Wednesday, 6 June 2018
Laos and UK and USA: Operation Momentum stalled?
Operation Momentum of course the US war in Laos from 1961 rather than Labour's path to taking over UK soon.
The Laos war the subject of an excellent book by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations: "A great place to have a war, America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA".
As an aside surely UK could do with more thinktanks on Asia as it grows in importance such as CFR - USA active with EastWest Center, Asia Society and Milken Institute, Marshall Center, Brunnings and so on that provide a degree of impartiality beyond just the military and foreign office.
UK only really has Asia House and Chatham House.
The Kurlantzick book though is interesting in that it combines in one place much of the available literature and research on Laos. If Laos was little known in the 1950's - although both Eisenhower and Kennedy spent more time on foreign policy there than Berlin or Cuba as the wider Vietnam war began to spiral out of control -then it's still little known now, if not even less so.
The fall of Vientiane in 1975 leading to decades of isolation.
Interestingly Kurlantzick also wrote a previous book on Jim Thompson formerly OSS in WW2 Asia and one of the promoters of Thai and Isaan region silk - that surely a massive opportunity for UK and Thai trade, and differentiating the Lao and Khmer silk brands, in the future.
A tourism add-on for Laos from Thailand and Isaan surely a simple growth strategy.
American hitech war in Laos resulting in massive civilian casualties rather than troop deaths. Laos for example seeing B52 bombers diverted from bombing Hanoi by bad weather jettisoning their bombs in Laos to avoid landing with live weapons. Or with the free-fire zones of bombing civilian targets.
Journalist Nick Turse also writing an excellent revisionist history of the American war in Vietnam phrasing atrocities and civilian deaths as essentially a My Lai massacre every month rather than rarities. A toxic mix of racism and techwar overkill and the reaction to guerilla war.
Plus ca change with Afghanistan and Syria now, and recently Iraq after Saddam. And who would have expected post-conflict both Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan to fall over so rapidly with ISIS and the Taliban, or Sadr to emerge as Iraq PM. The dangers of propping up dictatorships and then removing them.
The Indochinese dominoes falling until held in Thailand just over the Mekong – President Eisenhower’s fears of dominoes toppling across Asia to India not so incorrect.
The Laotian drug trade also expanded out of the jungle of the Golden Triangle and connected by CIA supply flights such as Air America and CAT to the main towns of Asia, then USA and Europe.
An expended drugs trade a byproduct of the Asian wars that still infects UK and USA streets.
HCMC citing the US Declaration of Independence in his Vietnam independence speech an indication of how things could have been very different with the Asian conflicts framed in nationalism and poverty rather than Marist-Leninism or the chimera of a grand Communist conspiracy.
POW-MIA searches that much faster with UK and USA cooperation with Laos - the lie long buried that there were dozens and hundreds of US prisoners held in Vietnam. Rather MIA referring for example not to a Bamboo Colditz of prisoners desperate to escape, but for example to US fighter jets exploding over the jungle or sea or troop formations bombed leaving no trace of the servicemen.
Much as UK in WW1 and the Unknown Soldier represents those lost without trace.
Medical advances in prosthetic limbs pioneered by the British Legion along with medical support from Operation Smile or Moorfields Eye hospital, beyond bling-bling privatisation of the NHS out of sight in Dubai, in cataracts and the scars of war from napalm and shells must surely be a route forward for UK in Laos.
A population of just 5M and the UK embassy only reopened, after the fall of the capital to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, in 2016. Interestingly despite the carnage of the USA war in Laos the US embassy there never closed. Laos and Vietnam always warmly welcoming US visitors.
And carnage it was though: 20,000 Laotians losing their lives to landmines after the war ended. While during the war itself 200,000 died, some 10% of the population and 25% became refugees.
Along the 500 square mile (about the size of UK) plateau of the Plain of Jars that sits above the capital Vientiane and Mekong river, and before the massive almost impenetrable Laotian Highlands, only some 9,000 people were left out of 150,000 killed or driven away by war.
I write this with a pencil holder on my desk in the shape of the burial jars, a souvenir from a recent visit, that give the Plain of Jars its name. If they are burial jars as nobody knows for sure. A visit interesting in seeing the thousands of landmines that remain, and cluster bomblets and air force bomb casings scattered across the plain and villages. The strategic significance of the area still strong with a Lao air force base in the distance and training flights with the Singaporean air force if ASEAN relations falter.
Those cluster bombs and MAG landmine surveys apt last week with the 10 year anniversary of cluster bombs being banned. A concern with UK-manufactured bomblets turning up in Yemen and the Saudi air force inventory (more UK jets in the Saudi airforce than the RAF) with the Sangcom mega-arms deals.
A Plain of Jars university research project - and university ASEAN languages and more prosaic language schools' short-term and Summer courses overdue in UK and perhaps USA too?
The English language and education a massive opportunity given the recent university league table with all the top ten universities being from UK and USA, and English the official second language for all 10 (11 with East Timor) ASEAN nations.
