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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Worth remembering: Malaysia’s ‘militant’ Islamic groups

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October 28, 2015 · 7:52 pm

Latest version of my book

Just out on August 2015

contact : kimgooi47@gmail.comPoetKengTungCOVERSpread

 

On Page 244 :  RAINING Bombs In Laos

U.S. secret war and atrocities

lao boy head woundPhonesai, 13, had part of his head blown off and left hand paralyzed in March 1995 when his friend found a bomblet – they started tossing it like a ball, it exploded and killed the friend instantly.

His left leg still hurt and he can’t go to school. His arms and legs become painful when he thinks and he cannot sleep at night.

Ban Lat Houang, Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997

 

In recent years I have had the chance to witness some of these atrocities and crimes against humanity at close hand and document them. One of the cruelest acts in human history was committed by the US government in Laos, earning the land-locked country the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed place on earth.

Information from the Menonites and Mines Advisory Group (MAG), two NGOs (one American and the other British) helping to clear the mines, claim:  From May 1964 until 1973 end, in an undeclared secret war US warplanes flew round the clock and bombed Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos.

Every eight minutes a planeload of bombs was dropped and it went on for nine years. By the end of the war in 1975, everything in the province were flattened and destroyed. Those who could flee to the forest, survive in caves and tunnels underground. Farmland, orchards and all were totally destroyed; 99.9 percent of the livestock killed.

To ensure continued destruction, killing, maiming and render the land unusable for generations to come, more than a million tiny colourful cluster bombs were dropped. These bombs are particularly nasty and cruel. The delayed-action bomblets (locals called them bombies) – the size of tennis ball and brightly coloured – are made to resemble oranges, guavas, pineapples and other attractive fruits. They are designed for children to pick up and play with. In this manner, groups of children would be injured and maimed for life and become a burden to the family. The objective was to cause long term social and economic destruction to the nation, according to the NGOs.

Because millions of these small bombs were dropped and scattered decades ago, over the years they sunk underground. They have been almost impossible to clear. Until today dozens of children are still killed and injured by the bombs every year. It has rendered building houses and farming the land impossible, without endangering lies.

The Mennonite, an American church group, who are helping Laos to clear the bombs, said it may take a hundred years and still they cannot clear all.

What diabolical minds would invent these evil devices and wrought such destruction on a people, especially the children, for generations and render the land unusable?

“The US government which prides itself as champion of democracy and human-rights has not owned up to its responsibility and admit their wrong–doing,” said Phoumi Thiphavone, governor of Xieng Khouang province, in an interview in January 1995.  He added that bomblets kill an average 20 children each year.

“They have not come forward to help clear the bombs with their resources and advanced technology.” When the Lao government asked the U S for help to clear the bombs, they reply by asking us for permission to fly over and map the region. We were shocked,” said the governor.

[Interview of the governor and reports of the bombings were published by the New Straits Times on March 20, 1995 and an earlier version was published by the Nation Review in Bangkok.]

The US media have been silent, seemingly whitewashing the country’s crime against humanity. A documentary done by a major TV network, 5 years ago, was pulled off the air by pressure from the top, says a Mennonite official. Our documentary with, Claes Bratt, (see photo below) for US TV network was also taken off the air at the last moment in 1998.

A New York Times report posted on line in April 2014, says the annual US spending on removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos increased to USD 12 million a year from $2.5 million a decade ago.  In comparison, the bombing cost US$17 million a day, says Fatima Bhojani of Mother Jones website.

 

lao girl blinded                                                                                 –  Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997

 

lao bombie

 

 

 

 

one arm lao boy In April 1995 Boun Mi, 15, lost and arm when his hoe struck a bomblet while planting rice in the field. He was disappointed when NGO’s told him they could fix him with a new arm; he thought the new limb would function like his old natural arm and not limited to a few functions – Picture shows Swedish producer/director, Claes Bratt, examining the artificial arm.

