By Carl Taylor, B.A. alumnus
Insight from Southeast Asia.
When you travel, each city is a requiem of the past and present. In three months, I made my way from Hanoi to Barcelona, spending six weeks in Vietnam, one in Cambodia, one in Myanmar, two in Thailand, two in France and two in Barcelona. It was six countries and thirteen cities, across various environments, faces, languages, cultures and histories.
Smiles were a trademark everywhere, a contrast from the heavy sense of burden in being a white American with loose connections to French culture from a brief time living there. All the Southeast Asian countries I visited had in some way been affected by American military policies, some infamously, such as in Vietnam, and some more subversively, such as in Myanmar. Before my trip, I never considered myself a huge military supporter, but had not put aside the possibility of working with the military in some fashion. After seeing the remnants of war in Southeast Asia, I realized I can never work in any capacity with the U.S. military. Our military actions in Southeast Asia have fundamentally changed the region in overt and subtle ways that can be seen in bullet holes marring walls older than America itself and in the interactions of everyday citizens.
While in Vietnam I took a history class on the Vietnam War, taught by Dr. Christoph Giebel and came to a simple idea about America’s poor reaction to losing the War. As a culture we had to reconstruct it in our memories with phallic symbols of American might in films such as Rambo to compensate for our loss. We also bullied the rest of the world into imposing crushing sanctions on a victorious country that did not match normal Cold War sanctions against Communist governments.
This isolation has given Vietnam a fend-for-itself mentality that is apparent in how the people seemingly never give up when it comes to economic advancement such as creating little corner shops in front of their houses, which are everywhere, to gain a little extra money. Maybe to compensate for poor living conditions during and after the war, Vietnamese narratives of the War and its aftermath are staunchly nationalistic, classically portraying the beaten French, Japanese, Chinese and American forces as weak cowards. This nationalistic narrative of expelling foreign aggressors has been so deeply embedded that a large plaque summarizing Vietnamese history in a National History museum in Ho Chi Minh City even fails to mention that a French missionary developed their Romanized script (quốc ngữ). The American military, after using more bombs and bullets in Vietnam than all of WWII combined, after poisoning thousands for generations, after leaving a beautiful countryside identical to the landscape of the moon, has been portrayed by Vietnam’s nationalistic narrative as the defeated foreign aggressor.
Though Vietnam carries traces of the war everywhere, when I asked a Vietnamese friend how he felt about me being in his country, he said he did not care about the war. He said that he liked Americans, the language, the culture and the people, and that he only wanted to do what the U.S. military failed to do during the war, make a real personal connection.
Cambodia, because of a complex number of factors that relate to the Vietnam War, has quite a different story from Vietnam. In five years, one fourth of the Cambodian population was killed due to the one time teacher Pol Pot who aimed to kill all intellectuals and artists, teachers, bilingual people and even anyone with glasses. According to his own ideals, Pol Pot should’ve been killed too to reach his agrarian dream of complete equality. He pursued this complete equality, but destroyed all semblance of society.
The past lays heavy in the air in Cambodia, like a scented humid night that continuously draws up faint memories difficult to place. With many ex-Khmer Rouge leaders controlling Cambodia for the past twenty-five years there has been a slower process of recovery than in Vietnam, especially most of the builders and maintainers of society and culture had been killed. Yet, even while I walked through a killing field and found bones sticking out of the ground, I could still see in Angkor a past worth being proud of (that is, if you agree with national narratives that would connect the Angkorian Empire to the now dominant Khmer people group in Cambodia).
Angkor is a wonder in itself. I felt as if I was walking through various mythical tales all at once. In one place I saw the Jungle Book (which was inspired by Angkor). In others I saw Wats that could easily be in the next season of Game of Thrones. Somehow, in Angkor, the heavy weight of Cambodia’s recent past seemed to have been blown away by the small breeze that is a breath of life in the heat of a Cambodian summer. It is frustrating to see such an impressive past in a country torn by war and ran rampant by expats that treat the country like the Wild West we were a part of when playing Cowboys and Indians as children. After leaving Cambodia through the God-awful Thai-Cambodia land crossing, I would look back fondly yet sadly on a country whose countryside reminded me so much of Texas and a people who have every reason to not smile yet were continuously some of the nicest people I have ever met.
