6 Dec 2009

Obama's War

I like Barack Obama. He says a lot of fine things. But I am starting to wonder if the warm rhetoric can be bolstered by effective judgement. And I amm not the only one.
Things are about to get increasingly bloody. He's decided to pour another 30,000 soldiers into Afghanistan as if their presence there will magically give the illusion of a war being won just in time for the next presidential election in 2012.
It sounds so seductively simple doesn't it? Just add more military power and the 'war' can be won. But you could very easily add another 300,000 soldiers and it won't make very much difference. Because Afghanistan has never been and never will be a country which can be readily conquered. It is too complex, too tribal and too hardened to resisting occupation.
The price worth paying, in terms of blood (Afghan and Western) and money is way too high for the ends which might be achieved.
There are many better, much smarter and more effective things which can be done to improve Afghanistan.
First, start with the corruption and pitifully low legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's government. Compel him to devolve power. Force him to expose and punish large scale corruption where it has taken place.
Second, think economics. The reasons many young Afghan men fight for the taliban is money. They are not necessarily comitted to the radical ideology of wanting to murder all infidels. They just get paid more in a desperately poor country where alternative opportunities to earn money are virtually non-existent.
Third, remember that intervention and occupation in a foreign country will always be unpopular as long as the ordinary people can see no benefits. If they have no water, electricity or indeed security, then of course they will be angry and more motivated to get rid of foreign occupies trying to impose their own values and ways on them.
Think more about political and economic solutions rather than military ones.
Fourth, lets just either drop or demolish this frequent and righteous line that having more soldiers fighting in Aghanistan somehow makes the streets of Britain safer. It is tenuous at best and misleadingly disingenuous at worst.
The taliban are not about to invade us any time soon. We may not like them, but then there's lots of rulers around the world who we may not like. We don't go around making excuses to get rid of them. Nor should we. Unpalatable as it will be, we may have to deal with the taliban politically.
Besides when it comes to terrorist attacks on British soil and keeping 'the streets safe' (the favourite phrase of lazy politicians), it was the breeding of homegrown extremism which was the principal fuel.
British soldiers are in Afghanistan because we always have to follow what America does. Our leaders have been too timid in being candid about the realities of winning in Afghanistan and understanding both day to day inside the country and also its history.
Finally, something that is mentioned very infrequently. Fighting wars and occupying other countries is extremely expensive - something like one million dollars per soldier per year. Could that money not be better spent on something more effective at home?
Both America and Britain have never been closer to bankcruptcy. They cannot really afford grandiose foreign adventures. America is losing its leverage and influence in the world just like Britain lost its after Suez in 1956.
Is it not better to accept and manage that reality sooner rather than later before hundreds more people lose their lives for no sensible reason?
How about less invading and more intelligence?

4 Dec 2009

Next book...coming soon...

Is This Burma?
Sit yourself comfortably for an eventful ride. Let the journey take you down rivers, up mountains, inside monasteries and inside people’s lives. Let it introduce you to remarkable characters. Let it take you where no foreigner is allowed to go, by motorbike right up to the Chinese border.
Here is a very exceptional country in every sense of the word. On the outside, a closed off pariah, very far away in our consciousness. Yet, if you can let go of your preconceptions, on the inside there is so much to discover.
Above all let this book shed intimate light on a little known country and people so cruelly shut off and isolated from the world as we casually know it. Prepare to be surprised by a very exceptional country. This is the Burma we can discover a little more about from the inside.

Should I Go?
1 Yangon - The End of Strife
2 Yangon - All That Glistens Is Not Gold
3 The Golden Rock Rollercoaster
4 Lights Out in Mawlamyine
5 Hpa-An - Monks and Monkeys up a Mountain
6 Bago: Mr. Bald, Mr. Funny & the Goat’s Fighting Balls
7 Kalaw - Win Win the Lottery
8 Mandalay - The Moustache Brothers: No Joke!
9 Snakes and Horses: The Deserted Cities of Mandalay
10 Pyin U Lwin - The Footsteps of Empire
11 The Chapatti Interviews
12 The Heavy Hand of History in Burma
13 The Slow Train to Hsipaw
14 Mr. Book: Crying For An Education
15 The Forgotten Palace Meets the Forging Empire
16 Motorbike Misadventures One: Switzerland & Back
17 Motorbike Misadventures Two: China and Back
18 The Wrong and Winding Road
19 I’m a Tourist. Get Me Out Of Here!
20 Whispers in the Shadows of Mandalay
21 River of Destiny to Bagan
22 Bagan: Dusty Desert of Forgotten Gold
23 Questions From A Monk
24 On the Way to Pyay
25 Bay of Bengal - End of the Bumpy Road
26 The Japanese Original with Fried Fish
27 A Land to Savour and Set Free
What Now? Is This Burma’s Future?

