musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Books! Chinese! Trump! Madness!

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Looking at the calendar, it’s suddenly obvious that this month is almost finished! Damn, another manic, whirlwind thirty days. Business has very brisk at my bookshop in Bangkok, so busy that I rarely have time to even sit down read a book myself when I’m in the shop most days. When it’s time to close up, all I want to do is go home and drink a couple of cold beers and try to unwind after another stressful day.

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Traditionally, the year-end holidays are always busy for us, but that heightened period of retail activity extends to the Chinese New Year — or Lunar New Year — period in late January or early February, depending on the lunar cycle. This year has been no exception, with regular customers combined with hordes of tourists passing through Bangkok, either spending time in Thailand or in transit to a neighboring country.  And it’s not, as you might assume, a lot of Chinese. Yes, there are indeed many tourists from Mainland China and even Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this holiday period is also observed in countries in the region such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and even Vietnam and residents of those countries also travel during this time. And it’s not just natives of those countries, but foreigners working in those countries that are getting a long holiday break and many are spending it in Thailand.

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This time of year I also see the usual throngs of Western tourists, many of them who are making an annual visit to Thailand. It’s fun to see these once-a-year regulars and catch up on how they are doing. Holidays or not, the trend I’ve noticed in the past year is a noticeable increase in the number of Asian customers in my bookshop. And it’s interesting to note that many of these Asians are reading and buying English language books. And in these dark days of Trumpovich and his evil regime, the fact that people in other countries — yes, Muslims included! — are looking for English language books and reading them and buying them, is a very encouraging sign.

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The seemingly illiterate Trump and his evil cronies might be intent on cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, and trying to make America white again (that is what he means, right?), but the rest of us — those with working brains — will carry on, trying to pursue our hopes and dreams, and reading good books!

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Words of Monks: Love is the Message

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In the wake of the horrific Donald Trump victory this past week (and if you are not horrified by the specter of this lunkhead becoming president  … then just please crawl away and join the other psychopaths who are celebrating) I truly needed some mood therapy, something positive to uplift my spirits.

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And I can think of no better pick-me-up than memories of those delightful novice monks at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State. I know, I post a lot of stories and photos about these monks, but they truly are a joy to be around, full of kindness and happiness. When I was at the monastery two months ago, one of the monks I know, Tun Phyu, was giddy with excitement, wanting to show me something at the monastery. We walked outside and there on the ground, written in English using blades of grass and leaves, were the words: I LOVE YOU

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In addition to that proclamation, which they had written twice, Tun Phyu and his buddies had written “Mingalaba” (in Burmese, not English), the standard Myanmar greeting, which roughly translates as “Blessings.” I was delighted to see these messages and voiced a hearty “gaun ba de!” (very good!) to the group of monks who had gathered to watch my reaction.

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In these dark days of Trumpovich and his nasty followers, I take heart that other people in this world — most people in this world — are not so consumed by hate and bigotry and the desire to get rich quick — all hallmarks of the Trump platform — that they forget about the feelings of others, including the less fortunate. In the words of those legendary music philosophers, MSFB: Love is the Message!

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Drive-By Trumpster: Fearing America

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No, I haven’t calmed down yet. If anything, I’ve become even angrier about Donald Trump being elected president of the United States of America. Or should we start calling it: the Irrevocably Broken States of America?

I’m a US citizen but I haven’t lived in the USA in over 20 years. In fact, the last time I even visited my homeland was 16 years ago, ironically in the days after that infamous 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. My family’s home was in Florida, and that of course became the pivotal state in that election, resulting in the recounting of votes and dealing with those tricky “hanging chads” and other creepy political shenanigans. So, I would wake up each morning, wondering if the election was truly over yet or not.

At least we had no such ballot counting drama in this election, although like Al Gore, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote yet lost the national election thanks to that antiquated Electoral College system that still governs the outcome (and actually the results won’t even become “official” until the EC meets on December 19) of the election.

