Southeast Asia At Peace And At War, 1969-70
It is December 24, 1969, in the small city of Khon Kaen in northeast Thailand. I am a volunteer from CUSO (Canada’s Peace Corps), working as an English teacher in a secondary school. In recent weeks, I have been teaching my students Christmas songs. This evening I am playing Santa Claus and we are having a Christmas party. I am throwing out candy to my Thai students who are laughing, cheering, screaming and singing.
A bus arrives at our school. The students swarm on to it in droves, packing it to overflowing, but leaving one seat at the front for Santa. We drive through the streets of Khon Kaen, filling them with the sound of Christmas carols (as the Buddhist townspeople, not familiar with Christmas, look up in amazement). Arriving at the city’s
new university, we jump out and gather around two homes where Canadian, American and Australian families have assembled. We sing them our entire repertoire of Christmas carols. I then take their kids up on my knee, giving them presents and candy. Later these families treat our Thai choir to sandwiches, candy, cake and drinks. Good feelings for each other’s culture are running very high tonight.
In 1969, Thailand was mostly at peace, although war was not far away. Normally, one saw no sign of the Vietnam war in Khon Kaen. But recently I had gained an inkling of something going on in the city. After Ho Chi Minh died last September, my Vietnamese students were absent from school. Their families had gone into mourning, wearing black patches over their hearts and holding a memorial ceremony in his honor. This was all against the law of Thailand’s anti-communist government. But the police closed their eyes to this genuine outpouring of grief.
Three months after our Thai Christmas party, the leader of neighboring Cambodia was deposed in a coup. Until then, Cambodia had been at peace, like Thailand. But within two months, it was at total war. When I visited its capital, Phnom Penh, in May 1970, it was an armed bastion. Only 40 kms. away, the town of Saang had just been blasted off the map. Its survivors were cycling to Phnom Penh, carting all their possessions behind them.
The people of Thailand and Cambodia look very similar. The young Cambodian boys I saw with their newly donned military uniforms and weapons could have been my Thai students. And the shell-shattered school I saw in Saang could have been my school in Khon Kaen. It dawned on me then that war statistics coming out of Indochina were doing no justice to the true story. Cambodia’s war casualties were not statistics: they were living, breathing, deeply feeling human beings, with happy eyes and generous hearts, just like my Thai friends. Yet it would take many years of the deepest horror before Cambodia would return to a state of peace. By the time this was achieved, it had a much lower population and much more wary citizens. Such a waste and such a tragedy!
By D.J. Kiddo