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Datuk’s birthday: FLOWERS and KENDURI

UNITY WITH THE SPIRIT WORLD datuk parade

More than a century ago, J.D. Vaughan was Superintendent of Penang Police from 1851 till 1856.  In his book   ‘The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements’,  he wrote: “The Chinese people, nooks, corner of roads, trees, rocks and sundry other places with fays and fairies and goblins damned innumerable, and do them worship to propitiate them. Incense sticks, slip of paper, tinsel ornaments and other gew gaws may be seen at the most out of the way spots showing that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have discovered an evil spirit there-abouts.”

Vaughan may be excused for his unflattering remarks, for like many colonial officials and westerners, they do not take the intangible seriously, unlike the inhabitants of Asia who experience the spirit world as indeed real.

The apparent Chinese indifference towards religious issues has often been seized upon by Westerners as an unerring mark of their want of spiritual profundity and sophistication.

If Vaughan were to look deeper, he would discover that Chinese mind is also practical and unpretentious and capable of the most abstruse speculation. In both philosophy and religion, what it seeks to do is to interpret life in terms of a monistic principle which will enable them to establish a unity between this worldly and other-worldly existence, between human self and nature, and between the material and the spiritual world.

What Vaughan described over a hundred years ago is still very much alive in Penang today. If he were to probe a little he would discover that the ‘shrines innumerable’ were for the worship of Datuk (Keramat), the local deity or guardian spirit of the land (not goblins or evil spirits).  It is indeed ‘damned innumerable’, occupying sundry other places, nooks and corners, trees and rocks all over the island. The worship of Datuk Kong (in Hokkien) is peculiar to Penang, as nowhere else does it in such a scale and intensity.

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Every Thursday night (Malam Jumaat, beginning of the Muslim Sabbath) worshippers light up the shrines with incenses, and offerings. Partaking of pork is taboo among the strict devotees.

Recently I chanced upon a grand celebration of a Datuk Kong in the mixed working/middle class suburb of Rervoir Gardden, close to the hills of Ayer Itam. It was the birthday of Datuk Ayer Puteh. It falls on the 6th of the 6th lunar month. Celebrations began on the 5th and went on for 3 days. In a small field a shed was erected to house the altar and paraphernalia, which had been brought down from the shrine at the foot of the hill about 2 km away. There were a white haji cap, a small Kris, seven colour flags, and offerings of flowers, betelnut and sireh, green coconuts, rokok daun (tobacco/palm leaves), malay sweets and cakes like dodol. Betir, kueh kerai and ketupat.

Uncle Tan, a sinewy old man of 75 brightened up when I approached him for some background history. “There are all together seven Datuks,” he enthused. “They are seven brothers, famous warriors of old. ” The oldest is Datuk Kuning, alias Pengulu Pulau Kechil;  followed by Datuk Panglima Hitam, Datuk Puteh, Datuk Merah, Datuk Hijau, Datuk Kechil and Datuk Bisu, he rattled off as if the spirits were right there in person. Other names that might crop up are Datuk Musa, Datuk Batu Acheh and Datuk Ali, he added matter-of-factly.

I asked Uncle Tan are they really famous warriors before and how they came to be deified and worshiped with such reverence? Uncle Tan looked at me aghast as if saying, what dumb head!

“These Datuks are very important and control the locality, if you pay respect and appease them, they can help you and solve your problems. If you violate and offend them like simply chopping down any trees or leveling the hills, misfortune will befall you. ‘

“Don’t you know so many bulldozers have overturned and accidents occurred to these violators,” Uncle Tan added, looking at me disappointingly.

Earlier on the Datuk had come down from the hill shrine in a grand procession, preceded by flags and banners beating of drums and wailing Java pipes from the Menora troop. Datuk Ayer Puteh came in the form of a medium in a trance. The medium wearing a sarong had very dark complexion, he was bare-chested and had a white sash across his shoulder. He weaved and danced with silat movements ceaselessly as the procession pass the housing estates.

The procession ended at the shed in the field. Opposite the shed stood an open stage for the menora performance from the Penang Siamese Community.

