I can remember watching a game show on Vietnamese television maybe a decade or so ago. It was around the time that TV programming in Vietnam was starting to change, and this game show was an example of the new type of programs that was starting to emerge.
I can’t recall how the show worked, but like many game shows in North America, in the middle of the program the host took some time to ask the contestants a little bit about themselves. And I remember being very surprised at what one of the contestants said.
When asked what he liked to do in his free time, this one contestant said that he liked to read about history, and then he became more specific and said (at length) that he liked reading about national heroes (anh hùng dân tộc) and their efforts to resist foreign invasion (chống ngoại xâm), etc.
I was surprised to hear such a nationalistic response. The model I had in my head for such responses was from the game show the Wheel of Fortune where the host invariably asks where the contestants are from, what they do for a living, their marital status, and something about their personal lives.
The answer to this final question is usually something light or humorous, not a lengthy response about national heroes.
The more I thought about this, however, the more I came to realize that these two “models” are actually quite similar. In particular, they both represent the role of repetitive participation in creating national citizens.
If you watch the part of the Wheel of Fortune where the host asks the contestants questions about themselves, they always answer in the same way: they are all from generic “all-American” places (Louisville, Kentucky or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, etc.), they all do middle-class jobs (a loan officer at an insurance company, an elementary school teacher), their family life is always happy (have a “beautiful wife,” “handsome husband” and/or “wonderful kids”), and they often do something that we might not expect (have a black belt in karate, etc.).
All of the answers are different, but they are also all the same. Everyone ultimately says the same thing, over and over and over. So why doesn’t this bore people? I’m not sure, but I think it is related to the reason why people in other contexts can apparently read and talk about national heroes over and over and over.
In the 1990s, Michael Billig wrote a book about a type of nationalism that he referred to as “banal nationalism.” In that work he said the following:
“The central thesis of the present book is that, in the established nations, there is a continual ‘flagging,’ or reminding, of nationhood. . . In so many little ways, the citizenry are daily reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding. The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”
So what Billig is saying is that when we walk by a flag “hanging unnoticed” on a public building, we still actually “notice” it (often subconsciously) and this reinforces a sense of national belonging.
Saying on a game show that you like to read about national heroes, is similar to this, but different. It is also a “flagging” or “reminder,” but it is something that an average person does, whereas that same person does not put the flag on the flagpole outside the public building. Somebody else (an employee of the state) does that (as part of his/her official job).
So alongside banal nationalism I think we could define a related type of nationalism, something that we might call “repetitive participatory nationalism.” For some reason, people participate in “flagging” or “reminding” themselves and others of their national belonging, and they do so repetitively.
Why is it that people say the same things over and over and over? Why don’t they get bored? I don’t think that this is restricted to nationalism. It’s something common to the experience of being human. Nationalist ideas have just become entwined with this phenomenon.
This needs to be theorized. Maybe it already has?
Filed under: Vietnam | 1 Comment
For a long time now I have felt that the first decade or so of the twentieth century is the most important period for anyone who studies Vietnamese history to understand. To date, however, it is a decade that we actually know very little about.
Why is this the case?
I think it is because the first decade of the twentieth century was a time of tremendous change. Reformers at that time were interested in changing the way people thought. In the end, they succeeded in doing so. In fact, they succeeded so well that when people in later times looked back and sought to write about this and earlier periods, they couldn’t do it, because they no longer saw the world as people in those earlier times had.
Let me give an example of what I mean. This is a passage from a dissertation that was completed in 1965 at the University of Denver. It was written by Phan Thien Long Chau. I don’t know who this person was, and I’ve chosen this passage simply because I’ve seen statements like this in many other works.
In talking about the changes that took place in the early twentieth century, this author mentions the impact of colonial rule and “the disruption of the ancient Vietnamese society which was based on the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes.”
Ok, so it is true that certain relationships (cương thường 綱常) were considered important, and it is also true that in some situations the people in the land were referred to in terms of four different types of people (tứ dân 四民), but is this really what society was “based on”? Were these concepts so important that they were always in people’s minds? Would people at that time have characterized their world by boiling it down to these two concepts?
The use of concepts like these to characterize the past is what I refer to as the “textbook-ification” (sách giáo khoa hóa) of the past. The idea that you can define precisely what a society was based on and list or enumerate that information is an idea that fits the work of people who create textbooks.
