Category Archives: Thailand

Lethal Fluctuations: The Death Penalty in Asia

The Malaysian government last year expressed a surprise change of heart on a policy long held dear; it would reconsider the death penalty. The case of Muhammad Lukman, sentenced to death in August for the purchase and sharing of medicinal marijuana, did much to stimulate outrage.  On October 10th, law minister Liew Vui Keong announced that it would be abolished.  Doing so would leave such last bastions as Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

In other parts, capital punishment is either continuing its grim dance (in Singapore, usage is on the rise; in Vietnam, it remains consistently high) or getting back in business, singing its deadly siren song.  Killing people in the name of state vengeance is becoming vogue even as it retreats in other contexts.  The Kingdom of Brunei, despite having it on the books since the days of being a British protectorate, is only now contemplating, in all seriousness, putting people to death who have a liking for, or find themselves committing, sodomy.  (Lesbian reverie will see a penalty of 40 lashes and a potential prison sentence of 10 years.)

In the Philippines, an aggressive, insistent President Rodrigo Duterte has proven something of a trail blazer, scorching his way through human rights quibbles and filling the morgues.   In July 2017, he explained the rationale for using capital punishment without mercy in his second State of the Nation Address (SONA).  “It is time for us to fulfil our mandate to protect our people.  Tapos na’yan.  For so long we have to act decisively on this contentious issue.  Capital punishment is not only about deterrence, it’s also about retribution.”

Duterte’s view of the penal code is stripped of ornate reasoning.  It is one of vengeance and pessimism, marshalled against any hope of restorative justice or therapeutic reform.  The law, a legacy of the Spaniards and then translated into English, with revisions, “is the essence of retribution.”  The attitude there involved “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  You took life, you must pay with it.  That is the only way to even.  You can’t place a premium on the human mind that he will go straight.”

The result has been one of carnage: over 5,000 deaths between July 1, 2016 and November 30, 2018, if you believe the official figures, or the greater number of 12,000, if you believe in activist assessments.  This pool drew on a total of 164,265 arrests (“drug personalities”, no less) as part of 115,435 anti-drugs operations.

In Sri Lanka, the interest has also been rekindled, inspired, in no small part, by the blood lust of the Philippines leader.  The Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena felt moved by Duterte’s efforts to combat drug trafficking, a true “example to the world”.  “I hope to carry out the first hanging within a month or two.  I appeal to human rights organisations not to try to pressure us on this decision.”  From a prison population of 1299 facing capital punishment, 48 are convicted drug offenders.

The Sri Lankan case had a twist.  While Sirisena had announced an end to the 43-year moratorium on capital punishment for drug-related crimes, complemented by Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale’s clearing of the decks for five drug convicts to be dispatched, a reality started to sink in: the state lacked the necessary trained instruments of death.  The moratorium had been so lengthy so as to make the system rust.  Expertise in breaking necks, in other words, was lacking. The last executioner to reach retirement age left the post in 2014.  Three others have spent short stints gazing at unused gallows without rewarded effort.

Advertisements to fill the vacancy were duly put out for two hangmen.  In the Daily News, a call out for applications with “an excellent moral character” was made.  They would also have to pass a test of “mind and mental strength”.

Such debates about the formalised death penalty in the Philippines and Sri Lanka avoid the obvious point.  Where to with the death squads who have donned extra-judicial uniforms?  Duterte’s encouragement of police brutality and extra-judicial killings (“my only sin,” he claims) is the stuff of legend.  Sri Lanka can also count itself as an enthusiast in the extra-judicial killing game.  In some states, the death penalty, dormant or otherwise, is a reminder about how state operatives go about their business of sowing terror when they prefer to avoid courts.

While the death penalty has, at its core, a flawed philosophy, its attractiveness often lies in its sheer conclusiveness.  Such decisions are final, doing away with the problem.  They are economic – a corpse is less of a strain on the public purse than a living inmate.  To that end, imposing the death penalty can result from trivial impulses.

Such monstrous triviality was recently in play in Thailand. In Phuket, the airport authorities have been entertaining the possibility of grave punishments for those taking “selfies” on Mai Khao Beach, a site known for sightings of low, incoming aircraft.

“People and tourists will not be allowed to enter this area to take photos,” an emphatic Phuket airport chief Wichit Kaeothaithiam has claimed.  He issued further warnings: no drones, no shining lights, quite frankly nothing at all to distract incoming planes, would be tolerated.  Violating the provisions of the Air Navigation Act was a matter, quite literally, of death.  “The maximum penalty is the death sentence.”  Distractive idiocy, the authorities in Phuket suggest, is no excuse.

Southeast Asia Terribly Damaged but Lauded by West

Come to Southeast Asia and enjoy beaches, cheap sex and raunchy massage parlors. Hang around this part of the world in whichever way you like; wearing flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts. You were told that ‘everything is easy here, that things are cheap and people are friendly and happy’. Do what you want, as almost everything is allowed, especially if you are from the West, and have plenty of cash and some credit cards in your pockets.

That’s what your simplified perception of Southeast Asia is supposed to be. This stereotype has been created, refined and fine-tuned, then finally hammered into the subconscious of the people in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. It has been done consistently, for many years and decades, until these lies, repeated a thousand times, have replaced reality. As a result, tens of millions of holiday-makers, sexual tourists, adventurers and single men on power trips, descend on Southeast Asia, annually. Most of them do not see anything, and they do not hear. Most of them leave for home after getting suntanned, a bit fatter, and much more confident. They come with clearly formed ideas, and they leave without learning much.

Most of the ‘visitors’ do not want to be disturbed by reality, because the reality could be extremely unsavory, even horrifying.

The ‘hidden’ and extremely uncomfortable truth is: most of Southeast Asia is actually absolutely unfit for tourism. It is deeply, and terribly injured, even, a broken part of the world which has never been allowed to leave its brutal, feudal system behind.

Its people are barely surviving in the straight-jacket of extreme capitalism. All sorts of imported rubbish, from brainless pop music to the lowest grade of Hollywood films, junk food, mass media and ‘fashion’ as well as ‘me-me-me habits’ have been put to work in order to irreversibly ruin their traditional cultures. Generally, people here are unhappy; often thoroughly confused. Societies from Thailand to Indonesia and the Philippines are becoming increasingly violent. At the same time, the politically ‘pacified’ population does not rebel against the rulers in the West or its own servile elites: right-wing political and religious extremism are often the only ‘answers’ to popular outrage.

The land of Southeast Asia is devastated, as it is nowhere else on our planet; in fact, it has been totally plundered by unbridled mining, logging, palm oil and rubber plantations. The extraction of natural resources is done in a monstrous fashion; often by poisoning rivers with mercury, by cutting most of the primary forests down or by flattening entire mountains. From an airplane, places like the island of Borneo or Peninsular Malaysia appear as nothing less than hell on earth.

This vast part of the world with a total population of around 650 million, does not count on any renowned thinkers or scientists, and with the exception of Vietnam (which is Communist and therefore to a greater degree different) on even one single globally renowned writer or a film director.

All this is not supposed to be discussed ‘like this’; in this fashion. Writers and filmmakers, local and foreign both, are discouraged from describing and documenting what is right in front of their own eyes.

But why? How come that Southeast Asia has managed to escape almost entirely all the scrutiny by the Western mainstream media?

Half-wreck of Southeast Asia

It is because what I have just described above is nothing else other than a result of the monstrous mass murder, plunder and destruction, which has been perpetrated by the West. It has been happening all over here; in all corners of Southeast Asia. The destruction has been so appalling and frightening, that almost no liberals in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Canberra or Washington are willing to acknowledge it, instead sticking to bizarre clichés and glorification of the state to which the victims have been reduced to; in which they are forced to live.

Entire teams of academics, notably those at the Australian National University (ANU), but also at several other institutions, continuously repeat the official Western dogma, which describes Indonesia as ‘a normal country’.

But isn’t this what the so-called Western ‘political correctness’ is all about? Doesn’t it work like this: “A country is attacked, left-wing government gets overthrown, corrupt leaders put on thrones; then natural resources get plundered, and extreme right-wing ‘elites’ fully subservient to the West quickly steal everything from their country and people, while dutifully sharing the booty with Western corporations. The population gets indoctrinated, totally brainwashed and the opposition either murdered or scared into submission. And then, and then, the West ‘shows great respect’ for that local ‘culture’ and for ‘local people’. Read: respect for its own Frankenstein; for its own creations.

It goes without saying that this gangrenous monster which the West first created and then ordered everyone to ‘respect’, has nothing to do with the culture and ‘the people’.

In the end, the victims themselves, get methodically conditioned with tools such as mass media, ‘education’, and continuous propaganda dispensed by the political regime. They stop being aware of their own conditions. They become resigned.They become religious, submissive. They blame and fight each other, but never the true oppressors; never the regime.

The victims often feel they are not well, but they have no idea, why?

*****

For centuries, Southeast Asia suffered terribly at the hands of the French, Dutch, US and British colonizers. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the US forces brutally massacred around 1 million Filipinos, in their Asian colony.

Official independence from European and North American colonial masters did not stop the suffering of the people.

After WWII, no other part of the world endured more Western massacres and terror than Southeast Asia. Not even Africa, the Middle East or Latin America. The numbers are truly striking.

The West’s lovely ‘holiday destinations’ inhabited by ‘friendly locals’, were carpet-bombed, and poisoned by chemical weapons. Millions of people were slaughtered; by injected military regimes, by monarchs, by elites and military juntas. Not unlike in Latin America, but with numbers astronomically higher, because the West never considered Asian people to be equal human beings (For instance: around 2 million Indonesians were slaughtered during the 1965 military coup of General Suharto. The coup perpetrated by General Pinochet in Chile, in 1973, took lives of 2-3 thousand people. Adjusted to the numbers of people living in both countries, Indonesia still lost approximately ten times more people than Chile).

Everyone knows about the suffering of Vietnam, under French brutal colonial rule, and then, during the terrorist war unleashed against the country by the US and its allies. But no one really knows, precisely, how many Vietnamese people died. The number of victims goes in to millions. At least 4 million Vietnamese citizens vanished.

