Monthly Archives: December 2011

China Nights

China Nights

K Gooi, left, with Mr Lim in front of newly-built Fujianese Apartment Block in Ruili

Not so long ago in July 1992 Hitoshi Takase, a Japanese TV producer of Nihon Denpa News, and I were pampered and treated almost like kings. The rough and tumble frontier town of Ruili on the China-Burma border was not exactly a place for royalties and nobles to hang out but we were never-the-less treated like one by our Chinese hosts – the Lim and Goh families.

Big brothers Lim and Goh were millionaires, the nouveau riche of China. They had made their fortune as traders in a quiet and remote corner of China, not many people had heard off let alone visited.

They hailed from Fujian Province, thousands of miles away on the economically-vibrant eastern coast of China. To the native Yunnanese who were mainly pastoral and hardy highland farmers, the mercantile Hokkiens seemed a different bred and culture.

A Yunnan friend said: “Fujian ren shi zuo da shen yi de, wo men Yunnan ren shan shang zhong tien.” (Fujianese are big-time business men, we Yunannese are highland farmers)

Goh and Lim moved to the remote Yunnanese interior on the Burmese border not long after the 8 August 1988 pro democracy upheaval in Rangoon. Today they and their fellow Hokkiens sit on the vast and rich business networks controlling most of the trades and commercial activities in and out of Burma.

The huge cross border tradings between China and Burma is mind boggling. Burma produces the best jade and ruby in the world, it also has the biggest teak forest reserves. Because of the economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western Europe, Burma imports virtually everything from China – from electricity, building materials, machinery, consumer goods and household appliances.

Going the other directions to pay for these goods are teak wood, jade, rubies and precious stones, agricultural produces, fresh sea food trudged across the remote border by porters to be air-flown to Fujian and Kwangtung. And there are also the illicit heroin, opium and Burmese prostitutes flooding the border.

Like elsewhere in the region, business in Burma are run by ethnic Chinese. Like Singapore and Penang, the people running the business are ethnic Hokkiens. Naturally they will contact their Fujian networks in China to buy and sell. Thus all the border trade came under the control of the Hokkiens. Ruili though in Yunnan tribal area is a Fujianese town where Hokkiens is widely spoken in the streets.

Happily back home in Ruili: (l-r) the author, Miss Goh, Miss Lim, big-brother Goh and big-brother Lim

Goh and Lim became very rich. They moved their families from Fujian to Ruili. In 1992 both of them have a sister each, age 22, and unmarried. In China it is considered old already if you still cannot find a life partner. Family members contacted relatives in Hong Kong and husbands were found; arrangements were made for them to go to Hong Kong and get married.

But there was a snag. They could not get passports. The Chinese government at that time made a ruling not to issue passports to all Fujianese. The reason being: Chinese illegal immigrants were making headlines all over the US and Europe. The ruling came about after investigations by American FBI and Chinese police revealed Fujian Triad connections and control behind the illegal human smuggling. And several murders attributed to the Fujian Triads were uncovered.

Through their Burmese contacts big brother Goh and Lim got their sisters overland to Rangoon. From there they got Burmese passports (after paying a lot of money) and flew to Bangkok where they got a connecting flight to Hong Kong.

The young Lim and Goh were basically country girls first time out of the country and travelling alone. They could only speak Hokkien and Mandarian. At the Hong Kong airport the suspicious immigration officer asked them what they intend to do in Hong Kong. Innocently they said ‘to work’. The officer asked them to write it down on a piece of paper which they did. Next instant they were detained and put on the first flight back to Bangkok.

Meanwhile the prospective bridegrooms and score of relatives outside the arrival lounge waited and waited. Back home in Ruili initial worry turned to gloom and panic as days dragged on and there were not a word from the girls and their whereabouts. The worse could not be discounted – kidnapped and sold into sex-slavery, even murdered by sex maniacs.

When Takase and I stumbled upon them in a honky-tonk hotel in Bangkok Chinatown while doing a documentary on Chinese illegals and trafficking of Chinese women, we thought we had hit jackpot.

