Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Extract from A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton

The following is an extract from A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton by Chavoret Jaruboon with Pornchai Sereemongkonpol, which was published last month.

To Thai minds, the Bangkok Hilton is a place of gloom and danger. Years later, I found out that working there was a risky business for those who lacked moral courage as there were plenty of opportunities to be corrupt.
Life gradually introduced me to good and evil until I realised how grey the world actually is and always will be. This is especially true in Thailand, where many things are ‘flexible’ or ‘compromised’ and a blind eye can be turned when money is paid or power is exercised. A lot of things in Thailand don’t always work the way they should.
Once as my father and I were on our way to visit my uncle, we came across a team of barefoot prisoners in their tattered brown uniforms cleaning the sun-parched road. I couldn’t imagine how thick their soles must be to endure the heat of the ground. They had been brought out of the prison for a few hours to labour under the glaring midday blaze.
The practice of prisoners performing public service can be traced back hundreds of years and continues to this day. During the early days of Rattanakosin, Thailand’s current era, they contributed to the kingdom by building canals, roads and railroads among other public structures. In fact, the Bangkok Hilton was built in part with prison labour.
During World War I, the Corrections Department transferred 200 prisoners from Bang Kwang Prison to a temporary camp in the Bang Khen area and ordered them to grow rice and raise livestock to be sold cheaply to law-abiding citizens. At that time, Thailand was suffering economically and such commodities were scarce.
The practice was revised in 1980 and a set of rules was introduced. Convicts are entitled to reductions in their sentences equal to the number of days they have performed public service and, on some occasions, a small wage.
The intention is to remind people that prisoners are not outcasts but are still part of society and that they can contribute towards the common good. Personally I don’t think it really influences Thai attitudes towards inmates. In fact, this arrangement has backfired a few times as prisoners have attempted to escape.
As a boy, I saw the convicts as bogeymen rather than outcasts. At that first close encounter, they were figures to be feared. Yet I could hardly take my eyes off them. This left a lasting impression on me. The difference between then and now is that I’ve adopted a more realistic attitude.
The scraping sounds the ankle shackles made as they struggled to walk and work further drew my attention to them. One inmate had covered his swarthy body with tattoos of tigers, Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and occult writing. The prisoners derived great feelings of support and protection from these. They did so, perhaps, because there wasn’t much else for them to hold on to. One could easily wonder why, if the inked symbols possessed any power, those men had ended up in jail.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Extract from Secret Genocide

The following is an extract from Secret Genocide by Daniel Pedersen, which will be published in December this year.

In 1949, the Karen people first declared to the world that they would defend themselves and their cultural identity. Since then, man has walked on the moon, television, Internet and satellite technologies have become part of everyday life, and Burma’s neigbours have taken their place on the world’s economic stage. And still, the Karen have not found their peace. Some would say the modern world has bypassed the Karen people, while others speculate they have become entrapped by it, cast as pawns while the rest of the world establishes new economic and political hierarchies.
In little bamboo huts hidden in the jungle, their barefoot children are taught their language, rudimentary mathematics, and history as the Karen know it. There is no Internet. There are mostly no telephones. Often, there are no books. Sometimes, backpacking medics turn up out of the blue and tend to festering bullet wounds and chronic ailments, reminding the Karen that they have not been completely forgotten about. At other times, however, Burmese troops or their allied soldiers turn up and burn down the Karen’s schools and churches, before turning their torches on their bamboo homes. Generally, the Karen have fled by the time the enemy arrives, and while their villages are being reduced to scorched earth and ash, they are already searching for a new place to live – preferably somewhere with a water supply and stands of bamboo from which they can carve a new settlement. But every now and then, the people give up, unable to take the constant threat of violence against their communities anymore, and make for the Thai border, where they become lost in the refugee camps a few kilometres beyond the frontier.
In the camps, they find a form of compromised peace, but freedom remains an elusive dream. They witness the freedoms enjoyed by their neighbours from behind bamboo fences and barbed wire. Through the slats, they see a country thriving, with flashy cars driving back and forth past their camps. They also see the soldiers, the one constant in their lives, penning them in and taking advantage of their plight. The Karen refugees are entirely dispossessed. They are not permitted to leave the camps, and they are not allowed to work because they don’t have the proper permits. Yet they must somehow be fed and, in many instances, they are sent on to a third country where they have to learn to make their own way, far removed from their customs and culture, their friends and family.
It was immediately after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 that this period of persecution against the Karen began, and it has now spanned more than sixty years. In the post-WWII period, Great Britain’s decolonisation programme sped forward, constantly gaining momentum. The British were determined to pull out of the colonies, and when it came to Burma, the decolonisation process had reached breakneck speed. There was virtually no period of winding down; the British simply up and left. When Burma was granted its independence, a relatively minor Burman (Burma’s predominant ethnic group) general, General Ne Win, was appointed vice chief of staff of the armed forces, or Tatmadaw. Ne Win was not a particularly prominent general, and there were others who could have been appointed just as easily. His appointment was a happenstance of history, and no one at the time could have predicted what he would become. The following year, in 1949, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the armed forces, replacing General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen. Ne Win now had total control of the army, and by 1962, he had consolidated enough power to seize control of the entire country by armed force.


