Paxeducare’s Blog

Southeast Asia December 2011
January 10, 2012, 2:45 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Southeast Asia December, 2011  Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

 left-Genocide Museum Phnom Penh            Having come from Cambodia to Saigon, embarking from Bangkok 10 days ago, with a stopover in Shanghai from New York, it is interesting experiencing different nationalities, cultures and political and historical environments in each country. The appalling poverty of Cambodia, including countless street children and beggars, is contrasted against the rising of the tourist industry and innumerable local and international NGOs in Cambodia which are feeding the development of many social enterprises. Vietnam, on the other hand, seems “already there” in terms of a much more prevalent middle class, much cleaner streets and upscale shops and buildings  and, to my observation, few beggars. Both countries are emerging from the last many decades of war. The tourism industry has capitalized on this. In Phnom Penh, the 2 main tourist attractions are the Genocide Museum, formerly a school, where the officers under the famed Pol Pot secured their “enemies of the state” before shipping them off to be killed in the countryside, and, secondly, the memorial to the “Killing Fields” outside of town. The latter is deeply spiritual, haunting in its reminder of the horrors of war and what happens when the populace is unable to resist the ravages of a deeply disturbed and paranoid dictator.  

                In Saigon three of the main attractions have to do with what the Vietnamese call the “American War” or the war of American aggression, the concomitant resistance of the Vietnamese and their role as victims of an unwanted war. One of the most vivid reminders of “whose side” is depicted is the tour to the famed Cuchi Tunnels, outside of Saigon, which were built by the Viet Cong, series of disguised and booby trapped tunnels built to repel and resist the American invaders. It was truly fascinating to be visiting the sites of the places featured in my youth on CBS, ABC, NBC news networks during what we Americans call the Vietnamese War. Particularly since my cousin, Richard Threlkeld, was a CBS news correspondent covering the war in Vietnam.We also visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remembrances museum in Saigon, both vivid reminders of the recent past trauma of the country.

                It is the “extreme” nationalism of the current Vietnam that fascinates me. As if, in this particular time in their history, they must glorify the accomplishments in war and the rise of a people united to resist foreign enemies. Ho Chi Minh is considered reverently as the hero and liberator of Vietnam. I have been fascinated by the dominant narrative of Vietnam which is at this point, quite frankly, full of propaganda and lacuna in historical remembrances, all in the name of Vietnamese patriotism. Of course in America we have done and do the same. The films we have witnessed at various sites on our trip remind me of old reels of U.S. World War II propaganda movies. I suppose this sort of thing is true of all countries in the name of nationalism, so many having emerged from the deep wounds of war.  It is as if the patriotism displayed offers no view of other ways of thinking, other perspectives. This is why nationalist thinking can be so dangerous. Nowhere in all of these tourist sites we have visited in Vietnam has there been mention of the thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers who fought willingly alongside the Americans. It is as there was no such thing as 2 sides of a civil war in Vietnam. It is as if this new Vietnam, a unified country now and its people, have difficulty critically evaluating the issues, which include thinking about those who either fought for the south or to whom it mattered little which side was fighting, because so many just wanted to live their lives and make a living in the countryside, not caring whether troops were North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Americans or Viet Cong.

                As the only Americans on our tour of the tunnels, I felt somewhat conspicuous and, I realized, a little offended as our tour guide and members of the tour laughed as he showed land mines which the Viet Cong cleverly hid to “get Americans”….”and they died, ha ha”.  I discovered some patriotic feelings I didn’t realize I had. It was a vivid reminder of what we have learned in the processes of teaching conflict transformation –it truly does matter your perspective. While sitting quietly at a rest spot on the tour, we chatted with our young guide and, when he learned we are Americans, he apologized for what he said about Americans. He told us his father was severely injured during the war fighting with the North Vietnamese and he hates Americans. He said he tries to tell his father that “the war is over”. I told him that my cousin, an American marine, lost both legs and a good part of his hands while tripping on a land mine as a U. S. marine. We agreed that war is terrible.  For some, wars don’t end. I don’t think this young man meant any harm. He was merely adhering to the narrative his tour guide training had instilled.

                Yet when this kind of narrative continues, I realize how imperative it is to teach the processes and skills of peace, to teach to think critically and to understand these issues from multiple perspectives and our own role that we each have in transforming violence and conflict. My hope is that some years from now, the dominant narrative at the Cuchi Tunnels will not be the glory of a unified Vietnam against the American enemies, but an exposé on the horrors of war and the importance that each of us must place on examining our own lives, to see what within them contains, as 18th century Quaker John Woolman wrote, “the seeds of war”. This can include narrow mindedness, lust for greed and power, and a willingness to look the other way in the face of injustice and structural violence.  

Victim's Clothing-the Killing Fields of Cambodia


Cuchi Tunnels Outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)



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