Mainland Southeast Asia - Indochina, Southeast Asia, Vietnam

Vietnam – The Ghost of Ho Chi Minh

“…we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence…. our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”  So closed Ho Chi Minh’s letter to U.S. President Harry S. Truman upon the conclusion of WWII.  It was not his first respectful correspondence with a US president.

Ho Chi Minh, detail from front of 1988 banknote, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh’s father traveled throughout the countryside as a teacher in the late 1800s when his homeland, Vietnam, was a colony of France.  He saw the poor and the very poor, and the contrasting comfortable lives of the French elite infuriated him.  He began to question the right of France to rule Vietnam and became a passionate nationalist.  By the time his son, Ho, born in 1890, was a teenager, he too was adopting his father’s view that Vietnam had a right to independently govern itself.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, much of the colonial world was enamored with the marvelous rise of the United States.  For much of the 19th century, the United States had been isolationist in its foreign policy and protectionist in its economic policy.  Anti-colonialists easily associated Europe with imperialism, without education in the writings of Lenin and others of the time.  As stated by Raymond Aron, French philosopher, political scientist, and journalist, the daily experience of colonies consisted of “the exploitation of raw materials without any attempt to create local industry; the destruction of native crafts and the stunted growth of industrial development that resulted from the influx of European goods; high interest rates on loans; ownership of major businesses by foreign capitalists’.  But America was different. Here was a nation that had been a colony like themselves but had gained independence.  Here was a nation that was enjoying fantastic growth among the world of nations!  Here was a nation that was anti-imperial, the opposite of the colonializing countries of Europe!  Why cannot this be the same for us?

Ho became educated and well-traveled, visiting The United States and Europe and socializing with other anti-colonials.  All the while he nurtured his desire for an independent Vietnam.


Woodrow Wilson, an academic who had served but 2 years in politics, as Governor of New York, was elected President of the United States in 1912.  World War I commenced in Europe in 1914 while he was in office, and he pursued a strict policy of neutrality while nevertheless preparing America for the possibility of war, instituting the draft, and building up the US war making machinery.  His 2nd presidential campaign in 1916, on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, was successful by a slim majority.  The first year of his second term as President, he brought the United States into the war with the slogan “to make the world safe for democracy”.

Wilson closed his address to Congress seeking the declaration of war, “Our object…is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power….We are glad…to fight…for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the right of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy….We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”

So reluctant was America for war, so unentangled was America in the politics of Europe and its colonizing history, so remarkable was America’s rise to prominence after its own colonial past, America became the beacon to all the world of colonies as to what could be.  Wilson increased and refined his rhetorical annunciations, towards the rights of self-determination for all peoples, during, and through the end of the war.  And by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, for which he proposed “A League of Nations”, passions were inflamed for independence worldwide.  Woodrow Wilson had become the rock star of the era, an icon to independence minded peoples worldwide.


Ho Chi Minh was in Paris at the time of the Peace accords.  Colonials everywhere were aflame with passion for liberation from the colonizers.  On behalf of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh crafted an appeal for support for independence, to president Wilson.  The story is told that he rented a new suit and prepared assiduously for an audience with recitations from the American declaration of independence.  In what has been termed by historians as a lost “Wilsonian Moment”, Ho Chi Minh was ignored, and so was his country.  His frail appearance and demeanor may have led many to mis-appreciate and underestimate him.

And so were many other petitioners ignored in that conference, which mainly addressed Europe’s problems.  A disillusioned Ho Chi Minh, as well as others, began to seek out relationships with advocates of Leninism.  It is thought by many that such overtures were less out of genuine interest in communism, than in seeking the support of other powerful nations for their own independence movements.  Ho Chi Minh fell in with the communists in France, not because of an attraction to communism, but because of a passion for patriotism. He knew he needed help for his country and he was determined to get it.


Decades later, upon the close of WWII, Ho Chi Minh wrote Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence.  It included many of the ideals in America’s own declaration, one and three-quarter’s centuries before.  Five months after that war, Ho wrote to President Truman the words at the beginning of this post, while France was scrambling to reassert their colonial domination over Vietnam.

Ho’s entreaty was, once again, ignored by a US president.  France began to fight the Vietnamese in earnest to reassert their control over that little land on the other side of the globe.  The Vietnamese Army fought the French.  Mostly armed with machetes and muskets against France’s WW2 armaments, smoking out French positions with straw bundled with chili pepper, and using suicide weapons against French artillery, they waged war their for independence.

Ho Chi Minh, detail from front of 1988 banknote, Vietnam

After fighting the French for several years, Ho decided to negotiate a truce. According to journalist Bernard Fall, the meeting with French negotiators took place at a mud hut with a thatched roof.  No doubt, Ho Chi Minh conducted the meeting in perfect French.  As reported in Wikipedia here, “Inside they found a long table with chairs and were surprised to discover in one corner of the room a silver ice bucket containing ice and a bottle of good Champagne which should have indicated that Ho expected the negotiations to succeed. One demand by the French was the return to French custody of a number of Japanese military officers (who had been helping the Vietnamese armed forces by training them in the use of weapons of Japanese origin), in order for them to stand trial for war crimes committed during World War II. Ho replied that the Japanese officers were allies and friends whom he could not betray. Then he walked out, to seven more years of war.”

A few years later, the US took over the war against Vietnam.  Following the Joe McCarthy era, but still propelled by fear of communism, and supported a tidy “domino theory”, the US sent hundreds of thousands of troops into that war, losing more than fifty thousand dead, before retreating in defeat in the 1970s.


Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.  As the North Vietnamese marched south in 1975, uniting Vietnam, the spirit of Ho Chi Minh marched with them.  He was free from the shackles of this mortal body, and his people were free from the shackles of colonialism.


