Exploration, Great Game, India, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Asian Affairs: Summer issue preview – Yemen, India and the Middle East, British in Iraq…

The summer issue of the Asian Affairs Journal is now available online – click here for the contents page. Some articles are free to view by all visitors (as indicated); others are only available for free to RSAA memers/JSTOR/Taylor & Francis/Academic subscribers.

Highlights include “Yemen and the Huthis: Genesis of the 2015 Crisis” – an excellent overview by Dr Noel Brehony, a former diplomat and academic authority on Yemen, as to how the civil war arose, the role of the Huthis, the implications for the wider area and Yemen’s prospects. This article is essential reading for anyone who wants to properly understand the current situation and get beyond the brief nature of the press and media coverage. It is free to view: click here to read. 

Shahshank Joshi of RUSI, a frequent contributor to the UK and US broadsheets, writes on “India and the Middle East”, analysing India’s response to the recent disorder in the Middle East with a specific focus on the security-related aspects of that engagement. He also gives specific attention to relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and looks at how India might orient itself in the region in the future.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was not the first time that the UK or western powers found themselves required to play the role of government in that region. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in “The British Raj and the British Mandate in Iraq” examines the first period of UK imperial government in Iraq following the First World War. Specifically, she examines how the form and practice of UK administration in Iraq was generated by the British administration of India: did the fact that Iraq was being squeezed into an Indian template lead to a government there which was less successful than it could have been?

Sir Nicholas Barrington is a former Ambassador and RSAA member of 40 years standing. His diplomatic postings include Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan as British High Commissioner. In “Reflections of a Diplomat in Asia” Sir Nicholas looks back over his career with discussions on the countries in which he served, and concluding reflections (some critical of the UK Government) on the contemporary situation in Pakistan and the Middle East (with specific reference to ISIS/DAESH) in the light of his experience.

For followers of the Great Game, Francis Younghusband was not the only person at the beginning of the 20th century in the race for Tibet and Lhasa. He was almost beaten by an American explorer, Francis Nichols. In “A Forgotten American: Francis Nichols’ Quest for Lhasa” Dr Alex McKay tells the story of a US explorer who deserves to be better known.

John Harrison, a former UK diplomat who served in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1960s revisits the country with an RSAA tour and writes a reflection on how the country has changed in the past 50 years. This article is free to view: click here.

There are also a host of book reviews of the latest works on Asia by Asian Affairs’ galaxy of expert reviewers: see the contents page for more details.

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RSAA member, Vietnam

Methods of Manipulation: an Analogy between Vietnamese Water Puppetry and State Propaganda

Seb Rumsby is the holder of an RSAA Sir Peter Holmes Memorial Award.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Hanoi’s Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre, located on the bank of Hoàn Kiếm Lake next to the Old Quarter. Water puppetry has become an iconic representation of nation, and is now seen as an essential part of the ‘Vietnam experience’ for international tourists, myself included. Originally a Punch-and-Judy-esque form of entertainment for children, Vietnamese language comprehension is not a prerequisite to enjoy the show’s pantomime atmosphere, slapstick jokes, and excellent musical accompaniment. It might not be expected that such an innocent and neutral form of art would be within the realms of state propaganda.

‘To manipulate’ literally means to operate, to manoeuvre, or to influence. Tran Van Khe, the prominent Vietnamese ethnomusicologist who recently passed away, wrote an article about Vietnamese Water Puppetry back in 1985. The second section is entitled “Methods of Manipulation” and explains to some detail how puppeteers who stand waist deep in water behind a screen can control and direct the wooden puppets, which appear to move on their own accord through the water from the view of the audience. The simplest way is to attach puppets to long poles which are immersed under the water and operated by the puppeteer (see image); traditionally, the water should be fairly murky so that the poles cannot be seen from above.

water puppets 2

More complex systems of manipulation include the use of multiple poles, wires connected to different parts of the puppet’s body, and an underwater operating board enabling puppeteers to operate more than one puppet at a time. Beyond that, details get even murkier than the water:

“Specific methods of water puppet manipulation are well-kept family secrets, however, handed down from father to son. In fact they are so carefully protected that the eldest son of the ‘director’ of one water puppet theatre could not marry the girl he loved because she was a member of a rival theatre group.” (Tran 1985:76)

