Saturday, June 16, 2012

At the Business End of Progress

Greetings from Spain. I am here sorting out some business, which one day I'll get around to writing about, and watching as the country starts to realise that the tidal wave of money that swept over the nation has not only subsided, but that the back current is sweeping away most of what it was meant to improve in the first place.

I'll give you a full update next week but seeing as I'm currently in the middle of a surreal desert and surrounded by the detritus of the transplanted Hollywood film industry, a computer connection is not the easiest thing to come by. Yes, I'm in the Badlands of Spain, Almería to be precise, where many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed and Clint Eastwood was almost a local. It's an unnerving place because nothing is what it seems. Old Western towns in which the buildings are just dusty façades are dotted here and there and the desert is filled with cast off detritus, such as ancient American cars and a billion beer cans. Speaking of Americans, the military accidentally dropped an atom bomb here in the 1960s, but locals are too polite to mention it. Luckily that atom bomb didn't go off, and if it had done history would look a whole lot different now.

I've been thinking quite a bit about progress recently, and the general difficulty in accepting that what has appeared as a simple linear progression for most of us, is about to be rudely interrupted. I remember the first time I realised that the whole doctrine of  benign western capitalism was a sham. It happened on a trip to Laos, in south-east Asia, in the year 2000. I narrowly escaped being blown to dog meat by a bomb on that trip, planted at a border post by Hmong agitators who wanted to get rid of the communist government.

Luckily for me, I paused to buy a Pepsi Cola from a street vendor, thus delaying me for thirty seconds and a minute or so before the bomb went off at the immigration desk, which I was walking towards with my visa in hand, killing several members of staff and turning all the computers into blobs of warm plastic and metal. I'm probably one of the few people alive who can claim that Pepsi saved my life. But before that happened I had just spent a month in that amazing country, witnessing first hand the west's attempt to turn it into just another sweat shop, using the tool of aid. This, for me at least, was when the penny dropped about how our system of economics had got out of control like some giant wild beast ans beginning to consume whole nations.

At the time I wrote down my thoughts in a diary. Here is what I wrote:


New Year's Eve 2000, Vang Vieng, Laos

We have been in Laos for ten days now and this is the first time I have been able to sort my thoughts into some sort of intelligible order. When we first entered Laos we found ourselves among extraodinarily friendly and warm people (even compared with the legendary friendliness of the Thais) - which is almost contrary to what I had expected given their abominable treatment at the hands of foreign powers. I had read the modern history of Laos and been depressed by the seeming wickedness and insensitivity of mankind: the 'overspill' of the Vietnam war and the widescale bombings.But at least I had thought it was in the past. Over the last ten days I feel as though I've had my eyes opened to another kind of assault on Laos and its peoples - by outside appearances a much less harmful one as the abominable Secret War, but potentially one with the capacity to do a whole different kind of damage.

After the first few days here, my head was spinning when I contemplated writing about our experiences. This was, after all, supposed to be a travel journal, I reasoned. But I felt wretched about being here: a sunburned foreigner surfing into their country on a tsunami of hard currency. Looking around, it seemed obvious what I represented: westernism, consumerism and the burgeoning tourism industry. I felt too strongly to give some facile travel account about us 'on holiday' in Laos. I decided to axe the travel journal and just take photographs. Then, some days later, I realised that's just the kind of 'head in the sand' thing that us westerners excel at. I reasoned that if I carry on with the journal then no matter how limited its scope and how restricted it is in expression, it will at least serve as a record of the people we met and the feelings we felt at the time, if only as a personal one. Maybe one or two people would read it and would make them think twice about endorsing 'development', as I have. That would at least be something.