Extract from Chapter 23 - Questions From A Monk:
"Sat next to me was a venerable middle-aged monk wearing sunglasses. For a moment I wondered if someone high up had assigned him to keep an eye on me and make sure I stayed on my best behaviour.
From the inside, the bus was nowhere near as bad it looked from the outside. It seemed to move along without too much of a rough splutter, which was always an unexpected bonus on any Myanmar bus.
The seats were high so your legs could barely touch the floor. But then they never needed to touch the floor because the floor was piled with sacks and boxes of luggage. Giant white bags of rice consumed much of the aisle space. Getting on and off necessitated tackling a mini obstacle course. One man simply resorted to sliding his frame in and out of the window to free himself.
It was the hottest part of a hot day in a hot place. There was barely any air flow. Dust tickled the palm trees along the roadside. The air outside the window caressed my face like a constant warm hairdryer.
It made me drowsy to the point where I found my head slowly but surely rhythmically lolling onto the monk’s shoulder. I’m not too sure what the local etiquette should be in such a social situation when you wake up near dribbling over a monk.
His English was strained, but he tried very hard and we managed some conversation.
‘I think this bus is older than me!’ he joked. ‘It is hot, hot, hot on this bus!’
‘Yes, very hot. And slow, slow, slow!’
‘Today the bus is very fast.’
‘Yes, because no breaks on the road, no accidents, no failing the engine. Very fast today.’
‘Very fast?’ I found myself asking out loud. ‘What is your mother nation?’
‘What is your origin?’
‘Good question. I suppose I came from my mother in England too.’
‘And what is her origin?’
Unfortunately for me, after a couple hours of hot, sweaty and slow progress some distinctively unholy aromas of body odour drifted into my nostrils. Perhaps this was silent revenge for my sleeping misdemeanours.
On the television screen the movie Transporters was playing, starring Jason Statham. Two girls in front of me turned around to point out some sort of resemblance between Jason Statham and myself. Then they dissolved into fits of embarrassed giggles. The monk next to me seemed to be enjoying some of the action sequences and even the shootouts.
‘Do you have many gun problems in your country?’ the monk asked me.
‘Erm, some gun problems, yes. But not like in the film.’
‘In your country, tell me, is sex free? Is it liberated to make sex with other people or do you have many disciplines to stop this?’
He was curious this monk. These were good questions which made me think. Did we have many disciplines to stop people making free sex?
‘Well,’ I began just as the bus lurched into a noisy pothole, ‘I suppose the sex is liberated for some people, but not always free.’
‘Sometimes you have to pay?’
‘Erm, a few people do but no. Most people get married or live together and then the sex is free. Although not always free.’
‘Your country very glamorous, yes?’
‘Well, it depends where you go or who you are with!’
'Sex is very free!'
'Maybe we are not very free from sex.' I replied.
At the end of the film, which the monk and myself had sat through stoically, there was a long and intimate kissing scene. He felt obliged to politely look away at anywhere or anything apart from the screen directly in front of his eye line.
Outside dusk was sliding up on us. There was sand everywhere. I felt like we were crossing some sort of desert. My stomach was stirred and swirled by the unpleasant momentum.
‘Road is very bad now here. Many holes. A lot of jumping I think. Very slow.’
‘Great, I can’t wait!’
The sandy dust, the long unexplained stops. The villagers rattling collections tins as we entered and exited every through settlement. The local bus was feeling just a little too local.
Every Myanmar bus journey had its obligatory food and toilet stops. Where England had motorway service stations, the mostly dirt track main roads were usually broken by large dusty shacks. The food was never particularly appetising unless you were ravenously hungry.
Various meats swam in oily tanks. There were dollops of rice and piles of noodles with complimentary flies. There was always plenty of tea of course and occasionally a Myanmar beer could be served. And a bit of fruit could be found afterwards from one of the street vendors if you gave it a good dusting down.
Eventually the bus arrived in Pyay around one o’clock in the morning. It was only around three hours late, not that lateness had any significant meaning for users of Myanmar’s well worn transport system.
Although determined not to miss my stop, I had been lulled into a deep sleep. As I groggily fished my mind back into normal consciousness, I became aware of a strange presence next to me.
My monk friend was sat with Zen like calm, crossed legged, gazing straight ahead. I wondered how he was able to give off the air of such relaxed serenity. It was almost as if he was floating above the ground and the white sacks of rice, like a meditating spectacled Buddha.
What a splendid religion Buddhism must be, I reflected, if it enabled you, or taught you, to sit so calm and serenely unaffected by thirteen hours of bumpy, dusty, noisy Myanmar bus travel.

