Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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Return to Bokor Mountain, Cambodia

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I’ve just been back to Bokor Hill Sation, one of Cambodia‘s most beautiful and haunted spots. Rising a thousand meter above the kingdom’s southeastern coast, Bokor has been developed three times.

In the 1920s, the French cleared some of the jungle on the way up, built a road with the help of 9000 kulis and constructed a small luxurious hot season getaway for the colonial elite. The dream in the clouds fell apart when Khmer Issarak rebels threatened the area.  The plateau bloomed again during the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s and 1960s before the war, revolution and civil conflict from the 70s onwards put yet another stop to development.

Fast forward almost fifty years and a new garish casino for Asian high rollers has been built that dwarfs the old one, now a shell. Many of the other old buildings have either been restored or knocked down. A giant hangar offers sports activities and blocks of flats are being built amidst the beautiful desolation. The three legged tiger who used to roam the area, apparently a land mine survivor, has long disappeared. Khmer families in selfie frenzy now populate the old casino, screeching through the empty corridors, perhaps finally, for the first time, taking back what’s rightfully theirs.

So far the development seems hardly profitable. The buffet in the casino hotel remains uneaten day after day, the gigantic car park, big enough for a rock festival, holds just a couple of Lexus and a single bus when I visited. The casino slot machines stood unmanned. In the casino’s entrance, several old Chinese men stood burning paper money, praying perhaps fr better things to come. As the old vibes fade and the ghosts evaporate,  as Sihanouk’s Cambodia becomes nostalgia, for the Khmer because the hill station represents the country’s golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, and for the foreigners who witnessed some part of its glorious ruin in the past two decades. Today, there is no longer a national park and the silent ruins have made way for new concrete highways and dubious development. Of the past, whether glamorous or ruinous, or both, only the cold and fog remain.

I used the hillstation in my 2013 novel The Cambodian Book of the Dead, to great effect, I think, and I will always be grateful that I first saw the place in all its broken glory almost 15 years ago.

This time, I revisited some of the remaining older structures, the Commissariat de Police, dating from the 60s and the Royal villa, a modernist shell lost in the jungle.

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In 2008 (I think) I published a feature on the hill station, then still a national park, in The Fortean Times. There’s no longer a link to the story, so here’s the text.

The Ghost Station  – Cambodia’s colonial heritage emerges from the fog of war.

“Today, you dead,” the Cambodian soldier hisses into Matt Dillon’s face and throws the American actor to the ground of a dilapidated room.

Seconds later, James Caan and a group of gangsters shoot it out on a patchy lawn in front of a dark, imposing building, while doom-laden fog drifts up from the surrounding jungle, threatening to swallow the protagonists, dead or alive.

That was in 2001, in Matt Dillon’s thriller ‘The City of Ghosts’. While the plot was tardy and the protagonists two-dimensional, the locations had a brooding menacing presence, filled with tension and despair.

No wonder – the movie’s key scenes were shot around the old casino Le Bokor Palace, a long-abandoned French hill station a thousand meters above the Cambodian coastline, until now at the centre of a national park.

Five years on and several horror films later, little appeared to have changed around the hill station in late 2007.

Vichat, a ranger who’d been working in the national park for the past three years, did not dare to go inside the casino at night, “Every time we walk past we can hear the dead walk in there. It’s full of ghosts.”

A big sign in the casino’s lobby warned all visitors ‘Do not sleep here’. But the fog of war is soon to turn into history – late last year, a Cambodian company landed a concession to redevelop the hill station, build a golf course and resurrect the casino for a new generation of high rollers.

In February 2008, the road to one of Cambodia’s most unique monuments and national parks was blocked

Bokor Hill Station, in its heyday, was Cambodia’s most luxurious colonial hide-away, as well as an imperial folly – hotels and dance halls, a church, a royal villa, restaurants, servants’ quarters and a water-tower that appears to have walked straight out of a 1950s cold war sci-fi picture must have made for an incredibly exclusive ambience in such an incredibly remote location.

The crowning glory of this community in the clouds was the casino hotel, a towering monument to France’s vain glory.

The construction of this most unusual holiday resort came at a price – more than two thousand Cambodians are said to have died during the building of the road up from the coast, which snakes through forty kilometers of dense, forbidding jungle. Since then, the killing around Bokor has never really stopped.

France quit Indochina in 1953, its taste for colonial adventure gone after being expelled from Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh’s communists.