 

Laos and the so-called ‘side-kick’ or ‘Secret War’ was even worse, on a per capita basis. Hundreds of thousands vanished in this sparsely populated country, which is inhabited by humble and gentle people. Strategic B-52 bombers were deployed against farmers and their water buffalos, using evil cluster bombs that are, to this day, killing thousands, all over the Laotian countryside. There was no reason for this brutal, monstrous genocide, except some abstract ‘concern’ in Washington that this poor nation could follow Vietnam’s example and ‘go Communist’ (it did, after it tasted true Western ‘democracy’, literally on its skin).

Cambodia – a country where the West nurtured corrupt and brutal elites in Phnom Penh, and then began the same monstrous carpet-bombing campaign as in Laos, against unarmed, desperately poor peasants, using B-52s, killing hundreds of thousands, and displacing millions. People lost their minds from the horrors of the bombing. They were also driven from their land, and began dying from famine. Dismal situation opened doors to Khmer Rouge, which the US decisively supported (on the battlefield and at the UN), even after this deranged murderous group got defeated by heroic Communist forces of Vietnam.

Thailand – country which has been choked by car industry and monstrous form of extreme capitalism, while upholding its backward feudal system. Thailand with countless military coups designed to sustain pro-Western monarchy. Thailand, which accepted on its turf part of defeated Chinese anti-Communist army, and ‘put it to work ‘almost immediately’, allowing it to massacre substantial part of its own left-wing movements. Thai state that massacred and raped its own students, and butchering thousands of Cambodian refugees. Thailand that technically attacked both Vietnam and Laos, by flying Air America missions against those countries, opening its airports to the West, while selling its own women in countless brothels in Pattaya and elsewhere, to the Western pilots and ground staff.

Indonesia, where the 1965 US and UK -sponsored military coup against left-wing President Sukarno and (then) the third largest Communist Party in the world (PKI), took the lives of between 1 and 3 million people, installing perhaps the most grotesque fascist extreme-capitalist regime on earth. Indonesia, where all the great artists and thinkers were killed, or imprisoned in the Buru concentration camp, and, where the West helped to install a totally brainless system de-intellectualizing the nation and forcing it back to the Middle Ages. Indonesia, where secularism is now collapsing, and where, during the upcoming April 2019 elections, voters will decide between an inept and weak pro-capitalist leader, and a truly fascist military mass murderer.

East Timor (Timor Leste) – a tiny country which was overrun by Indonesia in 1975, shortly after it gained independence from Portugal, under the leadership of the left-wing FRETILIN movement. The right-wing dictator of Indonesia – Suharto – declared that he was ‘not going to tolerate a second Cuba near its shores’, and got a big pat on his back, as well as full support from the US, UK and Australia. The result: around 30% of the entire population of East Timor vanished during the occupation. Countless Indonesian leaders, including the former President ‘SBY’, served there. If Indonesia was a ‘normal country’, these individuals would now be facing long jail sentences for genocide, or in some cases, a firing squad.

In West Papua – hundreds of thousands of people have already died, also under the Indonesian genocidal occupation, which is fully supported by the West, because Papua, like Borneo (which is known in Indonesia as Kalimantan) is getting thoroughly plundered by multi-national companies, of course, under the careful supervision of Indonesian military forces. Horrors like the state-sponsored ‘trans-migration’ policy, designed to make people of Papua a minority on their own island, are ongoing and relentless. The people, who have lost everything under the occupation, are forced to convert to Islam, and they are also forced to abandon their way of life and their land. What Indonesia does in West Papua is nothing less than genocide. It is not only the killing and rape, of which its military could be accused of.

The plunder of Papuan resources is as deadly for many other reasons; it is like if the force would be used to ‘open up’ vast parts of the Amazonia or Orinoco basins in South America – areas inhabited by indigenous tribes that have never come in contact with the outside world. Even the most insane right-wing presidents of Brazil or Venezuela (of the past), would never dream about such brutal genocidal undertakings (although this may change under the fascist presidency of Bolsonaro in Brazil). In West Papua, dozens of fragile cultures are disappearing. People who have never come into contact with the ‘outside world’ are being forced out of their rainforest, as trees are cut down and mining companies, backed by the Indonesian armed forces, ransack the land. Defenseless tribal people are dying from diseases and hunger, at the same time as corrupt Indonesian officials and businessmen are burning money in Jakarta’s overprized malls, as well as in Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong. And now, thousands of Western tourists fly into West Papua, to Raja Ampat, which is becoming an ‘in place’ for diving!

Malaysia had its own share of inter-religious conflicts, although never at the level of neighboring Indonesia. Nature in Malaysia, almost like in Indonesia, is totally devastated, due to massive palm oil plantations and mining.

The Philippines lived through horrific decades of US neo-colonialism, experiencing the similar extreme capitalism that has been imposed on Indonesia. Only in the recent years, sound social policies have been introduced, and a moratorium on mining, at least in some parts of the Mindanao Island, has been enforced.

Brunei, one of the richest exporters of oil on earth, is now governed by Sharia Law, which, at least in theory, allows amputations, flogging, stoning and other religious practices. Another place where such regressive brutality is officially allowed is in an autonomous province of Indonesia – Aceh.

*****

I worked in this apart of the world for decades. I covered countless horrors and conflicts in Indonesia. I used to live in Hanoi, and I covered in-depth the situation in Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Papua. I covered East Timor, during the occupation, and was tortured there by Indonesian forces. It happened after I exposed mass rape in Ermera town.

Right now, I am working on a detailed and shocking documentary film about the total environmental destruction of Borneo.

As a local (I actually feel like a ‘local’ in all parts of the world), I often look at the Western travelers visiting this part of the world, and I am wondering, sincerely: are they really so ignorant about the past and the present of Southeast Asia? Or perhaps, are they making sure not to know?

Are they ‘enjoying themselves’, surrounded by devastated nature, privatized and ruined beaches, and a deranged culture? Do they feel powerful, unique, superior, because their countries managed to destroy the entire Southeast Asia, bringing it into shameful submission? Is it, at least partially, why they are here?

Don’t they see? The Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok have become thoroughly grotesque: everything has been stolen along the coasts, people forced out of their dwellings, and the culture has been fully ruined. Bali suffers from traffic jams and pollution, from over-population, poverty and filth. There is hardly anything pristine there, now. ‘Culture’ is only for sale!

The coastline of Thailand is totally finished. The once pristine islands are now dotted with mass-produced, low quality market towns, with makeshift bungalows and ugly concrete structures. There are standardized, repetitive ‘offerings’, most of them of extremely low-quality. There are Thai and Western ‘beach food’, bad old (Western) pop music, countless massage parlors and ersatz bars. There is almost nothing truly Thai left on the Thai coastline. Thai women, the poorest of the poor, many from the north of the country, walk in flip-flops and tasteless T-shirts hand in hand with Western grandfathers, some of them in their 80’s. What a sight!

Everything feels ‘forced’, unnatural, and in terrible taste: in Indonesian ‘resorts’, on the Thai coast, and in the bars of the Philippines, as well as in Cambodia.

In and around Phnom Penh, ‘genocide tourism’ has reached its peak. It is fueled and sponsored by countless Western NGO’s, which are literally pimping the terrible Cambodian past as ‘proof’ that ‘Communism is evil’. Not a word about the fact that most of people who died here, were actually victims of the Western carpet-bombings and consequent famines, and that the Khmer Rouge was in reality a US-sponsored band of freaks, who knew very little about Communist ideology (I spent substantial time talking to them, deep in jungle, and most of them admitted that they had no clue about Marxism or Communism, when they were in power). But to the Westerners, genocide tourism is something thrilling, it represents ‘something new’; ‘something they did not experience before’. It is good for selfies and for colorful pub stories back at home. And Cambodia is now making huge money out of all this, willing to twist its own horrid past, just to gain some cash. Go to the villages and talk to people: they know the truth. But almost nobody goes. Not even the Western media.

The West has totally stolen historic narrative, all over Southeast Asia. Academia in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand is deeply influenced, and manipulated from abroad. ‘Soft power’ is being used; scholarships, funding and invitations to the ‘academic exchanges’.

Both the academic narrative and the mass media in Southeast Asia, are now much more “Westernized” than in the West itself.

*****

Clichés about this part of the world are mostly incorrect, in fact, surreal.

Despite the fact that it is suffering from the horrid religious intolerance, racism and perpetual conflicts and tensions, Indonesia is portrayed in the West as ‘tolerant’. Not having one single political party that would represent the majority (which is poor), it is branded as ‘democratic’. A place where a Chinese, black, white or Papuan person can hardly make few steps without being insulted on the street, or being mocked for his or her appearance, Indonesia is described by the Western mass media as ‘friendly’.

 

Artwork at BACC, before Thai election

Thailand is the same.  A staunch ally of the West during the so-called Vietnam War, and ‘fight against Communism’, the Kingdom is portrayed as ‘Land of Smiles’. In fact, it has higher homicide rate per capita than the United States, and more female tourists are raped here, annually, than in South Africa. Smiles are reserved only for those who are ready to pay any price, without demanding much in return. Any confrontation here can easily deteriorate to violence. The West hardly ever criticizes outrageous capitalist models of Thailand or Indonesia, as well as collapsed infrastructure and inhuman city planning that is prioritizing motor vehicles and ruthless real estate developers over people. Bangkok and Jakarta are much more polluted than the Chinese cities, and Thai and Indonesian governments do almost nothing to change the situation. But, cliché says that it is dangerous to go to Beijing due to the air quality, while Bangkok or Jakarta are hardly ever mentioned.

*****

In Southeast Asia, deafening noise is often administered, in order to silence fear. Thinking is discouraged. It is considered impolite to discuss, to face terrible past and the present. Brainless banging into the phones is recommended. Social media is used here much more than anywhere in the world. While some countries like Indonesia have the lowest readership of books on earth, per capita.

In Hanoi:  Monument to Western Atrocities

Southeast Asia had been living through genocides, coups, and total submission to the Western masters and to savage capitalism. It has been robbed of its nature, and of natural resources. Its population has been ‘pacified’, forced into obedience and submission. Extreme religious concepts have been injected and upheld from abroad. Only in the Philippines is the situation now gradually changing. In Vietnam, the state is still strongly resisting subversion from the West, although the country had also been damaged to a great degree, by Western NGOs and social media. Elsewhere, it is getting much worse.