We found the girls in the room of an old Chinese fortune teller who had advertised his service in a poster on the groundfloor eating shop of the hotel. Posting as clients was like ‘god-sent’ to penetrate into the rooms and observe ‘what’s-going-on’ in the sleazy hotel. We saw this classic looking old Chinese scholar with wispy white beard who said he was fomerly a teacher in a Kuomintang village up in mountains of northern Thailand.

Now he was reading fortune to earn some money for his old age.  Lying on the other twin bed were the two young girls looking forlorn, and weary.  While my Japanese friend was having his palm read, I lost no time chatting up the girls, and managed to piece together their story and misfortune.

After landing back in Bangkok and coming out of the airport, they didn’t know where to go or what to do next. They loitred in the airport dazed, worried and confused. Fortunately not long a Chinese Thai, sensing their plight, came and talk to them and offered help. The good Samaritan showed them where to change the US$70 (which they were each allowed to take out of Burma) into local currency and directed them to take a taxi to Chinatown to stay in a cheap hotel.

Soon their money ran out and that was when they bumped into the ex Kuomintang teacher turned fortune teller who took them into his care. The KMT teacher later told us he was going to help the girls return to China by the overland route through Burma. He said he knew people and the route because the Kuomintang army once occupied the area from northern Thailand, Shan state of Burma right up to the Chinese border.

Fortunately I visited them the morning they were leaving for the railway station and just learned about the plan. I was skeptical and knew the danger and risk of being caught by the Burmese army. [see Keng Tung jail story] The teacher said he had to move fast because the Thai police were checking everyone in the hotel and he didn’t want to be ‘implicated’ with the girls.

I took out 500 baht and my name card and gave it to one of the girls. “Please phone me if there is trouble and need help!” I said. Sure enough, a week later there was a frantic call from the girls saying they were back in the hotel and the teacher asked us to come immediately to take the girls. It was too dangerous to pass through Burma and he had done his best and failed, he said.

We took the girls back to Takase’s apartment. The first thing we did was to get the girls telephone back home via Kunming, the provincial capital. Imagine the joy – the families had completely lost touch with them for over three months.

Getting them back to China proved to be tricky, ordinarily it would be quite impossible. Luckily the families knew a famous Yunnanese artist in Bangkok who had held many exhibitions officiated by the Chinese ambassador in Bangkok. The artist managed to get the ambassador’s special approval to issue visas to the two girls travelling on Burmese passports.

Normally this wasn’t allowed. Burmese passport holders as a rule must apply for visas at the Chinsese embassy in Rangoon. Another month passed before we put the girls onboard the plane bound for Kunming. And the story ended happily with the two ‘Burmese’ girls turning back into Chinese girls once they got out of the Chinese airport.

To end our documentary we flew to Kunming and took the overnight bus to Ruili to meet the girls and families. We were hailed not exactly like heroes but feted day and night. Every meal turned out to be a banquet with wine flowing liberally and the best of the best cuisine of Ruili – fresh Burmese seafood packed in ice, trudged through the mountains by porters. We had them every meal before they were air-freighted to the big restaurants in Fujian and Kwangtung.

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Cambodia Twilight

Cambodi

 Author’s note: When the Khmer Rouge regime took power in     Phnom Penh in April 1975, and the subsequent fall of Saigon and defeat of American forces weeks later, the shock waves reverberating through Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur were devastating. Embolden by the communist victories the Malayan Communist insurgents blew up the national monument and assassinated the police chief in Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia became a haven for guerillas of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). Overnight border outposts and police stations along the Thai-Cambodian were overrun and briefly captured. After the attacks the CPT would retreat into Cambodia to rest and recuperate.

Thai pre-emptive reactions were swift, brutal and insidious. The Khmer Rouge regime had to be undermined. Thai village gangs were organized to raid Cambodian villages ostensibly to steal cattle and livestock. This were easy targets, as one of the raiders told me, because the villagers were poorly defended by only young boys as the regular army were undermanned and dispersed to guard the border with Vietnam and Thailand. Fake pictures of Khmer Rouge soldiers forcing peasants to pull ploughs (taken on the border) were published in the Bangkok Post.

In a spectacular article by Norman Peagan in the Far Eastern Economic Review 1976 about the Khmer Rouge barbaric raid of Nong Palai Thai village, he reported that the village survival of the massacre (where pregnant women were horribly bayoneted) told him that the raiders spoke in Thai.

