Southeast Asia’s Forgotten Wars


For tourists, Southeast Asia conjures visions of exotic islands in places like Phuket, Bali, and Boracay. For investors, it’s a relatively safe destination, where their capital can flourish in global cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok. Its ancient history is preserved at Angkor Wat, its rich biodiversity is visible in Borneo, and its readiness to blend with foreign cultures is highlighted by the folk Catholicism in the Philippines. 

But Southeast Asia is more than just white sand beaches, temples, and resorts. 

Unfortunately, it’s seldom mentioned that Southeast Asia is actually one of the most war-ravaged places on the planet. Indeed, there are still several unfinished wars in the region. For example, the world's longest ongoing civil war involves the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting for independence from Burma’s central government for the past 60 years. Meanwhile, the Maoist-influenced Communist Party of the Philippines has been waging an armed revolution in the Philippine countryside since 1969, making it the world’s longest communist insurgency. 

While Timor-Leste succeeded in becoming an independent nation in 2002, it was able to achieve this only after more than two decades of bloody struggle with Indonesia. Speaking of violent conflicts in Indonesia, it seems West Papua’s current bid for independence is unlikely to be resolved peacefully. Separatist movements are also thriving in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. Thailand’s Islamic insurgency, in particular, has intensified in recent years, and some analysts believe it could soon become Asia’s biggest insurgency. 

Several countries in the region are still hurting from the scars of past wars. Laos is officially the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States military dropped more bombs on Laos than it did worldwide during the whole of World War II. Nearly a third of them failed to detonate, and they are scattered across half of the country’s agricultural land. Some experts have warned that it will take a century before the 80 million cluster bomblets can be completely removed.  

But a recent study has claimed that more bombs were actually dropped by the United States on Cambodian soil. Official estimates pegged the total tonnage of bombs dropped on the country at 500,000 tons, but the new study revised the figure to 2.8 million tons of U.S. bombs. Whether the new findings are accurate or not doesn’t change the fact that Cambodia, like Laos, is among the most heavily bombed countries in the past century.  

If Cambodia and Laos suffered tremendously from U.S. military offensives, think of the damage inflicted on Vietnam during the long, nightmarish decades of full-scale U.S. armed intervention in that country. The human casualties are easy to count, but the impact of that war in a poor rural nation can’t be measured in numbers alone. For instance, the war ended more than three decades ago, but Vietnamese fields and forests are still contaminated with Agent Orange and other harmful chemicals used by the U.S. to defeat the Vietcong. 

While it’s a welcome development that Khmer Rouge atrocities are being documented, and that the perpetrators are now facing trial, they can’t erase the trauma of the genocidal war that led to the slaughter of almost two million innocent people.

Global headlines often mention Southeast Asia in relation to news reports on the fastest growing economies and the rising military tensions between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific. They describe the potential of the region in terms of trade and commerce on the one hand, and its geopolitical value if military superpowers should collide in the future on the other. What they always fail to include in the discussion is the ongoing local wars in many places in the region, and the roots of these conflicts which include, among other issues, the negative legacy of centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism. In short, they speak of Southeast Asia as a place with no past, where only the present and future matter. 

The duty of Southeast Asians is to remember the region’s painful past and, when needed, exorcise the ghosts of history that continue to haunt the present.

July 17, 2012 at 15:25

I believe if i'm not worng… The Viet Cong was not defeated by the American… They won and concured Saigon. Based on the Case Church Amendment in 1973 passed by the US Congress, the American withdrew from war. Hence i believe its incorrect to use that the Viet Cong were defeated by the American

March 13, 2012 at 18:26

Every part of the world that has humans has a history of war going back thousands of years (or at least over a thousand years). South America, North America, Australia, Africa and the Middle East, Europe and the Balkans, South/Central/North/East Asia, the Pacific have all had organized violence by humans aimed at other humans. The only place that probably hasn’t is Antarctica and that’s because no-one was there to fight over it.

March 13, 2012 at 18:24

I wouldn’t quite call it anti-American, but I do have to note there isn’t much mention of quite a few conflicts. How about these:

1. Indonesia’s ‘konfrontasi’ policy with Malaysia. It might not be known in the West but it had a major impact on Malaysia and Singapore*.

2. The Third Indochina War (which is an imprecise term) and all of the post-American involvement fighting in Cambodia and the Vietnamese-Chinese border.

3. The border fighting between China and the Soviets and China and India.

4. The nature of the Japanese wars in continental Asia before 1941.

5. The post-Imperial Japan violence that consumed Thailand.

6. The ethnic/class insurgency in Malaysia that created the current government.

If the article mentions several conflicts that are as well known in the West but then goes right back to the ones that every Westerner already knows it undermines its argument.
*Incidentally the BBC has a good article on Indonesia and the assassination of a U.K. official that was blamed on the ‘White Rajahs’.

Charles Dechamps
March 13, 2012 at 06:01

Tell me what region of the world that did not have war culture going back thousands of years ( specifically ancient Europe )? When was the last time America did not get involved with a ( declared or undeclared )war somewhere and what do you mean by ” import it industrial strength “?

john yorio
March 13, 2012 at 05:48

Chinese intervention in Vietnam was limited to military/food supplies at the most: can not be compared to the large scale bombing/bio-warfares by the US. The Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia saved millions of Cambodian lives while the Western world sat idle. Why does it always have to be anti-US when facts are mentioned and still exists on the ground. Just go and look!

Lauren Garza
March 12, 2012 at 13:21

Southeast Asia has had a war culture going back thousands of years. All America has done is import it industrial strength.

March 12, 2012 at 12:17

What about the Chinese intervention in Vietnam? Why is the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia not here? Clearly this is nothing more than anti-US propaganda based on selective inclusion of history.

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