After paying for a visa at the Myanmar embassy, I found myself in the nicest airport in Southeast Asia as I traveled to Yangon. There are an uncomfortable number of cars in Yangon and traffic is second only to Bangkok. Unreasonably uncomfortable taxi seats aside, Myanmar stands out from its Southeast Asian neighbors not only for its ability to remain as most uninfluenced by the West, but presumably also most unaffected by U.S. military policies. The U.S. has yet to have any direct military engagement with Myanmar, but due to the U.S.’s paranoid War on Terrorism, Myanmar in the past has been labeled as an Axis of Evil by Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, giving Myanmar the same shunned treatment as Vietnam received between 1975 and 1994. U.S. military policies against perceived national enemies damaged Myanmar’s already weak economy and helped to develop a black economy.
The Burmese people are unimaginably nice and Yangon was easily the safest city I have ever been to, if I ignored the random gaping sinkholes in the sidewalks. Yangon is a microcosm of Myanmar. Yangon has a decently sized Muslim community (from what I saw, though numbers are never mentioned) and a quickly developing economy (just three years ago there were almost no cars), but both of these characteristics meet at a delicate middle ground where economic hardships and opportunities combined with more political freedom are manifesting themselves in random acts of violence against Muslim communities.
The tallest building in Yangon has a rooftop restaurant: off to one side I could see the inspiring Shwedagon temple and the sprawling metropolis of Yangon. Yet, when I turned to the other side of the restaurant, I saw a city that stops and gives way to a sea of green and infinite blue sky. While Myanmar, like Yangon, holds promises of a bright future, the past effects of U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia leave Myanmar’s future as wide and uncertain as the fields and sky that surround Yangon.
Thailand left me with an odd taste in my mouth. Although Thailand has never been in a major international conflict to the same scale as Cambodia and Vietnam, Thailand has a heavily militarized society. Pictures of the royal family are everywhere. If you say one bad thing about the family you are put in jail. The U.S. used Thailand as an anticommunist example in the Cold War after failing to progress anywhere with Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. Thailand has even developed a national identity that at times is portrayed in specifically not being communist. The U.S. has had a close relation to Thailand since the Cold War that has helped direct Thailand’s history and identity. Overtly aggressive U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia has even helped to develop a robust military society in Thailand by the sheer force of U.S. presence in the region.
In much of the world there are traces of war and the after effects of military actions. But Southeast Asia is different: the memories of U.S. military polices are heavy in the tropical air, it drips in the sweat that rolls around the smiling mouth of local citizens greeting new American tourist, carrying money not guns. In America we often forget what effects our military has on the world, be it on-the-ground violence as in Vietnam or Cambodia, or in more psychological and cultural military influence as in Thailand and Myanmar.
Although there are traces of U.S. military policies across Southeast Asia there are also traces of the future in the warm way people of various cultures seemingly invite foreigners with open arms. It is hard to tell if their smiles are the forcibly polite smiles our mothers have taught us when entertaining unwanted guests, or if it is genuine. Either way, the lingering effects of war are everywhere. The way to fix the current problems left over from the past are many and disputed. But the first step is the step my Vietnamese friend made in Hue, caring about the past, but not letting it affect his view of Americans today. We all carry requiems of war, but how we use those memories in the present constitute how the future will unfold.
Carl Taylor graduated with a degree in International Studies and a minor in French in 2013. In May 2014, Carl will start working with the Peace Corps in Cameroon to teach English for the next two years. Follow his blog for more detailed accounts and photos of his travels and his time in Cameroon.