Category Archives: Bangkok Post (TH)

Cruel Death of Burmese Migrant Labourers

A dpa despatch published by the Bangkok Post editorial page on May 13, 2008

A hard life here for illegal Burmese workers

by Kim Gooi

The hot noon sun beats relentlessly down on scores of Burmese citizens packed aboard long-tail boats on the Andaman Sea, sailing from Burma’s Victoria Point to Thailand’s Ranong harbour.

These border-crossers sit in the open boats holding umbrellas to protect them from the sun. Some have come to Thailand to shop, others to find work.

Going in the opposite direction are groups of western tourists, mostly backpackers, in search of pristine beaches or a renewal of their Thai visas.

Ranong lies on the borderline between relatively prosperous Thailand and Burma, where 46 years of military misrule have impoverished the population.

Surrounded by low hills on all sides like a tilted bowl facing a sheltered seafront, Ranong is a prosperous border town. The hills around the town are planted with rubber and cashew trees.

But for Tin Aung and many other Burma national here, Ranong’s bustling harbour has become a place of fear – fear of arrest and deportation and fear of hunger.

Dreams shattered, down and out, he sleeps in a park in the day time and ventures out at night to seek work. He’s not picky. He’s willing to wash cars, wash dishes and or do other manual labour the Thais shun.

Three months ago, Tin Aung’s family sold half their house north of Rangoon to pay a job broker the equivalent of US$635 (20,257 baht) for his passage to Phuket island in southern Thailand.

He was told that he could recoup the money quickly after he found a good job on the thriving tourist island.

Tin Aung travelled by us from Rangoon to the coastal town of  Mergui and then by boat to the border at Victoria Point, near the Thai town of Ranong.

The organisers of the people smuggling racket put him in a safe house and told him to wait for a boat and the right time to make the final run to Phuket.

“A week alter I was put on a boat in the middle of the night and told we were going to Phuket,” said Tin Aung. “Instead, the boat headed out to open sea and for a month I was made to work like a slave on a fishing boat.”

He had no choice but to work, fearing he would be beaten and thrown overboard if he refused. “There were news reports of scores of bodies washed ashore along the southern coastline in recent months,” said Tin Aung.

After a month the boat landed at Ranong, and Tin Aung escaped. Now, like many of his countrymen under similar circumstances, he is in a limbo, unable to work legally in Thailand and unable to return home to Burma.

Unlike the majority of Burmese citizens from Victoria Point, who can come and go freely acorss the border, Tin Aung would be subject to arrest and imprisonment if he went back, on charges of leaving Burma without permission.

“But it could be worse. Like the 54 who suffocated to death in the cold storage truck. I could have been one of them,” he said.

On April 9, a group of 120 Burmese illegals were packed like sardines into a cold storage truck bound from Ranong to Phuket to find work. Two hours later, after travelling 90 km and repeatedly ignoring the victims’ banging on the walls of the truck and their frantic mobile phone calls saying they could not breathe, the driver of the truck pulled over to the side of the road.

When he opened the door he found 54 of his passengers were dead, among them two children. Another 66 escaped death, with a score of them hospitalised.

The story shocked Thailand and focused attention on the trade of illegal Burmese workers in the country. “It is very cruel and horrible,” said police commander Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai. “I arrived immediately after villagers reported it at 10.30pm and didn’t sleep the whole night.

“There were screams, moaning and weeping and the stench of death. Some of the survivors helped to carry out the dead from the truck. When they saw the dead were their wives or children, they were screaming and wailing. It was a horror of the dead, half-dead and the living,” the commander recalled.

“And it wasn’t necessary for this to happen,” said Col Kraithong. “We have ways of letting them work in Thailand legally.”

There are 1-2 million Burmese citizens working in Thailand, but the majority of them do so illegally. Although it is possible to obtain an official work permit, many complain that the process is time-consuming and confusing, and leaves them at the mercy of their employers.

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Poet of keng Tung Jail Part II

Part II: The Poet Of Keng Tung Jail – Bangkok Post,  Sunday 6 February 1983 [Author‘s note: A year after Taworn’s poems were published on Jan 10, 1982  Post editor, Kanjana Spindler, suggested an encore edition with more detail of the poet and condition in Burmese jail because of inquiries from readers]


One cigar, think not it’s little
More than fifty baht without
One cigar friendship goes
They give with an open heart
Friends from foreign and distant
Where are they from?
Many places to go, this square
My learned friend find a better life
to lead
A happy free society your
Jail can be

They call him the mad Thai. By all accounts, Taworn Nootwong, a Thai national aged about 42, who wrote this poem is believed still to be in jail. Four years have gone by since we parted company. There is a dreadful possibility that the atrocious conditions and tough prison life has taken its toll on Taworn. His health and life were precarious and he might not have lasted very long unless he were freed.

When our paths first crossed way back in the dry hot months of 1977, I had no idea that this strange Thai is a highly learned man who writes beautiful poems as well. The inmates of  Keng Tung jail in the Shan State of Burma where Taworn is incarcerated, say he is mad. Very little is known about him and he is shunned by other prisoners.

“Don’t talk to him, you are wasting your time,” warned the prisoners. “He has been here too long, the prison has made him crazy. Nobody can talk to him. If you talk about the east he answers about the west. You will go mad yourself if you keep on talking to him.”

Some people say Taworn is mad, that he does not want to go home or that he has committed a grievous crime back in Thailand. Others say he has lost his identity papers and cannot go home. From Taworn himself nothing much can be learned because he only laughs and wallows in his madness. His favorite diatribe is tinged with sarcasm:

“Why should I go home. There is free food for no work here, even when you sleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha ha ha!” he bursts out laughing and walks away whenever someone shows concern for him. Because of his attitude people leave him alone, nobody bothers him. Even the tough prison guards stay away from him.

There are various reasons for Taworn’s purported madness. According to the accounts of other prisoners, he was sentenced in 1974 to six months in jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately the writer, who also ran afoul of the Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced to six months imprisonment, was released after spending only one year in jail.

