Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu, RIP
A flood of memories has been occasioned by the news that Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu died at 86 on Easter Sunday in Rome. During the hectic period leading up to the American initiated coup d’etatand assassination of her husband and his brother, Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem, as a journalist I saw her periodically . The interviews, which were more like conversations than questions and answer routines, were revealing of the continuing tragic events in Vietnam which were to lead to the final catastrophe of the fall of Saigon and the Communist takeover.
I remember, particularly, one conversation where we discussed thecampaign by the American media against the regime. I was caught trying to explain attitudes of the young newsmen stationed in Saigon. Mme. Nhu repeatedly said that she could be more sympathetic to the newsmen if she could believe in their “bonne foi [“good faith”]. I remember telling her that these young reporters were reared in an America where a then recent attack, a rather brutal one, on women sitting on the street in front of the presidential palace protesting in support of Buddhist monk politicians, was unacceptable. They were outraged. Police, at least generally, would never have done that in America, I told her — perhaps tear gas or water hoses but not beatings with clubs. She halted the conversation with me, and in Vietnamese — alas! I don’t speak it — turned to my accompanying official from the ministry of information, obviously interrogating him. Whatever he told her apparently satisfied and we went on to other topics.
I have often recalled the incident, a symptom of the all too often cultural and communications gap that gave John F. Kennedy’s Washington a totally false picture of what was happening in Vietnam, as well as the inability of the Diem Regime to communicate its real and valid concerns about American policy.
Snarls in “The land of Smiles”
The last time I saw my old friend, she had finally given up on her magazine dedicated to what we used to call “upcountry” householders. She lamented the passing of “paradise”, a Thailand she and I had known in the late 1940s when I was a young reporter for a local Bangkok English-language newspaper. “Rice in the paddy and shrimp in the klong [canal]” and all is right with the world went the old saying.
“Modernity” with all its problems had come to the devoutly Buddhist land, preindustrial but with abundant resources. Rites of passage once required young men to spend months in the wat [temple] with their begging bowls. Every morning my friend along with most housewives seeking to “make merit” toward a future existence through charity were at their doorstep dishing out rice and Thai curries to them.
But now the klongs in sea level Bangkok are filled – originally by a corrupt French contractor which produced continual flooding. The stench of diesel replaces cardamom drifting from night markets with the world’s most exotic menu. One might have eaten in Yawarat, sarcastically called “Chinatown”. For since cheap ocean passage after the opening of Suez in the mid-19th century with British and French maritime expansion, Bangkok was a Sino-Thai city, flooded with South China immigrants.
Modernization was, of course, beneficial. Health standards improved. The arid northeast no longer survived by sending migrants to the capital. In recent years, investors saw Thailand as Southeast Asia’s auto manufacturing center. Not only No. 1 rice exporter, worldwide housewives snapped up Thai processed delicacies. And Thailand is destination for sophisticated European tourists, replacing the 60s backpackers who came for pot and sex.
But all this is threatened by a social breakdown. Coming for several decades, it reached crescendo in 2006 with the fall of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ironically, the billionaire politician was brought down by his neighbors, the Singaporeans. Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew who styles himself leader of a squeaky-clean regime does not follow the old adage admonishing Caesar’s wife to be above suspicion. For it was his daughter-in-law’s Singapore sovereign fund, Temasek, who blew up Mr. Thaksin
Temasek, moving away from funding of Singapore’s manufacturing base — eroded in no small part by China – has gone farther afield. In Bangkok, Mrs. Ho Ching, Lee’s son, the Prime Minister’s wife, negotiated an under-the-table $2 billion plus deal for Mr. Thaksin’s telecommunications empire. It was acquired through government, his detractors say. When he escaped taxation on the deal, it was too much for Bangkok’s Sino-Thai professional elite, fed up with unlimited corruption. They supported a military takeover. When Mr. Thaksin won another election, he was ousted again.
But Mr. Thaksin had long since won the hearts and minds of the rural population through a populist program including medical services. Gone is the old division of labor – Bangkok Sino-Thai families dominating the bureaucracy but rural ethnic Thai arriving at higher echelons through the military. [Mr. Thaksin, unlike yesteryear’s Sino-Thai, makes no bones about his Chinese origins, even going on a traditional kowtow to South China to his grandfather’s grave]
Out of office but not out of money – even though a court recently seized $1.5 billion, about half his formal Thai holdings – Mr. Thaksin has been feeding his supporters from exile. His Red Shirts followers and their Yellow Shirts opponents – far too reminiscent of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s takeover – threaten law and order. The beloved but aging King Phumipol Aduldet is increasingly powerless to play his traditional referee role.
During the Vietnam War a prominent Thai general told me his country could successfully continue to assimilate the Chinese immigration if the U.S. assured regional security. But now, not only is there a threat in the south where Muslim Malay ethnics link with internationalist jihadists, but Chinese no longer arrive only by sea and air .More and more the Chinese export juggernaut is plowing into Thailand’s markets – with trade growing 20% annually. Politically, the old isolation along the northern border with southern China disappears as Beijing pushes communications and development south along the Mekong River.
Continuing destructive domestic violence – billions in tourism have already been lost after 38 countries issued travel warnings – could spell disaster.