Many years ago, the committee made a mistake by engaging a Chinese opera for the celebration. That night there was a thunderstorm and the stage was blown away. “The Datuk was angry because he could not understand Chinese opera. We can stage Menora or Ronggeng dance for the Datuk,” said Uncle Aw (uncle Blackie, a popular name among the peranakan Hokkiens), 71, who has been a medium for 60 years.

On the second day, which is the birthday, a kenduri was held in the afternoon. The shed was filled with pots of nasi kunyit, curry chicken, and all kinds of fruits. Before the food were distributed Uncle Aw went into a trance. The Datuk blessed the large crowd with holy water as each came forward kneeling reverently. To those seeking a cure for sickness, he gave pinang and sireh to chew.

On the third night, an air of expectancy pervaded as a large crowd of devotees gathered. The Menora had ended and the troupe were entertaining the crowd with Thai songs and ramvong (folk dance) as a large crowd gathered waiting for the propitious hour. At 11 pm. Uncle Aw sat in front of the altar and went into trance, waving and swaying amidst thick incense (kamenyan) smoke; a cacophony of throbing drums, clashing cymbals and gongs, and wailing java pipes (serunai).

The Datuk swayed and silat-danced as the process:on proceeded with groups of kids holding flags and a huge “Datuk Ayer Puteh” banner leading the way. A large crowd followed with joss sticks, incense urns, and all the paraphernalia of the Datuk. Thick white incense smoke lifted through the dark night, the percussion and pipes intensified, the Datuk swayed and danced with exuberance with each new step as the parade wound through the middle-class housing estate. Residents came out to watch and pray along the dimly lit streets.

Arriving at the shrine at the foot of the hill, the Datuk. leaped into the shrine, the size of a small room, silat danced with renewed intensity while the drums, percussion and pipes reached a crescendo. The Datuk sat down on the floor and slammed his hands on the cement floor,  all was quiet – he spoke: “Datuk banyak suka, semua orang sukahati, makanan pun chukup; Datuk minta Tuhan kasi semua orang selamat. Sila chakap sama semua orang. [Datuk is very happy, every body is enjoying, the food is plenty; I will ask God to bless you all! Please tell everyone.] The message was translated into Hokkien as the crowd clapped and cheered.

“Datuk minta empat ekor,” (give us the lottery numbers)  someone shouted. Speaking all the time in Malay he said, “Wait, we have to pray to God first” (sembayang Tuhan dulu), he reprimanded. “Please bring the papers.” A piece of white paper and a pen were brought forward. “I mean joss paper for praying,” he scolded in a loud angry voice.

When the ‘gold’ joss papers were brought in, he scribbled three words in Jawi on the back and asked the people to bring it outside as gold offering to Tuhan (God). And then the people worshipped and prayed and the ‘gold’ papers were burnt as he instructed.

This done, the Datuk said: “Now bring the paper. On the white piece of paper, which was eagerly brought forward, he wrote a 4-digit number, which was pasted outside the shrine for the eager crowd to bet on race day.

The Datuk asked for anyone with problems to come forward. A man asked whether he would be successful in his new business. The Datuk took his hands and examined his palm and inquired:

“Do you pray to God? The man confessed that he was so busy he has forgotten to pray. The Datuk reprimanded him and ordered that he pray regularly. Then he would be all right, and be careful of the shoulders and the back of the head; don’t let anyone hit you in those areas, he advised.

Another asked whether he would be okay if he proceeds to Singapore for work. The Datuk took his hands and said: “Boleh, hang boleh pi tapi ta’boleh lama. Hang mesti balek sini sebab bini dan keluarga ada sini, hang mesti balek sini.” (You can go but not for long, because your wife and family are here. You must come back)

The consultation over, the medium swayed, gave a jerk and sprang backwards into the arms of a devotee. For a few minutes he lay still. Some water were sprinkled on his face, a guy tapped him on his chest, the medium awoke as if from a long sleep.

It seemed like a current was being switched off, and we were back to the mundane world. Slowly everyone trooped back home in groups… seemingly happy that they had found unity with the spirit world.