The super nationalist Khmer Rouge made the cardinal mistake of taking on both its giant neighbor Vietnam and Thailand at the same time. History has shown that the Cambodian “king” is either installed by the Thais or the Vietnamese. [Today Hun Sen’s government is a Vietnamese installation.]

Thailand is relatively free where journalists could come and go and try to find out what is happening. In Vietnam it was not the case. The undermining and infiltration of the Khmer  Rouge must be deep, thorough, and devastating. They attacked on Christmas Day 1978 and by New Year Day the Vietnamese army were in Phnom Penh. Thailand was alarmed. Asean, America and China rallied behind Thailand to opposed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The joke at that time was only Bangkok’s notorious traffic jam could stop the Vietnamese tanks.

 The anti Khmer Rouge propaganda by the Thais and the US government and the western press up till then had helped the Vietnamese invasion, and justified the toppling of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

The question never asked was how much the Vietnamese were involved in the infiltration of the KR, – their agents and spies, supporting one faction against another, and in fanning the massacre. Hun Sen was the Khmer Rouge they support.

In War the first casualty is truth. Hitler massacred his border villagers by dressing his soldiers in Polish uniforms and made that excuse to invade Poland. Most recently, President Bush lied about Sadam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and invaded Iraq.

Award-winning Director/Producer

A review of  Gerry Troyna’s documentary on the Thai-Cambodian border

Published by the Bangkok Post on May 30, 1990 under the headline “Scenes from either side of the border” by Kim Gooi

The story of Cambodia is a saga of its ever-shrinking borders, and of centuries of contention between Vietnamese and Thai armies.

Cambodia is the luckless victim sandwiched between two large powerful rivals, its population of seven million people completely overshadowed by its neighbors of 50 million each. The invasion in January 1979 which resulted in the installation of Vietnam’s candidate on the ‘throne’ in Phnom Penh was merely the most recent of such incidents down through the centuries.

As in the old days, the fallen and deposed leaders retreated to Thailand retreated to Thailand for help and protection, waiting for the time when they would march back to Phnom Penh to reclaim power.

Today, more powers are involved in the war in Cambodia and in seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict but the basic contenders have not changed. This was pointedly stated by Thai General Pichit Kulvanijaya in an interview with Canadian television CBC: “Since the time of King Rama II we have fought many times with the Vietnamese army over the issue of Cambodia, and Cambodia has never, not even once, been able to win back its independence without Thai assistance.”

The frontier between Thailand and Cambodia is littered with landmines and the nameless dead, felled by landmines and the destruction of war. Since 1979, Vietnamese and Thai soldiers have clashed scores of times, but as all wars, it is the civilian population (particularly the children) that has borne the brunt of the suffering.

Many of the thousands of refugees housed in a dozen camps along the border have been there for a decade or more; many more were born there and know no other life than that in dilapidated huts, under plastic sheets, behind barbed wire.

Phnom Penh 1990 the city slowly coming back to life, photo by K Gooi

The depressing state of affairs is the subject of a highly-acclaimed documentary programme produced by the British television [BBC]. It is one of a series of eight titled “Frontiers” which explores the man-made lines dividing cultures, languages, religions and races. Each 60-minute programme attempts to show what a frontier does to the people living under its shadow.

Produced with the help of Kraisak Choonhavan, the prime minister’s son, acting as consultant, “Frontier: Thailand/Cambodia” was adjudged to be so outstanding among its kind that it was screened ahead of the series in the United Kingdom last October as an independent programme under the title ‘Border Run’. It is being shown again as part of the ‘Frontier’ series, which came to British screens this month.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand has access to a copy of the programme and intends to screen it at its club house, although a date for the showing has not yet been scheduled.

The impact of the “Border Run” screening in the UK was such that director/producer Gerry Troyna was commissioned to the final programme for Frontiers, “Frontier: USA/Mexico”, shot in Tijuana and along the Rio Grande. The other frontiers explored in the series are: East/West Germany; South Africa/Mozambique; Finland/USSR; Israel/Jordan; Afghanistan/Pakistan; and Eire/Northern Ireland.

