An Open Letter to President Obama

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.

KOREA

Model of Korea's notorious Turtle Ships, the world's first iron-clad battle ships.

Model of Korea’s notorious Turtle Ships, the world’s first iron-clad battle ships.

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.

North Korea at night

The stark contrast in wealth and infrastructure between North and South Korea, as seen from space at night

CAMBODIA

The temple ("wat") at Angkor, Cambodia's Khmer capital during the Angkor Period

The temple (“wat”) at Angkor, Cambodia’s Khmer capital during the Angkor Period

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:

  1. Cambodian land mine site (courtesy of www.dw.de)

    Cambodian land mine site (courtesy of http://www.dw.de)

    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….”

  2. “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

The stunning Kinabantang River, Borneo

The stunning Kinabantang River, Borneo

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]

Photocopy of a 1951 list of "strategically important U.S. assets"  The entire list is quite telling...

Photocopy of a 1951 list of “strategically important U.S. assets” The entire list is quite telling…

Conservation campaign against palm oil plantations and the destruction of orangutan habitat

Conservation campaign against palm oil plantations and the destruction of orangutan habitat

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.

Respectfully,

Bobbi

Oregon, USA

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.

We visited a rescue organization for the Asian Sun Bear, native to the Indonesian/Malaysian island of Borneo.  If the world's smallest bears (aka the Honey Bear) are rescued from being kept illegally as pets, farmed for their gall bladder bile, and poached for their meat, there are few options for release into the wild thanks to palm oil plantations covering the vast majority of the island.

We visited a rescue organization for the Asian Sun Bear, native to the Indonesian/Malaysian island of Borneo. If the world’s smallest bears (aka the Honey Bear) are rescued from being kept illegally as pets, farmed for their gall bladder bile, and poached for their meat, there are few options for release into the wild thanks to palm oil plantations covering the vast majority of the island.

Sources

http://www.korea.net/AboutKorea/Korea-at-a-Glance/History

http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war

https://sites.google.com/site/thesecretbombingofcambodia/foreign-effects

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/vietnam-independence-proclaimed

http://www.regionalgeography.org/cambodia2012/2013/02/12/final-blog-post-the-lingering-effects-of-the-khmer-rouge-in-21st-century-cambodia/

http://www.wageindicator.org/main/salary/minimum-wage/cambodia

http://www.workers.org/indonesia/chap4.html

Indonesia, Etc., Elizabeth Pisani, 2013.

http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/vietnamwar/p/VietnamBrief.htm

http://edwebproject.org/sideshow/history/french.html

http://www.cambodiatribunal.org/history/cambodian-history/]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minimum_wages_by_country

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29665232

http://www.transparency.org/country#KHM

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12 comments

  1. . . very well put Bobbi – the man has been the biggest global disaster in a long while. Struggles to make a decision – any decision – when he does it’s always the wrong one for the people. Good for the global elites, but then, he wouldn’t have passed the job interview if he wasn’t prepared to sell his soul. That said, he did that a long time ago!

    1. Glad to have sparked some good comments. I can’t go so far as to agree that Obama is the “biggest disaster in a long while” (I still grind my molars over Bush and Blair, just for starters…).

      It depends upon the quantification of “biggest” – perhaps today’s improved technology is the only thing that allows the Military Industrial Complex to feed on fewer and fewer souls (e.g., see Politifact’s analysis of Cambodian deaths from US bombings compared to drone attacks at http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/sep/11/henry-kissinger/kissinger-drones-have-killed-more-civilians-bombin/). It’s certainly not due to any higher value placed on human lives…

      I voted twice for Obama and would do it again but I harbor no illusions that he’s any different from anyone else in high-level politics and like many Americans, I feel trapped by the belief that no matter who’s in power, Big Money is the real decision-maker. I also believe that most of us in the western world rely on these various wars on terror, drugs, etc. to prop up our own economies whether we want to admit it or not.

      As you suggest… follow the money.

  2. Very well written, Bobbi. It’s interesting to note that what I consider a scathing attack on US foreign policy over the last 70 years, ruled over by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, can also be interpreted as a scathing attack on simply the current officeholder. I guess that can also be attributed to just how we see the world.

    1. Agreed: I’m always intrigued when KC and I read the same article and then remember completely different points from it.

      During the writing, I was definitely reflecting on lots of foreign policies (not only American, even) that have brought us to where we are today, but I love a good political debate with smart people and am glad to have provoked a few good comments!

