Category Archives: Politics

Saudi-Thai Relations and the Blue Diamond Affair

First published with Vice News October 2, 2015

Some 25 years ago, a lowly Thai gardener found himself working in a grand palace in Saudi Arabia, half way across the world from his home village. Kriangkrai Techamong mainly tended the lush palace grounds, but every now and again he found himself employed in janitorial duties. It wasn’t flashy, but he was earning more than he would at home and was even able to send a little money back to his family. At the time, his predicament was fairly common. Over 200,000 Thai nationals were working in Saudi in 1989, and millions of dollars a year were being sent home in remittances.

But Kriangkrai himself wasn’t earning that much. So he decided, in either a moment of madness or a poorly planned plot, to make the most of his situation. One night he crawled up through a second story window and into a palace bedroom, busted open a safe, and stole around 200 pounds of jewelry worth approximately $20 million, allegedly among them a highly prized 50-carat blue diamond.

What followed was a twisted tale of heist, assassinations, corruption, and diplomatic acrimony that continues to this day; now referred to simply as the “Blue Diamond Affair.” Last week, Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby quietly resumed his post as chargé d’affaires in Bangkok after a year-long protest at what Saudi had considered just the latest injustice stemming from that original heist. Nearly 26 years after Krungkrai’s moment of madness, it’s clear the affair is far from over.

Back at the palace, Kriangkrai stuffed his newly acquired possessions into a vacuum cleaner bag and sent the goods back to Northern Thailand via DHL. Not long after he too left.

Unsurprisingly it didn’t take long for the prince to notice that something was amiss, and after putting two and two together, the Thai authorities were notified of the theft. By this time Kriangkrai was back in his home province of Lampang, and struggling to sell his stolen wares. A local jeweler, Santhi Sithanakan, had caught wind of the incredible collection, contacted Kriangkrai and bought the bulk of the illicit goods at a fraction of their true value.

Kriangkrai was soon after caught by the police, and through him, Santhi the jeweler. Lieutenant-General Chalor Kerdthes, who had led the investigation, headed a delegation to Saudi to return the stolen goods. It seemed the story of a bold and ill-planned heist had come to a swift, but expected conclusion.

Yet upon inspection of the returned jewels, the Saudis noticed two things: most of the gems were fakes, and more importantly, the 50-carat blue diamond was missing altogether.

Meanwhile in Thailand, rumors were spreading in the local press that photos at a charity gala showed a number of bureaucrat wives with new diamond necklaces: necklaces bearing a striking resemblance to those stolen from the palace. This was the start of Saudi’s assertion that Thai police and the elites had siphoned off the jewels for themselves.

Riyadh acted quickly, dispatching three diplomats and a businessman with close ties to the Saudi royal family, Mohammad al-Ruwaili, to investigate. On February 1, 1990, the three diplomats were assassinated in Bangkok. Just a few days later, al-Ruwaili went missing, presumed murdered.

While links are often drawn between the jewelery theft investigation and the four murders, a classified 2010 US cable sent from Bangkok stated that the Saudi diplomat murders were “almost certainly… part of a Saudi feud with Hezbollah.”

Yet the Saudis, while acknowledging the possible Hezbollah link, nonetheless suspected that Thai police were involved with the murders. Riyadh quickly reduced the number of Thai workers in the country. From over 200,000 Thai nationals in 1989, mass deportation meant there were just 10,000 by 1991. At the same time, Saudi all but stopped trade between the two countries, and they downgraded their diplomatic relations and recalled their ambassador, instead sending over the straight-talking and tenacious chargé d’affaires, Mohammed Said Khoja, to continue investigating.

Khoja was an incredible character of a man, determined to solve both the mystery of the missing jewels and the murders of his fellow countrymen in the most provocative and outspoken manner. He claimed that whosoever illegally handled the blue diamond would be cursed, a claim which resonated with a lot of Thais, many of whom wear protective amulets and prescribe to similar views of hexes and curses.