In any case, I left the USA a long time ago, frustrated and annoyed even back in those days at not only the creepy political climate but the ignorant mindset of the general populace. Having to grin and bear the hateful utterances of racists, religious crackpots, misogynists, homophobes, and weekend rednecks was just becoming too much to bear.

If it sounds like I just described Donald Trump, there you go. He is all those horrid things and more; a grown man with the maturity level of a ten-year-old and the cruel mocking behavior of a habitual neighborhood bully. And American voters just elected this creep as their next president. She got criticized for her comments, but Hillary Clinton was spot-on in her assessment of the bulk of Trump supporters: they are indeed a “basket of deplorables.”

Even with his victory there is a strong chance that Trump will be impeached, have to resign, or suffer some sort of debilitating illness before his term is up, perhaps even before he has completed his first 100 days in office. But that could be a disaster in the making too. If Trump were not able to finish his term, the country would be left with Vice President Mike Pence to run things. Pence is more of your standard right-wing conservative religious nut. In other words; a dangerous person if given any power. I’m sure the Republican establishment would be overjoyed to have Pence running the country instead of Trump, but for any citizens possessing even a glimmer of intelligence, such a prospect would be just as bad or worse than if Trump were in charge.

I’ve read dozens of articles and analysis about the election in newspapers and online this past week, and listened to people’s comments and opinions in my shop every day. Of course people are shocked and scared. Electing Donald Trump to run the USA is frightening on so many different levels, and for so many different reasons. His decisions of course will affect life for those living in the United States, but the ripples will be felt by us in the rest of the world too.

I fear the dark days ahead.

Drive-By Truckers.

Ironically, I’ve been playing the new politically-charged album by Drive-By Truckers, American Band, a lot this past month. I think DBT are one of THE greatest bands working in the USA nowadays (or any day in the past two decades) but they’ve really outdone themselves with this new album. The band’s two main songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood have really elevated their craft with gripping new songs that describe the hopes and fears of living in the USA, as well as their disenchantment with the government. Listen to songs such as “Kinky Hypocrite” and the powerful “What It Means” and can hear — and feel — the simmering anger and frustration. After this hostile Trump campaign — and his shocking victory — I would imagine that Drive-By Truckers and other thoughtful recording artists will have more to say about the worrisome state of America.

 

Disbelief … Sadness … Anger

I’m already on my second beer of the night and I may keep going, trying to come to terms with the shocking news that Donald Trump just won the USA presidential election. I’m certainly not the only one who is wondering: What the hell happened?

Hey, I totally understand the Hillary hatred, the fact that many people don’t trust her and think she’s “crooked” and too tight with big business, among many other concerns. But to elect Donald Fucking Trump as president of the country? What the hell are American voters thinking? Despite the absurdity of this lengthy campaign, this was not a soap opera or a reality show. This is your nation’s future. And to elect an unpredictable buffoon like Donald Trump is woefully irresponsible.

To put it even more bluntly, Trump is an abomination! A bombastic blowhard, an unapologetic bully, a racist and sexist pig. Hell, he makes George W. Bush seem like an intellectual giant by comparison. And that’s pretty pitiful. Sorry, even with all the Hillary problematic issues, I just don’t get it. You want an idiot like Trump running your country?

Yes, America, get ready for change. But it may not be the positive change you were wishing for.

Bombs Over Laos

If you read a newspaper or checked the news online this week you might have noticed that US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Laos. There wasn’t any particularly urgent need for Kerry to visit the country, but Laos is the latest in a revolving door of countries in Southeast Asia to act as “chairman” for the ASEAN block of nations, and Kerry’s visit was part of the USA’s renewed “engagement” with Asia.

The article that I read noted the “grim legacy” of the Vietnam War era, in which the United States military planes dropped more than 250 million bombs on Laos. Yes, a poor land-locked country that was not even a participant in that unfortunate war became a victim itself. It’s been said, that per capita, Laos was the most bombed country in history.

