Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Caucasus, Central Asia, Indonesia, Islam, Mediterranean, Middle East, Philippines, South Asia, U.S., USSR, war

Projected World War II Casualties after Sept. 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 571-574:

American anticipation of the bloodbath [awaiting them when they invaded the main islands of Japan] was evident in the forty-two divisions they allotted to the invasion. Seven had fought on Okinawa.

The planners calculated the landing alone would cost a hundred thousand American lives. The full securing of the home islands was expected to cost ten times that number, or four times the combined losses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General MacArthur, whose estimates of casualties in previous battles had been uncannily accurate, made a careful study of the mainland operation at President Truman’s request and predicted one million men would be killed or wounded in the invasions of Kyushu and Honshu alone…. Final victory might easily cost more American casualties than in the entire war until then, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

The predictability of the [Okinawa] veterans’ renewed love of the bomb when they saw what it saved them from at mainland landing sites is no reason to dismiss arguments for its use. Of course it killed many people, but the equation, if there is one, must include the people it saved, to the extent that saving now seems likely and the number can be estimated. Although the American fighting men who cheered Little Boy and Fat Man did not care as much about others’ survival as their own, consideration of the larger issue must include possible Japanese losses.

The ratio of Japanese combat deaths to American was well over 10 to 1 on Okinawa. It might have been marginally different during fighting in the enemy’s heartland rather than on isolated islands, where Japanese garrisons were often cut off from reinforcements. Civilian deaths assuredly would have been much higher, if only because the mainland had many more civilians with a commitment to die for Emperor and country. The best estimates of probably total Japanese deaths in a mainland campaign are around twenty million; if civilian suicides and suicidal resistance had generated hysteria – a likely prospect in light of the experience on Guam [sic; Saipan?] and Okinawa – the toll would have been higher. The country would have been leveled and burned to cinders. Postwar life, including economic recovery, would have been retarded if Russia, a full Allied partner during the ground combat from 1945 to 1947 or 1948, would have insisted on dividing Japan like Korea and Germany.

Any estimate of lives saved by the atomic bombs must include hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians in China, Manchuria and other territories still fought for and occupied, often viciously, by Japan. There would have been tens of thousands of British casualties among the 200,000 set to invade the Malay Peninsula – to retake Singapore – on September 9, a month after Nagasaki. Six divisions, the same number as at Normandy, had been assigned to that operation. It was expected to take seven months of savage infantry fighting, over half the time required to defeat Hitler’s armies in Europe.

The total number must also include European and Eurasian prisoners of the Japanese, chiefly from English, Dutch, and other colonial military and civilian forces. Okinawa was the most important prelude to the climax because its terrain most closely resembled the mainland’s, but non-Japanese elsewhere in Asia would have suffered even more during the new Tennozan. After the fall of Okinawa, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi issued an order directing his prison camp officers to kill all their captives the moment the enemy invaded his southeast Asia theater. That would have been when those 200,000 British landed to retake Singapore, less than three weeks after the Japanese surrender. There was a real chance that Terauchi’s order would have been carried out, in which case up to 400,000 people would have been massacred. Even more were doomed to die soon after of “natural” causes. The Japanese treatment of their prisoners grew more brutal as the military situation worsened and their hatred swelled. Laurens van der Post, who had been a prisoner for more than forty months, was convinced that the majority of the half-million captives in the hellish camps could not possibly have survived the year 1946. Dying every day in droves throughout the summer of 1945, nearly all would have perished of disease and starvation in the months that followed.

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Filed under Britain, China, disease, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, Southeast Asia, U.S., USSR, war

Burma’s Own Trouser People

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 78-79:

At the far end of the carriage sat the soldiers: armed, sleek, hostile. I guessed that some were recent graduates of Maymyo’s military academy. Earlier I had watched them on the platform. Some had stood alone, while others had grouped into silent conspiracies of khaki; none of them had mixed with the civilians. I wondered what the academy had taught them. ‘They spend four years getting brainwashed, and when they come out they expect all civilians to behave like soldiers,’ a Burmese dissident told me later. ‘But of course we don’t want to behave like soldiers. That’s why we chose to remain civilians. But they think they are the greatest people in Burma. They think they know what’s best for the rest of us. They don’t.’ Casual visitors to Burma are unaware of the visceral hatred most people have for the military, particularly among ethnic minorities. The same dissident told me how a group of Kachin farmers stood by and watched as six young Burmese soldiers writhed in agony in the wreckage of a crashed army truck. When the dissident’s sister, who had witnessed the crash, pleaded with the farmers to do something, one of them chillingly replied, ‘Why should we? They will only live to make our lives worse. It is better to let them die.’

