Until I landed back in Brisbane on July 12, 2006, I had been home but twice since February 2000. Just days before parties unknown had rifled through my house in Bangkok and stolen portable hard drives, MP3 players, thumb drives — pretty much anything information might have been stored on. They left wads of US dollars, Malaysian ringgit and Philippine pesos, just sitting in a drawer. It wasn’t money they were after.
A couple of days later my visa was cancelled and my passport stamped indicating that I was to report to the immigration police postehaste.
And following that direction would have meant a stay in a Bangkok immigration holding pen mostly populated by African drug mules.
Producing my passport became a liability, my house was no longer secure and I was being tailed and harassed. Checking into hotels meant producing the passport, the hotels had to report the names and passport details of their guests once a day. It was enough. I couldn’t afford to keep flipping from one hotel to another my life had been threatened repeatedly.
I made a desperate call to The Courier Mail foreign desk, it was a weekend and the foreign editor, David Costello, had the day off.
“Get me out of here, I’m hunkered down in a hotel… send money, something, I’m just a reporter,” was the plea Geoff Shearer, who I had known years before at News Ltd suburbans in Brisbane, relayed to Dave. Dave called, I told him my troubles, the visa, the sneaking suspicion something very bad would happen if I stuck around.
The managing editor, Steve Gibbons, called — said he couldn’t get money, but he could get me a ticket. “Did I want that?” he said.
“Oh yeah,” I said. In about 20 minutes Steve’s secretary called and gave me my flight number. I walked over to a 7-Eleven and bought some beer and cigarettes and went back to my room, the whole trip took five minutes. I found a hotel employee rifling through my stuff, which amounted to my passports, some receipts and a copy of the morning’s Nation with notes and phone numbers written all over it. She must have thought I’d be gone for a while and was startled by my return and quickly dived out of the room, apologising as she went. She had been going through the pages of my passport with pen and paper in hand, I don’t know what she was writing. I deadlocked the door, propped up a chair at the desk and continued reading “Living to tell the Tale”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s first volume of a trilogy autobiography. I drank the beers and thought I might be safe for the first time in a while.
It was starting to sink in, I was going to lose everything I could not carry with me the following night on the plane. At about 4am, a soldier of the Karen National Liberation Army dropped in, Glock holstered, to make sure I wasn’t dead. I switched over to the Gideon’s for a while.
Back and forth I read between the two, all the while pinching myself awake and watching the door.
The political situation in Thailand at that time was dynamite. Huge rallies gathered, demanding Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation, and they were shadowed by mobs of the PM’s supporters, with plenty of armed policemen and soldiers looking on from a distance. The government had actually called in special forces units from Chon Buri, three hours down the road, for the biggest protests, mustering hundreds of thousands of people. There were four-line reports of mob riots flowing into the newsroom every day, newspaper offices had been fire-bombed.
The compound of The Nation, the newspaper I worked for, was one day surrounded by a mob of about 3000 people who arrived in mini-buses and brought with them marquis tents and a seemingly endless supply of bottled water. Protesters they called themselves, and quizzed by journalists about what went on in the building they had laid siege to, one grumpy indignant woman replied: “Yes, they make batteries”.
Journalists were locked in and night editors locked out by a tide of people. A sub’s desk was set up next to the press 19kms down the road and we made the paper there, emailing back and forth to the besieged compound. There were two larger-than-life, filthy-rich characters locked in a struggle for power. The endemically corrupt Thai political system was folding in on itself in a fit of indignation in 2006. It seemed the prime minister had sold the country down the drain and made an untouchable, tax-free fortune doing so. He had sold the country’s largest telecommunications company, AIS, to Temasek, an investment arm of Singapore’s government. The deal’s hardware inluded the world’s largest telecommunications satellite, just launched. Thaicom 4 has a vast footprint that covers mainland Australia. Thaksin had made his fortune from that company and Thai people had paid for it. He sold it tax free via a labyrinth of offshore holding companies, one group known simply as Ample Rich.
When the deal became public knowledge anger grew and the rallies of a group known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy rapidly grew in numbers. The PAD was led by Sondhi LongThimkul, a media tycoon with a reputation for shutting up shop and not paying anyone when times were bad. It was fortuitous for the PAD when the Temasek deal went down, three days after Thaksin had decreed foreigners could own as much as a 49-per-cent stake in Thai telecommunications firms, a figure coinciding with the stake he had for sale. Sondhi had been staging weekly rallies for months, but he had momentum at the right time, rally numbers shot from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in a couple of weeks.
They began blockading city thoroughfares, shutting down vast shopping complexes catering to tourists and the rich. Important filthy-rich people were losing money, something had to bust.
I landed in Brisbane, numb from one shit day after the next. Brendan O’Malley tried to interview me at The Courier Mail, but we both agreed it wasn’t the time. I stayed a couple of days, meeting with Dave Waters from the MEAA, another old mate, who organised a hotel for me while I worked out what to do. I flew to Melbourne two days later, started writing a piece for The Courier and discovered my licence had been cancelled on the day I arrived home for an errant U-turn near the Exhibition Grounds in 1996.