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Penang George Town Festival – Konsert Kopitiam (August 2014)

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The third Konsert Kopitiam (Coffeeshop Concert) will be held @ Hock Poh Lye (at the corner of China Street / Penang Street) on Friday 15 August from 6-8 PM.

The concert will feature renowned sitarist Hamid Khan & his band, storyteller Himanshu Bhatt, magician Barry ‘The Great Barrini’ Khoo, veteran journalist Kim Gooi and his harmonica, Tamil poet Se Gunalan and Yasmin Bathamanathan

         Pefrormance

Live potrait0004

A flattering portrait drawn by Malaysia’s foremost artist Abdul Rashid, at Asia cafe

 

New Straits Times,  Friday August 22, 2014konsert kopitiamNew

 

 

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Burmese Prison Days

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

 Cigar

      One cigar, think not it’s little value

More than fifty baht without sincerity

             One cigar friendship goes Far

They give with an open heart

             Friends from foreign and distant lands

Where are they from?

     Many places to go, this square world

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 freefood for no work here, even when yousleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha haha!” 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 monthsin jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately thewriter, who also ranafoul ofthe Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced tosix 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 himsemi-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 blackened 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 painfrom their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.                       

prisoner shackled                                                             prisoner shackled 2           

     

A score of Prisoners shackled at any one time, is a common sight in Keng Tung Jail  –  sketches from ABSDF 1996 publication   ‘Cres From Insein’

Severe and brutal beatings by the guards were the standard punishments for breaking prison rules. It was very effective in keeping the prisoners in line because of its brutality. At the slightest sign of infringement – like fighting, stealing or taking drugs or being a captured communist and rebel – the culprit is clamped at the ankles with an iron rod, the thickness of a thumb and eight to fifteen inches long.

The poor chap was then made to leap-frog round the prison compound with at least three prison guards (sometimes more) kicking, punching and striking with rattan canes from behind. The iron rods would cut into the flesh, compounding the agony. The only relief came when he passed out. Fellow prisoners would carry him back to the cell and a heavy wooden block with two holes was clamped on his legs. 

The record in Keng Tung was four rods clamped on a Lahu named Wallis Koh – an ex mercenary captain who fought for the CIA in Laos. He was accused of being the leader of a group attempting an abortive  jail break.                                       Two prisoners working outside the wall escaped on New Year’s Day 1978. One was recaptured at the town hospital, three weeks later and was severely beaten before being brought back and leg-clamped. He was lucky though his face smashed and bloodied. His fellow escapee was caught a few days later and brought back to jail to be punished. He was made to leapfrog several lapses and trashed so severely that he collapsed.

 The guards made him sit up but the body would topple over. His fellow escapee was asked to hold up his head while a guard went behind and slammed his knee behind the victim’s head, like kicking a football.  There was a horrible loud scream. His head was smashed leaving a two inch gash behind the brain. The head was later shaved by fellow prisoners as the victim lie motionless in the wooden clamp and some antiseptic solution applied.      

Less than half of the of the jail population 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, ngapi (blachan in Malay), 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 isthe 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 meager salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

The food situation was so bad that a lot of the prisoners were willing to sell their blood for about a kilo and a half of beef and offal. Sometimes they would come in the middle of the night to extract the blood. This meant the government troops had suffered heavy casualties and heavy fighting going on with the communist, Shan and other ethnic rebel groups.

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some food-stuff 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 organization. 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 fall

on virgin petals.

I can’t resist to bend down and sniff

           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 supreme         

                                                                                            – Km Gooi/Taworn              

 [This was my verse that started it all. Taworn added the fourth stanza which brought out the soul and pain of life in jail which he called ‘this square world’. I didn’t realize at the time that such literary pursuits were a safeguard of our mental health and an antidote against the wretchedness/horrors of the environment. I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me, been 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! The rest of Taworn’s poems were originally written in Thai, and translated by the author.]               

 January

 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…..it’s OK to read

We rather prefer not to put

Thought into it

Thai books, English books…..fluency

Achieved

 Wrapping paper looks good, has

            Manybenefits

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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