Monthly Archives: November 2015

Escape from Slavery

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On Page 286: ‘Little Heroine’ tells the saga of an Akha girl’s escape from slavery and her struggle to go to school  

In Opium Country              Akha tribesman smoking opium in the Golden Triangle, circa 1980.

 

Little Heroine

The Saga of an Akha girl’s escape from ‘slavery’, struggle to go to school, fight for dignity and justice

 

The Akhas 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, bavk to camera, and police officers interviewing teenage girls

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

 

“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 2nd right

Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: Our heroine Thanayaporn is the diminutive girl standing 2nd right with Somphob and RD’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 Sai 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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Khaw Sim Bee: Rajah of Ranong

 

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Book by Kim Gooi

    On page 308 :  The Legendary Rajah of Ranong

 

Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century - photo by Kim Gooi copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000

 Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at    Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century – photo by Kim Gooi   copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000   –  Khaw Sim Bee/Phya Rasadanupradit is seen in pith helmet standing second row third from left

 

 

 

  Author’s note: First published in Bangkok ‘The Sunday Nation’ – Sad Tale Of Beauty Felled – on May 28, 2000;  Malaysiakini on 11 May 2001 and Penang Club magazine in 2002.

They came like thieves to steal and rob with lightning speed in a well-planned move laced with political intrigue and cunning. Metropole Hotel, formerly Asdang House, was one of Penang’s most prominent historical-heritage buildings. It was knocked down and reduced to rubble on early Christmas 1993, while the city slept after a night of good cheers and celebration.

Within minutes, one of Malaysia’s finest heritage buildings with historical ties to Thailand was destroyed and with it a part of history of the region. The New Straits Times reported: “Many people are finding out that the building (after its demolition) has an interesting history and that the list of recent owners is also very interesting. Built at the turn of the century, it belonged to the Khaw (Na Ranong) clan. Here receptions were held for the King and Queen of Thailand. Members of the Thai Royal family also stayed at Asdang House”.

The building which stood on 6,581 square meters of land was symbolic of the Sino-Thai relationship during the early part of the century, the paper said.

Asdang House was more than a Thai embassy to British-held Malaya. Together with Chakrabongse house, it was an extension of the Thai Royal Palace to its southern-most zone of control at a time when the British colonialists were making inroads into the region, and eyeing Phuket’s rich mineral deposits. It was the symbol of sSiam’s successful resistance against colonialism when the rest of the region had fallen victim.

In 1897, when King Chulalongkorn visited Europe, he stopped over at Chakrabongse House where he was received by the household of the Sultan of Kedah, at that time a vassal state of Siam. When King Prajadhipok visited Penang in 1929, he stayed at Asdang House.

Asdang House was built over a hundred years ago, together with Chakrabongse House, by Phya Rasadanupradit of Ranong, also known as Khaw Sim Bee, the legendary Sino-Thai appointed by King Chulalongkorn as governor of the southern west-coast provinces of Siam, stretching from Ranong to Trang.

Rasadanupradit was instrumental in developing the region and successfully thwarted British advances in the south. He outwitted the British by bringing the first rubber seed from British Malaya and planting it in Trang. Today the rubber association of Trang is not above throwing a dinner to members of the Penang-branch of the Na Ranong clan when they come a calling.

To speed up development he brought Chartered Bank to Phuket, the only foreign bank to be allowed there. Other than rubber, he also introduced cashew nut to the south. Born in Ranong, his father sent him to China for further education when he was a young boy. For his vision and loyalty to the King of Siam, he was the first civilian to be honoured with two statues that still stand today in Trang and Phuket.

The achievements of the clan were indeed outstanding and remarkable. The founding father Phya Damrong Sucharit Mahasomphakdi (Khaw Soo Chiang) was a headman and leader of the “Small Knife Society”, an anti-Manchu revolutionary group from Fujian province.

He came to Ranong via Penang during the time of King Rama IV. The area was under constant Burmese threat. Phya Damrong drove off the Burmese pirates and built a wall to protect Ranong, said his great, great grandson, Khaw Cheng Poon in Penang. He became the first Rajah of Ranong by appointment of the King of Siam.

On a subsequent visit to Ranong, King Chulalongkorn commented favorably on the development and praised the comfort and quality of the family mansion. Running a fleet of ships, he was able to bring in goods and coolies from British Penang and opened up the area for development.

