Friday, 9 May 2008

Six Days in Burma - A natural tragedy becomes a manmade one

Six days.

Six days since Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta region of Burma. Six days since a country long mistreated by tyrannical man got an ill-deserved bashing by awesome nature.

Buddha, as The Times put it, is weeping.

The prognosis is bad. 65,000 dead, possibly in excess of 100,000. More than 1 million homeless, battling to stave off hunger and disease whilst living amidst debris and bloated bodies. Chloera may yet kill more than the cyclone.

And yet the Junta are, predicatably, intransigent. They want aid but not aid workers. The Burmese embassy in Bangkok is closed until Tuesday. The WFP has halted aid drops after authorities impounded two deliveries. 60 Bangladeshi doctors were turned away. All proof that the Junta live in a detached, self-serving world, one where foreign help is a threat to their grip on power - not a lifeline for millions of destitute.

The question now: what should the world do? Shrug our shoulders and allow the Burmese authorities to snub foreign aid? Let people die? Or ignore soverignety and drop aid, regardless of international borders? Would it even be safe to do so? Would aid fall into the hands of the Junta? Will it be used to secure votes in the May 10th referundum, which despite the tragedy is going ahead in all but 47 of the worst-hit townships? Or should aid be chanelled through close allies of the military government, the Chinese, Indians and Thais?

Burma, like Darfur and the Middle East, is shaping up to be one of the biggest tests for modern morality. I am in the UK for a two week visit, and have been touched by the amount of press coverage, charitable donations and emotive indignation this has stirred. More, I cant help but wonder, than in neighbouring Thailand?).

We have the will to avert a natural catastrophe from worsening - despite the General's obstinence there must be a way.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Dith Pran Dies

Dith Pran, a spirited Cambodian photojournalist who suffered immeasurably to bring the horrific truth to the world, a nimble survivor of the barbarous Khmer Rouge regime and their Killing Fields, a total inspiration, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Sunday.


Monday, 17 March 2008

Why I read 'The New Light of Myanmar'

Is it wrong to enjoy reading the online issue of the The New Light of Myanmar: the state-run daily newspaper of the Burmese Tatmadaw (junta)?

Why do I read it? Because its so damn surreal - that's why. Firstly, there's the state's four political objectives, four economic objectives and four social objectives, recapped everyday beneath the nameplate. These include:

  • "The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the state and the national peoples"
  • "Proper evolution of the market-orientated economic system"
  • "Uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation"
  • "Uplift of health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation"

Try reading them while flicking through any of the UN reports, the Free Burma Rangers website or one of dozens of human rights reports. It makes for some hilarious compare and contrast.

Then there's the mind-numbing lead story. With its mile-long headline, this usually finds one of the top military brass – usually Than Shewe - heading a nebulous draft-constitution meeting, hosting a meeting for one of the country's obscure civic organizations (the Myanmar Pulses, Beans and Sesame Seeds Merchants Association anyone?), or shaking hands with the latest voracious foreign diplomat out to do business. PM Samak, seen here looking noble in Friday's issue, was the latest. Such a nice man.

Today, though, its the opening of a new piece of infrastructure that makes the lead. Not a bridge or road, but the opening of a paper machia mock-up of a Chamber of Commerce office, with PM Thein Sein in attendence. Nice one! Such progress!

Note how dour everyone looks, as if the faintest trace of a smirk would mean a indefinite spell in Insein, the country’s most notorious jailhouse. That's, erm, because it does.

Next, I click to page 2. Here, everyday, there's a diminuitive column entitled 'People's Desire'. At last, the man on the street...

... but there's something awry here - the 'People's Desire' hasn't changed in the couple of years I've been reading it. Also, judging by the pugnacious tone, everyone in Rangoon talks like a bellicose, card-carrying Maoist at the height of the Great Leap Forward.

However, it’s the daily diatribe, usually on page 7, that I always make a beeline for. Usually it’s directed against Aung San Suu Kyi, the ethnic minorities, or the Western powers of which the preceding are just "stooges"...

The current fashion, though, seems to be for turgid, lets-hype-the-upcoming constitution tirades. Todays its a piece entitled 'If in no mood to help, do not disturb' written by journo, Pauk Sa. In it the National League for Democracy is accused of "practising one-party dictatorship", trying to prevent the Tatmadaw from building a "discipline flourishing democractic nation", and "provoking riots".

