During the Second World War a pro-Vichy regime, headed by Admiral Decoux as Governor-General, continued to exercise administrative control over the countries of French Indochina. It did so at the pleasure of the Japanese, who permitted this exercise of apparent French sovereignty in exchange for what Tokyo saw as a vital concession to its interests: the unfettered opportunity to move troops unhindered through the countries of Indochina and to use their territory for the stationing of its aircraft. The Japanese aircraft that sank the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941, leaving Malaya and Singapore without naval protection, took off from airfields in Cambodia. Then, as the tide of battle began to swing decisively against them, the Japanese in March 1945 no longer saw any benefit in allowing the French to exercise even the constrained power they had retained to this point. In a swift and effective coup de force they overturned the Decoux regime and embarked on a belated effort to promote ‘independent’ states in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, while maintaining effective control over all three countries.
This was a climactic moment, for it was recognised, most particularly in Vietnam, as a sign that French colonialism’s days were numbered. From this point on, and with the Vietnamese communists led by a remarkable set of talented individuals of whom Ho Chi Minh was only one, the stage was slowly being set for three decades of bitter hostilities, the years of the First and Second Indochina Wars. First the French and then the Americans sought to stem the tide of communist revolution but, as hindsight has made crystal clear, their efforts failed and the countries along the Mekong that once made up Indochina all finally came under communist control in 1975.
Daily Archives: 12 November 2004
In the space of fifteen years, from 1966 to 1981, the character of the three countries of former French Indochina that bordered the Lower Mekong changed dramatically; Many of the changes were tragic, almost all were irrevocable. In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam the bitter years of the Second Indochina War ushered in a period of deeply flawed peace before, in the case of Cambodia and Vietnam, former comrades-in-arms became sworn enemies. The communist victories of 1975 were the prelude to a series of events far different from those most observers had predicted as likely to occur. It was not just that the names of cities and countries changed, so that in a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, while Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea. The changes that took place were much more fundamental than those associated with nomenclature. And in the case of Cambodia what took place was scarcely believable.
The bloodbath that many had thought likely to follow a communist victory in Vietnam never took place. Certainly, there was retribution. Of a million persons singled out for ‘re-education’ because of their links to the defeated regime, more than 100 000 endured harsh conditions as they were locked away for long periods in remote and unhealthy labour camps. There they were expected to reflect on their ‘sins’, absorb Marxist thought, and open new areas for agriculture. Yet it seems unquestionably the case that the 30 000 or 40 000 Lao sent for re-education–a dramatically higher proportion of the population–suffered even harsher treatment at the hands of the victors than those who were interned in Vietnam. It was as if the Lao communists were determined to show that their country’s legendary reputation for gentleness and an easygoing approach to life no longer had a place in the new; ideologically oriented scheme of things. But neither in Vietnam nor in Laos did anything take place to match the tyranny and slaughter that overtook the population of Democratic Kampuchea once Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the victors began their radical restructuring of society.
Asiapages finds that ultra-Maoist Pol Pot’s cremation site has turned into a tourist attraction.