The half century since has been anything but kind to Cambodia – accumulated decades of suffering from US bombing and civil war, the Khmer Rouge genocide, a Vietnamese invasion, famine and chaos have crushed the country and its people.

But there are some positive changes afoot. Cambodia is currently observing a shaky peace, the temples of Angkor have enjoyed a half decade of solid growth in its visitor numbers, now in the millions.

The rest of the country is catching up – very, very slowly.

Cambodia’s south-eastern corner – the lush tropical coastline dotted with relics of colonial power like the beach resort Kep, Bokor Hill Station and the provincial capital Kampot – is also coming back to life.

Besides Angkorian temples, ruins of a more recent past – the French buildings – are virtually the only structures still standing at the close of Cambodia’s half century of conflict.

Bokor Hill Station may not be able to compete with the marvels of Angkor, but the traces of colonial dreams and the faded charm of L’Indochine are present everywhere along Cambodia’s coastline.

Unfortunately, what’s left of Cambodia’s French heritage is crumbling from lack of attention. Old town houses and administrative buildings in the capital Phnom Penh and elsewhere are being knocked down to make room for modern buildings.

For the Cambodians, the remnants of old foreign structures hold no meaning beyond their current utility and the French have little influence today. Restoration is not on anybody’s mind.

Cambodia wants to move on, wants to be part of the 21th Century.

“I get five dollars to look after this rich man’s property. I’m a government soldier. I used to fight against the Khmer Rouge in those hills behind us until a few years ago. Now I have nowhere to live, no money. So I look after the house.”

Mr. Long is standing on ‘his’ property’s drive-way, opposite Kep’s crab market. The soldier’s temporary home, once a modest villa, is now little more than a concrete shell, with blown-out windows and missing ceilings. Kep’s other 300 or so buildings look the same.

The French built a few villas in Kep in the 1920s. In the 1950s Cambodia, Kep-Sur-Mer, 40 kilometers below Bokor Hillstation, was the place to go, the weekend get-away for the rich Khmer ruling class, who felt stifled by the turgid heat that gripped the capital Phnom Penh half the year. On the beach front Cambodian aristocracy rubbed shoulders with American film stars. It wasn’t Saint Tropez or Cannes (there was no sand on the beach – not until King Sihanouk had it had to be shipped in from Sihanoukville), but it must have been a picture of tropical tranquility and luxurious bon vivant nonetheless.

Now cows and pigs meander along the overgrown roads and the beach front is lined with overgrown villas and holiday homes. It’s quiet on the disused lanes and Kep has the air of a post-apocalyptic archeological site, silently displaying remnants of a modern society ground to pieces.

Five minutes up the hill, cocktails are once more shaken and stirred at the bar of the Verandah Resort – one of a handful of smart hillside bungalow properties that have recently opened in Kep. French wines, Italian pizzas, world music and sunset views are on offer – bohemian chic for the 21st century traveler looking for soft adventure – Kep is the very definition of soft adventure.

And it is safe. In contrast to many other parts of the country, Kampot Province has a very low numbers of landmines and UXO left in the ground. Hence, walks through eerie stripped-down beachfront properties and eating delicious steamed crabs are the town’s main draw.

Yet Kep remains remote, not quite connected to the world yet – there is no Internet, no bars have opened outside the resorts, electricity is intermittent and the main road through town is likely to be as crowded with playing children and sleepy bovines as with traffic at any time of day. This may change. Visiting Europeans are slowly waking up to early 20th Century nostalgia. European-run guesthouses and restaurants are springing up all over the area, not least in the near-by picturesque provincial capital, Kampot.

Things are less straight forward at the Bokor Casino. The ghosts of war have not yet faded from the mountain top.

Vichat, the park ranger, never leaves his office without his gun, “We have problems with poachers who come to take trees out of the national park, sometimes to shoot animals too.”

Vichat only earns 17.000 Riel a month, hardly an incentive to risk your life against desperate intruders. The US-NGO Wild Aid, active in Bokor Park since 2002, is supplementing his meager earnings and has provided training for more rangers. The rangers, like Vichat, are all armed and have the power to arrest poachers. But the park area is huge and there are few trails.

Vichat is cautiously optimistic, “We have managed to reduce the logging significantly. And in May 2006 a tiger was spotted near the Wat, right on top of Bokor Mountain. But these sightings are very rare nowadays. Too many people come and go.”