Sanctions punish people


Before I go anywhere, it’s a valid question which needs addressing. The answer can never be a resounding, unhesitating yes. It seldom is in life. Travelling to countries with unpleasant governments does not meet with the approval of everyone. Let me explain why I strongly believe it is the right thing to come to a country that very few people know much about from the inside.
I met a man who had been travelling in Burma nine times in nine years. Not once in all that time did any person in the country tell him he shouldn't have come. Tony Blair - amongst other so-called esteemed (but obviously not informed) experts - called for people to boycott this country. Please remind me how many times he has actually visited this country. How many times has he spoken to or listened to any ordinary people living inside the country?
Are we all supposed to unquestioningly defer to such high profile people and lose all ability to think and act independently for ourselves? Why should the likes of Tony Blair and Bono, or indeed any hectoring campaigner, dictate where we should and should not go in the world? Who gave them the right to preach to others and impose their own morals?
Travel - and I write here with a conviction based on no shortage of extensive and diverse experiences - is an incredibly powerful force for good. It can be extremely effective in raising awareness, deepening understanding and broadening knowledge and sharing vital insights.
Travel, tourism and trade, if conducted with a sufficiently open, well-informed mind, independent thought, cultural sensitivity and a discretionary purse, can affect things in a very positive way and do a great deal to open up a country.
In particular travel and tourism can afford a country’s people the precious opportunity to open up their lives to the outside world.
To some people, just by going to the country I am effectively contributing to the human rights abuses of the Myanmar government. Of course a small amount of money is likely to unavoidably end up in their pockets. But I am extremely discreet and careful where I choose to spend my dollars.
I always try to travel as locals do. I try to eat where they eat and so on. And I talk to people, lots of people. I listen eagerly and respectfully to what they tell me. I am offering an income to them and an opportunity to opine which they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
How exactly can people ever be free when we keep them isolated? You tell me in which other ways are we going to so fully and comprehensively inform ourselves about a country whose regime thrives on being 'isolated'?
This country is anything but isolated to those who run it and the sooner we stop pretending that sanctions - over twenty years worth - are doing anything good for the ordinary people in Myanmar, the better. Lives depend on it. They depend on us being well-informed, realistic and genuinely open-minded. The sanctions have been in place for two decades and they patently have not worked. What has occurred, or been allowed to occur, over the last half a century has been the sad dilapidation of a proud country.
Under which of the following circumstances do you think a government is more likely to repress its people?
a) with no one allowed in to see anything?
b) with international visitors, like me, walking around asking awkward questions, probing for answers, taking photos, recording memories and conversations, interacting with local people...?
Ultimately, is it not better to be as well informed as possible instead of keeping things concealed in the dark?
How exactly am I legitimising a nasty government when I intend to do no more than share with you what I see, hear and what people I meet tell me? If people want to feel ethically better about themselves for choosing to boycott and to help massage a troubled conscience, that’s up to them.
But do you know what most boycotts and sanctions tend to do? They make the poor poorer while the rich and powerful elite drive fancier cars and live in more luxurious houses. The people at the stop show not the slightest inclination of being particularly discomfited by gaping discrepancies in wealth. They thrive.
Who really pays the price of isolation? Who really has to make the big life-changing sacrifices of having sanctions imposed against them. You've guessed it, the people at the bottom. Who really gets punished? The people who don’t matter and are easily forgotten about.
So why keep pushing a country, any country, backwards? The only things we end up sanctioning - if we take a long, hard, cold and critical look at the effectiveness of sanctions - are the regime's own propaganda, when we should be doing all we can to help demolish it. There are many similarities with Iran.
Boycotts can never be perfect or consistent anyway. Nor are they ever strictly adhered to anywhere near as much as their proponents and supporters like to convince (or delude) themselves they are. Rather like communism perhaps, an attractive and appealing sounding idea in strict idealistic classroom theory but totally unworkable and even counter-productive in real life practice.
Who is going to be brave (or foolish) enough to tell the Chinese that they should stop doing business with a country on their own doorstep? Or the Indians? Who is going to tell the French and the Germans that they have no morals for going on government-controlled expensive package tours? They'll all just laugh at you dismissively.
I happen to buy a cup of coffee in a government owned hotel and suddenly, according to some noisy idealists bashing me with their righteous morality, I am responsible for the mass murder of innocent babies.
By the same perverse logic, are all smokers responsible for the deaths and exploitation of children in developing countries by big tobacco companies because they purchase cigarettes? Are all American taxpayers responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq because they happen to pay taxes to the American government?
