Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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My catalogue of field recordings from Asia at The British Library.

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Between 1995 and 2004 I recorded several hundred hours of music and sounds from Asia for The British Library’s National Sound Archive – material from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, India and Nepal. I recorded mostly the music of minorities and musicians in remote rural locations. I released several CD collections of the recordings in the 90s and early 200s, some of which are still available, such as

The Moken – Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea

and

Pakistan: Sounds of the Hindu Kush

A catalogue of all my field recordings, 37 pages in all is now available at this British Library database. The recordings can only be accessed via The British Library and are used by researchers and writers. Type my name into the search engine and it’s all there.

Many of the musicians I recorded are now dead, others have given up their traditions. I hope that this body of work will continue to inform music scholars from around the world.

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The Monsoon Ghost Image – Detective Maier rises from the ashes of Exhibit A

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I am 40000 words into Monsoon Ghost Image, the third Detective Maier Mystery.

Following the mismanagement and eventual bankruptcy of my publisher Exhibit A, Detective Maier went to ground after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man with the Golden Mind.

Now he has a new case. Maier is back.
The final adventure featuring the German detective takes place in Thailand. While the first two books were about long past historical events – the Khmer Rouge genocide and the CIA’s covert war in Laos, Maier 3 brings the action up to 2002 and takes place in the months leading up to the US invasion of Iraq. Ripples of American sabre rattling and military action spread across Southeast Asia as Maier attempts to track down a German photographer who’d worked for the CIA at black sites in Asia and then died in a boating accident only to be seen alive and well in Bangkok some months later.
I’ll complete The Monsoon Ghost Image before the end of the year.
About time too.

Democracy in Southeast Asia – A Story Untold

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I was recently commissioned by a Thai English language magazine to write a short satirical piece abut Democracy in SE Asia.  After much back and forth, the publication decided not to go ahead with the article, apparently due to the current political climate in Thailand.

In the West – by which I generally mean the USA, Europe, and Australia – we enjoy a political system called democracy. In school we are told that we struggled for centuries for Democracy, though I suspect very few of our ancestors were actively engaged in this struggle. Some did of course, and hats off to them. The term dēmokratía originated in ancient Greece where democracy was first defined as a carving up of power, influence and assets amongst a few free men, excluding all women and slaves.

Same same but different, as the slogan goes.

We have come a long way since then. Today, democracy entitles us to vote every few years for interchangeable political parties and politicians whose interests don’t lie with us, the people, but with industry, corporations and the politicians’ own self-enrichment. A fair share of the wars, environmental pollution and a large part of the abject poverty we see around the world are created by democratic nations imposing their moral and entrepreneurial rules on everyone else, in a way that is likely to be to their own advantage – using free market capitalism, neo-liberalism and globalization as the driving tools. And we do it well – the US killed some 4 million people in Indochina a generation ago to save the region from communism, failed utterly in its mission, and makes self-congratulatory films (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc.) about it. Then it invades the Middle East to save the region from dictatorship, fail completely, and make more self-congratulatory films about it (American Sniper etc.).

What we call capitalism – an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and run for profit; neo-liberalism – an economic philosophy that supports putting all public assets in private hands; and globalization – a recent process of international integration, in part thanks to technology, that has led to widespread pollution and conflict, and which contributes significantly to climate change are concurrent and recent processes that have institutionalized this state of affairs.

By voting and by empowering our representatives, we also agree to a social contract, which requires us to participate in this political and social system we are told we have created and which enables most of us to live in relative material comfort and to consume, with some civil rights such as freedom of expression and a fair trial thrown in to give us an illusion of participatory power.

There is plenty of disagreement in the West about whether this way of life is desirable, and it is under increasing attack from both conservative and progressive factions in all western countries.

Southeast Asia seems to simultaneously lag both behind and race way ahead of Western democratic realities. For starters, several Southeast Asian nations are by definition not democracies – Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Brunei amongst them. Others toy with democratic ideas, under immense pressure from the West – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia come to mind, while a third, small group of countries seem to have transitioned into something akin to democracy – most notably The Philippines and Indonesia. Not sure what’s happening in the Christmas Islands right now.