At the time of independence, David Tharckabaw was a mere boy of 13 years. David is Karen and was educated in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and the country’s most important commercial centre. He is now, at the age of 73, the Karen National Union’s (KNU – the political organisation representing Karen interests) vice president. He likes a drink, smokes heavily, and speaks slowly and with great reserve, thinking carefully before answering any question. His election to his current position occurred in 2008, and he takes his role as vice president very seriously indeed. Some call him hard-line, while others say he is simply pragmatic, and a chorus within the Karen movement claim he lacks the charisma required of a leader of stature. But after several recent high-level defections from the KNU to Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military junta controlling Burma (sometimes referred to simply as ‘the generals’), David Tharckabaw was the man people turned to in their hour of need. He had been elected on the belief that he was morally sound, and the people now trusted him not to backflip on his policies in the face of enormous pressure and corruption from the junta, who routinely use bribery to get what they want.
I first met David through a mutual acquaintance, just days after he was elected. He came to my restaurant in Mae Sot for dinner, with the express purpose of being interviewed for this book. He and I have since become good friends. Over a post-dinner coffee, David relaxed a little, and as tired staff cleared our table of Burmese curries, we retreated from the banter of the other KNU executive council members and their supporters.
‘Very few people know that this war was started by the Burmese regime [now] in power, only a few know,’ he said quietly, as he laid down the fundamentals of my education, as he saw it. ‘Because, according to the propaganda of the ruling class, it was the Karen armed resistance [that declared war], and actually that is not true. It was started by Ne Win, who was vice chief of staff of the armed forces after independence, and he used his pocket army troops to attack Karen quarters in Maubin, right in Rangoon. There were also attacks in Insein and Moulmein. Well, when it got to Insein of course, the Karen could no longer just sit,’ he said.
Insein was at that time the headquarters of the Karen National Union, the political body representing Karen interests in the newly-independent Burma.
‘And that is how the Karen resistance against successive regimes started, and now we have had the 60th anniversary of the Karen resistance,’ he continued. ‘We sometimes call it the “Karen Revolution”.’
David told me that the four principles laid down by Saw Ba U Gyi, the first leader of the Karen Revolution, still form the basis of their revolution: ‘Those principles are non-negotiable, we will always maintain and uphold that principle,’ he said, matter-of-factly, and that is why the people have placed their faith in David Tharckabaw. According to him, ‘Ever since the military came to power in 1962, the ultimate goal of the military establishment has been to set up the fourth Burman empire.’ He went on to say that ‘…in this day and age, only fascists would think of setting up an empire in a multi-ethnic state like Burma, because the non-Burman ethnic peoples will never accept it.’

