Southeast Asia, for the purpose of this site, consists of mainland and maritime nations. The mainland nations are also known as Indochina and include Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Malaysia, which is partly mainland, is included under Maritime Southeast Asia
It is 1979 in Laos; and our featured banknote is published.
The national emblem on the banknote below, circular on the left, displays the hammer and sickle in the midst of traditional Laotian scenes. An artillery tank and a river gunboat flank a column of infantry marching towards the viewer.
750 years of monarchy ended with the Laotian civil war in 1975; and out banknote was issued just four years later. A new regime was in power, and their ideology adhered to communism’s ideals. Their banknote announces a readiness to defend themselves.
It was a bitter time in was a confusing era. Laos had transitioned from colonialism to independence in perhaps the worst way possible; they had become a pawn in a proxy war of new Cold War superpowers.
The ancient peoples of Laos became a colony to France in the late 19th century. French control continued into WW2 until Japanese power overran most of the Indochinese peninsula. With Japan’s defeat imminent, Laos proclaimed independence in 1945. But defeated France, rejuvenated through the allied victory in WW2 in 1945, moved to reassert its power and reestablish its colonial rule in Laos and the surrounding regions. Laos resisted but it was not until nine years later, in 1954, when France abandoned all claims to Laos.
That 9 year period saw the empowering of communist Soviet Union through their detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 and the victory of the communist party in China under Mao in 1949.
The United States thought appropriate to take a stand against communism in Laos’ neighbor, Vietnam, about this time. US foreign policy became known as “containment”. In 1958, North Vietnam invaded Laos to establish the Ho Chi Minh trail, the logistical supply route between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, this supply route became the subject of intense military fighting, and this region of Laos became the subject of possibly the most intense bombing in history.
To much of the world, Laos was an unknown nation. Centered in the middle of the Indochinese peninsula, Burma and Thailand on its left, Vietnam on its right, Cambodia below and China above, to much of the world, Laos remained lost in the monsoon nourished jungles, without access to the Sea, unknown to the modern world.
The other side of our banknote highlights ambitions in the textile industry. Massive rolls of cloth are being manufactured by modern machinery in this tribute to a growing manufacturing base.
From this industry post: Growth in the Lao textile and garment industry has been impressive from a base of only two companies in 1990 to 116 in 2006 employing 30,000 workers. Laos became a market-oriented economy in the mid-1980s, meaning it had a short learning curve to pick up the basics about the industry.
From a WTO report (approximately year 2004): The textile and garment industry is of great importance to the Lao economy. Currently, the industry comprises ninety-six factories and employs more than 25,000 workers. In 2003, garment exports, valued at US$115 million, accounted for approximately a third of total exports, second to electricity. Laos exports ready-made garments to forty-two countries.
Laos was known for centuries as Lan Xang. Lan Xang, which translates as “The Land of One Million Elephants”, is the precursor kingdom to modern Laos. It dominated the Indochina region from the 14th to the 18th century. The Laotian monarchy provided 750 years of continuity for the traditions of Lan Xang through the the Khun Lo Dynasty ending in 1975, the concluding year of the Civil War, in which Communists came into power.
Elephants have long been associated with power and kingship and wealth in Indochina. In the 15th century, war broke out between Vietnam and Laos, Lan Xang, which has become known as the War of the White Elephant.
By the time of this sad 2012 article, elephants have been reduced vastly in number with an uncertain future.
The National Emblem adorns the front of our featured 1979 banknote, and is illustrated here. Left-center illustrates the electricity powering the nation, while right-center is the forest on the traditional paddy field; the road forward is between the two.
At left is the National Emblem of Laos on the front of a 2003 banknote. Much will be seen to be the same, and some changes are self-explanatory. The hammer and sickle, symbolizing the union of the industrial and agricultural workers, the great symbol of the Soviet Union, is, of course, absent. The rapid demise of the Soviet Union came with stunning surprise to the leaders of Laos, as indeed it came to much of the world. I am curious as to the alteration in the script wrapping the rice stalks on the right, as well as that below the gear at center. The script below the gear in the center is the name of the State, which apparently has not changed since 1975. If a reader has any insight on this, I would very much appreciate your contribution by way of comment or email.