Another sobering statistic is that more than 30 percent of those bombs failed to explode at the time, but have remained “active” weapons within the country, continuing to maim and kill people all these years later. Since the end of the Vietnam War — and that’s now been 40 years — about 50,000 people in Laos have been killed by these UXO (unexploded ordinance), and tens of thousands more than that have been injured, including loss of limbs.

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The best book I have read on this subject is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen J. Coates. This isn’t a book that bombards you with a bunch of statistics and is content to lambast the American government for its acts. Instead, it’s a book that shows the human side of the issue. The empathetic and penetrating reportage by Karen Coates takes you inside the lives of the people in various villages and towns around Laos, ones whose lives have been permanently affected by the bombs, and shows you how they cope with this nightmare. It’s a sobering, gripping read.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if Kerry raises the issue of human rights with the Laos government, a secretive communist bunch of thugs in their own right. One of the most disturbing current human rights issues in Laos is the “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone in December 2012. Sombath was a widely respected community development worker in Laos, but apparently his efforts to ensure transparent economic and social development in Laos were considered threatening to the commie rulers. After being stopped by police and taken away in a truck he hasn’t been seen in three years.

Creepy Americans, creepy Laotians … creeps, creeps everywhere. What can you do, expect hope for peace and justice, press for changes … and fight the power. Really, don’t let the assholes win.

Thailand’s Migrant Trials

The big news in Thailand this past week, as well as in Myanmar, was the announcement that a Thai court had found two migrant workers from Myanmar guilty of the murder last year of two young British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. The two men were sentenced to death by a curiously “unnamed” Thai judge.

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The verdict has been viewed as a dubious one by people familiar with the case, and has resulted in mass protests by outraged Myanmar citizens outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon and at towns straddling the border of both countries the past two days. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Migrant Worker Rights Network have called for the court’s ruling to be reviewed.

Anyone who has followed this trial from the outset is well aware of the inconsistencies in the case, not to mention the sloppy way that the Thai authorities handled, collected, and processed the evidence. You can read elsewhere about these issues, suffice to say it raises a lot of doubts.

If was only after two weeks of investigation, missteps, and mounting pressure to find those guilty of the murders that the police officers on the tiny island of Koh Tao amazingly decided that these two workers from Myanmar had committed the crimes. I have no idea if these two young men (who are both 22 years of age) are guilty or not. But based on the “evidence” divulged in the media, and factoring in the accusations that the two suspects were beaten and tortured by police during interrogations, and you have a lot of room for doubt about what really happened.

But one thing of which there is no doubt is there are serious problems with the way that migrant workers are treated in Thailand’s criminal justice system. The operative strategy seems to be: when in doubt, blame the foreigner. I think it’s safe to say that virtually the entire Myanmar migrant community believes that these two men are innocent, and were made scapegoats and framed for the murders. Based on their experiences in Thailand and the way they have been mistreated by police officers and authorities in the past, most migrant workers from Myanmar are inclined to believe that this is another example of one of their own being blamed for something that they didn’t do.

In yet another recent case, highlighted in Sunday’s edition of the Bangkok Post, four young men from Myanmar have been accused of murdering a 17-year-old Thai woman in Ranong three months ago. Once again, there are allegations that Thai police used “brutal and intimidating tactics” to force confessions from the Myanmar migrant workers, two of whom are believed to be underage, having lied about their age in order to get the coveted work permits.

And so it goes. And unfortunately it still does.

 

The Migrant Worker’s Plight

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A friend of mine from Texas was visiting Bangkok last month and one night we met for dinner at a Korean restaurant near his hotel. Imagine my surprise — and delight — to discover that all of the waiters at this restaurant were from Myanmar! The food was decent enough but the service from these waiters was outstanding. Of course that fact that I can speak some Burmese no doubt helped to endear me to the staff. Once they discovered that I knew some Myanmar zaga, they became MUCH more conversational. My friend and I were so impressed by the service that we went back the following week, and I’ve returned with other friends on two more occasions. Needless to say, the crew recognizes me now and instead of the usual greeting in Thai, I’ve earned a mingaglaba and lengthy conversations.

