Monthly Archives: September 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Civil Affairs

My first thought when I got my orders to report to HQ Co., 95th Civil Affairs Group at Ft. Gordon, GA, after I finished language school in 1970 was, “Wow. I wonder if I’ll be working with civilians and can wear civilian clothes.” Little did I know that Civil Affairs was just a euphemism for what used to be called Military Government, and that my unit’s insignia showed a traditional Korean city gate on it from its first and last major deployment–during the Korean War. (Its only other component, the 42nd Civil Affairs Co., was briefly deployed to the Dominican Republic in 1965.)

The 95th CA Grp. was an officer-heavy skeletal battalion (only HQ Co. and 42nd Co.) with no critical mission, so it functioned as a holding unit for people either awaiting levy to Vietnam or just back from Nam. As a Romanian translator-interpreter, I was initially assigned to the amiable 2Lt Gorniak, who had mastered German, Dutch, Danish, and Afrikaans while in college ROTC. But, like most officers, he was assigned to one of the combat branches–Infantry, Artillery, and Armored Cavalry–and soon came down on levy to Vietnam. (His name was among the handful I looked for a couple decades later when I dragged my daughter over to the Vietnam Memorial on a visit to DC. I was relieved not to find the names, but found the experience too emotional to explain to my daughter at the time.)

Among those just back from Nam were Sp4 McLaughlin, a crazy fearless helicopter door gunner who never hesitated to step between belligerent drunken soldiers; Sp4 Blaisdell, a radio DJ with a mellifluous voice who spent most of his tour in PsyOps, eating dog and other delicacies with Vietnamese villagers; and three former juvenile delinquent New Yorkers, Pfcs Carter, O’Neill, and Melendez (black, white, and Hispanic, respectively), about which more in later posts.

We did only one field exercise: Driving south on bivouac to Florida, where we pitched tents in a wooded military reservation overrun with armadillos (called ‘turtle-rabbits’ in Nahuatl), many of which had themselves been overrun on the road. The excess of officers over enlisted in our unit meant that each of us peons had to do twice the amount of set-up and clean-up that we would otherwise have done. I remember spending one long evening in our tent listening to Sgt Kerwin tell stories and recite Robert W. Service poems. When I asked him why a person with his wide interests stayed in the Army, he said he and his family very much needed the medical benefits.

By that time, I had become company clerk, and rode in the company First Sergeant’s jeep. Just before departure, 1Sg Davis had gone off to take a shit in the woods. Unfortunately for him, he was very short and hadn’t noticed that he had squatted over the back of his own trousers. Unfortunately for me, I had to ride behind him all the way back to Ft. Gordon. (Fortunately, it was an open jeep.) From then on, his epithet was Sgt Shitty Britches.

The only official public service we performed was guarding railroad crossings while a trainload of nerve gas was shipped to Savannah for eventual destruction (perhaps on Johnston Island). We were all issued gas masks and atropine, but were not allowed to keep them on our persons so as not to alarm the populace. So we kept them in the back of our truck, knowing there would be no possible way for us to get to them and put them to use within the 7-10 seconds that nerve gas would take to kill us.

Civil Affairs was relocated to Ft Bragg in September 1971. As a short-timer, with barely 6 months left to serve, I was transferred to Ft. Gordon’s PCF–Personnel Control Facility (the brig), not Patrol Craft, Fast (Swiftboats). In December 1974, the 95th CA Grp was deactivated, and nowadays most Civil Affairs units are found in the National Guard, which I’m sure performs far more capably than the mixed bag of transients in the 95th CA Grp would have.

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Laos: Minorities

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in mainland Southeast Asia…. Laos lies between the major states of the region: China on its northern border, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the far south, Thailand to the south and west, and Burma in the northwest. Populations from all of these neighbours overlap into Laos. Unlike these other countries, the lowland, ethnic Lao after whom the country is named, do not constitute an overwhelming majority of the population. The 1995 census shows the Lao making up around 2.4 million of a total population of just over 4.5 million, that is, just over half the population. If, however, an ethnolinguistic classification is used–lumping together all speakers of Tai dialects, of which Lao is one–then the Tai-Lao group rises to just over 3 million, or just over two-thirds of the population. By contrast, in all the neighbouring countries the dominant ethnic group–Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese–make up 80 per cent of the population or more. The balance between the different ethnic groups in Laos is therefore unusual, with political attractions to particular ways of drawing the ethnic map….

For centuries the region was dominated by Theravada Buddhist kingdoms that waxed and waned until the idea of national states took hold in the nineteenth century, largely in response to pressures from European colonial powers.

