Reflections on Borders: Empire, Cold War and Covid19

For a wide review of these themes lookout for my latest collection of short stories, Beyond Borders.

For some, the notion of borders is that of a hard border, one clearly defined and assertively maintained. Certainly, in the Covid19 era borders reflect this standard, yet borders are by no means constant, or definite, whatever the political maps might suggest.

Living now as I do in one of the world’s geographically smaller nation-states ranking 175th our of 194 countries and dependencies I’m not so much aware of its limited area as its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia. Staying at a hotel on Sentosa Island recently as there is really nowhere else to go in the Covid19 closed border era, I was struck by how close the Riau islands are. I can see them between the high rise office buildings of Singapore’s CBD, from my sitting room, but only a sliver. From Sentosa, there is a clear view of Batam island.

With the help of Google Earth, I calculated that the distance from the place where I was staying to Batam, was a mere 16 kilometers. An easy kayak paddle for me. Of course, attempting to paddle that distance, as I might often have done around Sydney Harbour, would quickly see one arrested by one or the other coast guards, and the possibility of being placed in immigration detention. So I’ve never tried to paddle to Batam. In fact, I’ve left my kayak in Sydney.

People still travel across the Malacca Straits as both sides of this maritime divide were once part of the Sultanate of Johore. It was based at the southern tip of the West Malaysian peninsula with a palace in Singapore as well.

Ancient and undeniable porosity

Years ago I wrote about the ancient and undeniable porosity that is such a prominent feature of Australia’s northern margins.

I wrote. “When people say we’ll control who comes to these shores and the circumstances in which they come, I quoted Australia’s most divisive post-war Prime Minister, John Howard, and I reflected on the absurdity of such comments. 

Australia might be the land that’s girt by sea, at least since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, but we aren’t impervious, our northern margins are characterised by a most ancient and enduring porosity.”

In a subsequent post, Indonesia and Australia: perceptions of border security from the land that’s girt by sea, I wrote about the Living on the east coast of Australia and how easy it is to retain a sense that in the land that’s girt by sea borders are quite finite. Indeed, Australia is a modern nation-state with very clear rules about land borders, maritime borders and exclusive economic zones.

Physical and unseen borders have long been with us, but their relative porosity has varied over time as a result of natural events like Pleistocene sea-level changes, migration of people, ancient imperial expansion, or the more recent eras colonialism and imperialism. Generally, no matter how certain and impervious they might appear, or how non-negotiable nation-states might insist they are, borders have not remained permanent.

Changing borders

Throughout my early adulthood, there was a hard border between the southern and the northern parts of Vietnam. It sat within a demilitarised zone (DMZ).

The DMZ showing the Ben Hai River

The Hien Luong bridge spanned the Ben Hai River at the 17th parallel which was the border between the two part of Vietnam. 

Hien Luong Bridge, once the border between North and South Vietnam.

Fortunately, the border is long gone, but at the time it had what seemed permanent, strengthened by the monochromatic understandings of borders imposed through the Cold War. The yellow was in the southern portion and the red, now blue, in the northern portion.

Some borders uncontrolled

Ironically, in this region where for so long there was a violent and bitter dispute over a border some borders are now very loosely controlled.

Not far from the old Hien Luong bridge is a place called Hamburger Hill, in the outside world.  It was the scene of a futile military exercise during the Vietnam war, or American War, as the Vietnamese call it.

In 2014 I visited Hamburger Hill, the site of a rather futile military exercise during the war. My companions were keen to climb right to the top of the hill. I was recovering from a fall in Indonesia the year before and still developing strength in my right leg, so I stayed by a shrine of remembrance and enjoyed the surroundings.

There wasn’t a lot to see, mainly jungle

Not long after my friends left, I caught sight of two men. They entered the small clearing where I sat. Neither carried anything. We communicated as best we could. I had an iPad with me so I showed them pictures of Sydney and Singapore. They were intrigued.


Soon my friends returned. Our guide translated for us.  They explained they had been hunting.  Odd they had no spear, catapults, bow and arrow, firearms, knives or machetes. It seemed like an unlikely tale.

I knew we were close to the border with Laos. My best guess was that they were smugglers. Whatever they were smuggling they hid before approaching me.

Later I had a close look at the location with Google Earth. There was an obvious route between Laos and Hamburger Hill, and clearly no easy way of regulating passage between the two countries.



One thought on “Reflections on Borders: Empire, Cold War and Covid19

  1. A good story and some interesting observations on the porosity of borderlands. It is amazing to see how brazen smugglers are in VietNam. In 2017 on our last visit we travelled up into the mountains outside of Sapa to one of the larger border towns on the Chinese border for a lunch stop.

    Looking out over a river we watched as a small band of locals transported parcels across the water in a quiet bend well away from the official bridge crossing. Our guide matter of factly said they were smugglers bringing in small electrical goods for sale at regional markets.

    Liked by 1 person

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