My political awakening came at the age of nine with the Vietnam War. Unusual, I admit, but we’d moved to New York state for a year while my father was on an exchange visit. My bedroom had last been occupied by someone vehemently opposed to the War and I remember carefully peeling off the peace posters that covered the walls and tidying them away.
I’ve been to various countries in South-east Asia, but have carefully skirted Vietnam. I’ve contemplated a trip more than once, but then my nine-year-old self kicks in and it’s off the agenda. Memories of the draft, people (including family) heading to war and seeing people return maimed in body and wounded in mind are still seared on my consciousness.
But a trip to Cambodia and Laos over Christmas and New Year might allow my nine-year-old psyche some rest.
These countries had their own turmoil at much the same time. I spoke to a man in Cambodia who’d escaped one of the killing fields. Shot and injured, he’d made his way to a refugee camp on the Thai border where he’d spent more than a decade and he’s now a successful teacher and businessman.
There are still signs, in both countries, of what happened. There are extensive landmines in Cambodia and buildings (including ancient Khmer temples visited by tourists) are ruined, in places, from mortar shelling. And those are only what a tourist knows and sees. But there’s also a sense that both countries want to move on. I’m told that Vietnam – even more than Cambodia – has a tangible sense of energy.
There are bound to be people for whom troubled times are still too raw to be set aside, but it was the first time I’d seen a country that I remember being at war come out the other side, raring to go. I started to ponder the factors that contributed to what is, to me, a fabulous achievement.
Setting aside the personal that must be at play and the desire and need for life to return to something resembling normality, I wonder if a new start can only be made after war and upheaval where matters have come to such a head that there can be no return to the old ways, where something new must be created. I wonder, too, if the new regime must be led by people who were not part of the old regime. In other words, that there needs to be a break from the past in order to provide resolution.
In some respects, this is grim: that things have to be very bad before they can get better and that there has to be a cleansing of the Augean stables. Sadly, history bears that out time after time. Surely, there should be a way of avoiding any state of affairs from reaching its tipping point in the first place.