07 May, 2014

The Fall of Dien Bien Phu

60 years ago today the last French defenders of Dien Bien Phu were overrun by Vietnamese rebels. This was in the first Indochina War, when Vietnamese communists were fighting to free their country from colonial rule. The fall of Dien Bien Phu hastened the departure of French forces from Vietnam and the establishment of a communist regime in the north of the country.

Dien Bien Phu was an odd location for the decisive battle that would end a war. It was located far from major population centres in the north west of Vietnam, near the border with Laos. It only became the site of a major battle because the French chose to send a large force there. By 1953 their position in Indochina was deteriorating. The French commander, General Henri Navarre, decided to establish a fortified base in Dien Bien Phu for two reasons. Firstly, the hope was that a strong force there would be able to block the supply of arms from China through Vietnam to communist rebels in Laos. The more ambitious hope, though, was that the Vietnamese rebels would choose to deploy a large force to attack Dien Bien Phu, a force that could then be destroyed by the better armed and trained French forces.

Dien Bien Phu was so remote that it could only be supplied from the air, but this was not seen as a problem. There was an old airstrip there from the Second World War that the French would be able to use to fly in supplies and evacuate the wounded. French paratroopers secured the runway on the 20th November 1953 and then more troops and heavy equipment were flown in, including a number of light tanks. A series of forts were established in the surrounding area. The French commander at Dien Bien Phu was Colonel de Castries, a French cavalry commander who looked forward to the showdown with the Vietnamese rebels. All told he had some 16,000 men under him.

The political leader of the rebels was the famous Ho Chi Minh, but the military commander was Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap decided to accept the challenge posed by Dien Bien Phu and moved a 50,000 strong force to invest the defenders. By the end of January the first clashes between the two armies had occurred, but it was only on the 13th of March that the battle erupted in earnest. The rebels had dug in artillery in bunkers overlooking one of the French forts. After a devastating bombardment the Vietnamese stormed the fort with a mass infantry assault. The French artillery commander was so shocked by his inability to counter the Vietnamese guns that he blew himself up with a hand grenade.

On the next day the rebels overran another fort in the same manner as the first Now they could pore artillery fire down on the airstrip, rendering it useless for the French defenders. The French could still haphazardly receive supplies dropped by parachute, but there was no way out for their wounded. The garrison was now trapped.

Thereafter the battle progressed more like something from the First World War than the kind of mobile fighting the French had hoped for. Shelling and infantry assaults gradually forced the French back into an ever smaller area. The fighting was not all one-sided - in bold counter-attacks the defenders sometimes recovered lost positions. The suffering on both sides was horrendous. But without use of the runway for the French there could only be one eventual outcome.

As the situation became more desperate, the United States stepped up its material aid for the French in Indochina, but avoided overt direct involvement. There were some in leadership positions who wanted to commit significant American forces to help the French; there are even suggestions that the Americans proposed to use nuclear weapons to break the siege or to give them to the French for this, but this has never been definitively established. In the end those who favoured non-intervention won out, and the Americans left Dien Bien Phu to its fate.

The end came on the 7th of May. By then the French defenders were shattered and isolated. Giap ordered an all-out attack to bring the battle to an end. In his last radio broadcast to his commander, de Castries recounted the desperate situation in which the garrison found itself and was ordered to fight on till the very end. By nightfall the battle was over, with all the French positions overrun. The surviving defenders were led off into captivity.
As well as the captured male soldiers, the French prisoners included one French woman, the nurse Geneviève de Galard, who had been trapped when the runway became unusable. Also captured were the Algerian and Vietnamese women who worked in the two bordels mobiles de campagne serving the garrison. Some 3,290 French troops were eventually repatriated, together with Ms de Galard. The Vietnamese sex workers were apparently sent off somewhere for re-education. The eventual fate of the Vietnamese loyalists who fought on the French side is mysterious.

For the Vietnamese the battle was a triumph, albeit one bought at terrible cost. The rebels had gone in a few short years from waging a guerrilla war to being able to take on a first world army in conventional battle. For France, Dien Bien Phu was a disaster. They had chosen the ground and invited the rebels to fight them and then had been comprehensively defeated. But the defeat did not end France's colonial pretensions. While the French were soon after to quit Indochina, the debacle hardened the resolve of the military to fight on against the nationalist rebels in Algeria, in the hope that some kind of victory there would restore their honour.