He was also unashamedly quick to call out Thailand’s national police. In a 1994 interviewwith the New York Times, he explained that his gun, a chrome-plated .38-caliber Smith and Wesson which never left his side, was for protection not from Hezbollah or ” international terrorists,” but from the Thai police, who were “bigger than the government itself.”

Earlier that year, the wife and 14-year-old son of Santhi the jeweler, were suddenly found dead in a car. The Thai police stated the two had died in a car crash, but Khoja was having none of it. “This was not an accident,” he told the Washington Post. Santhi had earlier reported he had received a phone call telling him his wife and child were abducted, and he had paid a 2.5 million Thai baht ($68,000) ransom demanded for their safety.

Under pressure from the Saudis, the Thai police continued their investigation of the accident and a few months after the deaths, Lieutenant General Chalor, who had led the initial heist investigation, was charged with orchestrating the abduction and pre-meditated murder of the wife and child. With the ransom collected, it appeared that it was easier to just kill them off and stage an accident than risk being identified later on.

Nonetheless, while in prison Chalor maintained his innocence while playing in a band and recording songs, including a Thai cover to Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. His death sentence was upheld in October 2009 but four years later, he was freed to little fanfare.

As time stretched on and Thailand’s 20-year statute of limitations began looming over the heads of the investigators, pressure mounted. In one final push, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations reopened the case of al-Ruwaili’s disappearance in early 2010, just one month before the 20-year limit and with news of an apparent breakthrough. Five policemen were indicted with al-Ruwaili’s abduction and murder.

So when, in March last year, all five were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, the tension was palpable. “Thai-Saudi relations likely to worsen after murder acquittals” read oneheadline. A member of the Riyadh monitoring committee who was present for the verdicttold reporters, “Saudi Arabia has never even been given clarification on the death of our four diplomats killed in Bangkok, let alone seeing justice served.”

After contacting the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, VICE News was asked to have its questions vetted, and after multiple phone calls no one was made available for comment. Meanwhile, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VICE News that no comment could be made on “even a broad approach” to the two countries’ relations, as the situation remains “really quite sensitive.”

Such precautions and worry do not suggest the most amiable and open of relations, yet the reinstatement of Alsheaiby does signify that they have at least thawed a little. With Thailand’s economy continuing to flounder, every extra trade deal is a boost, and Saudi, who were the first of the GCC member states to establish full diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1957, would be a major target for Bangkok. Yet without knowing what Saudi’s plans are in the near future, the degree of “sensitivity” needed in speaking on the topic suggests that the 25-year-old saga continues to force a tightrope walk of bilateral diplomacy.

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Malaysia’s Scandal Plagued Prime Minister Just Purged His Cabinet

First published in Vice News July 29

Under mounting pressure over his alleged role in an escalating corruption scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s effort to stifle criticism led him to make sweeping changes to his cabinet on Tuesday, replacing his deputy premier and attorney general among a handful of other officials.

It emerged earlier this month that investigators had reportedly traced almost $700 million dollars in deposits from a government fund called 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) to personal bank accounts that they believe to be connected to Najib. He created 1MDB in 2009 to help attract foreign investment and spur development, but the fund has been constantly plagued by corruption allegations in its short life and is now more than $11 billion in debt.

The prime minister has lately endured persistent calls among the opposition that he resign over the fund’s management, which he oversees as both the head of the Finance Ministry and as the chair of 1MDB’s advisory committee. But on Sunday Najib suddenly found himself being taken to task by none other than his immediate subordinate.

Uneasy about the scandal’s potential impact on the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which is dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organization party (UMNO), Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered remarks on Sunday in which he suggested that Najib personally explain the issues surrounding the 1MDB scandal for the benefit of the public.

“We cannot explain properly because even we don’t know the facts. So who is going to tell us the facts? It should be the prime minister, true or not?” he said before a meeting of UMNO delegates.

Though Muhyiddin stressed that he supports Najib, he did not mince words.

“I want to give you a stern warning that if nothing is done now to manage these issues, Barisan will lose” in the 2018 general elections, he said.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office instructed government officials to refrain from commenting on the scandal.