Textbooks take reality and neatly label and categorize it in order to make it easy for people to understand. The problem, however, is that reality is not easy to understand, and therefore the textbook version of ends up limiting our understanding of the world.
This doesn’t really matter, as long as there are other books that explain things in more detail. It only matters when all that people know about something is the textbook version. Unfortunately, this is more or less the case with many writings on pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese history.
Let’s take a look at what a Vietnamese scholar wrote in the nineteenth century about the geographical position of the Nguyễn Dynasty empire.
In 1853, a scholar by the name of Phạm Phục Trai produced and had published a textbook for children that provided information about the geography of the Nguyễn Dynasty domain. His book was called A Recitation of the Essentials for Enlightening Children (Khải đồng thuyết ước 啟童說約).
In discussing the land, Phạm Phục Trai begins by discussing the creation of the earth and then goes on to examine the world as seen from the vantage point of the Middle Kingdom (or what I called in the previous post, “the Center”) before eventually turning to talk about the Nguyễn Dynasty’s domain.
In discussing the world (as seen from the Middle Kingdom), Phạm Phục Trai notes that “in the northwest there are many mountains, and in the southeast much water.” He also notes that territorial divisions exist to differentiate Di (Chn., Yi 夷) from Hạ (Chn., Xia 夏), where “outside are the Di and inside are the Hạ.”
Western scholars have translated the terms Hạ/Xia and Di/Yi as “Chinese” and “Barbarian,” respectively. However, Phạm Phục Trai clearly considers himself to be one of the Hạ in the interior of the world, and he explains why this is the case when he notes that, “The Việt domain is one of civility [văn hiến 文獻], its geomantic arteries are very special. The Hoàng Kun[lun] is the ancestral node, and from its core it divide into three [arteries].”
Phạm Phục Trai goes on to note that “Northerners state that the writings of [the people of] Giao Chỉ [i.e., ‘Vietnam’] and the rituals of [the people of] Goryeo [i.e., ‘Korea’] complement each other,” and this therefore demonstrates that “the Việt domain is one of civility.”
As for why this is the case, Phạm Phục Trai explains that it is because there is a geomantic ancestral node (tổ mạch 祖脈) in the Himalayas, or what he calls the Yellow Kunlun (黃崑崙) mountains, and from that node a main artery proceeds to the Southern Kingdom where it then divides into three branches. It is because of this geomantic energy that the Southern Kingdom is destined to be part of the inner world of the Hạ, rather than the outer world of the Di, and the recognition of this fact by Northerners themselves serves as proof of this fact.
So what does this have to do with “the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes”? Not much (at least not directly). Nonetheless, the ideas that Phạm Phục Trai expressed here were very basic. Why wouldn’t someone say that these are the kinds of ideas that society was based on?
Phạm Phục Trai’s book was a textbook. Like all textbooks, it sought to simplify information and to present it in a clear way that is easy to understand. That said, we can find many other works from that period that reveal these same ideas.
What is important is that the way that he presented information about the world at the time is very different from the way that people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have presented information about that same world in which Phạm Phục Trai lived.
Why is this?
It’s because of the dramatic changes that took place in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, the way that Vietnamese thought changed radically, and after that point most people lost the ability to understand the world as Vietnamese in the nineteenth century had seen it. And they came to rely on simplified textbook explanations of the past that reflected the ideas of the present more than they did the ideas of the past.
Seeing and understanding that transition is critical for understanding what we now “know.” We have to accurately see what was there before and how it changed so that we can evaluate what it is that we currently think we know.
At present, too many scholars use what we now “know” to talk about the time before everything changed. When they do that, they end up saying things like society “was based on the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes.”
That’s not the world that Phạm Phục Trai described. Yes he produced a simplified explanation of the present. But his goal was to describe the present. Today, meanwhile, many works are produced that are supposed to be about the past, but I would argue that they are also ultimately (whether their authors realize it or not) simplified explanations of the present.
Saying that a past society was based on A and B is easy for us to understand, and fits our way of viewing the world today. That we explain the past in this way is a sign of how we think today.
Phạm Phục Trai explained his world in ways that do not make sense to us today. If we really want people to understand the past, then it is necessary to convey that sense of alien-ness.
