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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Introduction to the Martial Arts in Southeast Asia and Oceania

The sheer diversity of cultures in Southeast Asia and Oceania has played a large part in the evolution of martial arts in the region. At the same time, a wealth of religious practices-including shamanism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, and, in particular, Buddhism-have all contributed to the philosophical underpinnings of indigenous, imported, and hybrid art forms. These have been influenced by Chinese traditions and martial arts, and have flowered into a wide-ranging catalogue of fighting : systems, each with its own distinct flavor and cultural identity.

Some martial-arts traditions in the region, such as amis and kali, have provided the inspiration for other, more modern arts. For example, today there are more than 800 schools across Indonesia’s 13,000 islands teaching the indigenous martial art pencak silat and the majority of them teach different styles. In the Philippines, eskrima contains a multitude of stick-fighting, knife-fighting, and empty-hand techniques that were developed in the past, but which have been adapted to cope with the risks and dangers of modern life on the country’s mean city streets.

Southeast Asian arts range from full-contact aggression to a more gentle focus on self-development. For example, muay Thai, the direct and effective kickboxing sport that uses elbows and knees, is a simple yet brutal art. In contrast, the Myanmarian art of pongyi thaing is nonviolent and stresses Hindu and Buddhist principles in an attempt to develop a practitioner’s mind, body, and spirit. Those who practice the ancient Myanmarian art of bando yoga seek to cultivate their health-and in former times their readiness for battle-by defending themselves against both armed attack from without and internal disease from within, leading to a more peaceful existence free from confrontation and conflict. This philosophical concept was captured succinctly by the legendary Bruce Lee when he said: “If you don’t fight, you cannot lose.”

The past meets the present

Many of the older indigenous martial-art forms in Southeast Asia were practiced alongside music, dance, and drama. These traditions live on today, although in a slightly different form. For example, muay thai practitioners engage in a dancelike ritual before they fight to protect themselves and hex their opponent during a bout. The fight itself is always accompanied by hypnotic and distinctive music. In Indonesia and Malaysia, silat is often practiced to a musical accompaniment and often features in folk dramas.

Renewed life

As nations and their people in the region emerge from years of conflict and suppression, traditional martial arts have begun to flower once again. Cambodia’s ancient martial-art traditions can be seen in the figures that adorn the temples of Angkor Wat, which dates back to the 12th century CE. The arts in Myanmar are mostly animal-based techniques and have survived with relatively little influence from the other modern sporting arts in the region. Many styles of thaing-the generic term for defense or all-out fighting systems in Myanmar-are largely based on grappling and striking. Lethwei, a traditional Myanmarian sport similar to muay Thai, has been practiced in Myanmar for centuries and continues to grow in popularity.

Jingoistic trends

Throughout Vietnam’s turbulent history, both culturally and philosophically, the country’s Chinese-influenced martial arts were never standardized. Instead they were primarily passed along family lines and, during the French occupation from 1859 to 1954, were driven underground. They are now enjoying a reemergence and many have strong nationalistic elements, such as vovinam, which was founded in 1938 as a Vietnamese martial art for Vietnamese people.

Martial arts “down under”

In Oceania, most of the ancient fighting techniques and systems not only use simple weapons, such as stones, slingshots, and sticks, but also metal spears, swords, and other bladed weapons. Mau rakau, the traditional Maori martial art, is of particular interest. The art is seen as being a useful way of cultivating self-discipline and social responsibility and practitioners often have to endure painful tattooing as a rite of passage to warriorhood. A number of hybrid martial arts have evolved in Australia and New Zealand, especially during the early 1970s when the martial-arts craze reached its zenith and films and television series featured central characters who were skilled in combat or self-defense techniques. Many of these arts remain popular today.
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The big issue: Malcolm Caldwell A carefully redesigned version of history

Andrew Anthony's reason for his bitter denunciation of Malcolm Caldwell over 30 years after he was murdered in Cambodia, he explains, is to ensure "that we don't forget history". ("Lost in Cambodia", Magazine) A certain version of history, that is: one carefully redesigned in the interests of power.

Caldwell's fate, Anthony suggests, may have resulted from his failure to read Francois Ponchaud's "Cambodia Year Zero" because of my review of the book (Chomsky and Edward Herman, June 1977) – which recommended it as "serious and worth reading." An odd reaction. Anthony also omits Ponchaud's reaction to the review. In the preface to the English translation a year later, Ponchaud opens by referring to my praise for his book, and praises me in turn for "the responsible attitude and precision of thought" in everything I had written about the topic, including this review and extensive personal correspondence, which led to the discovery of many serious errors in his book, corrected in the translation.

Note that I am referring to the American edition. Ponchaud's preface to the British edition, dated the same day, is identical except that he replaces these passages with the charge that I denounced his book and rejected its conclusions. And he left the errors uncorrected. Evidently, Ponchaud believed that in England he could get away with anything, as Anthony is keen to demonstrate.

Anthony claims further that we denied the refugee testimony on which Ponchaud relied – in our words, his "grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge". We raised no question at all about his sources, though elsewhere we did reiterate Ponchaud's position that "the accounts of refugees are indeed to be used with great care" and showed that others had violated this familiar truism.

