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 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 ( 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 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!


Episode 107: The Third Indochina War

Spring is on the way!  While you are waiting for the season to change, here is the next episode of the podcast.  This episode looks at Vietnam from 1975 to 1986, and Cambodia from 1979 to 1989.  During this time there were conflicts between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge, and between Vietnam and China.  Together we call these clashes the Third Indochina War, and because they were waged on a small scale, without big battles like those of the previous wars, they are almost forgotten today.



This episode is dedicated to Phil O. and Arndt U., for making donations to the podcast. We have heard from Phil before. His first donation came near the end of last year, and now, exactly two months later, he has contributed again. If you are a regular listener to the show, you know what that means. Not only does Phil get his name on the podcast’s Hall of Fame Page, he also gets the icon of Walter the Water Buffalo placed with his name. Congratulations! And Arndt, we’re glad to have you too, welcome to our happy family! Since this is a free podcast, and only a fraction of the listeners make donations, it means both of you are special people. May all major decisions that you make be the right ones. Now on with today’s show!

Episode 107: The Third Indochina War

Greetings, dear listeners, for the 107th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! As you can tell if you’re a regular listener, I haven’t yet caught up from the delay I suffered producing the previous episode — sorry about that. But how about the weather! The winter we have had here is definitely one for the books. Once late at night, my car got stuck in the snow — it has been that deep here — and I had to call a tow truck to pull me out. Now that the cold season is ending, let’s take another trip to the lands where winter never comes.

For the past few episodes, I have usually talked about one country at a time, to minimize the chance of confusing you the listeners. The previous episode, for example, was just about events in Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979. But that episode ended with an invasion from neighboring Vietnam, so to keep the narrative going, we are bringing Vietnam into the story. First we will look at what Vietnam was doing, immediately after the end of the Second Indochina War, or as we call it in the United States, the Vietnam War. Then we will go back to Cambodia and continue where we left off last time.

Now you heard that the title for this episode is “The Third Indochina War.” If you have been with this podcast for a while, you will remember that I devoted five episodes to the First Indochina War, and twenty-three episodes to the Second Indochina War. This time I won’t need multiple episodes to cover the conflict; I should be able to get it all done today. “Third Indochina War” is a carry-all term for all the fighting in Indochina, during the late 1970s and 1980s. Most of the action took place in a four-month period, from December 1978 to March 1979. The rest of the time it was a guerrilla war — the norm for conflicts in Southeast Asia, where there isn’t much open space for a set battle. There were no showdowns, no big battles like Dienbienphu. And the conflicts aren’t tied that close together; we have one between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge, and another one between China and Vietnam. Wikipedia includes an insurrection in Laos under the name “Third Indochina War,” because it happened during the same time period, but I am going to save that for another episode.



I will begin by repeating a quote made at the end of the previous war; you will remember this if you listened to Episode 96. When the communist North Vietnamese drove into Saigon on April 30, 1975, the officer who took the government’s surrender was Colonel Bui Tin, and he reassured South Vietnamese officials that they had nothing to fear. Quote: “You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.” End quote.

But the North Vietnamese didn’t trust southerners, not even Viet Cong officers, so from the start, Northerners treated South Vietnam as a conquered territory. By this time, it had been fourteen years since the Viet Cong, also known as the National Liberation Front, had gotten organized, and now that the war had been won, the Viet Cong saw themselves as the rightful rulers of the South. Instead, back in 1969 the North Vietnamese, with some Viet Cong delegates attending, set up what they called the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, PRG for short. At first the different ministries of the PRG were scattered wherever the Viet Cong had bases, mostly in Cambodia. Then when the town of Loc Ninh was captured during the 1972 offensive, the PRG set up its headquarters in Loc Ninh, because it now was the nearest communist-controlled community to Saigon, and there the headquarters stayed for the rest of the war. At the signing of the 1973 cease-fire, the PRG represented the Viet Cong in Paris. Finally, in May 1975 the Provisional Revolutionary Government moved to Saigon, or as it was now called, Ho Chi Minh City, replacing the recently fallen South Vietnamese government. It would be in charge for fourteen months, until North and South Vietnam were declared united. The two leaders of the PRG, Nguyen Huu Tho and Huynh Tan Phat, were both southerners, but it was Northerners who always called the shots, so Viet Cong members understandably felt cheated. What’s more, after reunification the capital of Vietnam remained at Hanoi, even though Saigon was a more developed city, and in the twenty-first century Saigon would grow larger than Hanoi.