Now to most of us, the word ‘manipulation’ has negative associations, like the word ‘propaganda’. (As it happens, the Vietnamese term tuyên truyền, ‘to propagate’, does not carry the same bad connotations as in English, and state propaganda posters are unashamedly plastered on billboards across Vietnam.) In 2001, Foley argued that water puppetry itself has been used – manipulated, if you will – by the Vietnamese state as a tool of cultural diplomacy by the state, to promote the country’s culture to the world as an alternative to Hollywood’s image of Vietnam as a site of war and trauma (Foley 2001:135). Not only was it invested in and promoted as a tourist attraction, but the state paid for water puppet troupes to travel the world and perform in dozens of countries.

Upon visiting the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre in 2013, I was confronted with a shocking development: the performance had been completely rewritten, and was almost unrecognisable from the show I had seen at the same venue a few years before. At a time when ethnic tensions in Vietnam were at a peak, the show’s content had an obvious political agenda to promote a façade of national unity by portraying and describing Vietnam’s different ethnic groups as having a strong “sense of common ancestry and mutual attachment”.

Initially I was convinced that this water puppet performance was being manipulated by state propaganda – just as the puppets themselves are manipulated by the puppeteers. The article I wrote for Asian Affairs was an attempt to uncover the methods of manipulation; if the show was being influenced or controlled by people or forces from behind the scenes, who exactly were the puppet masters and how did they operate? This was no easy task, given the opaqueness of the Vietnamese state and the difficulty anyone faces wanting to research ‘politically sensitive’ topics. In fact, the results were not exactly how I expected them to turn out, instead revealing a more nuanced picture of the dynamics behind water puppet manipulation. However, the analogy still stands in one respect: to borrow Tran Van Khe’s words in a different context, “Specific methods of water puppet manipulation are well-kept… secrets”. Feel free to read on here!

Tran Van Khe (1985) “Vietnamese Water Puppets”, Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 73-82.

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Uncategorised

Deeper than Indigo: RSAA lecture by Jenny Balfour-Paul

Helen Crisp reports on a lecture to the RSAA last week by Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul.

Jenny Balfour Paul gave a fascinating talk to the RSAA based on her new book, Deeper than Indigo, describing how she tracked the life of Thomas Machell, a mid-19th century indigo planter and traveller, after being directed to his journals in the British Library, due to the indigo connection. Balfour Paul is a world expert on traditional indigo dying, having spent the 1980s and 90s obsessively travelling to record what was often the last traditional craftsman (or woman) in remote villages across the Middle East, China, Japan and beyond. Through her enthusiasm and by connecting craftspeople, she even sometimes managed to reverse the trend of decline.

On discovering Thomas Machell’s quirkily illustrated five volumes of journals, a new quest began for Jenny: to know more about his life, as she immediately felt such a visceral connection to this unknown writer.  There were already a lot of links, as Thomas wrote about places that Jenny had also visited – and as she says, she saw them in much more similar conditions travelling in the latter years of the 20th century, 130 years after Thomas, than if we were to re-visit today, such has been the pace of change over the last 20 years, sweeping away old buildings and traditional ways of life.

Since discovering the journals, Jenny has undertaken an odyssey to trace Thomas Machell’s footsteps, which has taken her from a cargo ship to the Marquesas Islands to dodging across what are now the dangerous borderlands of India and Bangladesh, to find the last remnants of the great indigo plantations and factories of the British Empire.  As ever, Jenny Balfour Paul’s infectious enthusiasm and great storytelling brought the scenes vividly to life.

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Bangladesh, China, Guest blogger, India, Pakistan

India-Bangladesh Border Settlement: a model to follow?

Dr Amit Ranjan, Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi, comments on the recent border accord between India and Bangladesh, and asks whether it could be a model for solving other boundary disputes between India and China, and India and Pakistan

With the forthcoming implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) protocol in 2015, India and Bangladesh will legally resolve their decades-old border dispute. Under the Agreement India has agreed to transfer 2267.682 acres to Bangladesh while the latter will transfer 2777.038 acres of land to India. This includes the exchange of 162 enclaves between them. Though this agreement is facing opposition from a few groups in Assam and Meghalaya, it is not strong enough to disrupt the land-swapping process or to create a strong political backlash against the present political establishment.