Normally when going to countries and researchingt their histories it is, to a greater or lesser extent, difficult to relate to much of it; usually history happened well before we were born. But in Laos there was a Secret War (from our point of view) that was fought partly during my own lifetime. From 1964 to 1973 Laos had the misfortune to be geographically located next to Vietnam, China and Thailand. Although a neutral country in the Second Indochina War (what we would term the 'Vietnam' War) the ruling Pathet Lao were sympathetic to communist North Vietnam (the Vietcong) which incurred American fury. The Americans, frustrated by the rules of the Geneva Accord (1962) which stipulate that foreign troops may not be deployed in a declared neutral country, acted to side-step this inconvenience. 

CIA agents were placed in Laos and, with the leadership of an individual called Vang Pao, trained up an army of Lao civilians, Hmong hilltribesmen (particularly useful as they felt little allegiance to the nation of Laos, were brave fighters and in need of money) and Thais. By this stage eastern Laos was overrun with Vietcong, some of whom were being hidden in villages by sympathetic, but in all likelihood ignorant, villagers. So began America's Secret War, which was so secret that the very term 'Laos' was to be replaced by the sinister term 'The Other Theatre'. The facts and figures of this conflict are staggering - even more so when you think that Americans (nor, in the main, the Western media) didn't know about it, and still don't. If ever there was a prime test case for Noam Chomsky's Propaganda Model, which states that Big Media tends to ignore the plight of those 'hostile' or irrelevant to US foreign policy, this is it.

Here are the facts and figures. During the Secret War the Ravens, the codename for US pilots in Laos, who flew in civilian clothing and allegedly carried suicide pills, flew one and a half times the number of air sorties flown over Vietnam (over 580,000 in total). This meant an average of one planeload of bombs dropped on Laos every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day, for nine years. The cost of this, at least in monetary terms, was $2 million per day. In 1970 Richard Nixon authorised massive B-52 carpet-bombing strikes on this genteel nation in order to obliterate large tracts of the countryside. Laos being an overwhelmingly rural nation, this naturally included civilain areas. By the time the Americans pulled out they had dropped 1.9 million metric tonnes of explosives on Laos - which works out at about ten tonnes per square kilometre or over half a tonne of high explosives for every man, woman and child. This statistic makes Laos, on a per capita basis, the most heavily bombed country in the history of war. So much for being 'neutral'.

There is far too much history to be able to go into in any depth - and I'm not even going to try. It is very instructive and depressing to read up on this era in history.

One of the main legacies of this war in Laos is the sheer number of unexploded bombs (called UXO or unexploded ordinance) left lying around. It is thought that 130 Lao civilians are killed each year by UXO, mostly in the eastern provinces. Forty percent of these people are children, who find the bombs and play with them, but a larger proportion are people ploughing fields or trying to defuse them and sell them as scrap. The most common UXO is the cluster bomb (called the 'bombi' in Lao) of which up to thirty percent dropped remained undetonated. The manufacturers, still in business, of these evil devices are said to be refusing to cooperate with demining efforts and won't say what proportion didn't explode citing 'commercially sensitive information'. This high level of non-detonation was later explained by the fact that these 'products' were being tested in Laos for later use in Afghanistan, Cambodia and more recently Iraq and Serbia.

This UXO has put large sections of land off limits to peasants returning to their land after the war. Laos has a small population (four and a half million, growing at 3.5%) so the pressures on land have not been too great - until now. Since the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, Laos, was, and supposedly still is, communist in a most pragmatic manner. Now that the era of communism is over Laos has been cut loose from its Soviet master and is entering the 'liberal' world of capitalism and 'democracy' (one could argue that they are much the same thing nowadays). The 'International Community' (i.e an undefined club of powerful industrial nations and blocs operating under the Washington Concensus) is pouring vast sums of money into Laos to help it to 'develop'. The net effect of this is to transform it from a self-sufficient nation to one that relies on imported consumer goods. Hard currency will be needed to pay for these goods and this can only be gained, according to the priciple of competitive advantage by selling what you are best placed to, which in the case of Laos will be cheap labour and strip-mined raw materials.