Doing so might not make us feel good in the present, but it will give us a more accurate picture of the past. To do that we have to move beyond the textbook knowledge that was produced in the twentieth century, and rediscover what people like Phạm Phục Trai actually thought and how that world of thought changed in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Filed under: Vietnam | 6 Comments
The words that we use have a tremendous influence on how we see and understand the world, and this is particularly the case with the names of nations. As soon as we say or think of names like Thailand, Russia or Argentina, some kind of image of a nation appears in our brains.
What do we do if we want to talk about something before a modern nation was formed? We can use the name of whatever polity existed at the time. So for the fifteenth century we can talk about “Ayutthaya” instead of “Thailand.”
But when we do this, we are still thinking in terms of polities, and when we think of polities, I think that aspects of the modern nation (like clear borders and government administrations, etc.) again start to enter our minds.
So to avoid this we can use geographical terms. We can talk about the Chao Phraya River basin, for instance. Or we can talk about the mountainous periphery of the Red River Delta.
All of this can help, but there is one term that seems to constantly provide problems, and which is very difficult to find a solution for. And that is the “C word”. . . China!
Here again, we can talk about geographical areas, such as the Yellow River valley, the Yangzi Delta, etc., but what do you do when you want to talk about the cultural practices that were shared across various geographical regions?
I was reminded of this today when I was reading Lương Trúc Đàm’s 1908 Treatise on the Geography of the Southern Kingdom (Nam quốc địa dư chí 南國地輿誌), a wonderful example of an early effort by a reformer in what was left of the Nguyễn empire to re-conceptualize how the place where he lived should be known.
It contains a section on “education” (giáo dục 教育). The concept of education was new to people like Lương Trúc Đàm. It was a concept that ultimately originated in Europe and North America, but at the turn of the twentieth century, intellectuals in places like Huế and the Red River Delta most likely accessed information about this concept from reading the works of reformers from the Qing empire, who in turn had read and written about the works of reformers in places like Tokyo, who in turn had read the works of writers from Europe and North America. . .
There were of course scholars in the Qing empire who had read, translated and written about writings from Europe and North America. And there were probably some intellectuals in places like Huế and the Red River Delta at the turn of the twentieth century who had made similarly direct access, but the content and style of Lương Trúc Đàm’s text is similar to the work of reformers from the Qing empire at that time, like Liang Qichao, and my guess would be that it is from the writings of such individuals that Lương Trúc Đàm got his ideas.
Indeed, in the section on education, Lương Trúc Đàm mentions two “places” where knowledge comes from – Trung and Tây 中西. Today many people would probably translate Tây as “the West/Western” and Trung as “China/Chinese,” but these English terms do not signify comparable entities, and I think that the way in which Lương Trúc Đàm used the term “Trung Tây” does indicate two entities that were equivalent.
Today “China” is a country, but “the West” is not. However, the place that we call “China” was historically a lot like the place we refer to as “the West.” That is to say, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural region of the globe where one could find a high culture that members of the elite across that vast region shared to varying degrees.
So rather than see a division between “Western” knowledge and “Chinese” knowledge, I think it would be more appropriate to translate “Trung” more literally as “Central.”
It is as arbitrary to think of one part of the globe as “the Center” as it is to think of another part of the globe as “the West.” At the same time, both of these concepts have their origins in each of these respective areas. Finally, they are equally vague, and yet they both point to something (difficult to clearly define) that was shared by some people across these regions.
In any case, here is a translation of that section of Lương Trúc Đàm’s text. It is interesting because he starts out talking about “hướng lai” 向來. This can mean “in the past” or “in the past and continuing in the present.” Later, he contrasts “hướng lai” with the present. However, many of the things that he said about “hướng lai,” such as the holding of the civil service exams, were still the case in 1908.
So this passage is about the “past and the present” of the educational system, but when Lương Trúc Đàm talks about the present, he is really only talking about the small number of reform schools that had been set up at that time, particularly the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục.
Here is what Lương Trúc Đàm wrote:
As for the method of education in our kingdom/country in the past [hướng lai 向來], in the capital there were chancellors and directors of studies who taught students studying at the Directorate of Education who had passed the prefectural or provincial exams or who were inheritance students. Outside of the capital there were educational commissioners who taught the children of scholars from various places in the provinces who were engaged in studies.
In the towns and villages there were also many private schools where students studied under a master.