“A film documentary or a novel is a story of people, and people means characters,” said Troyna, defining his approach to documentary-making. “If we have good interesting characters, then we have a successful story. It must be visually powerful, interesting for viewers to follow, and most of all, entertaining enough to glue viewers to their TV sets. Or else people will just watch five minutes and switch off.”

“Frontier: Thailand/Cambodia” was written and presented by Jon Swain, who covered the fall of Phnom Penh for the London Sunday Times. He shows the border from both sides and tells the story of his involvement and attachment to Cambodia; he sees it as a country of happy, easy-going people, placid paddy fields, and swaying palm trees, engulfed in bloodshed and war. Swain was among the last of the foreigners to be sent out of the country by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in April 1975.

Filming of the documentary coincided with three events that would provide colour and powerful visual images: a parade by the Royal Thai Army of newly acquired Chinese tanks, the annual birthday parade for His Majesty the King, and the Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Cambodia.

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Little Heroine

The Saga of an Akha girl’s escape from ‘slavery’ and struggle to go to school

all photos by Kim Gooi

The Akha one of the most exploited and marginalised

Author’s note: In 2001 I was the researcher and interpreter for Reader’s Digest writer doing a regional drug story. We spent quite some time in Mae Sai and I had a good chat with this incredible Akha girl. What I heard blew me away.

The border town of Mae Sai, the northern-most point of the country is by far the most notorious and mind-boggling of all Thailand. It is the gateway for all the worst of human flotsam pouring from Burma into Thailand – opium, heroin, amphetamines, border raids, refugees, child prostitutes and human trafficking, to name a few. For a small frontier town it has the most number of brothels per square area.

The flood of amphetamine has become so serious of late that an all out war was declared and its eradication has become national top priority, says Sompop Jantraka, head of Daughters Education Programme, an NGO in Mae Sai dedicated to preventing and saving young girls being sold into prostitution.

Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sompop was named one of Asia’s 25 heroes by Time magazine in April this year (2002). [Time magazine issue Apr 23, 2002]

To underscore the effectiveness of his NGO, the police in Mae Sai asked for two women counselors from the DEP to help in the police rehabilitation center.

Young Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: far right, RD writer and Sompop, back to camera, and police officers interviewing teenage girls

“We are happy to provide our counselors to help the woman addicts and we have asked the police to provide us with two officers to help us in our fight against woman and child trafficking,” says Sompop.

Of the two counselors helping the police is a tribal girl, Thanayaporn Lecheku, who would in all probability be the heroine of Asia if not the world. Diminutive and unassuming, like most of her mountain folks, her demeanor belies the steel inside her that has been forged by years of hardship and struggle she has endured.

Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: Our heroine Thanayaporn is the diminutive girl standing far right with Somphob and  Readers' Digest's Marc lerner in the middle, July 2002

Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: Our heroine Thanayaporn is the diminutive girl standing far right with Somphob and Readers’ Digest’s Marc lerner in the middle, July 2002

Thanayaporn’s story is the more remarkable as she is an Akha, the poorest and most marginalized of Thailand’s minority mountain tribes. Struggling against all odds she has not only got herself educated and become one of the best counselors, she would also become one of the first Akha woman graduates. At twenty-one, she is now a first year university student majoring in arts and public administration.

Speaking to this writer 2001 in Mae Sai, Thanyaporn said humbly, “I come from a family of nine brother and sisters. I am the middle child. Home is in Pa Daeng Luang, a remote mountain village 40 km from the district town of Mae Suay (110 km from Mae Sai).

“My father is an opium and heroin addict. He also takes amphetamine. I was nine years old and in primary two of the village school when my father said he is going to sell me and my younger sister. There are too many children and not enough to eat, he said. I was very angry and ran away from home with another girl from the village.

“We  walked the whole day to Mae Sai with just the clothes we wore. From Mae Suay we hopped on the buses from village to village and came to Chiang Rai, the provincial capital.  The conductors let us ride free as they know we have nothing. We beg for food and leftovers along the way. 

“From Chiang Rai we hid under the seats of the tour bus and came to Bangkok. Near Bangkok the bus conductor discovered us but let us ride assuming we were Akha beggars coming to Bangkok.

“ We wondered around Bangkok huge bus station not knowing where to go. A man picked us up and brought us to a temple in Ayuthaya. The temple has a big hostel for orphans, street kids and runaways like us. There were more than 100 kids, the boys and girls separated into different hostels. The abbot and monks feed the kids and send us to school.