By coincidence, a conference to end the Indochina War opened in Geneva the day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The conference saw Vietnam partitioned into a northern zone under Ho Chi Minh and southern Republic of Vietnam supported by France (and subsequently the USA). Elections in 1956 were meant to reunite the two parts of the country, though events unfolded otherwise.

More:

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Wikipedia)

Dien Bien Phu: Did the US offer France an A-bomb? (BBC News)

The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (BBC Radio 4 documentary)


22 May, 2013

The Butcher of Buenos Aires

Jorge Rafaél Videla has died. Mr Videla led a military regime in Argentina from the 1976 coup until he handed over power to one of his army colleagues in 1981. He presided over a bloodbath that saw up to 30,000 people murdered in an episode known as the Dirty War.

Calling something a war, even a "dirty" war implies that it is a struggle with at least two sides. In Argentina that would be a bit misleading. Before Videla and his gang took over Argentina, the country was indeed in a state of near civil war. Leftist guerrillas had embarked on an armed revolutionary struggle and the state security apparatus responded in kind; levels of violence escalated alarmingly. Then in 1976 Videla, the army's commander in chief, overthrew the civilian government of President Isabél Peron and gave his uniformed pals a completely free hand to crush the insurgents.

"As many people as is necessary will die in Argentina to protect the hemisphere from the international communist conspiracy", Mr Videla had said in 1975. Once in power, he proved as good as his word. The armed forces instituted a reign of terror against the actual guerrillas, but they also targeted anyone who might be assisting them or who had dangerous left wing ideas or who just looked funny. The regime moved beyond combating the rebels (who were soon crushed) to trying to exterminate Argentina's left.

To make it harder for friends and relatives of the murdered to bring troubling court cases against the regime, Videla's cronies made their victims disappear. One trick was to drug captives and then throw them out of airplanes into the south Atlantic. On the off-chance that any of the corpses were washed ashore, the drugged victims were stripped naked to remove anything that might identify them.

Videla and his accomplices were amnestied during Argentina's transition to democracy, but gradually the law caught up with him. In 1998 he was forced to stand trial for the "appropriation of minors" - the kidnapping of the children of the disappeared for illegal adoption by army officers and others sympathetic to the military regime. Then in 2007 the general Dirty War amnesty was overthrown by the courts; in 2010 he received a life sentence for the torture and murder of 31 victims of the military regime. He died in prison.

It is easy to focus on sinister figures like Videla and reduce their victims to a faceless mass - with 30,000 people killed by Videla, it can be hard to remember that they all had names, friends, a life, ambitions and dreams that were brutally cut short. El Proyecto Desaparecidos attempts to humanise this victims, posting photographs and brief biographies of the killed.

One of the more heartbreaking parts of El Proyecto Desaparecidos' website is the Wall of Memory - face after face of those killed by Argentina's army, with links to a summary of their life and what is known of their fate.

Some random victims:

Silvia de Raffaelli de Parejo - 28 years old when she was abducted from her home and never seen again.

Alicia Eguren de Cooke - a writer, poet and political activist who was 52 years old when she was thrown from a helicopter into the River Plate.

Juan Carlos Galván - a 24 years old artist who taken from his widowed mother's home and never seen again.

Oscar Luis Hodola & Sirena Acuña - 28 and 26 when they were taken away from their son.


More:

Jorge Rafaél Videla obituary (Guardian)

Argentina ex-military leader Jorge Rafael Videla dies (BBC)

Painful search for Argentina's disappeared (BBC)

Argentina marks 'Night of the Pencils' (BBC) An account of the abduction, torture and murder of left wing secondary school students.

Project Disappeared (in English)

El Proyecto Desaparecidos (in Spanish)

The Wall of Memory

06 May, 2013

Syria

In 2011, when the civil war there was only starting, I posted a three-part history of Syria. It may still be of interest to those curious as to how that country has reached its current sorry state.

Part 1 - Before the Assads
Part 2 - The Hafez al-Assad years
Part 3 - Bashir al-Assad

10 March, 2013

By their friends shall ye know them?

I hope to write at some length about Hugo Chavez, but may never get round to it. In the meantime, here is a photograph of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran standing beside his coffin.