“All administrative officials including the deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, should wait for the results of the investigation,” it said in a statement. “Rationally, we should avoid making statements that can roil people’s perceptions toward the country’s leadership, government, and UMNO.”

But Muhyiddin found himself replaced the following day in a sudden reshuffle that included the attorney general, who is a key member of a special task force investigating 1MDB.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, speaks during a press conference on the reshuffling of his cabinet. (Photo by Pak Jek/EPA)

“I welcome vigorous debate, and accept and tolerate criticism or even dissent,” Najib wrote in a Facebook post announcing the changes. “However, this process should take place in Cabinet as part of the decision-making process. Members of the Cabinet should not air their differences in an open forum that can affect public opinion against the Government and Malaysia.”

At the same time, he promoted four members of a parliamentary committee that is also investigating the fund to ministerial positions, effectively removing them from the probe.

“The only thing we can infer is that the prime minister is derailing the 1MDB investigation,” Wan Saiful, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local policy think-tank, told VICE News. “When he chooses to silence his critics rather than answer his critics, then of course people are going to ask even more questions.”

The cabinet shakeup has prompted more calls among the political opposition for Najib’s resignation. The prime minister took down the Facebook post after its comments section was flooded by commenters repeatedly pasting “#najibletakjawatan” (Najib resign), a hashtag that was also trending on Twitter.

It is a theme that influential former prime minister and UMNO leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been regularly promoting in recent months, as he candidly noted again last week on his widely read blog.

“No conspiracy,” he wrote. “Just open declaration to the whole nation that I would like to see Najib cease to be Prime Minister.”

Yet while the government has not yet targeted Mahathir’s blog, other media outlets reporting on the 1MDB scandal have not been so lucky. Najib’s government suspended two publications last week over their coverage of the 1MDB scandal.

Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the Malaysian human rights organization SUARAM, is concerned that the enforced silence discourages scrutiny and risks misinforming the public.

“This is against media freedom, basic freedom of expression, and against democratic principles,” Sevan told VICE News.

Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion research firm, told VICE News that most Malaysians remain unaware of or apathetic to the various scandals afflicting 1MDB. A poll of more than 1,000 voters in March 2015 found that about 70 percent of respondents admitted to knowing “not very much” or nothing at all about the fund.

Following the cabinet drama, rumors have abounded that opposition groups might unite with disillusioned Barisan members and advance a vote of no confidence in parliament — a development that would have been unthinkable prior to Muhyiddin’s removal.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Najib’s former deputy prime minister, waves at a press conference following his dismissal from the government. (Photo by Fazry Ismail/EPA)

Muhyiddin “is still deputy president of UMNO,” noted Wan Saiful. “This is someone who could still attract enough numbers if he wanted to.”

But Dr. Oh Ei Sun, who served as Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011, thinks otherwise. The cabinet reshuffle, he told VICE News, “was an act of consolidation of power and support.”

“By purging the cabinet of those who harbor doubts on 1MDB and by extension his leadership, Najib has thus availed himself of a united front in countering the various allegations hurled by Dr. [Mahathir] and the opposition,” Oh remarked.

He stressed the importance of patronage in Malaysian politics, suggesting that votes can be swayed only by those who are already in power. UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence, after all.

“The recent series of events surrounding 1MDB of course imprint themselves heavily on the political scale and on the social fabric,” Oh conceded. “However, it’s unlikely to affect UMNO’s grasp on power in 2018. As long as UMNO is in a position to disburse benefits and favours to its members and rural folk, its support base will remain rock solid.”

“Plus,” he added, “Malaysians have short political memories and forgive handily.”

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Thai Court Orders Release of Pro-Democracy Activists Who Rallied Against the Junta

First published in Vice News, 7July 2015

This morning, Bangkok’s military court ordered the release from prison of 14 pro-democracy activists who have been held since June 26 for rallying peacefully against the ruling military junta’s coup. Though the court rejected a police petition to extend their pre-trial detention, the student activists still face up to seven years in prison for breaking the junta’s laws against public gatherings and “sedition.”