North and South Vietnam were formally united on July 2, 1976. The Viet Cong was dissolved, and the country was given a new official name: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. However, the years of division had created two different cultures and economies. Northerners and Southerners even spoke different dialects of the Vietnamese language by now. Residents of Ho Chi Minh City still prefered to call it Saigon, even when the government was listening. Saigon’s roads and buildings were all in better shape than those in Hanoi, thanks to nonmilitary aid from the Americans during the war years, so much of the country’s economic program was aimed at helping the North’s infrastructure catch up with the South. A thriving black market continued to sell American-made goods, smuggled in from Thailand and Singapore; eventually the government gave up trying to stop it, and taxed it instead. The result was that Hanoi controlled the government, but Saigon controlled the economy.

The communists in Vietnam were not as bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; there was no mass execution of Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans or served the Thieu regime. Still, the communist takeover was bad news. Before long they had sent 400,000 South Vietnamese civil servants and army officers as well as businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, union leaders and religious leaders to “re-education centers.” Many of those victims had chosen to stay rather than flee abroad, so the new government wasted the best talent it had. All were held in horrendous conditions, even those who had opposed the Thieu government and the war. In addition, an anti-capitalist campaign was launched in March 1978, to seize private property and businesses.


Another blunder caused by Marxist ideology was the way they tried to fix the economy. Before the war, Vietnam had produced little besides rice, and now the war had left unmarked minefields, a countryside poisoned by Agent Orange and other defoliants, and a population that was physically or mentally battered. The Communist solution was a five-year plan aimed at nationalizing agriculture and developing modern industry as fast as possible. But all the plan accomplished was that it replaced the wealth of South Vietnam with the poverty of the North. Instead of expanding at a rate of 14% a year as the plan specified, the economy only grew at 2%, lagging behind a high birthrate which rapidly filled all available farmland.  The per capita income fell to a dismal $200 a year, and the economy was hooked to a life-support system of Soviet aid that cost more than $4 million a day, much of it wasted on grandiose and misconceived economic projects. What energy the country had was drained away by the war in Cambodia. By the early 1980s, Vietnam was a rice importer; today it is a major rice exporter. Everyone was affected; a common story in Hanoi told of the wife of a retired three-star general, selling cigarettes on the streets just to make ends meet. A second Five Year Plan was adopted for 1981, and it showed a clear move towards more market reforms and a move away from the rigid central controls of the first plan, but real change would not come until after that plan ended in 1986; I plan to talk about that in a future episode.

Because of the re-education centers, misguided economic planning, and the war with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the first decade after the Second Indochina War ended was not a happy time for the Vietnamese. Vietnam joined the United Nations in 1977, but otherwise on the world scene, Vietnam did not get along very well with any nations besides the Soviet Union and its communist satellite nations. They now had a huge, hostile neighbor, namely China, on the northern border, and the United States refused to establish diplomatic relations, because the US government wanted answers to questions about what happened to the American soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War, and because American leaders, especially President Ronald Reagan, did not like Vietnam’s close ties with Moscow.