The Keng Tung jail is a square area surrounded by four high walls each about 100 yards long. An inner barb wire fence interspersed with rose bushes keeps the prisoners from getting near the wall. Old time residents of Keng Tung remember that it was built by the British and designed to hold about 200 prisoners.

In 1977 there were over 500 prisoners kept in four big cells in the jail. Each cell measures about 20 feet by 150 feet and houses between 100 and 150 prisoners. They sleep on two rows of planks, raised three feet above the dirt floor, side by side, packed like sardine.

The conditions in Keng Tung jail could without exaggeration be described as appalling. Ten people died during the ten months I was interned there.

Che Peh was a Lahu boy aged about 19 who came in to serve two years for theft. He came in healthy and normal but he never left. After six months in jail he contracted some deadly virus which made him semi-paralyzed and his speech incoherent. At the end of November 1977 (his 18th month in jail) during the cold season, he was lying on a filthy rag covered with a filthy blanket in the bright sunlight in the prison compound.

He was unable to move or even turn his body. The only sign of life was when he blinked his eyes. There were feces all over the lower part of his body, flies swarming all over him covering his face and eyes. His mouth was foaming. His face had been blacken by days of lying in the open sun. Finally the authorities took him out to the town hospital where he died that same afternoon.

Another Lahu lad died of constipation, screaming until his last breath in the cell. Due to some strange, deadly and unidentified disease, he could not defecate. After a few weeks his body got bloated and his face all puffy. In his last hour he was groaning in great pain.

His fellow Lahus tried to no avail to help by wiping his anus which was covered with hideous sores, with wet rags. It was a relief for all when his screams and groans stopped and his stiff body was unceremoniously taken out in a gunny sack and buried in a vegetable garden outside the jail.

The rest of the dead were mostly old tribal opium addicts who used the drug for 15 to 20 years or more. When these enter the jail, they are thrown into the dirtiest corner of the cell. And in that corner they lay all day and night, groaning in pain from their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.

Nobody pays much attention to them for the prisoners are hardened to the sight. By the third or fourth or at the most the fifth week they will certainly die. The bodies are taken out by the other prisoners and buried in a hole outside the prison.

Less than half the population of the jail were made to work. People like Taworn and me who violated the immigration law are automatically exempted from work; though seemingly a privilege, in reality this is a disadvantage. Workers enjoy privileges such as taking a bath once a day – while non workers can only take a bath once every four days – and have a cup of watery rice broth in the morning.

People who work in the carpentry and blacksmith workshops have access to fire where water is boiled and sold to the other prisoners for two cheroots a milk tin. Others can steal some extra food from the kitchen and vegetable plot when they are working there. Non workers are left to idle day in and day out without anything to do.

The prisoners are fed twice a day – stale, yellowish broken rice, with a bowl of yellow pea soup in the morning (10 am) and a bowl of boiled radish leaves for the afternoon meal. A spoonful of shrimp paste, ‘nga pi’ (blachan), is added to each meal as relish. Once a week a piece of meat (pork or beef), one and half inch cube, is given. Sometimes small river fish is given in lieu of the meat.

Fortunately visitors are allowed twice a week. On these important days, friends and relatives of the prisoners bring much coveted food, cheroots, clothing and medicine. it is the food that sustains the prisoners. All the food brought in by the visitors is first checked by the wardens; in the process a portion is usually extorted. The prison guards live off the prisoners because they could not survive on their meagre salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some foodstuff and cheroots. A crowd then gathered around Taworn and within minutes all his food and cheroots were given away.

“Why do you do that?” someone asked.
“For years I have been smoking other people’s cheroot, now I can give instead of take!” Taworn roared out laughing. Sadly enough, many people mistook his admirable generosity as a confirmation of his madness.

Tall, dark and broad shouldered,Taworn is also very myopic. His thick glasses make him conspicuous among the prisoners and give him a scholarly look. he speaks and writes Thai, English and Burmese. Someone says he is married and has children in Bangkok, he was once a sergeant in the Thai Navy. No one has a clue as to why he is not released.

Taworn’s predicament was first reported in the now defunct Business Times (a Bangkok English Daily). Early last year his poems were published in Bangkok Post.

Amnesty International took an interest in his case in 1978. but so far nothing  has been done by the organisation. One of its officials said recently, “Burma is a very secretive country, there is nothing much we can do.”Trying to talk to Taworn is a lesson in exasperation and frustration. “Nonsensical” or “weird” or “totally mad” is the manner the prisoners described his speech. “He speaks good English” is the only positive remark about him.I found out that the best way to communicate with Taworn is through a piece of paper. To pass the time in jail I had decided to learn more of the Thai language from Taworn. I asked him to translate some English words and sentences into Thai. He would translate the words and phrases and eventually expand on the contents filing up the page with poetic verses.In the dreadful confinement of the prison Taworn would write and write filling up any piece of paper he could lay hands on. On a single word or phrase like ‘roses’, ‘Burmese cigars’, ‘high walls’, he would write verse after verse, filling up all corners of the paper. In such literary pursuits we spent many fruitful hours together. I realized that in his tormented mind here was a poet of the first order.Reading Taworn’s poems one is at once struck by their intense feelings and originality. Taworn is no armchair poet. His inner thoughts and pains are expressed truly and unpretentiously. Unfortunately paper was scarce in the prison (there wasn’t even toilet paper, old rags and strips of bamboo were used as substitute); some of the poems written on pieces of cigarette wrappers were lost. I managed to keep some of the work and got them out of Keng Tung jail.The Rose of Keng Tung

Within the high walls so grim
Rows of roses could be seen
Nest to barb wires and old bricks
Sprouting shades of green

June and July, the dry heat gone
Little buds, a bloom appear.
When August rain comes
They sprout red and pink
Covering the bush a score
or more

At dawn they are best
When dew drops like jewels on
virgin petals
I can’t resist to bend down and
What sweet fragrance.