Besides, it matters very little what we ethically chose to do about Burma anyway because of one word: China. China controls much of the economy here already. It quietly got on with asserting itself and because we all stayed away, held our noses put our fingers in our ears and covered our eyes we are near blind to it.
Tourism is anyway a drop in the economic ocean to this government, peanuts in its fingers compared to the revenue feasts it generates from selling gas, teak and oil to the likes mainly China, but also Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.
Through apathy, misguided and ill-informed ideology and complacency we have left an entire people in near muted silence. We should be encouraging as many people as possible to go and see and listen for themselves.
Its like one Burmese man said to me:
"We are alive and I can feed my family because of tourists. Why is my country so neglected and forgotten? Please ask more people to come and speak to us."
And the words of another:
"Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Then you can decide. What will you know, or anyone know, if you never come and never speak to us and us to you?"
Myanmar is a country where the government seeks to do all it can to stop outsiders going to places it doesn’t want them to go. The generals want to stop people looking and seeing, hearing and reporting.
The government of Myanmar tries to hide things and our governments and politicians in the west have helped them to hide things by continuing to isolate them more and more. Western governments, pushed on by noisy lobbyists, have kept adding the cement of sanctions to the immovability of an unpleasant dictatorship.
Many people in my own country might think we are isolating or punishing the nasty generals. The reality is that the people who are isolated and punished the most are the ordinary people trapped inside the country. But who will, or who can, come and speak to them and listen to them?
I am not aware of many government representatives, or indeed journalists, either willing or able to go out of their way and come and find out for themselves the realities of life for these isolated people inside their own isolated country.
If we are honest, often it is easier or more convenient for us to see a different country or the people from it in a more unfavourable light. Doing so makes us feel slightly better and more reassured about our own country and upbringing. We cannot help but think of certain people from certain countries in certain ways.
Yet, it is all but impossible for us to be objective in making sweeping judgements or definitive definitions. Stereotypes are easily reinforced through (largely negative) media reporting and in some ways they help to reassure us of our own identity by reminding us how much more developed or civilised our own ways of life are. Supposedly.
But because most people never have been and probably never will be exposed to the realities of life inside a country as foreign and exotic as Burma, our understanding of it (and similar closed off places like Iran and Afghanistan) will inevitably be limited and simplistic.
For me, this is a strong part of why I like to travel: to try to see a country and its people as they really are.
Frankly, it is just silly and naïve to somehow claim that by isolating people you are somehow going to eventually make them more free. How exactly are people going to be more free when they become more and more isolated and closed off?
People inside Myanmar have been made to live in hindered silence. We have been doing little more than making them almost totally mute altogether. Is muting people and deafening ourselves really smart and constructive policy?
There are plenty of reasons not to come to Burma, many of them deceptively seductive. It is easy to be put off. You don’t come to Myanmar for the food, the shopping or the nightlife. Those that do come are more likely to be here for the business or political reasons.
As well as having as many conversations with as many Myanmar people as I could, it also occurred to me to ask other Western travellers or tourists, when I encountered them, why or how they had chosen to be in a country which plenty of people thought it was wrong to visit.
‘How can it be wrong to be giving an income to ordinary people?’ one woman told me. ‘How can it be wrong to talk to them, to listen to them and share information and experiences?’
‘It doesn’t make sense to punish them, normal people, just because they don’t have a very nice government. In fact, can you tell me a country that does have a nice government, a perfect and well behaved government?’ I couldn’t. ‘I mean if people were only allowed to travel to countries with nice governments there wouldn’t be many countries in the world we could go to!’
The more people I spoke to and engaged with inside Myanmar, the more assured I felt in doing the right thing.
I cannot repeat this any more clearly or more often:
Ordinary people everywhere just want the freedom to get on with their lives. They don’t particularly care about governments. They do care about their families and they do care about having enough money to eat. They care about being able to work and live without fear.
When we, on the outside, inadvertently or unintentionally, make life harder for the ordinary people, we risk not only making them worse off but also losing their support.
As a Burmese friend of mine said to me,
‘Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Hear our stories. Then you can decide. Tell me, what will you, or anyone else, know if you never come and speak to us? What will you learn from staying on the outside?’
And, as one of the brilliantly effervescent Moustache Brothers told me with startling candour, ‘We are alive because of tourists. We want you all to come. We want a Trojan horse!’