The Ministry of Rites controlled the administration of the kingdom’s schools and the examination system. Every three years it held the provincial and metropolitan exams, respectively, and the scholars that [the court] obtained were put to use both inside and outside [the court].
As for what was taught, there was nothing other than writing [văn chương 文章] and no thoughts about anything other than the civil service examination. In investigating matters, none of the topics such as chemistry, acoustics, optics, mechanics, electricity, mineral gas studies [petroleum?? khoáng khí học 礦氣學], astronomy, geography, machinery and drawing were discussed at all.
There was education in name, but it did not completely exist in reality. To call it a country without education would not have been an exaggeration.
Recently, given that [the existing] textbooks are flawed, [people have] resolved to make improvements and have drafted texts, set up schools, assembled together Central and Western [Trung Tây 中西] studies from the past and present and translated them into the national language, and divided [all of this] into the levels of advanced, elementary and intermediate.
Teachers start with the national language at the introductory level, while Hán and European writing are specialized topics. The basis for universal education has therefore been established, and we are marching toward the age of civilization.
Filed under: Early 20th-Century Writings, Southeast Asia, Vietnam | 8 Comments
I was in the Rangoon airport a while ago when I came across this scene here. It is a space for some kind of public phone, but there is no phone there. There is a sign, and there is a table for a phone, but there is no telephone.
A while after I took this picture, I walked by again and saw that someone had plugged a cell phone into the electrical outlet near the bottom of the table to recharge it. The person had moved the table to the side a bit in order to plug in the recharger.
I took this picture because it symbolized to me the passing of an era. When virtually everyone has a cell phone, there is no longer a need for public phones. The public phone is dead.
Or that at least is what I thought at the time I took the picture. However, the following day I was in Bangkok and as I was walking down a street I passed by a public phone that clearly was not dead.
That said, it wasn’t being used in the “traditional” way that public phones have commonly been used. Instead, someone had written the following message in the phone booth:
“Sorry about all that I’d done. . . Now things are f%^&ed up. I really wish I could turn time back for us, for you. . . I miss you. I want to make things right. I will wait for you no matter how long or no matter what. I love [you].
I’M SORRY – WILL WAIT”
So I guess the public phone is not dead after all. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the public phone has died but is now enjoying a kind of “afterlife.”
Filed under: Burma, Southeast Asia, Thailand | Leave a Comment
I came across this “wanted” poster in the January 2, 1900 edition of the Sarawak Gazette.
Eight (possibly) Teochew Chinese were wanted for the murder of pepper planter Liong Ten Chiow.
There was a 100 dollar reward for information leading to their arrest.
I really want to make a “jungle cowboy” movie in Borneo. You have Chinese gold miners and pepper planters, headhunting tribesmen, Malay fishermen and white policemen trying to “keep the peace”. . . It’s just like the American “wild West.”
Then of course you need to add a couple of beautiful women – one of the white guys in Kuching will have to have a beautiful wife, but then there will be some “native” women who are beautiful too. . . and that will add romantic “tension” to the film.
It’s sure to be a blockbuster!!
Filed under: Sarawak | Leave a Comment
In the early nineteenth century, Nguyễn Dynasty official Lê Quang Định compiled a kind of geographical text called the Hoàng Việt nhất thống dư địa chí. Essentially what this work did was to describe the road system throughout the empire. That might not sound very interesting, but it is actually a fascinating work as it gives detailed information about the areas that roads passed through.
Over the past few days I have spent hours and hours trying to connect the places that Lê Quang Định mentions in his text with places on modern maps. It’s very difficult, but I finally was able to begin to do it.
Here is an example of a passage from Lê Quang Định’s book:
“It is 526 fathoms [tầm 尋; 1 fathom was a probably a little less than 2 meters] to Khe Cống Bridge, which is 5 fathoms long. To the east of the road is a mountain range that is colloquially called Đèo Ứng. To the west are abandoned fields and many tigers and wolves. Travelers have to be careful.
“From there it is 116 fathoms to Khe Giữa Bridge, which is 4 fathoms long. There are rice fields on both sides of the road. This waterway is used to release rainwater. There is no rising or falling of the level and no source.
“100 fathoms further is Rào Bridge, which is five fathoms long. On both sides of the road is wild grass interspersed with rice fields.”
In the above passage, Lê Quang Định just mentions the names of bridges, and the local name for a mountain range. This information is too local, and at too small of a scale, to appear on most maps.