Basically, the fad hasn’t caught on. Both despite and because of Europe’s colonial history, followed by recent decades of brutal invasions and mass murder in the name of freedom, as well as a never-ending seductive stream of soft power – from Coca-Cola and Steve Jobs to Angry Birds -  in the name of freedom, Southeast Asia does not appear comfortable to let go of its past and, for the time being simply grabs those aspects of Western culture it finds immediately usable – aggressive materialism for the most part.

Democracy, however flawed we experience it in the West, is a step too far for the decision makers in Southeast Asia, because people participation and freedom of thought carry the risk of forcing the elites to share too many economic spoils with the man on the street. As Hong Kong based journalist Jame DiBiasio wrote in a recent essay on freedom of expression in Europe and Asia, “Most Asian countries suffer from truly criminal arrangements of power and influence, yet there is no sustained, industrialized platform for dissent, jokes, defiance or simple, rationally presented alternative arguments.”

At Speaker’s Corner in Singapore, one has to register with the government prior to speaking one’s mind; there’s no democracy at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok; there’s no freedom at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Alternative opinions on anything other than the artificial homogeneity constructed by the powerful continue to be suppressed in much of the region. Ismail Gareth Richards, a Penang-based writer and former lecturer on politics at Manchester University and the University of Malaya agrees, “Democracy in Southeast Asia – and liberal politics in general – has proven to be extremely fragile. Various forms of authoritarianism or electoral politics based on one-party rule or money politics remain pervasive. The emerging configuration of power – aided and abetted by the blueprint to create a single ASEAN Community this year – is best described as ‘liberal authoritarianism’.”

This is a shame. Liberal authoritarianism stifles culture, critical thinking and progressive development. It is ill equipped to deal with the population growth and environmental burdens Southeast Asia faces. Dēmokratía, as the Greeks believed, was a compromise that favored the rich. It was interchangeable with the term aristokratía, the rule of the elite. As the West moves back to this status quo, it will likely catch up with Southeast Asian nations like Thailand where students are stopped from reading a book published in 1948 or are arrested for defying the military with a hand gesture borrowed from a third rate Hollywood movie that appears to urge teenagers to resist authority. What a beautiful complicated world we live in, full of irony and sadness.

As mediocre as The Hunger Games movies may be, they were made in a democratic society. 1984 was written in a democracy. Popular culture is an expression of a more pluralistic society. In economic terms this is referred to as the creative industries. Everything from video games to dance music to sports car designs is the product of creative industries in countries that allow some degree of freedom of expression. The freedom to think and do, to experiment and express oneself, to get it wrong and to get it right, even to produce worthless garbage, is essential to the creative process. Perhaps that’s why selfies of underboobs are not an issue in the West just yet.

But there’s always a silver lining of sorts. At no point in human history have people around the globe protested as much as they do today, both in democratic as well as undemocratic countries, both for more rights and freedoms and, incredibly, less rights. This struggle between self-determination and subjugation continues, in South East Asia and beyond.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to someone directly affected by the political drama in SE Asia, someone with no power but a significant stake in the region’s future. Nok, a 45 year old woman who sells orange juice in Bangkok’s Thong Lo district knows what she wants, “When we had democracy, the politicians cheated us. But we could choose our politicians. We could try and get rid of them with elections and the law. We didn’t always manage to do that. But now, we have no choice, and I am scared when I have no choice.”

The 5th International Tattoo Convention in Kathmandu

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I am currently wrapping up a bunch of stories about the 5th International Tattoo Convention in Nepal and its aftermath.

It’s been a pleasure working with French journalists Laure Siegel and Dom Pichard as well as meeting countless interesting and wonderful tattoo artists and punters on the roof of the world. The convention came to an abrupt end with the April 25th earthquake, but the organizers hope it’s back next year.

Our features will be out in French tattoo magazine RISE TATTOO in July.

Hell in our Time – The Rohingya of Sittwe

Here’s an account of my visit to Sittwe, home of many Rohingya, in August 2012.

This is not a particularly hands-on story, nor did it involve any courage on my part. Better reportages on the same subject have surfaced in the media in recent days. But as Sittwe is now sealed off and as no one knows what’s really going down there, I have decided to post my journal on what I saw there in relation to the Rohingya and their dire and precarious situation. And what I thought about it after talking to many Burmese across the country on the subject for the past three weeks or so.