“I stayed in the ‘wat’ for nearly seven years until I was 16 and had studied up to secondary two. I became worried and afraid and decided to come home because some of the girls in the temple had become pregnant after being raped by the monks.

“I had been away and not seen my family for so long. I wonder how my family members were getting on. My friend came back first and I wrote a letter to my father asking him whether he still has intention to sell my sisters, and if he has I shall never come home. The letter was hand carried by my friend and read to my father as he is illiterate.   

 “My father said no and asked me to return home. Reaching home, he asked me where I had been for so long and I said I went to school and study. He retorted what use were all the years of studies when you can’t feed the family. A girl must work (in the field), that is the only way to get food and money. And can you stay unmarried until 17? he challenged.

“I replied the only way to get more money enough to feed the whole family is to get good jobs and we must be educated. If not you will be a poorly paid laborer. There is no hurry to get married; a girl has to be educated first.

“I had to prove it, so I left for Chiang Rai and work in a shop making pillows. The pay was 2,500 baht per month with board and lodging provided. I worked for two months and came home and gave all the 5,000 baht to my father. He was surprised as he had never seen so much money before. I told him he must send the rest of my sisters to school and he agreed.

“At that time the DEP came to the village and announced that they will provide free education and all support to any girls who wish to go to school. I was very happy and immediately took the offer.

“The DEP programme also provide vocational and leadership training, work and academic studies. I continued my education and today I am a first year university student.

“I have proven to my father that I could not only stay unmarried till 17 but I could still be unmarried at 21. (Traditionally tribal girls get married at 15, 16 and by 17 they would have several children already) He has agreed to all my suggestions now and allowed all my younger sisters to continue school.”

I asked Thanayaporn whether she has used her life story in counseling the girls at the rehab center. She said not exactly her life story, but often the girls complained and bemoaned that their parents have neglected them, not give them enough money to spend and buy clothes.

“Just this small little matter and you’re all complaining; you’re having too good a life and have not ‘eaten’ hardship,” She counseled them. “Do you know my father has not given me, not a single baht all my life! “ And Thanayaporn told them how she worked and gave money to support her family.

The little Akha girl who ran away from home to escape ‘slavery’ and to get an education, has become an important part and effective counselor in the police war to eradicate drug addiction among the youth of Thaialnd. She has also convinced her tribal folks how important it is to their fight against ignorance, poverty, and corruption.

Last year when she came back to the village to apply for her ID card, the headman demanded 20, 000 baht instead of the official 20 baht. Together with the DEP chief, they made a report to the police and today the headman and his henchmen are in jail for corruption and abuse of power. Thanayaporn is now famous in her village and her name has become a symbol of hope and a better future for the impoverished hill tribe.

Bridge spanning the Mae Sai river, dividing Mae Sai town from Burma's Tachileck, 18 Jul 2002: closed and sealed for 2 moths already when Burma accused Thailand of aiding Shan rebels attacking Burmese forces. Trafficking of women from China and drugs from Burma flow through here.

Bridge spanning the Mae Sai river, dividing Mae Sai town from Burma’s Tachileck, 18 Jul 2002: closed and sealed for 2 moths already when Burma accused Thailand of aiding Shan rebels attacking Burmese forces. Trafficking of women from China and drugs from Burma flow through here.

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Portraits and Images

Through The Lens

      copyright@Kim Gooi

 

Dreams and memories / Face of Thai beauty location: Thai/Cambodian border circa 1980

    Mother’s Love / Karen refugees   location: Thai/Burmese border April   1985

 

 

Phuket Nyonya girl 

location Phuket Old Town 1985

 

 

 

Grandma and grandson  living in squalor – a year  after this photo was taken, the roof of her rented house collapsed killing one of her grand children. location: George Town Penang 2000

 

 

October 1980 about a year after the Vietnamese Invasion of Cambodia and toppling of the Khmer Rouge regime, Khmer civilians taking refuge along the jungle-border poured into Thailand – starving, malaria-stricken and dying. Hundreds perhaps thousands died including many children.

   The dead were buried en masse in shallow graves by  Thai  villages

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