Days have gone to weeks

Weeks have gone to months
Years have come to past
My most beloved Rose whom thou
wait for

Within the high walls so grim
The rose of Keng Tung blooms

[I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me greatly touched. As the ancient Chinese scholars believe, ‘one can only transcend the ordinary and write good poetry when one has tasted the bitterness of life’. Happy Reading! ]

Cold fog falls like a carpet, over Keng Tung Jail  /The sun is late at dawn, slowly releases the cold 

The sky is low, the land is high – the aeroplane is white /Winter wind blows and rustle, little birds walk on ground/flying to and fro

The sparrows come out to sing, a love song /the prisoners come out to sing, a farewell song

From Penang you came to listen /to a Burmese song

my dreams if, will sing a waiting song

Paper Book

Book is knowledge…’s OK to read                                                                                    We rather prefer not to                                                                                                              put Thought into it

Thai books, English books…..fluency                                                                                         Achieved                                                                                                                             Wrapping paper looks good, has                                                                                        Many  benefits 

Cheap books establish…..clearly                                                                                              in the Mind                                                                                                                         Expensive books conceal, proverbs                                                                                    and pleasantries                                                                                                                         

Lost books distribute…..surprise is exchanged                                                            with pleasure                                                                                                                                Oral books for the ears to listen                                                                                               Spread Humanity

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Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy

KimGooi Photojournalist

Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy
First published in the Asia Magazine early 1981; Bangkok Post July 19, 1981

Author’s note: My favorite all time and most widely published story. Also printed by the National Echo, Weekender and Penang Club magazine.

I spent six months in the US  and contrary to the prevailing ‘image’ I was highly impressed by the Black people I met.  My Cambodian refugee friend and family were given three sleeping bags and a TV by his young Black neighbor the first day. He said it’s cold and you need a TV or you’ll be bored to death. One time I was boarding a bus in front of Harvard University and didn’t have no change, I took a dollar note and asked the approaching Black student to exchange for some coins. Instead he took out a handful  and said ‘no worry just keep it’. Black girls at ‘fast food’ restaurant teasingly strike a pose when I stole a picture. There were many others – meeting the guys and girls at the Black bars, the Rhythm n Blues club – fond memories!  Years later I found out the Blacks were the greatest contributor to America’s popular culture like music and sports which is the most endearing American contribution to the world, especially in the music field.  

Dateline Boston, USA: It was snowing heavily. The house was close to panic when we returned on a cold winter’s night after a few drinks in the neighbourhood Black bar.

“He has a gun! He has been sleeping here for two hours already,” the Cambodian excitedly said, “He just came into the house and we don’t know what he wants. He was talking but we didn’t understand a word. He took the telephone and started dialing, then fell asleep.”

With much trepidation, Kim Gooi photographed a sleeping Two-Gun Billy, with his partially concealed revolver tucked into his coat.

Slumped on the chair, with the telephone at his feet, was an Black man. He had a weather-beaten face which gave him a look of around 50. Sticking out of his heavy unbuttoned coat was the shiny white, ivory butt of a revolver. There were immense sighs of relief on the faces of the Ly’s family at our arrival. This was December 1980. The Cambodian family had arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand just three weeks earlier and was housed in the three-room apartment in Dorchester, a predominantly Black residential area in Boston. Apart from Ly, who was a former journalist in Phnom Penh where he worked as a stringer phtographer and translator primarily for the Associated Press, none of the family spoke a word of English.

“It’s good that you come back,” said a worried 71-year grandfather Chor. “He could be a bad man, we don’t understand a word of what he says and we don’t know what he wants. I’m worried and concerned about the children and women.

“I think he knows we are poor refugees… there is nothing we have for him to take (rob). What shall we do?’

After a few minutes silence, Ly said: “Let him sleep… while he is sleeping he is OK. Besides a gunman who falls asleep is not dangerous. I don’t think he had any intention to rob or harm us. He must be so drunk that he came to the wrong house.”

Ly’s reassuring words brought a general calm to the family. “It is lucky that you came back… I was so afraid,” said Mrs. Ly cuddling her three-month old baby in her arms. Pointing to her three-year old daughter, she continued: “Even little Outtara is frightened; little girl knows when there is danger.”

Thirty minutes passed and the gunman was still fast asleep. We decided to wake him. Crouching forward, Ly shook the right thigh of the gunman. “Hey mister! Are you alright?” he asked. There was no response. Ly shook harder. The gunman stirred a little, groaned and murmured incoherently. He rubbed and opened his eyes slowly. Members of the family stepped back a few spaces.

“Are you OK? Can I get you a drink… Do you want something to eat?” Ly asked.

The gunman straightened and started talking in a slow, drunken voice, ignoring Ly’s offer. “Man I have a Chinese friend down in… he is a good guy… He sleeps over there and I sleep over here…

“What’s your name?” He extended his hand and we shook it without hesitation. Ah! Lee (Ly)… you are alright. I like you. My name is Billy.” He dragged himself to his feet, dug his hand into his coat found the revolver and pulled it out. The members of Ly’s family disappeared into the back room, Billy flipped open the chamber of the revolver, poured the six bullets into his palm and put them into his pocket.

Playfully, Billy jabbed the revolver at Ly’s ribs and laughed aloud. “Ha ha! Don’t worry, you are a good guy. I have a Chinese friend. Here take this.” He dug into his coat, got out a packet of pills, popped one into his mouth, fumbled into his coat pocket again and threw down a brown packet. Take it, roll them up. I got plenty of them.”

We opened the packet. It was filled with marijuana. “Hey man, get some papers… roll a couple of joints…” Billy kept repeating. There were no cigarette papers around. The problem was easily solved by making do with airmail paper.

“Wow man, this is a bomber!” Billy exclaimed while admiring the king-sized conical shape joints, rolled Asian style. “Come on, light it up!” he added.

As the smoke drifted and the aromatic scent filled the room, Billy smiled and murmured drunkenly, stoned out of his head. There was a sense of lessened tension and a happy mood seemed to prevail. Billy picked up the telephone. “Man, I’ve to call someone.” It was obvious Billy was very drunk, stoned out of his head with a combination of pills, marijuana and God knows what else.