I was in Sittwe, Rakhine State on a travel assignment in late August. Since then, Sittwe has been closed to foreigners. I did not talk to a single Rohingya while I was there, nor did I manage to go to a refugee camp. I did get picked up by the security forces in Sittwe and they were expectedly aggressive and went through my pictures on my camera, but did not find anything they disliked enough to make me delete it or to arrest me. A Dutch national I met there was not so lucky, having photographed a mosque and he lost all his images.

A Burmese commentator recently compared the Rohingyas’ predicament and the hate they experience from almost all sections of Burmese society as comparable to the pursuit of Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s on one level a dangerous, incendiary and somehow superficial comment, but the coming months will tell us more about how bad the Rohingya will fare at the hands of a dominant and unsympathetic people and I hope that such comparisons are exaggerated and will remain just that.

I am on my way to Mrauk-U, an ancient capital of a long gone empire in Arakan or Rakhine State in north western Burma, near the Bangladesh border. I am traveling with a couple of foreign tourists and their guide, Michael. We take a morning flight from Yangon to Sittwe, the former British capital in the early 19th century, and the recent site of Rakhine Rohingya conflicts. The town is under curfew from 6am to 6pm. Most of the other passengers on the small prop plane are Chinese and none of them get off when we reach Sittwe in pouring rain.

In Sittwe, the mood is savage. The main road is full of military. Wagons packed with riot shields stand by the roadside in front of the market which is guarded by machine gun toting soldiers and armed police.

A local Muslim, not a Rohingya, who works as a tailor in the market, tells me that he is too scared to leave his stall. The fish market is almost deserted. The Rohingya who used to bring their catches in on small boats are no longer coming. It’s a damp miserable hell hole of a market, drowning in mud and bad vibes. The usually smiling Burmese wear closed faces, everyone rushes past one another, eyes locked to the ground. The mistrust between people is palpable. Along the main roads, every fifth or so building has been gutted, wooden skeletons stand in the downpour, a red sign in Burmese planted amidst blackened stumps. Michael tells me that most of the arson was done by Muslims.  After a brief run through the market, we head for the jetty and jump onto the boat to Mrauk-U that Michael has organized for his clients.

Michael comes from Maunghaw, in the far north west of Rakhine State. He is 40, a licensed tour guide, and has been living in Yangon since the late 90s. He runs regular tours to his homeland. He speaks fluent English and is probably as worldly as it gets in Sittwe. He is the new Myanmar, he supports the NLD and conducts luxury tours across the country, including to troubled Rakhine State. He is articulate and smooth and I can’t say I particularly like him. He is always right. He is not prone to debate. He is a man it is better to listen to than to discuss with.

“They should all leave. I don’t care where. There is no difference between the Rohingya and any other Muslims in Myanmar, they just don’t belong here. They cut off our heads. If one of them touches you, you die.”

Michael is amongst Myanmar’s intellectual elite. He started his professional career as a school teacher in Rakhine state. “In the beginning, I used to teach Muslim children in Maunghaw. It was not well paid, but the parents gave me food and looked after me. Later I transferred to a school near Sittwe. I taught Muslim boys in a big Muslim village there. Then in 1994, these Muslims attacked a neighboring Rakhine village and killed four people. It was my students who killed those Rakhine people. I think all these Muslims are the same.”

Michael is a consummate professional, well versed in the history of his state, the legendary and mythical Arakan. He can list past kings and knows about each and every building in Mrauk-U, the former Arakan capital that ruled the region between the 15th and 18th century, our destination. But he doesn’t have a bad word to say about the Burmese government because it is seen to be doing something about the ‘Muslim problem.’

“For us, the UN and Bangladesh are the biggest problem. They get involved in Myanmar affairs. And Myanmar is not the aggressor. These people came during the British time and again in the 1950s, but they are aggressive, they have machine guns, the explode bombs in Maunghaw and they are well financed by the Saudis, Qatar and the Emirates. And UNHCR supports these people by giving 90% of its budget spent here to them. They are well financed, just like the rebels in southern Thailand.”

The subject is close to his heart and Michael’s usual cool detachment slips as he gets deeper into the story that’s on everyone’s mind here.