The young men (and at least one woman in the kitchen!) at this restaurant are among the millions of citizens from Myanmar who are working overseas, most of them in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Migrant workers from Myanmar have been in the news again recently, in a very negative way, with wire service reports claiming that workers at some seafood factories in Thailand have to endure slave-like conditions, working 16-hour days with no holiday time off and for paltry wages.

That’s obviously the darkest of the dark side of the migrant worker situation in this part of the world. While there is no denying that some migrant workers have to suffer through horrible working conditions, most of the foreign workers (from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos) in Thailand are fairly content with their situation. Their salaries are usually lower than what a Thai worker would receive for the same minimum wage job, and they often are not eligible for health care benefits or holiday overtime wages, and yet compared to what they would make at a similar job — if they could find one — in their native country the employment situation in Thailand is much, much better.

One of my best friends, Chiet, is from Cambodia and he has been working as a welder at various construction projects in the greater Bangkok area for the past three years. I always ask him if he plans on going back to Cambodia and his answer is always the same: “No, I want to stay here. I can make more money and life is easier.”

Sure, he misses his friends and family, but life is difficult for young people in Cambodia, especially those like him that don’t have much education. And the same goes for people in Myanmar. Despite the great strides in “opening up” the country and holding elections and making cell phones affordable for the masses, the economy is still sputtering, the cost of living is rising, and the wages for basic jobs are very, very low. Thus, many Burmese people like the waiters I know at this Korean restaurant continue to seek employment in Thailand and other countries.

Another friend, Yan Naing Soe, called me earlier tonight. I first met him at a teashop in Mandalay many years ago but he’s been working for a landscaping company in Malaysia for the past two years. A few months ago he moved back to Myanmar and is now working in the town of Muse, on the border with China. Although most people have never heard of Muse, it is a bustling trade center and the country’s main gateway to China (near Yunnan Province). For young men like Yan Naing Soe, if there are job opportunities in places like Muse or Malaysia, that’s what you do and where you go.

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One aspect of the migrant workers that gets mentioned frequently is the so-called problem of underage workers in factories. Frankly, I think that’s something that the authorities should be much more lenient about. The reality of the situation is that many young people in poor Southeast countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos — and even in “wealthy” Thailand — stop going to school in their early to mid teens. Are you telling me that you are going to forbid a 15-year old who is trying to earn money to help support their family from working? What are their options? I mean, let’s be realistic. Sure, in an ideal world they would stay in school until they are 18 years-old, but we don’t live in such an ideal world, and even the definition of what is ideal or proper is not the same in every country or culture. This insistence on employing only those who are 18 or older is sheer nonsense.

When I was in Mandalay last month a friend took me to his father’s shoe shop, a little neighborhood place where they make handmade sandals for men and women. There were several “underage” children working in this shop, but the conditions were not “slave-like” or abysmal whatsoever. Granted, this was a tiny business and most of these kids were either relatives or neighborhood friends who wanted to work, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare their situation to that of a factory worker in Thailand. And yet there are parallels. People need work, they want to work, and they should be able to do that.

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Meanwhile my Cambodian friend Chiet is looking for another job in Thailand. His last employer docked his wages for missing a week of work and he’s not happy about that. But it’s not like Chiet was goofing off or had gone back home without authorization. His leg became infected from some pieces of cut glass at the work site and he had to go to a hospital in Bangkok to get treated. And who paid for this treatment? Me of course! I shudder to think what would have happened to his leg if he had not promptly received proper medical care.

So yeah, the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere could still be a lot, lot better. But don’t forget that for the majority of those working in Thailand, like the waiters at the Korean restaurant, having a job enables them to earn enough money for themselves and to send funds back to their families.

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