Human rights groups have criticized the junta’s prosecution of civilians through military courts and had pressed for the release of the group, which is affiliated with the anti-junta New Democracy Movement (NDM). While the release order was a rare promising development, a board member of Amnesty International Thailand has also since been charged with sedition for showing support for the 14 students, while the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is also under scrutiny for its coverage of their demonstration.

The activists led a march through Bangkok on June 25. They stopped at landmarks to the country’s 1973 student uprising and the memorial to the 1976 Thammasat University student massacre before assembling at the capital’s Democracy Monument, where they delivered speeches denouncing the military junta, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order.

“If we are to be punished by the NCPO, we are willing to accept it,” Rangsiman Rome, one of the activists from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, remarked to reporters at the time. “But our acceptance does not mean that we recognize that our actions are illegal.”

The following day, the 14 protest leaders were arrested, interrogated, and remanded in custody.

On the other side of Bangkok, Supinya Klangnarong and her colleagues at the independent National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) received a formal complaint from the military’s media oversight committee asking that they look into Thai PBS’s reporting on the NDM demonstration.

Speaking to VICE News over the phone, she expressed her initial surprise that Thai PBS of all stations had been cited.

“If you compare media, free-to-air TV stations already exercise a lot of self-censorship and won’t violate the law,” Supinya said, though she acknowledged that political pressure had increased the targeting of media outlets. “There have been a lot more complaints based on political reporting compared to before the coup.”

Authorities have cracked down harshly on dissenting voices since the country’s military seized power from the popularly elected government in May 2014. Hundreds of civilians have since been prosecuted in military courts, many of them university students.

The arrest of seven student activists who protested in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen in May drew the ire of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

“The government should open up space for different opinions and expressions as a genuine democracy cannot be driven by force or suppression,” the organization’s executive director said in a statement.

The arrest and detention of the 14 NDM activists the following month helped prompt a wider backlash among local and international human rights groups.

On July 3, scores of ordinary Thais expressed their solidarity by writing messages of support on Post-it notes along a skywalk in central Bangkok. Days earlier, a group of nearly 300 academics released a statement praising the activists before declaring, “only a tyrant would react using brute force and enforcement of barbaric laws on students using their citizens’ rights to call for reinstatement of internationally-held values and governance.”

In statements released last week, the European Union’s office in Thailand called the arrests a “disturbing development” and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the junta to drop the criminal charges.

“The OHCHR is concerned criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary or proportional,” it said.

Yet not everyone feels such sympathy for the activists or their cause. In Khon Kaen, where the seven student activists were arrested in May, some 100 people gathered for the second time in a week to denounce the students detained in Bangkok. Outside the courthouse earlier today, a crowd of pro-democracy supporters roundly booed a middle-aged man who appeared holding up a sign that read: “A good dictator is better than a bad democracy.”

The ruling NCPO has been fairly dismissive of both the international criticism and the activists themselves. Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukontapatipak, the official spokesperson of the NCPO, said that while he understood the objections of international bodies, they “lack a true understanding” of the political context.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former armed forces commander who was appointed prime minister last August by a parliament that he personally selected, also pushed back.

“Thailand has its own laws to follow,” he said earlier this month. “I’ve not abused my power, nor have I violated anyone’s rights, except for [the rights of] those who refused to play by the rules.”

Despite such bluster, the public relations aspect of the case appears to have had some effect on the decision to release the students from pre-trial detention. Expectations of this were raised after Prayuth himself was recently reported to have said that he had offered suggestions to the “judicial side” on how to manage the case.

“The court’s decision today is just window dressing to reduce pressure,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VICE News. He sees Thailand continuing to sink further into dictatorship despite the NCPO’s promised “Roadmap to Democracy.”

“Prayuth declared that his orders are the law and violators will be prosecuted in a military court,” Sunai said. “There are rolling repressions on fundamental rights and freedom. Nothing has changed.”

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With Historic Elections Approaching, the People of Yangon Ponder Their Fate

Script from the hour-long PRI radio program on Burma, published April 23 2015

Yangon Mosque Pagoda 2

In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.

Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.

