George Washington University professor and leading Southeast Asian History scholar Shawn McHale spoke Thursday about understanding fanaticism through the example of violence in the Mekong Delta. McHale is the director of the Sigur Center at George Washington University, one of the leading centers for Asian studies in the nation.
Cal Poly history professor Christina Firpo, a former student of McHale’s, cited him as the reason why she became interested in Southeast Asian history, a field that is not normally taught in Asian history classes.
“He has a different view of things and was very passionate,” Firpo said. McHale, who was born in the Philippines and speaks fluent Vietnamese, had first hand experience and was “able to tell me what was happening on the Vietnamese side of the [Vietnam] war,” Firpo said.
During the lecture, McHale described the use of propaganda by the Viet Minh communist party to turn Vietnamese against the French colonizers. Various propaganda leaflets depicted the French turning the Vietnamese soldiers into black Moroccan soldiers through the use of “electric ovens that blackened their skin” and then sending them to Africa to fight. In reality, most of the army in Vietnam was made up of mostly Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers.
Also circulating were rumors that the Vietnamese were cannibals that ate the livers of their opponents. “It’s easier to demonize a group you don’t know well at all,” McHale said.
Also described was the ethnic violence between the ethnic Vietnamese and Cambodian Khmer peoples who mix in the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam despite the borders set in place by the French. Previously, the borders had been defined by certain trees which the Khmer used, but the Vietnamese did not.
This violence led to the breakdown of social trust in the region.
During this period, the French state was weakening because of World War II, but their anti-colonialist opposition was also weak. The Viet Minh resorted to the assassination of their opposition and in-between 1945 and 1947, the assassination squads targeted around 600 people. These assassination squads were unique in that many of them were made up of the police or entirely of women.
Academics are often leery of invoking cultural reasons behind why people believe the way they do,” McHale concluded. “But sometimes what it means is that we throw out looking into culture; it’s not that culture causes something. The obvious thing is that people understand the world through particular cultural frames.”
“What the Viet Minh are doing is saying we know the Vietnamese have a particular cultural repertoire and we’re going to push their hot buttons because that’s how we’re going to get them on our side and against the French,” McHale said.