For some minutes, he dragged on, murmuring incoherently into the telephone. With Ly’s help we discovered that Billy’s friend was at number 22 on the same street. Indeed just a couple of houses away.

“Hey man, come with me to my place,” he said. Soon the three of us were trooping out into the dark frozen night, Billy’s arms around our shoulders. Three doors away, we rang the bell. The curtain above the door parted and the faces of a white woman and a young boy stared out in bewilderment at a drunken Black man and two Orientals. We made a hasty retreat.

At the next house we pressed the door bell and waited. A pretty young Black girl of about 19 opened the door. We walked in after Billy. The young Black girl stared silently. The room was dark. A tiny baby was sleeping in a crib in the hall.

Billy pulled out his revolver from the inside of his coat and handed it to the girl. To our surprise, he dug into his hip pocket, got out another revolver and gave ity to the girl. A pervasive silence seemed to prevail except for the incoherent murmuring of Billy who had by now slumped on a chair.

“Is he your father?” Ly asked. “No, No,” the girl shook her head in consternation. We said good bye to Billy and the girl. “Come and see me sometime,” Billy groaned.

As we stepped out of the house, a long sleek car pulled up and out jumped three Black youths. We almost banged into each other. “This is the house,” one of the youths said aloud. And in an instant the three young men dashed into it.

“Wow! This is like a movie,” exclaimed Ly.

There was a great sigh of relief when we returned to Ly’s apartment. The family members gathered around, anxious to know what went on at Billy’s house. “It’s lucky nothing ugly happened, you handled the situation well,” said Mrs Ly to her husband. “There are man bad people in this place.”

We never saw Billy again, and we never found out who he was, but the Ly family would never forget their introduction to America.


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Mahathir Is Walking On Thin Ice

KimGooi Photojournalist

Mahathir Is Walking On Thin Ice
First published: Bangkok Post Bangkok Post Feb 3, 1999; Keadilan Magazine April 18, 1999

Wan Azizah and children leaving KL court after the judge refused bail on a minor bailable offence and big daddy could not be home for Hari Raya

Author’s note: The brutality unleashed on Anwar and the judicial absurdity were shocking and beyond understanding. He was brutally beatened by the police chief and denied bail on a flimsy sexual immorality, and  minor corruption charges.

On a January morning 1999 I arrived at the packed court house to see my path to the press gallery blocked. The police officer said no more reporter allowed as the quota was fulfilled. Panic-strickened I pleaded and flashed my Time magazine card, ‘Please  give me five minutes to go in and have a peep; I came all the way from Bangkok, at least I can write how the judge is like, the audience and how Anwar look.. or else I sure ‘kena buang kerja'(get sacked). He laughed, ‘OK no more than five minutes!’

I rushed in and squeezed into the press bench beside a lady reporter and explained my predicament. She smiled and kindheartedly made space for me to cramped beside her. Thank the police they did not bother me further.

Hari Raya with Wan Azizah and children Jan 1999


More people  may have visited the home of Mahathir on Malaysia’s recent religious open-house holiday, but it was at Anwar Ibrahim’s home where the more sympathetic gathered.

The scene at Kuala Lumpur’s Court of Appeal on Jan 16 was unusually relaxed – the court session was over and the accused, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was allowed to remain in the court room chatting with his defence lawyers and family members for several hours, while scores of police guards looked on benignly. “This is most unusual. Normally the accused is whisked away immediately after the court session and send back to jail,” said an observer from Amnesty International who has been monitoring the trial since its inception last September. Even the Bangkok Post was able to talk to Mr Anwar. “There seems to be a change. The police seem more lenient towards Anwar,” said the observer.

However, like most things in contemporary Kuala Lumpur, it is deceptive. The genial scene at the courtroom belies the brutality and conspiracy unleashed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to destroy his rival and former protege.

Minutes earlier the judge had turned down Mr Anwar’s appeal against a high court decision not to grant bail. Among the reasons given was the presence of Mr Anwar’s supporters shouting slogans to greet him each time he passes in and out of court. “What legal argument is that? It is shocking to hear. If you are a famous singer or public figure, you can’t get bail and justice because there are crowds wherever you go,” said Mr Anwar. “I was prepared for this… What can I say? The defence had done a good job in refuting all the accusations (of sexual misconduct). “By deciding that the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction over an appeal for bail, I have no recourse against an erroneous decision by the High Court. And by suggesting that the presence of my supporters outside the court is additional grounds for refusing bail, the Court of Appeal has virtually killed all my chances of seeking a fresh application for bail before the High Court judge.”

Hopes of Mr Anwar spending Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Islam’s holiest holiday on Jan 18, back home with his family were squashed. It’s a time of family reunion and traditionally for leaders to open their homes to the public.

Lines of well-wishers came since morning, forming long lines to shake the hand of Mr Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, at the family home in Damansara, Kuala Lumpur’s posh suburb. By evening when the last guest had left after partaking of the food laid out on the lawn, the still beaming and smiling Mrs Wan Azizah told the Bangkok Post: “There were 17,600 visitors. When we had the open house at the World Trade Centre last year the figure was only 14,000. I am really touched by their support.”

Minutes earlier as the well-wishers were slowly drifting home, a burly Chinese man came forward to wish her well and press a card into her hand. She looked at it and smiled: “Oh, it’s a free entry card to an amusement park, but my children should not be going to enjoy themselves. There is so much to do while their father is detained. He means well.”

A Chinese couple walk up, shake her hand and present her with what looks like a food parcel. “Please give this to Anwar when you visit Sungei Buloh (prison) tomorrow,” said the man. Mrs Wan Azizah turned around and smiled. “My husband is not around but the warmth is still there,” she said softly. “Though I feel slightly depressed not having Anwar by my side, the warmth and support is overwhelming and this has strengthened my courage to face the challenge of the future. Even though Anwar is not beside me during Hari Raya, I have the comfort of having my children beside me. “For this festival I did not buy any clothes for my children but friends bought for them. It’s very sad for the children but I try to explain to them.”