Culturally the minorities in Laos apparently fall outside the framework of these Theravada Buddhist kingdoms. However, some of them, such as those around Luang Prabang or in Champassak, played a central role in various state rituals presided over by a Theravada Buddhist king or prince. Besides the minorities directly caught up in traditional Lao state ritual there may also be important symbolic congruities between Buddhist polities and some of the upland societies. The overthrow of the monarchy in Laos in 1975, however, gutted the traditional symbolic forms of integration, with only less encompassing symbols of Lao nationalism substituted.

French colonialism (1893-1953) brought with it the trappings of the modern state, which demands much greater control over its citizenry than any premodern state. This often upset traditional arrangements, sometimes causing revolts. These revolts, however, were not ‘anti-colonial’ in any simple sense. For example, a 1914 revolt by Haw Chinese traders against the French occurred because the latter were trying to enforce their monopoly on the opium trade.

The Hmong were relative newcomers to Laos, their migrations beginning in the early nineteenth century, and therefore their growing presence finally demanded a redistribution of power in the highlands, which the French facilitated. They were also important economically because they grew opium. The centre of Hmong population was Xieng Khoang Province, and a dispute among clans there would ultimately lead one side into the arms of the Lao communists and the others to support the Royal Lao Government (RLG).

As the new Lao state took shape, the administrative integration of this important highland population gathered pace. In 1946 Touby Lyfoung became the assistant governor of the province, while in 1947 his brother Toulia became one of the province’s representatives in the new National Assembly. Touby regarded the granting of citizenship to the Hmong in the 1947 Constitution as truly momentous. In 1965 he even became a member of King Sisavang Vatthana’s Council. He encouraged Hmong participation in Lao national and annual festivals, and in particular the learning of Lao language and education. While social and cultural change among the Hmong accelerated in the 1950s, including the influence of Christian missionaries, it was not traumatic.

The war that swept through the highlands of Laos in the 1960s, and Xieng Khoang in particular, not only severely upset the highland habitat, but also led to high casualties among the minorities. One Hmong soldier, Vang Pao, rose to the rank of general and he and his multi-ethnic troops, many of them irregulars, spearheaded fighting against the Lao communists, and in particular North Vietnamese regulars sent against them. The military defeat of the RLG by the communists caused hundreds of thousands of minorities to flee as refugees after 1975.

SOURCE: “Laos: Minorities,” by Grant Evans, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 210-212

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Ethnicity in Cambodia

Cambodia is the country in Southeast Asia with the smallest ethnic minority population, both relatively and in absolute numbers. Among about 10 million inhabitants almost 90 per cent are ethnic Khmer. Khmer dominance is ancient: for the Khmer, the kingdom of Angkor (ninth to fifteenth centuries) still remains very much the exemplary origin both of Khmer civilization and the Cambodian nation.

The ways in which governments, officials and elites in post-colonial Cambodia have perceived and treated the country’s non-Khmer ethnic groups reflect an attitude of Khmer supremacy. This attitude is not so much directed against other ethnic groups (except for the Vietnamese), as manifesting a profound ethnocentrism, a conviction that Khmer culture is superior to others. This ethnocentrism puts the Khmer in line with the constructivist view, as opposed to the essentialist …. Already at independence (1953) it was officially recognized that one could ‘become Khmer’ (coul kmae) by adopting the Khmer language and customs.

The Khmer see themselves as fundamentally agrarian, their primary crop, paddy rice, being not only the mainstay for all but an important symbol of the human condition in general. Consequently, the ideal society is one of rice-farming peasants. It was the Khmer Rouge that most explicitly pursued this ideal, but cities generally do not figure positively in the Khmer imagination. There is an implicit association between urban life and foreign, non-Khmer customs. From a Khmer perspective, the capital Phnom Penh is a place in some sense outside Khmer cultural space and inhabited mainly by ‘foreigners’. The traditional ‘foreigners’ in Cambodia are the Chinese and the Vietnamese, and these have always to a large extent been urban populations. The rural-urban dichotomy is thus a significant dimension of ethnic relations.

Historically Cambodia has felt politically and territorially pressed between its two more powerful neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Annam (Vietnam). Siamese armies contributed to the fall of Angkor in the late fifteenth century, and Cambodia was effectively under Siamese suzerainty for much of the period after this until becoming a French protectorate in 1863. Thailand temporarily annexed the northwestern provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap (where Angkor is located) during the Second World War; the name Siem Reap means ‘Siam conquered’, perhaps implying conquered both by and from Siam.