Six weeks later and ABC Gippsland was reporting a military coup d’etat in Bangkok. Home sweet home. I started looking for a job. After two-and-a-half months on the family farm in Gippsland I landed in Hobart to work for The Mercury, numb from early October’s bluster.
I like the place more all the time.
The Courier Mail
Steep climb to a bleak future
On the Thai-Burmese border, the Karen people are battling for independence. But as Daniel Pedersen reports, life for these rebels is tough: they face forced labour, stolen harvests and the constant threat of being maimed by landmines.
The remnants of a people cling to a mountainside near Mae Sot in Thailand’s northern Tak province. At Umphien Mai refugee camp, just six kilometres from Burma, the Karen people subsist in a camp carved from the clay, an endless series of steps which they ply daily in a hopeless search for normality.
The Karen are the only Burmese ethnic minority not to have signed a peace deal with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma’s ruling military junta. And they are paying dearly for their quest for an independent state, which began in 1949.
The camp’s most senior monk, Na Ware, shakes his head — he disapproves of the peace deals struck with other states. “Look at the Mon, they have made an agreement with the SPDC and what good has it done them? All they have done is surrender their right to negotiate, they have totally surrendered their rights. And it is not the people’s will for such agreements, the people have no say in such agreements,” he said.
The peace deals have also freed many of the junta’s troops and they have turned their full attention to the systematic destruction of the Karen resistance movement. Na Ware supports the four guiding principles of the Karen state. “I have news from Burma that there will be demonstrations bigger than 1988 this year. The junta, they are in the process of preparing their soldiers for just such an event. They are trying to destroy the Karen people with cheap drugs, they are trying to divide the Karen people through religion.” He believes Aung San Suu Kyi has no hope of negotiating peace alone. “There must be intense pressure from the international community, otherwise all attempts at a negotiated settlement will fail. While some ethnic groups have entered negotiations with the junta, it will do them no good — refugees still keep spilling over the border,” he said. “The junta it is always at the ready, always on the alert.”
The state of the Karen people is one of utter disaster. In Umphien Mai refugee camp, home to more than 15,000 people, conditions are harsh. The camp itself is set on an unforgiving clay hillside. When the daily torrential rains of the wet season pound the mountain range dividing Burma and Thailand, the pathways linking the various sections of this massive shantytown become water courses. Movement becomes extremely difficult, each step a slippery obstacle to be negotiated with great care. And there are hundreds of thousands of steps in this remote camp.
When it is dry, movement for those who are healthy is easier, but the cold winds from the mountains drive waves of choking dust through the air. For the Karen however, there is one aspect to the camp that means people will walk for more than a month through heavily mined jungles to reach it. And that is that life may go on — in whatever degraded form it might take. For in this camp, separated by just one peak from the Karen homeland, there is less chance of being murdered by the military, or becoming part of a forced labour gang — or risking death as a human mine sweeper.
The Karen people are the victims of an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing the likes of which caused horror in former Yugoslavia and Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. In camps spread along the border anaemia and malnutrition are widespread, malaria a constant. Inside Burma the Karen people are forced to construct roads for no wages, used as porters to carry munitions and armaments for months at a time, and sometimes just simply murdered. There is no attempt to hide murders from the general populace, it is simply another tactic to force submission, or to create such fear that people take flight to Thailand. It works. At Umphien camp as many as 20 new families arrive monthly, but at times of intense military activity, such as in January when SPDC troops attacked two villages in the Myeik and Dawei areas, 1.100 people fled across the border in just a couple of days. Those who remain in Karen state, on the “inside”, must battle an epidemic plaguing their community — amphetamines.
The Thai government knows there are between 40 and 50 amphetamine factories along the Burmese border. The military estimates 600 million amphetamine pills were last year brought into the country from Burma. Once the drugs were predominantly produced in Shan state, along the Burmese-Chinese border. But now the Thai border is where most factories are based, and drug production has increased. Many of the pills are destined for Thailand, but around the factories extremely cheap drugs are made available to the local populace. It is a problem in the camps also, but the self-regulatory nature of the Karen refugees ensures it remains on the fringes. The future for the refugees is at best bleak, many say they are quite content to simply stay in the camp. They cannot imagine a time of peace in the Karen state, they have never known it.