“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.

Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.

“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.

A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.

“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.

Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.

“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.

With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.

“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.

Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.

“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.

For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.

David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.

“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.

“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.

While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.

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The Chinatowns of East Burma

First Published in Roads and Kingdoms, 20th April 2015


From the top of a hill on the Burmese borderlands, a 30-foot tall golden Buddha stands in the cool breeze and solemnly watches over Mong La, a gambling mecca that has come to symbolize much of this border regions’ most peculiar aspects. Less than a mile from the statue’s back is China, whose influence over the town looms much larger than the Buddha’s.

Shadowing China’s southern Yunnan province within Burma’s Shan state, a number of ethnic armed groups have governed a landmass the size of Switzerland for more than two decades. Through a shared history of conflict and détente, these groups have helped form an eccentric region that is today more Yunnan than Yangon.

Three main groups can claim de facto control of this peculiar region: the powerful Wa and their United Wa State Army (UWSA); Kokang and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), itself split in allegiances; and Mong La, under their National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS).

Together, they once formed the core of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a one-time major actor in an ongoing ethnic conflict—one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. With backing from China just across the porous border, the CPB were able to maintain effective resistance to central Burma for a number of decades before finally succumbing to pressures in 1989.

The reformist Deng Xiaoping, China’s then Premier, was never too happy with the CPB’s hard-line Maoist stance; Deng himself was twice purged during China’s Cultural Revolution. Moreover, Deng’s economic-reform mentality meant improved relations with Burma’s military government was almost inevitable. This reality left the CPB, already struggling with internecine ethnic tensions, feeling somewhat isolated and vulnerable. The Kokang were the first to split, signing a ceasefire with Burma in 1989. The Wa and Mong La quickly followed suit.

Yet the initial ceasefire agreements did not lead to a peace treaty or any integration of the region. Far from it, the groups demanded, and received, conditions that granted a great deal of autonomy, including the retention of their military capacity. It’s estimated that today the UWSA alone has command of over 30,000 men.

This limbo between war and peace continued for the next two decades, and, in its own way, the region thrived: The respective rulers remained close to one another and governed their fiefdoms unmolested. So while their counterparts in the Burmese Military ran a repressive crony operation with underhand business dealings, the heads of the border regions followed their own injurious path and raised revenue through drugs and shady business deals with their partners in Yunnan.

Over the past year Mong La has found itself the subject of renewed interest, its notoriety growing with each new sensational “exposé.” Recent coverage from the BBCTIME and the New York Times paint a shallow but vivid picture of a “City of Sin,” a “Burmese Las Vegas,” a debauched “Wild East” outside the control of Burma’s central government. The region, and this town in particular, was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I had to see it for myself.

After taking off from Yangon, I survey the changing terrain below from the window of a slim and rather splendid ATR72 propeller plane. We fly north, roughly following the flat basin of the Irrawaddy River before veering east after Mandalay, the landscape slowly transforming into a canvas of green, undulating hills. Along a small plateau, I spot my last stop, Kyaing Teung, situated in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, and just 52 miles southwest of Mong La.

Kyaing Teung is a rather beautiful town where gentle hills are dotted with golden pagodas and several bodies of water, including the picturesque Naung Tong Lake. It’s a fairly popular tourist destination and is also, incidentally, home to liaison offices for both Mong La and the Wa.

While relations remain cordial, a special permit is still needed to pass the numerous military checkpoints between the Kyaing Teung and Mong La. Thankfully, decades of uninterrupted peace between the NDAA-ESS and Burma proper have made acquiring that permit simple. No bribes are paid and no suspicious officials provoke or prevaricate.

Soon after I find myself in a breathtaking drive through the Shan hills—breathtaking in part because of the untouched green vistas, and in part because of the blind hairpin corners that we round with gusto. The severity of the land makes it clear why Shan was never truly under the control of the British colonizers when they claimed dominion over Burma.

The region has long been ruled through a number of separate principalities, each under their respective Sawbwas, or Lords of the Sky. These old rulers were once the only way the British, and the Burmese after them, contrived to enforce any influence over the domineering lands of Shan. A single group hoping to control the entire region would struggle with the harsh terrain, and today, in their own way, the ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography.