I consulted a work that was produced by the US Hydrographic Office in 1944 called French Indochina and South China Sea. It contains the names of thousands of villages in Vietnam along with their latitude and longitude coordinates, however very few of the villages that Lê Quang Định mentions in his text appear in this work.
So after trying in vain for days to map the places that Lê Quang Định talks about on a modern map, today I finally succeeded in doing so. In particular, I was able to find where the above passage fit on a map of Thanh Hóa Province.
The above passage is describing an area of Thanh Hóa just after crossing the border from Nghệ An Province.
In mentioning all of these bridges, at first I thought that Lê Quang Định was crossing different rivers. Indeed, in some maps from the nineteenth century it is clear that the road passed over rivers and that there therefore must have been a bridge over each river.
However, in using such maps I came to realize that Lê Quang Định mentions many more bridges than are on these maps.
It then dawned on me that Lê Quang Định was following a road along a river, and that the road passed back and forth over the same river. Anyone who has ever gone hiking on a trail has noticed that hiking trails do this. People who build modern roads, on the other hand, try to reduce the number of times the road has to cross a river, because building bridges is expensive.
Bridges at this time in Vietnam, however, were probably built and maintained by local communities so that they could move back and forth across a river. Bridges were therefore probably less for the purpose of assisting long-distance travelers and more for the convenience of local peoples.
The above detail from a topographic map shows the area in southern Thanh Hóa Province that the above passage is referring to. When Lê Quang Định says “To the east of the road is a mountain range that is colloquially called Đèo Ứng,” he is referring to the green mountain to the right of the red road at the bottom of the above image.
And as for the various bridges, I’m concluding that they all must have been on that waterway between the mountain at the bottom and the green area to the right of Sơn Châu (Lê Quang Định goes on in the text to mention those mountains in that green area). In Lê Quang Định’s time, the road does not appear to have gone in a straight line to the west of that waterway, as it does today, but instead, must have followed the waterway and at times crossed over it, via the Khe Cống, Khe Giữa and Rào bridges.
Throughout his work, Lê Quang Định mentions bridges a lot. They were one of the main “landmarks” that he used to “map out” the road for travelers. Therefore, it appears that journeys in early nineteenth-century Vietnam were to a large extent viewed in terms of the bridges one had to cross along the way.
That is an interesting way to conceptualize a road or a journey, and I suppose that it tells us something about the landscape, and people’s relationship to it, at that time.
Filed under: Vietnam | Leave a Comment
I’ve written briefly about the work of the historian Nguyễn Phương on this blog before. Nguyễn Phương published a book in Vietnamese in Huế in the 1960s called Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).
It essentially argued that the Vietnamese were people who migrated southward into the Red River Delta in the first millennium AD. By the tenth century their numbers had become big enough, and they had developed common interests, and this all led to the emergence of a separate state in the region at that time.
Over a decade after publishing that work, Nguyễn Phương wrote a book in English on the same topic, entitled “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam: A New Study.” This book, however, was never published.
I don’t know the details of Nguyễn Phương’s life, but in the acknowledgements section of “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam,” he makes it clear that he left South Vietnam in 1975, and then was offered a grant to go study in the US. This is what he wrote:
I left Vietnam last year, when it stopped to be free. . . Homeless and stateless, when I was month after month confined in St. John’s Island, Singapore. All my work, all my career, seemed condemned to be ended for ever. . . Fortunately, I was accepted into the United States, where [the] Ford Foundation gave me a fellowship to study history. Of course I was deeply grateful for this grant.
But how much I was more so, when the subject agreed upon was the ancient history of Vietnam, because while studying it, I felt that I still have a country that had successfully managed to be free.
So thanks to [the] Ford Foundation, I know more about the basic part of Vietnam history. Now I am happy to present it to the benevolent Foundation and to the public.
“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam” is quite different from Việt Nam thời khai sinh. The later work is not merely an English-language translation of the earlier work.
Nonetheless, the main argument is the same – that “Chinese colons” grew in numbers and overtook the “autochthons” or indigenous people and became, by the tenth century AD, the Vietnamese.
“It was these descendants of Chinese colons who grew into the majority of the population, especially after the defeat of Trưng Trắc, that constituted the Vietnamese. They were gradually aware of their common interests, of their identity, and of the possibility, even the necessity, of being politically independent from China.”