A small but steady trickle of tourists, mostly on trips in pick-ups organized from Kampot, has been visiting Bokor Hill Station. The journey was not an easy one, as the road up from the coast was potholed all the way. Up top, facilities were minimal. The ranger’s station offered dorm beds but no food. The colonial ruins were as they had been for years. Dormant and spooky.

Says Vichat, “There was fighting here until quite recently. The Khmer Rouge were holed up in the casino in the early 80s and fought the Vietnamese who had taken the church. Later the Khmer Rouge fought government troops from the casino.”

Standing in front of the Bokor Casino Hotel in the late afternoon is plain creepy. The windows are all shattered and loom like black holes from of the building. The walls of the Casino are covered in red moss that looks like freshly congealed blood. The Victorian turrets, the broken balustrades, the rusty water tanks and the broken toilets look sinister, only the gargoyles are missing.

The front facade of the casino appears to lean towards and over the visitor as one approaches, eager perhaps to offer a Mephistophelean bargain suite. From an overgrown forecourt, a wide staircase leads into a yawning doorway. Beyond, corridors and narrow stairways lead off into darkness. No fixtures, but psychic ones remain. The fireplace in the ball room has been smashed to pieces, bathtubs and toilets have been ripped from their foundations, mirrors smashed and electrical wires have been chiseled out of the walls and carried off. Graffiti, much of it explicitly vulgar, covers the walls of the suites and hallways. ‘Everyone died’, one reads in English. Some of these scrawls were left behind by Khmer Rouge fighters, most have been added by tourists since.

The traces of war are pervasive. Many balconies are still protected by leaking sandbags and old rusty shells litter corners of the property.

From the roof, reached via a series of long, empty corridors and partially collapsed stairways, the church, the post office and the other buildings are all visible. Beyond the main buildings, service quarters and a royal villa lie hidden in the jungle. Deeper still, an hour walk away, the remnants of a prison where the French kept Cambodian prisoners, is still standing. But everything is broken, falling down, beyond repair. No wonder the rangers don’t like to wander at night.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, several thousand tourists and young locals gathered at the Bokor Casino for a dance party. During the night, an argument between Cambodian police officers turned violent, and several men pulled their guns. Two of the men succumbed to their injuries. The darkness unleashed by the violent dissolution of civil society sticks to everything in Cambodia.

Bokor is a special place. The area has been designated a national park and precious jungle surrounds the former hill station. Poaching is under control and tourists have begun to discover the area, bringing much needed currency to the park and the coastal communities of Kep and Kampot.

This should protect the area from commercial exploitation, but the planned redevelopment of the Casino Hotel will most likely put an end to nature’s recovery. The reconstruction of the road and the planned building of an 18-hole golf course will have a huge impact on this wilderness area. Given that the redevelopment plan is fielded by a Cambodian company, that all negotiations were conducted in secret and that the potential clientele of the to be opened resort will be well-heeled Asian golfers and gamblers, the lingering French charm, the uniquely eerie atmosphere and the relatively undisturbed biodiversity are bound to disappear.

Some voices call for abandoning the renaissance plans for Bokor, but foreign development is virtually unconditional in Cambodia and neither the country’s impoverished and uneducated population nor the government have the time or inclination to protect the colonial heritage or the natural resources Bokor has to offer.

The ghosts of war, as well as the jungle, may soon make way for the 18th hole and the Black Jack table.

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In 2010, I was back in the area with photographer Luke Duggleby for a Wall Street Journal reportage on the burgeoning tourist trade at the foot of Bokor Mountain.

A few years prior to that I shot the casino in bright sunshine.




The Nepal Tattoo Convention in RISE TATTOO

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Journalist Laure Siegel, photographer Dom Pichard and myself produced 16 pages of features in this month’s edition of RISE TATTOO, France’s #1 tattoo magazine on the 5th International  Nepal  Tattoo Convention and the Nepali earthquake which took place during the convention weekend in late April.

The reportages included a portrait of hobo tattooist Chris Powers, an indepth look at Nepal’s best known tattooist Mohan Gurung and a story on traditional tattooos in the Kathmandu Valley.

Thailand’s Island hideaways in The Sunday Times


The Sunday Times has just re-published my Thai Islands hideaway feature. If you have a subscription to the paper you can read the story here.

If you don’t, you can see the same story in The Daily Telegraph. The feature also ran as a photo story.

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


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


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


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

murderboys amazon

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.