current events as well. Before the end of 2021 I will start collecting them, so stay tuned for that.

You probably noticed there were no ads interrupting the narrative; not once did I say, “And now for a word from our sponsor.” Do you like your podcasts that way? If you do, and can afford to financially support the show, I will thank you for it. Recently I heard another podcaster say that typically, one percent of a podcast’s listeners are motivated to make a donation, so if you are among the one percent, that makes you a special person. Donations are made through Paypal or through Patreon; I have included links to both on the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode. And even if you cannot make a financial contribution at this time, you can still help by letting others know about the show. So spread the word to anyone who might be interested. Okay, I’d better upload this episode and get started on the next one. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 114: Cambodia, a Rocky Road to Recovery


This episode of the podcast covers Cambodia, from 1989 to the present.  As you can guess from the title, it’s mainly a story of how Cambodia has recovered from all the awful things that happened to it in the twentieth century.




This episode is dedicated to Arndt U., I hope I’m pronouncing that right, for making a donation to the podcast. I have mentioned before that late summer is a slow time for donations, what with people going on vacation or having other things on their minds, like going back to school. Therefore the donations that do come in are more appreciated than ever. And for the record, Arndt donated once before, earlier this year. Thank you very much, Arndt, not only for the donation but also for the kind words you sent with it! Your contribution will provide incense sticks for the local temple, or at least it will keep my wife and I supplied with authentic Philippine coffee. May you find whatever good things you are looking for now. Now on with today’s show!

Episode 114: Cambodia, a Rocky Road to Recovery

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 114th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! While I was working on this episode, the Summer Olympics were held, one year late, in Tokyo. How about those games! From what I heard on the news, most people were concerned about Simone Biles, and about the low ratings the games got on TV, but I noted that Southeast Asian athletes did well. For the first time in history, the Philippines has an Olympic champion; Hidilyn Diaz won the gold in women’s weightlifting. And the first American to win a gold medal this year comes from my home town of Lexington, Kentucky. That is Lee Kiefer, who won the fencing competition, and she is a Mestiza, meaning she is half-Filipino. What’s more, her husband entered the fencing competition as well, and he won the bronze. And finally, Sunisa Lee, one of the champion gymnasts, is a Hmong-American; I wish this had happened around the time when I recorded Episodes #96 and #108; those mentioned the Hmong tribe.

Now let’s begin today’s topic, Cambodia. The main thing you can say about recent Cambodian history is that it has been a hell of a time. Back in the 1960’s, the Cambodian leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, once described his country’s role in the Cold War by saying, quote, “When elephants fight, the mice scatter.” Unquote. Sadly, Cambodia was a mouse that that didn’t get away from the American, Soviet and Chinese elephants, and was crushed by events.

In fact, Cambodia has suffered more than its Indochinese neighbors, Vietnam and Laos. For the first few years after it became independent from France, in the 1950s, Cambodia’s future looked promising, but the factions fighting across the border in Vietnam would not leave it alone. I covered the Cambodian phase of the Second Indochina War, also called the Cambodian Civil War, in Episodes 91, 92, 95 and 96. Then in Episode 106, we looked the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, under which maybe a third of the Cambodian people died, and those who survived were forced into desperate poverty. All this was done in order to fulfill Pol Pot’s dream of creating an insane “Utopia.” Finally, in Episode 107 we looked at the period when Cambodia was a puppet state dominated by Vietnam, and the conflict called the Third Indochina War raged across the Cambodian countryside. So you will know what’s going on in this episode, I strongly urge you to listen to those other six episodes, if you haven’t already. Go ahead, download them from the website where you got this episode. They should be free; if you are being charged for the episodes, it has been done without my permission.

I mentioned in Episode #107 that few outsiders welcomed the change in Phnom Penh, when the Vietnamese replaced the Khmer Rouge. Only members of the Soviet Bloc recognized the new regime, and a Khmer Rouge delegate continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat in the United Nations. Still, with the Khmer Rouge out of power, life in Cambodia began to recover. The traditional religion and culture were restored, schools were reopened, and Phnom Penh was filled with busy people again, though most streets and buildings still showed the scars of war and years of neglect. Bright colored clothing replaced the black pajamas worn by everyone during the Pol Pot years. Eventually other factions besides the Khmer Rouge formed to oppose the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese found themselves receiving the same kind of treatment they had dished out against the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. That, and the downfall of the Soviet Union, which caused Vietnam to lose its main source of foreign aid, persuaded the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia in 1988-89. And that is where things were when the narrative on Cambodia broke off, at the end of Episode #107. I’m ready to move on with the story if you are.


Getting the Vietnamese out did not end the fighting, because there were four factions left — the Phnom Penh government and the three factions trying to topple it. To refresh your memory, those factions were the Khmer Rouge, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s royalist faction, called FUNCINPEC, and a pro-Thailand faction called the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, or KPNLF. Talks between these groups began in Paris in 1989, and in 1991 all of them except for the Khmer Rouge agreed to a comprehensive peace settlement. The United Nations got involved and sent 22,000 soldiers, police and civilian workers to occupy the country and save Cambodia from itself. Here is what they promised to do in just a year and a half: stop the war, repatriate the 370,000 refugees now living in Thailand, and set up a market economy and democracy in a country that was not familiar with either. As for the communists led by Premier Hun Sen, they became the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP.

The UN was now running a whole country — it had never attempted a project so ambitious before. Their transitional government was called the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, UNTAC for short. Phnom Penh became a Wild West-like boomtown, full of foreign troops, money, four-wheel-drives, and rampant prostitution. Years later, Hun Sen remembered this time with a grim joke, saying that UNTAC should really stand for “United Nations Takes AIDS to Cambodia.” That doesn’t surprise me; the same thing has happened in the parts of Africa where UN peacekeeping troops went, like the Congo.

The biggest problem for the UN was that the killers of the killing fields — the Khmer Rouge — remained on the prowl. Unlike the other factions, they refused to disarm or allow UN peacekeepers into the zones they controlled, and began attacking UN workers or taking them hostage. They realized that no one was likely to vote for them, so they returned to their jungle bases and went back to the things they were good at — killing Cambodians and waging war. Nevertheless, UN personnel registered 90% of the civilian population to vote, and after convincing them that their ballots would be secret, there was a big enough turnout to convince everyone it was a fair election.

Before the election, one of the factions, the KPNLF, was replaced with the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, or BLDP. When the voting took place in May 1993, there was violence and imtimidation, because the Khmer Rouge, which was never disarmed or demobilized, blocked access to polling places. Nevertheless, Sihanouk’s royalist faction won with 45.5% of the vote. Did that surprise any of you? Second place went to the Cambodian People’s Party, which won in several provinces. The CPP threatened to secede from the 120-member National Assembly if they weren’t given a share in the new government. At first Sihanouk set up a transitional government that included only his own faction, but just hours later he pulled another of his famous flip-flops. This time he offered a coalition government with two prime ministers: one was his second son, Norodom Ranariddh, and the other was Hun Sen. The BLDP got a minor role in the government, so only the Khmer Rouge was shut out completely. In September a new constitution was adopted that restored the old monarchy. We saw in previous episodes that Sihanouk abdicated in 1955 so his father, Norodom Suramarit, could have a turn as king, so technically the Cambodian throne had been vacant since Suramarit’s death in 1960. Now that Sihanouk was king again, the refugees began to return, and the Khmer Rouge lost their seat in the UN. Because Sihanouk was friendly to the Chinese, his return to power without the communists also meant that the Khmer Rouge lost their lifeline of support from China, and now that Khmer Rouge atrocities could not be denied, nobody else would give them the time of day.


Meanwhile, the UN peacekeepers withdrew, thinking Cambodia was a job well done. Instead, the country now had an unstable government, and the Khmer Rouge continued to fight it. Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen both had armies, they hated each other, and each wanted all political power for himself. In November 1995 Prince Norodom Sirivudh, secretary general of FUNCINPEC and Sihanouk’s half-brother, was accused of plotting to have Hun Sen assassinated; Sirivudh was exiled to France. In March 1996 Ranariddh threatened to withdraw FUNCINPEC from the coalition, thus forcing a national election, unless Hun Sen and the CPP agreed to an equal power-sharing arrangement at the district level. Hun Sen threatened to call out the military, which was dominated by his party, if an attempt was made to take any of his power away.

By mid-1997 the government was effectively paralyzed, because elected officials had not met for months. In July, when Ranariddh was out of the country, Hun Sen staged a bloody coup and took control of the whole government. Ranariddh was tried in absentia and found guilty of arms smuggling, while other opponents of Hun Sen were arrested and tortured; some of them were summarily executed. This wasn’t the end of Ranariddh, though, because his Dad the king issued him a pardon in 1998, allowing him to return. Thus, he is still active in Cambodian politics today.

There have been six elections in Cambodia since the coup, in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, 2017 and 2018. In all of them the CPP won a commanding majority. Because of those elections, Hun Sen remains the most powerful leader in the country, 36 years after taking charge; he enjoyed his 69th birthday while I was working on this episode. And whatever else you can say about the elections, they have made the country stable; stability is what Cambodia needs the most, in order to recover from everything that happened to it in the twentieth century.


Before we move on to another subject, I will introduce you to one more politician who has been making waves in recent years. Born in 1949, Sam Rainsy moved to France in 1965, when he was only 16, because his father — a politician who is believed to have been killed by government agents — disappeared. In France, he studied and worked as a banker before establishing his own accounting firm. Then in 1989 he started to follow in his father’s footsteps, by becoming a European representative of the FUNCINPEC Party.

Returning to Cambodia in 1993, he was elected to the seat in the National Assembly that represented the city of Siem Reap. He also served as the Minister of Economy and Finance. But in 1994 he was expelled from the party following a vote of no-confidence against him. One year after that, he was stripped of his seat in the Assembly, so he founded his own party, the Khmer Nation Party. Just before the 1998 election, it was renamed the Sam Rainsy Party, or SRP, to avoid registration issues. For that election, it came in third place, winning 15 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. It did better in the 2003 election, but it was not allowed to join the governing coalition set up afterwards. As a result, the SRP members elected staged a boycott of the National Assembly, accusing the other two parties, the CPP and FUNCINPEC, of following corrupt procedures in forming the new government. The National Assembly retaliated by removing parliamentary immunity from Rainsy and two other SRP members, and Rainsy went abroad to avoid getting arrested. He was convicted in absentia of defaming Hun Sen and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but one year later, in 2006, Rainsy received a royal pardon and returned.

For the 2008 election, the SRP won 26 seats in the National Assembly. Because FUNCINPEC had disintegrated since the previous election, this meant the Sam Rainsy Party came in second place. Therefore Hun Sen saw Rainsy as a potential threat, and in 2009 the National Assembly stripped Rainsy of immunity again, forcing him to leave the country again. He was sentenced in absentia to ten years in jail after being found guilty of publishing a map that falsely showed Cambodia losing land to Vietnam, and of insulting a former foreign minister. While Rainsy was abroad, in 2012 the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP. As the 2013 election approached, the United States put pressure on Hun Sen to allow Rainsy to return, so he was granted another royal pardon. Now Sam Rainsy replaced Prince Ranariddh as the leader of the political opposition.

Only two parties won seats in the 2013 election: the CPP won 68, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party came in a fairly close second, with 55 seats. The CNRP disputed these results, and boycotted the National Assembly until July 2014, when it reached an agreement with Hun Sen that allowed all members to take their seats. But in the following year the CPP found an excuse to declare Rainsy’s pardon void, so it could press new charges against him. Once again Rainsy chose exile ahead of imprisonment, and fled abroad; he was formally barred from returning to the country in October 2016. Rainsy requested another royal pardon, but this time Hun Sen made sure that none was granted. Then the National Assembly amended a law to bar anyone convicted of an offense from running for office; that would keep Rainsy from participating in politics should he return.

With Sam Rainsy out of the way, Hun Sen now turned against his party. He arrested Kem Sokha, Rainsy’s successor as leader of the CNRP, charging him with orchestrating street protests in 2014, and with conspiring with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen. In November 2017 the Supreme Court banned the Cambodia National Rescue Party, a move which caused all CNRP members holding public office to lose their jobs. When elections were held in 2018, opposition to the CPP was hopelessly disorganized, so the CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Naturally the international community called the most recent elections a sham, a formality to make the CPP’s continued hold on the government legitimate.

Sam Rainsy announced he was planning to return in 2019. The Cambodian government threatened “serious consequences” to any airline that brought him back, and it also warned Thailand not to allow Rainsy to stop in that country, on the way to Cambodia. Because of that, and more recent COVID restrictions on travel, Rainsy is still abroad at this time. In March 2021 a Cambodian court convicted and sentenced Rainsy and eight senior members of the CNRP party to more than 20 years in prison, effectively barring them from ever returning home…


Cambodia was accepted into ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in 1997, along with Laos and Myanmar. However, because of the political infighting between Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, a Cambodian representative could not attend the meetings until 1999, so it was only then that Cambodia was declared a member. Of Southeast Asia’s eleven countries, the only one that hasn’t joined ASEAN yet is East Timor; more about that in a future episode. Every year, one of ASEAN’s members takes on the role of chairman, to host the meetings; next year, 2022, it will be Cambodia’s turn to act as chairman. Thus, for the first time in centuries, at least since the Khmers abandoned Angkor in 1431, Cambodia is also a full-fledged member of the world community. For most of the times when Cambodia was mentioned in this podcast, it only had dealings with a few nations: Thailand, Vietnam, and outsiders like France, the United States, and China.

The Khmer Rouge lost ground no matter who was in charge in Phnom Penh. After the 1993 elections, some Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered because the government offered amnesty to them. Others made foreign tourists a new target, kidnapping and killing groups traveling by taxi and train to the South Coast, reinforcing Cambodia’s overseas image as a dangerous country. In 1996, Ieng Sary, the former head of the Cambodian Cercle Marxiste in the 1950s, and the Khmer Rouge foreign minister, broke with Pol Pot. Ieng and his forces were in the western town of Pailin, where they were making money through logging and gem mining. Pol Pot was based in Anlong Veng, a town on the northern border, and his faction felt that not enough money was going to them. So what broke this murderous communist movement was not a squabble over ideology, like the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia, but a squabble about cash. When Sihanouk heard about the split, he made it permanent by pardoning Ieng Sary, and those Khmer Rouge fighters under his command who gave themselves up as well.

Meanwhile at Anlong Veng, a break appeared between Pol Pot, his former defense minister Son Sen, and Ta Mok, the last military leader of the Khmer Rouge. During the years of Democratic Kampuchea, Ta Mok directed the massive purges I told you about in Episode #106, including the mass killing of 30,000 people in a single county-sized district. For this he had earned the nickname Butcher, which will tell you he wasn’t a nice person. In 1997 Pol Pot committed his last atrocity, by having Son Sen and thirteen members of his family, including children, shot; then trucks were driven over the bodies.

Sensing that their association with Pol Pot was the reason why nobody wanted anything to do with the Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok acted next, seizing control over Pol Pot’s faction and naming himself supreme commander. Pol Pot, now old and ailing, was brought out in the open and the Khmer Rouge staged a show trial with him. After accusing him of capital crimes and subjecting him to rounds of name-calling, Khmer Rouge leaders sentenced the ex-strongman to life under house arrest. The following spring saw a major government offensive on Anlong Veng, and at this point it looked like Pol Pot would be captured and extradited to the UN, to stand trial for the crimes of his regime. But instead, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot’s guards reported that he had died of a heart attack. They cremated the body by burning it on a pile of old tires, before any outsiders could perform an autopsy, leading some to suspect he had been smothered in bed to prevent him from testifying against his former comrades. A long and painful era of Cambodian history died with him.

By the end of 1998 two other senior Khmer Rouge members, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, gave themselves up to the CPP. On March 6, 1999, Ta Mok was captured by the Cambodian army near the Thai border and brought to Phnom Penh, where he joined former comrade Kaing Guek Eav (also known as “Comrade Duch”) at the Military Prosecution Department Detention Facility. Ta Mok was the last leading member of the Khmer Rouge to remain at large in Cambodia; because all the other senior members had died, were captured, or had made immunity deals with the government of Hun Sen, Ta Mok’s capture marks the end of the Khmer Rouge. It also meant that Cambodia’s civil wars were finally over. To commemorate the end of those wars, a monument was built in Phnom Penh, called the Win-Win Memorial; it was completed in 2018.

Podcast footnote: I mentioned Comrade Duch in Episode #106. In the 1970s he ran S-21, a former school where at least 15,000 victims were tortured and killed. Today S-21 is a tourist attraction in Phnom Penh, called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The place is horrifying, for the same reasons as former Nazi death camps like Dachau and Auschwitz, but what today’s Cambodians did to Anlong Veng may be a bigger shocker; they have turned the site of the Khmer Rouge’s last stand into a theme park. When you enter Anlong Veng, you will first see a town with cheap guest houses, shops selling Chinese-made mobile phones, roadside BBQs, and seedy karaoke bars clustered near a covered market. Tourists can visit fourteen attractions associated with the Khmer Rouge, including the houses of Pol Pot and Ta Mok, an execution site and the place of Pol Pot’s cremation. Cambodians and Thais at the cremation place will pray to Pol Pot for lucky lottery numbers, job promotions and beautiful brides, because they believe that people infamous for their evil deeds also have supernatural powers. Most outrageous of all, some Thai investors have built a hotel with a casino, next to the cremation site. Finally, the one-thousand-year-old Preah Vihear Temple is close enough to Anlong Veng that you can visit it on the same day. More about the temple in a few minutes. End footnote.


In 1997, the Cambodian government requested UN assistance in establishing a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge mass murderers for the atrocities they committed. Because it would be a hybrid court, containing both foreign and Cambodian judges and prosecutors, it took until 2004 to reach an agreement on how the tribunal would be organized, and how its members would be paid. All Khmer Rouge leaders in custody would be tried for genocide (against Cambodia’s Vietnamese and Cham minorities), crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes. More delays followed, so the trials did not begin until 2008. One reason for the delays was that Hun Sen opposed holding too many trials, saying he wanted to avoid political instability. In other words, he did not want those who supported the Khmer Rouge in the past to resume the conflict, and maybe he wanted to avoid being accused of any crimes from the war years, since he had been a Khmer Rouge officer at the start of his career.

Ta Mok should have been one of those tried, but he died in 2006, while in custody. The first case tried was that of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch. He was sentenced to life inprisonment, the maximum sentence permitted by law, and was still in custody when he died in 2020. The second case started in 2011, and it had multiple defendants: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith. In the middle of the trial, proceedings stopped against Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, because they were in poor health, and both died soon afterwards. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life in prison, and Nuon Chea died in 2019, so only Khieu Samphan is alive as I record this. His case was appealed, and the appeal hearing was scheduled for the third week of August 2021. Since I was recording this episode at the time of the hearing, I haven’t heard yet what the results were. The third and fourth cases were against five defendants who have not been mentioned in this podcast before, so I won’t burden your memory by making you learn their names now.

Although world opinion considered the tribunal a success, it also has been criticized, mainly because the government under Hun Sen delayed the tribunal and limited the number of defendants. We saw that because of the delays, many top leaders died before they could testify in court, including Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Ta Mok. Not only were they never brought to justice, but the stories they could have told are forever lost. In addition, many Cambodians have complained about how long the trials have taken and how much they have cost, arguing that the money spent on the tribunal could have been better spent on improving the lives of today’s Cambodians, because as we noted, most of them are dirt poor. On a positive note, the testimonies of the victims and defendants at the tribunal has helped to fill in the pages of one of the darkest chapters of recent world history, a chapter that went largely undocumented when the events in it happened. In fact, many young Cambodians did not believe the horrible stories told by their parents about the Khmer Rouge until the stories were backed up by the testimonies.