“As the uprising of Trưng Trắc was the last attempt of the autochthons to regain tribal power, the uprising of the colon Lý Bí was the first attempt of the Vietnamese to initiate a new country.”
“Lý Bí failed as Trưng Trắc did, but Trưng Trắc marked an end, while Lý Bí a beginning, which would come into full realization with Đinh Bộ Lĩnh.” (pg. 181)
I once heard that Nguyễn Phương spent the time writing this book at Cornell University. At that time, the main historian there who worked on Vietnam was O. W. Wolters.
Nguyễn Phương’s ideas did not fit with those of O. W. Wolters. For Wolters, Vietnam was part of Southeast Asia, and therefore the Vietnamese had to be different from the Chinese. In his writings on Vietnam, he repeatedly emphasized that even though Vietnamese wrote in Chinese, it meant something different. He thus argued that the Vietnamese “drained” Chinese texts of their original meaning and used them for their own purposes. . .
I’m not sure why Nguyễn Phương’s manuscript never got published, but the only copy of it that I know of is in the Cornell University library. While Nguyễn Phương stated in his acknowledgements that he was presenting the completed work to the Ford Foundation and to the public, no “public” has ever seen it, as far as I know. It is a “lost history.”
Nguyễn Phương’s idea that it was migrants to the Red River Delta who became the Vietnamese when their numbers grew big enough that they became the majority is too simplistic of an explanation for what may have taken place in the past. For instance, one could make the argument that a minority elite could have established cultural practices and norms that over time came to be adopted by the majority.
So I don’t agree with Nguyễn Phương’s argument, but I find it to be much closer to the truth than what O. W. Wolters wrote about Vietnam. And while it can take a long time, I think the truth eventually gets revealed and accepted.
I was at a conference recently where a senior scholar presented a very good paper on Vietnamese history that was much more in line with the views of Nguyễn Phương than those of O. W. Wolters. . .
I’m attaching below files of Nguyễn Phương’s two works, the one that was published and the one that we might call his “lost history.”
“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam”
Việt Nam thời khai sinh
Filed under: The Two Vietnams, Vietnam, Vietnamese history sources | 2 Comments
In 1965 there was a coup in Indonesia. Sukarno was overthrown, and the coup was blamed on Communists. A purge of suspected Communists then ensued, and some half a million (maybe many more?) people were killed.
A few years ago, anthropologist Robert Lemelson made a documentary about that period called “40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy.”
More recently, Joshua Oppenheimer has made a film about the same topic called “The Act of Killing.” I still haven’t seen this film, but it’s getting a lot of positive reviews.
To get a sense of what it deals with, the above piece by Al Jazeera called “101 East – Indonesia’s Killing Fields” is a good introduction.
The blurb on YouTube about the video states that “Executioners from Indonesia’s dark past speak out for the first time to reveal a chilling and bloody truth the country now has to face. 101 East speaks exclusively to some of those who participated in the systematic murder of millions.”
Then for Cambodia there is a series of TV shows that have been subtitled in English, such as “Duch on Trial” that documents what has happened in the ongoing war trials in Cambodia.
These trials are, of course, very limited. They are just trying the top Khmer Rouge leaders, however, the rank and file Khmer Rouge remain at large among Cambodian society.
That must create a great deal of stress for many people. It must be horrible to know that people who are responsible for killing ones relatives and friends are living normal lives.
In the case of Indonesia, there is clearly a sense of fear of what would happen if such stresses were allowed to be released. “The Act of Killing” has therefore been banned in Indonesia.
In the Al Jazeera piece, a member of the Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), is interviewed. NU members were responsible for the killings of many suspected Communists in 1965, and this is what one member of NU said in the Al Jazeera video:
“We are worried. In this country, small things easily explode. What if this whole thing explodes again? What will happen to Indonesia if the 1965 case is opened up?”
This statement reminded me of a review I read of Huy Đức’s Bên Thắng Cuộc in which the reviewer basically said that the past is a book that should be closed. There is no need to revisit the past. People should just move forward and leave the past behind.
That is much easier said that done. Over 150 years after the Civil War in the US ended, the divisions that came to the fore at that time still, to some extent, remain, even though many people have tried hard to move beyond them.