“There are more than a million Muslims in Rakhine, I don’t know how we can get rid of them. The government must get rid of them. We don’t want them here. They don’t speak Burmese, they are not like us. If these people suddenly came to the US and Germany, the government there would not let them stay. They are illegal immigrants. They would all be arrested. Why would this be any different in Myanmar?”

After an eight hour rain drenched boat journey up the Kaladan River, we reach Mrauk-U, a place almost too wondrous and beautiful for words. The remnants of the ancient Arakan capital, temples and chedis, stand amongst the village homes and in paddy fields, as if an ancient civilization had packed up and left centuries ago and a new lot had moved in. But it is not as peaceful as it first looks. As I check into a guest house, the friendly owner gives me a map and tells me not to visit temples more than a mile or so from town or I might be attacked by angry Muslims. “It’s not a good time now”, he says. “So much danger from the Muslims.”

In the hills around Mrauk-U, the military has set up patrols. Around the ancient moss covered chedis that poke out of the dense vegetation, men with heavy weapons cower in the grass, covering the roads around town, on the look-out for ‘terrorists’ as Michael says.

“They are keeping the town safe, in case the Muslims attack,’ Michael tells me. “The locals feel safer that way.”

I have no way to ascertain this, but in the current frenzied climate of fear, it’s possible. In the market the trishaw drivers tell me the government is bad but no one seems unduly alarmed by the military presence. I walk past a military camp with a bunch of soldiers lounging, more heavy weapons ready in hand, against the perimeter wall.

They are friendly enough until their superior, a sullen boy in his mid-20s shows up and tells me in no uncertain terms to get lost. He is aggressive, anger boils in his eyes as he swings a 2by 4 in my direction. A little down the road, another soldier guards a second gate while eating his lunch. He gets very nervous and shoos me away as I try to approach him.

We travel overland by jeep from Mrauk-U towards the Lemro river and stop in a small village. The usual road to the river is closed. Too dangerous to travel along as attacks by Muslims could happen any time, I am told. The alternative route is mired in mud with hardly a soul in sight, but is considered safe. In the village all the men have gathered in the largest building.

“The local men are waiting for the army. The army goes to a different village every day to talk to people to reassure them that they will keep them safe.”

Surely this is not the same army that has been raping, killing, torturing and arresting people across this country at will for decades?

A few hours up the Lemro River, we reach a couple of Chin villages. Some of the older women have face tattoos which brings a modest flow of tourists and their dollars here. The tradition of facial tattoos – the former masters were all women themselves – has long died out and the few women who have tattoos are in their 60s or older. They are all Buddhist now and feel ashamed to have the tattoos.  They want to be Burmese. Or have been told to be Burmese. Michael tells me that the tattoos have no religious significance. “These women were all tattooed when they were ten years old. It makes them uglier so the chance of kidnapping by the Japanese in WW2, was smaller. The Japanese wanted to use these ladies as comfort women, just like in Korea, but the tattoos put them off.”

Malnutrition is evident amongst the Chin children. In Pan Paung village, UNDP constructed a well 25 years ago, long in disuse. The school is a ramshackle barn with holes in the floor, large enough to swallow a child. The teacher is a teenager who failed his teaching test twice. He shouts at the children in Burmese, all of them Chin, all aged between 5 and 10, and they shout right back at him. By the time they grow up, there will be little left of their culture and customs.

The homes are simple bamboo and rattan huts on stilts, the undersides populated by chicken, pigs and sick looking kids. The most respectable looking building in the vicinity is a Buddhist temple. I feel like I am too late, the moment for these Chin has already gone, they are assimilated without opportunity, not surprising in a country where the ethnic majority does not have any opportunity either.

I ask Michael what he thinks about his neighbors, the Indians, the Chinese and the Thai. “They are no good, none of them. They steal from us and they mistreat our workers.”

This xenophobia is extremely commonplace and a testament to the brilliance of the junta, the genius of Machiavellian manipulation. I have the feeling that everyone has underestimated this government. And that the West knows it’s a 50 year road till this country will be in a position in which it might adopt any kind of egalitarian laws and doesn’t care so long it can sell cans of Coke here and open a front against the economic and political might of the Chinese.

Meanwhile, the generals merely continue what cruel kings did here for centuries, deprive the locals as much as possible, plunder all resources, and when in doubt, play the different communities off against one another. And now they do it with the help of the former opposition. Divide and conquer.