Unless you count the nationl brewery, Laos has no manufacturing base; something that must be corrected immediately and at any cost, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thus, it is said, a large expanse of secondary and primary forest is now being cleared in central Laos to build an industrial base. It is hoped that subsistence farmers and tribal villagers can be retrained and relocated to this area to form a new class of worker that will be 'economically mobile'. Tax hikes are being used as economic cattle-prods to ensure the peasantry get the message and jump to it. Funny to think that forest floors will soon be sweatshop floors and that rice farmers will be Nike-stitching McWorkers.

Aid arrives in the form of giant projects. Tarmac roads are being constructed throughout the length of the country, huge dams are being proposed. The Mekong is no longer a river to provide fish or a wellspring of inspiration and folklore but an under-utilized energy resource. Its placid and languid waters will soon be put to work irrigating cash crops in the dry season and providing cheap electricity to fuel the industrial revolution and sell to energy-hungry Thailand for a roaring profit. Large areas of primary forest are being felled (despite them being cynically designated National Biodiversity Conservation Areas to keep outside critics happy), often by Chinese and Vietnamese logging concerns, in order to earn foreign exchange to pay for the expected influx of consumer goods and the huge fees demanded by foreign development consultants. The thousands of villagers displaced by these dams, highways and forest clearances are expected to become dutiful members of the New Economy (the whole project is called the New Economic Mechanism or NEM) and will be relocated to specialist built worker suburbs where they will all have TVs and will enjoy a much higher standard of living. Like I said, McWorkers.

The stakes are now high in Laos. Predatory transnational corporations (TNCs), those eager agents of 'free trade', are circling like vultures. The politicians, secretive and sinister, are ready to sell the non-replaceable natural resources of Laos for a fistful of dollars. Everywhere there is talk of development and the NEM. Huge mansions have mushroomed up in Vientiane where imported 'specialists' and 'experts' live behind high fences in this almost crime-free country. The urban people are excited about the influx of luxury goods and some look longingly over the Mekong to Thailand where the American Dream can now be lived out much more cheaply than it ever was in America. Dollars continue to pour in in the form of donations by countries, world organisations and companies and always the message is 'You are poor, we will alleviate your poverty'. Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen are hammering on the doors - eager to get to work in a newly liberalised country where things such as workers' rights and environmental protection are almost unheard of. Given the lack of free press, they are likely to remain so.

Many of the backpackers we had met on our travels in Asia had urged us to go to Laos 'Before it's too late', whatever that means. Now I know. They mean go now while it still has a distinctive culture. Go now while the forests are still intact and the air isn't choked by fumes. Go before they've heard of air-conditioning and laptop computers. Go now while the people still regard you with respect and not just the latest coloniser.

If you want to read more about my exploits in Laos, India, Mexico and whole load of other places you can continue here.


  1. Couldn't the government and people of Laos do what the government of Bhutan has done successfully and say in effect, "no we don't want your consumer goods and no you can't come here."

    The later Qing dynasty in China tried to do exactly this and were essentially to open up (and import large quantities of opium) at gunpoint. But places like Laos and Bhutan are probably small and remote enough that they can get away with it. Backwardness has its advantages.

  2. One notable Asian country that has for the meanwhile turned down western economic expansionism is Bhutan. They don't generally let foreigners in without an expensive tourist visa (and it has to be on a guided tour), but moreover they have abstained from what you are outlining here as has happened in Thailand and Laos.

    I think the Bhutanese saw what happened in much of Asia and realize that if they let the doors swing open, their forests will be hacked to pieces in no short time before their youth start wearing fashionable western clothing and rejecting their religion and values.

    They've also banned non-Bhutanese attire. If you're Bhutanese, you have to wear the traditional clothing. It might sound totalitarian, but the irony is that liberal values coupled with industrial capitalism leads to destructive behaviour and monoculturalization.

    However, they are transitioning to a "democracy" so chances are the politicians will eventually be bought, meaning the old barriers will be torn down, giving the elites a plush lifestyle as their ancient forests and mountains are pillaged. Still, their politicians seem to be serious about their idea of "gross national happiness". We'll see what happens there. I hope it doesn't end up like Nepal.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.