King Sihanouk left Cambodia again in January 2004, to be treated for cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure; first he went to North Korea, then to China. This time his condition did not improve, so in October he abdicated for the second time, and spent most of his final years abroad, as you might expect. He died of a heart attack in October 2012, two weeks before his 90th birthday, in Beijing. For this podcast, Sihanouk’s death marks the end of our longest-running character, and what a character he was! I first mentioned him in Episode 34, when the French crowned him king; now he is gone, eighty episodes later, and almost four years later in real time. How about that! His body was sent back to Cambodia, and in early 2013 it was cremated at a traditional royal funeral.

One week after Sihanouk abdicated, his eldest son, Norodom Sihamoni, was chosen as the next king by a special nine-member throne council, and he was enthroned after he received the endorsements of Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Currently Sihamoni is 68 years old, and still on the throne.


Once or twice in past episodes, I mentioned the ancient Preah Vihear temple. Located on the Cambodia-Thailand border, this Hindu temple was built in the early eleventh century, by the Khmer king Suryavarman I. For reasons unclear, when the border between Cambodia and Thailand was demarcated in the early twentieth century, the temple ended up on the Cambodian side of the line, but because of its location on high ground, it was more accessible from Thailand. When the Thais, who call the temple Phra Viharn, discovered this, they said the border should follow the watershed line of the nearest mountains; that would give the temple to them. Thai troops occupied the temple in 1954, shortly after the French granted independence to Cambodia. In 1962 the dispute was referred to the World Court at The Hague, which ruled in favor of Cambodia. Then we saw in Episode #96 that Preah Vihear was the site of the final battle of the Cambodian Civil War, in May 1975. The Khmer Rouge occupied the ruins later on, from 1992 to 1996, again because it was a defensible site.

Nevertheless, some issues won’t go away. In 2003, an enraged mob set the Thai embassy on fire, because a newspaper article reported that a Thai soap opera star claimed Angkor Wat was stolen from Thailand. The article was fake news; the actress in question never said any such thing, but the Thai ambassador had to flee for his life as the mob rampaged through Phnom Penh, burning anything that reminded them of Thailand. The Thais retaliated by closing their borders and the Khmers suffered a trade embargo from Thailand that year. Then Thailand revived the Preah Vihear dispute in 2008, when the UN organization UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a world heritage site. The argument over the ruins got so heated that soldiers armed with artillery clashed several times from 2008 to 2011, killing 22 Khmers and 18 Thais, and causing damage to the site. The two nations were willing to talk, though, so Indonesia, the current chairman of ASEAN, negotiated a cease-fire, and Cambodia asked for the World Court to re-interpret its 1962 ruling, because it said nothing about the hills surrounding the temple. The World Court responded with a second ruling in 2013, which again awarded the temple to Cambodia, but also said one of the neighboring hills, Phnom Trap, belonged to Thailand. Will this be the last word on the matter? Only time will tell.


Cambodia today is still in a state of recovery. From 1998 to 2019 the Gross Domestic Product grew at a rate averaging 7.7 percent a year, meaning Cambodia has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Then COVID-19 struck, and the Cambodian economy shrank -3.1 percent in 2020. Recovering from this slump must be a real challenge, because at the beginning of August 2021, the United States shipped more than one million doses of COVID vaccine to Cambodia. The vaccine is the Johnson & Johnson variety, so each patient needs only one dose. I know because I was vaccinated with a Johnson & Johnson dose last April.

But even with twenty-one years of impressive growth, the Cambodians still have a long way to go, before they catch up with any developed countries, because they were dirt poor to begin with. Currently the per capita income is $4,320, when adjusted to reflect purchasing power, making Cambodia the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

The nation’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch, because it was virtually nonexistent after the Khmer Rouge were done. The population has grown to almost 17 million, more than twice what it was before 1975, and it’s a young population, with a median age of only 25. However, older Cambodians are poorly educated, and many are maimed or ill (both physically and mentally) from the wars. And do you remember when I told you how American planes dropped millions of bombs on Laos, and the bombs that landed without exploding are killing and wounding those who find them, even now? Cambodia has a very similar problem with millions of land mines scattered across the country, buried by all factions during decades of fighting. On top of all this, Cambodia has a serious problem with human trafficking, with men forced to work in the agriculture, fishing, and construction industries, and women turned into domestic servants or sex slaves. I remember a few years ago, one of my daughter’s best friends made a trip to Cambodia when she was about twenty years old; there she met some of the victims of human trafficking, and she decided helping them would be the purpose of her life.

Currently, Cambodia’s most important industries are clothing exports, tourism, and construction. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were discovered in the nearest part of the Gulf of Thailand, representing a new source of revenue if drilling begins. As the owner of Southeast Asia’s most fertile farmland, Cambodia has the potential to prosper greatly, like it did in the past. Now that Cambodia’s neighbors, especially Thailand and Vietnam, are more interested in cooperation than domination, there is hope that good times will return some day.


After hearing all the tragedy that fills Cambodia’s recent history, would you like to hear a feel-good, heartwarming story about a real hero? Of course you would, and I will finish today’s narrative by telling it. Meet Aki Ra, Cambodia’s champion minesweeper. Born in 1973, his parents were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Then when he was only five years old, the Khmer Rouge drafted him as a child soldier, and taught him to plant landmines. The Khmer Rouge used children for this task because they weigh less than adults, so they are less likely to accidentally set off mines. And that’s only the beginning of the story; when the Vietnamese army captured Aki Ra, they put him to work planting mines for them, too. Then in 1994, United Nations peacekeepers replaced the Vietnamese, and the UN called for people who wanted jobs as minesweepers. Now Aki Ra found a new mission in life; he would get rid of the danger he had created over the previous fifteen years.

The UN trained Aki Ra to wear body armor and use metal detectors in this extremely risky job, but he could not afford the gear, so he used the tools he already had: a sharp stick to dig up the mines where he remembered putting them, a knife to defuse each mine by cutting out the detonator–and his bare hands. He claims that because of his crazy, no-frills method, he singlehandedly removed and disarmed 50,000 mines, 10 percent of the estimated total buried in Siem Reap Province. Siem Reap also contains the ruins of Angkor, so when Aki Ra had enough mines, he opened the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Angkor National Park to display his souvenirs. Yes, that’s a real place; currently the museum is closed due to the COVID pandemic, but you can still visit the museum’s website at https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org . A film director, Richard Fitoussi, raised the money needed to build the museum’s current building, and in 2010 he made a movie about Aki Ra, called A Perfect Soldier, starring Aki Ra as himself.

The museum has another purpose; it is also an orphanage, for children injured in landmine accidents. These days Aki Ra doesn’t do much minesweeping, because he is busy running his combination museum/orphanage and teaching what he knows about mines to others. Here is Aki Ra’s best quote. Quote: “I will do anything to make my country safe. Sometimes I get nervous, but that is rare. In 20 years I’ve never been injured.” End quote.


Well, we ran into overtime, but we finished the narrative for Cambodia! Because we already finished up Laos and Vietnam in previous episodes, that means our story is now done for all of the former Indochina. For the next episode, I plan to go to one of the island nations, either Indonesia or the Philippines, to wrap up recent history there. Join me for that excursion. Also, if you have any questions about Southeast Asian history that haven’t been answered already, write them down; I am planning to do another Question & Answer episode soon.

In the meantime, are you one of those who enjoyed this episode? If you are and can afford to support the show, I would greatly appreciate it. Financial support can be done through Paypal or through Patreon; I have included links to both on the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode. And even if you cannot make a financial contribution at this time, you can still help by writing a review, if you get your episodes from a website besides Blubrry, and by letting everyone around you know about the show. Spreading the word shouldn’t even take much of your time. That’s all for now, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 113: Vietnam, the Phoenix of Asia


Today we finish up the podcast’s narrative about Vietnam.  This time it won’t be war stories, but the story of how Vietnam recovered from the wars it suffered in the twentieth century, and how it has become the exciting, growing country that visitors see today.




This episode is dedicated to Alex K., for making a donation to the podcast. Not too many donations have come in lately. I think part of the reason for that is because in the northern hemisphere, it’s the middle of summer as I record this. Here in the United States, we begin the month of July with Independence Day celebrations, but after that, not much happens for the rest of July and August. In fact, because so many of us are on vacation, when it comes to news, late July and August are the second dullest time of the year. Sometimes we call this period the Dog Days, or the Summer Doldrums. The dullest time of all is the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day; that’s why so many news organizations run stories about what happened during the past year.

Anyway, for those reasons, the donation from Alex is definitely appreciated. Alex, may you continue to find opportunities that allow your actions to make a big difference. And now, on with the show!


Episode 113: Vietnam, the Phoenix of Asia


Greetings, dear listeners, for the 113th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Before I give you today’s content, I would like to give a shout-out to the History of North America Podcast. I have mentioned that podcast before, but now the podcaster, Mark Vinet, is talking about the Age of Exploration, and he has informed me that he would like to use some sound clips from the early episodes of this show, when talking about the Portuguese and Spanish expeditions to Southeast Asia, in search of spices and souls. Here’s is Mark’s message to you:

<Play sound clip>

Now on with our regularly scheduled program. As you guessed from the title, today I have another episode about Vietnam for you. Don’t worry, this one won’t be like the others. In the past, this podcast devoted more than two dozen episodes to Vietnam during its wars with France, the United States, and itself. Remember, before the Americans and their allies got involved, the Second Indochina War was strictly a civil war, between a communist government in the North, and an anti-communist government in the South. For the period after those wars ended, the podcast has done one episode on Vietnam, Episode #107, but that episode featured another war, this time in Cambodia. Now we are going to look at what has happened in Vietnam since 1986, and I promise you, this won’t be an episode covering a war. In fact, this is the first time since the 1850s when Vietnam is independent, united, and at peace. In a single generation, Vietnam has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world, to a dynamic middle-income country. Let us see how the formerly war-torn nation recovered from its devastation.


Those of you who listened to Episode #107 will remember that North and South Vietnam were declared united in 1976, one year after the Second Indochina War ended. The new union was called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Hanoi. But unification was the easy part; repairing and rebuilding what the war had destroyed was the big challenge. In the South, millions of people had been made homeless by the war, and more than one-seventh of the population had been killed or wounded. Casualties in the North were probably as high or higher; we don’t know for sure because news organizations in communist countries are notorious for not reporting bad news. Plans to repair the country followed communist lines; they called for an expansion of industry in the North and of agriculture in the South, but those plans failed to reach their goals. Because of that, and because many Vietnamese were rounded up and sent to re-education camps, life got worse before it got better.

The cause of Vietnam’s postwar problems was often its leaders. We saw in previous episodes that in 1960, when Ho Chi Minh reached the age of 70, he began turning over power to his associates, keeping only the ceremonial title of president for himself. Then he died in 1969, and for seventeen years after that, until 1986, Hanoi continued to be run by the associates. To refresh your memory, here are their names and titles again:

1. Pham Van Dong was the closest of Ho’s followers. He had been prime minister of North Vietnam since 1955, and became the prime minister of all Vietnam after the unification of North and South took place in 1976.

2. Vo Nguyen Giap was both minister of defense and deputy prime minister. Since he commanded the armed forces during the Indochina Wars, I’m sure long-time listeners will remember him.

3. Le Duan was General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1960 until his death in July 1986. Holding the job of party boss made him the top decision-maker, and the most powerful member of the Hanoi team.

4. Truong Chinh had been General Secretary of the Communist Party in the 1940s and early 1950s. He lost that job because the failure of North Vietnam’s land reform program in the mid-1950s was blamed on him, but while he was disgraced, he remained a senior member of the party in Hanoi. For the next generation he served first as Chairman of the National Assembly, and then as Chairman of the Council of State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Then when Le Duan died, Truong Chinh got to be General Secretary of the Communist Party again, this time holding the job for five months.

5. Ton Duc Thang was Ho Chi Minh’s successor as president, holding that job until his death in 1980. Since Ho was the only president who ever had actual power, Ton Duc Thang was ignored by everybody else. Indeed, after his death, the office of president was left unfilled until 1992.

These leaders were old men who had spent most of their adult lives fighting France, Japan, the United States, China and Cambodia. They were very experienced at commanding during wartime, but when peace broke out they made mistakes right and left. To start with, they tended to see southerners as a new enemy, because there was resistance to northern policies from the South, especially from Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. Because of the harsh postwar crackdown on what remained of capitalism in the South, the economy collapsed, and Vietnam was kept alive with economic and military aid from the Soviet Union, which peaked at nearly $3 billion a year. In addition, the country suffered from major floods and a drought in the late 1970s, which severely reduced food production.


Foreign policy was in bad shape as well; the only countries Vietnam got along with were the USSR and its satellite states, plus Vietnam’s puppet governments in Laos and Cambodia, so most of Vietnam’s trade was conducted with those countries. At the same time, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam, demanding that Vietnam show more cooperation in finding out what happened to the American servicemen who were missing in action from the recent war, and also demanding that Vietnam stop meddling in Cambodia. The rest of the free world followed the US example, choosing not to do business with Vietnam until the Americans gave the green light; China and most of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, considered Vietnam too ornery to call a friend. In 1979 the government decided to allow a small amount of free enterprise, but most stores still had little on the shelves; the only authorized private market in Hanoi offered a pathetic selection of old vegetables and eggs.

Refugees fled Vietnam until the end of the 1980s, first to escape oppression, then to escape poverty. The government let them go, after providing them with flimsy boats and taking everything they had except the clothes on their backs. Many of these “boat people” were ethnic Chinese, who had made a good living by running various businesses before 1975. In the past, Chinese communities in other parts of Southeast Asia, like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, have become scapegoats when living conditions were bad; now it happened in Vietnam, because Vietnamese-Chinese relations were poor. There was an especially large exodus of Chinese refugees leaving in 1978, after the government suddenly announced a program calling for the complete socialization of industry and agriculture in the South; hundreds of thousands left the country on foot or by boat.

It is believed that a third of the “boat people” did not survive their journey, falling victim to bad weather, capsizing boats, sharks, or modern-day pirates. Yes, the South China Sea is one of the few places in today’s world, besides the waters around Somalia, where pirates are still active. Maybe someday I will record an episode about them. Anyway, when the boat people reached a noncommunist country like Thailand or Malaysia, their troubles were not over, because they were rarely welcomed by anyone.

Major changes finally came with the Sixth Party Congress in December 1986; this was probably the most important meeting in the history of the Vietnamese Communist Party. By now even hardcore communists could see that the economy was a mess, and that something different needed to be done. Therefore most of the top party officials who were still alive, including Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh, were retired. As for Vo Nguyen Giap, he was 75 years old at this date, but he was kept around for a few more years, presumably because the war in Cambodia wasn’t over yet. He finally retired in 1991, and died in 2013, at the age of 102.

To replace the old guard, a reform-minded official, Nguyen Van Linh, became the new Communist Party General Secretary. He introduced a new policy, known as Doi Moi, which legalized the free market activities that the government had previously tried to limit or suppress. The goal of the new policy was to give Vietnam a, quote, “socialist-oriented market economy.” Unquote. Sometimes Linh is called “the Vietnamese Gorbachev,” because Doi Moi was an imitation of Perestroika, one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies. Actual implementation, however, did not begin until 1988, when the economic crisis got worse, due to declining support from the Soviet Union. This compelled the government to slash spending, court foreign investment, and liberalize trade. In rural areas, farmers were allowed to work private plots next to state-owned land.


Doi Moi gave the results Hanoi had been looking for. For example, in 1988 near famine conditions existed, but only two years later Vietnam was the world’s third largest rice exporter. Inflation dropped from 700% per year in 1988 to 8% in the 1990s. The State Bank of Vietnam swallowed a dose of common sense, raised deposit interest rates so that they were just above the inflation rate, put loan rates just a bit higher and stopped giving away money indiscriminately to state enterprises. About 5,000 of those state enterprises were liquidated; the remaining 7,000, forced to compete for customers and funding, became profitable, and thus were allowed to stay in business. Meanwhile, during the first ten years after Doi Moi was launched, the Vietnamese people started 30,000 businesses of their own.

The easiest way to follow a nation’s economic growth is by watching the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. From 1988 to 2019, Vietnam’s GDP grew strongly, averaging 7 percent a year; the most successful years, 1995 and 1996, saw the growth rate exceed 9%. The ordinary person’s income grew dramatically as well. The latest figures on Vietnam’s per capita income put it at $3,609; when adjusted to reflect purchasing power, the per capita income becomes $11,677. Therefore, Vietnam is poorer than Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand, but it is much better off than it used to be; you may remember how in the 1980s, the per capita income was a miserable $200. The number of people defined as living in poverty fell from 60 percent in 1993, to 14 percent in 2014, and today it’s around 7 percent. Because of all these improvements, the number of people leaving Vietnam dropped to a trickle. The last wave of refugees were several thousand Amerasian youths, the children of US servicemen and Vietnamese mothers who found themselves the victims of racial prejudice.

Podcast footnote: This is a good place to mention that the cultures of Southeast Asia do not react the same way to interracial unions. Vietnam is against them because the fathers of half-Asian Vietnamese were usually enemy soldiers, first French and later Americans. You may remember the “Missing In Action” movie where Chuck Norris returns to Vietnam to rescue a group of half-American kids. On the other hand, Thailand and the Philippines have been influenced by Hollywood, so if you’re from there and have some white ancestry, it’s a plus. Most of their actors and singers have mixed ancestry. Filipinos call a person of mixed ancestry Mestizo, while the Thai word is Luk Krueng. In my case, my wife’s family favored us getting married, and when we had a child — a daughter — my in-laws fussed over their Mestiza grandchild. End footnote.

Nguyen Van Linh’s program was criticized by doctrinaire communists who wanted the government to stick to a strict form of Marxism-Leninism, and it has been said that Linh himself thought the results of Doi Moi went too far. In the middle of 1991 he set another precedent; instead of holding on to the top spot for life, like so many other communist leaders have done, he stepped down, after being in charge for four and a half years. At that point he was in poor health, having been hospitalized in 1989. We don’t know what his illness was, but rumors suggest he had a stroke. It is also possible he was tired of political battles with his rivals. He was succeeded by Do Muoi, who supported the reforms and continued them. In 1992 a new constitution was introduced, one that allows more economic freedoms.


For the past thirty years, the leaders of Vietnam — the presidents, prime ministers and party general secretaries — have all been nonentities. Since 1976, the Communist Party of Vietnam has held a national congress every five years. During these congresses, the Party’s ruling council, a 180-member Central Committee, is elected, and the National Assembly in turn elects members of the Central Committee to fill the top jobs. Therefore, most of the presidents, prime ministers and party general secretaries have served for five-year terms, ten years if they are re-elected. I won’t expect you to remember their names, because no one after Nguyen Van Linh has made major changes in the country’s policies. What’s more, cults of personality are prohibited. Ho Chi Minh is the only leader who is permitted to have portraits and statues in his honor.

For those who want to know who’s in charge in Hanoi, the current president is 66-year-old Nguyen Xuan Phuc. He was elected president on April 5, 2021, and had served as prime minister for the previous five years. Another senior party member, Pham Minh Chinh, was elected as the latest prime minister. For the job of Communist Party General Secretary, that has been filled by Nguyen Phu Trong since 2011. Trong has recently been elected to a third term, making him the first leader in Vietnam’s recent history to hold his job for more than two terms, but I don’t think he wants to stay in office for life, due to what he said the day after the latest election. Quote: “I am not in great health […] I am old and I want to rest, but the Congress has elected me so I will comply with my duty to serve as a party member..” End quote.