It ends by trying to assume the moral highground, with a warning: "I do not think it is wise that NLD is criticizing that holding new elections is not legitimate and persists in making demands that are no longer in line with the present time and present way of life of the people. So, I would like to say that if NLD is in no mood to extend a helping hand, it does not matter, but it is requested not to disturb the processes". If only the party hadn't been emasculated, if only it could.

The New Light of Myanmar looks like a shitty socialist student rag. But it is, in fact, a carefully state-monitored 16-page web of deceit, fabrications and ego-stroking, blended with syndicated international stories to give a gossamer-thin veneer of credibility. It is propaganda of the most derisory sort. It is the world’s most Orwellian newspaper. If you want to know why I read it, you can find out here.

Know your enemy.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

A Coffee Shop Encounter

"Why is your t-shirt so small?," she asks between sips of her iced frappe.

"Because I bought it here, in Bangkok," I reply between urges to kiss her.


"Polyester.. most t-shirts here are made with polyester. A couple of washes and they're shrunk.. that's why they're so cheap."

Kings of Leon come on the stereo.

"You look like Tom Hanks in Big", she says.

"I know.. "

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Dude Sweet 'Made in the Kingdom of Siam' Party

I adore the West-influenced fashions and architecture of the King Rama V-era. I always get thoroughly trashed at maverick club night, Dudesweet. And I like their head honcho, Note, very much. So this themed party, ‘Made in the Kingdom of Siam’, is all go for me. Oh, and the drummer from junkie UK post-punk band Babyshambles is DJing. That’ll be the cherry.

Note is a lithe, smart, opinionated scenster/graphic designer with a great flair for fashion, music and art. If you’ve seen him prowling Bangkok’s streets, slavishly handing out flyers for his next event, you’ll also know his success is down to nothing less than bloody hard work. This party should be a lot of fun, what with everyone jumping around like its 1899.

Time/space: Saturday 5th April/Club Culture

The Fake Ferrari: Thailand finesses the fine art of forgery

Who was it that said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Well, would someone please tell the Authentics Foundation, a London-based NGO who have just kicked up a shitstorm of world publicity with their first ‘global anti-counterfeit summit’ in Brussels.

I mention it not because I laughed so hard on reading model Yasmin Le Bon, who’s fronting the campaign, preach at the pauper on the street from her ivory tower. ("This is something that really affects me because I'm in the fashion business," she, someone who hasn’t payed for cosmetics or luxury items since shoulder pads and Duran Duran were cool, gushed).

No, I mention it because a Made in Thailand counterfeit, no less, was the guest of honour. And not just any old fake Rolex, or Gucci knock-off but a fake Ferrari 1967 P4, knocked together in a back street factory. Cue The Guardian: “Replicating the original in every visible detail, the car is a startling example of the genius for counterfeiting that is flourishing worldwide”.

Is this supposed to make Thailand look bad? I’ve long admired the Thais' inimitable knack for imitating things. And this, surely, is proof the country has, inbetween feckless coups and endless political squabblings, quietly been finessing the fine art that is forgery. Bravo. I, for one, look forward to the day when I can shunt my newly acquired fake Silom bounty – DVDS, shoes, tshirt, chiseled ladyboy– home in a Pontiac 2008 G6 convertible. Pray tell, Authentics Foundation, where do I order one?

Friday, 7 March 2008

Thailand turns upscale Gangster Paradise

I get confused sometimes. Is Thailand the world’s rice bowl, or the toilet bowl? It certainly attracts a lot of shit. And who’s the latest guest to further enhance Thailand’s reputation as a refuge for naughty farang? Not a world-class perv, surprisingly, but somebody with, if not much more class, then a lot more money.

I speak of Viktor Bout, international arms dealer par excellence. This chubby Eastern European is, according to reports plastered all over the web, a very bad man. Not just any old gun-toting, Soviet-era has-been but the almost apocryphal ‘Merchant of Death’, the world’s most wanted arms trader, a man who's sold weapons to Al Qaida and Farc rebels.

But no longer. After a tip-off that originated deep in the jungles of South America, he was tracked down to Bangkok’s Sofitel Silom Hotel. Here, while stuffing his face with dim sum in the Chinese Restaurant, this real life James Bond Villain’s years of unscrupulous profiteering, came to an unseemly end. Busted! There he was on the BBC this morning, eyes cold and steely, as he was paraded, Middle Ages fashion, by the Thai police.