Laos is now moving closer to China, which is literally pulling this beautiful and sparsely populated nation out of slumber, building a high speed rail system, infrastructure, factories, dams, schools and hospitals. But the more China does for Laos, the more it is demonized by the West, by its press, academia and the NGOs. It is now one big battle over Laos. However, it is clear that the Laotian people are benefiting greatly from their proximity to China, after being literally ruined by French colonialism and the Western “Secret Wars”.

On purpose, here, I don’t mention Burma, as there, the situation is extremely complex, and ‘specific’. But later this year, I expect to publish a detailed report on the topic.

*****

Southeast Asia is clearly a victim. It is also an ‘untold story’. Deep, dark story.

With the exception of Singapore and to some extent Malaysia, it is a devastated, an impoverished victim. It is also a ‘time bomb’. People here are discontent, often desperate. Often, they do not know why. Unlike in Latin America and Africa, where the political awareness of the victims is extremely high, here the victims often believe that they are treated justly and that ‘this is the only way how the society can be arranged and governed’.

If someone travels here, searching for ‘culture’ and ‘new ways to understand life’, they should think twice. In most of Southeast Asian countries, the local culture was thoroughly uprooted. What they will see are some folk shows for foreigners, hardly ever attended by locals. Most of the native music venues, as well as theatrical and other art forms, have been replaced by the most vulgar Western entertainment, by video games and naturally, by social media.

Western men often feel good here. It is because in Southeast Asia, ‘they have won’. They are often ‘respected’ here, just for being both men, and white. They are respected, the same way as the French, Dutch and British colonialists used to be respected here, a century ago. Not loved, not admired, but esteemed for belonging to the race and culture that managed to conquer, destroy and then to give orders.

In fact, for those who want to relive those days of imperialist ‘grandeur’, this is the perfect place to visit.

Naturally, Southeast Asia is glorified by the West, with the exception of the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos (and Burma, for different reasons) — countries that are trying to get away from Western dictates.

It is because this part of the world is ‘perfect’ in the eyes of rulers of the Empire. Here, human lives are freely sacrificed for the profits of corporations, both Western and local, like when a pedestrian here has to wait until the cars pass by; entire villages have to give way to the mining venues and to palm oil plantations. Social services for the citizens are not something secondary, but tertiary, almost irrelevant. Profit is all that matters. The well-being of the citizens is hardly considered.

The West is almost never criticized here. Like in any ‘good’ feudal society, the West is seen as a ‘daddy’. It is severe, but always right. It beats its ‘children’, but gives directions. Religions help to reinforce this sort of obedience, which in many other parts of the world would be synonymous with the Middle Ages.

The local ‘elites’, in the meantime, are ‘having a ball’. They govern unopposed. They are only accountable to the much bigger, mostly Western, power. They can do anything they want with their subjects. They drive their super expensive sedans and SUVs, purchased with funds stolen from the poor, and the poor bow, and bend, prostrating themselves in great respect, fear, servility and admiration.

And they do the same in front of the West.

In brief: perfect societies, observed from New York, Canberra, London or Paris.

And in Bali or Phuket, women dressed in traditional clothes dance in 5-star hotels, roll their big eyes, and twist their slender arms. In order for the foreign visitors to say: “What a great culture!” While, of course, the true great culture was killed by the military pro-Western regimes; choked and murdered in the concentration camps and inside the army barracks.

The only victims of this ‘perfect’ state of things, are the poor; in fact, the great majority in Southeast Asia (no matter what the official statistics say). But who really cares about them?

*****

Did most of the Southeast Asian countries really gain their independence some decades ago? Were the famous merdeka shouts just a big farce? Is it true that Thailand was ‘never colonized’? Is this entire huge region still a de facto colony? And if it is, can the situation change?

These are not just rhetorical questions; they are real. And the answers to them are never simple.

The People of Southeast Asia were violated, robbed and then encircled by pseudo-reality; by lies about their past and present. They were told that they are well, happy, and that what they are experiencing is progress, freedom and democracy. They were also ordered to believe that what their usurper, the West, represents, is synonymous with ‘good governance’ and honesty. Many of them have never encountered any alternative views.

After burying tens of millions of corpses, and after having their rainforests, rivers and mountains thoroughly ruined, most of the Southeast Asians are still convinced that their tormentors are fully qualified to control the world.

• All photos by Andre Vltchek

Starving and Bombed Children of Yemen Seek Entrapment in Flooded Thai Cave

While the world watched and waited with bated breath for the outcome of the substantial global effort – involving over 100 cave divers from various countries, 1,000 members of the Thai Army and 10,000 others in various roles – to rescue a team of 12 young football players and their coach, who were trapped inside a flooded cave in Thailand for 17 days, 850,000 children were killed by human adults in other parts of the world, many of them simply starved to death in Yemen or other parts of Africa, Asia and Central/South America.

But other children were killed in ritual sacrifice. Many children were killed after being sexually trafficked, raped and tortured, many were killed in wars (including in Yemen), many were killed while living under military occupation, many died as child soldiers or while working as slave laborers, and vast numbers of other children suffered violence in a myriad other forms ranging from violence (including sexual violation) inflicted in the family home to lives of poverty, homelessness and misery in wealthy industrialized countries or as refugees fleeing conflict zones.

Why did the world’s corporate media highlight the flooded Thai cave story so graphically and why do so many ordinary people respond with such interest – meaning genuine emotional engagement – in this story? But not the others just mentioned?

And what does this tell us about human psychology and geopolitics?

Needless to say, a great deal.

During the Thai cave drama, major corporate media outlets, such as the Washington Post and the BBC, were routinely releasing ‘breaking news’ updates on the status of the rescue effort. At high points in the drama, reports on this issue were overshadowing major political and other stories of the day. At the same time, there were no ‘breaking news’ stories on any of the many myriad forms of violence against children, which were (and are still) killing 50,000 children each day.

So why the corporate media interest in this essentially local (Thai) story about a group of 12 children trapped in a cave? And why did it attract so much support, including foreign cave divers, engineers and medics as well as technology billionaire Elon Musk, who flew in to investigate rescue options and assist with the rescue effort. They and their equivalents are certainly not flying in to rescue children in a vast number of other contexts, including where the provision of simple, nourishing meals and clean water would do wonders.

Well, in essence, the story was a great one for the corporate media, simply because it reported on something of little consequence to those not immediately impacted and enabled the media to garner attention for itself and other (western) ‘heroes’ drawn into the story while engaging in its usual practice of distracting us from what really matters. And it was an easy story to sell simply because the media could use a wide range of safe emotional triggers to draw people into the dramatized story without simultaneously raising difficult questions about the (appalling) state of the world and responsibility for it.

In simple language: like sports events and other forms of entertainment, the cave rescue provided a safely contained time and space for people to feel emotionally engaged in (this case) a real-life drama (with feelings like fear and relief allowed an outlet) while carefully reinforcing their unconscious feeling of powerlessness to do anything about it and their acceptance of this. This is why it was so important that expert rescue efforts were highlighted: the key media message was that ‘there is nothing you can do’.

Of course, in this context, this was largely true. The problem is that the corporate media coverage wasn’t aimed at this context. It was aimed at all those other contexts which it wasn’t even discussing, let alone highlighting: the vast range of issues – including the many ongoing wars and endless military violence, the threat of nuclear war, the climate catastrophe and innumerable threats to our biosphere posed by such activities as rainforest destruction, the refugee crisis, military occupations, as well as the ongoing violence against children in so many contexts as touched on above – that need a great deal of our attention but for which the elite uses its corporate media to distract us and reinforce our sense of powerlessness.

Another aspect of the story was the way in which it highlighted the ‘accidental’ nature of the incident: no one was really responsible, even the hapless coach who was just trying to give his young players an interesting excursion and whom, according to reports, none of the parents blamed.

By focusing on the logistical details of the story (the distance into the cave, the narrowness of certain passages, rescue possibilities, equipment, the threat of monsoon rains…), without attributing blame, the media could reinforce its endless message that ‘no-one’ is responsible for the state of the world. Hence, no individual and no organization is responsible for doing anything either. Again, this message is designed to deepen a sense of powerlessness and to make people disinclined to act: to make them powerless observers rather than active participants in their own fate.

As an aside, of course, it should be noted that in those contexts where it serves elite interests to attribute blame, it certainly does so. Hence, elites might contrive to blame Muslims, Russians, Palestinians or the other latest target (depending on the context) for some problem. However, in these contexts, the story of ‘blame’ is framed to ensure that elites have maximum opportunity to act as they wish (often militarily) while (again) engendering a sense of powerlessness among the rest of us.

The tragedy of the Thai cave incident is that one man died and many boys spent 17 days in a situation in which they were no doubt terrified and suffering genuine physical privation. But elite media cynically used the event to distract us from vitally important issues, including ongoing grotesque violence against children in a large number of contexts, and to reinforce the delusion “I Am Not Responsible“.

In short, while the 12 boys and their coach were rescued after 17 days trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand which required a sophisticated and expensive international effort, during the same period around the world, 850,000 children were killed by human adults. Even in Thailand during this 17-day period, apart from those children violated and killed as a result of sex trafficking and other violence, 119 children drowned (at the rate of seven each day). Obviously, these children were ignored because there was no profit in reporting their plight and helping to mobilize an international effort to save them.

So what can we do?

Well, for a start, we can boycott the corporate media and certainly not spend any money on it. What little truth it contains is usually of even less value (and probably gets barely beyond a good sports report). Instead, invest any money you previously spent on the corporate media by supporting progressive news outlets. They might not have reported events in relation to the Thai cave rescue but they do report on the ongoing violence inflicted on children in more grotesque circumstances such as the war in Yemen. They will also report and analyze important global events from a truthful and life-enhancing perspective and will often offer strategies for your engaged involvement.

If you want to understand why most people are suckered by the corporate media, whose primary function is to distract and disempower us, you will get a clear sense from reading how adults distract and disempower children in the name of ‘socialization’.

If you want to nurture children to be powerful agents of change who will have no trouble resisting attempts (whether by the corporate media or any other elite agent) to distract and disempower them, you are welcome to consider making ‘My Promise to Children‘.

If you are easily conned yourself, you will vastly enhance your capacity to discriminate and focus on what matters by ‘Putting Feelings First‘ which will, among other things, restore your conscience, intuition and ‘truth register’, vital mental functions suppressed in most people.