1 Oct 2009

Hope for Africa

Here's the remarkable and uplifting story (how often do you say that about Africa?) of a boy, William Kankwamba, in Malawi who created electricity for his village:
We hear a lot about the need to eradicate poverty in Africa and elsewhere. And yet there are too many people who still cannot think critically enough about the most effective ways to do so.
Simply pouring millions of Western money into the country will never achieve the intended result. Enabling people to trade will.
A few years ago, the government of Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries, recieved £30 million in aid from Britain. Not long after they purchased a military air traffic control system for around a similar amount of money, in effect British aid money. It is a classic example of how well intentioned aid simply does not work and can even makes things much worse.
The solutions to poverty in Africa and elsewhere will come from things like the freedom afforded by more accessible technology, particularly mobile phones and internet access. And also from the spirit of the people within the countries themselves and their determination in spite of their corrupt governments. We should be doing all we can to enable their efforts to better themselves by encouraging trade rather than containing them solely with corrupt aid.

26 Sep 2009

Iran Sanctions

I wonder if Gordon Brown has finished stalking Barack Obama yet after he cornered him in the UN kitchens for a face-to-face. For an awkward moment there as they greeted, so keen was Brown to be seen as Obama's best buddy, I thought he might attempt to slobber him with a full on kiss.
Anyway it turns out Iran may have another nuclear facility. The world leaders, prominent among them World Statesman of the Year (I'm still trying to work that one out!) Gordon Brown, are once more full of bluster, feigning exaggerated astonishment and strong, serious sounding words condemning Iran. Condemnation is cheap and easy.
Stronger sanctions will be imposed, we hear, as if they are an effective tool. They are not and hardly ever have been. I've said it before on a number of countries, but sanctions don't work. They make for great headlines and do wonders for swelling the egos of politicians who want to sound tough and be seen to be doing something.
But they can never be comprehensively enforced. Sanctions do more to punish ordinary poor people than they do to their leaders.

Alas, words alone only take you so far. In our soundbite driven, attention seeking media world it is easy to forget that actions are more important than words. there is regularly a gaping chasm between the two. Stoking up fear suits politicians and the media. It is a brilliantly effective way to get support for things, making them easy to view in simplistic black and white terms and grab people's attention.
Ever since I visited Iran (I drove right past the Nuclear facility in Natanz) I've maintained the opinion that really there is nothing anyone can effectively do to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Of course we all agree how dreadful and dangerous this would be for the region and the world. But the reality is that governments will probably have to get used to Iran with a nuclear weapon.
Afterall, it all looks a bit hypocritical when we lecture other countires in patronising tones telling them they cannot have something which we already have. Indeed Israel has nuclear weapons - something most news organisations rarely feel bold enough to talk about - and they have concealed their regime in secret. So, from an Iranian point of view, if it's good enough for Israel, then why not Iran too?
It also looks a bit rich, from an Iranian perspective, for a country like America, where the right to bare arms is practically enshrined in the constitution and whose military merrily imposes itself on people in other countries, to be telling other people around the world that they don't need arms and shouldn't have them.
So why might Iran want a nuclear weapon?
Well, for a start, most of its neighbours (many of them unstable and unpredictable) have nuclear weapons. Iran was a country with a serious and mighty empire. Today it is surrounded by dangerous countries and powers. American troops are entrenched in countries on either side. It is only natural for te Iranian rulers to feel insecure. They regard America as a threat. Until these security concerns are meaningfully addressed or settled the tension remains.

