Investigating Lives

 |  June 29, 2011

Ah Chiang Mai, the “land of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom friend of the maturing sun”. That may be Keats’ ‘Autumn’ in England but had he lived here wouldn’t he be saying something like this?

I am always drawn to northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, and more particularly the hills beyond, so what a delight to contribute to ‘Citylife’, formerly the ‘Chiang Mai Newsletter’ and celebrate its 20th Anniversary.

Nowadays it seems to be a city of spas and wine bars. Did not Lot say: “I did not come here to be drowned in wine and smothered in cushions”…? I think he was referring to Sodom and Gomorrah, but would he say that of Chiang Mai today? Maybe not but if so, it still could be my kind of town.

I think I can say I lost my innocence in Chiang Mai, or perhaps northern Thailand, and this despite since the age of 23 having spent my life based in Fleet Street in London working for some of the best and some say arguably worst newspapers in the world.

When I mean ‘lost my innocence’ I mean the realisation of course that things were never really what they appeared, perhaps a bit like eating spaghetti with a SUN Page 3 girl.

From newspapers I moved in to television. First, in Thailand anyway, I brought together a production on the struggle of the Karen and the Karen National Liberation Army to the BBC in ‘Burma’s Forgotten War’. At the time we could drive uninterrupted for miles and miles inside Burma in a 4X4. When we entered Karen villages I felt like a soldier of the Scottish Highland Division entering Rome towards the close of the Second World War.

Needless to say there were the inevitable trips back across the border to a good hotel to dust down and have a gin and tonic.

The programme was a gift for UK broadcasting. Some of the elder Karen spoke 1940s English, coming out with expressions like ‘Crikey’ – and they could reel off the contents of a 1939 Fortnum and Mason’s Christmas Hamper in seconds. I even managed to go back to the Ministry of Defence in London and return with a Distinguished Service Medal won by Major Aaron Po-Yin for saving his British officers from a Japanese ambush.

I loved the Karen, still do. They left a lasting impression on me, and I am in touch with possibly their last living World War II veteran. But I see that 20 plus years on ‘Burma’s Forgotten War’ has still not done much for their plight and there have been more than a few documentaries since.

This must have been about the time the Chiang Mai Newsletter started churning out local happenings and gossip in English for the foreign community in Chiang Mai and I guess I must have read a few copies littered around in the town’s expat establishments between assignments.

Then it was onto Khun Sa – aka Chan Shi Fu – ‘The Lord of the Golden Triangle’ whose Mong Tai Army was allegedly fighting the Burmese, while the DEA claimed Khun Sa was the biggest drugs trafficker in the world. Khun Sa had seen a copy of the Karen film and invited me in, perhaps to be his spin doctor.

Actually I don’t know how many times I made that trek to his camp at Homong; a good half a dozen, I’m sure, always by mule. The last time it seemed his place had been advertised on ‘TripAdvisor’. Journalists passed each other on mules going in different directions.

It was shortly before midnight that I got there the first time and I heard the camp before it came into sight. ‘DoWahDiiddy Diddy’ by Manfred Mann was blaring on the camp speakers and we (I had some quite scary Chin Haw guides) came over a hill to see all his troops dancing under arc lights in his parade ground. By the time I had left they had learned the sixties hand-jive.

I learned a lot from Khun Sa during those trips, though I never got to practice his philosophy which meant paying off many and befriending others lest they become tomorrow’s enemies.

He was a benevolent feudal baron, but not one to be crossed. He was also a Chinese businessman and everyone came to his court.

(I hope his descendants are not into blackmail. He has a video of the television crew and I dressed up as harem girls doing the ‘Dance of the Pharaohs’ at his annual binge. It would be bad if that ever went viral).

The Thais had announced he was their No.1 Most Wanted Man, which was odd because at the same time the Thai Army were helping his soldiers build a road to his camp which I filmed. And why were there invariably Thai military and businessmen in his camp when I went there?

Khun Sa of course eventually sold out to the Burmese military, went to live in Rangoon, ran the Burmese equivalent of the Greyhound bus company and died basically a free man. And that was of course the local ‘status quo’ with which I was to become so familiar.

We made it out of Shan State on mules again singing “Whoah, Whoah, Yeah Yeah, Love you more than I can say” before yet another mule and I came off a narrow mountain path leaving a giant cartoon imprint in Burmese mud.

I returned to Chiang Mai again to cover the visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana for Channel 4 in Britain. It was of course all colourful umbrellas, flowers and the statutory pens – the sort you put cattle and journalists covering royal tours in.

Not much fun. For what seemed hours most of us hacks were banged up in an RTAF transport aircraft at Wing 41 waiting for the Princess’s BA 146 to leave. We rebelled, disembarked and had a football match in a hanger. We had to follow on much later – at a lower height presumably.