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

National Novel Writing Month is when People Turn their Dreams Into Reality

Every person I meet these days wants to write a book; at least that’s how it seems anyway. This was something that I talked about for decades as well before doing something about it. The sad fact is though that most of these aspiring writers will never actually knuckle down and write that book they are always talking about. This is a shame because we should all try to achieve our dreams; it keeps us young. The great thing about becoming a writer is that there are no real entry requirements; you don’t need to apply anywhere and nobody is going to judge your credentials. In order to become a writer the only thing you really need to do is start writing – sounds easy doesn’t it.

One thing that always held me back from writing a book was that I’d run out of steam after a few pages. I would then make the mistake of reading back on what I’d written; I’d be disappointed and give up on the whole project. I didn’t realise then that the secret of writing a book was to just write the first draft without any attempt to judge; this is because nobody writes a good first draft. Once this is finished though, there is then something that can be fixed through editing. When you have completed your first draft you then have achieved your goal of writing a book; all you then need to do is polish it.

What is National Novel Writing Month?

Getting the motivation to write that first draft from start to finish can be difficult. This is where something like National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo for short) can help. This event takes place each year in November and during this time people from all around the world commit themselves to writing a novel in one month – 1,000 + per day. This might sound like an outrageously ambitious task but thousands of people have already won NaNoWriMo; you become a winner by finishing your first draft.

The nicest thing about National Novel Writing Month is that there is a lot of help and encouragement available. The organisers of the event provide plenty of inspirational material including blogs, tutorials, and podcasts. There is also a huge community of people that you can join; a great source of inspiration, support, and advice. Writing a novel in one month is tough but with all this support it is achievable – all you need is a couple of hours a day.

Are You Ready for the National Novel Writing Month 2010 Challenge?
If you have always dreamed of writing a book then now is your chance. Don’t be like all those other people who only ever talk about doing this – anyone can do that. Even if you don’t write a masterpiece there will be a great sense of achievement. It will also give you the inspiration to go on and do more; once you know that you have the ability to write one book there will be no stopping you.

If you are interested in finding out more about NaNoWriMO the just follow the link.

http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Paul Garrigan

Monday, 21 June 2010

Staying Sober in Thailand

I came to Thailand almost a decade ago as a drunk on his last legs. I arrived at Don Muang airport from a job in Saudi Arabia with no idea as to where my life was going next. I had moved to Saudi in the hope that the illegality of alcohol would help me turn my life around; I could not have been more wrong about this. In fact I found that the illegal grog meant that my physical and mental health was dropping towards new lows. I felt miserable and decided that if I was going to drink myself to death it wasn’t going to be in the middle of a bloody desert. I left Riyadh with a vague idea about drinking my way around the world, but after a few days in Bangkok I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere else.

I found work as an ESL teacher and for the next few years lived the dream; or so I tried to tell anyone that would listen. In the beginning it all seemed so exotic and different and like many before me I developed what the more cynical ex-pat likes to refer to as ‘Thai fever’. After a couple of years though the novelty of Thailand had worn off and I was there because I’d nowhere better to go. During a sober few weeks I met the woman who is now my wife; the only real good thing to come from those years. We eventually moved to her home in Phitsanulok where I took up residence as the village drunk. I was living in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet but it made little difference to me. I just drank and drank and provided gossip for the neighbors. Near the end of my drinking I began to dislike all those things that had once attracted me to Thailand; I felt trapped with no options.

It was around that time that I found the Thai temple Thamkrabok. It was here that I managed to get sober and I’ve stayed that way ever since. The fact that I was off the booze meant that I could once again appreciate my surroundings; it also meant that I could begin building a proper life here. The idea of a sober life among the Thais would have once seemed impossible; after all there is just so much temptation. I was completely wrong about this though; I’ve found that it is all a matter of perception. The truth is that Thailand is a great place to stay sober – at least for me anyway.

These last four years have contained so many joys; the greatest one being the birth of my son. I have managed to do things that once would have seemed impossible. I learnt to drive and bought a brand new car; something that most people take for granted but seems like a miracle to me. I found a job that I love and managed to get a book published; really the stuff of dreams. There have also been many other joys along the way. I only quit the booze to stop the pain yet I’ve got so much more.