The Thais have a caution in Burma next door. There military thugs for decades have squandered human and raw materials resources. Burma’s repressive regime is Beijing’s ally to whom it supplies weapons and a market for oil. And Washington is no longer Southeast Asia’s Big Brother. The U.S., certainly under an Obama Administration preoccupied with domestic troubles and two wars in the Middle East, seeks accommodation with Burma as with other old antagonists.
Thailand, like so much of the rest of the world, is now adrift in a welter of conflicting domestic and world currents.
Long gone are the days of the national leitmotiv “mai pen rai”, “[never mind], it is not important”.
No, it is not Vietnam but …
On April 11, 1975, Congress turned its back on the sacrifice of 58,000 American lives, 350,000 casualties, and an $800 [1958 dollars] billion investment. The House voted down a Nixon Administration request for $700 million emergency aid to South Vietnam. Saigon’s small U.S. style army — created through “Vietnamization” but wholly dependent on American logistics – fought valiantly but without air power fell before a hugely superior North Vietnamese conventional invasion heartily backed by Soviet and Chinese Communism. [Hanoi’s vaunted guerrillas suicided in the 1968 Tet Offensive and failed “General Uprising” – if ignored by the anti-war U.S. media.] The spectacle of helicopters frantically lifting stranded Americans from the Saigon Embassy rooftop brought a helter-skelter finis to “Vietnam”, a dismal, excruciatingly painful chapter in American foreign policy.
Historians will continue to argue endlessly about the American intervention in Southeast Asia. But because of its complexities speculation on history’s “ifs” is at best deformed, wherefore analogies to Washington’s current two wars are fallacious.
But there were vast repercussions from Washington’s Indochina defeat beyond the long healing process when returning heroes were treated as outcastes. As many as 160,000 died among the million imprisoned – some as long as 17 years – in Communist “reeducation” camps. Some three million fled the country – 600,000 lost at sea or in the Cambodian “killing fields” — before the US-led “Orderly Departure Program [1979-1994], eventually brought 750,000 refugees. Two million Cambodians died before Hanoi intervened in 1978 halting the madness of their former allies.
Harder to prove, however, is that the drubbing American prestige took and the mystique created by a Vietnamese Communist victory inspired growing worldwide turbulence. In 1979 Iranian revolutionaries took U.S. Embassy hostages and began building a new threat to regional and world stability. In 1983 the first large scale suicide bombing by Hezbollah cost 300 American and French lives, almost destroying the only island of tolerance and prosperity in the Arab world and setting the stage for a new terrorism. The prediction of dominoes falling to Communism did not take place; Mentor Minister Lee Kwan Yu of Singapore [whose trade through Cambodia facilitated Tet] has said the U.S. effort gave other Southeast Asians respite. But a totally corrupt, incompetent, repressive Communist regime still dooms the future of soon-to-be 100 million Vietnamese.
After a legislative branch changeover following the November elections, Washington will be subsumed in domestic politics, not least a still flagging economy. But a foreign policy debate is also on the docket with the continuing sacrifice – as Afghanistan casualties, and financial cost, rise — and relations with Pakistan fester. Hopefully, this time, as was not the case in 1975, it will not be decided by an out-of-sight, out-of-mind national consensus.
As Pres. Barack Obama argued recently in a rather infelicitously recalling of 9/11, America’s ability to overcome disaster is remarkable and not to be minimized in any future catastrophe. But, again, history is as little predictable as the past can be rearranged with the adjustment of a few “Cleopatra’s noses”. [She had a beautiful aquiline Greek nose lending her beauty neither Caesar nor Marc Antony could resist, and thus, by their tarrying with her, brought on the end of the Roman Republic, yahda, yahda, yahda.]
Still speculation on an American failure in Afghanistan, and its twin and perhaps even more excruciatingly difficult problem, Pakistan, is certainly legitimate befor any forthcoming debate.
Quickly, here are some elements:
• As a primitive, isolated Kabul regime proved in 2001, an inability to at least neutralize Al Qaida’s former sanctuary would encourage the growing nihilistic Islamacist movement to seek such bases — not only there again but throughout the Muslim world — for attacks on the American homeland.
• Defeat in Afghanistan/Pakistan would encourage growing radicalization of young Muslims living in Western societies – coinciding with Europe’s increasingly bitter debate over assimilation of its critical and growing Muslims – which is now recognized as the newest most threatening terrorist development.
• Because of British colonial heritage and its size [170 million], Pakistan had been seen as a bet for wider modernizing of Muslim societies despite its incredibly difficult problems, so its disintegration, a possible outcome of failure in Afghanistan, would be catastrophic.
• Failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan could put Islamabad’s growing nuclear arsenal at risk, almost certainly produce further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
• India’s 1.3 billion [with a Muslim population larger than Pakistan], despite recent rapid economic growth remains vulnerable with unparalleled rural poverty and growing self-styled Maoist insurgencies, and would risk destabilization if the Subcontinent’s western reaches in Pakistan fell apart.
• Worldwide oil supplies, still the lifeblood of modern societies – the major oil trader has just announced “peak” is still far away — could become a victim of Mideast chaos [as in Nigeria where production has dwindled].
• Increasing Chinese military belligerence [note the recent Chinese participation in NATO member Turkey’s air exercises] would be fed by a full-blown American retreat – not least because of the link with Pakistan in anti-India power politics.
That’s the downside of less than victory. For another time, indices of problems and “solutions”.