Vietnam’s isolation from the non-communist world began to end with the breakup of the Soviet Bloc; indeed, one reason why Vietnamese troops got out of Cambodia was because the USSR could no longer afford to subsidize the armed forces. In the United States, a new generation grew up without the emotional scars of the war years. One such American was President Bill Clinton, who had avoided serving in the war during his college years. In early 1994 he ordered a lifting of the US embargo on Vietnam. Full normalization of relations followed in 1995, and nearly $11 billion in foreign investments was committed by the end of the year. In return, Vietnam agreed to pay $140 million in debts that the defunct South Vietnamese government owed the US, and that allowed trade with the US to begin. The first US ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was appointed in 1997; he was Douglas “Pete” Peterson, a congressman and a former pilot, who had been held as a prisoner of war for six years in North Vietnam.

Podcast footnote: I am a conservative, so I never was a fan of Bill Clinton, and disagreed with most of the things he did. However, I will give credit where it is due. The normalization of relations with Vietnam was one of the few things he did that I supported. The way I saw it, normalization needed to be done, because the war was over and nothing in Vietnam was going to change quickly. And I’ll admit that there was probably no conservative who could have started the normalization process; we have too many bad memories from the war.

One day in 2003, I stopped at a gas station. When I went inside to pay for the gas, I noticed a small box next to the cash register, that held American flag lapel pins. The pin on top was face down, and on the back of the pin I saw the words “Made in China.” I pointed to the pin, and said to the cashier, “The way things are going, next year you could have American flag pins that are made in Vietnam.” End footnote.

Bill Clinton may not have gone to Vietnam during the war, but he finally went there in the year 2000, when he made an official visit. The Vietnamese welcomed American technology, business, institutions and laws with open arms, since from their point of view their former enemy treated them more fairly than any Asian neighbor. And American tourists who visit Vietnam can’t get enough of what they see; they give rave reviews, telling how the food is great and the natives are friendly. In 2007, the United States agreed to help study the effects of Agent Orange, the herbicide American troops used during the Vietnam War; Vietnam claims as many as one million people were injured by this poison.


Vietnamese-American relations are helped by the young age of Vietnam’s population; by the year 2000, a full two-thirds of the Vietnamese people were born after 1975. At the time of this recording, the median age of the population is 35, meaning most of the people don’t have memories of the past wars. Nor do they see the Americans as enemies, since the Americans, unlike the French and the Chinese, have apologized for their actions in the past. Nevertheless, government propaganda still frequently mentions events from the First and Second Indochina Wars. This may be a tacit admission that even with today’s economic growth, the Communist Party hasn’t had much to be proud of since 1975.

Relations and trade with China were restored as well, after the Chinese realized that the fastest way to get exports from southwest China to the South China Sea was by going through Hanoi. Then China and Vietnam were able to resolve a longtime border dispute in 2008. In 1995 Vietnam became the first communist country to join ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, and when it comes to two-way commerce, Vietnam now has one of the most open economies of Asia. According to The Financial Times, by 2017 Vietnam was the largest exporter of clothing in Southeast Asia, and the second largest exporter of electronics, after Singapore. Currently Vietnam’s exports are worth as much as 99 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Podcast footnote: Not all is well with Vietnamese-Chinese relations. Like the other countries around the South China Sea, Vietnam is concerned about recent Chinese attempts to claim that whole body of water for itself. Most of the islands in the South China Sea are so small you can barely see them on a map, or in pictures taken from the air. The only people who ever settled those islands came from present-day Vietnam, so the Vietnamese could claim much of the sea through “squatter’s rights,” but they choose not to do so. Why? The people who lived on the islands were not Vietnamese but the Chams, rivals of the Vietnamese in ancient and medieval times. I mentioned the Chams several times in the early episodes of this podcast, especially Episodes 4, 8, and 19. For today’s Vietnamese, the less we say about their old enemies the Chams, the better.

Recently I read an article which declared that Vietnam is a freer country than China, and that both are more free than California. Those of you who are familiar with California’s one-party, regulation-crazy state government will tend to agree. End footnote.

Meanwhile, political change has moved at a glacial pace. I mentioned that Doi Moi imitated Perestroika, but Vietnam has nothing like Gorbachev’s other policy, Glasnost, meaning openness. Like the Communist Parties in China and Laos, the Communist Party of Vietnam no longer tries to impose a Marxist-Leninist society on the population; its only ideology is to perpetuate its rule over the country. The downfall of communism in the Soviet Union and most of its satellites convinced Vietnam’s leaders that they must not share rule with non-communists, the way eastern European governments did. Therefore the Communist Party has ruthlessly suppressed all direct challenges to its authority, though it did relax the atmosphere and allow open debate, giving the appearance of democracy. Even so, in 2013 a new law was passed that forbade people from discussing current affairs on the Internet. Vietnam continues to have one of the world’s worst records on freedom of the press, and human rights activists are not welcome. In 2018, for example, two human rights activists were invited to the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, which was held in Hanoi that year, but they were denied a visa to enter the country.

One of Vietnam’s latest developments is the rapid growth of the city that used to be called Saigon. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Ho Chi Minh City became the largest city in the country, and today it is home to nearly 9 million people. For the first time in history, Vietnam’s largest city is not in the Red River delta. Now modern skyscrapers are rising in Ho Chi Minh City, giving it the look of a big city in a Western country. Last year I listened to another podcast, which commented that if South Vietnam and the United States had won the Vietnam War, Saigon would have ended up looking almost the same as it does now. And one of my sources for this episode commented that like most of Southeast Asia, the cities of present-day Vietnam feature the hustle & bustle of small shops and scooters, but some day this could be replaced with shopping malls and cars.

Recently some have remarked that because of the rapid development, if Ho Chi Minh came back to Vietnam today, he wouldn’t recognize the place. However, the combination of free-market capitalism and communist ideology has led to problems that are common elsewhere: unequal incomes, disparities in healthcare provision, and poor gender equality. The Vietnamese challenge is the same as modern-day China’s: to solve these problems without loosening the Communist Party’s control. Whatever happens, you can expect everyone will move cautiously; since the end of the war, that strategy has worked best. In a nutshell, Vietnam is growing at its own pace, and in its own way.


All right, the story of Vietnam is finished!


Among the countries we are done talking about in this podcast, Vietnam is the largest so far. We finished Laos with Episode 108, so next time I plan to cover the most recent history of Cambodia, and then we will be done with all of the Indochina area. The Khmers have had a rough time recovering from the wars they suffered in the late twentieth century, so join me to hear the details. Also, I am thinking of recording one more Question and Answer session for the final episode of this podcast, so start thinking of any questions you have about Southeast Asian history that I haven’t answered yet.

While you’re waiting for the next episode, are you a supporter of the podcast? If you aren’t, it’s not too late to become one! The easiest way to do it is by making a donation through Paypal. Just go to the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode, and click on the gold “Donate!” button. Do this and I will dedicate the next episode I record to you, and your first name will be added to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame page. What’s more, if you have donated before 2021, another donation now will get one of the special icons for the podcast placed next to your name, either the water buffalo icon or the Shwedagon icon. Or if you would rather stay anonymous, 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.

Meanwhile, keep on telling all the significant people in your life about the show. A little word of mouth advertising goes a long way. Oh heck, while you’re at it, tell the not-so-significant people in your life about the show, too. I have to go now and get started on the next episode, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 112: Yesterday’s Burma, Today’s Myanmar


All right, Episode 112 of the podcast is now available!  Today we pay another visit to Burma, to look at what happened from late 1988 to 2011.  To start with, from this time onward, the country will usually be called Myanmar.  During this period, the military is still in charge, and while the generals aren’t as eccentric as Ne Win, the general who ran the show in Episode 101, they pull one crazy stunt:  a new capital city is built from scratch, and the government is suddenly ordered to move to it, without previous warning.  Also, we see Aung San Suu Kyi become a heroine in the eyes of the outside world, as she resists the generals.  Finally, hear how a handful of Burmese discover punk rock, and use it as another way to express political opposition.




This episode is dedicated to Lindy S., for the donation she made to the podcast. Lindy made another donation five months ago, but of course it’s all right to donate again. May you be blessed with the wisdom to always do the right thing, and not make mistakes just because those around you are making them. In other words, may you keep your head when everyone else is losing theirs. And now let us go on another trip to a part of the Far East that is full of surprises. If everyone listening is ready, cue the podcast’s opening music.

Episode 112: Yesterday’s Burma, Today’s Myanmar

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 112th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Today we have another episode about the wild and exotic land of Burma. This will be the third episode on Burma since the podcast finished its series on World War II; the others were Episodes 63 and 101. However, now I’m going to phase out the number of occurrences where I call it Burma; since 1989 it has usually been called Myanmar. And just about every geographic location in the country has had a name change, too. Therefore when I mention Burmese place names, I usually feel compelled to give you the pre-1989 name, as well as the current one.

To balance out the complicated place names, we have had relatively few events to talk about, largely because Burma has been isolated from the outside world for most of the time since it became independent, in 1948. For the first forty years, there were only two leaders in charge, the first prime minister, U Nu, and General Ne Win. We covered their administrations in Episode 101. At the end of Ne Win’s rule came an unsuccessful revolution in 1988, that tried to establish democracy. The military stepped in, crushed the demonstrations in a scene that looked a lot like the Tiananmen massacre of the following year, set up a junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and declared martial law. Now we are going to look at how the country fared under two more generals, Saw Maung and Than Shwe, but the time period will be much shorter: it will be just 22 years, from late 1988 to 2011.

I recommend you go back and listen to Episode 101, if you haven’t listened to it yet, or go back anyway if you want to refresh your memory. After all, it has been nearly a year since I recorded that. As for those of you who are ready to continue with the narrative, come with me!


Most of my sources state that one of the first things the junta did after taking over was change Burma’s name to Myanmar. That is almost what happened, but not quite. What they really did was order foreigners to use Burmese-language names for all geographical locations, the names the Burmese people had been using for as long as they could remember. Consequently Burma became Myanmar, and the capital, Rangoon, became Yangon. However, the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, kept on using the name of Burma, because unlike the junta, she knew that it is important to get along with the outside world.

Speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi, the podcast introduced her in Episode 101. She is the daughter of Aung San, the leading nationalist in the years before independence. Like Corazon Aquino in the Philippines and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, she was not interested in politics until her family connections pushed her into the limelight. She is politically sharp, and greatly admired, but the obstacles facing her and her political party, the National League of Democracy, or NLD, were great. In July 1989 she was put under house arrest along with 42 other NLD leaders, and the army launched a campaign of intimidation. The SLORC did everything it could do to steal the next election, which took place in May 1990, but the NLD won anyway, capturing 80% of the seats. The government simply refused to step down, its only excuse being that election results as lopsided as the 1990 results cannot be accepted by the country’s non-Burmese minorities. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, but the government kept her from knowing it until her British husband told her on a visit two weeks later.

International disapproval and economic failure caused the junta leader, General Saw Maung, to resign in April 1992; he was succeeded by General Than Shwe, who ruled for the next nineteen years, until 2011. Former prime minister U Nu was released from prison, and in September martial law was lifted, though Aung San Suu Kyi was not released until August 1995.

The SLORC convened a constitutional convention in January 1993, to write what it called the “Discipline Democracy New Constitution.” However, the meetings stopped soon after they started, and were not resumed until late 1995. The NLD party boycotted the meetings because the document they produced talked about the army’s role in government, instead of democratic principles. Tensions between the SLORC and the NLD heightened in May 1996 when the SLORC arrested more than 200 delegates before they could attend an NLD party congress. Another crackdown occurred in May 1997; the SLORC arrested more NLD members and detained Aung San Suu Kyi in her car for six days, to prevent a meeting intended to commemorate the 1990 elections. In November 1997 the SLORC realized that its double-dealing with the NLD was preventing good relations with the rest of the world, so the SLORC dissolved itself and set up the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, in its place, but the only thing that changed was the junta’s name. Because reports of human rights abuses still came out, the United States and the European Union tightened sanctions against Myanmar.

The outside world saw Aung San Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s best hope, but of course the military regime disagreed. Whenever the NLD made gains at the polls, she was placed under house arrest again. During the twenty-one-year period from 1990 to 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for fifteen of those years, and while confined, she usually was not allowed to see her husband and two children. She probably could have left the country to join her family at any time — in fact, the government made such an offer — but like Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, she would not have been allowed to return if she did so. For that reason, she did not attend her husband’s funeral, when he died of cancer in 1999. Because she plunged back into political campaigning immediately after each spell of incarceration ended, she was nicknamed the “Titanium Orchid.”


I bet you didn’t expect me to play a clip from a song that’s after my time! Anyway, on to another subject. The junta’s relations with Buddhist monks was uneasy, because the monks played a role in the 1988 uprising, and even helped administer the city of Mandalay. Some monks protested military rule by refusing to accept alms from military households. The junta responded by pressuring leaders of the Buddhist clergy to discipline the young monks.

Relations with ethnic insurgents on the borders were more skillfully handled. General Khin Nyunt negotiated separate cease-fire agreements, first with the small hill tribes and then with the Kachin, adopting their armed forces as an autonomous militia and offering economic development aid along with tolerance of their border trading activities, including opium. Over the course of the 1990s, the Karens split up into several military factions, and they gradually lost the informal support that Thailand had given their independence movement, allowing the Myanmar Army to take the main Karen base at Mannerplaw in early 1995. By the end of 1995, the Karen National Union asked to begin peace talks with the Myanmar government. However, the Union did not speak for all Karen units, so active fighting continued between some rebel units and the government armed forces.

There was also fighting with a Shan rebel named Khun Sa, who had been Burma’s leading opium warlord since 1976. At one point, the US ambassador to Thailand called Khun Sa, quote, “the worst enemy the world has,” unquote. Nevertheless, he had the support of the Thai government, because as we have seen in previous episodes, Thailand and Burma have never gotten along very well, and he controlled a key section of the eastern Shan state. Eventually the American Drug Enforcement Administration uncovered and broke the link between Khun Sa and his foreign brokers. In December 1995, Myanmar troops marched into Homong, Khun Sa’s home base. Soon after that, he quote-unquote “surrendered” to the Burmese government, disbanded his army, and retired to Yangon with his family, wealth and mistresses. Although some of his forces refused to surrender and continued fighting the government, he kept himself busy with “legitimate” business projects, especially mining and construction, for the rest of his life. He died in 2007, and today, his children are prominent business people in Myanmar.

In 2002, Aye Zaw Win, the son-in-law of old Ne Win, tried and failed to overthrow the junta. Aye Zaw Win and his three sons were tried for treason, convicted, sentenced to death, and then their sentences were communted to life imprisonment; all four were still locked up, the last time anyone heard from them. Ne Win and his daughter were put under house arrest, and Ne Win died eight months later, at the age of 91. Do you remember from Episode 101 that Ne Win reportedly bathed in dolphin’s blood, and issued paper money in denominations divisible by 9 — because his astrologers told him he would live 90 years or longer if he did those things? It looks like they were right after all!

In 2005 the government reconvened the constitutional convention, to finish writing the promised constitution once and for all. However, major pro-democracy organizations and parties, including the NLD, were not allowed to participate, so the convention adjourned a year later without accomplishing anything. Then in 2008, twenty years after the previous constitution had been abolished, the government announced the new constitution, the third since independence. It was approved in a public referendum, and the military promised a “discipline-flourishing democracy” would soon follow, but the opposition saw it as a tool for continuing military control of the country, because a number of seats in both legislative houses were reserved for representatives chosen by the military.


The government surprised everyone at 6:37 AM on November 6, 2005, when it announced that it was moving from Yangon to Pyinmana, a logging town almost 200 miles to the north, roughly halfway between Yangon and Mandalay. The decision was made so suddenly that some top officials only got two two days’ notice to pack their bags; those who wanted to quit their jobs were not allowed to do so. Immediately government workers, along with their families and equipment, began to be hauled on barely useable roads, to a location that did not yet have electricity or running water. When they arrived at Pyinmana, they found out that a new permanent capital, named Naypyidaw, meaning “Abode of Kings,” was being built on a vacant lot nearby, and that construction had been going on since 2002.

Because national capitals are expected to have something to look at, Naypyidaw was given a replica of the Shwe Dagon pagoda, called the Uppatasanti Pagoda. Standing 325 feet tall, the new pagoda is virtually the same size as the Shwe Dagon. According to The Irrawaddy, an anti-government website, 20 people died during a ferris wheel accident at a festival marking the pagoda’s consecration in March 2009. Also worth seeing are a new zoo, the country’s national museum, and a monument featuring statues of Burma’s three greatest kings: Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya. I told you about those kings previously in this podcast; Anawrahta was in Episode 9, Bayinnaung was in Episodes 15 and 16, and Alaungpaya was in Episode 20.

Construction was declared finished in 2012, and afterwards the city hosted the Southeast Asian Games, the 24th and 25th ASEAN Summits, the 3rd summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, and the Ninth East Asia Summit. The Southeast Asian Games took place in 2013, while all the other meetings mentioned were held in 2014. Heads of state like the USA’s Barack Obama, and Britain’s David Cameron, have been among the visitors to Naypyidaw. Nevertheless, recent photos and videos taken show that Naypyidaw is almost deserted. I have seen a YouTube video, taken by a drone flying over the new city’s main highway; the highway has 20 lanes, and no traffic; there are street sweepers working on the road, but hardly any vehicles. Remember this line from the movie “Field of Dreans?” “If you build it, people will come.” Altogether it looks like somebody built Naypyidaw for that purpose, and failed to attract the people. Or maybe the government only wants those who work for it to live there.

Podcast footnote: I mentioned in Episode 101 that during the 1960s, tourists could not stay in the country for more than 24 hours, and in the 1970s, the time limit was increased to one week. In the mid 1990s the time was extended again, to 28 days. Nowadays visitors can stay for either 28 days or 70 days, depending on the type of visa; extensions on the 28-day visa are not permitted. Thus, the country is much friendlier to tourists than it used to be, so if you visit any of the attractions in Naypyidaw that I mentioned a minute ago, feel free to leave a review on websites like Yelp. End footnote.

Previously, Pyinmana’s only claim to fame is that it was the headquarters of the Burma National Army, during World War II. The government’s official explanation for the move was that Yangon was too crowded. Well, maybe. In recent years some other countries have moved their capitals: Brazil, Belize, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Ivory Coast and Kazakhstan come to mind. In each case the new capital was located closer to the geographic center of the country, whereas the old capital was on the coast or a border. In addition, Indonesia announced in 2019 that it will build a new capital on Borneo, to replace Jakarta. None of the former capitals lost many people after the government moved away; they have continued to act as commercial and financial centers.

However, many Burmese believe that General Than Shwe, like other Burmese leaders, is superstitious, and he listened to the government astrologers, who warned him that if a foreign power invaded the country, the invasion would start with an amphibious landing at Yangon. Indeed, the astrologers picked the exact minute for the announcement of the move, just as they had picked the date and time to proclaim Burma’s independence in 1948. If you want to put the moving of the capital in an American perspective, imagine what it would be like if the president of the United States suddenly ordered all federal government workers in Washington, DC, to move to a location in Nebraska, where a new capital city would be built from scratch. This location would not be near the cities of Omaha or Lincoln, but in the western part of the state, the 308 area code, a part of Nebraska that currently only has 360,000 residents. And suppose the president did it because he read his horoscope, which said this would be a good time for people with his Zodiac sign to try something new.