As far as I could work out, the military seemed utterly unaware of its unpopularity, although its guardians were alert to any potential blots on its escutcheon. I had heard, for example, that Burmese cartoonists working for newspapers or magazines were forbidden to draw men in trousers. This was because the only Burmese men who worse trousers were soldiers, and soldiers could not possibly be allowed to appear in such an undignified and dangerously satirical art form.

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Football Comes to Burma, 1878

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 28-30:

Even before the Football Association was established in England in 1863, wherever the Brits went in the world the beautiful game went with them. British railway engineers took the sport to Argentina; Scottish textile workers taught the Swedes; the Russians learned it from English cotton-mill managers. And one day in 1878 George Scott strode on to the bumpy games field next to St. John’s College with his curious students, punted a football through a blue afternoon sky, and the Burmese game was born.

The first organized football match ever played in Burma took place at St. John’s College around 1879. Scott captained the St. John’s team, whose opponents were a scratch eleven from the southern port town of Moulmein….

Matches were soon drawing large crowds, not only in Rangoon but across British-occupied Lower Burma. There was some concern at the passion the game aroused among the natives, but also relief that Association rules had been adopted. ‘To think of hot-headed Burmans engaged in the rough-and-tumble of Rugby excites lurid imaginings,’ shuddered one colonial official. For the British, football was a way of communicating ideas of fair play and respect for authority. For the Burmese it was something else: a rare opportunity to thrash their colonial masters at their own game.

The Burmese were no slouches with their feet. They had grown up with chinlon, a kind of volleyball played only with the feet and the head, and using a rock-hard rattan ball which could split a man’s eyebrow clean open if headed wrongly. Hard-fought contests between British and Burmese footballers became regular affairs during the cool season. The Burmese team was called The Putsoes, a putso being a longyi that has been tucked neatly up around the thighs like a large, decorative nappy. The British team was called The Trousers.

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Telling Omissions in Pacific Theater War Reporting

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 234–236:

Even when far back from enemy lines, standard practice among reporters in war zones was to painstakingly record, and then publish, the names and hometowns of servicemen and -women. That way, their families and friends back home could enjoy the acknowledgment of their loved ones’ courage, as well as the reflected glory of knowing someone involved in the war effort. “Names are news,” as the saying went. Publishers encouraged the practice for commercial reasons as much as journalistic ones: printing a local person’s name in the newspaper generated loyalty among readers and encouraged the purchase of extra copies, for posterity.

With one glaring, categorical exception, the reporters covering the Gremlin Special crash faithfully followed this practice. They published the names and hometowns of the survivors and the crash victims, and also the chaplains who flew over the valley for funeral rites, the planners in Hollandia, and the crew of the 311 supply plane. They included the names of not only the pilot, copilot, and radio operator but also the flight engineer, Sergeant Anson Macy of Jacksonville, Florida, and the cargo crew.

But as obvious as the reporters’ obsession with Margaret [Hastings, the only female survivor] was their tendency to overlook the 1st Recon paratroopers of Filipino descent. That oversight came despite the fact that all but Rammy Ramirez were natives or residents of the United States, and all were full-fledged members of the U.S. Army. When speaking with reporters by walkie-talkie, [Capt] Walter and [Lt] McCollom repeatedly tried to draw attention to the enlisted paratroopers, particularly the heroic jump by [Sgt] Bulatao and [Cpl] Ramirez into death-defying terrain, and their life-and-limb-saving ministrations to [Cpl] Hastings and [Sgt] Decker.

Yet in one story after another, the medics and paratroopers received little or no credit. Sometimes they appeared anonymously, as in one typical mention: “Two Filipino medics laden with supplies also were dropped by parachute.”

To his credit, Ralph Morton of The Associated Press eventually devoted some ink to the enlisted men of the 1st Recon, as did the [Chicago] Tribune‘s Walter Simmons, who focused most on Sergeant Alfred Baylon. Simmons’s interest in “the stocky, cigar-smoking” Baylon was piqued by the fact that the sergeant hailed from Chicago and had previously worked as an orderly in the city’s Garfield Park Community Hospital.