Nevertheless, since independence, the Cambodian governments and the Khmer educated elite have always regarded Vietnam and the Vietnamese as the big threat to Cambodian political, economic and territorial sovereignty, not Thailand and the Thais. Thus, the Khmer consider the Mekong Delta as kampuchea krom, a Cambodian territory unlawfully annexed by Vietnam. The Cambodian border provinces of Prey Veng and Svay Rieng have a significant Vietnamese rice-farming population who have settled (‘encroached’) in search of land. Vietnamese expansionism is a recurrent theme in Khmer propaganda.

The main cultural divide running through Indochina is that which divides mainland Southeast Asia between the ‘Indianized’ states of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and the ‘Sinicized’ Vietnam. This cultural divide may explain why the attitude of the Khmer towards the Vietnamese is significandy different from that towards the Thai. So, also culturally speaking, both Vietnamese and Chinese are perceived as foreign. But in contrast to the Chinese, the Vietnamese in Cambodia are regarded by the majority of the Khmer as intruders, whose presence in the country many perceive as a threat to the Khmer-ness of the nation. Although the Vietnamese do not form one coherent ethnic community, the Khmer nationalist elite, who have pursued anti-Vietnamese propaganda since independence, have tended to ignore this fact, and little allowance has been made for the diversity of Vietnamese communities within the ethnic category ‘Vietnamese’. Consequently, all members of this category have been victims of violent persecutions in recent Cambodian history.

SOURCE: “Cambodia,” by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 194-195

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Cambodia’s Cham Minorities

The name Cham indicates a purported origin in the ‘Hinduized’ kingdom of Champa that occupied the coast of present-day Vietnam until the Vietnamese destroyed its capital in 1471, reducing it to its southernmost principalities. At this time the Cham underwent a gradual and partial conversion to Islam through the influence of the coastal trade of Arab, Persian and Indian merchants.

The ethnic label Cham in Cambodia covers virtually all the country’s Muslims. They number about 230,000, many of them traders. The Khmer view the Cham with apprehension because of a reputation for possessing strong magic. At the same time, both Khmer and Cham believe the latter belong firmly in Cambodian society, and as a well established Cambodian minority they are ‘good to think with’, as their land was once conquered by the Vietnamese and they thus exemplify a fate that many Khmer fear may one day become Cambodia’s.

Three separate groups may be distinguished within the Cham ethnic category. The Cham proper trace their ancestry to the Champa kingdom, but emphasize their religion (Islam) rather than their historical origins as their main defining feature. Most still speak the Cham language, which belongs to the Austronesian family [and appears most closely related the language of Aceh, Indonesia], but all are bilingual in Khmer. They are found mainly in Kampong Cham, Kampot and north of Phnom Penh.

A second group is referred to as ‘Chvea’, which is the Khmer word for ‘Java’, suggesting a penultimate origin in the Malay-Indonesian area. Today they speak Khmer. They prefer to call themselves not ‘Chvea’ but ‘Khmer Islam’ – stressing both their linguistic and national belonging and their separate religion, rather than their ‘foreign’ origin.

Both these groups are recipients of various forms of Islamic aid from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates) as well as from Malaysia. The aid consists of schoolbooks and religious literature in Arabic, and contributions to building schools, mosques and wells. It also involves annual travel funds for some prominent members of local communities to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Cham and Chvea welcome this attention from the world Islamic community, feeling it gives international recognition to their importance as Cambodian Muslims.

The third group of Cham are the Jahed. Although Muslims, they identify themselves primarily in terms of their historical origins in the Champa kingdom. Their ancestors formed part of an exodus from a Champa principality after its ruler’s defeat by the Vietnamese in 1692. Today they number about 23,000 people, all speaking Cham, but most being bilingual in Khmer. In terms of religion, the Jahed belong to a minority within the Muslim population. Their somewhat unorthodox version of Islam (superimposed on a basically Hindu type of cosmology and influenced by Sufi traditions) sets them apart from the other Muslims groups in Cambodia, the Chvea and the Cham. Their possession cult featuring the spirits of their royal ancestors in Champa still flourishes, another sign of their unorthodox approach to Islam.

The Jahed are adamant in following the Muslim customs they have preserved from Champa. Central among these are the weekly prayer meetings at the mosque (instead of the five daily prayers of orthodox Muslims), the use of the Cham language (rather than Arabic) for prayers, and the preservation of their religious literature in the Cham script. In the long run it is doubtful that these traditions will survive, as orthodox Islamic missionaries exert pressure through promises of financial support for mosque-building and distribution of cheaply printed prayer books in Arabic.

SOURCE: “Cambodia,” by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 204-206

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Buddhism and Sino-Indic Trade, 600-1400

Wow. The following is one of the most glowingly positive academic reviews I’ve ever read. It’s by Colin Mackerras of Australia’s Griffith University reviewing Tansen Sen’s Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600–1400. Asian Interactions and Comparisons. (Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003).