Podcast footnote: I just looked at a map of Nebraska, and on the state’s western border, where Interstate Highway 80 crosses into Wyoming, is a small town named Kimball, and it sits in Kimball County. There’s something I like about that name; why don’t we move the US capital there? End footnote.

Finally, there may be a practical reason for the change in capitals; the new location puts the government closer to the Karen, Shan and Kayah states, the places that contain the most troublesome ethnic minorities. The Rohingya, the minority you are most likely to have heard of, are also more accessible from here than from Yangon.

In another break with the recent past, the government adopted a new flag in 2010 that is yellow, green and red. These are the same colors as the flag used during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Burma; the difference is that the World War II flag featured a peacock in the center, while the current flag has a white star. Previously, from independence until 2010, Burma had used two flags that were red, white and blue.


By 2007, about twenty-five different ethnic groups had signed ceasefire agreements with the military government. This means the country is now more stable than it has been at any other time since independence. The minorities still fighting against the government are the Karens, the Shans, and the Rohingya. The most serious clash with the Shans was the Kokang Incident, a series of violent skirmishes on the eastern border that took place in August 2009; the result was that the rebels lost control of the Kokang district. Estimates of the number of refugees that fled across the border into China range from 10,000 to 37,000.

The Rohingya are a Moslem group in the state of Rakhine, which was called Arakan in previous episodes of this podcast. They have organized small armed groups in response to the vicious persecution they have suffered at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But whereas a Moslem group in revolt is usually bad news for their non-Moslem neighbors (Thailand and the Philippines are the nearest examples), in Myanmar the Moslems have gotten the worst of it; the local government has closed Islamic schools, it doesn’t let Rohingya marry without official permission, and it does not allow them to have more than two children. The government launched attacks against the Rohingya in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012 and 2015. Estimates of the number of Rohingya who fled the country are as high as 940,000. Of these, about one third were later repatriated, while most of the rest are in refugee camps just across the border, in Bangladesh; other refugees have been taken in by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Since 1991, the government has also settled Buddhists in Rakhine to take the place of the Moslems who didn’t return. The most vicious round of anti-Rohingya persecution began in 2017; you can expect me to say more about that in a future episode.


On December 26, 2004, all the nations around the Indian Ocean were struck by a terrible tsunami. Myanmar reported 90 of its citizens killed, and rejected all foreign assistance in picking up the pieces. Myself, I didn’t believe the claim of only 90 dead, because neighboring Thailand reported more than 5,000 casualties. Thailand’s coastline along the Indian Ocean is 937 kilometers, or 586 miles long; most of the Thai casualties were at the beach resort of Phuket. Myanmar has a coastline more than twice as long, at 2,300 kilometers, or 1,438 miles. This coast consists of three parts: Rakhine, the Irrawaddy delta, and Tanintharyi, formerly known as Tenasserim. Therefore, along the Indian Ocean, Myanmar is a larger target than Thailand, so it probably suffered more casualties, with most of them unreported.

There were more anti-government protests in 2007, when the junta removed fuel subsidies without warning, causing the prices of oil and natural gas to rise suddenly. As in 1988, monks led the protests, until a renewed government crackdown stopped them; independent sources reported, through pictures and accounts, 30 to 40 monks and 50 to 70 civilians killed, and 200 beaten.

On May 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy delta, with winds up to 135 mph. This was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history; outsiders estimated that more than 130,000 people died or went missing and damage to the nation’s infrastructure, which included whole villages and farms getting wiped out, totalled $10 billion. Because the rescue and relief effort was more than the government could handle, it allowed foreign agencies to help, but its isolationist tendencies made the crisis worse, by downplaying how bad the devastation really was, and delaying the entry of planes bringing medicine, food, and other supplies. More substantial reforms came after the government learned its lesson from the 2008 cyclone. Aung San Suu Kyi and 200 other prisoners were released and/or pardoned, a National Human Rights Commission was established, and labor unions and strikes were legalized.


I will finish today’s narrative by sharing an interesting new development in Burmese culture. In Myanmar, punk rock is not dead. Heck, it went out of fashion in the rest of the world before the Burmese even discovered it. The country’s isolation delayed its discovery of this genre until 1993, when a 21-year-old man named Ko Nyan found a music magazine in the trash at the British embassy, and read an article about the Sex Pistols. Mind you, this was fifteen years after the death of Sid Vicious. The article changed his life, and Ko Nyan singlehandedly introduced the punk culture to Yangon. There among a few hundred of the city’s residents, it has survived to this day, in spite of (and because of) the junta’s attempts to suppress it with jail sentences. It’s no coincidence that the leading Burmese punk band, Rebel Riot, got started immediately after the 2007 protests. I shared a 26-minute video about Rebel Riot and the Burmese punk culture, on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page.

In 2012, National Geographic posted a photo on the Internet that has come to symbolize modern life in Yangon. It shows two teenaged boys, a punk and a monk, holding hands; the punk is blowing smoke. Because Burmese society since the 1960s has seen the military opposed by everybody else, both boys see the authorities as their enemy, so they get along better than you’d think. Like the previously mentioned video, I shared the original picture on the podcast’s Facebook page. Not long after the National Geographic picture was posted, a member of the band Fall Out Boy found the picture in an online search, and they used it as the cover for their 2013 album, Save Rock and Roll. However, they altered the picture so that the punk is wearing a plain black T-shirt; in the original, he’s wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. Either Fall Out Boy did that to avoid copyright issues, or they simply didn’t want to promote another band on their album cover. Anyway, in Myanmar, you can say everyone feels rage against the machine!


That does it for today! I know this episode was a bit on the short side, compared with others in this podcast, but I figured that if I took the Myanmar narrative all the way to the present, the finished product would run for more than an hour. Past experience has shown me that it is easier to record two short episodes than one long one, so I’ll leave the really long episodes to podcasters like Dan Carlin. Therefore whenever I do another episode about Myanmar, it will be the last one in this series, covering events from 2011 to the present. In fact, since it will include last February’s coup and the ongoing Rohingya problem, you may see it as a current events episode. But for next time, I think I should finish off the narrative on one of the Indochina countries, either Cambodia or Vietnam, so join me to see how far we can go on them.

I appreciate all of you who take the time to listen to this podcast, especially those who have been with me since the podcast’s early days. And I find it especially gratifying that you have chosen to entertain yourselves in a way that is educational at the same time. July 1, 2021 is coming up as I record this. You may think of that day as the birthday of Canada, but it is also the fifth birthday of this podcast. I don’t expect to have another episode online before that day arrives, so I will celebrate that day now.

<sound effects>


<more sound effects>

Now it’s time for me to leave you, so I’ll finish with the usual requests I make at the end of an episode. If you are enjoying the podcast and can afford to support it, consider becoming a supporter! A financial supporter, that is; athletic supporters are for locker rooms and sports podcasts. The easiest way to do that is by 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 speaking of the Patreon page, it’s hanging in there, with eighteen Patrons; all right!

But wait! There’s more! If you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows reviews, and haven’t written a review already, go ahead and write it. On Facebook, there is the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it to see additional content, like the punk video and photo I shared for this episode. And when you meet other people, tell them about the show! Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 111: Brunei, Southeast Asia’s Little Marvel


Today’s episode is the first that is just about Brunei, a country that the podcast has mentioned many times in the past.  It is also the last, because this episode covers Brunei up to the present.  Although Brunei is one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia (only Singapore has less land), and it is home to only a few hundred thousand people, its recent history is amazing, thanks to its oil wealth.  Thirty years ago, the current sultan was the richest man in the world.  Listen to hear what he (and his youngest brother) have done with that money!




This episode is dedicated to C. L., and John P.; thank you for making generous donations to the podcast. I am recording this in early June, which in much of Southeast Asia — the mainland countries and the Philippines — is the rainy season. So may the storms of life, both real and figurative, stay away from both of you. And as we come out of the COVID pandemic, may life bring you new opportunities. Today’s episode is about a very small country, but I don’t think you will find it boring; I hope you like it. Now I know everyone else listening is waiting for that episode, so let’s get to it!

Episode 111: Brunei, Southeast Asia’s Little Marvel

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 111th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! For the past fifteen episodes we have been looking at Southeast Asia’s recent history, events besides the Indochina Wars that have taken place in the region since the 1950s. Two of the new nations created, Malaysia and Singapore, have been major successes. Now we will look at another success, a country you probably aren’t as familiar with, Brunei. For those who haven’t heard of Brunei, it is a tiny nation, about the same size as the state of Delaware, located on the northwest coast of Borneo. The country’s official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam, which in the Malay language means The State of Brunei, Abode of Peace. Brunei has been part of our narrative for a long time — I think I first mentioned it in Episode 12 — but because of its small size and population, the podcast did not devote an entire episode to Brunei, until now.

Brunei was the last Southeast Asian country to shed Western rule. Well, sort of. Back when I was a teenager, when I looked at a map of Southeast Asia, I saw Brunei, surrounded by two provinces of Malaysia, Sarawak and North Borneo. Next to Brunei’s name on the map were the initials “Br.” in parentheses, and that led me to believe that Brunei was a British colony, just like Canada and Australia had been in the past. However, Brunei was technically considered a protectorate state. While Britain was in charge, Brunei continued to have a sultan from the native dynasty, though in practice he wasn’t allowed to do anything important until 1959, so Brunei might as well have been a colony. With the end of Brunei’s protectorate status, the colonial era in Southeast Asian history ended as well, unless you count the two territories occupied by Indonesia, East Timor and Western New Guinea.


I will begin with a recap on what happened with Brunei before the modern state became fully independent in 1984. The history of Brunei before the sixteenth century, when the Europeans arrived, is obscure; legends are mixed in with facts, and we aren’t sure where to draw the line between them. What we do know is that the people of Borneo traded with and paid tribute to China as early as the sixth century A.D. The commodities sold or given to China included bird’s nests (the main ingredient for a popular Chinese soup), beeswax, ivory from the large beaks of hornbills, tortoise shells, and of course, spices, since the Spice Islands were not far away. Records from the Chinese and the Arabs mention a state on Borneo called Po-ni; it looks like it was founded in the seventh or eighth century. Still, it was not a major player in Southeast Asia, and it became a vassal state to both of the early empires based in Indonesia, first the Sumatra-based Srivijaya, and later the Java-based Majapahit. I covered those empires in Episode 6, so that’s where to go if you want to learn more about Indonesia in those days.

The first ruler that we know anything about was Awang Alak Betatar, who came from a band of fourteen brothers and first cousins that settled on the west coast of Borneo. He is credited with a reign from 1363 to 1402, and supposedly he was picked to rule not because he was the eldest, but because he was considered the most fit to rule. The official account, an epic poem named Syair Awang Semaun, declares that at some point in his reign he traveled to Johor, the Moslem state on the end of the Malay peninsula. Because of that visit, he converted to Islam, married the daughter of Johore’s sultan, and accepted a new name from the sultan; henceforth he would be called Sultan Muhammad Shah. In that way he became the first sultan of Brunei. The dynasty started here is still in charge today, 658 years later; the current sultan is the 29th monarch to come from the dynasty so far.

Muhammad Shah’s first successor, Kala, only ruled for six years, from 1402 to 1408, and died while visiting China. He is not counted in Brunei’s list of sultans, presumably because his reign was short and unsuccessful. By contrast, the most successful sultan of all was the fifth one on the list, Bolkiah. Bolkiah ruled from 1485 to 1524, and under him the state of Brunei reached its peak; it claimed not only all of Borneo but also part of the Philippines, those islands in the archipelago where Islam had made converts by now. In practice, however, the sultan only had a firm grip on the coast of Borneo; the interior of that huge, jungle-covered island was inaccessible. And one of my sources showed the flag of Brunei at the time: a plain yellow banner with nothing on it. Not a flag that will impress folks from other countries! Of course I could also point out that the flag of Siam at the same time was a plain red banner. Finally, Bolkiah’s reign took place when Portugal and Spain began exploring Southeast Asia, so our documentation gets better from here. To hear what I said about this part of Southeast Asian history, re-listen to Episodes 11 and 12 of this podcast.

Brunei lost its holdings in the Philippines when Spanish conquistadors began moving into those islands, in the second half of the sixteenth century. It lost the southern and eastern parts of Borneo to the Dutch sometime between 1700 and 1740. At the beginning of the 1840s a British adventurer, James Brooke, visited Borneo and helped the sultan fight pirates and rebels. For his services, Brooke was given the territory of Sarawak to rule as the so-called “White Rajah”; we covered this in Episode 23. Later on, an expansion of Sarawak split the core territory of Brunei in two, because it included the Limbang valley, between the two parts of Brunei. Meanwhile, the British also annexed North Borneo, leaving Brunei with just the small amount of land it has today. To keep what he had left, the sultan accepted protectorate status under the British Empire in 1888. Although native rulers remained on the throne, their job was mainly ceremonial; in 1906 Britain put the local administration under a British “resident,” whose advice the sultan was supposed to accept.

In 1929 came one of the most important events in Brunei’s history; oil was discovered there. Naturally the British started drilling, and explored for more oil. Unfortunately this happened just a few years before World War II, and the Japanese made Brunei a target for the same reason that Indonesia became a target — the Japanese war machine needed that oil. At the end of 1941, Japan invaded and captured Brunei; the British protectorate had failed to protect the sultan after all. Although the Japanese recognized the sultan as the local Islamic leader, and did not remove him from his throne, he had to toe the Japanese line, and they suggested that he retire. Liberation from Japanese rule came with the arrival of the 9th Australian Division in mid-1945. For more on this, go listen to Episode 58 of the podcast.

Two years after the war, Britain granted independence to India and Pakistan, and once those colonies were gone, Britain began granting independence to its other colonies as well. As a result, there were eventually talks about granting independence to Brunei. Along that line, in 1959 a new constitution was introduced that granted the sultan the right to manage all internal affairs; Britain now only retained control over the armed forces and foreign policy. In 1962 a partially elected Legislative Council with limited authority was installed, but later in the same year the country’s political opposition launched a revolt. Although the revolt was put down with the help of British forces, the sultan declared a state of emergency and suspended most provisions of the constitution. New elections were held in 1965, but the majority of the Legislative Council’s members remained appointed. In 1970, the Legislative Council became a completely appointed body, eliminating the need for elections in the future.

We saw in Episode 98 that the two nearest territories to Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo, joined Malaya to form the modern nation of Malaysia in 1963. Because Brunei’s population has an ethnic makeup similar to that of Malaysia — 66% Malays, 10% Chinese and 24% others — Brunei was also expected to become part of Malaysia. The sultan at that time, Omar Ali Saifuddin III, was planning for union, but he changed his mind at the last minute, because as we saw, he didn’t want to share his oil money with anyone besides his own subjects, and also because he didn’t want to have to wait many years for his turn to become sultan of all Malaysia. In 1967 the sultan stepped down because his son was now old enough to rule, but he stuck around in an advisory role, acting as Brunei’s minister of defense until his death in 1986. That son, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, is still in charge today as Brunei’s current sultan; at the time of this recording, he is 74 years old. For those keeping track of dates, the sultan has so far ruled for 53 years; the Queen of England is the only head of state in today’s world that has been in charge for a longer time.


Brunei finally became fully independent on January 1, 1984. One of the first things the new state did was join ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Before independence came, both Malaysia and Indonesia gave assurances that they would recognize Brunei’s status, thereby soothing the sultan’s concern that the mini-state might be absorbed into one of its larger neighbors. Still, to be on the safe side, the sultan has kept a batallion of Gurkhas, the famous warriors from Nepal, as the last remnant of the British army in the country. The sultan also dissolved the Legislative Council, and a ministerial form of government was introduced. The sultan became prime minister, in addition to holding several other ministerial posts, and he appointed members of his family to most of the other positions. When his father died, the sultan took over his job, becoming the new defense minister, and enlarged his cabinet.

Two political parties, the Brunei National Democratic Party and the Brunei National United Party, were legalized, but their activities were restricted; for example, government employees, who made up a significant proportion of Brunei’s citizens, were not allowed to join either party. After only a few years, both parties were banned. In place of the parties, the sultan decreed in 1990 that the country’s official ideology was MIB, or Melayu Islam Beraja. This means “Malay Islamic Monarchy,” and the ideology calls for a combination of traditional Bruneian values and a rigid adherence to Islamic principles. As you might expect, the ideas behind the Malay Islamic Monarchy are viewed with anxiety by citizens who are not both Moslem and Malay, especially members of the Chinese community. The Brunei National United Party was allowed to operate again beginning in 1995, and in the early 21st century it was joined by two new parties, the People’s Awareness Party and the National Development Party.

As expected, the state has done very well, sharing large revenues from oil and natural gas among a small population, currently estimated at 460,000. As of 2019, the per capita income is $30,290. This is the 29th highest per capita income in the world and the second highest in Southeast Asia, putting Brunei right alongside the developed nations; poverty and unemployment are practically nonexistent here. Of course the sultan realizes that the oil and gas could run out some day, so like the governments of Singapore and Malaysia, he has pursued economic diversification aggressively in recent years.

Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah celebrated independence by building a $250 million royal palace for himself, containing two gold-plated domes, 1,788 rooms, air-conditioned stables, and an 800-car garage. He needed the garage, because his hobby is collecting fancy cars, and he has thousands of them! From 1987 to 1997 he was the richest man in the world, worth $40 billion, until Microsoft chairman Bill Gates replaced him in the top spot. But instead of spending all the oil money on his own needs and desires, the sultan uses most of it to fund various building projects for the people, like new mosques, schools, and bridges. He also has given the people free education and health care, and they do not have to pay an income tax. In 1996 he celebrated his 50th birthday by building an amusement park, with free admission for his subjects, and he paid $17 million for Michael Jackson to perform a concert in a brand-new stadium.

Podcast footnote: Later, when another pop superstar, Whitney Houston, did a concert in Brunei, the sultan reportedly gave Whitney a blank check, and told her to write in whatever amount she felt she was worth. She wrote in $7 million. End footnote.


Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the sultan lost a big chunk of his money in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. However, it was a bigger shock to him when he had accountants check on how much was lost. For twelve years the sultan’s youngest brother, Prince Jefri, had served as finance minister, and the accountants discovered that Jefri had stolen $14.8 billion, an estimated one tenth of the country’s total revenue during those years. One of my sources, the website for Vanity Fair Magazine, suggests that the prince may have gone through more cash than any other person who ever lived, and estimated that his living expenses reached as high as $50 million a month. Remember when I talked about Imelda Marcos in Episodes 100 and 110, and how she spent the tax revenue of the Philippines on shoes and other personal items? I’m going to have to take some of those words back; compared with Prince Jefri, Imelda was a piker!

Anyway, Prince Jefri used the money he took to buy Asprey (the company that makes jewelry for the Queen of England), a large art collection, 2,300 cars of his own, eight private planes and a helicopter, a yacht, polo ponies, and several five-star hotels in cities around the world; he also used the money to lure beautiful women, including a former Miss USA, so he could sexually abuse them. It looks like the prince did it because he felt a need to keep up with his brother, the sultan. In happier times the two brothers seemed to be in a competition over which could be the most extravagant. They raced their Ferraris through the streets of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, at midnight, sailed the oceans on their fleet of yachts, visited the gambling clubs of London, and played polo with England’s Prince Charles. They routinely traveled with 100-member entourages and emptied entire inventories of stores such as Armani and Versace, buying 100 suits of the same color on one visit. When they partied, they indulged in just about everything forbidden by Islamic law, and left their wives and children in their palaces at home while sending agents forth to find the sexiest women in the world for them, in order to create a harem of new concubines.

