Ravaged by decades of war, repeaded invasions, international isolation and now confronted with the loss of their main trading partners with the fall of socialism in Europe Vietnam and Cambodia have begun the long march toward rebuiIding their countries. It is a march fraught with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet is is a challenge that is being met by the sheer determination of the peoples in Vietnam and Cambodia to resurrect their countries from the ashes of the 20th century.
Vietnam and Cambodia each have their own special circumstances under which they must develop, yet their difficulties have shared origins. In large measure, the problems which now beset these countries stem from aggressive ruthless Imperialism. French colonialism, Japanese militarism and, finally, U.S. imperialism, each in their turn, left an indelible mark on the countries, the people and the landscape.
Al Marder, a veteran fighter for peace and a member of the U.S. and World Peace Councils, visited both counties in June and gained a first-hand knowledge of the tremendous challenges ahead for the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples. Marder journeyed to Phnom Penh as the representative of the US. and World Peace Councils to a regional meeting on mine clearance sponsored by the United Nations. Whlle there, he was invited by the Vietnam Peace Committee to visit Vietnam and meet with their local representatives as well as representatives of the Vietnam Federation of Labor and local people.
Cambodia is a country literally covered with land mines. Marder said that despite recent efforts to clear the countryside of these hidden killers, over 10 million mines remain embedded in Cambodia's soil - one mine for every resident.
"It is a national catastrophe, an epidemic," Marder told the World. "Not a single family hasn't been affected by the mines. [During the conference] they took us to a field that was being de-mined. While we were there, they removed two mines from a rice field. During the three days of the conference, 190 people were maimed by mines.
This points to one of the most daunting problems facing Cambodia: During nearly 20 years of unremitting warfare most mines were planted "like seeds" in rice flelds, farmlands and other areas essential for food production and civilian employment.
As part of the peace treaty between the U.S.-backed rightist forces of the Khmer Rouge and its allies, and the former socialist government of Cambodia, the government agreed to repatriate 300,000 refugees living in Thailand.
The refugees were to receive farmland as part of the resettlement project. However, in the subsequent six years only 8 percent of the refugees have received land because the soil is so heavily infested with mines that it is life threatening to try to work it.
This creates a tremendous obstacle to any development or normalization of the Cambodian economy. Before production can begin the entire country must be painstakingly cleared of these invisible death traps.
What makes matters worse is that a high percentage of the mines are plastic, thus capable of evading detection by most mine sweeping equipment. In addition, the Khmer Rouge continue to conduct their genocidal war in some of the potentially most productive regions of the country - making mine clearance an impossiblity. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and and 1978.
Because land mines are cheap - $3 to $30 - they became the weapon of choice for various armed factions engaged in civil and regional wars throughout the Cold War period. The highest concentration of land mines are in countries identified as target areas by the U.S. in its drive to crush the working people's and socialist movements in newly liberated countries: Angola (the highest with 15 million mines), Cambodia, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cuba. ; Over 26,000 people are killed each year by mines.
Today, there is an international campaign to rid the world of these devices - devices that are particularly aimed at civilians. Last year, the U.S., one of the world's largest manufacturers of mines (along with Russia, China, the Czech Republic and Italy), banned the export of mines. The bill was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) who introduced further legislatlon on June 14 which would ban the production of anti-personnel mines and slap sanctions against violators.
U.S defense companies are already scrambling to circumvent the new legislation, should it go into effect. In Minnesota, Honeywell is manufacturing a "smart bomb" which has an expiration mechanism. The bomb automatically explodes at a specffic time after installation. The "smart bomb" is also equipped with an anti-handling device, making the bomb almost impossible to remove once planted. These bombs would not be covered under Leahy's legislation because they do not fall within the parameters of "anti-personnel mines."
In addition to Leahy's efforts, the non--governmental organizations (NGOs) and General Assembly of the U.N. have joined the campaign to eradicate land mines. Toward this end, the U.N. will hold an International Meeting on Mine Clearance in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 25 during which further restrictions and means of ending production of mines will be discussed.
Marder implored people to join the campaign by calling their senators to urge them to back the Leahy bill.
While in Cambodia, Marder visited a hospital which cares for mine victims. "Not a single space was not occupied by amputees," he said, with voice trembling. "They were in the few beds, in the corridors, on the stairs, out front - everywhere. Young people, children; it was devastating. There were no lights, no water, and they were bringing in more victims while we waited."
Marder asked, "When you look at all the ingenuity that goes into manufacturing weapons, and then all the ingenuity that goes into curing people from these weapons, shouldn't humanity be able to apply a that energy into making the world a better place, a more peaceful place?"
While Cambodia has yet to find real peace, the process has begun. In 1993 Cambodia held its first ever elections. A new constitution was written and a constitutional monarchy established. The Cambodian People's Party (Communists), as part of the peace agreement, shares power with the monarchists in the parliament. Yet, the Khmer Rouge danger still haunts this troubled land.