For the previous episodes I recorded about Vietnam, one of my sources was the book Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow. From 1959 to 1974, Karnow worked as a reporter for Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, the London Observer, the Washington Post, and NBC News, covering events in Southeast Asia. The book was published in 1983, meaning it came off the presses too early to cover Vietnam’s economic recovery after the five-year plans ended. As a result, the first chapter in the book is entitled “The War Nobody Won,” and it talks about the bad shape Vietnam was in, during the first years after the Vietnam War. For example, Karnow told how Soviet advisors had replaced American troops as the most commonly seen foreigners in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese didn’t like them, scornfully calling the Russians “Americans without dollars.” In 1981 Karnow interviewed the Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong, who admitted, quote, “Yes, we defeated the United States, but now we are a poor undeveloped nation and barely have enough to eat. Hence the saying that waging war is easy, but running a country is hard.” End quote.

Podcast footnote: Remember when I mentioned a high birthrate? In the early 1980s Vietnam tried to ease its population crunch by settling a few hundred thousand Vietnamese in depopulated Cambodia. The rest of the world naturally saw this as a form of colonialism. End footnote.

Eventually even some Vietnamese officials became disillusioned with communism, looking at the country’s policies and saying, “Hey, this isn’t what I fought for!” One of them was Tran Van Tra, the Viet Cong leader I introduced in Episode 96. You may remember that Tra helped the North Vietnamese leadership design the strategy that won the war for them in 1975. But afterwards the commander of the Northern forces, General Van Tien Dung, took all the credit for masterminding the final victory in the South. So General Tra, who had been stationed in Hanoi since the war’s end, moved back to Saigon and wrote his memoirs in five volumes, starting with the last volume, the one covering events in 1975. As soon as it appeared in print, it was banned and Tra himself was banished to the countryside to look after a pig farm.

Another disillusioned communist was Bui Tin, the officer who had accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese leaders. In 1990 he became a dissident. The French communist newspaper L’Humanité invited him to Paris for its annual conference, and after the conference was done, he stayed. Later Bui Tin turned against his former comrades, by giving a series of interviews with the Vietnamese section of the BBC World Service. Giang Nguyen, news editor for the Vietnamese service, said the broadcasts were so popular, that the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City became virtually empty as people clustered around shortwave radios to hear the interviews.

And that wasn’t all; Tin questioned the Communist Party’s right to govern, its rigid ideology, accused it of corruption, and blamed it for the country’s decline following reunification. As a result, Tin was denounced as a traitor by the newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan, where he was once editor. In 1995 he followed this up by writing a book entitled Following Ho Chi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, where he blamed the disastrous land reform program of the 1950s, in which at least 10,000 “landlords” were killed, on Ho Chi Minh’s failure to stand up to his misguided Chinese advisors. He was also critical of Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, but he continued to admire other North Vietnamese leaders such as General Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh, so he never became completely anti-communist. At one point in the mid-1990s, Bui Tin came to Washington DC and testified before Congress, about continuing Vietnamese efforts to find the missing American servicemen. He died in France in 2018, at the age of 90.


Now let’s talk about the wars after 1975. When the North Vietnamese were fighting the French, the Americans and the Saigon regime, they did not take sides in the rivalry between China and the USSR, but accepted aid from any communist state willing to give it. Once the Second Indochina War ended, though, they took another look at their relationship with China. Remembering the long periods when China dominated Vietnam in the past, the Vietnamese concluded that the Soviet Union was a safer ally. Soon Vietnam joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, better known as COMECON, the international organization set up by the Soviet Union to promote economic cooperation with its satellite states. As we saw in the previous episode, Vietnam’s ties with the USSR led to war with the Khmer Rouge almost immediately, because the Khmer Rouge were steadfastly pro-Chinese. The war started with small-scale skirmishes, and then in December 1978, Vietnam launched the invasion that overthrew Pol Pot’s government. In place of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese installed a government friendly to them, led by Heng Samrin. We have noted that Cambodia was called Democratic Kampuchea while the Khmer Rouge controlled it; now the Vietnamese renamed it the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Vietnam’s expulsion of the ethnic Chinese within its borders around the same time gave Beijing another excuse to retaliate.