When the sultan found out that his playboy brother was responsible for the biggest embezzlement of all time, Jefri fled to Europe, so he banned the prince from returning until he surrendered his assets to the state, which were sold in a 2001 auction to recover some of the losses. The prince came back in 2009, but by then Brunei had spent millions in court battles, its reputation as a Moslem country with a clean government was ruined, and Singapore replaced Brunei as Southeast Asia’s richest country. I will let you speculate on how Hassanal and Jefri manage to get along these days; in July 2013 Hassanal opened a new mosque in the town of Kampong Batong, and named it the Jefri Bolkiah Mosque, presumably after his brother.

In 1998 the sultan’s son, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, was proclaimed heir to the throne and six years later, the 30-year-old prince was married to 17-year-old Sarah Salleh. Whenever the prince succeeds his father, he will be the 30th ruler for this 658-year-old monarchy.

In February 2007, Brunei signed a pledge with Malaysia and Indonesia, in which all three nations promised to conserve/manage an 85,000-square-mile tract of Borneo rainforest, shared between them. In 2009 an agreement was reached by which Brunei would drop its claim on Limbang, the Malaysian-held territory between the two parts of Brunei, and Malaysia would forgo its claim to oil-rich areas in the South China Sea that the two countries had contested. However, the two countries can jointly exploit the reserves in the disputed areas.

The sultan of Brunei is one of the last monarchs in the world with real power; most of the ministries are still run by his family. However, it doesn’t look like the sultan wants to remain an absolute monarch. In 2004 he reconvened the Legislative Council, for the first time in twenty years, to discuss constitutional amendments. Although one of the amendments called for elections of all the Council’s members, when the sultan allowed the Council to meet again in 2005, all the members were appointed. Meanwhile, two of the three political parties were deregistered, leaving the National Development Party as the sole legal party by 2007. Finally, the sultan was widely praised in May 2005 when he fired four members of his cabinet, including an education minister who wanted to expand religious education, something many parents opposed.

Remember when I mentioned Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston doing concerts in Brunei? Personally I think the sultan should have invited Patti LaBelle, too. One of the songs that R&B singer is known for is “I Got a New Attitude.”

<song clip>

These days, that could be the sultan’s theme song; since the embezzlement scandal he has acted more like a puritan than a playboy. That is expressed in Brunei’s recent movement toward stricter Islamic practices. It started with measures to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages and requirements that Moslem children receive religious instruction. Courts for Shari’a, Islamic law, were set up to help Moslems settle personal matters such as marriage disputes. But the sultan also wanted these courts to handle criminal offenses by Moslems, who make up roughly two-thirds of the country’s population, and in October 2013 he announced that such a policy would become official the following year. The first of its three phases covered crimes with lesser punishments, such as fines and prison sentences for offenses such as failing to observe the fast during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month; this was implemented in May 2014. The second phase, covering crimes with corporal punishments, such as whipping or amputation for theft, was delayed after an international backlash. For example, in California there were calls to boycott the two hotels owned by the sultan in the Los Angeles area. The final phase covered crimes with the most severe punishments, such as stoning for adultery or sodomy and the death penalty for insulting the Koran. Both the second and the final phases took effect in April 2019. Thus, Brunei has become the first country in the Far East to follow Shari’a law.

Because of the new Shari’a code and the sultan’s contiuning grip on the government, technically, Brunei is not a free country. Still, most of the protests against this come from foreigners. Few citizens will protest because the country is wealthy; they feel that as long as the system works there is no need to fix it.


And on that note, we are done with Brunei! Small countries with small populations have been the easiest to cover, in the recent episodes about recent history. For the next episode we will go to a larger country in the region, which could be any one of them. As I record this, I am thinking of returning to either Vietnam or Myanmar, formerly Burma. I will be aiming to get that episode done by July 1, which will also be the five-year anniversary of this podcast’s launching. Join me for that. Or as Adam West, the TV Batman, used to say:

<Same bat-time clip>

While you are waiting for the next episode, may you enjoy the change of seasons — currently summer is beginning here.

Also, keep those donations coming in, because this podcast is entirely listener-supported. Did you hear any commercials during this episode? If you did, they were put in by your podcastcher, not by me. To make a one-time donation, go to the Patreon button on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode. That’s the gold button that says “Donate!” Of if you would like to join the growing team of patrons that support the show with a small donation each month, click on the Patreon link on the same Blubrry.com page. Here I will thank you in advance for your support. In the past I also asked you to support the podcast in ways that don’t involve money. Write a review, like the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page if you’re on Facebook, and tell others about the show in the real world. By all means keep doing those things. Now I have to go. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 110: People Power in the Philippines


It has been five weeks since I gave you an episode, so thank you for your patience!  This time we look at the Philippines from 1981 to 1992, the end of the Marcos presidency, and the presidency of Corazon Aquino.  And since I told you previously that my wife is from the Philippines, this episode finishes with the story of how we met.  Listen and enjoy!




This episode is dedicated to Russell I., who made a generous donation to the podcast, right after the previous episode was uploaded. Russell is a regular donor, so if you’re a regular listener, you have heard me dedicate an episode to him before. Of course it is good to hear from him again. Russell, may you continue to be blessed with safety in your travels, and success at your work. Today’s episode is focussed on the homeland of your wife and mine, so I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it! Now if everyone is ready, let’s cue the opening music!

Episode 110: People Power in the Philippines

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 110th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! First of all, let me apologize for taking so long; it has been five weeks since the previous episode was released for your listening pleasure. During that time, real world affairs have gotten in the way, from taxes to doctor’s appointments to things that need to be done, in the house and the yard. Judging from what I have been hearing from the podcasts I listen to, that is normal these days. On the podcast’s Facebook page, I told you about how I lost the chance to do some podcast work on a Friday night, by driving to the mountains along the border between Kentucky and West Virginia and getting lost in them.

So where are we in the podcast? Well, if you can imagine Southeast Asian history as a jigsaw puzzle, then for the past few episodes — eight months in real time — we have been fitting the last pieces into place. Although we won’t finish the metaphorical puzzle today, we will take another step towards finishing it, by covering what happened in the Philippines from 1981 to 1992, the end of the Marcos presidency, followed by the presidency of Corazon Aquino. The time and place of this episode are of a special interest to me, because I visited the Philippines in November 1985, and got married on that trip.

The last time we talked about the Philippines was in Episode 100, where we began to cover the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. Of course I want you to go back and listen to that episode, if you haven’t already, so you will know what’s going on here. Marcos shared power and the spotlight with his wife Imelda, so in Episode 100 I called their administration “a dictatorship made for two.” However, Ferdinand was in office from December 1965 to February 1986, longer than any other Philippine president, and with all the events taking place, we only got to the beginning of the 1980s in Episode 100. Therefore we will finish the Marcos presidency today, and then see how far we can go in discussing the aftermath. Is everyone ready to get into it? I knew you would be. Let’s go!


Last time, we noted that the chief opponent of Marcos was Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, and he was jailed for most of the period when the Philippines was under martial law. In 1980 Aquino suffered a heart attack. Imelda Marcos persuaded him to go abroad for the bypass surgery he needed; a move that exiled him, though he did get better. He and his family went to the United States, and spent the next three years in Boston, a time which his wife Corazon later called the happiest period of their lives. He traveled around the United States, giving speeches that were well received; once I even caught Pat Robertson interviewing him on The 700 Club, a TV show where normally you only see evangelists. But soon Aquino realized he wasn’t really getting anything done in America and decided to go back, concluding that, quote, “If I stay here, I’ll just be another forgotten politician in exile.” Unquote. Imelda and many others warned that he would be in danger, but he returned anyway, on August 21, 1983. Supposedly Marcos was going to arrest Aquino and take him back to his detention cell at Fort Bonifacio; 1,000 security personnel had been assigned to escort him to the cell. Instead, Aquino was shot dead as he stepped off the airplane in Manila. Another man, Rolando Galman, was presumably the gunman who fired the fatal shot; he was killed at once by the nearest soldiers.

Podcast footnote: After the downfall of Marcos, Manila’s international airport was renamed Ninoy Aquino Airport. The anniversary of Aquino’s death, and the anniversary of the 1986 revolution that we will be covering next, are holidays in the Philippines today. End footnote.

It is unlikely that Ferdinand Marcos himself ordered the assassination, since the now-ailing president was recovering from a kidney transplant at the time. In fact, he never was in good health again, from this time onward. One year later, his body rejected the kidney, forcing him to undergo another kidney transplant. Even so, his cronies, like Genral Fabian Ver, were in a position to order the assassination. That is what most Filipinos believed, while Marcos tried to blame the communist rebels. Fabian Ver and 25 other soldiers were indicted, but when the long trial ended in December 1985, all the defendants were acquitted. Despite years of investigations, the truth has never emerged concerning who actually planned the shootings, and it looks like we never will know what really happened.

Nothing affects the Filipinos as much as martyrdom. Ninoy’s body lay in state for eight days. His mother ordered that his bloody clothes not be changed, and that nothing be none to clean up the corpse, so that everyone could see, quote, “what they did to my son.” Unquote. More than one million people attended Ninoy’s funeral procession. He was hailed as another Jose Rizal; if you don’t remember Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, go back and listen to Episode #28. Some even called Ninoy’s death a “crucifixion,” to be followed by a “resurrection” in the eyes of the people. Opposition to the Marcos regime, always fragmented before, united around his widow Corazon. She had been an apolitical housewife until now, and was given the nickname “Cory.” Her husband had previously founded a political party called Lakas ng Bayan (“People Power”), and its symbol was the color yellow. When the next election arrived, the People Power movement joined forces with another party, the Philippine Democratic Party, and together they nominated Corazon as their candidate.


The third term of the Marcos presidency was scheduled to end in 1987, so he did not need to challenge Corazon Aquino before then. Nevertheless, to show he was still in control, Marcos called for a snap election, while being interviewed by the American news anchor David Brinkley. This would take place one year early, in February 1986. Normally he would have won easily, given his control over the electoral process and the media, and his opponent’s lack of experience. Indeed, many Philippine Leftists decided to boycott the election, fearing that their participation would only serve to further legitimize the regime. But Corazon Aquino got the help she needed to run an effective campaign. A seasoned politician, Salvador Laurel, ran as her vice-presidential candidate; the leader of the Philippine Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Sin, advised her every step of the way; most important of all, the campaign was closely watched by the rest of the world.

Podcast footnote: If Salvador Laurel’s last name sounds familiar, it is because we mentioned his father more than once in previous episodes. Salvador Laurel was the son of Jose Laurel, the president of the Philippines during World War II, when the Japanese occupied the islands. As for Cardinal Jaime Sin, he came from a family of Chinese descent, and Sin is a perfectly good Chinese name. We use that name, for example, in conflicts involving China, like the “Sino-Japanese War,” or the “Sino-Soviet border dispute.” Still, he knew what it meant in English, and when visitors came to his home, he jokingly said, “Welcome to the house of Sin.” He ran the Catholic Church in the Philippines from 1974 until his retirement in 2003. End footnote.

When the voting took place, the Commission on Elections announced that Marcos got 53% of the vote, while Aquino got 46%. Later these results would be declared fraudulent, and nullified. Meanwhile an election watchdog group, the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, declared Aquino the winner, with 52.5% of the vote — almost a mirror image opposite of what the Marcos camp claimed. Wikipedia has a map showing how the voting went in each province and island, and it shows the Marcos votes concentrated in one fourth of the Philippines — the northern third of Luzon, and the central islands of Samar, Leyte, Panay and half of Negros, while Aquino led in the other three fourths of the country. That included my wife’s home island, Mindanao. Once my wife showed me a photo taken during a campaign stop in her home town, where her father — my father-in-law — stood behind Ms. Aquino.

Abroad, the general opinion was that Marcos had tried to steal another election. For two weeks after Election Day, Western television broadcast scenes of thugs stealing ballot boxes or bullying voters. Because nobody could agree on who won, both candidates claimed victory, and Marcos and Aquino took the oath of office in different parts of Manila on the same day.

Again, as with Ninoy Aquino’s funeral procession, more than a million people took to the streets, this time encouraged by Cardinal Sin, to show they did not accept the victory Marcos claimed. The Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas, became a source of communications for the demonstrators. The armed forces turned out as well, so for four days, from February 22 to 25, there was a standoff in the streets of Manila.

The stage was set for a showdown, with Marcos and the military against Cory and most of the civilian population. Marcos gave orders for the army to disperse and arrest the demonstrators, but not to shoot. The critical turning point came when two Marcos loyalists, General Fidel Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, barricaded themselves in an army camp and declared themselves for Aquino. As other soldiers defected to them, tanks were brought out to crush the rebellion. Violence was averted, however, by an event that many saw as a miracle. Thousands of Aquino supporters, led by nuns and priests, blocked the streets with their bodies. No Filipinos wanted to kill Filipinos on that day, and the tank drivers chose to join the opposition rather than massacre unarmed civilians.

In the past, Philippine leaders turned to the United States when they needed help, and that is what Marcos did now. He got along with the current US president, Ronald Reagan, so he called one of Reagan’s closest friends, a senator from Nevada, Paul Laxalt. However, Reagan had come to believe it was time for Marcos to go, and Laxalt repeated this. Here is how the conversation went:

Marcos: “Senator, what do you think? Should I step down?”

Laxalt: “I think you should cut and cut cleanly. I think the time has come.”

Then came a pause so long that Laxalt thought Marcos had hung up, and he asked, “Mr. President, are you there?”

Marcos responded with a thin voice, “I am so very, very disappointed.”

To make the transition easier, Reagan invited Marcos to come to the United States. Helicopters transported the entire first family and their associates, 55 people in all, with a whole lot of boxes of belongings, from Malacañang Palace to Clark Air Force Base. Next, the entourage boarded C-130 cargo planes for the flight from the Philippines to Guam. On Guam the now-former president was examined by doctors, and then they continued to Honolulu, Hawaii. There in Honolulu, Ferdinand Marcos lingered on a life support machine until he died three and a half years later. In one of his last interviews, Marcos admitted that moving the date of his last election from 1987 to 1986 had been a mistake.

Podcast footnote: Three weeks before the People Power Revolution, Reagan had removed another dictator from his homeland, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti. In that case, the Duvaliers were not allowed in the United States, so they went to France. Sorry, I could not verify if any of the aircraft involved were used in both airlifts. End footnote.

Now I’m going to play a sound clip from 1986, so you can hear how the media reported the People Power Revolution when it happened. It comes from “Long Distance,” a podcast devoted to telling the stories of Filipinos living abroad. Unfortunately, the podcast has not produced any episodes since the COVID pandemic struck in 2020, and I do not know if the podcast is dead or simply dormant. Anyway, here is the sound clip:

<play sound clip>

Back in Manila, looters broke into Malacañang Palace, to discover what their taxes had been spent on; the presidential palace was full of merchandise from Imelda’s shopping sprees, including lingerie, hundreds of purses, and most notoriously, 3,000 pairs of shoes.

Actually, we are not in agreement on how many shoes there were; 3,000 pairs is the number you’ll hear in most places. Imelda herself insists that she never had more than 1,060 pairs. In the thirty-five years since the revolution, some shoes have gotten damaged by mold, termites or flooding, and were subsequently destroyed. Also, they weren’t all kept in Manila; an “emergency supply” of several hundred pairs turned up on Leyte, Imelda’s home island.

Now what did Ferdinand spend tax money on? Well, as part of his cult of personality, he had a 98-foot-tall statue of himself erected in northern Luzon, near Baguio City. This concrete bust was placed on top of a mountain, so it looked like the face of Marcos was carved out of the mountain, in the style of Mt. Rushmore. According to Wikipedia, it was finished in 1980, but the last of the scaffolding wasn’t removed until 1985, a few months before the end of his presidency, and right before my first visit to the Philippines.

After the Marcos family left the country, I remember a Philippine newspaper published a cartoon that showed an appropriate monument for Imelda. It was an enormous, high-heeled shoe, next to the Marcos bust. Naturally the hill tribe living in the area didn’t like the government taking some of their land away so the Marcos bust could be built on it, and they said, “Blow it up!” Someone did try to blow it up in the late 1980s, but the bomb only inflicted cracks in the structure.

The real damage came in 2002, when somebody planted another bomb in the hollow center of the bust, and the resulting explosion took out the eyes, forehead and cheeks. As with the first bomb, we don’t know who did it; the perpetrators could have been left-wing activists, local tribesmen, or looters following a rumor that Marcos hid treasure there. This would be the so-called “Yamashita Treasure.” According to the story, during World War II, Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese commander in the Philippines, acquired a fabulous treasure in gold, gems, bonds and artwork, hid it in various caves and tunnels, and did not reveal where it was after he was captured. Supposedly Marcos found at least part of the treasure later, and hid it in a new spot. Most people doubt the treasure exists, because no trace of it has been found, but rumors persist to this day, encouraging treasure hunters to come to the Philippines and look for it. Anyway, since 2002, the Marcos bust has continued to deteriorate. In the most recent picture I saw, dated 2010, all that remained was a concrete frame. In that sense, Marcos was a modern-day Ozymandias, building monuments to make people remember him forever, only to have those monuments fall into ruin later.


Corazon Aquino soon learned that throwing out Marcos was just the first step in rebuilding the nation. Time Magazine declared her “Woman of the Year” for 1986, but immediately after the revolution, the magazine also featured a picture of her and the new vice president, Salvador Laurel, on the cover, with the words, “Now For the Hard Part.” The economy stopped tumbling, but recovery was hindered by the birthrate of the population, which was now doubling every 25 years. And the problem of corruption continued; in 1988, for example, it consumed $2.5 billion, or one third of the national budget. Cory herself was above suspicion, but she was accused of being so sincere that she didn’t realize the people around her were insincere. The tales of corruption sounded a lot like what went on before 1965, as if the upper-class families displaced by Marcos wanted to make up for twenty years of lost time: there was smuggling, kickbacks on government contracts, fake licenses, payoffs to cops, etc. As Cardinal Sin explained it, quote, “Ali Baba Marcos fled, leaving behind the forty thieves.” Unquote. To this day, Filipinos scornfully refer to most of their politicians as trapos, meaning “dishrags,” but they re-elect them anyway. Sound familiar? Near the end of Aquino’s term, the shoe queen, Imelda Marcos, came back from exile, and somehow managed to avoid an 18-year jail sentence for graft. Some predicted that Imelda would run against Cory for president in 1992, but both of them chose not to run in that election, so the so-called “war of the widows” never took place.

In 1993 Imelda was given permission to bring back her husband’s body from Hawaii, where it had been kept on ice–literally. The government expected her to bury Ferdinand in Ilocos Norte, his home province. Instead, she put him on display in a refrigerated glass case, for twenty-three years. This is the only case I know of where the remains of a right-wing dictator became an exhibit; the other famous people to receive such treatment, like Lenin, Eva Peron, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh, were all left-wing politically. I think this is because most conservatives still believe in a Supreme Being — call him God if you wish — and this Supreme Being will resurrect them some day, so they don’t need to keep the old body around. By contrast, communists are atheists; if they expect to meet anybody after they die, it is not God, but Karl Marx!

Imelda kept her husband frozen because she wanted him buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery of Manila, the country’s official burial place for World War II veterans and former presidents. Attempts to bury him there in 1998 and 2011 were canceled due to widespread opposition. When a survey on the matter was taken in early 2016, for instance, 50% of the 1,800 respondents said that Marcos was worthy of a burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery, while 50% opposed the burial. Then in August 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte gave orders for the burial to take place, because he believed the World War II stories that Marcos told, and thus viewed Marcos as a hero for what he did, before the abuses of the martial law years. The Philippine Supreme Court delayed the burial to hear arguments against it from human rights activists, but then one morning in November 2016, the body and the Marcos family were flown in by helicopter, and the burial was held suddenly. Although it was done with military honors, there was barely any announcement of it happening until it was all over, and the public was not invited. And I guess that settled the matter.


