Era of Maritime Polynesian Pidgin

I’ve lately been reading several books in paper, the most recent being Language Contact in the Early Colonial Pacific: Maritime Polynesian Pidgin before Pidgin English, by Emanuel J. Drechsel (Cambridge U. Press, 2014). When I heard about it, I immediately went to order it from Amazon, but the hardcover is listed at $99 and the Kindle version listed for $79, so I resorted to borrowing a copy from the University of Hawai‘i Library’s Hawaiian & Pacific Collection. However, Cambridge UP’s website does offer a free download of a Maritime Polynesian Pidgin Vocabulary listing (pdf).

It’s a dense work. The author, an expert in two North American trade pidgins, Chinook Jargon in the Northwest and Mobilian Jargon in the Southeast, relies on a combination of ethnohistorical and philological methods to reconstruct Maritime Polynesian Pidgin, which served as a lingua franca during the early period of regular Western trade with islands in the Pacific. During this era, from the 1760s into the 1860s, powerful chiefs controlled critical resources on the larger Pacific Island groups, especially water, food, timber, and manpower. Pacific Islands also supplied bêche-de-mer and sandalwood for the China trade. Polynesians were highly valued as sailors on Western ships, whose crews were frequently depleted by disease and desertion. Polynesians could not only handle boats, they could also swim, unlike many European and American sailors in those days.

Moreover, the Polynesian languages spoken in the principal island groups during the early trading and whaling era—Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand—were similar enough that Polynesians were also recruited as interpreters during negotiations with island chiefs. Their Maritime Polynesian Pidgin was later supplanted by English-based and French-based pidgins during the era of settler colonization and plantation economies.

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Filed under economics, language, Pacific, Polynesia

Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels

New orthographies for Pacific Island languages have had very mixed results. I’ve blogged about some of the less successful attempts at new orthographies in Micronesia: for Yapese and Marshallese. By contrast, the first Hawaiian orthography, developed by missionaries, proved enormously successful, leaving a huge legacy of Hawaiian-language publications now being digitized and translated.

I recently came across another new orthography in a Pacific language that looks bizarre to people who read widely in Latin-based alphabets, but that seems to work for the 4,000 or so people who speak Natqgu, a language in the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands off the southeastern end of the Solomon Islands. A local language committee revised an earlier orthography that was difficult to type because it relied on diacritics to distinguish 10 vowel positions, plus distinctive nasalization on a few of them. Fortunately, they didn’t need all the plain consonant symbols on standard keyboards so they decided to substitute consonant symbols for the diacritic-laden vowels and mark nasalization with a trailing apostrophe.

Language Project advisor Brenda Boerger describes the local committee’s thinking in Natqgu literacy: Capturing three domains for written language use in Language Documentation & Conservation 1 (2007): 126–153:

But by the mid-1990s, when Wurm’s [diacritic-dependent] Natqgu orthography had been in use for over ten years, there had still been little increase in vernacular literacy. So the local community was again asked by the Natqgu Language Project to consider modifying the orthography in order to eliminate the diacritics. This time there was sufficient support for it, and with the consent of the leader who had had reservations, the language group decided to change the orthography. Their reasons were primarily two-fold. The first was exactly what was reported above. That is, speakers continued to find it difficult to learn to read and write Natqgu, apparently as a result of their lack of experience in identifying the letters with diacritics as separate symbols and sounds from those without. Their second reason was related to producing printed materials. Typing the diacritics demanded a special typewriter with at least a tilde. The double quote mark was often used in place of the umlaut. For vowels with both an umlaut and a tilde, it was necessary for the typist to scroll the paper slightly, so that the tilde would be over the umlaut (double quote mark). Typing was tedious, and the end result was not the clean copy normally expected for printed texts. Furthermore, no printing business in the Solomons at that time was able to typeset text with the Natqgu diacritics.

Since the earlier language committee had become inactive, an ad hoc orthography committee composed of leaders literate in Natqgu was formed to make the change. They discussed a number of possible ways to modify the alphabet. For each proposal a paragraph was printed so the committee members could see text in the revised orthography. One proposal included using digraphs to replace the letters with diacritics. Another pattern suggested digraphs, which had Natqgu attempting to follow English pronunciation and spelling conventions, by representing /ə/ as uh and /a/ as ah. However, since this went against the convention for most languages in the world, including Pijin and other Solomons vernaculars, all of which represent /a/ as a, this alternative was rejected. As other digraphs were examined, the committee quickly rejected them all. They realized that not only would using digraphs add to the length of words, but that the added length would also make them even more difficult to read, especially since three of the vowels with diacritics occurred most frequently.

Table 4. Vowel Equivalences in the Old and New Natqgu Orthographies [truncated here]
old = new = IPA
a = a = a
e = e = e
i = i = i
o = o = o
u = u = u
o = c = ɔ (open o)
ü = q = ʉ (barred U)
ö = r = ɞ (close reversed epsilon)
ä = x = æ
ë = z = ə

That situation left the committee with the “one sound, one symbol” alternative. As an advisor to the committee, I showed them orthographic and IPA vowel symbols from other languages in the world to consider as possibilities, some of which had the same disadvantages as the orthography with diacritics. They expressed a strong desire to stick to the letters they already recognized as symbols for written language — those on an English typewriter. As a consequence, they decided to represent the five diacritic vowels by using consonant letters from the English alphabet which were not necessary for writing Natqgu words. The inventory of possible letters was: c, f, h, q, r, x, and z. They rejected the use of f and h because, “Vowels should only be one space high,” leaving only five letters remaining for the five vowels under consideration. They compromised on the descending leg of q because, “Its body has the round shape like most vowels.” Assigning each vowel to a symbol was fairly straightforward. There was already the practice of writing /ɞ/ as ir, so leaving out the i seemed logical. The letter c was the mirror image of the open /o/ which they’d been shown. The pronunciation of the name of the letter q was similar to the sound of /ʉ/. And the name of x sounded almost like axe, which begins with the sound /æ/. That left z to represent /ə/. Thus, the spelling of Natügu became Natqgu, as in the majority of the relevant bibliographical references in this article. They also decided to represent phonemic nasalization with a straight apostrophe following the vowel symbol, so that it could be typed sequentially and no vowel would require a diacritic.