Anthony charges that I "compared Ponchaud's work unfavourably with another book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, written by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, which cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge's most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll." We did, indeed, draw one (and only one) comparison between the two books. Ponchaud claimed that 200,000 people were killed in American bombings from March to August 1973, mentioning an unidentified Cambodian report. Hildebrand and Porter's study cites such a report, which refers however to killed and wounded. Anthony raises no objection to this: apparently it is legitimate to cite sources to refute undocumented charges against the US.

The Hildebrand-Porter book was concerned almost entirely with the period before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and was written much too early for more than a few words about the aftermath. A serious commentary on their work is provided by George Kahin, the leading US Southeast Asian scholar, in his introduction to it. As he observes, they "provide what is undoubtedly the best informed and clearest picture yet to emerge of the desperate economic problems" resulting largely from the American bombing, with Phnom Penh and other urban centers overflowing with peasant refugees and facing starvation as much of the countryside had been destroyed. Almost the entire book is devoted to detailed documentation of this shocking tragedy, which explains US intelligence predictions after the fall of Phnom Penh "that 1 million Cambodians will die in the next twelve months" (Far Eastern Economic Review, 25 July 1975).

None of this is granted entry into Anthony's version of "history." Nor is the revelation by Cambodia scholars Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan three years ago that the US bombing of rural Cambodia was actually at five times the horrendous level previously reported, greater than all allied bombing in all theaters in World War II, and "drove an enraged populace into the arms" of the previously marginal Khmer Rouge, setting the stage for the horrors that followed.

Had he chosen, Anthony could have found accounts of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge that provide at least minimal support for his farcical rant about Hildebrand-Porter. For example, a description of the "genuine egalitarian revolution" with a new "spirit of responsibility" and "inventiveness" that "represents a revolution in the traditional mentality" as "the people of Kampuchea are now making a thousand-year old dream come true" and taking new pride in their constructive work. But these observations by Francois Ponchaud would not conform to his agenda.

The rest proceeds in much the same vein. The only reason to waste even a moment on such a performance is that it encapsulates so well the common technique of apologetics for the crimes for which one shares responsibility. It would not do to deny the crimes outright; that exposes them to view and undermines pretensions of liberal ideals. The first and most crucial principle is therefore to evade our own crimes. Next, vilify the messenger, to ensure that unwanted history is forgotten. And finally, vilify those who dare to refute charges against official enemies, thus preserving the right to posture heroically about their real or alleged crimes without concern for such impediments as fact and uncertainty. Add a few appropriate rhetorical touches and the concoction is ready to serve, a tasty morsel in some circles.

Noam Chomsky

Lexington MA

■ It was clear to anyone who knew Caldwell and who saw his films and photographs from Cambodia that he was not blind to what was going on. From my knowledge of him, there was no doubt he was a Marxist, but he valued freedom of speech, intellectual exchange and open discussion and was not blind to the negative side of developments in the then socialist regimes.

Ian J Stones


■ It was good to be reminded of the life and work of Malcolm Caldwell, once my good friend and political ally, but your account failed to take account of the peculiarity of his theoretical interests nor of the nature of the times.

Malcolm was a revolutionary leftist, but not a Marxist. He drew his inspiration from the French Physiocrats of the 1760s and from the writings of the 19th-century German economist Friedrich List. Malcolm believed these neglected thinkers provided a model for third world development and he imagined that Pol Pot's French-educated economists were kindred spirits.

He was also politically active when the Americans were conducting genocidal operations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere in south-east Asia. As a result, he believed it was a duty to support all revolutionary movements in the region, regardless of the nature of their project. The full extent of the violence inflicted on Cambodia during the Pol Pot years was not known during Malcolm's lifetime, but the comparable damage caused by the US, now largely ignored, was an ever-present reality.

Richard Gott

London W11

■ I was disappointed to see an article about my uncle Malcolm used to peddle a smear linking anti-imperialism and Marxism to "communist terror".

I did not share Malcolm's views on Pol Pot, but I would welcome his voice were he around today against the terrors being visited upon the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Sue Caldwell

London N15

■ What a fantastic piece by Andrew Anthony on Malcolm Caldwell. I don't think I have read a more interesting article in any Sunday newspaper for many years. What an irony that, as Anthony revealed, the current UN representative on the victims of Pol Pot should be what we should now call a "self-confessed" Marxist.

Matthew Scott

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Bring troops home from Afghanistan

Before plunging deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire, we should consider a lesson from our Vietnam debacle. After sacrificing 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese, to stop the “dominoes” from falling into the Communist camp, we lost the war, only to discover we were better off losing the war than winning it.

After Vietnam’s guerrilla forces drove American forces out of their country, the dominoes fell against each other: Communist China against Communist Russia, Communist Vietnam against China and Communist Cambodia. Blinded by our monolithic anticommunist ideology, Washington ignored the historical hostilities dividing the communist world. The bond uniting our enemies was not communism, but a common enemy—America; and when that bond shattered, their divisions surfaced with a vengeance.

How many more lives, American and Arab, will we sacrifice before learning that winning or losing in Afghanistan has little relevance to crushing al-Qaida when those terrorists can attack Americans from many other places in the globe? More effective, should President Obama act as an honest broker for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, removing a major source of anti-American hostility in the Middle East, he would land a far more powerful blow than sending more Americans into the bloody quicksands of Afghanistan.

Edward Cuddy

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