Front, 1988, 500 dong, Vietnam, featuring Ho Chi Minh
Back, 1988, 500 dong, featuring scenes from Port Haiphong.

This 1988 banknote features Ho Chi Minh.  Indeed all Vietnamese banknotes, through at least the 2003 issue, feature Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnamese independence.




The text of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence can be read here, and will be seen to closely follow that by America 150 years earlier. Read September 2, 1945 in the square in Hanoi, it announced to the world Vietnam’s independence.

The February 16, 1946 letter to president Truman can be read here and the follow up urgent telegram to Harry Truman on February 28 1946 can be seen here.


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Myanmar, Uncategorized

Myanmar – The Not Home of the Rohingya


75 kyats, Myanmar, issued November 10, 1986, for his 75th birthday. The 50 kyat and 100 kyat banknotes were demonetized November 3rd without warning and many people lost their savings.

Ne Win, political leader of Myanmar, must have been thinking, “It’s good to have power”, when, for the fun of it, he destroyed the life savings of millions and wrecked the economy of a country.

This is where the Rohingya live.



90 kyats, Myanmar, issued November 22, 1987, because his favorite number was 9. Two and a half weeks earlier, the 75 kyat banknote and others were demonetized without warning. 75% of the nation’s currency was thus rendered worthless.
45 kyats, Myanmar, issued together with the 90 kyat banknote, because 9 was his favorite number. The nation’s economy was thrown into chaos.







As captioned beneath the photos above, Ne Win wrecked life savings and ruined the economy for his birthday, and because of his numerological fascination with the number 9. Imagine the difficulty of daily transactions at the marketplace with denominations such as these, together with banknotes for 15 kyats and 25 kyats and 35 kyats. How do you count out change? But, when you’re a dictator, it’s easy.

The Earth holds us with gravity, a power so gentle that we hardly notice, and yet a power so great that we cannot escape. The Sun holds our Earth by the same power. We ourselves are here by nature’s power of life, a power so gentle that we cannot even remember our own birth. And we cannot go back. And we cannot leave our Earth. This is our home; and who can say it is not? The Infinite Power of the Universe has placed us here.

detail from back of 90 kyat banknote. working in the fields.

“Rohingyas have lived in Arakan from time immemorial”. Arakan is the coastal region on the right hand side, the eastern shore, of the great Bay of Bengal, opposite to India. It is now known as Rakhine state in Myanmar. Islam came to the region a thousand years ago. The Rohingya are Muslims in a country with over 125 ethnicities, and a population 90% Buddhist and 4% Muslim. Their history has been traced back to the 8th century.

Families are natural and tribes are normal, and have been for thousands upon thousands of years. And then one day just a few hundred years ago, as tribes grew and fought over things, someone invented states. And states were cool. And they invented powers for the states. So then states multiplied and grew and some of them had colonies.

The Indian Empire in the days of British rule encompasses Burma and Arakan on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal.

Great Britain’s empire expanded to include India and Arakan and Burma and the surrounding regions in the 19th and 20th centuries. This region became known as “the Crown Jewel of the Empire”. Times were prosperous, and labor routinely migrated back and forth across and around the Bay of Bengal to work the rice paddies of Arakan. As the entire area was under British dominion, these movements of peoples, including the Rohingya, were administrated as internal affairs. But the migrations were viewed negatively by many of the native populations.

And some of the tribes that were colonies, and didn’t like that the states had powers and the colonies didn’t, said, We want to be a state too. Let us have states too. States are fun. States are cool. States have powers. We want to have a state too. And so they did.

detail from bank of 90 kyat banknote showing workers in the rice paddies.

Early in WWII, Aung San, then the political leader of Burma (soon to be called Myanmar), sided with the Japanese against the British, in hopes of Burmese independence. Towards the end of the war, realizing that Japan’s overlordship was worse than Britain’s, Aung San switched allegiances back to Great Britain and its allies. This movement of shifting alliances became typical for what came to be known as the non-aligned states during the subsequent cold war.

And so states multiplied, like new tiles on an old earthen floor, being laid end to end and wall to wall, until all the earth was covered with new tiles, and you couldn’t see the earth anymore.

Industry in Burma. Detail from back of Myanmar’s 45 kyat banknote.

Following the war, in 1948, Burma gained independence from Britain, rejecting Britain’s proposal of Dominion status, and its boundaries were drawn around a region very ethnically diverse with more than 135 distinct ethnic groups. Almost immediately, civil war broke out in Burma, pitting the central authorities against various ethno-religious minorities. The 1962 coup d’etat brought the military into dictatorial power. In 1982, the state created a strict new law of citizenship which left many Rohingya out.  They became a people without citizenship.

And then one day, a state said to a tribe, who are you? You do not belong here. And the tribe said, What do you mean? We are a tribe and we have been here for thousands upon thousands of years, with all of the other tribes. And the state said, We don’t recognize you, and they used their powers to make the tribe leave. And the tribe moved a little distance away, and there was another state there. And that state said to the tribe, Who are you? We don’t recognize you. You don’t belong here, and they used their powers to make the tribe move again. And the same thing happened with a third state and a fourth.

The Rohingya are in Bangladesh and India and Sri Lanka, and find themselves unwelcome there.

And the tribe cried out to the world of states, Where are we to go, for the whole earth is covered end to end and wall to wall with these new states! How can you say that we have no home? But the world of states didn’t listen because they were too busy playing with their powers.

The Rohingya have been variously described as “amongst the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”. The conflict in Mynamar, starting shortly after the close of WWII is considered the second longest ongoing conflict in the world, after Kashmir, by just a few months.

But the earth heard, and was sad, and told the sun. And the sun heard, and sighed, and told the universe. And the universe heard, and wept.

And what do you think the universe will do?