What is the best way to deal with those issues? Is it to go back and look at them, as is happening to a limited degree in Cambodia? Or should the past be left in the past, as many have tried to do in Indonesia and Vietnam? Maybe something in between?
Filed under: Southeast Asia | Leave a Comment
On 21 October 1945, Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman sent a letter to “Mr. D. Headley, Lieutnent (sic) Colonel & Chief Commander Civil Affairs, Trengganu Government.” Headley probably found the letter difficult to read, but the Lord of Thailand’s intent was easy to comprehend.
Before I came across this letter, I had never known that there had been a “Lord of Thailand” by the name of Tengku Abdullah Osman. After a quick google search, however, I was able to get a sense of the background to this letter, but I am still not sure who exactly Tengku Abdullah Osman was.
In the beginning of the twentieth century there was a sultanate on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula under British protection called Terengganu. The sultan from 1920-1942 was Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah.
In 1942, Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah died of blood poisoning. At that time Terengganu was under Japanese occupation. The Japanese military authorities appointed Sultan Ali Shah, the son of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah, as his successor.
Not long after that, the Thai government took over the administration of Terengganu. The Thais were allies of the Japanese during the war, and the Thai authorities took advantage of this wartime relationship to extend the area of their control in the region.
Then when the war ended and the British sought to retake their colonial possessions in Southeast Asia, they refused to recognize Sultan Ali Shah. My guess would be that this was in large part because he had come to power with the approval of the Japanese, and the British likely suspected, or perhaps had evidence, that he had been close to the Japanese.
As a result, and presumably under British influence or pressure, the Terengganu State Council dismissed Sultan Ali Shah on 5 November 1945.
The letter that Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman sent to Lieutenant Colonel D. Headley on 21 October 1945 must be related to this issue. I’m assuming that Headley was granted the task of re-establishing a pro-British government in Terengganu, and I’m assuming that Tengku Abdullah Osman was trying to get on Headley’s good side.
That said, I’m still not sure who exactly Tengku Abdullah Osman was, but I would assume that he was a member of the ruling elite in Terengganu.
I’m also not sure what his letter achieved, because it is quite difficult to follow, but one can guess what the purpose of this letter was. To quote, this is what Tengku Abdullah Osman wrote:
“My best Congratualtion”
I have the honour to mentioned, that which yesterday-evening, were the “Ceremony for two Brother-Army,” was “Death-corpse.” And just have buried in honestly “Silence Memorial.”
Do as, I willingly having prayed of my Mission-Mosque, to those, I addressed, May thee Almighty God-blessing, the “Soul-Heaven” which, to receipt the “Humance” being just going to his end worthy of its “World happies.”
With honestly spiritual in Scouting for, “Britain Army’s.” I have sincerely hearted, just have wishes for “Mourning” with worn dress – for their brotherhoods, two-days time, from instead.
I have the honour
To be Sir,
Your excellency remains.
Wow!! I can see that this has something to do with honoring the war dead, and maybe it made sense to Headley at the time, but it’s definitely difficult to understand now. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Tengku Abdullah Osman was seeking to get on good terms with Headley.
It is interesting, however, that Tengku Abdullah Osman held the title of “Lord of Thailand.” Was he granted this title by the Thai authorities during the war when they were administering Terengganu?
If so, and if he was trying to get on Headley’s good side, I would think that such a term would have served the opposite purpose, as it pointed to the fact that certain members of the Malay ruling elite had worked together with the Japanese and Thais during the war.
[This letter can be found in the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A10822, 22 Captain J L Chapman (South East Asia Command - Malaya - Force 136 - Operation Pontoon) - Letter of congratulations from Tengku Abdullah Osman, 21 October 1945.]
Filed under: Malaysia, Thailand, WWII and after in Southeast Asia | Leave a Comment
Following on the post below, here is an attempt at making a map of military posts in French Indochina in World War II.
On the map page you can switch to “terrain” view by clicking on the dropdown menu in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
It is interesting to do so as it makes it clear that in Tonkin, military posts were placed around the edges of the Red River Delta, and along the borders. There was a particularly numerous group of posts near the northeastern coast. I would be interested in knowing what the reason for that was (expecting a naval attack?).
Another point that I find interesting is that there were only four military posts in Laos. . . Also, we can see again here that the borders were different then.
Filed under: Cambodia, Digital Southeast Asia, Laos, Vietnam | Leave a Comment