My predecessor as Thanet South MP candidate (or was it South Thanet - the constituency boundaries being jerrymandered and changed more often than the required ten year census), Jonathan Aitken jailed over the Al-Yamamah Saudi-UK mega-arms deal.
The Kurlantizick book doesn't quite detail his understanding of the Laos war as marking the beginning of the CIA as a paramilitary war-fighting organisation rather than just an intelligence agency. The Bay of Pigs invasion for example was a large-scale military invasion of Cuba, and the overthrow of the Iranian and Guatemalan regimes also significant.
But interesting in reporting the CIA budget in 2012 was $14BN, almost exactly the same as the whole State Department budget, although dwarfed by the new Pentagon $700BN budget.
By the end of the French attempt to reassert control of its Vietnam colony over 75% of the French military budget was funded by USA. The USAF even considering the possibility of using American nuclear weapons on several occasions in both Korea and Vietnam and Laos.
That a strange result in propping up the French Empire given the FDR aim from the 1941 Charter to restrain Churchill and UK Empire by freeing all the colonies after an Allied victory. UK with Operation Masterdom in Autumn 1945 in Saigon creating a pivotal moment in beginning the Vietnam conflict even using surrendered Japanese troops to attack the Viet Minh and allow French colonists to take back control.
Interestingly with the only Thai military report (Prawatiikkanrop khong thahan thai nay songkhram wiet nam) on the campaign that saw several thousand Thai troops and mercenaries and contractors (early shades of Blackwater in Iraq?) deployed for a decade or more as in Korea previously, and in Vietnam. A neglected part of Asian history with the Vichy France wars.
While with POTUS Obama visiting Laos the cold war is well and truly over and surely the Hmong in USA universities in California and MidWest a stronger bridge with Laos National University and UK universities, even the Cambodian community in USA too.
That apt not just with the top ten best universities in the world being just from UK and USA And those nations with the most universities in the top 100 such as Newcastle and its Kasetsart links - but even Silicon Valley California, and Silicon Fen in Cambridge and Silicon Roundabout in London.
Surely there is a massive opportunity to plug in UK, USA and Asian companies (Japan and ASEAN?) for coordination on AI and Robotics and Auto parts for driverless cars etc.
Agritech upgrades and finance also: rice plows and soil sensors and DNA CRISPRCas9 biotech for increased yields for 11BN hungry mouths.
Lao television and music and dance long neglected in UK too - Channel Four?
European support a contrast to previous years, even the French reoccupation of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the Japan defeat in 1945 - despite FDR's concerns, the active participation of the UK military in Operation Masterdom funded until the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by USA.
The Laos war something new though in extending from 1961 until 1974 - and largely kept secret from Congress and the US public. Some 745 US troops and contractors died in Laos - a fraction of the 54,000 dead in Vietnam - but with a massive USAF bombing campaign hidden from the public.
The New York Times only in 1969 reporting on the Laos war as what it termed a twilight war.
And more US deaths in Laos than in Cambodia and four students shot dead at Kent State. The Cambodia secret bombings there by Nixon resulting in massive antiwar protests in USA.
Just one year for example, 1969, saw more bombs fall on Laos than on Japan during all of WW2.
While North Vietnamese troop movements down the Ho Chi Minh Trail of the Laotian panhandle and the highlands of Vietnam (as with the Hmong in Laos Vietnamese Montagnards recruited into a proxy army) saw the use of Agent Orange chemicals to defoliate trees - and also on the ricefields with famine used as a weapon of war.
Shades of South Sudan or Central African Republic or Niger and Chad now, and Eritrea and Somalia recently.
An effect not just of deformities and deaths amongst the Lao and Vietnamese populations but also US troops - Da Nang region in particular still being cleaned up from the toxins. On my first visit over 20 years ago I remember row upon row of bell jars of outrageously deformed foetuses in various Vietnam museums.
The coordination of the CIA and military extending into Allende's Chile and especially Central America in the 1980's and Afghanistan during the Russian invasion of the 1980's.
While Kurlantzick's view of secret forever wars is borne out now in Syria and Afghanistan - B52 bombers again -and Central Africa: Niger and special forces deaths.
While the bombing of Laos from the Udon airbase in northern Thailand has something of a continuation on the Cats Eye torture scandal of the black prisons on the airbase (Lithuania and Romania now cited as black prison sites too) and Gina Haspel role appointed as CIA Chief last month.
And ongoing Obama weekly assassination campaigns by drones, and with RAF participation through the Nevada and Lincoln airforce bases as well as RAF planes in Syria cause for concern and greater scrutiny.
Senator John McCain no stranger to the SE Asian wars and torture from parachuting into Truc Bac lake in 1967 and 6 years of prison and torture in the Hanoi Hilton.
The lack of oversight without a War Powers Act raised by Virginia's Senator Tim Kaine, as with Jeremy Corbyn in UK, in North Korea but also Afghanistan and Sahel and Yemen and Syria is the need for a War Powers Act to tighten up on when and how war is waged by USA or UK.
That all the more important with UN bans, not just on napalm and cluster bombs from the Laos war, and landmines, but now nuclear weapons as well as increasing small arms controls. Surely EU/NATO arms exports bans as cited by the German Foreign Ministry likely soon.