Traditionally there are three ethnic groups of Laotians, and they are illustrated beautifully on our banknote by these three ladies. The Lao Soung, or Lao Sung, are the highland dwelling peoples constituting about 10% of the populace. The Lao Theung, or Lao Thoeng, indicates the midland Lao peoples and represents about 25% of the populace. The Lao Lum, or Lao, are the majority ethinc group, representing about 50% of the populace.
Over the left shoulder of our three ladies is the Pha That Luang pagoda. Regarded as dating from the 3rd century, that is almost 2000 years old, this is the most significant pagoda in Laos. It is rumored to contain the breastbone of the Buddha himself. It is said that the architecture contains numerous references to Laotian culture which has furthered its significance as an icon of Laotian nationalism. It is said that the three levels of the pagoda each reflect a dimension of Buddhist doctrine.
The National Emblem adorns the front of our banknote and is illustrated her. The Pha That Luang Pagoda is at center top. Left center is the modern empowering hydroelectric dam while right center is the forest on the traditional paddy field; the road forward is between the two. The name of the state is inscribed below the one-half gear wheel on the bottom,
Fully ripened rice stalks encircle the whole, each wrapped, and inscribed between them, with the five words of the Laotian Motto: Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity, Prosperity”.
Laos is a rugged, landlocked region in the midst of the Indochina peninsula. 80% of its land is hilly to mountainous. Land suitable for agriculture, arable land, is located primarily along its major river, the Mekong, and its tributaries. From rainy to dry seasons the elevation of the Mekong can fluctuate 20 meters. The Mekong remained “untamed” along its entire length, that is, not a single spanning bridge, until 1994 when the Friendship bridge was opened, connecting Laos with Vietnam.
In 1893, Laos became a French colony. During WW2 it came under dominion of the Japanese, returning to France following the war. In 1954, Laos secured independence from France. Landlocked, surrounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China, for decades remained largely unknown to the rest of the world. That is changing.
Norodom Sihanouk, the artist politician, lived an extraordinary life at the center of power through much of the tumultuous 20th century. Major events include French colonization, WW2 domination by the Japanese, reassertion of French authority following WW2, independence from France, Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge, and then, the 21st century. He left us in 2012 at the age of 90 years old. In Cambodia he is known as Samdech Euv, “Father Prince”
The ancient kingdom of Cambodia had become a French colony by the time Norodom Sihanouk was born, grandson to the contemporary king, in 1922. In WW2 1941, the Japanese took control of Cambodia and, bypassing his father, installed 19 year old Norodom Sihanouk, as king, upon his grandfather’s death. Following WW2, the French sought to reassert their colonial authority in Cambodia and much of Indochina, while Sihanouk sought independence. Independence was achieved in 1953, and in 1955 Sihanouk abdicated the throne and formed a political party. His father ascended to the throne. Upon his father’s death in 1960, Norodom was appointed head of sate, which post he held until the military coup of 1970, during the Vietnam War, which ushered in the US backer Khmer republic.
The 1975 Cambodian civil war brought Pol Pot to power, Norodom back from exile, initially as a supporter. But a year later, in 1976, he resigned and was placed under house arrest until 1979. This was the period of the infamous “killing fields”. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Pol Pot regime in 1979, Norodom went again into exile; and, in 1981, formed a resistance party.
In 1991, peace accords were signed and in 1993 Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as head of state and king of Cambodia, which he retained until abdication if favor of his son in 2004.
It is said that from 1966 to 2006 he produced at least 50 films, a number of which he also acted in.
The “naga”, the multi-headed serpent which is often the beneficent protagonist in Hindu Mythology; its mortal enemy being the “guardas”, the semidivine birdlike deity.
Nagas are multiheaded. The even number headed naga is said to symbolize the female, physicality, mortality, temporality and the earth; whereas the odd number headed nagas represent the male, infinity, timelessness and immortality.
In Myanmar, and throughout southeast Asia, the white elephant is symbol of good fortune and power, and especially political power. Vice President Agnew presented one to the King of Cambodia during the late 20th century. In historic Thailand, the white elephant was a symbol of royal power and any that were discovered were presented to the king. the prestige of kings was considered according to how many white elephants he possessed.
These buildings house the Assembly of the Union. Established in the 2008 constitution, The Assembly of the Union is the bicameral legislative body of Myanmar.
“…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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.