During my recent visit back to Ireland I was asked why I stayed in Thailand. Was I afraid that I’d drink if I left? The reason I remain in Thailand is that I’m settled and if something isn’t broken why try and fix it. It was tough building a life here and the idea of starting again somewhere else just doesn’t appeal. I no longer view Thailand as quite the wondrous location that I once did but it really is a good place to live; so is Ireland. I have it good here most of the time. Recently I’ve started cycling around my local area and sometimes it really hits me that I live in such a beautiful part of the world.

Paul Garrigan, author of Dead Drunk: Saving myself from alcoholism in a Thai Monastery

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Siege At Jadotville

Jadotville

Plop, plop went the mortar rounds as they left their barrels only to erupt as a shroud of shrapnel around the Irish positions.

It was September 1961 in the rebel province of Katanga, located in the very bowels of the Congo.

157 men from the Irish 35th Battalion’s A Company had been sent to a mining town called Jadotville to protect the largely white Belgian inhabitants from massacre by marauding tribal groups.

But within a very short space of time the troops were to find the settlers had turned on them and were attacking the Irish positions with an overwhelming mercenary-led rebel force.

With the publication of Siege at Jadotville, the lid was lifted on one of the most controversial episodes in Ireland’s UN service.

Through first hand accounts and previously classified documents, the book uncovered a hidden history of Ireland’s first involvement in peacekeeping and shows what happens when UN civilian leaders ignore military reality.

In September, 1961 during the Congo peacekeeping operation, 150 Irish troops were left by the UN to fight it out against 3000 mercenary-led troops.

Irish people today were shocked to learn how the soldiers were deployed to an isolated area by UN authorities against the advice of senior military advisors only to be attacked by the very people they were sent to protect.

The book details Ireland’s involvement in the UN’s first large-scale peacekeeping operation in the Congo in the early 60s. It reveals how the ineptitude of arrogant and na├»ve UN civilian administrators caused the deaths of the international troops sent to keep the peace, including the Irishmen who were killed at Niemba.

The book focuses on A Company of the 35th Battalion, the Irish soldiers who were almost massacred when besieged at a mining town called Jadotville in a province called Katanga in the south of the Congo.

When the troubles in the former Belgian colony were at their height, A Company, under their commanding officer, Kerryman, Comdt Pat Quinlan, were sent to Jadotville to protect the white settler community there.

However, when the troops arrived they found the settlers to be hostile and sympathetic to the mercenary-led forces of Katanga, a mineral-rich province causing chaos by trying to break away from the newly independent Congo.

Similar to the Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica in 1995, the small Irish contingent was denied any air or artillery support to aid them against overwhelming odds.

But even though under aerial bombardment, the Irish dug in and fought to hold their ground against a force that outnumbered them 20 to one. Yet for over 40 years both Ireland and the world turned their backs on the Jadotville veterans.

This book explains why this episode, though widely reported at the time, was allowed to fade into the background of Irish military history.

It catalogues the series of errors, ineptitude and naivety foisted onto Irish troops and their UN allies as they attempted deal with rapidly escalating violence.

All the while the UN authorities in New York kept changing mandates on paper but not giving the troops on the ground the equipment and support needed to contain the violence.

Much of the book is told from the perspective of the men who fought there. They tell how they regularly rounded up mercenaries and disarmed them only to have the UN order return of the arms and to have those same weapons turned on them at Jadotville.

There are tragic-comic moments too, like when a madcap Norwegian pilot was the only one who volunteered to fly helicopter with water supplies to the besieged Irish.

Having landed under fire with his aircraft destroyed it turned out the water supplies were unusable having been put in jerrycans that previously stored petrol. This was the only attempt made by the UN to resupply the troops while they fought it out for a week.

Young soldiers at the time, men such as Pte John Gorman and Lt Noel Carey told of their terror of having to hand up their weapons and go into captivity under a force the Irish had inflicted 300 casualties on. Fear of reprisals was huge.

The book also tells of the enormous personal strain Comdt Quinlan was put under when he had to enter ceasefire negotiations without recourse to accurate information or direction from higher authority.

