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South East Asia

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Vietnam: What Was It All About?

14 January 2011
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
By Gwynne Dyer

    Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.

    The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?

    The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.

    In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that  the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

    Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

    So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?

    In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

    Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.

     As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

    So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

    To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

    The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

    It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

    But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)

If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.

Preventing Pandemics

13 October 2005

Preventing Pandemics

 By Gwynne Dyer

It would be funny if it were not so serious. As migratory birds carry the avian influenza virus west across Europe, Britain is following in the footsteps of Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Turkey and asking hunters to shoot down as many incoming ducks and geese as possible. They have been issued with bird-flu testing kits to see if their victims are carrying the dreaded virus, but they really have little to worry about: all the cases of direct bird-to-human infection, now over a hundred in total, have occurred on family farms in South-East Asia.

The panic over bird flu is not wholly misplaced. If the H5N1 strain that is currently ravaging wild bird flocks learns to pass between human beings easily while retaining even a tenth of its current lethality — the death-rate among people who catch it directly from birds has been as high as 50 percent — the world would face an influenza pandemic as grave as the one in 1918-19. That one, known as the “Spanish influenza”, killed between fifty and a hundred million people at a time when the world’s population was only a third of what it is now.

Recent research has shown that the 1918 virus was also a purely avian strain that jumped to human beings, but then changed enough to become highly infectious between people. Its peculiar pattern of mortality, with a much higher death rate than usual among healthy young adults (half the victims of the Spanish flu pandemic were between 18 and 40 years old), is reappearing in the cases of direct bird-to-human transmission of the past two years. If the current avian virus also develops the ability to move easily between people, the world is in trouble.

Only in the past couple of decades has it been widely understood that almost all the quick-killer infectious diseases that have emerged to ravage human populations since the rise of civilisation come from our own domestic animals. Human beings in the wild, like other predators that live in small, isolated groups of a few dozen individuals or less, would rarely have fallen victim to the quick-killer viruses and bacteria whose natural habitat is animals that live in large herds.

Even if such a disease did jump from some prey animal to the hunters who killed it, and even if it then adapted enough to infect the other members of the hunter-gatherer band, the new, human-infectious form would usually die out when it had run through those few dozen people. Only when civilisation brought people together in large groups, and those people began living in constant close contact with domesticated versions of herd-dwelling animals, did the quick-killer diseases that often devastate those species begin to adapt permanently to the human species.

Over the past three or four thousand years this process has given us a whole range of highly infectious new human diseases, including quite lethal ones like smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and the Black Plague.

Influenza, which colonised civilised human beings via their flocks of domesticated birds, is usually a relatively mild member of this family of diseases, but the flu virus mutates with great ease, and occasionally it assumes a highly lethal form.

As our population has grown into the billions and the volume and speed of travel have soared, we have become more vulnerable to these “emergent” diseases, but they are unlikely to emerge on a British or even a Russian farm. Eighty years ago the “Spanish influenza” virus probably made its way from wild ducks into chickens and thence into human beings on a Kansas farm, but modern commercial farming does not involve people and their animals sharing the same living spaces. Moreover, if some disease does cross the species barrier anyway, its human victims are far more likely to get early treatment (and, if necessary, quarantine).

The places where the style of farming and the density of human and animal populations still favour the easy movement of diseases from animals into people are mostly in Asia, particularly in South-East Asia. That is where all the new flu viruses have emerged in the past half-century, where the SARS virus came from two years ago, and where other emergent diseases are most likely to appear. As a first step, it would make sense to create a network of trained observers who would report on any unusual disease patterns among the local farm families or their animals.

This is being done in Thailand, and much poorer Vietnam is making a start, but Indonesia has done little, the Chinese refuse to say what they are doing, and some of the smaller countries have done nothing. The developed countries would be wise to support these reporting networks, since they offer the best chance of stopping a new disease before it reaches the rest of the world.

In the longer run, farmers throughout the region must be encouraged to change their long-established ways of raising poultry, pigs and other animals. That is a tall order, but similar shifts in farming practice have already happened elsewhere, and at least the region’s economy is developing fast enough that it can provide markets for a more commercial style of farming and non-farm jobs for those no longer needed on the land.