Ferdinand Marcos was the best recruiter the rebels had. During the years of martial law the NPA, the New People’s Army, grew from a few hundred members, to 26,000 in the mid-1980s. They made a grave error, however, when they boycotted the 1986 elections. After Marcos left individual rebels started deserting, giving the Aquino government the upper hand in the struggle.

On Mindanao the NPA already knew better than to mess with the Moros, the Philippine Moslem community. Now they acquired a new enemy in the form of anticommunist vigilante groups. By 1986, the communists had gained control over Agdao, a slum district in Davao, Mindanao’s largest city. But then a group appeared to oppose them, which called itself Alsa Masa, meaning “Up With the Masses.” When their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Franco Calida, called a press conference to announce the group’s existence, he did it from an office which appropriately had a poster of Sylvester Stallone, from one of the Rambo movies, in the background. Over the next two years, Alsa Masa grew to 3,000 members, many of them communist defectors, and they single-handedly cleaned the NPA out of Davao City. Then in 1988 Davao elected a new mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, and because he got tough with the communists, the services of Alsa Masa were no longer needed. Of course we will be hearing a lot more from Mr. Duterte in a future episode!

President Aquino visited Davao on October 23, 1987, and she publicly praised Alsa Masa as a manifestation of People Power, saying, quote, “I know you have succeeded in crushing the communists… We look up to you as the example in our fight against the communists.” Unquote. Because of their example, around 200 more anticommunist vigilante groups sprang up in other parts of the Philippines. The most notorious of them are the bizarre cannibal cults that are called Tadtad, meaning “Chop-Chop.” Also based on Mindanao, the Tadtad believe their mission in life is to behead communists, and they will either drink the blood or eat the livers of their victims to protect themselves from the ghosts of those that they kill. Members like to pose for pictures with the severed heads of communists, and they claim to have special items — usually amulets, T-shirts bearing Latin inscriptions, or holy oils — that can make them bulletproof. One of my sources reported that they originally came from a Christian sect called Sagrada Corazon Señor, and that their founder, one Sade Catili, claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus. And yes, I am familiar with the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese civil war that was started by a man who made similar claims about himself. Unfortunately, like vigilantes elsewhere, the vigilantes in the Philippines have been accused of extra-judicial killings, where innocent bystanders become victims, and groups like Alsa Masa and the Tadtad have been denounced by human rights organizations, especially when the government praised them for doing what the military could not do.

Anyway, by 1993 internal feuds, defections, and government military drives had made the NPA a marginal force in most provinces, but guerrilla movements in this part of the world tend to last for generations, so the government is still dealing with them even now. The most recent estimates of the movement’s strength put it at between 2,000 and 4,000 gunmen.

As for the Moro rebels that I mentioned in Episode 100, the Moro National Liberation Front, I’m saving them for another episode, when we’ll have more time to talk about them and the splinter groups that broke off from their movement.


Aquino’s most serious challenges came from people who were supposed to be on her side. Between 1986 and 1990 there were nine coup attempts. The first challenge came just a little more than four months after the revolution, when soldiers and civilians loyal to former president Marcos occupied the Manila Hotel and tried to swear in Arturo Tolentino, the running mate of Marcos in the last election, as acting president. The second coup attempt came from Defense Minister Enrile; as soon as the 1986 revolution had ended, Enrile started telling Aquino to step down, so he could become president in her place. When his attempt to seize power failed, he was dismissed and replaced by Fidel Ramos. Equally ambitious was Vice President Laurel, who did not like being the number two man for anybody. Still other coup attempts were launched by military officers, who complained about being underequipped and underpaid, and accused Aquino of being too soft against her enemies. The bloodiest coup attempt, in August 1987, resulted in 53 soldiers killed and 200 wounded. The leader of that coup was a former top aide of Enrile, Colonel Gregorio Honasan, and he remained at large until the 1995 congressional elections, when he became a new member of the Philippine Senate. Finally, the coup of December 1989 involved three American-made military trainer aircraft, T-28D Trojans, attacking Malacañang Palace with rockets and gunfire; it took a squadron of F-5 fighters from the air force to defeat them.

The lease on the US bases expired in 1991. For years the United States and the Philippines had been negotiating a new treaty that would allow the bases to remain. Discussions concerning Clark Air Force Base became irrelevant when a nearby volcano, Mt. Pinatubo, erupted in 1991. This was Pinatubo’s first eruption in 600 years, and one of the largest eruptions of any volcano in the twentieth century. It spread ash over much of Southeast Asia, the lava flows caused flooding locally, and the volcano spewed so much more ash into the sky that it changed the color of sunsets around the world, and caused cooler than normal temperatures worldwide for 1992. So much ash covered Clark Air Force Base that the Americans chose to abandon the base rather than spend millions to clean it up. They reached an agreement on the US naval base, Subic Bay, but the Philippine Senate rejected it, though it meant losing thousands of jobs and $100 million in annual rent payments. Thus, the Americans had to get out of Subic Bay as well; for the first time since Spain conquered the islands in the sixteenth century, the Philippines stood on its own economically. Many Filipinos acted like the country had won its independence all over again, and they made heroes of the senators who voted against the agreement.

Podcast footnote: In 1994 an anti-American demonstrator put a poster on the fence surrounding the factory of a multinational company. It read: “Yankee go home! And take me with you!”


The Philippines is the only country I know of where this could happen. Even with the US bases gone, Filipinos still feel a connection with the former mother country, thanks to the large Filipino communities living in the United States, especially in California, Hawaii and Nevada. End footnote.

And now for an epilogue concerning the US bases. After the Americans left, the southern part of Clark Air Force Base continued to be used as a base, this time for the Philippine Air Force, while another part of it was converted into a civilian airport, Clark International Airport. The rest of it, along with the neighboring city of Angeles, has become the main commerce center of central Luzon, the Clark Freeport and Special Economic Zone. That’s how big the American base was in its heyday; there are now multiple facilities where it used to be. As for the US naval base in the Philippines, Subic Bay, it was converted into another commercial port, the Subic Special Economic and Freeport Zone. Hopefully the current facilities at Clark and Subic Bay are creating as many jobs for the local economies as the US bases used to provide; unfortunately I couldn’t find any data on that.


I am going to finish today’s episode with a special feature. I mentioned already that I visited the Philippines in November 1985, and got married while I was there. Since the Philippines are on the opposite side of the world from North America, whenever people hear that my wife is from there, the question that usually gets asked is, “How did you meet your wife?” So here is that story.

I never was popular in high school or college. I was your classic nerd type of person, not desirable material. Consequently I never had a girlfriend during those years; the women were always more interested in guys who were all muscle and looks and no brain. And yes, I did see “Revenge of the Nerds” when it came out in the cinemas; I could relate to that movie.

Therefore, at the end of 1983 I put a personal ad in the chief English language newspaper of the Philippines, after hearing that American men were more popular in that country than anywhere else on earth. At last, here was a place where I couldn’t lose in the game of love. My ad had 34 words, and ran for one day. Boy, whoever said that American men were popular was right! I got 465 answers to my ad! When the number of responses passed 200, I called the agency that placed my ad and said “Help!” They replied that my results were perfectly normal; some men get more than a thousand answers.

For nearly two years after that, I tried writing the ladies as best I could. In the order of responding to my ad, Leive Bendoy, the one who would eventually become “Mrs. History of Southeast Asia Podcast,” was Number 196. Over time, the number I kept corresponding with went down. I don’t know how I ended up with the few I considered “finalists”; I think God had a bigger hand in narrowing down the candidates than I did.

Early in 1985 I started saving up for a trip to the Philippines, after I realized that with the state of the economy under Marcos, even I could afford to visit there. By November 1985 I was ready to go. I was planning to meet a few candidates in person, starting with an excursion to Mindanao to meet Leive. After arriving in Manila I stayed there one day, before proceeding south. The nearest airport to her hometown was in Ozamiz City. It was a small airport that handled 3 or 4 flights a week, with one runway and one rectangular building for the terminal; all of this was surrounded by coconut trees, with mountains as you got away from the coast. My thought as I first saw the place was, “It sure doesn’t look like Poughkeepsie.”


After I got my suitcase, I sat down on the floor, against one wall in the terminal. I was wondering what to do next, when suddenly a brother of Leive introduced himself! He claimed he knew I was coming, but not what day I would arrive; he just happened to show up in the airport at the right time. How about that! After spending the night in an Ozamiz hotel, we continued on to the home town. The next two days were spent getting acquainted with the future “Mrs. History of Southeast Asia Podcast.”

Although I figured we were compatible, both before and after our first meeting in person, I wasn’t planning to get married on that trip. My original plan was to meet some of the other ladies first, before committing to one of them, and then come back on a second trip for the actual wedding. However, Leive had other ideas, and said that if I came back for her later, she wouldn’t be there. After persuading me that a quick wedding was the best option, a four-day engagement followed. Half of that engagement was spent flying to and from the nearest US Consulate, in Cebu City, to get the US government’s permission to get married. Because she comes from a family of pastors, we had no trouble finding someone to conduct the wedding; her eldest brother did that. So we tied the knot — literally — on November 15, 1985. In the Philippines everyone wakes up early; on that day we were all up at 5:30 AM, and ready to go with the wedding by 8 AM. One other way in which Philippine weddings are different from American ones is that they tie a cord around the couple during the service. I don’t know why, but guessed it was to keep me from escaping! And I found out that over there, the groom is expected to pay for the wedding — arrgh! Afterwards, we flew to Manila for the honeymoon.

I came back to the States after that, while my new wife stayed with relatives in Manila, and applied for the passport and visa required for her to follow me. That took four months. In the meantime I spent up to a fourth of my paychecks on phone calls to her. The delay meant she was in Manila when the People Power Revolution took place, so her paperwork was delayed by an extra week, due to an unexpected government holiday. Of course it was an answer to prayer that the revolution was non-violent. Finally in March 1986 my wife arrived in her new American home. 35 years later, we are still together, and have one child (a daughter) and two grandchildren, so I think you will agree that while the wedding was rushed, it wasn’t a mistake.



And that’s our story. I was going to bring on Leive to tell her side of the story, but she’s shy, sorry. Now what will I talk about in the next episode? Currently I am thinking of finishing the story of Brunei. That rich mini-state has been mentioned several times in our narrative, but until now it hasn’t gotten its own episode, so this will be the time to take care of that oversight. I hope you will join me for that; as the saying goes, be there or be square!


Do you enjoy hearing your podcasts without commercials? If so, it means your podcasts are listener-supported – including this one — so consider supporting this podcast by making a donation through Paypal or Patreon. To make a one-time donation, click on the gold button that says “Donate!”, on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode. You can also pledge to give a small amount each month, $1 or more, by clicking on the Patreon link on the same Blubrry.com page, and becoming a Patron. Since I last mentioned the Patreon page, the number of Patrons has increased to 19, with the newest Patron committing to $25 a month. Awesome, I didn’t know that was possible!

And as I like to remind you, there is more you can do to support the podcast. Write a review, if your favorite podcatcher allows reviews. On Facebook, there is the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it to see the content I share. And probably the best way of all — word of mouth advertising. Tell others about the show; you never know when someone may be interested. Now it’s time to go, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Liberal Holidays

I’ll admit I spoiled one woman’s marijuana holiday yesterday.  She was going to a bar and asked me, “Do you know what I’m celebrating?”  Without hesitation I said, “Sure.  Adolf Hitler’s birthday.”  Which is true; Hitler was born on April 20, 1889.

Has anyone else noticed that liberals tend to put their holidays on the birthdays of dictators?  The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was also Lenin’s 100th birthday; coincidence?  And the winter solstice (December 21) is Stalin’s birthday.  I’m guessing that it won’t be long before Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (May 19) becomes a liberal holiday, too.

The Free Cities

A new section has been added to Chapter 15 of the website’s European history, explaining the unique creation of “free cities” by diplomats at the end of World War I.

The Free Cities

Danzig, Memel and Fiume were declared “free cities” because the negotiators couldn’t agree on who owned them, so basically they dodged the issue by postponing a settlement of these border disputes. Nowadays we would call this solution “kicking the can down the road,” and it wasn’t very successful. With Danzig and Memel, the problem was that these were German seaports, but the new nations next to them, Poland and Lithuania respectively, had no seaports of their own, and a coastline so small that they barely had access to the sea. Lithuania annexed Memel (modern Klaipéda) in January 1923, while the Allies were distracted by their occupation of the Ruhr in Germany. Nevertheless, the Germans would demand Memel’s return at the end of the period covered by this chapter. As for Danzig (modern Gdansk), it survived as an independent city until the beginning of World War II, but its status was constantly in dispute and this hurt German-Polish relations.

Fiume (modern Rijeka) deserves special treatment, because it became the site of the most bizarre social experiment of the early twentieth century. The city’s population was 46.9% Italian, but there were also a significant number of Croats, Hungarians, Slovenes and Germans, and for most of medieval and modern history it had been ruled by whoever ruled Austria, so the Allies didn’t know what to do with it. The treaty of Versailles assigned it to Yugoslavia (see footnote #1), but the Allies also considered letting it remain as Austria’s last seaport, after nearby Trieste was handed to Italy; US President Wilson even thought about making it the headquarters of his new League of Nations. Meanwhile, Italy claimed the city, because during World War I, more than 1 million Italians had been killed, but as we already saw, Italy had gained only a small amount of territory in compensation.

(Footnote: One of the Italian soldiers that made it through the war was Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli, who served in the medical corps as a stretcher-bearer and a chaplain. Before the war he had been ordained a priest, and forty years after the war, he became Pope John XIII, one of the best-loved popes of the twentieth century.)

Into this situation stepped Gabriele D’Annunzio, a free-spirited poet who also happened to be the most charismatic person in Italy. How charismatic was he? Italians already loved D’Annunzio for the poems and novels he had written, so he stopped traffic wherever people recognized him. He could make soldiers and even naval vessels do what he said, using no weapon but his voice. Women risked their marriages, families and careers for a chance to have an affair with him. Casanova was an amateur compared to D’Annunzio.

Anyway, D’Annunzio had joined the Italian army during World War I, though he was already more than fifty years old, and because of his magnetic personality, he was allowed to serve. He became a war hero in 1918, when, as a fighter pilot, he led nine planes in an air raid over Vienna, where they dropped propaganda leaflets on the Austrian capital. On September 12, 1919, he led an irregular force of 2,600 soldiers to seize Fiume, and offered it to Italy. The Italian government refused, choosing instead to go with the decisions of the other Allied nations, and ordered a blockade of the city. Therefore D’Annunzio declared Fiume the “Italian Regency of Carnaro,” with himself in charge of it, and proceeded to draw up a constitution. This constitution established a “corporatist state,” with nine corporations running different sectors of the economy, and a tenth corporation to rule the others. However, it also declared music as the city-state’s ideology, calling music a “religious and social institution.”

And that’s not all. D’Annunzio ruled by combining anarchist, democratic, and proto-fascist ideas. Every morning he read poetry and manifestos from his balcony, and every evening he threw a concert, followed by fireworks. The city came to resemble a hippie commune, fifty years before the hippie movement, where all lifestyles were permitted, so long as nobody got hurt: e.g., recreational drug use, free love, nudism and homosexuality were all widely practiced. Women could vote here, before they got the right to vote in the United States and most of Europe. In addition, non-western religions like Buddhism and Theosophy had followers here.

If all this doesn’t sound wild enough, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague at one point, but fortunately it was stopped before too many people were infected. Because of the blockade on Fiume, the city resorted to piracy to get the supplies it needed; this included raids on trucks and trains, as well as the taking of ships that is normally associated with pirates. To the embarrassment of the Italian government, some ships, like the destroyer Espero, actually mutinied and offered their services to D’Annunzio. When it came to foreign policy, D’Annunzio proposed setting up an alternative to the League of Nations, an international organization for oppressed peoples fighting imperialism, especially the Irish and various separatist groups in the Balkans.

Unfortunately for D’Annunzio, even a person like him couldn’t single-handedly keep a city independent forever. In November 1920, representatives of Italy and Yugoslavia signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which declared Fiume a free city belonging to neither of them. D’Annunzio responded by declaring war on Italy itself. The Italian navy went to Fiume, and when the first ships arrived, D’Annunzio persuaded them not to attack the city simply by speaking from his balcony, but they came back in late December 1920, and bombarded the city from December 24 to 28, only taking time off on the 25th for Christmas. Around 50 were killed in the siege, and D’Annunzio surrendered after he asked for, and got, a full pardon for himself and his men. Rome agreed to this amnesty because D’Annunzio wasn’t really an enemy; he had been promoting Italian nationalism all along.

D’Annunzio bought a luxurious villa in Lombardy, and spent the rest of his life there, writing more poems, and still enjoying the companionship of many women, until his death in 1938. He turned down offers from both the Fascist and Communist parties to join them, and after Mussolini took over (see below) this dictator reportedly paid more than one bribe to D’Annunzio, to keep him from getting back into politics. As for Fiume, the early 1920s saw one government after another rise and fall in that city. Then Mussolini decided to annex Fiume, and this was put in writing with the Treaty of Rome, in January 1924. Thus, Fiume was an Italian city until World War II. Upon the war’s end it went to Yugoslavia, which gave it the present-day name of Rijeka; today it belongs to Croatia.

Episode 109: Thailand, the Game of Political Musical Chairs

Today’s episode covers Thailand, from 1976 to 2000.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, modernization became the top priority of the Thai kingdom.  While the Thais found it fairly easy to adopt new technology, they found it harder to switch from absolute monarchy to a more modern government, and they have been trying to do that since 1932.  Listen in to find out if Thailand can get it right this time.





This episode is dedicated to the latest donors to the podcast, Jack D., Dean H., Caroline C., Louis C., and Donald H. Louis is a regular donor, and it’s always good to hear from him again. The rest are new here, and of course I’m glad they joined our happy family. Today’s episode is about a country trying to achieve stability, so may your lives be stable, and may all your surprises be pleasant ones. And now for something completely different, to quote John Cleese.

Episode 109: Thailand, the Game of Political Musical Chairs

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 109th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Before we begin with today’s episode, I need to point to a milestone the podcast has reached. I believe that in the past, I let you know when the podcast achieved 10,000, 100,000, and a quarter million downloads. Well, on April 1, 2021, exactly four years and nine months after the podcast’s first episode went online, the total number of downloads crossed the 500,000 mark. Episodes of the podcast have been downloaded or listened to, half a million times. And that’s no April Fool joke!


Thank you, thank you very much. Will the podcast make it to one million downloads? I certainly hope so. But with the podcast currently covering events that happened in my lifetime, and possibly yours too, the end of the podcast is in sight, and I am thinking much about what I will do after this podcast is finished.

Now what topic will today’s episode cover? The past twelve episodes looked at the recent history of Southeast Asia, and with three of the eleven nations — Singapore, Malaysia and Laos — we finished their story completely. I have decided that it’s time to take another look at Thailand, the unconquered kingdom formerly known as Siam.

More than a hundred and seventy years ago, around 1850, the king of Siam, Rama III, realized that his country needed to modernize, or else it would be exploited and conquered by the foreign powers of Europe. This king was at the end of his reign, so it was too late for him to start bringing the kingdom up to date, but those who came after him did it wholeheartedly. As it turned out, introducing Western technology and learning how to use it was the easy part. The big challenge was switching to a new government like those the Western nations were adopting; the absolute monarchy that had run Siam previously was no longer suitable. Therefore, in 1932 a military coup took away most of the king’s power, and a few years later, the kingdom’s name was changed to Thailand. If you want a refresher on these events, go listen to Episode 27.

