I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation about the subject of my book, “Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism” at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum. The forum brings together an exceptional group of human rights icons, high-level dissidents, artists, journalists and activists (such as modern slavery abolitionists) for several days of talks and meetings. Below you’ll find the video of my 11-minute speech and the full transcript.
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Two decades ago, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. Communism, was declared dead.
And many of you will remember that on November 9, 2009 Europe threw a huge party at the Brandenburg gate. World leaders were there, including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. There were fireworks and one thousand giant dominoes were knocked down to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On that very same day, I was in a dusty Chinese mountain town known as Yan’an. I watched as dozens of young Chinese actors in historical uniforms reenacted a battle between Maoist revolutionaries and the Kuomintang. In this display, it was the communist forces who were victorious.
Here, a world apart from the events in Berlin, the birth of communism was being celebrated, not its death.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been exploring this world apart with my camera.
It turns out that the areas of our planet where the Communist Party has managed to survive and adapt to the 21st century are far more vast and varied than most of us imagine.
Let’s put it in numbers:
Since the end of the Cold War, the Communist Party has managed to hold power in seven countries across three continents.That’s a total population of 1.47 billion people, with a majority living in China. Or, to put it another way: 1 in 5 people on this planet currently live under Communist Party rule.
And when I sought to take photographs of Maoist revolutionaries during the 21st century, I didn’t need to settle for a historical reenactment.
In Nepal, communist guerrillas following Mao Zedong’s playbook lead a bloody revolution which toppled the country’s monarchy in 2008. 13,000 people were killed in the brutal civil war between the Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army. Thousands of others were disappeared in the middle of the night.
Much of the fighting was a cruel game of cat-and-mouse which played out in remote villages. And it was unsuspecting civilians who bore the brunt of the violence.
Consider the case of this man, Sundar Chaudary, who I photographed in the casualty ward of the Nepalgunj hospital in 2004.
Chaudary spent the first 30 years of his life as a slave. Like his father and grandfather, and one of the other speakers at this forum, Urmila Chaudary, he was born indentured to a high-caste landlord, and he was forced to work 18-hour days.
After years of pressure, Nepal’s government finally acted to ban bonded labor. Eventually Chaudary and thousands of other families were freed of their inherited debts.
He had the chance to start a normal life. He built a modest, thatched-roof home for his family and began to work his own land.
Then one night, a band of Maoist rebels planted a communist flag on Chaudary’s land.
Early in the morning, a patrol of Royal Army troops passed by.
They demanded that he remove the flag. The flag pole was rigged to a mine, and it exploded in his face.
The Maoists considered Nepal’s horribly unjust pecking order as their call to arms. Yet so often their tactics, like building roads with forced labor and conscripting child soldiers, were as harmful as the injustices that they were fighting against.
The communist regimes that I visited during this project revealed time and again how their original pursuit of equality could be abandoned—or maintained as a mere façade—leaving power as an end in itself.
And we should never forget the consequences of totalitarian power. Experts estimate that 20th century communist dictators—including Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot—killed over 85 million people with a legacy of famines, purges and gulags.
North Korea’s Kim dynasty has carried forward their ideology, and its devastating results into the 21st century.
Chillingly, North Korea has managed to do so behind a curtain of total secrecy. When famines struck the Horn of Africa, the international media was filled with images of hungry people and appeals from air organizations.
Yet when famine killed a million people in North Korea, no images made it to the outside world. And North Korean officials kept aid organizations at arm’s length.
North Korea has also managed to keep the world in the dark about its vast system of forced labor camps, which are estimated to hold up to 200,000 people.
In addition to hiding the truth about its human rights abuses, North Korea inundates its own population with hate-filled xenophobic propaganda and paints a god-like image of its leaders.
In North Korea, neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy and snitch on each other to prove their loyalty. The result is a paranoid, militarized society an astounding cult of personality, and the formal absence or any individualism.
By keeping people in the dark about the true nature of totalitarian communist rule the ideology has retained an uncanny popularity over the years.
And many compassionate intellectuals, artists and normal people have cheered on the Communist Party, from Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway.
For many people exploited by the injustices of capitalism, it has been hard to imagine or remember that another system could be worse.
In 2001, a majority of voters brought the Communist Party back in power through democratic elections in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
The small landlocked country, which borders the European Union, had struggled to find its footing in the volatile world of global capitalism. Nostalgia for the stability and super-power status of the Soviet Union ran high.
The spell lasted all the way until April 2009, when the Communist Party won another round of elections, although this time they were accused of electoral fraud. Students stormed the parliament in disgust, and they destroyed symbols of the Communist Party.
Fresh elections were organized, followed by period of political instability, until eventually a coalition of pro-European Union parties gained power.
Cuba’s leaders seem equally nostalgic for the past era of Soviet power, and they remain doggedly attached to its model for a centrally planned economy. Despite the poor performance record of this economic model everywhere else in the world, Cuba’s leadership skillfully relies on the stubborn, long-running U.S. embargo as the ideal pretext for deflecting any and all scrutiny and criticism away from the Communist Party’s policies.
But the model that is far more common today is the new breed of state-sponsored capitalism which was perfected by China and adopted by Vietnam and Laos. These countries have embraced the free market, but not in a way that was predicted. High-level Communist Party officials and powerful businesses work together hand-in-glove. The CEO’s of all of China’s big companies in strategic sectors are members of the Communist Party, hand-picked by top officials for their loyalty.
And those capitalist businesses which are boosted with authoritarian steroids perform very well on the global stage, often with the willing participation of foreign investors.
At home, the destructive excesses and inequalities of capitalism now flourish, and without the counterbalances of a free press and independent labor unions. Vocal critics of industrial pollution, mining projects and unfair working conditions are often treated in the same harsh manner as political dissidents by authorities.
When these countries started down the path of economic openness, most commentators predicted that political reforms and progress on human rights would follow.
Those predictions haven’t come true.
Nowhere is that as evident as it is in Laos.
The country’s first stock exchange, which you see here, opened up in the capital last year. A string of glitzy casinos can now be seen near the banks of the Mekong river. But deep in the jungles of Laos, it is as if the Cold War never ended.
There, ethnic Hmong people are living in hiding, constantly in fear of attacks by the Lao People’s Army. Why? Because the Hmong collaborated with French and then American forces during the Vietnam War. After the U.S. was defeated and communist forces took over Laos in 1975, they continued to hunt down the Hmong, a practice which endures to this day.
The Hmong eek out their existence by scavenging for roots in the jungle. They move their makeshift camps every few weeks to avoid detection. When army patrols discover them and open fire, it is often the slowest and the weakest who are gunned down before they can flee into the brush.
For these ethnic Hmong, who still live in the cross hairs of a Communist regime, it would never cross their minds to tell you that communism is dead.
© Tomas van Houtryve 2012. All rights reserved. Do not copy, publish, re-post or archive without the author’s permission.