When the supply plane dropped news clippings about the events in Shangri-La, Walter reacted angrily in his journal to how little acclaim his men received. “So few reporters have given my men the credit due them and are always bringing in outsiders for credit. I certainly hope that when I get out of here I can give the credit to those who deserve it and [to] my enlisted men, who made possible the rescue of these people. It has definitely been no cake party jumping into unexplored country and climbing mountains over the damnest trails ever seen. No complaining, but just slugging along, doing their job.”

As the paratroopers’ leader, Walter received glowing mentions in the press reports. Reporters gave him the title of “rescue chief,” as Ralph Morton put it, presumably to distinguish him from the native chiefs. But throughout the mission reporters used his unloved given name, “Cecil.” And they routinely added an “s” to his last name, calling him “Walters.”

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Filed under Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, publishing, U.S., war

Filipino 1st Recon Battalion (Special) in New Guinea

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 141–142:

In November 1944, Earl Walter and sixty-six jump-qualified members of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion were sweating out the war in “strategic reserve,” stuck in steamy but peaceful Hollandia [now Jayapura], Dutch New Guinea. The closest thing to excitement came when their battalion was renamed the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Special), known as the 1st Recon. The new name did nothing to change their idle fate. Neither did Walter’s promotion from lieutenant to captain.

As months passed, Allied forces under General MacArthur kept busy retaking the islands of the Philippines—one after another, from Leyte to Luzon, Palawan to Mindanao. As the fight progressed, paratroopers from the 503rd and 511th regiments carried out their dangerous and heroic missions on Corregidor and Luzon.

All the while, Walter and his men yearned to get out of the heat of Hollandia and into the fire of war. Their battalion’s devil-may-care motto of Bahala na! a phrase from the Tagalog dialect of the Philippines that can be translated as “Come what may!” [also compared to Inshallah] The more time passed without a mission, the more it seemed like a taunt. The problem, as Walter and his men saw it, was that nothing came their way.

While awaiting orders in Hollandia—some eighteen hundred miles southeast of Manila—Walter’s men pressed him for news. With families and roots in the Philippines, they wanted the honor and the satisfaction of driving the enemy from their homeland. They craved payback for more than two years of Japanese occupation. They wanted revenge for the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which Japanese troops killed or brutalized thousands of captured Filipino and American soldiers along a forced hundred-mile march to a prison camp. Newspapers had detailed the atrocities, fueling a combustible mix of fear and hatred of the Japanese, perhaps nowhere more so than among the men in Walter’s unit. One of them, Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez, had experienced the horrors of Bataan firsthand before making a daring escape.

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How NGOs Feed Corruption in Cambodia

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4386-4443:

In 2009 more than 2,000 donor and NGO organizations were based in Cambodia—more per capita than most anyplace in the world. And the money they disbursed per person far exceeded the average for poor countries receiving foreign aid. Some donors were huge government agencies, like the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department for International Development in Britain. Others were large international organizations, like the United Nations, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund. Still others were small, local groups, like the Alliance Association for Rural Restoration. It appeared to have fewer than a dozen employees.

Overall, so many donors and NGOs were pursuing projects in Cambodia that they were tripping over each other. Several reports on their work noted that many didn’t coordinate with each other and ended up spending time and money on duplicative projects. The government often had no idea what they were up to. “Some of them, particularly the smaller ones, I don’t know what they are doing,” said Im Sethy, the education minister. No matter. The foreigners stationed in Cambodia savored the lifestyle. “People move here just because it is a nice place to live,” said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch. “There’s Internet, restaurants.”

For many aid workers this was a delightful change, given where they had been based before. Jean-Pierre de Margerie, head of the World Food Program office in Phnom Penh, had just moved from a posting in North Korea. Richard Bridle, head of the UNICEF office, and Douglas Broderick, head of the UN’s mission in Cambodia, had been stationed there, too. In Pyongyang they led controlled, constricted lives. “The government was always playing mind games,” de Margerie recalled. Phnom Penh, in comparison, was quite pleasant.

But for the WFP and other UN agencies much of Cambodia was still listed as a hardship post, just like North Korea or Burma, with commensurate salary supplements. In those other countries, though, they couldn’t walk along the riverfront and stop in any of half-a-dozen espresso bars and pick up one of the two better than average English-language newspapers.