Although the LBA has not been able to solve ancillary issues such as the movement of peoples – a problem which is likely to remain an irritant – it has the great merit of having solved a difficulty which is, as stated, decades old. Since this is so, can it be a model for a resolution of border disputes between India and other countries? This question is significant because the future of India’s relationship with Pakistan and China depends on management of their border-related disputes. Like India, both are nuclear powers, and anything above the “accepted” level of conflict may – in the extreme – lead to a nuclear holocaust in south Asia.

The India-Pakistan border disputes can be traced back to disagreements between the Indian National Congress and Muslim League before Indian partition. After partition in 1947, the two countries adopted various means to resolve their border disputes, but without success. The first step was setting up a Tribunal under a retired Swedish Judge, Algot Bagge, in 1948. This tribunal took up four of their disputes and interpreted the demarcation in its report in February 1950. Unfortunately, the two countries were reluctant to implement the decision in places where they lost territory to the other. Afterwards, in 1954, 1963, 1972 and 2007 there were further missed opportunities when they could have resolved their border disputes. In a comprehensive and detailed negotiation in 1963, after six rounds of talks over the Kashmir issue, both sides even agreed to exchange lands to end their stand-off over the area. In 1972, during the Shimla Talks, they maintained the status quo over the border line because of back-channel diplomacy. In the intervening period, India gained some relief as the Kashmir dispute became a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. In 2007 there was an informal agreement on exchange of lands. But once again the two countries failed to move substantially to resolve their disputes. The only land boundary dispute they have resolved is in the Kutch region in 1965 through international mediation.

India and China are engaged in disputes in the Western Sector (Aksai Chin, around 37,250 sq km/14,380 square miles); and the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh, around 83,740 sq km/ 32,330 square miles). The genesis of their border disputes lie in the Shimla Accord of 1914 between the representatives of British India and Tibet. Though the representative of the Yuan Shi Kai-led Chinese government was part of the discussion, he did not sign the accord. Since then, China has contested the accord and maintains an ambiguous position on the McMahon Line, which was established as part of that accord. It recognises this as a demarcation line with Myanmar but not with India. In 1988 during the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had expressed his intention to leave the settlement of the territorial dispute to a “future generation”. Working in that spirit to address their border disputes the two countries agreed to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) in 1988. As a follow-on to it, in 1993 they set up an expert group including diplomats, military officials, and cartographers for the purpose of closely scrutinising each side’s position and clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Later on, to help the JWG, Special Representatives (SR) were appointed in 2003 after the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China and stressed the importance of including political viewpoints in the solving of border disputes.

Effective border demarcation is frequently complex, no matter the area; what makes it difficult, however, is the political relationship one country has with the other. As with the LBA, any step to settle border demarcation disputes between two countries demands compromise, adjustments and political determination. This is possible only when there is a consensus for this among the political leadership, institutions and dominant political constituencies. This consensus was easy to develop for India in case of Bangladesh, but difficult to create when the other country is China or Pakistan. A small number of groups within India may have negative perception about Bangladesh, but the dominant narrative is not such. On contrary, the memories of a bitter past with Pakistan and China dominate the Indian collective consciousness. Moreover, the two countries have pursued similar policies towards India. In such a situation it is difficult for their leaderships, even if they want to resolve the existing border disputes, to take steps to do so. Any such move is all likely to be met with dissent by civil and governmental institutions and have a negative political pay-off. In past, under the pressure from their institutions, the political leadership in India and Pakistan have to give up their desire to improve their bilateral relations by making certain concessions to the other. In such circumstances, it seems, India’s border disputes with Pakistan and China are likely to remain unresolved.

Any step to resolve them needs a re-visit, re-negotiation, and re-construction of their bitter pasts. Unless the collective imagination of the enemy ‘other’ is changed in the respective countries, settlement of their border disputes seems almost impossible.

 

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Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey

The Hour of the Kurds

Manuel Martorell is a Spanish journalist and one of the founders of the national daily El Mundo, where he held the posts of Editor-in-Chief and Foreign Editor. He has been covering the Kurds since 1983 and has published three books on the subject and produced a number of television documentaries.