In addition to being lord of the southern west-coast provinces of old Siam, the Khaw clan controlled a big chunk of mercantile, mining and shipping activities of the region from Penang. “They were the richest in the region, holding wealth and power,” said Khaw Cheng Poon, the great-grandson.

To enhance the prestige of Siam at a time when the British were treating everyone as second class citizens, Phya Rasadanupradit donated a piece of prime real estate at the esplanade to the public. Called Ranong Ground, the football-size field was meant for public recreation, added Khaw. Alas, Ranong Ground has completely disappeared. Few people now know it ever existed. Today it is the site of Dewan Sri Pinang (State Conference Hall).

As many prosperous Chinese immigrant families were to do, the Khaw family built large, European style houses and entertained lavishly. Clustered along the exclusive shoreline of Northam Road, with names reminiscent of baronial villas like Brooklodge, Nova Scotia (later renamed Asdang House), and the Exeter, the Khaw houses were a reflection of the family success and its place in the world.

Chakrabongse and Asdang house were the setting of numerous parties and receptions especially for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok. Named after sons of King Chulalongkorn, the two houses were built back to back, with Chakrabongse house facing the sea and Asdang House facing the road.

Chakrabongse House was described in glowing terms by Penang Gazette at its house warming by the Prince Chakrabongse in 1904: “Mr Khaw Sim Bee has taste and very thorough notions of comfort. Standing on the brink of the sea, with its verandahs opening on lovely view of the harbour and purple heights of Kedah beyond, the position of the new house could scarcely be surpassed in Penang.

“Its snowy whiteness backed by the dark green of palms and flanked with tennis courts will render it the home beautiful indeed. The floors have marble in the halls and on the verandahs. The dinning and drawing rooms are large enough for huge gatherings, and the latter might easily accommodate four or five sets of Lancers.”

During World War II, the houses were appropriated by the Japanese military forces. After the war they were returned. Phya Rasadanupradit’s only son in Penang, Khaw Joo Chye, inherited Chakrabongse House.

It was said that the widow of Joo Chye was tired of the sea, and sold the house for RM150,000 in 1960. She built another bungalow across the road so that she could watch the traffic in her old age, said the grandson. Soon, Chakrabongse House was demolished to make way for luxurious family flats.

The fate of Asdang House

Asdang House was inherited by Phya Rasada’s nephew, Khaw Joo Tok. After World War II, Joo Tok sold it to a car dealer who resold it to a Hainanese restaurant owner who turned it into the Metropole Hotel. It was later sold to a group of politicians of the Gerakan Party controlling Penang.

In 1993 it was designated a heritage building by the Penang Municipal Council. Among the listed owners of the Metropole was the president of the Council who was also the chairman of the Penang Gerakan.

A series of shady deals unfolded: Metropole was allegedly declassified from category I to II, meaning it could be torn down as long as the facade was kept. It was then sold to a RM2 or 20-Baht (paid-up capital) company called Dolphin Square Private Limited for RM9.5 million. On Christmas day it was obliterated in a lightning operation and the debris carted away.

People smelled something fishy and a storm ensued. The hue and cry and the wrath of the people filled the papers, and provided live ammunition to the political opposition.

“How can a RM2 (20 baht) company buy a RM9.5 million house in a designated heritage area, if it is not assured that it could be knocked down for development?” asked opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. “Which bank is going to finance the deal if it is not assured of a quick return?”

The state government’s damage control went into full swing. On Jan 3, 1993, the city council ordered the owner to rebuild the house to its original form in six months. Failing to comply would result in a maximum fine of RM10,000 and an additional fine of RM500 for each day’s delay. The Chief Minister lauded the council for its swift action.

On Feb 14, the company was charged in court for demolishing a heritage house without permission and subsequently fined RM50,000. Today (2000), seven years later, the storm has abated but nothing has been done to restore the house. What has happened to the fine accumulated – RM500 a day for each day of non-compliance?

At the site where Asdang House once proudly stood, lies a half finished high-rise building, a pile of ugly grey concrete and rusty steel in a wasteland along Penang’s famous Millionaires’ Row. Ironically it was the economic crisis in 1997 that stopped the construction, not the law of the land nor the wishes of the people.

fall-of- house-part-2

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