Teruo Jinnai, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, had worked previously in Tanzania—and Rwanda “just after the genocide,” he said. By comparison, he said, Cambodia was like a ball of clay that he could shape any way he wanted. “Here I have found my own passion. Here, I can work and cause the result I am after. In France, or America, you don’t see results. But here I can set my own target. If I want Cambodia to be like this or that, I can see the result. So that gives you more power, more energy, more passion.”

Critics of the donors and NGOs often noted that they favored expensive Basque, northern Italian, and Japanese restaurants that charged more for a meal than some Cambodians earned in a year. That may have been unfair; you don’t have to live like the people you are helping to be compassionate and effective. Nevertheless, it was clear that these people had a lifestyle they wanted to protect.

Though their work was challenging, it was often rewarding. Many were highly paid, and Cambodia charged no income taxes. They could live in sumptuous homes and hire as many servants as they wanted.

If they cut off aid to the government, as the human-rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs, or at least their postings. In a Brookings Institution report entitled Aid Effectiveness in Cambodia, two Cambodian economists argued that donors were eager to begin programs that required their continuing participation and assistance because they “wish to maintain their presence in Cambodia.” The donors’ favorite project: good governance, an objective certain to require many years of work. So far it had produced few if any useful results. At one point in 2008, the Brookings study found that donors were pursuing 1,300 different projects nationwide, and 710 of them were ongoing, meaning they required a continued donor presence to keep them running.

So what happened each year when the donors’ meeting came around again? Hun Sen stood before them and one more time said, this year, we are going to reform education, health care, land usage. Every year human-rights groups and opposition candidates cried out: Hold back your donations until they end land seizures, illegal logging and corruption, until teachers stop selling test scores and doctors stop demanding bribes!

But most every donor in the audience had spent the past few months negotiating contract renewals with their home states or organizations, agreements allowing them to continue their work for the coming year. Here at the meeting they were to announce what they were now planning to do and how much they intended to spend. Human Rights Watch and the others were asking them to rip up their new contracts and go home, jobless.

Naturally, none of the donors said that bleak possibility was the reason they would not hold back aid. Instead, they argued, “If you hold back money, the people most affected would be the poor,” explained In Samrithy, the NGO liaison coordinator for the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a donor umbrella group. He acknowledged that corruption was so rife that government officials helped themselves to money and goods that donors had dedicated to the poor. Even when they “distribute rice to the poor who they have evicted from their homes—they take some for themselves,” said Kek Galibru, director of Licadho, the human-rights group. “They can’t help it. It’s a habit.” Still, In Samrithy said, “the poor won’t get the services they need,” if aid is cut off. As for the corruption, he explained it away. “Some money goes this way or that way. But it’s useful if some of it reaches the poor. Not all of it does, but some does. That’s better than nothing.” That was a popular rationalization among donors.

A few months after parliament passed the 2010 anticorruption law, a routine government census turned up about 2,000 ghost workers—phantom employees whose salaries went into their supervisors’ pockets. The government declined to prosecute, saying, “We must first warn those individuals who are getting money from ghost names,” as Cheam Yeap, a senior member of parliament, put it.

The next month, Hun Sen addressed the annual donors’ conference once again and promised one more time that soon “we will have the capacity to fight against this dangerous disease” because “corruption will damage our institutions.” The donors awarded him $1.1 billion—the largest pledge in a generation.

Some Cambodians and others remained astounded by the donors’ behavior—even people who worked for them. “I don’t understand their policy,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of another donor umbrella group. “The government has learned that the donors are not serious.” He leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly, as if he were confiding a secret. “They do not stand behind what they say. Sometimes I don’t think some of the donors are really here to fight corruption.”

Year after year the foreign donors continued meeting with the smiling health minister who flattered, and coddled, them. They reached agreements to begin new projects and then joined their friends or lovers at the new Greek place for dinner. After the donors handed over the money to build a new health clinic, the deputy minister took out enough to pay his son’s school tuition bill. The assistant minister took enough to buy new tires for his car. His deputy simply stuffed some cash in his pocket. After all, government commerce was carried out entirely in cash. When the clinic was finally built, so little money was left that the contractor had to use cheap and flimsy building materials, raising the real risk that the structure would collapse in the next big storm—just like that new school building in Kampong Thom.

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Filed under Cambodia, economics, NGOs, U.N.