8 February 2015. This will remain a historic day for the Kurdish people. On that day, French president François Hollande hosted an official reception at the Élysée Palace for two women from Kobani, the Syrian city where Islamic State (IS) had met defeat. One was Asya Abdullah, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish party in Syria. The other was Nesrin Abdullah, who attended the meeting in combat uniform as commander of the Popular Defence Units (YPG), a powerful armed force composed of thousands of men and women under the direction of PYD.

The photo widely circulated by social and press media showing Hollande, Asya and Nesrin talking in the luxurious salon of the Élysée Palace had a three-fold symbolism. First it demonstrated that women in the Middle East were prepared to organise and combat radical Islam. Moreover, both women represented the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organisation considered by the European Union and the United States to be a terrorist group. This was especially significant because for months American warplanes were supporting Kobani fighters in full view of Turkey, the US’s closest Middle-East ally, whose government favoured an Islamist victory over the Kurds in that city. France and the United States were providing most of the military and economic support to Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, but so were the UK, Germany, the rest of the European Union and other major countries, including Canada and Australia. This represented, in practice as well as theory, a strengthening of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and the PKK in Turkey and Syria, because both movements were bearing the brunt of the struggle against jihadism on the ground.

But above all, that meeting with Hollande symbolised a moment in which the world’s largest group of stateless people, in their 3,000 year history, found major international support. Kurdistan, a mountainous territory as large as the whole of France, but split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, had lived other major historical events, but never with so far-reaching a political projection. In 612 BC the Medes, ancestors of the Kurds, led the grand alliance that ended the Assyrian Empire. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Kurdish territories returned to be unified under the leadership of Saladin, although in this case from a religious point of view, in the context of the Crusades. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres also recognised the Kurds’ right to create a state uniting the Kurdish regions from the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. However, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1926) and the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, frustrated that hope.

Finally, at the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union supported the so-called Republic of Mahabad in north-western Iran. This lasted only one year, but from it emerged the main components of today’s Kurdish national identity: the red, white and green flag with a central sun, the national anthem and the first political organisation, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which ultimately engendered other political groups. Since then, various organisations have been fighting non-stop for a form of self-government that recognises the political, cultural and linguistic rights of the Kurdish people.

From Indo-European origin and with a large internal religious diversity, more than 20 million Kurds living in Turkey and Syria are represented mainly by the PKK, founded in 1978, while approximately six million Iraqi Kurds support the KDP of Masoud Barzani, the socialist PUK of Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and Goran, a new party with a mainly youth base. Finally, in Iran, with nearly 10 million Kurds, the dominant parties are the KDP-I (KDP of Iran), Komala (communist) and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an organisation with closelinks to the PKK.

In the past 50 years, these four Kurdish regions have been victims of brutal crackdowns and collective extermination. This fact needs to be taken into account to understand the political role of the Kurdish people, because such campaigns have only succeeded in strengthening the powerful national liberation movement. For example, in the 1960s, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, launched the so-called ‘Arab Belt’ in order to depopulate the Kurdish northern region of Syria. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a ‘Holy War’ against the Kurds after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, while Saddam Hussein in the 1980s unleashed a genocide under the euphemism of ‘Anfal Campaign’. As for Turkey, in the mid-1990s the army launched several ethnic cleansing operations to weaken the popular support that the PKK guerrillas had in the south-eastern corner of the country.

In these circumstances and until the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria, international and regional powers preferred to support, directly or indirectly, authoritarian, religious or politically monolithic regimes to ensure the stability of the Middle East. Indeed, the grave security crisis caused by the jihadist Caliphate founded in Mosul and Raqqa has brought to light the Kurds’ pluralist system which, until now, had been hidden by authoritarian regimes. For this religion-cultural conglomerate, the Islamist (Sunni or Shiite) alternative supported by Western countries, Gulf monarchies or even by the Islamic Republic of Iran, pose a serious threat. This is especially true if, as is the case with Al Qaeda and IS, they espouse an even more radical agenda than the Afghan Taliban. For the first time in all these millennia of co-existence, the current situation threatens the Kurds with extinction.