You are also welcome to consider participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth‘ which maps out a fifteen-year strategy for creating a peaceful, just and sustainable world community so that all children (and everyone else) has an ecologically viable planet on which to live.

And for the vast range of other manifestations of violence against children touched on above, you might consider using Gandhian nonviolent strategy in any context of particular concern to you.

You might also consider signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘ which explicitly identifies the role of the corporate media, among many other elite agencies, in promoting violence.

Am I pleased that the 12 children and their coach in Thailand were rescued? Of course I am. I just wish that an equivalent effort was being made to rescue each of the 50,000 children we will kill today, tomorrow, the next day and the day after that…

Rescues, Caves and Celebrity Salvation

It all risks becoming pornographic, looped and re-run with an obsessive eye for updates and detail about despair and hope.  The twenty-four hour news cycle tends to encourage this sort of thing, ever desperate for snippets, obsessively chasing the update.  With a soccer team of twelve youths and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave some one kilometre below the surface, the curious, the gormless, and those with an unhealthy interest in the morbid have assumed couch position.

First came the discovery of the team by British divers after the group had gone missing for nine days.  They were found on a ledge inside the Northern Thai cave system.  Divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were feted as being among the best in the world, the former having been awarded an MBE for, of all things, services in cave diving.

There was much hooting and tooting in celebration, something prompted by the fact that any hope of finding them alive, according to the governor of Chiang Rai province, was nigh impossible.  But the mechanics of extricating the team from the cave started to mount in complexity and desperation, bursting the initial balloon of celebration.

With 2.5 miles of flooded cave between the team and the entrance, a sense of imperilment has grown.  This is compounded by a dreaded risk that adds a televisual ghastliness to the tale: the prospect of more heavy rain on the weekend, something that will foil current efforts to drain the excess water.

A village of international rescue experts including military personnel has grown around the enterprise, not to mention a vast hive of media representatives.  Four questions seem to be doing the rounds: to leave the team in the cave till there is a receding of the water level (dangerous given the monsoon season); pumping out the water to an extent to enable the trapped team to wade out; teaching the youths how to scuba dive, something which would be no mean feat given the length of time it would take for them to journey out of the cave (some five hours) and their status as virginal divers; and finally, drilling into the cave system.

Thai Navy Seals have been deployed, and much help is at hand, but the goriness has not been entirely dissipated.  The Navy Seal Chief Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yoo-kongkaew has been feeding the story to journalists keen to strike the optimistic note.

The Rear Admiral did not disappoint.  “Now we have given food to the boys, starting with food that is easy to digest and provides high energy.” He stressed that care has been given to the youths “following the doctor’s recommendation.  So do not worry, we will take care of them with our best.  We will bring all of them with safety.  We are now planning how to do so.”  Such confidence was given a dint with the subsequent death of one of his crew, Samarn Poonan, who perished due to lack of oxygen during a dive.

One similar incident stands out to what is currently unfolding in Thailand: the initial loss, the recovery and sanctifying of the “Los 33”, the Chilean miners who became celebrities of salvation in 2010.  They spent 69 days in the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapó.  Over time, a process of mythologising began to take place.

It was fame imposed on the ordinary, confected by the mere fact, as important as that fact was, that they had survived.  Like Church miracle artefacts, they were vested with allure, attraction, and sheer pulling power.  They were also there to be exploited, used, and interpreted.  Otherwise, they were uncomplicated creatures of animal and mineral, many of whom believed that God had been the thirty-fourth miner keeping them resolute.

As the rescue effort unfolded, the minor celebrity bandwagon grew.  US radio personality Ryan Seacrest sent prayers and well wishes hoping, rather insipidly, “to see everyone on the surface soon.” The clownish Irish song duo of Jedward sent their own message of tinny idiocy: “All the miners remember it’s not about mining it’s about finding dinosaurs and dragons.” The late English presenter Keith Chegwin expressed some mock shame that “Dig Brother” had ended.  “Wonder what Chile 4 will put on now.”

The miners would subsequently add a touch of mysticism to the rescue, essentially sacralising it.  Jorge Galleguillos spoke of seeing “a white species… a butterfly” falling “like a paper” into the mine.  “Faith is nourishment… Faith is life.”  Stories abounded of how medical ailments were healed by prayer.  The drill used to tunnel to the miners was guided, according to miner Ariel Ticona, “by the hand of God”.

The miners became the heralds of a modern success story.  They were invited as guests of honour to Manchester United.  They did the US chat show circuit.  As a statement of pure fantasy, they went to that composite of fantasy, Disneyland. Then, for another sort of miracle dream work, they ventured to the Holy Land.  Expenses were footed.

Amidst the celebratory orgy typical of myth came a few sceptical qualifiers.  The degree of medical danger posed to them, for instance, had been given undue embellishment.  Dr. James Polk, deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine at NASA put this down to “not having all the facts, and things that people did not know about the situation”.

The workers were, for instance, trapped at sea level and could hardly have suffered from decompression sickness.  The miners were less confined as was portrayed, able to continue their labours underground.  Nor were they at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. “Chilean authorities,” according to Polk, “anticipated this, and they gave them a large dose of Vitamin D3 as part of their nutritional supplementation.”

Many of the rescued miners subsequently faced the ruination of imposed fame.  Mario Sepúlveda spoke of “fame but not money. It is the worst possible thing.”  The camera that had given him and his colleagues celebrity had also consumed them.  His world remains one of anti-depressants and a return to mining, where the darkness comforts.

The “Los 33” effect is very much at play regarding this young football team even as the rescue crews are busying themselves on tactics.  The big and the moneyed are seeking their place in the sun, offering advice.  Some are constructive; others are simply sentimental.  Elon Musk, according to a spokesman, has revealed that negotiations are underway on supplying location technology using Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or Boring Co. technology for digging purposes, or providing Tesla Inc. Powerwall battery packs.  But to every little bit of brain storming comes the deadly qualifier: engaging such services as that of Boring Co., with its colossal drills, might simply be too dangerous.

Even now, the young team has drawn on the heartstrings of the football community, encouraging a measure of faith.  Liverpool Football manager Jürgen Klopp, in an official video intended for the youngsters and their coach, spoke of “hoping every second that you see the daylight again.  You’ll never walk alone.” Such language, heartfelt yet tinged with a sense of funereal doom.

Democrats Confirm Torturer As Director Of CIA

How did a person who should be in the criminal dock both in the US and in the International Criminal Court for running a torture prison get appointed the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency? What is all the Washington talk about defending human rights when a torturer is put in charge of covert operations?

Slobodan Milošević, the Serbia leader who tried to defend his country from Washington’s aggression, was sent by Washington to the war crimes tribunal or some such place that only tries victims of Washington’s aggression. He died in prison, some say he was murdered by Washington. The court ended up clearing him of the faked American charges. But little good that did a dead man.

But now Washington has a real criminal, a real person who has committed without any doubt “crimes against humanity” confirmed by the US Senate as CIA director. That tells us a lot about the hypocrisy, double standards, and utter mendacity of the government in Washington.

As some Republicans voted against the torturer in chief, it was the Democrats that put a torturer at the head of the CIA.

Listen to their excuses:

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin said: Haspel prioritizes the safety of America. She is “an unbelievable public servant.”

North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp said that Trump had picked the directer best suited to the job. Heidi said she would make sure that Congress conducts oversight of Haspel’s job, an ambivilent statement if the job is torture, which seems to be enshrined in US practices.

Indiana’s Senator Joe Donnelly said that he believed Haspel “has learned from the past, and that the CIA under her leadership can help our country confront serious international threats and challenges.”

What threats? What challenges? This is bla-bla talk. Think about it for a minute. Imagine a criminal before the judge saying “I have learned from my past crimes and am now fit to be an upstanding citizen who can help our country.”

Florida’s Bill Nelson covered his collapse as a moral person by meeting with Haspel personally and arriving at the conclusion that she was fit to serve.

According to Newsweek these four US Democratic senators face tough re-elections and voted to clear Haspel in order to appease the Trump deplorables. In other words, these four senators think that the deplorables, who voted for Trump because he said he was for peace in Syria and with Russia and was against the US being policeman of the world, want to have a torturer confirmed as CIA director. The Democrats voted for a torturer because they are afraid of Trump voters. If Trump voters want a torturer in office, the senators would be honor bound to stand up to the Trump voters.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D, NH) said that she believes Haspel that she won’t torture again. “Your honor,” said the murderer in the dock, “I promise I won’t murder again. Just give me this plumb appointment as chief of police.”

Virginia’s Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, put Haspel in the job with his assurance that she would stand up to Trump if he ordered her to torture. In other words, Warner associates Trump with torture, not Haspel who has actually tortured.

Please, let us not hear again about America liberating other nations and defending human rights, or having a moral conscience, or being a light unto the world.

Gina Haspel and Pinocchio from Rome

Being in Rome, Italy and thinking of Gina Haspel, the CIA nominee and admitted torturer who says her “moral conscience” has changed after the fact, seems most fitting.  Wherever you go in central Rome, you can hear the screams and smell the blood of those tortured and killed by the Roman Empire and those who ably followed in their stead.   And you can see the crumbled stones and the pathetic architectural remains of those who thought they had triumphed.  Their triumph turned to dust, and their belated mea culpas, if and when they ever came, always rang as hollow as Gina Haspel’s, Lt. William Calley’s, and Adolph Eichmann’s excuses that they were only doing their jobs and following orders.

Throughout Rome there are hawkers dangling Pinocchio trinkets in your face, constant reminders of the cost of lying.  Or perhaps more aptly, the fame that ensues from lying followed by a childish semi-apology, even when it’s as obvious as the nose on your face that you are lying still.  So in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Haspel was asked by Senator Mark Warner, D-VA., the kind of question that allows a respondent to answer in a deceptive way that means nothing, but seems profoundly sincere. Warned asked:

Q. If this president asked you to do something that you find morally objectionable, even if there is an [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, what will you do?  Will you carry out that order or not?

To which Haspel replied:

A. Senator, my moral conscience is strong.  I would not allow the CIA to carry out any activity that I thought was immoral – even if it was technically legal.  I would absolutely not permit it.