The UN kept telling him jets would be sent to support him but none came. Such was the strength of the mercenary-led force that they beat back two attempts by Irish and Indian forces to rescue the Jadotville men.

Ends

Declan Power is a former soldier who now works as security analyst and lecturer. He is also a consultant to UN peacekeeping missions on civil military coordination.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A History of Betrayal

I did my best while researching The Infiltrator to visit key locales in Chicago, New York, Paris, London, Colchester and Dublin. This led to a strange discovery when I was in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, New York.

I was curious to take a look at the building at 161 West 4th Street where defectors from the Irish independence movement secretly went to the British government to become paid informers in North America.

The narrow brick townhouse that housed the office of British consul Edward Mortimer Archibald in the 1860s sits in what today is a fairly trendy address, although there's now a sex shop next door.

It's the same address where, almost 50 years ago, a young Bob Dylan lived, before he became famous. Dylan was describing his experiences in this neighbourhood in 1965 when he recorded "Positively 4th Street."

The theme of the song? Betrayal.

The song is about false friends in the artistic community, but Dylan could have been writing about the independence movement, when he wrote:

"You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning."


Peter Edwards, author of The Infiltrator: Henri Le Caron, the British spy inside the Fenian movement

Friday, 21 May 2010

Along the Thai-Burma border there is no justice; there is only money, the military and the oppressed.

For years now I have watched as the Karen civilians of Burma suffer at the hands of that country’s military regime. The Karen people, a Burmese ethnic minority, consist of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These are people who are just trying to make a go of it, like you and I, and want only to be able to raise their families well.

Conservative estimates put the number of the Karen people in Burma at over seven million. In Karen State they are forced to run for their lives on a daily basis. They often find themselves just over the border in Thailand, homeless and removed from their gardens where they grow their food.

There is little doubt the Burmese military junta wants to eliminate the Karen bloodline, and it is grinding away at it on many fronts. As a Burma Army commander once commented before going into battle, ‘If you want to see the Karen in the future, you’ll have to go to a museum.’

Many of the people who call Karen State home are now displaced, and as you read this, they are looking for somewhere safe to begin building new shelters. Their houses go up fast, particularly if it’s raining, and grow bigger depending on how long they are allowed to stay in one place.

But their homes, their schools, their churches and their poorly-stocked medical clinics all come down quicker than they can ever be built. Burma Army units, or militia troops allied to it, regularly torch whole communities in just minutes.

For all of the talk and endless sparring at international forums, and despite the international community’s collective wringing of hands, the Burmese conflict is not a complicated one and is not the seemingly intractable situation it is made out to be. The country’s ethnic minorities are not savages intent on tearing each other apart should the military regime fall.

Civil war is not the only option.

The military junta holds all the power and oppresses the ethnically-diverse masses, plundering the country’s natural resources and keeping the profits for itself. The junta looks on the people as nothing more than a free labour force born to serve the Burmese master race. It is a feudal system rooted in racism and the generals lord over it. They become filthy rich as the people are forced to push their carts along dusty roads trying to eke out a living.

Education and religions other than Buddhism are viewed as unwanted outside influences and are considered threats to the status quo. Those who dare to challenge the junta are considered enemies of the state. Even the monks, supposedly revered by the generals, are thrown in jail if they step out of line.


In neighbouring Thailand the government builds schools – in Burma the ‘government’ orders schools burned down. In Thailand the Karen language is taught in Karen village schools – in Burma using the language is illegal.

Yet the majority of the Karen people live in Burma. The generals, who have had the run of the country since General Ne Win led a coup in 1962 that toppled the civilian government, insist their army employs a scorched-earth policy against the entire Karen population. They burn the staple food, rice, in the paddies and sow them with landmines instead. Thousands of people in parts of the country are starving and, in recent weeks, have run out of water at the end of a long dry season.

And yet to the outside world, the economic reports which are presented suggest Burma is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In reality, however, the junta has taken South East Asia’s most promising economy and ruined it. Burma is now officially one of the world’s least-developed countries. The world has watched as it regressed from being the world’s largest exporter of rice before military rule in 1962, to a country crippled by decrepit infrastructure and a lawless financial system charted by whim and fancy.