“One day someone will write a book about him,” an American policeman gleefully told the BBC, “and it will be up there with the best Tom Clancy – only true”. Quality. It seems Thailand is moving up in the world. I mean this guy has (or should I say had) a fleet of private jets to his name, not just the usual: a troubled childhood, porn-filled laptop and fake teacher’s certificate from Khao San.

Instead of a predictable predilection for toffee skinned teens, he had a penchant for “luxury homes around the world and luxury cars”. Forget all the marble malls and girls tottering about in Jimmy Choos, here's proof that Thailand is truly going upmarket.

Independent Story

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Rambo kicks some despotic Burmese butt

So who, I wonder, is gonna save Burma from those mean green generals? The refugees and political exiles in Chiang Mai or camped along the Thai-Burma border can’t. Despite the well-meaning but obsequious envoys (gushing gullible Gambari, you suck!), the citing of clause no.38948bz-9 of such-and-such non-binding Human Rights Charter, the UN and its member states can’t (or rather won’t). Not even Aung San Suu Kyi, bless her elegant silk longi, can lend a hand in helping free the nation from the curse of military dictatorship. But what about rippling muscles, a sweaty headband, a ton of ammo and brusque fighting talk – i.e. Stallone and his new Rambo film? Well, as it happens maybe,.. hopefully:

Burmese officials have banned even pirated copies of the new Rambo movie, and Hollywood's Sylvester Stallone says he'd love to go to Rangoon and confront the junta face to face.

"These incredibly brave people have found, kind of a voice, in a very odd way, in American cinema... They've actually used some of the film's quotes as rallying points," said Stallone, 61, in a telephone interview with the Reuters news agency.

"That, to me, is the one of the proudest moments I've ever had in film," he told Reuters. Police in Burma have given market sellers strict orders not to sell pirated copies of the flick.

Just two weeks into its commercial release (panned by most US critics, highly rated by audiences in the US), the movie is available in black-market editions under the counter in markets in Rangoon and towns along the Thai border.

In the movie, ageing war veteran John Rambo, played by Stallone, ventures into Burma to rescue a group of Christian aid workers who were kidnapped by a ruthless local infantry unit. "Rambo acted very cruelly, but his cruelty is nothing compared to that of the military junta," a Burmese student in Thailand was quoted by Reuters.

In Rangoon, local people said Burmese have gone crazy over lines from the film such as:

  • When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing.

  • Burma's a warzone.

  • Rambo: Are you
    bringing in any weapons?

    Aid worker: Of course not.

    Rambo: You're not changin' anything.

The tagline of the blood and guts movie is: "Live for nothing, die for something."

Stallone's movie specifically focuses on the Karen near the Thai border. The Karen and other groups have suffered half a million cases of forced relocation and thousands more have been imprisoned, tortured or killed by the military dictators.

Stallone told Reuters that he hopes the film can provoke a confrontation. "I'm only hoping that the Burmese military, because they take such incredible offence to this, would call it lies and scurrilous propaganda. Why don't you invite me over?" he said. "Let me take a tour of your country without someone pointing a gun at my
head and we'll show you where all the bodies are buried..."

Bangkok Post

Monday, 4 February 2008

Khlong Saen Saeb

Crash.. As we pull in at speed, the wooden hull slams against the pier. Two helmeted crew members jump ashore, ropes in hand. There waiting silently, stoically on land, is an adorable Thai girl in an unfeasibly short skirt and 3” high heels. “Oh dear,.. the misfortunate," I think to myself as the boat beneath heaves and splutters, noxious diesel fumes permeating the air, my brain. “How will she get on while maintaining an ounce of decorum, her dignity?"

Her reply? She hops assertively off the landing stage, plants a foot on the gunwale, grabs the rope and swings down and into the hull next to me – all in a matter of seconds and with the casual aplomb, not to mention sex appeal, of an Asian Lara Croft. I'm left surprised and smitten. But for this 9-to-5 office worker meets dressed-to-kill stuntwoman it’s par for the course, all in a day’s getting to work.