The location of these groups—immediately along the border with China—has provided them with a degree of covert, and not so covert, trade and support that has proven invaluable to their development and survival. Paul Keenan, a senior researcher on the region for the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, told me that he couldn’t imagine with whom else these groups were doing business, other than with the Chinese in Yunnan.

Yet recent history has seen big changes that hint to a potential geopolitical shift. Burma’s military government, for several decades ruled under a self-imposed isolationist policy drearily titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” has opened up in the last five years and made rapid steps towards reform and liberalisation. As a result, Western sanctions have been dropped and Burma now promises a future of increased capability.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy, extractive and development projects throughout Burma, including $2.54 billion oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal through to Yunnan, its conduits flirting with the boundaries of Kokang, where recent fighting has raised apprehensive eyebrows on both sides of the border.

Back in the taxi, I check my watch, trying to estimate how close we are to entering Mong La, the de facto capital of the zone known as Special Region 4. The driver rounds yet another speculative corner with unabashed confidence and I suddenly find myself upon a sharp valley.

The dark green hills on either side loom ominously over the road. As we draw closer I begin to notice four or five camouflaged pillboxes embedded in the hills and pointlessly try to peer into the black slits. I have no idea if they are occupied or empty. A handsome guard with a rifle waves us to stop and takes my permit while I cautiously survey the rest of the checkpoint from my passenger seat. Planted all over are flags with the insignia of the NDAA-ESS.

“Welcome to Special Region 4,” reads a large, peeling sign.

Strangely enough, within Special Region 4 even the land itself seems to change. The terrain no longer feels as unsullied—even the gentler hills give the impression they have been tended to by a prodigious landscaper. For the first time in the trip we run into real traffic. Huge lorries grunt their way up inclines, some filled with basic aggregate; others carrying dozens of metal barrels, black oil leaking from the rust. The Chinese company names “LiuGong” and “Sinomach” are proudly emblazoned on most of the machinery.

Our road detours onto a rough, loose gravel path while what looks like a four-lane highway nears completion. The air is filled with yellow dust and the hills exposed of their red-brown rocks. Alongside the road, indigenous trees are mostly felled, replaced instead with banana and watermelon plantations. Construction is underway everywhere.

We round another corner and a large, gleaming-white casino garishly called Galaxyse appears. Just beyond it, a pristine golf course stretches away from sight. Where once there were huts and agriculture, now there is high speed Internet, pristine fairways, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

Looking around, it’s hard to believe that 20 minutes earlier I was high in the untouched greenery of the Shan mountains. It’s hard to believe I’m still in Burma at all.


In the near distance I begin to see an outline of the town itself, or rather, I can make out the tall hotels that could only mean Mong La. My taxi driver pulls up outside the central market and I slowly trudge my way to a nearby hotel where a Chinese-American friend, who had arrived from China two days before, was waiting.

The city itself is surprisingly simple, almost quaint if not for the hotels and heavy construction. Acting as locus is the marketplace, a square some 400 meters in length, split into quadrants and with a tiny roundabout at the middle. Nearby, the muddy Namp Ma creek oozes through the town and above, some distinctly Burmese Pagodas dot the hills, arguably the only real reminder that you are not on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s true that many shops still carry the Burmese script, but it’s difficult to see them as much other than a forgotten footnote; the Burmese on many signs often left to fade away with time.

In my early vigor I begin making note of every distinctly Chinese thing I see. The architecture, the signs, the language, the cell phone networks, the shops, the money, the power grid, the food—it all screams China. The town, as my friend puts it, “looks almost like any other fourth-tier industrial Chinese town.”

After our quick tour, my friend and I sit down in a central market drinking station and call over the owner-cum-waiter. A moustachioed man from Nanjing strolls over and brings us two of the house beers: Tsingtao.