The extermination policies of IS against various minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Yezidis, Turkomen Shiite, Shabacks, Kakais, along with the systematic destruction of the historical and artistic heritage of Mesopotamia and its expansion to other continents – has caused the EU and US to re-think their policies of alliances in Syria and Iraq. This is so because they are now supporting minorities who can effectively combat this new international threat. In this sense, few of these minorities have such large territorial and demographic dimensions as do the 40 million Kurds, who comprise the fourth largest people in the Middle East, after the Turks, Arabs and Persians. The Kurds have two other advantages that make them key players in the fight against IS. Contrary to the geographical dispersion of the Christians, Yezidis, Shabacks, Turkmen or Kakais, they inhabit large, demographically homogeneous regions, with political-military organisations that enjoy strong popular support, and with extensive experience in armed struggle.

For example, in Turkey, thirty years after launch of guerrilla warfare, the PKK and its numerous political and social organisations have carved out a large social base. Having abandoned the demand for an independent Kurdistan, the Democratic People’s (HDP) and Democratic Regions’ (DBP) parties, considered political branches of the PKK, presented an alternative model of local self-government in thousands of villages, towns and cities where they have repeatedly won the local elections, with particular emphasis on the participation of women in the public sphere. Meanwhile, in Rojava (Western Kurdistan, Syria), the PYD had established in autonomous cantons Kobani, Jazeera and Afrin, on the northern border with Turkey, a federal system that Abdullah Ocalan, leader and founder of the PKK, has put forward for the entire Middle East. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, with links to the rest of the country, has for two decades maintained de facto independence, with a level of economic development and political pluralism which can also serve as a reference not only to their Iranian neighbours, but also to the rest of Iraq. In fact, Sunni movements in the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, and Shiites in the Basra oil producing zone, are now demanding autonomy based on the Kurdish model.

It was inevitable that this project would clash with the emergent Islamic State. For jihadist fundamentalism, the compatibility of Islam, democracy and respect for minorities, as practised by the Kurds, is incompatible with the political project of the Caliphate. For IS, Sharia law is above any legal or constitutional structure. In contrast, for Kurdish organisations, the implementation of a retrograde and monolithic Islam is anathema to their core ideology, according to which national, cultural and linguistic values take precedence over religion. In short, a Kurd’s first priority is the defence of a cultural, linguistic and political system. Being a Muslim, Christian or atheist is of secondary importance.

Today disparate communities like Assyro-Chaldeans, Armenians, Turkmen and Arabs, Shiites, Sunnis, leftist organisations and even former ‘enemies’ of the Baath Party, are supporting the Kurds in a united fight against a common enemy. This can be seen in the Syrian Democratic Coordination opposition alliance or in co-operation between former Baathist leaders from Mosul and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. It is often said until the Kurdish problem is resolved there will be no peace in the Middle East. But following the emergence and repercussions of IS, it is difficult to envisage political solutions for Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey or Iran, that fails to include a Kurdish settlement. Even the Government of Tayyip Erdogan was forced to negotiate a peace deal with the ‘terrorists’ of the PKK after trying all kinds of measures to halt their political consolidation. This included promoting Kurdish Islamist parties in the last local elections and trying to push the PKK once again into open hostilities to discourage potential new voters from other parts of Turkey in the legislative elections of June.

The PKK is aware of this scheme and on 21 March, Newruz Day (Kurdish New Year) their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, reiterated the call for a political solution to the conflict and offered to seek solutions for the entire Middle East. Many Western diplomats who supported the PKK’s political initiatives fell foul of Erdogan’s government because pressure from the West, as symbolised by the press pictures of Hollande with Asya and Nesrin in the Élysée Palace, showed that we must listen the Kurdish people if we want to resolve the crisis in this geo-strategic and economically crucial part of the World.

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RSAA member, Vietnam

Letter from Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Richard Fell is a former diplomat; he was latterly British High Commissioner in New Zealand, but served in Vietnam earlier in his career. He is the Book Review Editor of Asian Affairs.

Forty years ago, in April 1975, North Vietnamese forces defeated the army of the South, captured Saigon and ousted the South Vietnamese government. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled the country, Vietnam was reunited and the Vietnam War finally came to an end.

