Tomas van Houtryve – Behind Communism’s Curtain


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 Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. There were fireworks and one thousand giant dominoes were knocked down to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. On that very same day, I was in a dusty Chinese mountain town known as Yan’an. I watched as 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 which are under Communist Party rule and 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, seven countries across three continents the Communist Party has managed to hold on to power. 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 rebels following Mao Zedong’s playbook led 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. Much of the fighting followed sort of a cruel pattern of cat-and-mouse attack which took place in rural villages. Thousands of people were disappeared in the middle of the night. And it was really the civilian population who bore the brunt of the violence. Take the example of this man, whose name is Sundar Chaudary. He was born a slave and for the first 30 years of his life he was 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. He had the chance to start a normal life. He built a small, thatched-roof home for his family and began to work his own land. Then in the middle of the night, a band of Maoist rebels planted a communist flag on his land. Early in the morning, a patrol of Royal Nepal Army troops passed by and demanded that he take out the flag. The flag pole was rigged to a mine, and it exploded in his face. For the Maoists, Nepal’s horribly unjust pecking order was a call to arms. Yet many times their tactics, which included using forced labor to build roads or 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, or the pursuit of 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 gulags, and famines, and purges. North Korea’s Kim dynasty has carried forward that ideology, and its devastating consequences into the 21st century. Chillingly, North Korea has managed to do this behind a veil of total secrecy. When famines struck the Horn of Africa, our media was filled with images of hungry people and appeals from aid organizations. Yet when a million people were killed in North Korea, no images made it to the outside world. And North Korean officials kept aid organizations at arm’s length. In addition to that, North Korea has also managed to hide from the world its vast system of forced labor camps, which are estimated to hold upwards of 200,000 people. And not only do they hide their human rights abuses from the rest of the world, but they inundate their own population with hate-filled xenophobic propaganda and they paint a god-like image of their leaders. The result of all this is a paranoid, where neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy and snitch on each other to prove their loyalty. There’s a lack of individualism, there’s a massive cult of personality. By keeping people in the dark about the true nature of totalitarian communist rule, the ideology has maintained an uncanny popularity over the years. Artists, compassionate intellectuals, and normal people have cheered on the Communist Party, people ranging from Pablo Picasso to Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Paul Sartre to Ernest Hemingway. For many people exploited by capitalism, it has been hard to imagine or remember that another system could be worse. Take, for example, Moldova. In 2001, voters, including women like this one in the picture, democratically elected the Communist Party back in power. Moldova is a small landlocked country, which borders the European Union, and for years has struggled 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 there was another batch of elections, and the Communist Party won again. But this time they were accused of electoral fraud. Students stormed the parliament in disgust, and they burned symbols of the Communist Party. Eventually fresh elections were held again, and eventually a coalition of pro-European Union parties were elected, and hold power today. Cuba is also nostalgic for this previous era of Soviet power, and they remain doggedly attached centrally planned economic model of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that this economic model has had a disastrous performance record everywhere else in the world, the Cuban regime uses the long-running stubborn US 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 a new breed of state-backed capitalism which was perfected in China and adopted in Laos and Vietnam. Communist Party officials and big businesses work together hand-in-glove. So these countries have joined the free market but not in a way that was predicted. 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 party loyalty. These businesses, which are boosted with authoritarian steroids, perform very well on the global stage, often with the participation of foreign investors. But back home, the inequalities and damaging aspects of capitalism now flourish. When people criticize mining projects, pollution, or unfair working conditions they are often treated in the same harsh manner by authorities as political dissidents. And nowhere is that as true as in Laos. Laos opened up its first stock market, which you can see in the background here, in the beginning of last year. And there is a string of glitzy new casinos 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 firsty the French and then American forces during the Vietnam War. When the U.S. was defeated and the communist forces took over Laos in 1975, they continued hunting the Hmong, and it’s a practice which endures to this day. The Hmong eek out their existence in the jungle by scavenging for roots. They move their makeshift camps every few weeks to avoid detection. And when they are discovered by army patrols, 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.

6 comments

I'd say he is exaggerating the "vast" spread of Communism. Most of these 1.47 billion people live in the same part of the world: China, North Korea, Vietnam & Laos. Nepal is also adjacent to China, and it's not yet certain it will become a dictatorship. In Moldova the communists are out of power, in Cuba they are on the way out.

North Korea is not communist, admittedly. They removed Marxist references from their constitution, and although they still sympathize with communist countries and probably don't consider it an insult, it'd be inaccurate to call them communist.

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