Before dawn on February 17, 1979, about 120,000 Chinese troops invaded Vietnam, backed by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces. They started by seizing Vietnamese border towns: Cha Pa, Lao Cai, Cao Bang, and Loc Binh. Vietnamese forces put up stiff resistance, which included transferring some of their forces that had recently seen action in Cambodia, but the Chinese used superior numbers to bludgeon a path about 25 miles into Vietnamese territory and capture the important northern town of Lang Son. Longtime listeners will remember Lang Son from Episode 65; the Viet Minh won a key victory against the French here, taking Lang Son in October 1950. Another Chinese force attacked the coastal town of Quang Yen, and captured it after several days of intense fighting. The Vietnamese attempted a counter-offensive into China’s Yunnan Province, but were pushed back. On March 6, 1979, seventeen days after the invasion started, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved. Over the next ten days, Chinese troops withdrew from Vietnam, going back the way they came. Aside from a treaty that settled disputes along the Sino-Vietnamese border, which was signed in 1999, no formal agreement or declaration ending the war has ever been reached.

Needless to say, both China and Vietnam claimed victory in what is now called the Sino-Vietnamese War. Since the Chinese suffered heavier losses than expected, and Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia for another ten years, China was not really successful in its goal of ending Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia. On the other side, the only commemorations of the war are the low-key ceremonies held in Vietnamese military cemeteries every year; Hanoi has far less to say about this war than it does about the wars against the French and the Americans. Western estimates of the casualties put Vietnamese losses at 10,000, while the Chinese may have suffered as many as 28,000 killed and 43,000 wounded. All things considered, it was never clear who had taught a lesson to whom.

Podcast footnote: One of my sources for this episode is an article about the Sino-Vietnamese War, from a news website called This article noted that the year before the war, 1978, saw Deng Xiaoping emerge as the most powerful man in China, and he had two reasons to order the invasion that had nothing to do with Cambodia. First, the campaign would keep the People’s Liberation Army away from China’s cities, where he was beginning to overhaul the economy. In the past, the PLA tended to support the radical wing of the Chinese Communist Party, who were not only Deng’s enemies, but also opposed to the kind of reforms now taking place. Second, a war would show everyone that China’s military equipment was out of date, adding weight to Deng Xiaoping’s call for modernizing the armed forces. It sounds plausible to me. End footnote.


In the previous episode, I told you that the Vietnamese justified their actions in Cambodia by telling the rest of the world about Pol Pot’s atrocities. They opened the gates of Cambodia to foreign inspection, let the piles of bones and skulls tell their story, and showed the careful documentation by the Khmer Rouge of much of it, including photos of the prisoners they tortured and executed. To their surprise, this did not bring them much respect on the world stage. The United States, for example, did not recognize the new pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia, because this was the time when the administration of President Jimmy Carter completed the process of normalizing US relations with China, and American leaders did not want to do anything that would upset the Chinese. In addition, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam, which was extended to Cambodia as well; the rest of the non-communist world complied with this embargo. Indeed, about the only nations that recognized the new Cambodian government were Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the other members of the Soviet Bloc. In the United Nations, the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the seat meant for Cambodia’s delegation, and some nations even sent aid to revive the battered Khmer Rouge, despite its horrible record from the time when it was in charge.

I also told you in the previous episode that in Western nations, leftists refused to believe what they heard about the Khmer Rouge abusing the Cambodian people. Well, after the Vietnamese invasion, the truth could not be hidden anymore. One of the refugees who fled Cambodia in the late 1970s was a photojournalist named Dith Pran, and his story was made into a movie, The Killing Fields. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for leftists to come up with an excuse for the behavior of Pol Pot and his subordinates. Now they said, “It was all our fault.” If Former President Nixon hadn’t pulled Cambodia into the Vietnam War, and if he hadn’t backed the Lon Nol regime, none of the terrible postwar events would have happened. This ignores the fact that Vietnamese communists were active in Cambodia as far back as the 1950s, using it as a base long before the Americans got involved there. Nor does it explain why, when communists took over other countries, they also felt compelled to bully, imprison and murder their own people, even when the Americans had not been there previously. Just look at Albania, for instance; the United States had nothing to do with that country before the communists took over, but the Albanian communist leader, Enver Hoxha, went on to become a real-life version of Big Brother, the totalitarian dictator in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