This is a splendid book. It has an overarching theme buttressed by immense detail. It has a central argument, one that defies and challenges a conventional view. Its scholarly appurtenances are superb, including notes, documentation, and index. It is well written and interesting. Indeed, I found it quite difficult to put down, despite its length, weight, and academic content.

Professor Tansen Sen tells us that his primary objective is to rectify an “outdated model of pre-modern Sino-Indian relations” (p. 12). In essence, this model says that, after reaching an apogee in the ninth century, Chinese Buddhism declined and with it trade and commerce between China and India. The famous persecution of Buddhism under Tang Emperor Wuzong in the 840s dealt it a blow from which it never fully recovered. Sen believes, on the contrary, that Buddhism continued to thrive in China under the Song dynasty and at the same time in eastern India. In addition, exchanges between the two countries proliferated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and trade exploded during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He suggests that Chinese Buddhism became more indigenous in the tenth and eleventh centuries, meaning that it depended less on Indian Buddhism. However, this means only that Indian influence on Chinese Buddhism declined. It does not mean that Chinese Buddhism itself declined or that exchanges and trade between China and the Indian regions diminished.

I admit to having been raised in the school of thought that Sen believes is outdated. I was taught that Buddhism never fully recovered from Wuzong’s persecution. Sen has a bit to say about this episode (for instance, on p. 74), but given its importance in the conventional view, I would have liked more attention given to it in the formulation of the new interpretation of history.

Yet I must concede that Sen has done a truly masterly job in presenting his alternative view of how Buddhism developed in China and the function it played in Sino-Indian relations. I commend his mastery over the sweep of history, the way he interrelates not only Sino-Indian relations but also the role of other neighboring states like Nanzhao and Khotan, and the way he balances out domestic conditions in both China and India.

Sen’s scholarship is broad in its scope and sweeping in its coverage. One of the strengths of his approach is the way it links religion and mercantilism. In the seventh and eighth centuries, merchants “assisted the expanding number of Buddhist monks travelling across the overland and maritime routes, met the growing demand for ritual items, and actively financed monastic institutions and proselytising activities” (p. 210). Although mercantilism thus had its place from the start, Sen believes that trade and markets replaced Buddhism as the crucial factor in Sino-Indian relations in the later period. He also takes the big-picture approach in the way he places the Sino-Indian trading relationship in the context of the broader trading patterns that emerged over the whole of the great Eurasian continent in the five centuries that began roughly in 1000 and ended in 1500. The combination of the big picture and minute detail is one of the factors that makes for good scholarship and contributes to making this an excellent book….

Overall, this is a remarkable book. It is a real tour de force of religious and diplomatic history and has put forward a new and convincing historical interpretation. It is the most thorough book on the subject of Sino-Indian relations and Buddhism in medieval China and India yet written and will certainly become the standard book on the subject. I suspect it will retain that status for quite a long time. I strongly recommend this book to all those interested in the history of Buddhism, the history of China and India, and of the interrelationship among these topics.

This is historical revisionism at its best. The prevailing view in Korea, too, has been that the Chosôn Dynasty (1392-1910) persecuted Buddhism and favored Confucianism. But perhaps Buddhism had just been fully assimilated, while Neo-Confucianism was the latest fashionable import.

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Japan Baseball Strike Ends

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese baseball players and club representatives reached a deal Thursday to end the first strike in the 70-year history of the sport in Japan, with owners agreeing to let newcomers into the leagues as early as next season.

The players, backed by the majority of fans, went on strike last weekend to protest a planned merger and to press owners to ease requirements for new teams. Weekday games have continued.

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Pitcairn’s Trial of the Century (or Two)

For the best coverage of celebrity justice in Pitcairn, one cannot beat the Head Heeb:

High drama will begin in Pitcairn today as seven islanders go to trial on sex crimes charges that have divided the island since 1999. The trial will take place before the Pitcairn Supreme Court, which sits in New Zealand, with some defendants attending court in Auckland and others via video hookup from Pitcairn. The accused face 96 counts, some dating from 45 years in the past, and the trial is expected to last several weeks.

If the defendants are convicted, they could be incarcerated in a prison they built themselves:

In the past few days, the men who stand accused have helped to heave the final shipment of barbed wire up to the newly built prison that may soon incarcerate them. Locals have dubbed it the “chicken run.” Children have been moved out of the schoolhouse so that it can be turned into a court….

Their conviction would also threaten the economic viability of the island, which would be left without enough able-bodied men to unload supplies from visiting ships.

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