Everyone else, let’s move on. Attempts were made to set up a Western-style democracy, in the 1930s, near the end of World War II, and in 1973. But each time the new government failed after a few years; each one ended with the military seizing power, and ruling indefinitely afterwards. When the 1973 government came undone in 1976, the result was a massacre. It was so bloody that the Thais did not talk about it again for 44 years — until 2020. We covered all this in Episodes 61 and 99.

Whenever a field marshal was in charge, Thailand was run efficiently, and it has done well, compared with its neighbors. But the world’s most successful nations don’t need military juntas to run things. Look at the G-7 countries. Three of them — Britain, Canada and Japan — are constitutional monarchies, while the rest — France, Germany, Italy and the United States — are republics. In every case, civilians are in charge. The ultimate goal of the Thais is to make their nation efficient enough to work the same way. For Episode 99, the narrative ended in the year 1976. Are the politicians in Bangkok now experienced enough to do their jobs right, and can they be trusted to serve in office without corruption? Let’s find out; start the narrative for today.


After the massacre of 1976, the military appointed a conservative lawyer, Thanin Kravichien, to be the next prime minister. He was a civilian, but was also strongly anti-communist, and he set up a regime more repressive than that of the generals who came before him. Strict censorship continued, the government tightly controlled labor unions, and suspected communists were fired from the civil service and educational institutions. Because of this, many students joined the communist insurgency that I told you about in Episode 99. The PLAT, or People’s Liberation Army of Thailand, reached its peak in 1980, when it had around 10,000 members.

The army waited until Thanin discredited himself, and then replaced him one year later. The next leader, General Kriangsak Chomanand, introduced a new constitution in December 1978 with a popularly elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate, but the military controlled cabinet and Senate appointments. Economic instability, however, brought a no-cofidence vote, and Kriangsak was forced to resign in March 1980. He was replaced by the commander in chief of the army and the minister of defense, General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem ruled for eight years, roughly during the same time as Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the United States, and he was competent enough to bring back normalcy.

Prem restored parliamentary institutions by appointing civilians to his cabinet. A coup attempt in 1981 was launched by a group of army officers who called themselves the “Young Turks,” after the Turkish officers who had seized power in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. It failed because Prem and the royal family fled Bangkok, escaping to the Khorat plateau. Still, the government had been weakened, and the civilian members of the government constantly opposed Prem. Despite this, and student and farmer demonstrations, Prem was reappointed as prime minister in April 1983. He survived another coup attempt in September 1985 and elections in July 1986. Finally, a long-standing 1 AM curfew in Bangkok was lifted, and Prem allowed dissenting opinions to be heard again in public.

Under Prem, the main concern of the Thai people was not domestic problems but what was happening in neighboring Indochina. Have you heard of the Domino Theory? Because of it, after the communists gained control over Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos in 1975, those who believed in the Domino Theory feared that Thailand would be the next to fall to communism. And from 1975 onward, a steady stream of refugees came into Thailand from those countries, fleeing poverty or the Pol Pot terror. After the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, the stream of Cambodian refugees became a flood, peaking at 430,000 before the United States and other nations began taking them in. Add to that 160,000 refugees from the Karen revolt in Burma, 80,000 Laotians and Hmong, 12,000 Nationalist Chinese descended from Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers, 15,000 Vietnamese “boat people,” and 40,000 Vietnamese refugees from the First Indochina War, and the result was a whale of a refugee problem. Occasionally Vietnamese units crossed the Cambodian-Thai border and attacked Cambodian refugee camps, to get at the Khmer Rouge hiding there. In the early 1980s Thailand tried to ignore these skirmishes, since nobody wanted them to escalate into a war between Thailand and Vietnam. Later on, as internal security improved, the military starting launching counterattacks against the Vietnamese units it caught on Thai soil. Apparently that contributed to Vietnam’s decision to quit Cambodia in the late 1980s.

A side effect of these events was that they cured the Thais of any leftist tendencies they might have had after 1976. If revolution can only bring something like the Vietnamese reeducation camps, or the killing fields of Cambodia, then the Thai people do not want any part of it. Consequently the communist rebels ran out of steam. Because of military actions, and an amnesty program launched in 1982, the rebels started giving themselves up, coming out of the jungles to swear loyalty to the king.

Elections were held in July 1988. Because Prem had put down the communist rebellion and had overseen strong economic growth, he was asked to continue as prime minister after the elections. Instead, he felt it was time to retire, being 68 years old, so he stepped down. Although he would not become prime minister again, this wasn’t the last time the world heard from Prem Tinsulanonda. Now considered an elder statesman, he became president of the king’s privy council, where he acted as an advisor for the rest of his life. Now here’s a spoiler alert: the king since 1946, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, is not going to live forever. In 2016 Prem was called out of his state of semi-retirement, at the age of 96, to oversee the transition from King Rama IX to Rama X. Thus, he served as Regent of Thailand, from Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death on October 13 to the proclamation of Vajiralongkorn as the next king on December 1, 2016. Finally, Prem died in May 2019, at the age of 98.


Prem was succeeded as prime minister by Chatichai Choonhavan, who was a retired general, businessman, and the leader of a multiparty coalition. Reforms were introduced in the business sector, the government allowed increased foreign investment, and relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam improved. And because the threat of a communist takeover, either from within or through an invasion, was fading, the military’s hold on national politics decreased as well; 60 percent of Chatichai’s cabinet members were business executives, rather than generals. However, Chatichai was unpopular, and was accused of corruption and abuse of power. Therefore the military decided it was time to return, and Chatichai was removed from power in a bloodless coup on February 23, 1991. This was Thailand’s 19th coup attempt since 1932, and the tenth successful one. In Chatichai’s place came a junta called the National Peace-Keeping Council, or NPKC, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon; new elections were promised for March 1992.

The right to public assembly was suspended, but the press was only closed for one day. To dispel fears that Thailand was returning to 100% military rule, the NPKC appointed a civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, the former ambassador to the USA, Germany, Canada and the UN. Anand claimed he was his own man, but like his predecessors – elected or not – he was allowed the freedom to make decisions only insofar as they didn’t affect the military. The 1978 constitution was thrown out, and in December 1991 the national assembly passed a new constitution that guaranteed a parliament biased in favor of the NPKC – 270 appointed senators stacked against 360 elected representatives. Now, no matter who was chosen as the next prime minister or which political parties won the parliamentary elections, the military would have the last word on what the government could do.


When the March 1992 elections took place, three pro-military parties won 53% of the seats in the Assembly, and the candidate they picked for prime minster, Narong Wongwam, was accused by the United States of being involved with Thailand’s drug trade. As a result, the military exercised its constitutional prerogative and replaced Narong with (surprise, surprise) General Suchinda in April. Tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of life, led by the governor of Bangkok, Chamlong Srimuang, immediately began to demand Suchinda’s resignation. In May the police declared a state of emergency and called in the troops, who fired into demonstrating crowds, killing 300. The public was shocked and the king intervened, persuading both military and civilians to put the interests of the Thai people first, and to amend the constitution to make it more democratic. Suchinda arranged for an executive amnesty for himself and his supporters before the whole junta resigned, Anand Panyarachun was brought back to serve as acting prime minister for a second time, and then new elections were scheduled for September 1992. For his part in persuading the public to reject Suchinda, Chamlong won the 1992 Magsaysay Award, a humanitarian service award issued by a foundation in the Philippines.

For the September 1992 elections, the contest was between five pro-military parties, characterized by the Thai press as “devils,” and four pro-democracy “angel” parties. This was Thailand’s 19th election, and the turnout (62%) was the highest yet. The “angels” won a bare majority, and the leader of one of their parties, Chuan Leekpai, was sworn in as the country’s 20th prime minister. Chuan was a food vendor’s son, instead of a general or wealthy businessman, and a native of Trang Province, a remote province in the south, so he didn’t fit the usual mold. To make the government more stable, Chuan set up a coalition that included the largest “devil” party. This government pushed through constitutional amendments that provided for more wide-ranging democratic practices, enlarged the House of Representatives, reduced the size of the appointed Senate, lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 years of age, guaranteed equality for women, and established an administrative court. However, it accomplished little with Bangkok traffic and national infrastructure, two issues that Thais considered just as important.

In May 1995 the Chuan Leekpai government collapsed; it was accused of wrongdoing in a government land reform project, and then failed in a no confidence vote. Two months later, new elections were held and the leader of the Thai Nation Party, Banharn Silpa-archa, became the next prime minister. Banharn was a billionaire, whom the press called a “walking ATM”; they attacked his tendency to appoint to key jobs rural politicians that favored big business over social welfare. Then when accusations of corruption appeared, there were investigations into bribes, abuse of authority, and questionable bank loans. There was also an embarrassing incident in October 1996, where Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Bangkok, and Banharn referred to her as “Queen Elizabeth Taylor.”


Sorry, I have no info on how the actress by that name felt. Anyway, after only a year in office, Banharn was compelled to resign. The next election, held in November 1996, was marked by violence and accusations of vote buying. This time the winner was the New Aspiration Party, and its leader, former deputy prime minister and army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, became the next prime minister, with a dubious mix of coalition partners.

While governments rose and fell with unsurprising regularity, the economy grew at a spectacular rate of 10% a year in the late 1980s, and it did nearly as well in the early 90s (8% to 9.5%). New industries were introduced, and tourism generated huge profits, but the tourism industry is a mixed blessing; a liberal attitude toward sex gave Bangkok a reputation as the kind of city where tourists can have any sexual experience for a price. Consequently, since the end of the 1980s, Thailand has also suffered from the worst AIDS epidemic in Asia.

Podcast footnote: I remember when the Philippines had the same reputation, as a hot spot for sex tourism. That mostly ended with the closing of the US bases there in the early 1990s. A lot of bargirls were put out of work by the base closings, I’ll tell you that! End footnote.


In 1996 growth slowed to 6%, while the nation’s budget deficit ballooned to 8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Without realizing it, Thailand had overextended itself. As in other Pacific Rim nations, corporations and investors had come to believe that prosperity would continue forever. To promote endless growth, the country’s weak and poorly disciplined financial sector loaned money freely and asked few questions, never considering that growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.

At this stage, Thailand’s foreign debt was half as big as the Gross Domestic Product, and 40% of it was in short-term loans, meaning it had to be paid right away. Normally Thailand would get the money needed for those payments from its best customer, Japan. However, Japan’s economy had been in a depression since 1990, meaning that the Japanese could no longer afford to buy Thai-made goods, or invest in Thai businesses, so money from Japan was not available. To make Thai products more competitive, the decision was made on July 2, 1997, to let the baht, Thailand’s currency, float. Instead it caused a disaster; the next four months saw the baht lose nearly 60% of its value. Credit became unavailable, the real estate market crashed, growth ended altogether, and 58 of the country’s 91 financial companies had to suspend business. Worst of all, Thailand’s collapse started a chain reaction that hit all of the Far East, especially Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea. Those countries, like Thailand, had huge spending deficits, massive external debt and low foreign-exchange reserves. Asia was borrowing billions more than it could afford, because of optimistic predictions of future growth.

Meanwhile, a new constitution was being written, Thailand’s 16th since 1932. This one was called “The People’s Constitution” because it was the first that did not come from military men, and the assembly drafting it had been elected first. What’s more, in this constitution, both houses of the Thai Parliament were directly elected, and human rights were guaranteed as well. Because of this constitution, recent Thai elections have been more open, less corrupt than they were in the past, and the governments they created are more stable, reducing the need for the military to get involved when things go wrong. Parliament approved it on September 27, 1997.

To save the economy, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank stepped in. They offered a rescue package worth $17.2 billion, on condition that during the next fiscal year, Thailand restructure its budget so that it produced a surplus worth 1% of the Gross Domestic Product. This meant higher taxes and lower government spending, which is never popular. In October 1997, Prime Minister Chavalit reshuffled his cabinet without changing the makeup of the coalition government. This failed to improve the public mood, so one month later he resigned. New elections returned his rival, Chuan Leekpai, to the prime ministership. In the past, a political crisis usually led to military intervention; instead, this time there was a peaceful transfer of power, and this was seen as a major breakthrough in the development of Thailand’s democracy. Chuan set up a new coalition, and he did a decent job as an international public-relations man for the rest of the crisis. As a result, he was able to hold on until the next election, in 2001. The baht continued to devalue, however, and this led to social unrest. By the summer of 1998, the economy had become more stable, although investigations into banking practices continued to uncover mismanagement and irregularities, and more assistance was needed from the International Monetary Fund in order to begin Thailand’s recovery.


I don’t want this episode to go on too long, so I’ll save the coverage of events after the year 2000 for another episode, and finish this one with some thoughts on why the Thai generals kept getting involved in politics. One of the ways in which human societies vary is by what kind of upward mobility is permitted. Some have many ways to get ahead; if they have a rigid caste system, there may be no upward mobility at all. With the Thais, for most of history nearly all opportunities went to members of the royal family. And according to the fifteenth-century laws of succession in Ayutthayan Siam, you only belonged to the royal family if there were no more than five generations separating you from the current king.

Traditionally, the best way to get around that system was to become a monk. The clergy is a profession open to members of all social classes. A sufficiently pious monk can become an advisor to important officials, especially if he shows spiritual gifts like prophecy; I told you once about a monk in Laos who became a favorite of the king in the 1950s when he predicted correctly that Luang Prabang, the royal capital, would not be captured by the communists at that time. Even so, a monk has to accept the restrictions that come with a monk’s life; for example, if he is breaking the vows of poverty and celibacy, he’d better not flaunt it!

When Siam modernized, a military career became another way to get ahead in Thai society. Although it is unthinkable for a soldier to become a king, or to marry into the royal family, since 1932 generals have become head of the government very often, and that is the next best thing. Moreover, because of the success of Thai diplomacy, the nation has only gone to war a few times since the twentieth century began, and except for the fight against well-defended Laotians that I mentioned in the previous episode, those wars weren’t very bloody for Thailand. Therefore I will venture to suggest that the ambitious, power-grabbing generals had too much free time on their hands, and they tended to forget that the first responsibility of the armed forces is to defend the nation. But now, as the civilian politicians manage to gain some experience, and the government is paying more attention to what the rest of the world thinks, it appears that Thailand is finally becoming a mature democracy. At any rate, the generals seem less willing to pull the tricks they got away with in the past.


Okay, that should be enough content for today. I know I ran a lot of names past you, because Thailand is trying to get its political act together, and after all the efforts in the twentieth century, it’s still not stable yet. And I’m sure I mispronounced some of those names, so let me apologize to my Thai-speaking listeners for that. Thai names have always been a challenge for me, because they are so long! Don’t worry, I won’t expect you to remember most of those names. If you only remember one of these Thai leaders, remember Prem Tinsulanonda, because he was active the longest. And maybe remember Chuan Leekpai, because he was in charge twice.

For the next episode, I plan to jump over to another country that was getting its act together at the same time — the Philippines. The last time we looked at the Philippines, we didn’t finish the long-lasting presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, so join me as we find out how that administration ended, and what came after it. See you soon!

This podcast is offered as a free service, because I believe there should not be restrictions in the transfer of knowledge. Nevertheless, it costs time and money to record and upload it, so any support is appreciated. The most visible way to support the podcast is by making a donation through Paypal. On the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode, there are links to Paypal, Patreon, and the podcast’s Hall of Fame Page. Click on the gold Paypal button to make a donation. Or if you would rather pledge a small amount each month, follow the Patreon link to become a Patron of the podcast. Thank you in advance for your support. And that’s not all; you can refer others to the podcast. Tell your online friends on social media, or just spread the word the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 108: Laos, Feeling Good, and That’s All


Here’s a phrase I want you to remember:  sabai di, pronounced “sa-bye dee.”  In the Thai and Lao languages it means “feel good.”  Just as Swahili speakers may say “hakuna matata” (no worries) when they are in a good mood, so the phrase sabai di summarizes the general mood in Laos.  In fact, an old article from Time Magazine used the phrase to call Laos “The Land of Feeling Good.”  Now listen to the latest episode of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast as we finish up the historical narrative on Laos, looking at events in that country from 1975 to the present.





This episode is dedicated to Julia B., and Trevor V. Both of them have made donations to the podcast recently. Thank you from the entire staff of the podcast (which from the start has been just me). As I record this it’s a lovely spring day here; the temperature is just right, and the neighborhood is full of pear trees covered with white flowers. Fortunately I’m not bothered by the pollen; when I moved to Kentucky, I left my allergies behind in Florida. All appears well when I look at this landscape, and may all be well with both of you. Don’t let the media fool you, we’re going to pull through these crazy times! Today we’ll be looking at a country where the buzzword is sabai di, meaning “feel good.” Likewise, may your cheerful attitude get you through whatever challenges come your way.

Episode 108: Laos, Feeling Good . . . And That’s All

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 108th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Here’s a question for those of you who have been listening to this podcast for some time. You have heard me define Southeast Asia as “the eleven countries between India, China and Australia.” You also know that for the past few episodes, I have been covering the recent history of those eleven countries, from the late 1950s to the present. In fact, with two of them, Singapore and Malaysia, I made it all the way to the present, so they won’t have to appear in the narrative anymore. Besides Singapore and Malaysia, I have also talked about Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma (or as it is now called, Myanmar), Cambodia and Vietnam. Quick now, which place do I need to talk about next?

Hello Laos.

If you said “Brunei” or “East Timor,” that’s also right, but I’m not ready to cover them yet. They will get their turn in future episodes.

Now if you don’t live in Southeast Asia, I bet you haven’t seen Laos make many headlines. The only time it ever did was when part of the Second Indochina War — or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War — took place there. American strategists saw Laos as valuable, because of its location in the geographic center of the Southeast Asian mainland; on its borders were six other countries — China, North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. But the rest of the time Laos has been seen as hidden away, off the beaten path, behind its more noisy neighbors, especially Vietnam and Thailand. What’s more, the country’s terrain is a combination of jungle and mountains, making transportation very difficult; for most of history, the easiest way to get to Laos was by sailing on the Mekong River, and all significant communities are next to this waterway. In that sense Laos resembles two South American countries, Bolivia and Paraguay; all three nations are landlocked, all three nations are poor, and you don’t hear from them much. Well, now it’s time for Laos to have its turn in the spotlight. Because of the lack of headlines over the past 46 years, I think I have a fighting chance of finishing the historical narrative on Laos today. Do you want to hear me try it?

For those who missed the previous episodes where Laos appeared, or for those who merely need a refresher, here you go. Laos first appeared in our narrative in Episode 10, as a fourteenth-century kingdom called Lan Xang, the “Land of a Million Elephants.” Over the next three hundred years it fought a series of wars with Burma and Siam; often these conflicts were for control of Chiangmai, a city that is now in northern Thailand. Lao participation in those squabbles ended shortly after 1700, because Lan Xang split into three smaller states, which were first conquered by Siam in 1778, then annexed by France in 1893. For the French, Laos was their most remote colony, and it became the place where a French citizen would go to “get away from it all.” Although French rule sounds like bad news, in the long run it saved the Lao people as a distinctive ethnic group. There aren’t many differences between the Lao and the Thais, and if Thai rule over Laos had been allowed to continue, the Lao probably would have been completely absorbed into present-day Thailand. Indeed, I mentioned at least once that there are more ethnic Lao living on the Khorat Plateau, in northeastern Thailand, than in Laos itself.

