Afghanistan recalls the horrors of conflict in 1970s Southeast Asia

This week, we’ve also got a fantastic lead story exploring Vietnam’s conflicted views on abortion, a report on the difficult circumstances of garment workers in Myanmar and the finale of the Anakut podcast on the future of Phnom Penh

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August 21, 2021
Afghanistan recalls the horrors of conflict in 1970s Southeast Asia

Years ago, my grandmother hosted a Thanksgiving attended by no fewer than thirteen Iraqi refugees she had befriended (as charming old ladies do). They had fled their homeland due to their links with US military personnel in Baghdad. They were lucky in that at least they had an escape (they were less lucky that their first experience of American Thanksgiving was my grandmother’s rubbery turkey). 

This week, as the US ends its military presence in Afghanistan after twenty years, it remains unclear how many will be afforded the same opportunities as the Iraqis at our table. As Kabul fell this week to the Taliban amidst images of terrified, angry and desperate people watching Americans leave them to their fate, there have been comparisons made to the fall of Saigon and other conflicts in Indochina during the 1970s. 

Southeast Asia is, after all, very familiar with careless and ill-conceived U.S. military interventions. Those in Cambodia, too, have been drawing comparisons to when the US evacuated personnel from Phnom Penh in April 1975, leaving its populace at the mercy of the incoming Khmer Rouge. The note of Sisowath Sirik Matak, a high-ranking official of the Khmer Republic, refusing US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean’s offer to evacuate, provides an especially powerful illustration: 

The US government ultimately allowed 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to resettle, and across a range of platforms, Southeast Asian-Americans – the children of refugees who fled those wars – have spoken up, drawing parallels to their families’ own experiences and urging greater humanitarian support of Afghan refugees. 

“I want Afghan refugees to have the same chance,” tweeted Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Than Ngyugen, who also wrote an excellent New York Times op-ed outlining what could be learned from the Vietnamese refugee experience. 

“It is our moral obligation to do all we can to ensure that the Afghan people do not face a similar or perhaps even worse fate,” said the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization in a statement. “History may be repeating itself, but this time, let us do better than what we did in 1975.”

If you’re wondering what you can do or where to donate, there’s a bunch of credible NGOs helping with evacuations and humanitarian aid, including Women for Afghan Women, International Refugee Assistance Project and the International Rescue Committee.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Kamala Harris will be visiting Vietnam next week with the hopes of rebuilding America’s presence in Southeast Asia – events in Afghanistan this week casting a long shadow over the trip. 

We’ll head over to Vietnam too, for the week’s leading feature – a powerful piece on abortion by the Globe’s reporter in Ho Chi Minh City, Govi Snell.  

Nguyen Khac Toan collects dead fetuses from hospitals and reburies them, documenting his work on social media. Sometimes, he even attempts to revive them. And he’s far from the only individual engaged in this morbid practice. Fetal reburial groups represent the hardline anti-abortion sentiment that pervades Vietnam, despite the country’s liberal and well-established abortion laws, writes Govi Snell in a look at the ongoing tensions surrounding the issue. Vietnam may have one of the highest rates of abortion in Asia, but that doesn’t mean it is a culturally accepted procedure. “People hate it,” says the co-founder of Vietnam Youth Action for Choice. “People also hate women who have abortions.” 

Over in Myanmar, garment workers are trying to hold on to their jobs even as their union bargaining power is further eroded by the power of the junta, reports Kiana Duncan. Navigating military checkpoints, worsening labour rights and staying healthy in the absence of Covid-19 safety measures are all part of a garment workers’ week in post-coup Myanmar.  “They bet their life as a cost to go to work,” says Moe Sandar Myint, chairwoman of a major Myanmar labour union. Meanwhile, fashion brands like H&M are cautiously resuming operations in Myanmar. But those jobs are looking increasingly sketchy, and under martial law it is unclear whether brands can live up to their commitments to support labour rights. 

Who needs Netflix? Grab some popcorn and dim the lights because we’ve got the final episode of Anakut season 2, a dive into the future of urbanisation in Phnom Penh. Hosts Thina and Andrew explore the city’s growth over the last few decades and the implications of rising buildings (and inequality), gentrification and climate change can be met. They’re joined by Ngo Natharoun, director at the Center for Khmer Studies, and Dr. Michael Waibal of the University of Hamburg, who heads the Build4People project in Phnom Penh. They cover everything from boreys (the gated enclaves sprouting up around the city) to heat islands, in a great conversation to wrap up the season. 

The youngest person killed by the junta in Myanmar was a one year old, while the oldest was 90. As of this week, more than 1,000 civilians have been murdered by Myanmar’s military and we need to continue documenting each life lost, implores Bo Kyi, joint secretary for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. “It is clear they are trying to slaughter civilians into submission,” he writes. 

Vietnam is trying to decide what kind of energy sector it wants to build to support its fast-moving development. There’s a lot of hype surrounding liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner alternative to coal power in Vietnam, but the reality of implementing LNG is much more complicated and questionable, explains Michael Tatarski. He unpacks what it would take for the country to build up its LNG capacity, as Vietnam ponders whether to double down on renewables. 

There’s many impending perils that we associate with climate change, but mosquito-borne diseases like malaria are probably not high on that list. Yet we should be concerned about the resurgence of malaria as a direct result of climate change, writes Dr. Sarthak Das of the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance. 

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