After being married for 19 years, this is the first Hari Raya without her husband. In previous years she would go back to Penang with her husband and children and visit her relatives and friends, particularly her mother-in-law, she said. “In previous years when Anwar was the deputy prime minister, we would visit PM Mahathir in the morning on Hari Raya day. Then proceed to the World Trade Centre for the open house. In the evening Mahathir and his wife together with his children would come over to our house for dinner. The children would eat separately. This was the routine all the years since he was first deputy PM.”

Among the well-wishers was Shamsidar Taharin, the wife of Mr Anwar’s private secretary with whom Mr Anwar is accused of having sex. She came with her husband and children, and they were warmly greeted and mobbed by the crowd. She is a good friend of Mr Anwar’s wife. They are like sisters, said a family member.

What is most noticeable about the well-wishers thronging into Mr Anwar’s house is the number of Chinese supporters, many coming with their children. “This is a good sign. Twenty percent of the visitors are Chinese,” said Philip Tan, a bookseller. “In the beginning the Chinese were frightened by the demonstrations. Now after 45 days of the trial, the picture has become clear. Anwar has been framed and Mahathir is the brutal and evil one.” “Earlier, the Chinese didn’t come out because they don’t want to create trouble. They were scared by the Indonesian riots. Now they know the government must change. They know that only when Mahathir is removed can the economy improve.

“Not only ordinary people but a lot of businessmen say that if Mahathir steps down, things will go up. If the election is fair, the Barisan National led by Umno (Dr Mahathir’s United Malays National Organisation) will lose. So they are using the May 13 racial riots as a threat to the Chinese voters. They will lose Sabah to the opposition for sure. So there is a likelihood the general election will be held at the same time as the Sabah election.”

Mr Tan said that like other businesses, his sales figures are down 20 to 30 percent. Henry Ong, a tour operator, said: “I do not believe the economy is recovering. If it is, the tourism industry should be enjoying a boom like in Thailand because of the cheap ringgit. Instead we are facing a disaster. The hoteliers have predicted that for the next six months, hotel occupancy will hover at around 20 to 30 percent.” “It is bleak, it is more gloom than boom for us. I come to support Anwar because of the great injustice. I believe Mahathir must go in order for the economy to recover. An accountant who asked not to be named added: “Justice, that is why I came. Even the layman knows that there is great injustice being shown to Anwar. As an educated professional, I feel even more outraged. That’s why I came here.”

One of six Chinese university students said: “We came to Anwar’s house because we have not been here before, and this is a chance for us to come and have a look. We cannot comment and tell you why we came because of the university act. We will be expelled. Just say we are neutral.”

Sonia Randhawa, whose father was detained and tortured under the Internal Security Act for 40 hours because he is a close friend of Mr Anwar, said: “I am not an Anwar supporter. I come here because I am disgusted by the way they treat him. I am disgusted by the lack of justice.”

The open house at Dr Mahathir’s sprawling chateau-like residence, Sri Perdana, was in total contrast. Chinese and Indians made up the majority of the huge crowd estimated at 40,000. If numbers in the open house contest were a factor, Dr Mahathir won hands down. “This is the first time in my seven years here that the gate has been thrown wide open to allow a free flow of visitors,” said a security guard with the Special Action Force. “In previous years, we allowed only batches of 300 to come in at a time.”

While the crowd at Mr Anwar’s house was made up of committed supporters and educated professionals, Dr Mahathir’s crowd were mostly from the working class who came more out of curiosity than for political reasons. “This is the first and last time I will come here. He will soon be gone,” laughed Pari Davi after queuing for an hour before she managed to shake Dr Mahathir’s hand. “He looks gaunt and tired,” she said. “I have nothing to do and this is my last chance to see him and look around the place,” said Rosli bin
Abdul Rahman. Madam Wong came with his son and daughter and saw the crowd was too big. After looking around the sprawling compound, he went home disappointed. “We came because my 12-year-old daughter wanted to come and see him,” he said. “And this is Hari Raya. My daughter has seen his pictures every day and wanted to see him in person.

This is an expression of support for the government,” proclaimed Dr Mahathir. “The number of visitors is extraordinary. I expected a smaller crowd as some people might get the impression that there will be riots.” Like all Dr Mahathir’s claims and strategies, what appears on the surface is deceiving.

An Umno division leader who is a famous lawyer and well connected in the party said: “Anwar is getting more and more sympathy every day and the people are getting more and more angry with Mahathir as the court case proceeds and various charges and evidence are proven to be false.

Mahathir is like a drowning man clinging to the last straw to stay afloat,” he said. “Anwar’s trial will not damage him even if he is jailed. He has a future. Politically he is still there.” “You can’t get rid of him because some ministers say so. The ordinary people do not see the charges as a serious matter because the charges (which were amended last week) are abuse of power to cover up something that is false. The tragedy is Unmo as a pragmatic and liberal party for the Malays will be discredited. More and more Malays will join PAS (Islamic Party) because they have no choice.

And PAS is an ideology- (religious-) based party which is not suitable to rule over the country. Look at the BJP in India or what would happen if a religious party took over Israel.”

Sebagai rakyat yang patriotik, adalah menjadi tanggungjawab kita untuk membawa negara kita keluar dari kemelut sekarang. Maruah negara perlu dikembalikan. Arang yang terconteng di muka bangsa Malaysia perlu dibersihkan. Nama Malaysia perlu diharumkan kembali, iaitu negara yang mempunyai rakyat yang berani berjuang menegakkan kebenaran dan keadilan.” Datuk Seri Anwar

“Political parties and non-government organisations must work together and set aside their differences in order to free Malaysia from continuing stranglehold of crisis and oppression….Our party is prepared to sacrifice its own interests in order to achieve the larger goal of forging a credible alternative to the Barisan Nasional (National Front),”  Dr. Wan Azizah.

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Mahathir’s Waterloo

KimGooi Photojournalist

Mahathir’s Waterloo
First published: Bangkok Post [editorial page] March 3, 1999; picked up by Belfast Islamic Centre website

Author’s note: Two days before Anwar took the witness stand on Feb 8, 1999 I got a call from Time magazine chief: “Take the first flight (business class) from Bangkok to KL. Stay in any hotel you fancy and send us the bill.”