The countryside wouldn’t be nearly so picturesque at the end of the process, but the world wouldn’t be facing so many new diseases, either.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Recent…trouble”; and “This…world”)

The Coming Pandemic

1 June 2005

The Coming Pandemic

By Gwynne Dyer

The long-term solution is to invest many billions of dollars and a huge amount of political capital in persuading peasant families throughout China and South-East Asia to change the way they raise their poultry. The urgent short-term task is to develop a way of mass-producing influenza vaccine far faster than is now possible. It’s urgent because “the world is in the gravest possible danger of a global pandemic,” as Dr Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific regional director of the World Health Organisation, told an emergency conference on avian flu held in Vietnam two months ago.

The H5N1 avian flu virus first crossed into human beings in 1997, but it has clearly been mutating in recent years in ways that make it more capable of moving from birds to people. The spate of human infections in mid 2003 in China and South-East Asia was so serious that over 100 million domestic birds were killed or died in those countries before it subsided in early 2004, but there was only a few months’ respite before bird-to-human transmission began again last June.

The virus has now appeared in wild birds who can carry the virus far beyond its original reservoir in domestic chickens in southern China and South-East Asia: in late May China closed all its nature parks after 178 migratory geese were found dead from the virus in Qinghai province in the north-west. The most recent outbreak has so far killed 53 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia — and even more ominously, the first probable case of human-to-human transmission was recorded last September in Vietnam.

The danger of a global flu pandemic that could be as bad as or worse than the “Spanish influenza’outbreak of 1918-19 (which killed 40 to 50 million people, half of them young, healthy adults) comes from the fact that a strain of influenza virus that normally affects only birds can swap genes with a strain that is highly infectious between human beings. If people with the human type of influenza should also be infected with the avian type (through direct contact with infected poultry), the gene swap can easily occur — and direct human-to-human transmission becomes possible. At that point, given current patterns of international travel, the world might be only weeks away from a global pandemic.

We don’t know if avian flu viruses swapping genes with human types caused the lethal Spanish influenza, but that was certainly the source of the much milder “Asian flu” outbreak in 1957-58 (which killed 70,000 people in the United States alone) and the “Hong Kong flu” pandemic in 1968-69 (50,000 US deaths). Given the rate at which influenza viruses mutate, we are overdue for another pandemic — and this one could be a monster.

The H5N1 virus is resistant to most anti-viral drugs, and in the avian form it has been getting steadily stronger. Early outbreaks killed around 10 percent of poultry flocks; more recent ones have been killing up to 90 percent.

In people who have caught avian flu, the death rate has been horrendous: 50 to 75 percent of those infected. A gene-swapped version that is directly communicable between human beings might be less lethal, but it could still far exceed the 1-2 percent fatality rate of the Spanish influenza. To make matters worse, this version of avian flu has a long incubation period. Unlike the SARS virus that killed 774 people two years ago, it may be very hard to stop before it spreads into the general population.

“When people were transmitting the (SARS) virus they were already showing signs, so it could be picked up at airports with temperature (detectors),” explained World Health Organisation spokesman Peter Cordingley. “With (avian) flu you can be infectious before you show any signs.” If human-to-human infections start to spread, there could be not only huge loss of life, but global economic chaos as air travel is shut down to contain the spread, borders are closed, and essential services break down because too many of their workers are off sick or just hiding from the flu at home.

Governments are already arming themselves to deal with this pandemic — on 1 April President George W. Bush added “influenza caused by novel or reemergent influenza viruses that are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic” to the list of diseases for which a quarantine can be declared — but there is no vaccine. As things stand now, none could be available for months after the pandemic begins. That is why five teams of scientists, writing in last week’s edition of the journal “Nature”, urged a permanent global task force to react quickly to outbreaks of bird flu. If it is not done, they warned, millions will die.

The first opportunity to create such a task force will be at the G-8 summit in Scotland next month, and its first priority must be to develop new and easily produced vaccines to deal with the expected outbreak. But lasting progress, as Dr Samuel Jutzi of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said at the Vietnam meeting in March, depends on “addressing the transmission of the virus where it occurs, in poultry, specifically free-range chickens and wetland-dwelling ducks.” In other words, a couple of hundred million Asian peasants have to be persuaded to stop living in the same space as their poultry. A tall order, but a necessary one.