Given that there was little local identification with the old orthography, the new one was easily accepted, even though orthographies have been hotly disputed elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally a leader from a more distant village would drop in and say, “I heard you changed our writing.” I countered that a committee of Natqgu speakers had made the change, and gave a quick lesson on how to read the new orthography, complete with a handout delineating the correspondences between the two orthographies and giving key words for each vowel. Each key word used the focus vowel twice. The handout contained the material in Table 4, minus the IPA symbols, and could be used to explain the changes to others.

A side benefit of the orthography change was the continued production of this half-page handout, which over the years took on a life of its own. The team eventually requested that it be the first page in all of our publications. People would regularly come to the door and say, “I want the vowels,” meaning they needed a copy of the pronunciation guide. These copies were simple and cheap to produce, so they could be given without charge. Having a copy of the vowel handout was the starting point for those who decided to informally teach a friend to read, and demonstrated their desire to use Natqgu in its written form, as well as its spoken one. I suggest that the “vowel paper” became so popular because it significantly increased the ease of access to Natqgu literacy using the new orthography, in part by eliminating the need for a teacher on the part of those already literate in English.

As reported in the next section, the most important result of adopting the new orthography has been that speakers are able to learn to read and write in it more easily, apparently because it is more intuitive to them.

The New Testament, Psalms, Ruth, and the Anglican Book of Worship have been translated into Natqgu in its new orthography. Here’s what Psalm 23 looks like in the new orthography.

Sam 23
Kxaolve Sip

Nabz ne Devet

1 Yawe, aolve-zvzq ninge apux sip nem.
X trtxpnz’ngr da kx mnctxpx-ngrneng.

2 Mailz-zvzq ninge me ycngr lue x dakxnzng,
Murde naamax mrgc tqycngr nrwx.

3 Amrnaq nzlu-krnge.
X aelwa-zvz-ngrme lrpzki kxtubq, murde drtqm tr zlwz.

4 Nctrko scm tzmle nzti bange.
X bz scm abrmle drtwrnge mz da kx prtz.

Kxmule-esz’ vztrx mz nzlo, a’ trtxpnz’ngr da kx namwx’lrtix.
Murde nim Yawe, kc tqmncme bange.

5 Alebzme nange dakxnzng,
X aelubzme narnge tolo,

Mz mzlir enqmi rngeng.
X drtwrnge elalzm.

6 Krlz-angidrx kx sa naka-zvzme bange zmrlz x nzokatr-krm,
X namnc-zvzx ma nyz’m.


Filed under language, Pacific, publishing, scholarship

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

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.

Wordcatcher Tales: Old Japanese Cemetery Kanji

I’ve been helping to decipher some old gravestones in the newly renovated Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery (est. 1908), a candidate for the State and National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a short list of deciphering aids.


紀元 Kigen ‘record-origin’ (counting from Emperor Jimmu, 660BC)
明治 Meiji 1–45 (1868–1912)
大正 Taisho 1–15 (1912–1926)
昭和 Showa 1–64 (1926–1989)
平成 Heisei 1–? (1989–?)
行年~才 gyounen/kounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
享年~才 kyounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’~生 ‘born (on) —’
~亡 ‘died (on) —’
~寂 ‘died (on) —’
早世 sousei ‘early death’
生児 seiji ‘just born’
嬰児 eiji ‘infant’
若郎子 wakairatsuko ‘young boy’
若郎女 wakairatsume ‘young girl’


~家之墓 — ke no haka ‘(X) family’s grave’
~先祖 — senzo ‘(X family) ancestors’
~代々 — daidai ‘(X family) generations’
法号 hougou ‘Buddhist name’
戒名 kaimyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
法名 houmyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
俗名 zokumyou ‘secular name’
釈~ Shaku ‘Shak[yamuni] (the historical Buddha)’ (in many posthumous Buddhist names)
~妙~ myou ‘mystery, miracle, wonder’ (in posthumous Buddhist names)
~信士 shinji/shinshi ‘honorific title for men’
~信女 shinnyo ‘honorific title for women’
~童子 douji ‘honorific title for boys’
~童女 dounyo ‘honorific title for girls’
~尼 ama ‘nun’ (sometimes marks posthumous names for girls)
~県~郡~村/町 — ken ‘prefecture’ — gun ‘district’ — mura/machi ‘village/town’


南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu ‘Hail Amida Buddha’ (= Kannon, Pure Land [浄土 joudo] Buddhism)
南無妙法蓮華経 Namu Myouhou Renge Kyou ‘Hail the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’ (Nichiren Buddhism)
倶会一処 Kue Issho (a phrase from the Amida Sutra suggesting) ‘we will meet again in the Pure Land’

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What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.


Filed under Cambodia, China, economics, education, food, language, migration, nationalism, philosophy, Vietnam