This article was requested by Bangkok Post editor, written after my Time magazine assignment. Right after professor Khoo called the Post and complained that I had put him in danger.  My old classmate, air force Col Teh Benley, did the same when he met me even though his name was not mentioned. Such were their fear. I felt bad but confident I did not betray them because professor Khoo had left KL and was teaching in Singapore university as I was told by his son at the time of writing.

A year later I bump into Khoo during a conference in Penang. My fear of getting a trashing from him proved unfounded as he came forward and shook my hand. “Hey you know, after your article Mahathir wrote to me,” he said proudly. I was puzzled, “What did  he say?” Khoo said, “The PM wrote:  ‘Thank you for comparing me to Hitler’.”

“What does he mean?” I asked. “Oh, he wants to reassure me not to worry and he is proud of being compared to Hitler.”  Happily I told him he should frame  the letter. The moral: All is well that ends well.


After months of hearing lurid tales of sodomy, illicit sex and political intrigues, the stuff that rival a Hollywood blockbuster, the trial of Anwar Ibrahim has yet to end. “The case is totally surreal,” commented Marie Claire, a Dutch journalist. “It reveals the true face of Mahathir, yet at the same time I wonder if all the allegations are unfounded. There must be something that is not fabricated.”

When Anwar was arrested in September 20 last year, and charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse and corruption, many people would agree with Claire including this reporter. Five of the charges are related to sexual acts, the details of which have been lubricously related in local newspapers. The other five accuse Anwar of corrupt practice-for allegedly instructing the police to pressure two people who had written to Mahathir accusing Anwar of sexual misdeeds, to retract their statements.

Initially, I agreed with Rajan Moses, Reuter Bureau Chief that surely Mahathir has concrete proof like a videotape of Anwar’s sexual exploits, which he will produce in court to nail him. After 55 days of hearing, Mahathir not only failed to prove any of the charges but all those who were convicted or confessed to have been sodomised by Anwar had recanted or been exposed to be unreliable.

Dr Munawar Ahmad Anees, 51, speech writer of Anwar, convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for being sodomised by Anwar had given an affidavit in the presence Malaysia’s Commissioner of Oaths, on Nov 7, 1998. He revealed how he was arrested, tortured by the special branch. “They degraded me and broke down my will and resistance, they threatened me and my family; they frightened me; they brainwashed me to the extent that I ended up in court on September 19, 1998 a shivering shell of a man willing to do anything to stop the destruction of my being.” he said.

“I state categorically that the details of the alleged homosexual relationship contained in my statement made to the magistrate and those given to the court by the prosecutor on September 19, 1998 were untrue and were fabricated by the police.”

Sukma Darmawan, Anwar’s adopted brother, who was jointly convicted with Munawar and sentenced to six months in jail, had his anus examined by a doctor who testified in court that medically Sukma had not been sodomised because there were no torn tissue.

Azizan Abu Bakar, (driver of Anwar’s wife) who started the poison pen letter in 1997 accusing Anwar of making him his sex slave, first testified in court denying being sodomised by Anwar and later said he was. Anwar’s lawyers had hoped the judge, Augustine Paul, would impeach or disqualify his testimony. The defence argued that Azizan had contradicted himself on the witness stand and that his testimony was therefore invalid. The judge disagreed and ruled in favour of the prosecution.

Mior Abdul Razak, fashion designer, the last sodomy victim whose case has yet to be heard, submitted a similar affidavit on Feb 8 detailing how he was arrested and treated by the Special Branch. “Here I wish to declare that my statement in writing, video recording which was made by the police, written statement given to the magistrate and the lawyer Syed Hilmi, regarding sodomy with Anwar are all cooked up by the police. They were given because of pressure, threat of torture, and through cigarettes and drinks given to me which I suspect were drugged.”

“I totally deny ever being sodomised by Anwar,” Mior recanted in the affidavit. Last week Mior sued the government seeking $60,000 for special damages as well as an unspecified amount for other damages.

“In any democratic country the judge will throw out the case. The prosecution has to prove beyond all doubts that the accusation is true,” said a lawyer (Chew Seng Kok) of Zaid Ibrahim Law Firm.

Instead the sexual charges were dropped and amended with the consent of the judge to four counts of abuse of power to cover up allegations of sodomy and illicit sex. In this way the prosecution do not have to prove Anwar’s alleged sexual crimes which they had revealed in lurid details in court. The prosecution had prevented the defence the chance to call their star witness, Shamshidar, wife of Anwar’s private secretary, after showing the court a matress allegedly stained with her virginal fluid and Anwar’s semen, as a lewd exhibit to prove that Anwar had illicit sex with her.

Shamsidar is a close friend of Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah. “If she had the chance to testify, she would have exposed the lies of the prosecution and made a mockery of the whole court proceeding,” said a defence lawyer.

“You can’t amend the charges midway like that,” said Mr Chew (Seng Kok, Zaid Ibrahim Law Firm), a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur. “The most absurd is how someone could be accused of covering up something that is not true.”

“After smearing Anwar with details of lewd sexual and other misconduct, they prevented him from defending himself,”said Rahim Karim.”This is really dirty and unfair.”

Meanwhile the world is treated to vintage Mahathir logic.”It is fair and open,” the Prime Minister said, “The defendant had nine lawyers defending him. The trial is open; it has been dragging on for days and days and there have been people observing the trial all over the world. There is nothing closed about it.”

“Yes, the charges were amended but there were reasons to amend them,” Mahathir said.

How long the court circus is going to drag on is anybody’s guess. On February 8, Anwar took the witness stand for the first time after the prosecution wrapped up and amended the charges. To the surprise of many, the Attorney General, Moktar Abdullah, announced with the consent of the court that he is taking over the prosecution. The defence protested unsuccessfully. “It is not proper as the AG is involved in the case and he is one of our potential witnesses,” said defence counsel Raja Aziz Addruse.

