12 November 2004

Indochina Makeover, 1966-1981

In the space of fifteen years, from 1966 to 1981, the character of the three countries of former French Indochina that bordered the Lower Mekong changed dramatically; Many of the changes were tragic, almost all were irrevocable. In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam the bitter years of the Second Indochina War ushered in a period of deeply flawed peace before, in the case of Cambodia and Vietnam, former comrades-in-arms became sworn enemies. The communist victories of 1975 were the prelude to a series of events far different from those most observers had predicted as likely to occur. It was not just that the names of cities and countries changed, so that in a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, while Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea. The changes that took place were much more fundamental than those associated with nomenclature. And in the case of Cambodia what took place was scarcely believable.

The bloodbath that many had thought likely to follow a communist victory in Vietnam never took place. Certainly, there was retribution. Of a million persons singled out for 're-education' because of their links to the defeated regime, more than 100 000 endured harsh conditions as they were locked away for long periods in remote and unhealthy labour camps. There they were expected to reflect on their 'sins', absorb Marxist thought, and open new areas for agriculture. Yet it seems unquestionably the case that the 30 000 or 40 000 Lao sent for re-education--a dramatically higher proportion of the population--suffered even harsher treatment at the hands of the victors than those who were interned in Vietnam. It was as if the Lao communists were determined to show that their country's legendary reputation for gentleness and an easygoing approach to life no longer had a place in the new; ideologically oriented scheme of things. But neither in Vietnam nor in Laos did anything take place to match the tyranny and slaughter that overtook the population of Democratic Kampuchea once Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the victors began their radical restructuring of society.
SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 194-195

Asiapages finds that ultra-Maoist Pol Pot's cremation site has turned into a tourist attraction.

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