I'm on Khlong Saen Saep, a line of dirty brown water that weaves its way through the city. Why did it take me so long? It’s fowl, ugly, smelly and dangerous, but also fast, cheap, quick, exhilarating and awesome. Think public transport meets extreme sports - Venice on Popeye’s favourite spinach. The boats surge along at speed, stopping off at piers bisecting Bo Bae market, Pratunam, Childom, Asok, Nana and Thonglor, among other areas. It begins by Pan Faa bridge, in the Old City, and ends out in Bangna, and the journey from one to the other costs only 20 baht.

It must be so cheap because its a deathtrap. Fall in and you’ll be submerged in what resembles Willy Wonka’s scrumptious chocolate lake but is, actually, a poisonous toxic sludge (one hapless Thai pop star did and subsequently died of a fungal brain infection). Stick your head up to catch a breeze and you’ll be decapitated by one of Bangkok’s many low-slung bridges, only for your bloated torso to resurface days later in the Chao Phraya, tangled poetically amidst clutches of water hyacinth. But it’s the deckhands who really do dance with death - they walk the rim of the boat, one hand hanging on for dear life, the other rummaging for small change as they collect fairs.

Hailing from the UK, a country where every danger is systematically scrubbed out of existence by dour Health and Safety bureaucrats, thus rendering modern life banal, and ultimately futile, I think this is brilliant. You’re overwhelmingly alive, Khlong San Saeb screams, because one slip means you won’t be. It’s like a faulty fairground ride that’s been adapted to transport the clinically insane. And that’s precisely why I love it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Spicy Club: Ron Muang Soi Neung

On a sultry night, down a shady anonymous backstreet, a city is resisting the call to sleep. This resistance has a name: Spicy. A form: a long dark hall suffused in wan blue light. And it has a function: at around 1am each night it fills with smoke, incipid music and a mob of drunk humanity.

They hop from Tuk-Tuks, they stumble out of taxis, they shuffle through a ramshackle yard, they hand over 300 baht... Not the city’s urban youth or funked-up fashionistas, but guys from the West: 20-plus aspirant Don Juan’s hailing from everywhere from New Cross to New Delhi. And girls from the North: dark skinned, gaudily dressed, shit loads of them…

Amidst this motley, at the foot of a raised circular podium, stand three Middle Eastern men bearing whisky in one hand and cigarettes in the other. “You have a light?” I ask one with darting eyes above the bounce of techno-pop (“Are youu go-oing to Sannn Frannn.. sciscoo?...). Dressed in a debonair grey shirt, he's transfixed on something. He barely blinks as he reaches into his pocket. I look up, to see what he’s staring at and my eyes meet a pair of ice white panties. The person wearing them – a dark skinned girl with streaks of blond and an intricate snake tattoo down the length of her left leg – shuffles closer to aid their view. So intensely are they studying her, you'd think she was a classic Greek statue in the British Museum - only slightly less naked and not priceless. The powerplay is ambiguous: the lust dripping from their eyes they want little more than a fuck toy, her pockmarked visage displays all the relish of an eagle about to sink its talons into a helpless field mouse (Thailand’s exploiter/exploited dynamic is more nuanced than the world thinks... )

Metres away, two sallow guys with cropped hair, distended stomachs and an East London twang prowl the floor. They strike up conversation with two willowy Thai girls, one pouring them whisky from atop a standup table, both in dainty dresses and high heels. Above the throb of mainstream beats, the patter commences: “where you come from?”, “you have girlfriend?”, “you speak thai?”. Like a rice paddy’s furrows in the choking dust of dry season, the conversation quickly dries up. But it doesn’t matter: five minutes later both couplets are locked in a hip swaying dance of fascination; five minutes more they’re gone…

“Ow Eek krup?” a tender hums in my ear before I've even begun to entertain the thought of downing the last of my ice swarmed drink. Service isn’t bad here. When the bill arrives with my next drink two minutes later, I realize that’s because prices are. I pick up my change (a conniving wedge of 20 baht notes), and dodge past the entangled, the ensnared, the lustlorn, the gruesome, the ravishing, the ridiculous. After a feeble attempt to dance, I stand there, swaying, wanting, lusting.... hating. As my taxi turns the corner and down the soi, into a brighter hopefully more salubrious day, I think of ‘Taxi Driver’: “Someday a real rain will come wash all this scum off the streets". Let's hope I’m indoors...