At this point, I am reminded of the cartoonist Herbert Block. If you have heard of him, you know him as “Herblock,” which was the pen name he used to sign his work. Herblock was probably the greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century; he is mainly remembered for his cartoons that discredited Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Now Joe McCarthy is a character who deserves a podcast, if he hasn’t gotten one already! Anyway, Herblock was a liberal in his sentiments, who agreed with the blame-America-first crowd, and I’m thinking now of a cartoon he did, which showed in one picture the troubles Cambodia suffered in the 1970s. First, Herblock drew an unexploded bomb with its nose in the ground; this represented the US bombings. Next came a pile of moneybags, to symbolize Lon Nol’s corruption. Then a pile of skulls represented the Pol Pot terror, and finally he drew a tank for the Vietnamese invasion.

Meanwhile, now that they were no longer bound to the farms where the Khmer Rouge had relocated them, Cambodia’s traumatized population took to the road, in search of surviving relatives. Often this meant a very long walk across the countryside. Rice stocks were emptied, the harvest was left to wither, and little rice was planted for the next crop, so in 1979 and 1980 the whole country was on the verge of starving to death.

Podcast footnote: A few minutes ago I mentioned one of the refugees, Dith Pran. For The Killing Fields, his part was played by another refugee, Haing Ngor. Eventually Dith Pran returned to Cambodia, to find out what happened to his family. At the city of Siem Reap, he learned that fifty relatives had died since 1975. End footnote.


You should remember Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, from earlier episodes of this podcast. The last time I mentioned him, he was under house arrest in Phnom Penh. One day before Vietnamese forces liberated Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge let him fly to Beijing, where he was greeted by Deng Xiaoping. Then Sihanouk went to New York; before the United Nations Security Council, he condemned the Khmer Rouge for all the killing they had done, and condemned the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Next, he applied for asylum in the United States and France, but neither country would have him, so he returned to his previous place of refuge, China.

As the 1980s began, the Chinese came up with an assignment for Sihanouk; he would lead a military and political alliance that opposed the Phnom Penh government. At first Sihanouk didn’t want to lead, because the coalition would include the Khmer Rouge, which he accused of killing members of his own family, but by 1981 the Chinese persuaded him to do it. He was the perfect candidate for this job, because everybody knew he was not a Vietnamese puppet. Most Cambodians wanted nothing to do with either the Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge; Sihanouk was the man they would follow.

There were three groups in this anti-Vietnamese coalition. The first was a small royalist faction, personally led by Sihanouk. It was called FUNCINPEC, F-U-N-C-I-N-P-E-C, which stands for a French phrase meaning the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia. One year after its founding, in 1982, an army was formed for FUNCINPEC, by gathering and merging several older, smaller resistance armies. The second faction was the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, or KPNLF. It was led by Son Sann, a leading Cambodian neutralist, ex-President of the National Bank of Cambodia, and Prime Minister from 1967 to 1968. The primary backer of this group was Thailand, which favored the coalition because it feared future wars with Vietnam, if Vietnamese troops showed up on the Cambodian-Thai border. Long-time listeners will remember that in the first half of the 19th century, the Thais and Vietnamese fought a series of petty wars over Cambodia, which were covered in Episode 27. Finally, there was the Khmer Rouge, which was the strongest of the three factions and now called itself the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. The non-communist factions had to ignore the heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge in order to get along, but even so, it was an uneasy coalition.

During the mid-1980s, the British government dispatched the Special Air Service, also called the SAS, to a Malaysian jungle camp to train Cambodian guerrillas how to set up land mines. The United States in turn gave more than US$15 million a year in aid to the non-communist factions of the anti-Vietnamese coalition. Although none of this training and money went to the Khmer Rouge, they certainly benefited from their partners getting it. And some of the arms sent to the other groups ended up in Khmer Rouge hands.