To the uninitiated outside observer - and there are many - the neat and simple solution to stop Iran going nuclear is to let Israel start bombing. It sounds seductive doesn't? A few precision air strikes. No need to invade. I bet the Israeli prime minister is already rubbing his hands with glee. I bet ordinary people living in Iran's cities (who we hear very little of) are not rubbing their hands with glee. Especially bearing in mind Israel's recent track record in Gaza.
I can guarantee you the one thing likely to make Ahmadinejad and his nasty regime stronger is if it comes under attack, especially by Israel, and the bombs start to fall. That neaderthal, one-dimensional approach - even just the warm suggestion of it occurring - plays straight into his hands.
Worse than that will be an escalation across the Middle East and elsewhere. Sooner or later, we will have to eal with the reality, unpleasant and undesirable as it might be, of Iran being a nuclear power. Would anyone seriously argue that Iran is anywhere like as unstable as next door Pakistan, which has had nuclear weapons for years?
And so a vicious cycle is likely to continue. The government represses the people and the world feels better about isolating the government but it isolates the people as well. It is unfortuante that so many people in important positions only see countries through their governments rather than the people inside them.
Instead of bombing bridges why don't our leaders try building some instead?

3 Sep 2009


"Were the drugs good for you?"
"Yes, like its just the two of us together holding hands in the mountains."
"Thats an impressive block of lego on your chest Colonel."
"Thanks, I bought it with your oil money!"
"Shall we dance and make merry?"
"Yes. Lets!"
Was a deal done between Britain and Libya? Of course it was! Obviously nothing formal was written down on paper. It will never be officially confirmed or admitted to - there's more chance of Colonel Gadaffi appearing on the Just For Men adverts.
But it was so tranparently obvious from the moment I heard about Baron Mandelson peeling his reptilian frame off his Corfu sunbed to have dinner (was guacamole served, you wonder?) with Colonel Gadaffi's son.
What other conclusion could you possibly draw? The agonising drip of details has titillated the news-dry media for weeks, but the essential realpolitik of a tradeoff has been blindingly obvious from the start. Money talks, especially in the current economic climate. Its just that no one in officaldom could ever admit it.
The showy pomposity of the Scottish justice minister like an actor on his first night revelling in the novelty of the drama and attention, was absurd to the point of hilarity. His metaphorical waving of the Scottish flag of 'compassionate values' was laughably over holy and delusionary. The SNP were just being used and when you hear Alex Salmond comparing the release of a terrorist to that of Nelson Mandela you know its time to reach for the smelling salts.
Gordon Brown is quite possibly the only man on earth who can manage to make Tony Blair sound like the really 'pretty straight kinda guy' he so obviously wasn't before he ran off into the lucrative arms of JP Morgan for £2 million. Brown just runs away from things which are awkward, he squirms and wriggles. Politically, he is living proof that all bullies happen to be cowards themselves.
Who knows, maybe Colonel Gadaffi, a man protected by a team of all female bodyguards, could teach Crash Gordon a thing or two about trusting women in positions of real power. Maybe Hazel Blears and her bleating sisters would like to do a work exchange.
Now we know what great pals they are, perhaps Gordon Brown could take a prolonged vacation in Gadaffi's desert tent. Who knows, he might even be able to take his tie off and dress down. It might help to keep him cool if Gadaffi feels the need to let off some unpleasant wind, as he once famously and noisily did in the middle of a TV interview. There seems to be quite a lot of unpleasant wind around at the moment.

Afghanistan: Why?