Rakhine State feels like a mass killing in slow motion. It’s Bono’s bone yard. It’s a testament to the disregard for human rights that the government and the NLD display and evidence of how little many Burmese activists and Buddhist monks understand of what equality actually means. Last week’s red-robed protests in Mandalay being a shining though hardly enlightened example.

When I ask one high ranking NLD activist with 20 years of jail-time on his back about the Rohingya, he says the same thing as everyone else, ‘They have to go.’

All those years of struggle, torture and sacrifice become almost meaningless in the face of the hatred ordinary and not so ordinary Burmese display against the Rohingya. And the silence by Noel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been excused by countless Western  liberals and even Muslims with ‘Oh, it would be political suicide for her to stand up for human rights now.’

In fact, it is merely reprehensible. Aung San Suu Kyi has been surfing the wave of freedom and humanity with the kind of global street-cred only the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela can muster, cashed in on her purist super stardom, hobnobbed with the stars from Oslo to London and at the first sign of trouble, post-incarceration, she becomes a thoroughbred politician. There are already too many of those in the world and they all have their fingers in the same pie. And the pie in Burma currently looks like this:

‘They will come and cut off our heads.” Michael says.

Meanwhile the local press, now finally free after decades of repression, reports that this is not a religious issue, and that the Rohingya can apply for citizenship if they can prove that they have been here for generations and that the rest will be deported because they don’t belong.

In Burma, heaven and hell are close together.

I took a few photos in Sittwe, prior to being harassed by security forces. Take a look at Pictures of Sittwe here.

Thailand’s Unspoilt Islands in The Daily Telegraph

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Thailand’s unspoilt islands: Paradise mapped

Looking for the perfect beach in Thailand? Tom Vater, our local expert, reveals his favourite island secrets…

Read the full text here.

Or check out this wonderful photo series presenting Thailand’s most sumptuous and low key hideaways.

 

Crime Wave Press publish first YA title – The Murder Boys by John B Bliss

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Crime Wave Press have published their first Young Adult crime novel – The  Murder Boys. I had a lot of fun editing this gripping and touching story that took place during an English summer almost four decades ago.

“It will stay with you for life boy. Either way you’ll pay for it in your soul, but it’s up to you if you want to pay for it with your time too.”
1977, a scorching summer day in England. Teenage misfits Richard and Ali throw their cruel gang leader Blakes into a canal. Scared of the repercussions, they go on the run, pursued by the police as well as a dangerous ex-cop with unsound motives.
The road less traveled throws up both obstacles and solutions. As Rich and Ali discover what it means to carry the guilt of a killing around their necks, they are helped by an alcoholic cowboy, an anarchist band of travelers and a long lost father. This classic coming of age murder mystery is about growing up and staying young.

Read an interview with author John B Bliss here.

Dans Katmandou en deuil – Reporting from Nepal for Mediapart with Laure Siegel

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Ces journalistes, d’ordinaire basés à Bangkok, étaient à Katmandou au Népal, ce samedi 25 avril 2015, lorsque la terre a tremblé. Le séisme, le plus grave depuis 1934, a coûté la vie à plus de 5 500 personnes et le bilan n’est pas définitif. Des dizaines de milliers de familles sont à la rue, le pauvre réseau d’infrastructures a été gravement endommagé, les survivants, affamés et assoiffés, reprochent au gouvernement son inaction et la situation politique instable du pays risque à tout moment d’exploser. Retour sur quatre jours de deuil et d’attente dans la capitale.

Reporting on the hours following the Nepal earthquake in  the French online publication Mediapart.

My story on the Nepal earthquake for The Daily Telegraph: What does the future hold for tourism?

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Holidaymakers in Nepal were helping dig locals out of the rubble in the aftermath of Saturday’s earthquake.

Tom Vater assesses the damage to the country’s tourist industry.

Read the full story in The Daily Telegraph today.

Kathmandu – A City in Shock in The Nikkei Asian Review

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Numerous aftershocks wracked Nepal’s capital Kathmandu and surrounding regions into Monday, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the region Saturday afternoon, killing more than 3,700 people and injuring at least 6,500. Many more people have been left homeless, while others are camping in the streets for fear that aftershocks could hit their residences….

Read the full story at the Nikkei Asian Review.

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