In spite of all this, the privileged world has not lifted a finger to help the stricken country.

The West might bay about China’s growing Burmese investments and influence, but for decades China has been the only country of consequence that has engaged with the pariah state. The rest of the world appears to have stuck its head in the sand. Throughout the decades of indecision and apathy that have dogged Burma, the Karen people have lived their entire lives at war - generations have come and gone.
Now their children are forced to fight on.

No matter how long you study the war here you will ultimately remain an outsider, but sometimes that can be an advantage. In journalism you are often considered an ‘insider’ among the people you travel with, and struggle to maintain your outside perspective, that most noble and reasoned of detachments. But there is no way to argue that what is happening in Burma today is for the best. So you report what is happening, atrocity after atrocity, attack after attack, and hope someone who can make a difference might read your story.

Daniel Pedersen, author of Secret Genocide: The Karen of Burma

Friday, 14 May 2010

Digging into a spy's life

I was more than a year into the research for The Infiltrator, the story of Victorian superspy Henri Le Caron, when I made the bizarre discovery that my central character was, among other things, a body snatcher.

He was also a rather cocky one, once digging up the remains of Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of an American president and father of a future president.

It was also a jolt for me to learn how widespread robbing graves was just less than two centuries ago, and how complicit mainstream authorities were in the practice. Medical schools badly needed bodies for training students, and some students made money as "sack-em-up men," emptying graves at night to provide schools with a steady supply of cadavers.

I enjoyed reading in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce that a grave was "A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student." Bierce's more serious writing also provided me with excellent descriptions of life for soldiers in the American Civil War, in the operations in which Le Caron was a participant.

As I detoured in my research into a study of bodysnatching, I was surprised to learn that graves have been robbed far longer than they have been respected. On the headstone for William Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon are the words:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones."

Peter Edwards, author of The Infiltrator

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Does Wat Thamkrabok Offer a Wonder Cure for Addiction?

In my new book ‘Dead Drunk’ I discuss how a Thai temple called Wat Thamkrabok helped me beat my addiction to alcohol. It is now almost four years since I left the temple and it really does feel like my addiction has been completely defeated. I have no idea what the future holds for me, but all I can say is that alcohol does not seem attractive to me at all these days. I have experienced some wonderful highs in recovery; highs that would have once offered plenty of reason for alcohol-fueled celebrations. I have also needed to deal with lows that previously would have had me running to the bottle. Despite all that has happened though, good and bad, I have not used alcohol and I’ve not even wanted to drink.

Considering the fact that my life is so good, it is tempting for me to want to recommend that every addict hops on a plane to get the magical cure in Thailand. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that – I wish it did. When I first arrived at Wat Thamkrabok one of the head monks explained to me that the temple could not cure my addiction. I felt very let down until he described what they could offer me. The temple could provide an environment where recovery could happen and they could give me the tools to live life in recovery. It could work if I was completely ready to leave addiction behind forever; without this willingness Wat Thamkrabok could do absolutely nothing for me.

I personally believe that the tools offered at Wat Thamkrabok work; in fact I’m living proof that they do. I am 100% certain that if people use the tools, and don’t drink or use drugs again, their life will get better; in fact life in recovery is likely to be better than anything they could have even imagined. This can only happen though if the person is fully ready. You can only go through the Wat Thamkrabok treatment program once and if people choose the wrong time to go there it is a missed opportunity. The tools are useless to addicts if they are not ready to use them.

Wat Thamkrabok can help people go through the withdrawal stages when coming off alcohol or drugs – so can plenty of other places. The system they use is unique and many of us feel it was the easiest withdrawals we ever went through. That is not what the temple is really all about though; the real gift that the temple offers is the tools to live a satisfying life. If life is satisfying the need for addiction falls away.

I see the temple as a special place that people can find when they are ready. It is not for everyone and other addicts will find their own path; if the student is ready, the teacher will appear – I really believe that. You don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to escape addiction; you just have to summon the willingness to change.

Paul Garrigan, Author of 'Dead Drunk'