      (I presume you noticed Chile as #2 on the list of “foreign sources of critical materials…)

      1. Chile’s presence on the list was not lost on me. It was precisely the practical effects of that “interest” in Chile that generates much anti-US feeling in Chile (and other latin american countries). I also agree that not only is the US to blame. The New World Order established by the allies raises important questions for all countries involved (like, for example, the permanent status of only 5 countries in the UN’s Security Council). I would also like to add that all the responsibility does not lie with these powers, but also with the national elites of these Third World countries who benefit greatly from supporting these policies. I’m sure you’ve also run into much of that during your slow travels. Hugs.

  3. Wow….I’m still absorbing….. (Oh, this is Hope, I changed my name from nmtoitaly since it shows up on my neighborhood blog now)

    1. Yup. I was in a mood.

  4. As I’m sure you know, you also could have written this post from a South/Central American perspective. I honestly think a lot of people here are tired of the US trying to “shape the world” and do so in a way that primarily benefits the US. Many of them are at a point of just wanting to be left alone. But everything seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Starbucks recently opened their first stores in Colombia with many more on the way. And the US and Colombia signed a free trade impact last year. Those are just a couple of examples. There’s also the crisis in Argentina, fueled by a US billionaire who’s not content with his current wealth level. I could go on, but I know I’m preaching to the choir….

    1. The connections to WWII are more hazy for Latin America: the former Spanish colonies (and I realize there were other European colonies as well) were all independent a century before WWII began. (exception: Cuba was later than the rest but still well before WWII.) And by 1943, the war had solidified in Asia and Europe, so the world kind of lost interest in South America (geographically) from a strategic perspective.

      But as is shown in the list above, the US certainly viewed Latin America’s resources as high priority after the war. And we went to extraordinary lengths to ensure we could get them: think Pinochet in Chile.

      But I digress: you’re talking about Starbucks, and this, in my mind, is a different topic. Starbucks wouldn’t open new stores if PEOPLE didn’t want it. Every Starbucks I’ve seen around the world is always packed… nobody’s forcing them to drink Frappuccinos.

      And while it’s easy to demonize the United States, the reality is that the homogenization of the planet (where every upscale area in every big city has begun to look identical no matter where you go) is not uniquely an American obsession: Nestle is a Swiss corporation. Unilever is joint Dutch/UK. Etc.

      The bottom line is that incomes are rising around the world (sadly, not in a well-distributed manner, but true nonetheless), and globalization both takes advantage of this fact and satisfies the demands created by this fact. You’ve seen it, too, in your world travels: even in the smallest towns, it’s difficult to find, for example, shampoo and deodorant not made by Unilever brands, toothpaste not made by P&G, or an ice cream snack – ANY ice cream snack would do! – not made by Nestle.

      What’s the solution when it’s corporations rather than governments? Especially when – at least in the US – it’s the corporations controlling Congress… There are no easy (and realistic!) answers.

      And I completely agree with you on the Argentinian crisis; it’s shameful that a hedgefund – which by definition knows it’s investing in risky ventures – can hold an entire country hostage like this.

      1. Well yes, I wasn’t really making a connection with WWII. More with the constant US involvement in the affairs of other countries. Of which there’s been quite a bit in this part of the world. Resulting in lots of suffering and needless deaths.

        As for Starbucks (or similar companies), are people really demanding it? What I see is them going and in creating the demand after the fact. Colombia, for example, already had several coffee chains of their own. I doubt many Colombians even knew that there was a business called Starbucks until after they arrived. But now that they’re here, they’ll do everything they can to market their products and push out the local chains.

        And yes, obviously private corporations are obviously different than governments though they often operate with the government’s protection. And as you implied, they’ve pretty much become one and the same. Hard to know where one starts and the other ends. Unfortunately, I expect things will get far worse before they get better…

  5. Very meaningful and informative post, Bobbi. You make a very good point and I agree. The post-World War II era was not all positive for some Asian countries and it’s unfortunate people in power don’t get that. I hadn’t known about how serious the exploitation of Indonesia was, and having grown up in Indonesia, I wonder if Obama would know about some of that history.

    1. The Indonesia data was most surprising to me, too.

      BTW, you’ll appreciate the A-HA moment I had upon realizing the connection between the Dutch East India Company’s spice trade in Indonesia and the SE Asian slaves who ended up in Cape Town… now referred to as Cape Malay (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people-south-africa/cape-malay)

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