I was in the British Embassy in Saigon at that time. I returned again very recently in the company of one Embassy colleague (Michael Kyle) who was also there in 1975 and another who had left a little earlier. Also in the party were a son, two daughters, one of whom had been born in Saigon, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

Vietnam’s economy is booming. In Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon, new office buildings and hotels are going up all the time. At the famous Continental hotel where we stayed, and where Andre Malraux, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene (The Quiet American) had stayed in the past, my restless nights were caused not by memories but by all night pile-driving for the city’s first metro system.

While traditional markets, shop houses and street traders remain, luxury goods stores occupy many a street corner. We took to the Saigon River by hydrofoil to see what had changed from that viewpoint. The answer was a multitude of ships of all shapes, sizes and purposes reflecting the diversity of the trade in both directions which was passing through the city (the crisps we had with the local beer were halal and came from Malaysia even though there are very few native Muslims to be found in Vietnam). There were new businesses along the river, and the high rise blocks of flats visible in the outlying suburbs were new too. These and the scale of Saigon’s road traffic underline the case for a metro system though the city’s water table apparently does not make construction easy.

Attempting to cross the road outside the central market in Cholon (the largely 'Chinese' area of the city)

Attempting to cross the road outside the central market in Cholon (the largely ‘Chinese’ area of the city)

Still, anything which provides an alternative to the endless stream of motorbikes and cars must be worth pursuing. For a visitor, crossing any road is a challenge and not for the faint hearted. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings, some even with ‘little green men’, but these are more often than not treated as a challenge by motor bikes in particular. On one occasion, faced with the daunting task of crossing six lanes of traffic coming in both directions, we enlisted the help of a couple of passing traditional cyclo drivers (there are not many around these days) who shepherded us across the ‘pedestrian crossing’ using their cyclos much as corvettes shepherded WWII convoys. They deserved the tip we gave them.

Richard Fell with the plane which he watched bomb the Presidential Palace back in April 1975

Richard Fell with the plane which he watched bomb the Presidential Palace back in April 1975

Many of the French colonial style buildings which are dotted about the city remain in use, primarily as government or Communist party offices it appears. The old Opera House has reverted to its original purpose. The more modernist former Presidential palace, which was a dominating feature in central Saigon in the 1970s, is now a museum, preserved as it was in President Thieu’s time including with his underground bunker, operations room and communications equipment. In the grounds are the first North Vietnamese tanks to break through the palace gates on 30 April 1975 together with the South Vietnamese F5-E warplane which bombed the palace earlier that month, an event which I witnessed from the roof of the British Embassy up the road. The ‘renegade’ pilot of the plane is now regarded as a revolutionary hero.

The iconic US Embassy building from the 70s era was demolished in 1998 and replaced by the low rise US Consulate General. The nearby former British Embassy building remains however and is now the British Consulate General. Externally, it looks pretty much the same as it did 40 years ago. I am not sure it has been painted since then! Inside it is different, having been smartly refurbished. Whereas 40 years ago the majority of staff in the Embassy were concerned with political and military matters (we even had an RAF-crewed aeroplane to help us get about the country at a time of war), now the focus for the staff is very much on trade, investment and education. Our old offices from the 1970s were in active use as classrooms for the British Council, reflecting the insatiable demand for education and training among the Vietnamese. We tracked down too the location of some of our former houses. Mine appeared to have been replaced by an office block and both the block of flats and the house which my former colleagues occupied had been converted into offices. The house particularly echoed the changes. In 1975 it had been on a quiet residential street, now it sits amongst a group of shops and businesses.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) today from the river

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) today from the river

In a sense all this reflects the course of change over 40 years. In 1975, Saigon was a bustling, entrepreneurial place but much of this was directly or indirectly based on massive US financial and military assistance. The war was still going on. In 1979, when I visited, the city centre was very quiet indeed with few shops open. By 2001, when I next went, the impact of the Doi Moi liberalising economic reforms, introduced from the 1980s, was very apparent in the shape of new shops and businesses. Even more so today. There is exuberance evident on the streets too especially among young people. The city has renewed and revitalised its historic role as Vietnam’s commercial capital. For many younger people, the events of 1975 are now just history, perhaps a bit like us!

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