Southeast Asia’s Forgotten Wars

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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.

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