It is of course in Chiang Mai that I realised my full potential as an investigative journalist in Thailand, which as far as Thai matters are concerned was as a 20th century Don Quixote, or perhaps the short one out of the ‘Three Amigos’; those guys who chant: ‘Wherever there is injustice, you will find us. Wherever there is suffering, we’ll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find ‘The Three Amigos!” and ‘Do you have anything other than Mexican food?’

Having received information from the Karenni Army that long-necked Padaung families, mainly children, had been kidnapped and taken to a ‘human zoo’ near Mai Ai, I set about investigating the case for the Padaung in a series of articles for ‘The Times’ in London.

The evidence was unequivocal. The Padaung had sent tapes to the Karenni leaders begging for help in getting home. Each family was being paid 3000 baht to sit in front of tourists, weave, and or sing and dance. Instead of being taken to relatives they were taken to the middle of nowhere and being asked to perform.

The local ‘El Guapo’ was confident. “Ponproyote,” he said. “It’s for the benefit of all.” And he was right. He had the local Amphur Chief and Head of Police on his side.

Despite police re-writing statements to quote the Padaung saying something like: ‘We love it here. It’s just like a holiday camp,’ and despite a nasty stand-off with henchmen in a local police station (during which I was tempted to sing ‘My little buttercup has the sweetest smile’) eventually the camp was closed down. Sudarat Sereewat, the Secretary General of FACE (Fight Against Child Exploitation) and an authority on people trafficking, who accompanied me, was described as a ‘fifth columnist’ in the businessman’s own newspaper. High treason indeed.

The Padaung were rescued and taken to the official ‘human zoo’: the refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province, and were re-united with their relatives, and the then Governor of the Tourist Authority of Thailand roundly condemned the unscrupulous businessmen.

No sooner had he said it, it seemed, that numerous other long necked zoos sprouted up throughout Chiang Mai province. And of course ‘El Guapo’, as he predicted, was acquitted. Far from alerting people to this nasty business I appear to have pointed out the fiscal advantages of actually opening these camps.

More recently I had to visit the official Padaung camp near Mae Hong Son. When they saw me, they showered me with dolls, trinkets, scarves. Life was good, they said. It did raise my spirits.

They had their own committees and leaders but it dawned on me that in reality I guess another feudal system had been born with the head honchos now getting passes to Bangkok to star in, yes, tourist promotion films.
And so back to Chiang Mai, and of course it was here that I met Pim, the illustrious editor of this journal.

It was the time of the Kirsty Jones murder (Kirsty Jones was a British backpacker who was raped in the then Aree Guest House in Chiang Mai. The police have DNA of the killer but he has never been found).

Pim was helping out the BBC and I guess going through a steep learning curve and finding out what a Thai is really up against working for the foreign media in these sorts of situations. Anxious that the truth come out, she was a bit distraught, I think, to find herself being accused by police allies of being a traitor to Thailand, as stories emerged in the foreign media of a ‘shambolic’ investigation, the false arrest of a number of foreign tourists, an ex-monk and police on the sex trail of tourists, the beating up of a Karen tourist guide to secure a confession, and police claims that the killer had brought along someone else’s sperm to put investigators off the scent!

Personally my favourite moment during this ‘Comedy or Errors’, if that is the right expression to use in such a tragic case, came after I wrote that the guest house owner Andy Gill, one of several arrested, had paid ?12,000 for his release (on immigration charges) through his former girlfriend. I printed the relevant bank transfer documents, and even filmed her surreptitious visits to the prosecutor’s department.

Chiang Mai Provincial Police immediately called a press conference and displayed bundles and bundles of notes on a table and had the girl confessing that all along that she was the thief. Then of course they denounced the foreign press yet again.

But then of course the woman was never charged with anything and Gill never got his money back and neither did the woman (she says) – smoke and mirrors Lanna style.

The case remains unsolved which suggests to me that the outing of the perpetrator would be a public relations disaster for the city.

Similarly that is what I presume the local authorities hoped to avoid when they dealt with the recent spate of tourists deaths in Chiang Mai, in particular those relating to one hotel which appeared to turn into a public relations disaster as local officials blamed it on ‘coincidence’ and then went on to denounce the foreign press again.

The resulting fall-out has made headlines from Auckland to Edmonton. So never call a press conference unless you have something solid to say.
Sometimes I am the provider of ‘bad news’. But news is not by its nature often good.

So, when I want to cheer myself up I turn to my Chiang Mai Citylife which comes as regular as clockwork to my home in Bangkok. I can then float in a world where things are as they should be and occasionally read some weird stuff too.

Given the choice of heading south to the islands or north to Chiang Mai, give me the rose of the north any day. Further, give me a walking frame and I’ll head into the hills.

Knocks the socks off trying to sleep in a sheep pen in a blizzard in the Great Glen where I was brought up. In fact, it’s Scotland in the sun, with some rain, well quite a lot actually, traffic jams, and okay maybe Keats’ Autumn mist is Chiang Mai’s ‘smoky haze’. But what more could anybody want?

A really Happy Anniversary to the best big little magazine in Thailand.