The judge also ruled that all political conspiracy is irrelevant. “Evidence maybe adduced to show there is conspiracy by police to change their stand and no further. Evidence of political conspiracy if any, is irrelevant,” the judge said. Further on the judge issued another order that all evidence on corruption and wrongdoing revealed by Anwar in court be embargoed to the press.

“It is very obvious the judge is bias and he is directed by the attorney general who is his boss. It is evident to us lawyers in Malaysia that Anwar is going to be convicted and the only thing left for him is to do as muchdamage as possible by exposing all the wrongdoing and corruption in the government, and he is doing just that,” said the lawyer Chew of Zaid Ibrahim Law Firm.

Anwar told the court that it was Mahathir who first showed him the poison pen letter in August 1997 accusing him of sodomy and adultery. “He told me to read it and then destroy and gave me a lecture on how to deal with it by following his example, that is just ignoring it. He said he had received several such letters including one accusing him of having a Chinese mistress in Singapore,” Anwar testified.

Later the police chief together with the AG told him that several ministers and Aziz Shamsuddin, the PM’s political secretary were behind the conspiracy, Anwar told the court. However, things began to change in 1998 when economic problems started. There was a clash of views between him and the PM on how to tackle the economic problems. Anwar went on to describe how on Sept 2, 1998, Mahathir gave him an ultimatum to resign or else be charged with a series of crimes ranging from corruption, sexual misconduct to treason, Anwar said . The judge, however, ruled all these as irrelevant.

Outraged and disgusted, Saudi Arabia, Islamic brother and staunch supporter of Malaysia, reacted strongly by denying Malaysians work visas. A retired Malaysian air force colonel (Teh Benley) recently became the first victim when he was denied a visa while his German colleagues in a security firm were welcomed. “When are the rest going to follow?,” asked a diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.

Time is not on his side. If justice and truth do not prevail, at least the economy will. The mood in Malaysia is changing fast as the trial drags on, the civil servants are all against Mahathir now, said the lawyer.

Malaysians are reading all the details of government corruption and wrongdoing from the Internet. “Ironically the Internet which he promotes, has become Mahathir’s biggest enemy,” said Chandra Muzzafar, university professor.

“Which ever way the verdict goes, Mahathir is in trouble,” said an UMNO divison leader. If Anwar is jailed, there will be worldwide reaction and internally Anwar will get more sympathy, and will bounce back stronger. If he is freed, will Mahathir have any face left? He asked.

According to confidential sources, Mahathir has finally admitted he has bungled Anwar’s case.

Malaysia has woken up to the shock that Anwar is a victim of one of the most vicious conspiracies of modern times. “The only person I can compare Mahathir to is Hitler,” said Khao Kay Kim professor of history, University of Malaya in an interview six months ago. It was a bit unfair, I thought then, since he has not committed genocide. In terms of clinging on to power and destroying rivals, I am beginning to believe the learned professor.

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Island of Splendor: Phuket

KimGooi Photojournalist

Island of Splendor: Phuket
First published in Bangkok Post 1985; New Straits Times Mar 6 1986

The sun-baked southern island of Phuket, washed by the Andaman Sea, has been well-known for more tan 350 years since the days of Ayuthaya. Back in those days, it was not the miles and miles of sunny beaches, the blue sky, the swaying tropical palms or the exotic maidens that attracted visitors to its shores. The draw was more mercantile than aesthetic.

The Dutch, the French and the English already knew of the island’s rich tin deposits and coveted the valuable ore. Even the Burmese launched an attack but were repulsed by the islanders. This episode is commemorated by a memorial to the two Siamese heroines, Tho Tepchatri and Tho Sisomporn, whose statues outside the town greet all visitors to the island.

Nyonya girl, Mrs Woravuth Lim, showing an antique Chinese wedding gown

In the early days the island was known as Talang. Locally it was called Thongkha or Thoongkha, after a species of grass. Later it became known as Phuket from the Malay word ‘bukit’, meaning hill, a possible consequence of the fact that there are many Thais of Malay descent in the south.

However, there was not much of a town in those times, not until the annexation of Penang island by Captain Francis Light of the East India Company for the British crown in 1786.

The subsequent development and growth of Penang into a free port under the British saw the rise of modern Phuket. Many Hokkien Chinese from Penang came to settle in Phuket and made their fortune from tin.

Penang then was the emporium for European goods. Two steam ships, the Matang and the Tangah plied between Penang and Phuket every week carrying goods and passengers between the two islands. Untill recent years the tin ore from Phuket was sent to the Eastern Smelting Company in Penang for smelting.

Mr.Peh, the 70-year-old owner of the British-style On On Hotel in Phuket recalled “In the old days everything came from Penang, oranges, apples, machinery, cars, and even ice.

“I was sole agent for those Italian marble tables you sometimes see in the local coffee shops.
they cost only 500 baht apiece in pre-war days. I still have about 10 of them. People have offered me many thousand baht for one but I refused to sell them. They are antiques.”

He added that building materials and even the builders’ teams came from Penang to construct the houses and the mansions of the rich. The On On Hotel was built by his father about 60 years ago as a family mansion with many guest rooms to house business friends from Penang.

Thus it has come about that today the old town of Phuket with it’s Sino-Portuguese architecture and British-style mansions looks similar to Penang. Phuket has also the distinction of being probably the only town in Thailand with a good drainage system.

As for the people, when it was time for schooling, they went to Penang. When it was time to get married, it was again to Penang that they would go to get a young Nonya bride.

Such was the close link that once existed between the two islands, that the first Thai words that the people of Penang learnt were “Pai nai, pai Khongkha (Khongkha being the Penang pronunciation of Thongkha).

Today things have changed. Penang is no longer a free port and tin prices have hit rock bottom. Ironically due to modern red tape on both sides of the border, people are neither so free nor goods so easy to move from the one island to he other.

“When Penang was a free port, you could get everything from all over the world at cheap prices,” said Murusamy, an Indian Chettiar, now a cloth merchant in Phuket.”I used to go to Penang once a month to order my textile goods, but not anymore. The textile shops in Penang are now bankrupt. Now I only go to Penang once a year during Taipusam to visit friends and relatives.