From all reports, neither Warner’s nor Haspel’s nose grew longer, but perhaps such deceptive phrasing slyly falls beyond the parameters of Pinocchio’s sins and the Blue Fairy’s  sanctions.

So the woman who oversaw detainee torture at a CIA “black site” in Thailand tells us she has a strong moral conscience, but she doesn’t tell us what that conscience considers intrinsically evil, if anything. Nor what that “strong” moral conscience considers moral or immoral in any way, just that the “CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values,” whatever they might be.  And if she were ordered to carry out an action – let’s say kill a foreign agent or assassinate a political leader – that was technically illegal but accorded with her strong moral conscience, would she do so?  Don’t ask; she wasn’t. Even Pinocchio would get confused with this legerdemain, and his “strong” moral conscience, Jiminy Cricket, would be utterly bamboozled.

The good Senator, adept at playing deceptive verbal games as befits his stature, is happy to have his non-question answered with a non-answer, and both he and Haspel are happy.  Good question, good answer, good conscience.  Nothing bad about that.  Then Warner goes and votes for Haspel, who he says is “among the most experienced people to be nominated” to head the CIA, and Haspel says she thinks torture – excuse me, “enhanced interrogation” – doesn’t work anyway.  Practicality wins the day.

But here in Rome so many regular people are not so practical.  They seem to relish life, not as a task to accomplish, but as a pleasure to enjoy.  Despite the history that surrounds them, and the dismal political economy that weighs heavy on their lives and country, they seem less anxious and terrorized than Americans. Of course, this may be a visitor’s myopic vision, and when seen clearly, Romans might be as stressed as Americans.  But I doubt it.

But for this visiting American, it is hard to dismiss thoughts about the disgraceful charade happening back in Washington D.C.  Thinking here in Rome of the Haspel vote, I am reminded of the ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles’s and long-time Chief of Counterintelligence James Angleton’s organized “Ratlines,” the escape routes for Nazi and fascist killers and torturers, so many of whom were brought to the United States and other countries after World War II through Italy to help the newly formed CIA torture the truth out of detainees and assassinate opponents. Operation Paperclip, they called it.  No big deal; just a joining of two like-minded organizations by a tiny device.

Post September 11 torture is nothing new, and Haspel is nothing if not a traditionalist just doing her job. Is this what Haspel meant by “American values”?  Many victims would attest to that.

In an old city like Rome one tends to think old thoughts: that the history of torture, human treachery, lying, and violence has a long history; that secular and religious fanatics are nothing new; and that empires rise and fall and everyone dies, even those who build monuments to their own “glorious” deeds.

But if one wanders around Rome and through life with no itinerary, one also encounters beautiful people and small pockets of faith, love, and devotion.  One encounters magnificent art that embodies the heights to which humans can aspire.  One realizes that despite the gory history of the human race, the killers and torturers, humans have and do rise above their worst inclinations and do the work of angels, despite the devils.

As we were sitting at a café in the Piazza della Rotonda, my wife said to me, “You have your back to the Pantheon.”  It was true.  Those monumental gods bored me.  My glass of vino rosso whirled my mind to better things.  Lighter.  Not stone idolatry.  Not empires, except their death.  Not stone gods, nor inquisitors or black sites or hooded torturers with Ph’ds from Harvard. No palaces to Renaissance princes or Central Intelligence agents, corrupt bastards of different times and places.  No Wall Street/CIA nexus.  No dastardly gross stupid rich Trump with his orange hair and phallic towers, nor his doppelganger Berlusconi here in Italy.  No basilicas, nothing petrified, despite the city of stone that enclosed me. Like the sparrow that alighted on the next table and was pecking at the bread in a basket, my thoughts flew to lighter and more sustaining images of life and love and the spirit of care that sustains this beautiful world despite the torturers and killers.

Gina Haspel seemed so far away – yet so very near.  My thoughts kept returning to all the U.S. Senators who have voted for this torturer to lead the CIA.  Will they say they were only doing their jobs and following orders?  Do they think of themselves as civilized?

I then looked up as the bird took flight and saw a cross silhouetted against the blue sky.  Enough said.

Where will we conduct the next Nuremberg trials?

The Spectre of Torture: The Gina Haspel Hearings

I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances.

— Gina Haspel, May 9, 2018.

It was always going to be the most complicated of hurdles. Having moved Mike Pompeo on to the role of Secretary of State, President Donald Trump had to find a replacement at the Central Intelligence Agency.  Punting for Gina Haspel was an invitation to go into battle, given the Acting Director’s associations with the era of agency waterboarding.

Of specific interest to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee was Haspel’s role in running a covert detention site in Thailand during the blooming violence of the “war on terror” inspired by President George W. Bush’s crusade against jihadis real and fictional.  Details of the site are still sketchy, though the jottings on her conduct are sufficient to cause concern. Hypothetical scenarios were considered; questions on what Haspel as director would do if that man in the White House would insist on torture were submitted.

Given that Trump has shown his enthusiasm in torturing the enemy in purely transactional terms, Haspel was asked what would happen in the event the president gave the order. “Senator, I would advise,” came her response to Republican Senator Susan Collins.  “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that.”  Hardly cause for comfort.

In a performance that seemed disoriented and inconsistent, Haspel fudged the issue of whether torture was immoral while suggesting that the CIA was simply not up to snuff in interrogations.  This was tantamount to claiming that these good defenders of Freedom land were executioners with blunt axes.  In fact, in the Haspel remit of CIA operations, interrogations of whatever form had never been conducted by the agency, a point distinctly at odds with patches of that body’s history.

As it stood now, such tasks of probing suspects were being conducted by “other US government entities… I would advise anyone that asked me that the CIA is not the place to conduct interrogations.  We do not have interrogators and we not have interrogation expertise.”

She spoke of having been given a “strong moral compass” by her parents, and keeping the ship steady.  “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership the CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation programme.”

The utilitarian aspect of the argument was pressed by Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat from California. Trump had advanced that old canard that torture actually worked; did the nominee agree?  “It’s a yes or no answer,” came an unsatisfied senator. “I’m not asking do you believe they were legal. I’m asking do you believe they were immoral.”

Haspel’s response was to transform herself into a utility enthusiast.  “Senator, I believe that the CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on the country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”

This was the desk job rationale, the bureaucrat’s classic number.  Not a word about the substantive nature of morality mattered here.  References to holding “ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual” or such vague formulations as “the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to” proliferated as scripted answers.

What mattered most was the result, which was not that people were tortured, but that the United States had been served well, a defence that might have found some sympathy with other famous bureaucrats of the violent and murderous persuasion.  “I believe, as many directors who have sat in this chair before me, that valuable information was obtained from senior al Qaida operatives that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack.”  Ergo, those soiled hands got results in the name of protecting the Republic.

Haspel did make inroads among some members of the intelligence committee. “After meeting with Gina Haspel,” came the confident words of Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, “discussing her extensive experience as a CIA agent, and considering her time as acting director, I will vote to confirm her to be our next CIA director.”  She was evidently a character of “great character”.

An illustrative if sharp point in Wednesday’s proceedings came when former CIA operative Ray McGovern made an intervention at Haspel’s refusal to consider the moral dimension of enhanced interrogation techniques. What of instances, suggested Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, when a CIA officer might be tortured?  Would such conduct be immoral?

McGovern duly stood up in the audience and uttered, somewhat inscrutably, that “Senator Wyden, you deserve a direct answer.”  (Wyden was not questioning Haspel at the time)  The outcome was swift and violent: committee head Senator Richard Burr ordering the Capitol Police to frogmarch the one time chair of the National Intelligence Estimates out of the chamber.

Prior to the hearings, McGovern had penned a powerful note on the lamentable nature of Trump’s appointee.  We already knew that Haspel had sought to destroy “dozens of videotapes of torture sessions, including some before her arrival.”  Haspel was also part of that industry of deception on “the supposed effectiveness of torture”, something she repeatedly fed “to CIA superiors, Congress, and two presidents.”

With protestors crying foul, and the senators probing the prospects of what a Haspel-led CIA might look like, torture is again making an appearance as prospect and reality.  McGovern’s ejection simply served to sully things further.

Much of what happens to Haspel will come down to the swaying views of such committee members as the ailing Senator John McCain, who has already made his position on Haspel clear: “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

Speaking the Unspeakable: The Assassination and Martyrdom of Thomas Merton

Killing a man who says ‘No!’ is a risky business,” the priest replied, “because even a corpse can go on whispering ‘No! No! No! with a persistence and obstinacy that only certain corpses are capable of.  And how can you silence a corpse?”

— Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 1936

Fifty years have elapsed since Thomas Merton died under mysterious circumstances in a cottage at a Red Cross Conference Center outside Bangkok, Thailand where he was attending an international inter-faith monastic conference.  The truth behind his death has been concealed until now through the lies and deceptions of a cast of characters, religious, secular, and U.S. governmental, whose actions chill one to the bone.  But he has finally found his voice through Hugh Turley and David Martin, who tell the suppressed truth of Merton’s last minutes on earth on December 10, 1968.

This is an extraordinary book in so many ways.  First, because the authors prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Trappist monk and anti-war writer Thomas Merton was assassinated and did not die in a fabricated accident, as has been claimed for all these years.

Second, because it is so meticulously researched, sourced, documented, and logically argued that it puts to shame and the lie to so many works, including academic ones, that purport to be profound but fall apart once carefully inspected, especially all those that have been written about Merton and his alleged accidental death. These false accounts of his death, obviously presented purposely by the key players – that he was electrocuted by a fan while wet from a shower – have been repeated ad nauseam over fifty years as if curiosity were reserved for cats and a writer’s job were to repeat commonplace absurdities. And, of course, the mainstream media, the prime organs of propaganda dissemination, have carried out their function by repeating these lies at every turn. The transparency of Turley and Martin’s presentation is greatly enhanced by the presence of footnotes, not endnotes, which allow readers to easily check sources as they read. Most footnotes refer to primary documents – letters, police reports, etc. – that are reproduced in an appendix that is, however, in need of enlargement, but whose contents have, for some odd or not so odd reasons, escaped the thousands of writers who’ve penned words about Merton.