During the 1980s few Westerners visited Cambodia; those that did get in were mostly from humanitarian aid groups. The ongoing war continued to kill Cambodians, and 600,000 of them fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Both Cambodia and Vietnam suffered badly from the US-led embargo. In fact, Vietnam agreed in 1982 to help the Americans find their MIAs, the Missing In Action troops, because the Vietnamese needed the embargo lifted, so they could get foreign-made goods, especially medical supplies.

In 1984 Vietnamese forces overran all the major rebel camps inside Cambodia, forcing their opponents to flee into Thailand. Then to keep them from coming back, the Vietnamese laid the world’s longest minefield. Known as K-5, the minefield covered the border with Thailand completely, stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the border of Laos. They also sent Cambodians to cut down trees near roads in remote areas, to prevent ambushes. In response, the Khmer Rouge and their allies shelled government-controlled garrison towns, planted thousands of their own land mines, attacked vehicles on the roads, blew up bridges, kidnapped village chiefs, and forced thousands of men, women and children living in the refugee camps to work as porters, ferrying ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across areas known to have mine fields. As a result, thousands died of disease and from injuries caused by land mines. The Khmer Rouge were no longer in power, but for many Cambodians the 1980s were almost as tough as the 1970s, a continuing struggle to survive.

I mentioned earlier that the president of the pro-Vietnamese government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, was Heng Samrin. Another official in that government worth remembering is Hun Sen. Like Heng Samrin, Hun Sen was a former member of the Khmer Rouge, who fled to Vietnam after Pol Pot began a purge of the organization. Right after the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh, Hun Sen was appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister, though he was only 26 years old. Then in January 1985 he was appointed prime minister, and in the 36 years since then, he has remained one of Cambodia’s leaders. Therefore, you can be sure we’ll be mentioning Hun Sen again in a future episode.

By the mid-1980s, Vietnam was bogged down in Cambodia. The Vietnamese had decades of experience fighting occupying powers, first the French and then the Americans, but now the shoe was on the other foot. They had become the occupying power, while the Khmer Rouge now had the advantage, because they were fighting a guerrilla war again, and the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare worked best for them. Although the Vietnamese were receiving aid from the Soviet Union, it was never enough for them to win the war. Here in the United States, the Vietnam War is seen as the conflict the Americans could not win, no matter how hard they tried, and in that sense, Cambodia became Vietnam’s Vietnam. If you’re too young to remember the Americans in Vietnam, think of the more recent experiences that kept American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq for years, after they defeated the enemy they had come for in the first place. From the Thai side of the border, the Khmer Rouge and their partners launched attacks into Cambodia, and when the Vietnamese retaliated with raids into Thailand, they sometimes clashed with Thai troops.

Because the war had become a no-win situation, an economic and political liability as well as a military one, and because of foreign pressure, the Vietnamese began withdrawing troops as early as 1982. However, foreigners could not tell if this was a real withdrawal, or if the troops were merely replaced with fresh ones coming in. The need to withdraw became serious from 1986 onward, because the Soviet Union’s economy was now beginning to fail, and this led to the cutoff of aid to nations the USSR had been helping. For Vietnam, this meant the loss of one-fifth of its economic aid and one-third of its military aid. Consequently, Vietnam introduced a series of economic reforms called Doi Moi, which I will talk more about in a future episode, and the army discharged about half of its soldiers, reducing its size from 1.2 million men under arms to 600,000.

In April 1989, Hun Sen convened a meeting of the National Assembly to adopt a new constitution, and the country’s name was changed, from the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to simply the State of Cambodia, which let everyone know that when efforts to set up a new government were complete, Cambodia would not necessarily be communist. Furthermore, Buddhism was re-established as the state religion, and citizens were guaranteed the right to hold private property. The same year saw peace talks begin between the warring factions, in the form of the First Paris Peace Conference on Cambodia. 