Few generals or majors or sergeants in deploying nuclear weapons would want to face the possibility of My Lai war crimes trials of Calley et al.
While a vigorous Daily Mirror campaign details the 1950's nuclear bomb tests on RAF pilots as essentially guinea pigs for the effects of radiation. As with Agent Orange various birth deformities and gene defects way beyond the averages, and not so different from Gulf War Syndrome of various anthrax vaccines, or larium and malaria etc.
I can vouch from my India visits on the effects of larium being worse than malaria.
Certainly Europe's southern frontier now extending to an Arab Spring in the Sahel south of the sand sea of the Sahara and the real sea of the Mediterranean. The first tentative elections in Libya perhaps the beginning of the end of the civil war and refugee drownings there - an astonishing failure for NATO's navies and again lack of oversight of UK and US special forces.
While the broken nations of Chad - the first UK embassy opening last month - and Niger and Sudan and South Sudan and Somalia and Ertirea are struggling through an imperfect peace to prosperity.
While Central African Republic and DRC Congo and possibly next Cameroon slipping back into conflict and even more famine.
Famine an astonishing failure in the 21st century of cargo planes (the RAF Chinook Display Team showcasing the helicopters over Central London last week and Red Arrows trainers) and supermarkets and crop surpluses and food waste and mobile phones. Horrifyingly Laos and Cambodia still with 40% malnutrition over 40 years after the Vietnam Wars.
And surely UK in Laos has significant potential with a revival of DFID (the previous $20M budget a drop in the ocean of DFID's $20BN) and working with USAid and the alphabet soup of UNDP and UNFAO and UNICEF and so on.
MAG and EU Halo Trust expertise overdue being deployed in the Devil's Gardens of landmines across North Africa from WW2. If Cambodia is to be landmine-free by 2025 then surely the same is possible for Egypt and Libya and Tunisia along with development of the Mediterranean Partnership for EU membership with Algeria and Morocco - the 2026 World Cup a further spur. And the Levant nations of Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Eventually Syria one day.
Lao Tourism: animal welfare, water rafting and jungle trekking on the map for TUI and Thomas Cook and Saga cruises.
The US Embassy active in temple restorations: a $100,000 donation for the Canterbury Cathedral of Luang Prabang attracting massive goodwill in Laos for USA.
While road improvements through to Dien Bien Phu and hiking spots in northern Vietnam another cheap and easy improvement for UK and EEC in ASEAN - and certainly of far more use than the rather bizarre Chinese railway plan through Laos to Thailand.
Laos with some of the most isolated and mountainous jungles and rivers in the world. Imagine trying to build the M1 motorway through the highlands of Scotland. And to connect nothing with nothing as East Kent's TS Eliot might say.
While Laos as the battery of SouthEast Asia in its Scottish-style hydropower, could involve the damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong in Laos and China that would affect Thailand and Cambodia downstream. Harbingers of the water wars of China and India too.
And dynamiting of the Mekong rocks for passage of ships from the South China Sea again seems a dangerous boondoggle connecting nothing with nothing at great expense and effort and environmental damage.
With the UK embassy clicking the Chevening scholarships into place and British Council language schools accreditation the opportunity must be for UK to climb the sunlit uplands of Laos and fast forward trade activity.
Whether that's the marketing of Lao silk and rice, or food commodities in general (a more positive effort for United Fruit rather than endless and fruitless prosecutions of Andy Hall and FinnWatch?), or town planning and telecoms and digital work for further UK momentum given the now-minimal French influence, except in the stunning and neglected legacy of colonial architecture.
The customs houses of Bangkok and Yangon riverfronts or HCMC Basson not safely preserved yet either and in danger of suffering the philistine fate of Fort Mahakan or even Sheffield’s trees.
While rather than the Chines rail boondoggle, a more laser-like approach with Mabey bridges for rural development along the Mekong and Laotian highlands would ensure more connectivity. As would the Lao Friendship Bridge pencilled in for Baeng Khaeng to link Vientiane by rail with Vinh deep sea port in Vietnam. Again a fairly precise and easy route in following the existing road through Laos.
Vinh expansion for trade vital for central Vietnam's growth and a resilient adjunct to Haiphong as well as Da Nang (again) and Cam Ranh Bay (possibly again) through the typhoon seasons.
While southern Laos connected to the Ubon Ratchathani railhead in eastern Thailand and down through Pakxe and Thousand Island resorts to Phnom Penh would open up eastern Cambodia too, and even Phu Quoc's temples, another Angkor Wat in southern Vietnam.
LIDAR ground radar and 3D modelling and AR tourism applications relevant at such UNESCO sites and on ASEAN’s radar as well as the May-Prayut summit ahead of the February 2019 elections (in Thailand rather than UK – those likely in the Autumn as the Brexit silliness crumbles).
But with debate on Operation Momentum from the Kurlintzky book, surely Laos can reset its relations with UK and the West in general from the destruction of 1961 onwards for a brighter ASEAN future in the 21st century.
Time for Change