Third, because it greatly expands our understanding of that fateful year – 1968 – by adding the prophetic Merton’s name to the list of well-known anti-war leaders – MLK and RFK – who were slain that year by U.S. government operatives intent on crushing the growing opposition to their genocidal war waged on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The links between these assassinations are made manifest as one follows the authors’ brilliant analysis that allows an informed reader to see the template common to them all and one that clearly leads to intelligence agencies practiced in the arts of murder and cover-up.

Fourth, because it proves that in the long run the pen is mightier than the sword, and the spiritually powerful poetic words of a God-entranced man living in seclusion can rattle the cages of men who embrace the void of violence while rejecting the spiritual essence of all religions – that non-violence and love are the laws of existence.  Merton may be dead for his killers, but not for those who hear his voice whispering on every page: “The very thoughts of a person like me are crimes against the state.  All I have to do is think: and immediately I become guilty,” Merton wrote in “A Signed Confession of Crimes Against the State.”

Lastly, because The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton markedly forces the reader to face its harsh truths and examine one’s soul and complicity in evil as one learns of the perfidy and betrayal of Merton by friends, associates, and biographers whom a naïve person might assume are beyond reproach, until, that is, one reads this book.  It is a very hard lesson to accept and understand.  But Hugh Turley and David Martin sequentially force the reader to contemplate such matters; to conjecture why some have conspired and abetted in Merton’s murder and especially its fifty year cover-up.

Thomas Merton (Fr. Lewis) was a Catholic monk, poet, writer and theologian who became very well-known in 1948 with the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, which became a bestseller.  Over the next dozen or so years, he published many books on religious themes, mainly avoiding social or political subjects.  But although he lived in a monastery, and eventually by himself in a hermitage nearby, he corresponded widely and was tuned in to worldly events.  He became a friend and mentor to religious/political activists such as Martin Luther King, Fathers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, James Douglass, among many others.  He was a friend of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.  He corresponded with Boris Pasternak and Ethel Kennedy; wrote about Albert Camus and Eugene Ionesco.  During the 1960s his writing turned more overtly political while remaining rooted in a deep mystical and contemplative spirituality.  He became a major inspiration for radical activists who opposed nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and the materialist way of life fostered by capitalism that relied on the spread of the American empire through world-wide violence.  Although living far away from the din and drama of day-to-day politics, his writing, encouragement, and influence were profound, and he became a major impediment to the propaganda and policies of the military-industrial-political-intelligence complex.  He was an inspiration whose spirit disturbed church and state in the most radical way. Turley and Martin say of him:

Merton saw clearly that devotion to truth could not help but bring a person into conflict with sinister special interests.  The effectiveness of the truth-seeker would, of course, be greater to the extent he could rally others to his cause, but ultimately, he said, the truth seeker’s strength lay in trust in God.

Merton died on the afternoon of December 10, 1968 when those sinister special interests snuck up on him.  He had just given a talk, had lunch, and returned to his cottage shortly before 2 P.M., accompanied by Fr. Francois de Grunne, O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict) from Belgium, who shared the cottage with Merton and two others, Fr. Celestine Say, O.S.B. from the Philippines, whose room was across from Merton’s on the first floor, and John Moffit, a journalist editor whose room was directly over Merton’s on the second floor adjacent to de Grunne’s. The walk from the dining hall to the cottage took 10-15 minutes.  Say and Moffit were walking a good distance behind Merton and de Grunne and arrived at the cottage about 5-7 minutes after them. When they entered the unlocked building, they did not see Merton and de Grunne and presumed they had gone to their respective rooms.

Shortly after de Grunne and Merton entered the cottage, Merton was killed.  The actions of de Grunne, a mysterious figure who, according to the authors, “seems to have fallen off the face of the earth” and whose “abbey will not even respond to our questions about him,” clearly make him a prime suspect in the crime.  His actions and story are not believable and are contradicted by the most reliable witness, Fr. Say, whose statements have been absolutely consistent.

Beyond speculation, however, are the facts gathered by the authors that clearly prove that from the start there was a concerted effort to make a crime look like an accident.  These efforts were initiated by de Grunne, who was the first to call it an “accident,” but ably assisted by many others, including the Thai police or their surrogates, whose police report was released by the U.S. Embassy seven months after Merton’s death and has no title, author, date, photographs, laboratory reports, or investigators’ memos, and omits the testimony of the first two witnesses on the scene, Fr. Say and Fr. Egbert Donovan, who viewed Merton lying in a position and dressed in shorts totally inconsistent with the accidental death scenario.  Most importantly, this “report” omits an autopsy report since no autopsy was conducted, a dead giveaway that a cover-up was underway.  When a person is found dead, the first assumption of a competent investigation is that a crime may have been committed, and when the victim is found with a sever gash on the back of his head, is lying in a position inconsistent with an accident, an autopsy becomes essential.  But none was performed in Thailand or when Merton’s body arrived back at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  That the United States Embassy, at the request of Most Reverend Dom Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., who was presiding over the conference, had the U.S Army take possession of Merton’s body shortly thereafter, embalm it, and five days later fly it back to the U.S. aboard a military plane together with the corpses of American casualties of the Vietnam War is not only supremely ironic but downright suspicious.

The first public report of Merton’s death was delivered on December 11, as Turley and Martin report:

On December 11, 1968, the Associated Press reported that Merton had been electrocuted when he touched a short in a cord while moving an electrical fan, according to anonymous [my emphasis] Catholic sources.  The initial news reports did not include any important details such as who found Merton, the names of any witnesses or officials at the scene, or who determined it was an accident. The Thai doctor’s cause-of-death certificate and the official death certificate said Merton died of sudden cardiac failure, but failed to mention the bleeding rear head wound seen by witnesses.

Most importantly, when Say and Donovan first saw Merton lying on the floor on his back, his legs straight, and his arms straight down by his side with palms to the floor as if placed in a coffin, with a floor fan lying across a thigh to the opposite lower waist, Donovan urged Say to take photographs of Merton before the crime scene was subsequently disturbed.  They were very suspicious.  Through great detective work, Turley and Martin have acquired a copy of these two photos, but they have been prohibited by the current abbot of Gethsemani from publishing them or even an artist’s rendering of them.  The authors say:

The photographs taken by Say are the best available evidence of the actual scene of Merton’s death… The reason the monks took the photographs, as we have emphasized, was to document exactly how they found the body.  As we have seen, people whom they would hardly have ever suspected, have consistently done their best to suppress those images.  The photographs are an essential resource to anyone interested in knowing the truth about how Merton was killed.

But it is clear that many people would like to suppress that truth and have been hard at work doing so for half a century.  But since this is intentionally a quasi-review because one must read this book from beginning to end to grasp the intricacies of this murder mystery and the cast of characters that comprise it (no review can do justice to such a detailed and brilliant investigation, and, even so, attempting one would spoil the book), I will end with the authors’ words:

Contrary to the common view, there is really no mystery about how Merton died.  The best evidence indicates beyond any serious doubt that Merton was murdered.  It’s a simple fact that the average person is far more likely to be murdered than to be killed by an electric fan, and Merton was no average person.  The story that a fan killed Merton is so preposterous that a series of fantastic stories have had to be invented to make it believable….Who did it and why? The CIA had the motive and the means.

1968: It was a very dark year: MLK, RFK, and Thomas Merton – martyrs all.

If we want to see clearly and revive hope, the time has come to face the faces of the ghastly gallery of liars and deceivers guilty of these crimes.  Only then can we live the truths their victims suffered and died for.

Then we too can confess with Merton that we have thought “Crimes Against the State.”

Western Propaganda in Southeast Asia: A True “Success Story”

It is all done in a fully barefaced manner. Those who are not part of this world could never even dream about such a ‘perfect’ design.

You come to your club, in my case to The Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT), and immediately the long arm of indoctrination begins stretching towards you.

US filmmakers of Neighbour at FCCT Bangkok

You place yourself on a comfortable couch, and soon after get fully serviced. You get instructed, told what to think and how to formulate or modify your ideas.

You are periodically shown movies about “corruption and immorality” in China. You get encouraged to participate in some public discussions that are, among other things, trashing the anti-Western president of the Philippines.

Although lately also the Middle East, and particularly Syria, are brought into the spotlight.

Of course, almost all that is on offer in such places like FCCT is the Western view, or concretely a set of Western views raging from conservative to ‘liberal’. The club is located in Asia, in the heart of Southeast Asia, but very few Asians are invited to speak here, except the few Thais who are well versed in the Western way of thinking. Or Western agents like the Dalai Lama, of course – such individuals can come anytime they want! Forget about hearing from ‘the other side’ – you’d never stumble here over speakers such as Communist thinkers or writers from Mainland China, or pro-Duterte academics or activists from the Philippines.

Most of the Thais who get spotted at the FCCT are actually those who provide support services for the Western gurus of mainstream media: interpreters, fixers, waiters and as well as some administrative support staff.

This is not a place for Asians to lecture Westerners about Asia; this is where Westerners tell Asians how to think in general, and what to think about their own countries in particular.

On the same floor as the FCCT, right down the narrow carpeted corridor, there are the offices of the BBC, the NBC and several other mainstream Western media outlets. ‘The Penthouse’ of the Maneeya Center Building in Bangkok is actually a self-sufficient propaganda complex.

At FCCT in Bangkok it is mostly whites and their friends who can speak

And tonight it is offering a free screening (free for us, members) of a U.S. documentary film called Salam Neighbor, about Jordan’s huge Za’atari refugee camp, which hosts approximately 80,000 refugees just a few miles away from the Syrian border.

On the FCCT flier it says openly: “In partnership with the U.S. Embassy Bangkok and The American Film Showcase.“

A U.S. embassy official introduces the film. It is also being sponsored (openly) by the U.S. Department of State.

The FCCT is packed. Beer flows. People obediently clap to all the opening speeches. No one seems to be noticing the irony: The Empire’s foreign ministry hosting an event at the foreign correspondent’s club in the most important city of Southeast Asia. There are no jokes flying about, no sarcasm. Western media people are well disciplined. Forget about “Salvador” by Oliver Stone – these are quite different times.

It all feels mildly embarrassing. Here, one can never really witness a fiery ideological confrontation. People know their place. They are well aware of what they should say, and how to behave. But most importantly, they know what to write.

*****

The film is short, only some 75 minutes, and it is truly predictable. It is not out-rightly bad. Cinematography is fine, and there are very few factual errors, perhaps because there are only a few facts on offer. The filmmakers are ‘politically correct’: they periodically break down in tears, particularly when interacting with some refugee children.