Source

14 January, 2013

What is going on in Mali?

Mali is a country in Africa. It used not to make the news much. If people heard anything about it, it was usually to do with the surprising number of Malian musicians who have acquired some popularity in the western world - Tinariwen, Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabaté and so on. The country is also known to some as home of the Dogon people, who have strange folk practices some suggest indicate that they have had past contact with extra terrestrial civilisations. And it also has the town of Timbuktu, sometimes seen as the epitome of places that are far away from anywhere (people who live in Timbuktu probably do not see things like this).

Mali is also very poor but for a while anyway had a reputation as being fairly functional. It was something of a poster child for the idea that representative democracy can work in countries that are very poor and also predominantly Muslim. And the combination of its interesting music and desert location (partly combined in the hip Festival In The Desert) meant that it attracted a fair amount of tourism.

But, sadly, things have gone very wrong for Mali. In the north of the country, largely inhabited by the Touareg people, a separatist revolt sprung into being. Then the separatists were joined by a bunch of Muslim extremists allegedly sympathetic to al-Qaeda. The Islamists are led by one Iyad ag-Ghaly, a shady customer who in the past staged several Touareg particularist revolts in the north of Mali (revolts that typically ended with Mr ag-Ghaly being made a member of Mali's government). He seems now to have switched effortlessly from Touareg separatism to Islamic extremism.

The Islamists largely swallowed up their Touareg separatist allies, establishing a zone in the north where they could apply their particular no-fun variety of Islam. Back in Bamako, Mali's capital, members of the Malian army staged a coup. The coup was ostensibly a protest against the government's weak response to the northern revolt, but its main effect was to paralyse the Malian state and lead to the rebels further expanding their area of control.

These days military regimes are very much out of fashion and foreign intervention (by Mali's neighbours) was threatened to crush the putschists in the capital. That was averted when they agreed to hand over power to an interim president, pending elections, but that still left the rebels in control of the north.

The rebels then proceeded to display their badass no-fun credentials by attacking and destroying the shrines and graves of various Muslim saints in their zone of control. Islamists destroying Muslim shrines might seem strange to western readers, but the rebels seem to be inspired by the kind of austere Islam popular in Saudi Arabia, where shrines and saints are seen as unacceptably pagan and contrary to "real Islam". One might see them as Muslim equivalents of those Calvinists in 16th century Europe who went around smashing up stained glass windows and Catholic religious iconography.

This might have chugged along as one of those conflicts you read about in faraway countries were it not for the fear some people have that if the rebels were to take over Mali they would turn the country into a giant al-Qaeda training camp. Or maybe even if they did not take over the whole country, they would turn the huge zone they control into an al-Qaeda camp larger than metropolitan France. There was also the fear that the rebels might spread Islamic extremism to Mali's neighbours. None of this seemed like an appealing prospect. Mali's west African neighbours started gearing up for intervention at some point in the future, as Mali's own military did not seem to be up to the job of crushing the rebels. The French government also gave the impression that it might be interesting in helping to defeat the rebels, albeit also at some indeterminate point in the future.

That was the situation just a week or two back, but now suddenly France is at war in Mali. Its air force is attacking the rebels in the north of the country and French troops have started arriving in Bamako. This sudden intervention seems to have been triggered by a new rebel advance that made it look like they were about to overrun the south of the country. The French intervention looks like it was almost a panicked response to stop that happening.

The situation now is a bit unclear. Although French aeroplanes have been pounding the rebels, they still managed to capture the town of Diabaly, leaving them 250 miles from the Malian capital. That makes it look like they could just possibly overrun the capital before enough French troops arrive to stop them. That is probably unlikely - the combination of air power and the superior training and equipment of French ground troops will block the rebels, but it does leave France stuck in what could be an ongoing conflict with no obvious end in sight.

