Dear President Obama:
On September 25, 2014 the day after you addressed the United Nations General Assembly, I read a transcript and this caught my eye:
“If we lift our eyes beyond our borders – if we think globally and act co-operatively – we can shape the course of this century as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age.”
Honestly, I shuddered a little. I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate my own privilege and sheer luck at having been born into America’s post-WWII boom. But not everyone enjoyed a similar boom and I can’t help but wonder whether the delegates from plenty of other countries found that comment to be – at best – thoughtless, or just plan offensive.
SE Asia didn’t escape the horrors of WWII; hundreds of thousands of civilians and POWs were killed, imprisoned, and starved in forced labor (e.g., Thai-Burma Railroad) and concentration camps. And when the war ended, peace didn’t return to many of the countries. Many of the SE Asian lands, formerly colonized by European countries, fell into Japanese hands during the war. At Japan’s surrender, the Japanese-occupied SE Asian countries were divvied up amongst the Allies, and often handed back to their former colonizers.
My husband and I have been living and traveling in SE Asia for 6 months; let’s take a look at 3 countries we’ve visited in SE Asia, and maybe you’ll agree that your speech writer needs a thump on the head.
Mr. Obama, most of us today think of South Korea as a wonderful success story, both economically (Samsung… Hyundai…) and culturally (maybe Sasha and Malia listen to K-Pop?). The Korean Peninsula is no stranger to being a powerhouse: Under the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), it was an outstanding example of cultural, legal, agricultural and educational accomplishments. The “Hermit Kingdom” tried valiantly to retain its isolationism but it was increasingly caught in conflicts between China and Japan due to its unlucky location smack in between the two, and was eventually occupied by Japan (1910).
Which explains why, at the end of WWII, the Allies drew a random line on a map, splitting Korea into the South (administered by the United States) and the North (managed by Russia). The terrible Korean War (~5 million people killed; cities flattened) followed, beginning as a failed attempt by the North to reunify the country, and becoming the first armed conflict of the Cold War. Almost 70 years later, the two sides still lob shells at each other on a regular basis.
Today’s two Koreas inhabit vastly different worlds. While the South’s recovery and economic growth after the Korean War have been deemed “miraculous,” the North is the stark opposite: terms such as “world’s least open economy”, “widespread starvation”, and “industrial capital stock nearly beyond repair” describe it. Korea, and many families in the process, were torn apart and crushed in the aftermath of a race they had no horse in; we should demand better for future generations.
Cambodia also has the misfortune of geography to blame for much of its troubles today. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, with one of the most corrupt governments. But it wasn’t always that way: Cambodia’s people, the Khmer [not to be confused with the Khmer Rouge, to be discussed momentarily], were the most powerful force in Southeast Asia during the Angkor period (800 – 1450) and excelled “in the fields of art and architecture, city planning, road building and hydraulic engineering.” The former “Land of Peace and Prosperity”, like most of its neighbors, was eventually swept up in the European colonization craze, falling under French rule. It was well after WWII (1953) before the country regained its independence, and within 20 years, two things happened to cripple Cambodia:
I know you were just a kid, but in 1965, the Vietnam War spilled over its borders into Cambodia: President Nixon authorized secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, technically a neutral country. “The United States dropped upwards of 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the amount it had dropped on Japan during WWII (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) by almost a million tons. During this time, about 30 per cent of the country’s population was internally displaced. … Estimates vary widely… however, as many as 500,000 people died as a direct result of the bombings….”
- “The Khmer Rouge, previously a marginalized guerrilla group, propagandized the bombing campaign to great effect; by the CIA’s own intelligence estimates, the US bombing campaign was a key factor in the increase in popular support for the Khmer Rouge rebels. After their victory in 1975, the Khmer Rouge oversaw a period in which another one-to-two million Cambodians died from execution, hunger and forced labour.” [http://rabble.ca/toolkit/on-this-day/us-secret-bombing-cambodia]
Have you visited Cambodia, Mr. President? Maybe you noticed the shortage of middle-aged people or the shocking number of amputees in the streets. The “Lost Generation” which traditionally would be taking care of its elderly parents is largely gone; many elderly are homeless and unable to support themselves. The Khmer Rouge’s genocide killed intellects, artisans, and professionals, resulting in a country where the largest industry (after agriculture) is now garment factories where Cambodians earn $30 – $80 per month. And so on. Ad nauseam.
Now, how do you think the Cambodian delegate to the UN felt when you said we can “shape the course of this century as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age”?
Indonesia’s post-WWII story gets to the heart of why SE Asia continued to suffer after the war. Long pillaged of its natural resources by 350 years of Dutch colonization [“For of all the countries, outside of Africa, that had suffered from colonialism, Indonesia was without a doubt plundered the most ferociously. When the Indonesian masses finally were able to declare their political independence, the rich archipelago was one of the most impoverished areas on earth.“], Indonesia finally declared independence at the close of WWII. Good for them, we say, right?
Except that one of your predecessors, President Eisenhower, locked his sights on Indonesia, using it (actually, using its tin, tungsten, oil, and rubber) as a justification to financially support France against Vietnam when Vietnam’s war for independence was waged after WWII. Speaking at the Governor’s Conference in Seattle, Eisenhower stated:
“All of that weakening position around there is very ominous for the United States, because finally if we lost all that, how would the free world hold the rich empire of Indonesia?” *** “So when the U.S. votes $400 million to help that war [in Vietnam], we are not voting a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can prevent the occurrence of something that would be of a most terrible significance in the United States of America, our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesian territory and from Southeast Asia.”
– President Eisenhower, August 4, 1953 [my own emphasis added]
It’s no small wonder, then, that companies like Unilever (do you use Palmolive in the White House?), Uniroyal, Goodyear, US Steel and Mobil Oil were soon setting up shop on many of Indonesia’s 17,000+ islands. Today, the looting continues: industries such as nickel, palm oil, and asphalt are controlled by behemoth foreign corporations, local citizens work for low wages (minimum wage = $75 – $215 per month) and activists struggle to unsuccessfully protest the age-old story of encroachment into protected forests, displacement of indigenous groups, and the downward spiral of wildlife. We’ve only been to Bali, one small island in Indonesia, but I can safely say that the Balinese would prefer that we set our sights a little higher on this go-round.
We visited family in March, and my youngest cousin, Jenna, asked me possibly the most insightful question of all; she asked whether our travels had changed the way I view the world. I said yes, but couldn’t easily articulate how I’ve been changed. Your speech certainly helped me spell it out, didn’t it? The fact that I hope we strive for a much better world than “our predecessors shaped [in] the post-World War II age” is probably the best example I can give, and I’ll tell her so the next time we visit.
P.S. I guess I’m not the only one who thinks we should be doing things differently this time around… here’s an article comparing your drone strikes to the Cambodia bombings.