Marder said many fear that unless the economy shows marked improvement and jobs are created, the Khmer Rouge will gain support, especially from the peasantry which has long been the base of Khmer Rouge support. As for now, the Khmer Rouge is isolated, but stiil has close to 10,000 troops and is capable of inflicting a lot of pain.
Vietnam is not confronted by an armed insurrection and land mines are not the main danger to health and safety there. However, the problems which Vietnam confronts are no less severe. Since 1987, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Vietnam has been engaged in a major campaign to-restructure their economy.
These changes include price liberalization, permitting of private property, encouragement to foreign corporations to invest and build production facilities in Vietnam, and the permitting of private businesses.
These changes are the product of two main factors. The first is the devastation caused by nearly 50 years of war and 19 years of a U.S.-imposed economic blockade which hamstrung the economy. The second is the loss of the socialist bloc which was virtually Vietnam's sole trading partner. Vietnam's isolation is graphically illustrated by the nature of its telephone system. As recently as 1986, there were only nine lines out of country - nearly all of them directed to Moscow. Marder said that when the socialist world became unraveled, "the Vietnamese economy came to a complete halt. They had nothing. Goods were scarce, unemployment was high and trade was nonexistent. They had to find a way out of their isolation, they had to break the chains.
Vietnam is a land of tremendous resources, an energetic and young population and a country which is geographically ideally situated for trade. However, it lacks capital. It had no money to develop its resources. It had no capital to construct the deep water ports needed for international trade. It had no option but to turn to the capitalist world for what it needed.
This opened a whole set of new problems in that the sole reason for any any transnational coming into Vietnam would be to make a profit - they would not be interested in helping the Vietnamese to achieve socialism.
The danger that the introduction of capitallst forms of economy would undermine the Vietnamese government and the rule of the working class and its Communist Party was real. However, the government and people are aware of these problems, according to Marder who asked local labor leaders, peace activists and residents about these potential hazards.
"Their main goal was to become a part of the world community and develop friendship among nations," Marder said. "The people are aware that the introduction of free market prices, small private shops and transnational penetration of the economy will, and has, created a group of wealthy people while there is still unemployment and poverty. However, the society is developing. There are signs of a remarkable turn-around in the economy," Marder explained.
He said that the markets "were bustling with activity. There was no shortage of goods, produce, etc. However, prices were high and that is one of the problems that the Vietnamese are confronting."
Last year, Vietnam achieved a major victory in its struggle to survive when the U.S. lifted its blockade of the country. Within months, dozens of countrIes which had not previously had relations with Vietnam established relations and began to invest on a record scale in the economy.
Vietnam is now the third largest exporter of rice, a position that they had occupied before the long decades of war. Marder said that the people "work from sunrise to sundown to achieve this. Everyone is just trying to live day-to-day."
Yet, the lack of capital continues to cause crises along the way. A South Korean company is building a cement factory in Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese could not afford to build the road to transport the manufactured product to distribution centers. The agreement required the company to build these roads.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, Marder saw clear signs of the changes. He stayed at a Canadian-owned hotel packed with business people from around the world.
But the U.S. lags far behind in seeking normalized trade and economic relations. President Clinton recently dredged up the timeworn issue of Missing in Action (MIA) apparently contradicting Secretary of State Warren Christopher's statement that the U.S. should establish full diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
After much hesitation, Clinton finally restored full diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 12. This marks a tremendous victory for the Vietnamese in their struggle to rebuild their country and achieve a decent standard of living.
The giant U.S. transational corporations and banks had been pressing Clinton to hold out for total freedom of action on investments in Vietnam as a guarantee of maximum control of the human and natural resources of Southeast Asia. Their aim is to undermine Vietnamese sovereignty and derail the counry from their socialist plan of development. The peace movement and other progressive forces demanded the U.S. extend normalized diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam with no strings attached.
Marder said the Vietnamese bear no hostility to the United States. "They seem to have completely put the war behind them," he said. "Maybe they have suffered so much - millions killed and wounded and massive deforestation - that they would rather look to the future."
Despite the changes and the fall of socialism in Europe, the government of Vietnam enjoys "unanimous support" among the people, according to Marder. "There was no antipathy to the government or the Party and the people genuinely feel that things are better and continue to improve."
Marder noted the leading role that women play in Vietnam's development. He read an article in an English language newspaper written by a woman who had lived in the West which said, "There is more equality of the sexes in Vietnam where there are no laws on equality, than there is in the West which has laws enforcing equality." This is a reflection of the socialist consciousness developed in Vietnam.
The road ahead will not be easy for either Vietnam or Cambodia. Yet, one can't help but feel that in their endeavor to build a life worth living both peopIes will succeed - just as they refused to be defeated by U.S. imperialism.
Yet both countries are still in need of the solidarity and friendship of the U.S. people. The Leahy bill must be passed and signed into law. The rights of the Vietnamese people to build socialism must be defended against the machinations of the U.S. transnationals. These steps are vital to the future development and survival of these countries - long the victimes of U.S. aggression.
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