“And the flow of business has reversed. Phuket is now sending textiles from the Bangkok factories to Penang.”

Phuket today is the most delightful place in the kingdom. Apart from it’s famous beaches and scenic offshore islands, the town and the people have a unique character of their own. It is one of the most cleanest and most peaceful places of the country. The people are charming and friendly and the women among the fairest in the land.

The people of Phuket, descendants of Hokkien, Malay and Siamese ancestors through centuries of assimilation and intermarriage, proudly identify themselves as “Luk BaBa” for the men and “Nyonya” for the women in tribute to their unique dual heritage.

While loitering around the town, enchanted by it’s unhurried and peaceful pace, I ventured into a shop selling crafts and antiques and immediately I was caught up in many hours of conversation with the shop keepers.The proprietor, Woravuth Lim, who is an artist and his charming wife insisted that i join the family for dinner.

Grandma Riya Noongchit

On another occasion when I happened to be in the Muslim village on Had Karim (Karim beach), fascinated by the coconut-picking monkeys, I was befriended by old grandma, Riya Noongchit, 66, who later invited me to her house for a drink of fresh coconut.

Before I left grandma Riya pressed on me a passport photograph of herself as a memento. This handsome old grandmother’s face shines with all the serenity of this enchanting, hilly but richly endowed island.

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American Generosity and Timely Help

KimGooi Photojournalist

American Generosity and Timely Help
Bangkok Post June 28, 1998

The plight of two impoverished northeastern families has touched the hearts of American newspaper readers, who have donated over $100,000 to some of the hardest-hit victims of the economic slump.

Bangon Pailak, mother of a four-year-old girl, and Lamkwan Thienda, father of three children, live in different corners of Udon Thani. If medical help had not arrived in time, there was a strong likelihood that they would have succumbed to their illnesses and died. But thanks to the power of the press, the two are to be given a new lease on life.

The plight of Mrs Bangon and Mr Lamkwan was featured in the New York Times on June 8. By nightfall of the first day after the story was printed, the New York head office was inundated with calls from readers inquiring how to give donations to save the two unfortunate victims. By the following weekend, hundreds of calls and thousands of dollars had been pledged.

The New York Times’ Bangkok office was also flooded with calls from sympathetic readers, some from as far away as Washington and Hong Kong, pledging money.

“Seen up close in villages, the Asian financial crisis is not a conundrum of currency pegs and credit crunches and various imponderables. In households like Mrs Bangon’s, it is as immediate as a typhoon and rather more deadly,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Nick Kristof, who wrote the Times story.

To date, with an average pledge of $1000 per call, more than $100,000 (around 4 million baht) has been collected by the Times, said Mr Kristof. The money had been handed over to Plan International, an American non governmental organisation affiliated to Oxfam. The NGO has been assigned to carry out the wishes of the donors to see that Mrs Bangon and Mr Lamkwan get immediate medical treatment and financial aid.

Thirty-two-old Mrs Bangon, frail and anaemic, her soft face framed by thick black hair, lives in a small hut of wood and zinc beside a rice paddy with her young daughter and husband.

Since the economic crisis hit Thailand a year ago, her husband lost his job selling clothes in Bangkok. The family survived on occasional odd jobs the husband can find in the village, with the family’s diest supplemented by wild bamboo shoots and ‘phak boong’ (water spinach) in the forest.

Things would not have been so bad if Mrs Bangon had been healthy. But because of a stomach ailment, she is weak and suffers from bouts of dizziness. Every month or two she has to go to the hospital for blood transfusion. Doctors say she has to go for an operation or else she will never get well, she explained. The operation will cost at least 20,000 baht.

“We don’t even have enough money to buy rice, let alone afford the operation,” she said. “Things are getting worse everyday. My husband can get only 30 to 50 baht a day from the occasional odd job. Sometimes there is no money, he is paid some food instead. I cannot even afford the few hundred baht for the blood transfusion.”

Mr Lamkwan, 37, lives with his aged father and mother in Ban Pasingh. Like Mrs Bangon, he is dying because the family cannot afford the medication to treat his illness. He is suffering from paralysis.

Mr Lamkwan used to work in a cement factory in Ratchaburi, carrying limestone to a crushing machine. Three years ago, suddenly and for no apparent reason, his limbs got wobbly and weak and he could not walk, said his father, Som Thienda, 67.

“We have taken him to various doctors and hospitals for treatment, even to shamans and monks, but to no avail,” Mr Som said. “The doctor said we have to keep giving him the prescribed medicine which we have been doing for two years.”

In the early stages of hiss illness, Mr Lamkwan could crawl and move about on the floor of the house. Friends would carry him down to the compound and he could move about by holding on to supports. His brothers would send home some money to help. But since the economic crisis hit, the money from the brothers has stopped and the cost of medication has doubled.

“There is no money to buy the medicine for our son and as a result his condition has deteriorated,” said Mr Som. “Before he could speak a few words. Now he can only nod his head and is completely bed-ridden and has to be spoon-fed.”

His wife has left him and remarried. What is saddest is the three daughters left with the mother. They come to visit the father once in awhile and tears flow. “The children cry and cry,” Mr Som said.

“If there is a buyer, I am prepared to sell the house and pay for the treatment and cure him. I have done everything, even been ordained as a monk for three months to ask the Lord Buddha to save my son.”

Mr Som’s prayers have finally been answered. Hundreds of donations have been collected and a fat cheque is on its way to Ban Pasingh and Ban Wan Yai.

A specialist doctor has been dispatched to treat the two patients, Mr Kristof said.

“I believe all these ailments can be cured by modern medical technology. It is very sad to see young people dying because of poverty brought about by the economic crisis,” he said.

Author’s note:
I was the researcher and interpreter for Nick Kristof. Two weeks after we flew back to Bangkok from the northeast, I heard the good news from Kristof, and filed the story for Deutsch Presse Agentur.

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