I sit back and casually watch the other punters at our host’s bar. It’s suddenly clear that the very tables at which we are sitting also double up as automated electronic mahjong tables. Gambling is technically illegal in both Burma and China, so I guessed everyone was seemingly making the most of any opportunity. I soon afterwards realized that such opportunities are practically everywhere.

Early the next morning, my friend and I decide to venture to the corner of the market where the endangered animal goods are sold. When we arrive just a few sleepy men and women display their illicit goods among fishmongers and vendors of watermelons. The most objectionable artifacts on offer—pangolin hides, tiger penis, bear paws—were surprisingly few in number and of questionable authenticity.


A little underwhelmed, that evening we passed the town’s red light district where healthy looking women handed out business cards and spoke cordially with enquiring Chinese men. Many simply hung out in their open brothels, talking and laughing amongst themselves.

It occurred to me that once this border region’s obscure context is considered, Mong La’s mystical aura quickly disappears and the city’s peculiarities become more typical of the region at large. In Wa, the UWSA have built Chinese-backed casinos too. The signs in Wa and Kokang are in Chinese, and the most common language used is Chinese. Most towns here, like Mong La, are hooked to China’s electricity grid and prefer the use of the renminbi. Yet the commonalities run deeper than just appearances or exploits in the illicit.

After decades of cross-border contact, intermarriages have further clouded already blurry ethnic lines and regional relationships. Many people carry two spellings of their name: one Chinese and one Burmese. The leader of Mong La is a case in point and starting with him, we quickly discern one example of relations that run across the entire borderlands.

Sai Leun (or Lin Minxian) is Shan-Chinese, a known drug lord and the son-in-law of Peng Jiasheng, the long-time ruler of the Kokang region.

Peng Jiasheng, an ethnic Han Chinese octogenarian druglord, commanded the CPB’s Kokang forces in the 1980s, and later spent time in Panghsang, the one-time capital of the CPB, now the de facto capital of Wa State.

The Wa, for their part, are the strongest ethnic armed group in the country. Their 30,000 fighters pose a serious deterrent to any consideration of intervention by the Burmese government. Yet more than their numbers, the UWSA have a capable military arsenal that is almost entirely obtained from China.

A Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) member put these dynamics in layman’s terms when we met before my trip: “The Kokang and Mong La won’t do anything without consulting the Wa, and the Wa won’t do anything without speaking to China.”

Yet with Beijing entering into ever more lucrative deals with Burma proper, the ethnic armed leaders and their business partners in Yunnan – those most invested in consolidating the status quo – recognise a changing landscape. Too much ostentatious chaos could now risk an intervention from Beijing or Naypyidaw; an intervention that would imperil the fiefdoms they have come to dominate and profit from.

These dynamics came to light when Peng Jiasheng was ousted from Kokang in 2009 after the Burmese exploited a split in his MNDAA. Almost none of the other groups stepped in to help. It seemed that at least one group in the region had fallen under the control of the Burmese government. But earlier this year Peng Jiasheng came back with a vengeance. On February 9, just three days before the country commemorated Union Day, he launched a bloody counter-offensive to regain control and the fighting remains unresolved—a nearly impossible feat without some kind of support, or so the Burmese government says.

The accusations have been flying thick and fast: Who is helping Peng Jiasheng to reclaim Kokang? China, the Wa, and Mong La have all had to deny supporting the ageing warlord.

So while the fighting in Kokang continues, and the accusations towards China, the Wa, and Mong La persist, construction grows in the de facto capital of Special Region 4. Chinese tourists are the bread and butter of Mong La, and hotels with names promoting the tripled symbol, jin, or gold, continue to promise riches to their guests. Gambling is the main attraction now.

Back in Mong La’s marketplace from my seat at the aptly named Kokang restaurant, I watch while the other men and women ready themselves for yet more gambling. Everyone carries a bulging man bag of cash, slung over a shoulder or tied to the waist. Cars bearing the license plates “SR4…” registered in Mong La, “SHN…” registered in Shan, and several Chinese license plates, registered in Yunnan, once again head out into the night for the chance to make a fortune, or lose it all.

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An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

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April 9, 2015 · 11:15

In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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