It is full of clichés, such as: “….. inhabitants of the camp opened their hearts and homes to us”.

But there are also several clearly predictable scenes, appearing on the monitors in all corners of the FCCT, with chilling regularity. Here is one, for instance: kids are playing violent war video games. One child suddenly comments:

Yes, and this is Assad’s regime flag… They give me ammunition and weapons…

We are fed with soft, ‘well-intentioned’ and well-filmed propaganda. Not one word is uttered about the essential and monstrous role of the West in the Syrian war. There is nothing about the Za’atari Camp being one of the training camps for the most extreme pro-Western and pro-Gulf terrorist organizations.

After the films ends, I decide to participate in the Q/A session.

Somehow sarcastically, I congratulate the two filmmakers who were flown to Thailand at the US taxpayer’s expense. I mention that I have also made some films inside refugee camps, including the notorious and brutal Dadaab on the Kenyan-Somali border. Then I ask, point blank:

Did you know that Syrian refugees were allowed to tell you only one side of the story? I am well familiar with the Za’atari camp. There, as well as in the camps for Syrian refugees located in the Iraqi Kurdish region, Syrians are screened and unless they declare that they are against President Assad, they have no chance of getting processed and receiving assistance.

The annoyed faces of veteran Western propaganda-makers now stare at me, point blank. The US embassy apparatchiks maintain their composure. These people are professionals and they hardly ever lose their calm.

But media people are scandalized. I exaggerate my Russia accent and I mention South American Telesur as one of the channels for which I have been making films. How dare I? Don’t I know my place? A non-Westerner telling Western opinion-makers about the world!

I conclude:

Most of the Syrian refugees are not escaping from their government. They are fleeing from the horrors of war, triggered and upheld by the West and its allies in the Gulf and elsewhere.

The silence is now complete.

Then a girl, a local Thai miss, obviously coming from the upper middle class and groomed in the West, approaches the microphone and asks with a cute giggle:

I want to visit the Za’atari Camp early next year. I don’t know why, as I don’t know anything about the Middle East… but maybe I can do something for the refugees, no? And maybe I learn something?

“And maybe take some selfies,” I think.

Soon after I begin to feel sick, and literally flee the place.

*****

The entire Southeast Asia is imprisoned in the tight straightjacket of Western and Japanese pro-Western propaganda. However, the mainstream media and the way it disseminates Western propaganda is not the only example of how the straightjacket works.

Almost all serious and large bookstores, (at least those that are selling books in English), have already been ‘defeated’ by Kinokuniya, a Japanese mega seller. Kinokuniya is to bookselling in Southeast Asia, what Carrefour is to food vending. It operates in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, and its shops look elegant and sleek. But unless you want to buy some mainstream stuff, you may be truly disappointed, even shocked, by what you find (or not find) on the shelves.

At Jakarta Kinokuniya Bookstore – Mein Kampf and anti-Communist propaganda

It goes without saying that in those stores, one would always be able to find hundreds of appalling anti-Soviet propaganda books, such as those of the Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Svetlana Alexievich. But try to search for a great, iconic Mexican left-wing author like Elena Poniatowska, and you will get nothing! And forget about finding most of works there of such enormous (but Communist) thinkers like Jose Saramago, Dario Fo, and Harold Pinter (all three authors were also awarded with the Nobel prizes in literature, but are strongly hated by the regime). If you are lucky, you will find one or two books from each of them, but not more than that.

Perhaps you may also find one or two plays by Bertolt Brecht. I searched in Bangkok, and found only one – Galileo.

In Southeast Asian bookstores, you can have “all you can eat” anti-Chinese, anti-Communist propaganda, but except for Mo Yan, not one book of any truly great modern Chinese Communist novelist or a poet.

Of course, you should never even try to find some “offensive materials”; and by offensive I mean sarcastically critical of all that the West has been implanting and upholding in this part of the world – religion, neo-colonialism, monarchism, or even local feudalistic structures which often hide behind such terms as ‘cultures’…

In Indonesia, the situation is the most ridiculous. There, all decent bookstores that mushroomed after Suharto stepped down have literally disappeared. Thereafter, Kinokuniya ‘modified’ its operation in Jakarta, and is presently selling only pop fiction, some Penguin classics and similar mainstream stuff.

Mr. Ariff, a staff marketing person at Kinokuniya, Plaza Senayang in Jakarta, explained:

Arrangement of the shells has to be the same as in our Singapore store, but Indonesian management decides what to sell here.

And decide they do! As expected, many books about Adolf Hitler (very popular historic individual in Indonesia), including his ‘best selling’ (at least in Jakarta) Mein Kampf. Right next to it, there are few shelves filled with anti-Communist propaganda of the lowest grade.

Indonesia has been, since 1965, always a Southeast Asian leader in brainwashing of the population.

One could, of course, argue that there are also some local chains of bookstores, selling books exclusively in the languages of Southeast Asia. However, the offering there is very limited. Frankly, there is no culture of high-quality translations of books in this part of the world, and the number of titles published in local languages is relatively small. Even the most prominent Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, once confessed to me, that while translating Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” to Bahasa Indonesia (“Ibunda”), he used the Dutch translation for his work, as well as his ‘intuition’ while scrolling through the original Russian text (he did not really speak much Russian, as he admitted).

*****

After decades of great effort, the Western intellectual indoctrination of Southeast Asia is now almost complete.

It is partially being done through ‘education’, by disbursing scholarships for students and offering conditional funding for Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian and other ‘scholars’ and professors.

Anti-Communist propaganda in Indonesia

Western propaganda is also ‘successfully’ distributed through ‘culture’. Western ‘cultural centers’, which are often (bizarrely) the only places offering ‘high art’ in most of the local cities, are clearly advancing their European and North American imperialist agenda (as I colorfully described in my latest novel Aurora).

The elites here are almost fully subservient to foreign business and political interests. Patriotism is only a buzzword, with no substance behind it.

There is no other part of the world so disconnected from the ideological and physical opposition to Western imperialism, as Southeast Asia.

The consequences of total Western brainwashing are devastating: the entire colossus of Southeast Asia is unable to produce great thinkers, writers, filmmakers, or scientists. There are only a few small exceptions in Thailand (including an important novelist Chart Korbjitti) and in Indonesia (the political painter Djokopekik, a former political prisoner during Suharto’s fascist regime, described by my Australian friend, the artist George Burchett, as ‘an explosive local fusion of Diego Rivera and Picasso’).

Other poor, devastated or complex parts of the world are literally regurgitating entire armies of tremendous writers, filmmakers and intellectuals: from Nigeria to Lebanon, from Iran to Mexico.

*****

With the exception of Vietnam (and to some extent, Laos), the West has literally uprooted all Communist and socialist ways of thinking, as well as internationalism. It was done brutally, though orchestrating massacres and purges. Hundreds of thousands of leftists, perhaps millions, were killed in Indonesia alone, after the 1965 coup. 30% of the population was murdered by Suharto’s military in East Timor, after the left-wing FRETILIN movement won independence from Portugal and consequently took power in fair and clear elections. In Thailand, Communists were burned alive in oil barrels. The killing and disappearing of Communists took place in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

In several countries, including Indonesia, the entire ‘Communist ideology’ is still officially banned.

After internationalism, anti-imperialism, Communism and intellectualism were destroyed, Southeast Asia was injected from abroad with conservative forms of religion, with consumerism, ‘traditional family values’ and grotesquely extreme individualism.

Simultaneously and already for years and decades, this part of the world has become truly famous, even notorious, for sex tourism, and for armies of ‘expats’ who are searching for a cheap and easy lifestyle. In the process they are managing to shape local ‘cultures’, to de-intellectualize this part of the continent. While Beijing and Tokyo are attracting, like magnets, countless great foreign scholars, thinkers and creative people, Southeast Asia is generally besieged by, to put it mildly, a very different type of foreigners. Why are they so comfortable here? It is because of the ‘great respect’ they can enjoy in Southeast Asia for just being white, no matter what their age or life achievements. This respect comes from the clear indoctrination of locals, from the pronounced lie, repeated thousands of times (mostly indirectly), that Western culture is superior, and, in fact, the greatest in the world.

To make Europeans and North Americans even more comfortable here: in Southeast Asia, almost all basic doctrines disseminated by Western propaganda, as well as the most primitive grain of capitalist and right wing ideologies have been historically accepted, tolerated, and even dutifully replicated.

*****

For the local academia, it is only the Western (or Japanese) stamp of approval that matters. As a result Southeast Asia forgot what patriotic and independent thought truly consists of.

Most of the Southeast Asian newspapers have no ‘foreign correspondents’ in faraway places. Almost all of their international news reports come directly from Western mainstream agencies such as Reuters, AFP and AP. No loopholes through which at least some alternative opposition information could enter and influence the masses, seems to be available.

You ask on the streets of Bangkok, Jakarta or even Kuala Lumpur about ‘South-South’ co-operation, and you will be greeted with blank stares. You would be suspected of talking about some new mobile phone application, or a chain of fast food restaurants. And what is BRICS, masonry?

While bookstores are basically finished, commercial cinemas are offering extremely carefully selected (the emptier the better) Hollywood ‘blockbusters’ and local horror films.

Local art forms, including traditional political theatre in Indonesia (ketoprak) is lately ‘out of fashion’, read: sidelined, made fully irrelevant, silenced.

Scarce art film clubs, like the one in the River City in Bangkok, has stickers of US and European cultural institutions (“sponsors”) ‘decorating its entrance.

One naughty art seller, in one of the galleries near the River City film club, just recently dared to exhibit a painting depicting Obama, with two obnoxious missiles hanging in between his legs. But was apparently asked to remove provocative art work, right before the official film screening which was sponsored by the Turkish embassy and attended by several Western diplomats. “Come with me into the storage and I will show you,” he whispered to me, as if he was peddling some illegal pornographic material or narcotics.

*****

Perhaps the most telling example of “how things are done”, I encountered several years ago on the premises of the Goethe Institute in Jakarta. Its curators decided to exhibit some old photographs from the Polish ‘Solidarity’ days, when, during one protest in the city of Gdansk, security forces fired at protesters.