1989 is now remembered worldwide as the year the Cold War ended, because the failure of economies in the Soviet Bloc caused the downfall of their communist governments, culminating with the German people tearing down the infamous Berlin Wall. In Southeast Asia, this led to the end of the Third Indochina War; with no more Soviet aid coming, the Vietnamese pulled the last of their troops from Cambodia in September 1989. It is estimated that the war left 25,300 Vietnamese dead and 30,000 wounded, while the Cambodians lost anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 combatants dead; at least 100,000 civilians died as well, not counting famine deaths. Today both sides don’t want to talk about the war. Vietnamese veterans of the war in Cambodia are scarred, both physically and emotionally, from ten years of punishing hit-and-run fighting. Like the veterans who fought China in 1979, they feel they have been forgotten, because Hanoi only wants to talk about the swift, victorious campaign that toppled Pol Pot. For the Cambodians, their age-old hostile feelings toward the Vietnamese continue; they don’t want to remember that it was Vietnam that saved their country from Pol Pot’s vicious revolution.



We have come to the end of the 1980s with Cambodia and Vietnam, and yes, there is more to say about both countries, but this episode is now going into overtime, so I’d better save that content for another day. For the next episode, I think I will go to the third country in the former Indochina, Laos. There’s a place we haven’t heard from since at least Episode 96; how did the Pathet Lao manage after the Second Indochina War ended? There aren’t as many events to report from Laos — it’s not a place that gets in the headlines very often — so I may be able to finish the narrative on that country with just one more episode. Join me next time to see how close to the present we can get.

Do you like your podcasts running with no ads? I depend on the goodwill of my listeners to keep this podcast running without them. Currently money is is short supply over here, and my family wants me to reduce the time I spend on research and recording, so I can make more money instead. That may mean producing one episode a month, rather than two. Therefore any donation you make to support the show will be more appreciated than ever. For one-time donations, I accept Paypal. Just go to the page that hosts this episode, and click on the gold “Donate!” button. If you do this, you will get your first name mentioned at the beginning of the next episode to be recorded, and it will be added to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page; there’s a link to that on the page, too. If you donated in a previous year, giving again will make you eligible to have a special icon added next to your name on the Hall of Fame page, first the icon of Walter the Water Buffalo, and then the new icon of the Shwedagon Pagoda! Or you would rather give a small amount monthly, say a dollar or three per month, you can become a Patreon donor. Just click on the Patreon link on the page, to go to my Patreon page. Currently we are at fifteen patrons, meaning one left us since last month. Would you like to take his or her place?

Whether or not you donate, you can also help the podcast by sharing it. First, there’s the old-fashioned way, word of mouth! Tell your family, friends, co-workers and casual acquaintances about the show. Write a review on your favorite podcatcher, if you want online friends to know about it. And if you’re on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page. There I post announcements related to the podcast, pictures and videos to go with it, and news stories having to do with Southeast Asia; you won’t want to miss any of that! According to Facebook statistics, currently just over 700 people like the page, and I know there are more listners than that, so come join the fun! That’s all, so TTFN, ta-ta for now. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 106: The Killing Fields of Democratic Kampuchea

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


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

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

Episode 106: The Killing Fields of Democratic Kampuchea

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

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

<Backup sound>

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

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

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

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


I guess this means I am with the dark side.

<Hans, are we the baddies?>

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Episode 105: Malaysia, Another Success Story



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



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

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


Episode 105: Malaysia, Another Success Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Episode 104: Singapore, Success Despite the Odds

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

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


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



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

Episode 104: Singapore, Success Despite the Odds

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

End quote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

End quote.

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Episode 103: Indonesia Under Suharto


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



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

<Beethoven clip>

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

Episode 103:  Indonesia Under Suharto

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

<Carabao sound effect>

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

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

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


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



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



<Play Mark Vinet Sound clip>

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

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

<Brin-Brin sound clip>

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

End quote.

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

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

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

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


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

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