Ley Thaw, 34, was a student at the time of the 1988 uprising. He fled the provincial capital of Pa-an and travelled to the border to play a coordinating role for students taking refuge in Thailand. He helped many young people flee and then chose to stay — he began teaching at Huay Kalok, an insecure border camp torched repeatedly by the junta and eventually closed. Teaching with a gun at his side, he instructed his students to stick together: should fighting break out, he would guide them to a safe place where they could again establish a makeshift classroom. Ley Thaw then began fighting with the Karen National Union’s Army, headed by General Bo Mya. In 1993, however, he was wounded by troops from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 with cosmetic hierarchical rearrangements). Shot from behind with an M-79 grenade launcher, he was hospitalised in Mae La refugee camp, the largest camp near Mae Sot, now home to more than 30,000 people. Would he again take up the fight against the junta? “I don’t want to kill anybody,” he said. “But if the UNHCR asks the refugees to return without adequate security arrangements I will not go, I will again take up a gun.”
For people such as Ley Thaw, life is tough, but Karen farmers are facing increased difficulty just existing as they have for hundreds of years. In the past six months the junta’s troops, once content with simply stealing farmers’ rice at harvest, have begun removing young rice seedlings. The field is then sown with landmines. Gera and his family began walking out of Karen state on July 12 and arrived at Umphien Mai on September 8. The rice farmer had had enough, he didn’t want to end up like his father Kin Ma, who had been killed 10 years ago while working as a porter for Burmese troops. He’d seen what a landmine had done to his father, both his legs were torn off by the blast and he died a slow agonising death.
For three years Gera had lived under the constant stare of Burmese military intelligence officers. In 1997 each brigade handpicked five of its most militant number to shed uniforms and become the eyes and ears of the military in the regional villages. These groups, said Gera, have more power than the military. If they dislike a particular villager, or they know people have relatives in the camps, they are at liberty to kill them. They are all-powerful and instil terror in the villagers, they may go to people’s homes day or night and execute them. There is nothing clandestine about their activities. “If you are seen gathered in groups of more than five you are considered to be plotting against the government, that means a seven year jail term. “The military comes into the villages and takes people at random to act as porters, we are forced to carry munitions and communications gear, but then there is no-one to look after our farms.
“Sometimes we are forced to work for the soldiers for three months at a time, and if you become too exhausted to keep moving they just kill you and walk on.”
Ma Cho is a 31-year-old refugee who arrived at Umphien Mai on September 13. She stayed in her beloved Pa-an as long as she could. She had been paying the military 200 Kyat (Bt1,310) often, so she was not forced to act as a porter. But her family could earn a daily income of only 150 Kyat, selling fried fish from a small cart. And with the increased military presence in Karen state, the soldiers visited more often. “They always took at least five people from each village per brigade, but then some brigades demand more money than others, some ask for 200 Kyat, others for 300. My family had no choice, we could feed ourselves with the fish we caught, but we had no money to pay the military anymore,” she said. “Festive occasions are the worst, that’s when they simply walk in and demand 500 Kyat. “If you have no money, they arrest you.” Ma Cho lost her brother to a landmine while he was working as a porter. She has two children, one who is nine she has brought to the camp.
Another, just seven, she has left in Pa-an. She is staying with people she knows until she can somehow begin to build her own life in the camp. A moment’s silence follows her story and she begins to weep. One of the camp’s senior men, in his 60s, offers her some comfort and a Karen language book.
It is titled “We Cannot Forget”. To possess the volume inside Burma is punishable by death. Bribes of Bt200 to Bt400 create access to areas the poor cannot afford, such as the nearby town of Mae Sot, where a little labouring work can sometimes be found. Demand from Thai businesses certainly exists, and many lament the ongoing deportation of their workers. The Karen are a cheap source of labour and the economies of scale of factories in Tak province demand cheap labour. A Burmese labourer will work for Bt70 daily, as opposed to the minimum wage for Thais of Bt162. But recent crackdowns by the Thai military and police are once again forcing hundreds of people back into Burma daily.
People are loaded into trucks and shunted back along “special” routes inside Burma. They are prodded like cattle with long poles into the trucks because they lack appropriate identification. Such identification takes the form of a Polaroid snapshot with a number held before their chest. For them the future is uncertain, but SPDC authorities will be waiting to greet them when they arrive home. Late at night, sipping weak black tea in a shelter-cum-cafe a refugee in his mid-twenties succumbs to his frustration at life as a refugee since he was just eight years old. There is a cold wind blowing through the makeshift walls and he is braced against it. “They chose this place, because one thing the refugee knows, they want us to go home, that’s why they chose this site.” He hates the camp, he hates the Thais, he hates the junta.
He is Karen and his people are dying.
Next instalment: A catalogue of Daniel Pedersen’s life as a journalist in Asia …
Daniel Pedersen On the Thai coup
Journalist Daniel Pedersen has recently moved to Tasmania after six years roving and reporting from South East Asia on everything from coups and corruption to Karen rebels. He has put together what he calls an eclectic collection of writings, gathered mostly between 2000 and 2006 in a hurried attempt to sketch out one chapter of a reporter’s life and: “just to make sure it happened”! In his first two installments, Pedersen writes from Thailand on the 2006 coup and from the Thai-Birmese border on the plight of the Karen rebels.