The exhibition was put together, barefacedly, in the capital city of Indonesia, where ‘Communism’ is patently banned, where millions were massacred during the US-sponsored coup of 1965, and where the entire huge archipelago has been irreversibly plundered and devastated by multi-national and local mining and logging cartels. The nightmarish, ultra-extreme capitalism has been ruling and ruining Indonesia for years and decades, but it was Gdansk that Germany decided to show to the Indonesian public!

A handful of people killed by the Communists, decades ago, in Poland, were commemorated and the act shown to Jakarta dwellers. Of course, the German cultural institute would never even dream about arranging an exhibition commemorating the mass slaughter of Communists by Indonesian pro-Western genocidal forces.

*****

Now Southeast Asia knows nearly nothing about Russia, and almost nothing about China (except what the Western demagogues want it to know). Africa, including South Africa, is located on another planet, and so is Latin America. Only local elites can afford to travel to far away places, and these people are loyal to their Western masters and official doctrines; they would never tell the truth, never rock the boat of disinformation.

The local population knows generally more about North American pop or European football, than about its neighboring countries. The Southeast Asian poor are kept totally ignorant about Latin American attempts to build just, egalitarian societies. They know close to zero about Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela or Ecuador.

Of course, there is absolutely no way one could discuss, in Southeast Asia, the recent re-election of MPLA in Angola (an event of tremendous global significance, as Angola is one of the symbols of the Western colonialist crimes against humanity, as well as of neo-colonial plunder). There is no way of discussing Cuba and its internationalism here, or even the coalition of countries, which are now standing proudly and determinedly against Western imperialism.

And what about the Middle East? It is fully limited to the Palestinian issue, and even that is discussed only in predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia. Another Middle Eastern ‘link’ is the unnaturally injected hatred for President Assad, who is accused of being too ‘secular’ and too ‘socialist’ (of course, these are great ‘crimes’ here, definitely not praise).

*****

In Southeast Asia, the West is clearly victorious. It has successfully ‘neutralized’, ‘pacified’, indoctrinated and intellectually enslaved this large (and in the past diverse) part of the world.

Hopefully this situation will not last forever, and not even for too long a time.

The Philippines and Vietnam are rapidly coming back to their senses, increasingly determined not to take dictates from the West.

But Indonesia has suffered a major setback, after its traditional-style ‘legal coup’ against Jakarta’s progressive Governor ‘Ahok’, who was smeared and then imprisoned on thoroughly irrational and bizarre accusations that he ‘insulted Islam’ (charges so bizarre that even local linguists came to his defense, but the verdict was ‘political’ and had nothing to do with justice). His true ‘sin’: Ahok tried to implement at least some elements of socialism in this still hopelessly fascist country. He fell. Others may make a fresh attempt, soon.

In the meantime, both China and Russia are making great inroads in the region. Local ‘creams’ are watching, attentively. Most of Southeast Asian elites have always been for sale, for centuries, of course, with the exception of those in North Vietnam.

As the anti-imperialist coalition is getting stronger and wealthier, there could actually be some serious changes of heart in foreseeable future, at the top of several Southeast Asian countries. Even Communism could be finally legalized again, but only if it manages to disperse some funding, scholarships, and substantial grants.

If it would, than those uniform debates at the FCCT in Bangkok could finally become vibrant and diverse.

The West will, of course, work very hard to prevent all this from happening.

*****

• All photos by Andre Vltchek

• First published in New Eastern Outlook (NEO)

In Bangkok: “No Speak Your Language, Speak Thai or Die”

It is hard to calculate the cost of the stubborn refusal of the Thai population to learn foreign languages. Some daring estimates, however, calculate that the losses could be in tens of billions of dollars, annually. And the situation is not getting any better.

Bangkok wants to be the center of Southeast Asia, and by many standards it has already achieved this goal.

Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand, Hive of Western Opinion Makers (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

Suvarnabhumi International Airport is the second busiest in the region. Almost all of the international news agencies are here, and not in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. Several UN agencies are now located in Bangkok, as well as mega malls and top private medical facilities, catering mostly for people who live in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and as far away as the Middle East.

For years and decades, Thailand was busy promoting itself, capturing the imagination of millions all over the world.

New Bangkok Skyline (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

Some wonder whether it could really do even better than it is already doing. According to Forbes, Bangkok recently became the most visited city on Earth:

According to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index, the Thai capital had 21.5 million visitors who stayed at least one night in 2016. By comparison, London had 19.9 million overnight visitors last year while Paris had 18 million. The Big Apple was even further down the list with 12.8 million.

32.59 million foreign visitors descended on Thailand in 2016 alone, and the numbers are not subsiding.

Statistics vary, but travel and tourism now account for approximately 20 percent of Thailand’s GDP. That’s a lot, much more than in other countries of the region.

*****

For Thailand, that is all good news, or at least theoretically it is.

But despite its cosmopolitan flair, Bangkok remains a relatively closed and segregated society.

Now, there seems to be more Japanese eateries in the center of Bangkok than traditional Thai restaurants. However, try to order in one of them, for instance, an iced tea in any other language other than Thai, and you will be up with a great surprise. The chances are that the staff will not speak any foreign languages.

And it gets much more serious than that: people working in banks, at least theoretically catering to foreign customers, hardly speak anything except Thai. Even the ‘tourist police’ cannot understand what you are talking about when you try to report a crime.

The other day, in Bangkok, I tried to retrieve a substantial payment from a foreign magazine, which for some reason utilized Western Union in order to transfer funds. Western Union in Thailand is teamed up with the large Krungsri Bank. In one of its branches, I spent a humiliating 90 minutes, trying to complete a simple transaction that would normally take 2 minutes, even in Beirut or Nairobi. The incompetence of the staff was covered up by spiteful facial expressions and outright rudeness (using Asian, not Western standards). More and more new ‘additional information’ was demanded sadistically, by pointing at some confusing printouts. Not one out of six people involved spoke anything but Thai.

*****

Generally speaking, many Thais believe that making a decent income from foreign tourists and expats is their inherent right. The perception is that no high level of knowledge, language proficiency or provision of quality services is required from them.

Once my local interpreter told me:

Everyone wants to come to Thailand, everyone loves it here, so they should accept things the way they are done in the Kingdom.

Recently, trying to buy an item of professional video equipment at the SONY showroom in Bangkok, I realized that the assistants did not speak absolutely any foreign languages. I had the same experience in the studio, where I was attempting to capture two of my damaged HDV tapes.

This was all totally acceptable when Thailand was, many years ago, one of the cheapest places on Earth, a haven for backpackers and romantics. Since then, everything has changed. The country is desperately trying to provide high-end services. But comparable services and goods are now often cheaper in London, Paris or Tokyo than in Bangkok. So is the food in supermarkets. And still, there is no foreign languages proficiency.

As a veteran traveller from Japan recently pointed out:

It was much easier to accept an overcooked and tasteless bowl of pasta from a waitress who was rude and spoke no foreign languages, when it came at a symbolic price of US$2. It is much more difficult to remain ‘benevolent’, if the service is still terrible, nobody speaks anything but Thai, but the cost is twice that of a good spaghetti dish in some excellent restaurant in Venice.

*****

But Thailand is confident that hordes of people will keep coming.

Partially it is because of the extremely positive propaganda coming out from countless Western mass media sources. If there is any criticism of Thailand, it is of an exceptionally mild and ‘kind’ sort. All the basic elements of Western dogmas – about how great, relaxed, safe and comfortable the country is – are upheld in such reports.

No wonder! No matter which government is in charge, the country remains one of the staunchest US ally in Asia.

Thailand fully implemented the economic system promoted by the West. During the Cold War, it killed, tortured or at least imprisoned thousands of its own Communists and leftists (no need for interventions).

In the past, the Kingdom readily accepted and accommodated many defeated (in China), genocidal troops of Chiang kai-shek. It participated in the savage bombing campaigns of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, often lending its own pilots, and it brought poor young women from the countryside, in order to serve the US, Australian and other pilots and technicians based at Pattaya and other military airports, as prostitutes.

Murdering Students by the Military

It adopted draconic laws that forbid all criticism, and often even mention of almost all the basic power elements injected into Thailand by the West.

The rewards have been great ever since.

No matter how rude an interaction between locals and foreign visitors often is the country still maintains the reputation of the ‘land of smiles’.

While the murder rate is higher in Thailand than in the United States, the Kingdom is still perceived as a relatively safe place.

Endless military coups that overthrow democratically elected governments are generally accepted and after a few headlines, ignored by the Western mainstream press.

While virtually all coastlines are irreversibly over-commercialized, even ruined, Thailand is known as a ‘tropical paradise’.

*****

There is actually one group of Thais, which speaks perfect English – the elites. Most of their members were educated in the United States, in the UK or Australia. Some of them are leading jet set, cosmopolitan lives, with several properties in different parts of the world.

But these are not people that foreigners stumble across during their two-week long vacations. I encountered several of them, on different occasions, and I can “testify” that their proficiency in foreign languages, particularly in English, is great.

*****

Frankly and honestly, I actually love Bangkok. It is chaotic, overgrown but an extremely complex and exciting city. I have worked in almost 160 countries, on all continents, but Bangkok is still one of my favorite places on Earth. It drives me insane, it often defeats me, but I cannot imagine my life without it. It is one of the places where I come to think and to write.

But it is not a ‘friendly place, and it is not cheap. It is definitely not an easy and comfortable city. It is what it is. For me it is great, for many others it isn’t. But it is definitely not at all what it is being defined as by the Western positive propaganda.

Thailand could change; it could greatly improve, if its populations would take advantage of those tens of millions of foreign visitors every year, and learn about many other places, not just about the United States, Europe and Japan. People don’t travel here only from the West; they are also arriving from China, India, Russia and Latin America, even Africa.

And savage capitalism is not the only economic system now on offer. As the Western “truth” is not the exclusive one, anymore.

The best thing for Thailand would be to interact, to learn something new from those millions of visitors. And what better way to learn than through interaction, through learning languages.

Bangkok is now a world city, a cosmopolitan metropolis, but with a provincial mindset. All this can and should change. Not for the sake of foreign visitors, but for the sake of the people of Thailand!

The image Thailand wants to project of itself (Photo: Andre Vltchek)

• First published by NEO as “Can Thailand Evolve into A Regional Leader?