After World War II, a nationalist movement, the Lao Issara, sprang up in Laos. The French did not cooperate with them, but later they realized they would need help from friendly native-run governments, in order to defeat the communists in neighboring Vietnam, so they granted independence to Laos in 1953. Too late, a communist movement for Laos, the Pathet Lao, had gotten started by now, led by a Laotian prince, Souphanouvong, and the communist leader in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, was already giving him a hand. This marked the beginning of what is sometimes called the Laotian Civil War, which ran on and off for 22 years, from 1953 to 1975. I covered this war in Episodes 67, 74, 75, 78, 79, and 96. As I mentioned before, this is now considered part of the larger wars that took place in Vietnam at the same time.

Before independence, the only leaders in Laos were members of the royal family, so during the Laotian Civil War, each faction was led by a prince, and they were half-brothers to each other. In that sense, you can call the war a family quarrel on a national scale. The three princes were the “White Prince,” Souvanna Phouma, for the Neutralists, the “Blue Prince,” Boun Oum, for the Royalists, and the “Red Prince,” Souphanouvong, for the Pathet Lao. But because communism is opposed to royalty on principle, Souphanouvong was always a figurehead; the real leader of the Pathet Lao was Kaysone Phomvihane, and he managed to stay out of the spotlight during the war.

By 1973, the Pathet Lao controlled 80 percent of the country; what the government still held was the Mekong valley and the nation’s two capitals, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. To capture the rest, the Pathet Lao did not use brute force, like their counterparts in Vietnam and Cambodia; instead they used political pressure. They joined the government when a cease-fire was declared in 1973, and they persuaded their noncommunist rivals to either see things their way, or to quit and get out. That, and the collapse of the noncommunist regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia, allowed Pathet Lao troops to take over most areas without firing a shot. For their last moves, in December 1975, they did away with the 600-year-old Laotian monarchy, changed the name of the country to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and changed the name of the Pathet Lao to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or LPRP. Souphanouvong became the country’s first president (which for him was another ceremonial job), and Kaysone Phomvihane became the prime minister.

Okay, that’s where Laos was the last time it appeared in this podcast. Now let’s move on from there.



The new regime was organized much the same way as those in the Soviet Union and Vietnam. In fact, one reason why Laos hasn’t been in the news much since 1975 is because in matters of domestic and foreign policy, the Laotians pretty much do whatever the Vietnamese do. The government and bureaucracy were under the strict direction of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which in turn was led by a seven-member Politburo. For the country, the communists started by instituting the same sort of hardline policies that were practiced in postwar Vietnam. Private trade was banned, the few existing factories were nationalized, livestock was confiscated, and young people were even required to get permission from party cadres before falling in love. Freedoms of speech and assembly were restricted, and people were forced to attend interminable “seminars,” to be indoctrinated into the Pathet Lao view of the world. More than 40,000 royalist military officers and other “enemies of the state” were banished to a jungle gulag of “re-education camps.” Many of those who went to the camps did not resist, because they figured their time in the camps would be short, a few months at most. But the communists did not keep that promise, just as they lied when they promised to keep the monarchy. Hundreds of the inmates remained in re-education camps for several years, and like the last king and queen of Laos, many died in captivity.

The economy in the areas controlled by the previous government, especially the Mekong towns, had been dependent on US military aid. Without US aid or trade with Thailand, this economy tanked. The Soviet Bloc sent aid, and Soviet, Eastern European and Vietnamese advisors poured in, but this was not enough to replace what was lost, and a badly planned attempt to collectivise agriculture only made things worse. As inflation soared, price controls were introduced. 400,000 people (nearly 14% of the population) fled the country, many of them ending up in Thai refugee camps. This included members of the Chinese and Vietnamese minorities, and virtually all of the educated class, so their departure set Lao development back at least a generation.

Podcast footnote: Even a son of the president decided that communism wasn’t for him. The second son of Souphanouvong, Khamsay Souphanouvong, escaped the country in 2000, and applied for political asylum in New Zealand. If the monarchy hadn’t been abolished, we would probably call him a prince, too, like his father. End footnote.


Those that suffered the most under communist rule were the Hmong tribe, largely because they had supported French and American activities in the past. Now some loosely organized groups of Hmong staged attacks against Pathet Lao troops, while others stayed in hiding to avoid conflict. Because relations with China were poor during this time (more about that in a minute), there are reports that China gave aid and training to Hmong resistance forces in Yunnan, the nearest Chinese province. Meanwhile, a series of small bombings in Vientiane and southern Laos was blamed on expatriate Lao dissidents, who had sneaked back in to make trouble. Even the Khmer Rouge gave money and supplies to one of the rebel groups, because they were also fighting the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, the insurgents were always at a disadvantage, in numbers, coordination and supplies; journalists who visited their secret camps described them as hungry and sick, while their weapons were limited to rifles left over from the Vietnam War. Repeated counterattacks (which may have used poison gas, if CIA reports are correct) broke rebel resistance; most of the Hmong guerrillas and one third of the tribe eventually fled to Thailand. Up to 100,000 rebels may have been killed altogether. By 2007, the Hmong revolt was effectively suppressed.

Laotian refugees found the Thai government unwilling to give them Thai citizenship, though as I mentioned, there are plenty of ethnic Lao living on the Thai side of the border. In December 2009 a group of 4,500 refugees was forcibly returned to Laos from camps in Thailand, despite the objections of the United Nations, the United States and others. Those that went to Western countries found it difficult to adapt to the very different culture they found there. This was especially the case with the Hmong. You may have heard stories of Asian immigrants arriving in a new country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and succeeding anyway, partially through their own efforts, and partially because other immigrants from the same homeland helped them get started. That wasn’t the case with the Hmong. Instead of creating their own “rags-to-riches” story, they ended up as a burden on society, living on welfare checks indefinitely. For that reason today’s dissidents rarely run away, expecting life to get better if they stay home. Those Laotians who can afford exit visas find it relatively easy to apply for and receive one.

In previous episodes I told you that during the Laotian Civil War, the Hmong leader was a very competent general, Vang Pao. At the end of the war, when the Americans left Laos, they took Vang Pao with them. Like many other Indochinese refugees, he settled down in California, and became a US citizen, but he still played a part in the Hmong revolt. From here he became an advocate for the rights of the Hmong people, especially those living in refugree camps, and helped organize one of the previously mentioned rebel groups, the United Lao National Liberation Front, or ULNF. That got him in trouble with the federal government that had once trained him to fight the communists. In 2007, after a lengthy investigation called “Operation Tarnished Eagle,” federal authorities arrested him and nine others, charging them with plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. This was a violation of the Neutrality Act, which says that American citizens cannot wage war against any country at peace with the United States. Vang Pao spent six weeks in jail, and his arrest led to rallies across the US among Hmong, and sympathetic Americans and Vietnamese. As a result, he was released on bail, and the charges against him were finally dropped in 2009. Then Vang Pao said he would like to return to Laos, on a mission of reconciliation so that thousands of Hmong trapped in the jungle or stuck in refugee camps could be liberated. But that trip was quickly canceled after the Laotian government announced that he would be executed as a war criminal if he showed up in Laos. Vang Pao died in 2011, at the age of 81, and was buried in a cemetery near Los Angeles, though there were calls to give him a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and Lao veterans did eventually hold ceremonies in his honor at Arlington. Today there is even a school named after him in Fresno, California: Vang Pao Elementary School.

If you have visited Laos, you know the country is preoccupied with Buddhism. What else would you expect, in a place where the most impressive buildings are all temples? But communists are supposed to be godless atheists. In Laos they did not persecute religion the way communists have done in other countries, but they tried to reduce the influence of Buddhism on the lives of the people. Monks were encouraged to leave their orders, and those who stayed had to work for a living. But when communists told the people not to waste money on religious holidays, they got themselves in trouble. The main holiday in Laos is the annual rocket festival, where the people shoot off fireworks to encourage good monsoon rains, and the communists cancelled it. A drought followed, and everyone knew the spirit world had been offended, so for the next year, the festival was reinstated.


1979 was a critical year. In Episodes 106 and 107, we saw Vietnam invade Cambodia at the beginning of that year to unseat the Khmer Rouge, and China invaded northern Vietnam to teach Hanoi a lesson. Laos took Vietnam’s side in these conflicts, and that caused relations with China to deteriorate. They were no better with Thailand, because the Thais supported the insurgency against the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia.

On domestic issues, something different needed to be done, so in 1979, Premier Kaysone declared a dramatic change of course. He made private farming and trade legal again, called for a more efficient price structure and an increase in wages, and ordered a 60% devaluation of the monetary unit, the kip. He declared, quote, “It is inappropriate, indeed stupid, for any party to implement a policy of forbidding people to exchange goods or carry out trading. Such a policy is suicidal.” Unquote. This was followed up with a more comprehensive reform package in 1986, called the “New Economic Mechanism.” By now the Soviet Union was getting tired of propping up Laos, and was embarking on its own momentous reforms, the mixture of capitalist and socialist practices that Mikhail Gorbachev would call Perestroika. In a nutshell, what Kaysone did was convince the Party to do what the Chinese were doing: open the economy up to market forces, and the country to foreign aid and investment from the West, while keeping a tight monopoly on political power.

Despite these changes, economic improvement was slow in coming, because for most of the 1980s, Vietnam was the only country that did much trading with Laos, while relations with China and Thailand remained strained. From December 1987 to February 1988, Laos and Thailand fought a brief, inconclusive war over a 27-square mile strip of jungle-covered hills on their border, containing four villages. The dispute was over who owned this area; the French had annexed land on the west bank of the Mekong in 1907, and the two sides disagreed over where the border actually ran, in the 1907 treaty between Siam and France. 1,000 casualties were reported, most of them Thai, because Laotian troops occupied and used a network of tunnels and bunkers that Thai communists reportedly built in the area in the 1970s. The Thais also reported losing two warplanes. The fighting ended with a cease-fire, but attempts to resolve the dispute peacefully have not yet succeeded.

1988 saw relations patched up, with both Thailand and China. The first elections for a National Assembly were held, and in 1991 a new constitution was approved that removed all references to socialism but kept Laos a one-party state. Slowly a legal framework was put into place, and by the early 1990s foreign investment was picking up. As the situation improved for Laos, it made more diplomatic overtures to other countries, and Thailand replaced Vietnam as the principal trading partner, because the Thais have a stronger economy, and unlike the Chinese and Vietnamese, they share a common religion and similar language with the people of Laos. In 1995, the United States announced it would lift its ban on aid. In 1997 Laos joined ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Podcast footnote: The last time we saw ASEAN in this podcast, it was strictly an alliance of capitalist countries. Brunei joined immediately after the British protectorate over it ended in 1984, and with the end of the Cold War, the decision was made to admit Communist Indochina and Socialist Burma, changing the organization from a pro-Western alliance into one that promoted the interests of all Southeast Asians. This allowed Vietnam to join in 1995, and Laos and Burma joined in 1997. Cambodia had to wait until it got a stable government; it joined in 1999. East Timor is the only Southeast Asian country left that isn’t a member, and in a future episode I plan to tell you what the Timorese are doing to qualify for membership. In 2016 ASEAN’s annual meeting took place in Laos, and it attracted attention here in the United States because the US president, Barack Obama, attended the meeting as an observer. End footnote.


There was a setback with the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The collapse of the Thai baht led to inflation of the kip, because Thai and Laotian currencies were now tied together by trade. The inflation led to protests, which the government put down with the same zeal that Burma’s military leaders showed in suppressing their own dissidents. For example, a small student demonstration calling for an end to the monopoly of political power by the LPRP was ruthlessly crushed, and its leaders were given long prison sentences.

Laos learned two lessons from the 1997 crisis: that free-market capitalism can be unstable at times, and that China and Vietnam were still their real friends, because they provided loans and advice to get through the hard times. Fortunately the crisis did not affect Laos for long. Because of that, common household items like spray paint, light bulbs and vitamins were easy to get in Vientiane before they became available in Hanoi. There also was not any starvation, because 80 percent of the people are still farmers, and they have always grown enough food for their own needs, trading by barter when they don’t have money.

And now for a quick summary of who’s in charge. In 1986 Souphanouvong stepped down because of poor health. He died in 1995, at the age of 85. In 2003 a college named after him, Souphanouvong University, was opened in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital.

The first to succeed Souphanouvong as president was Phoumi Vongvichit, who had been the Pathet Lao’s chief negotiator during the war years. But for the whole period that Phoumi held the job, he called himself acting president. Kaysone Phomvihane took his place in 1991, then died a year later and was replaced by the finance minister, Nouhak Phoumsavane; General Khamtai Siphandon, the Pathet Lao’s military commander, moved up to replace Nouhak as premier. Nouhak was already 82 years old when he became number one, but because he was in good health for his age, he held the top spot for six years, until 1998. Khamtai followed him as president, then in 2006 he was succeeded by Lieutenant General Choummaly Sayasone. Choummaly was seventy years old when he took charge; nothing is known of his activities before he joined the party’s central committee in 1982, so unlike the others, he may not have been a senior Pathet Lao officer during the war years. He stepped down in 2016, and is still alive as we go to the press. Since 2016, yet another former Pathet Lao officer, Bounnhang Vorachith, has been the president.

For the final exam, I won’t expect you to remember any of those names, except for Souphanouvong and Kaysone Phomvihane. The rest have been non-entities, making few changes and not attracting much attention. In that sense, they are like the leaders of present-day Vietnam, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the government of Laos is following the same rules as the Vietnamese government, to prevent anyone from gaining too much power and starting a cult of personality. Also, note that all of the leaders so far have been war veterans, and they are getting up in years; the current president, Bounnhang Vorachith, is 84 years old as I record this. It looks like the old guard is not in a hurry to hand over power to the younger generations.


As the twenty-first century began, Laos remained very backward and pastoral. Vientiane, the capital, is by far the largest city; according to a 2020 estimate, it has 948,477 people, or 13 percent of the country’s population. The second largest city, Savannakhet, has 120,000 people, and all other communities are no larger than the suburbs of Western cities. Also, as I noted before, the lack of infrastructure and the fact that the country is landlocked create serious obstacles to transportation and commerce.

Podcast footnote: Don’t worry, efforts are being made to make the country more accessible. They started with the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, a bridge over the Mekong River. Completed in 1994, it connects Vientiane with Nong Khai, Thailand; it has two road lanes, two sidewalks, and one rail line. One problem the builders had to overcome is that in Thailand, you’re supposed to drive on the left side of the road, while in Laos, you drive on the right side. Thus, there is a lane-switching area on the Laotian end of the bridge, meaning that Thai driving rules apply to the bridge itself. Naturally more bridges were built between Laos and Thailand, after the first one proved a success. Also, Vietnam and Laos have agreed to build a highway from Hanoi to Vientiane, but I don’t think this project is finished yet. End footnote.

The outlook for Laos in the early 21st century is mostly positive. There have been major investments in hydroelectric dams, and copper, gold and bauxite mines. Tourism is an even more promising industry, especially ecotourism. Today Laos attracts more than one million tourists a year, most of them Thai.

Because of this economic progress, per capita income reached $2,720 in 2020. This is up from a dismally low $90 in 1983, but still extremely poor by world standards. In Southeast Asia, this means Laotians are richer than the peoples of Burma, Cambodia and East Timor, tied with the Vietnamese, and poorer than everyone else. The main reason why there aren’t more calls to raise the standard of living is because the typical Laotian has never known wealth, and is content with his or her lot in life. This laid-back optimism is known as sabai di, which in both the Thai and Lao languages means “feel good.” For example, you can see it in how the Lao handle a popular Vietnamese song, “In Praise of Ho Chi Minh”; this is a solemn anthem in Vietnam, but it is played to a disco beat in Laos. The same easygoing attitude allows them to accept Vietnamese direction of their defense and foreign policy; while the Soviet Union existed, this made Laos the satellite of a Soviet satellite.


One potential obstacle to future prosperity has just appeared in the past year. Last year I shared an article about this, on the podcast’s Facebook page. If you look at a map of Southeast Asia, you can see that the Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, runs for 4,900 kilometers, or just over 3,000 miles. It starts in the easternmost part of the Himalayas, runs south through China’s Yunnan Province, and follows the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand; then it runs through the middle of Cambodia, and finally reaches the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. 60 million people depend on the Mekong for water, food and transportation; with Laos and Cambodia, almost all of their territory is within the Mekong’s watershed.

Well, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Mekong’s water level started running lower than normal. Over the next few years, the level went down. Way down. By 2019, the mighty river had reached its lowest level in more than 50 years. In some areas, the river became little more than a trickle, and there, the river’s fish and other life could not survive. At first it was thought that a drought was the sole reason for the loss of water, but then in April 2020 it was discovered that much of the missing water — 47 billion cubic meters, in fact — was being held behind the eleven dams China built on the uppermost part of the river, capturing the water before it leaves China. Of course the Chinese deny that their action to shut off the water flow is causing any trouble; they even claim that the dams prevent flooding during the rainy season. Nevertheless, the problem could get worse before it gets better; Laos and Cambodia each have one dam on the river now, and both have plans to build more dams in the near future. Finally, Vietnam is experiencing salt water intrusion into the Mekong delta because of the low water levels, contaminating the drinking water supply. Currently it looks like more research will be needed to determine how much of the water loss is caused by climate change, and pressure will be put on China to come clean about how much effect the Chinese dams are having on the lower Mekong’s water supply. In the meantime, I guess I won’t be reading any more stories about Mekong fishermen catching 600-lb. catfish.

With no organized opposition, and the continued support of Vietnam, the position of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party looks secure. Nowadays the party is Marxist/Leninist in name only, a dictatorship whose main goal is to perpetuate its total control of the government. There are also increasing concerns about corruption; far too much of the country’s limited resources go to a small elite, who pay little or no taxes. The country enjoyed a milestone when the Asia-Europe Summit was held there in November 2012; this was the largest international conference Laos has hosted so far. But just one month later an American-educated humanitarian, Sombath Somphone, disappeared, and his family posted a blog (Sombath.org) and a video that showed him being abducted, presumably by the government. This has hurt the international standing of Laos, and raised questions on whether the Laotian regime is willing to observe the rule of law and human rights. If you want to check out the blog, the name is spelled S-O-M-B-A-T-H, dot-org. I visited it while doing the research for this episode, and found that it is still active, with new entries posted on it this year.

Finally, dictatorships lose their legitimacy when the lives of the people don’t improve. We saw it happen with Ne Win in Burma; someday even the Laotian people could reach the limits of their patience. Care will be needed to maintain power and keep the country together when that happens. It remains to be seen whether the party will be resourceful enough to meet future challenges.


That does it for Laos! I said I would try to do it, and sure enough, we finished our narrative for another country. Now what place will we look at next time? Currently, I am thinking of Thailand. The last time we saw them, in Episodes 61 and 99, the Thais were trying to set up a more modern government, something besides the absolute monarchy that had ruled over them before 1932. But instead the nation only seems to run efficiently when the military is in charge. Of course the Thais will try again; how will they fare in the last years of the twentieth century? I don’t think I will be able to complete the Thai narrative in one episode, the way we did for Laos, but we’ll see; I hope you will join me for that.

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. For the Patreon page, there are still sixteen Patrons, meaning we lost one and gained another, but the new Patron has pledged $10; way to go!

And that’s not all you can do to support the podcast. If you get your podcasts from a podcatcher that allows reviews, and haven’t written a review already, go ahead and write it. On Facebook, there is the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it to see the content I share. And tell others about the show: friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, even enemies — it can’t hurt! Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!