More:

Hollande’s War Aims Remain Unclear (Irish Times)

Malian rebels overrun garrison town and advance towards capital (Guardian)

Mali Crisis: Who’s Who (BBC)

Iyad Ag Ghaly - Mali's Islamist leader (BBC)

05 January, 2013

Strange developments in North Korea

The BBC news website has a fascinating piece on North Korea by the German conductor Alexander Liebreich. Mr Liebreich has made a number of cultural trips to North Korea over the years. On his most recent trip, with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, he was astonished by the changes he observed in Pyongyang. There seemed a new openness in the air, with the members of his orchestra being able to walk the streets of the city without the company of official minders. Furthermore, the locals seemed far more relaxed in the presence of foreigners (when previously association with anyone from outside the DPRK would excite the suspicions of the authorities). And the North Koreans he interacted with seemed far less inclined to quote the wise words of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-Il than previously, with current leader Kim Jung-un being conspicuous by his absence. Mr Liebreich also noticed a considerable presence of Chinese tourists and a general smartening up of Pyongyang.

Who knows what these changes signify. Maybe they are merely superficial, but maybe the wind of change is starting to blow through what has long been one of the world's most isolated countries.

More

21 August, 2012

Farewell Meles Zenawi


Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia since 1995 has died. Meles is the first leader of Ethiopia to die in office (rather than being overthrown by force or murdered) since the death of Empress Zewditu in 1930 (and it is often felt that Zewditu was herself murdered to facilitate the accession of Tefari Makonnen, who took the name Haile Selassie as emperor). If Empress Zewditu was indeed murdered then the last Ethiopian ruler before Meles to die in office was Emperor Menelik in 1913, almost 100 years ago. I think one would have go back a long way to find a leader of Ethiopia who left office voluntarily or was removed by constitutional means, though the same is probably true of most monarchies (as Ethiopia was before 1974).

Meles came to power after a long civil war that had pitted the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam against a variety of enemies. Meles led the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, a group based in the northern province of Tigray, which had particularly suffered at the hands of Mengistu. The TPLF were allied to the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, a separatist movement in the coastal province of Eritrea. The EPLF had been fighting a longer war against both Mengistu's clique and before him Emperor Haile Selassie.

In power Meles and his were initially a breath of fresh air after the erratic Stalinism of the Mengistu regime. Eritrea was allowed to secede from Ethiopia and the TPLF was reconstituted as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, to broaden its base beyond the Tigray province. As a counter to the centralising tendencies of Mengistu, a federal constitution was adopted, with the various provinces allowed a considerable degree of autonomy. And in contrast to most African countries, Ethiopia adopted a parliamentary rather than presidential system of government.

However, things did not turn out as well as initially promised. Elections held under Meles proved to be a bit of a joke, with non-EPRDF prevented from campaigning properly and votes not being counted in a fair and transparent manner. When opposition activists protested against this in 2005 they were massacred and leading opposition politicians thrown in jail until they admitted that the violence had all been their fault. The press in Ethiopia remained subject to crippling censorship and the broadcast media resembles something from pre-1989 Eastern Europe in its fawning devotion to Meles and his pals. The new federalism of Ethiopia seemed just to be a mask for EPRDF dominance, with many in Ethiopia feeling that now the country was being run for the benefit of Meles' base in Tigray. The human rights situation remains abysmal, with journalists being arrested recently for reporting that Meles was a bit unwell.

Meles Zenawi also led his country into war with his erstwhile allies in Eritrea. This border conflict, which seems to have been initiated by the President Isias Afewerki, the neo-Stalinist leader of Eritrea, was eventually won by Ethiopia. However, the conflict claimed the lives of several hundred thousand people in fighting that recalled the First World War. Since then relations with Eritrea have remained poisonous, with each country's paranoid leadership accusing the other of plotting to overthrow it and accusing their domestic opposition of being in the pay of the national enemy. War is peace.

More successfully (for him), Meles made his country a firm ally of the United States of America. Post 11-9, he declared Ethiopia a junior partner in the war on terror, which meant that the USA supplied him with military and diplomatic support against Eritrea and allowed him to project Ethiopian power into neighbouring Somalia, by accepting his claims that this was some kind of battle against Islamist terrorists. The support of the USA and its friends also allowed Meles to shrug off any criticism from do-gooders about his human rights record and Ethiopia's crypto-dictatorial system of government.

And now he has gone. What will be interesting will be to see whether his passing allows some kind of opening up of Ethiopian politics and a transition to open electoral politics. The fear of many, however, will be that his authoritarian political system will now disintegrate in a messy and violent manner, plunging Ethiopia back into chaos and civil war.

Image source