Drip, drip, drip. Another news headline snippet. Another soldier killed to tally on to the grim statistics of an unwanted, unwinnable and faraway war in a country very few people have any knowledge of and even fewer understand intimately.
The politicians shower us with self-preserving 'we will still prevail' bluster and bombast, talking up the 'positives', smearing critics as unpatriotic and assuring us the war will be won. And you find yourself thinking, what on earth do these silver tongued, smooth talking men in suits actually know about the realities of life inside Afghanistan?
History? What does that matter, they seem to be saying, as they seek to righteously justify imposing our ways of life on people in another country, often by dropping bombs on them. Gordon Brown trots out his draw droppingly (no pun needed, just watch him) perfunctory and synthetic platitudes expressing regret and sorrow with every dead body that comes back.
But can he answer the question: would he himself go out there to sacrifice his life if he had to? Would he send any of his family? Don't put a Scottish six pound note on it!
And why exactly are we fighting in Afghanistan? What for? What is the concrete aim? And why are we trying to do it on the cheap? Is it to do no more than serve alliances of convenience?
Are we really fighting to prop up Hamid Karzai? Hardly a beacon of outstandingly open, accountable, representative and uncorrupt government is he? He barely leaves his own fortified palace and relies on murky deals with warlords to keep him where he is. Corruption is rife. His brother is a major player in the opium trafficking trade. The boast of democracy is a hollow one when it comes with stuffed ballot boxes, bribes and voter intimidation.
Are we really fighting to 'keep our streets safe', as the well-used, cliched and deeply misleading slogan keeps being patronisingly trotted out by government lackeys? I hardly think so. Last time I looked, I don't think the Taliban were about to invade the country any time soon. The threat they pose to our way of life is virtually zero, only slightly more marginal than that posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (still looking for those are we, George in your Hummer with your sniffer dog Tony along for the ride?)
Are we fighting to impose a way of life on another country? Are we that arrogant and superior that we think everyone else should live we do? Sure the Taliban are nasty to women, but then so are lots of other countries, including our own country if you listen to a Harriet Harman lecture, sorry interview.
Do we now have the right to go around the world starting wars in any country where we think people are treated badly? Maybe some (deluded and egotistical) people in power would like to do that from their Whitehall armchairs, but any sensible sane-minded person knows it can't be done. The right decisions can only be made by listening to people.
So there we are, marooned in an inhospitable desert, foreign intruders and invaders expending blood and money just to advance a few more miles of land. Neither fully committed nor fully realistic, it is the worst of all worlds.
Of course the soldiers are brave and professional. It is the politicians who are the problem. It is not unreasonable to suggest that every defence secretary from Geoff Hoon onwards has been nothing short of casually callous and calculatingly disgraceful. Thats John Reid, Des Kelly, John Hutton and now finally...Give Bob-a-Job Ainsworth. There's so many duplicitous non-entities I lose count.
And this roll-in, roll-out turnover is rather revealing for the regard in which this critical position is held. Like so much of New Labour, the grand overeaching ambition and the elaborate shell of rhetoric is there, but inside the shell is just a big hollow echo of hot fetid air.
Perhaps if we were a bit smarter in understanding who the enemy really are in Afghanistan, what fuels, motivates and sustains them, then maybe things would be a little better. Afterall, who would ever go into a battle or a war without properly understanding the enemy? Well OK, quite a lot of people, particularly those with surnames Rumsfeld and Cheney.
Surely it would be one of the very first things you'd seek to do, undertand something about the country before you plunge in all guns blazing and preaching morality. Then again, the arrogance and hubris of political egos should never be understimated. The adrenaline of power has inflated them to make them more fireproof than most of the British military vehicles. Being devious and evasive is how you survive in top level politics.
Perhaps if the politicians were capable of displaying more humility, sincerity and honesty, things might be slightly easier to take. But then, of course, they are politicians, meddling Labour ones, obsessed to the point of paranoia about manipulating the headlines and neglective to the point of calculating ruthlessness about people dying for a transparently unnecessary and pointless cause.
Don't expect any sorry's or mea culplas anytime soon. But do expect more pointless deaths and life-ruining injuries for nother reason other than the career preservation of politicians. Good people dying for rotten people's mistakes, its all too sadly familiar isn't it?
And I wonder what the odds are on Lord Mandelson ending up on the payroll of one of the big oil companies this time next year when he becomes unemployed.

17 Jun 2009

Another Iranian Revolution?

Is the turbulent wheel of history revolving once more inside Iran? Maybe, just maybe. Are the people slicing through the heavy shackles and shaking off the leaden weights of oppression? Perhaps. Like two huge heavyweight boxers preparing to unleash into each other, both sides show little sign of backing down or being intimidated.

Iran is a country where you need to read between the lines. As we know it's not the voting, it's the counting, or rather the lack of it. There is no harm, in looking at something you are not altogether familiar with in a different way. We have always seen Iran through a narrow, faraway and blinkered perspective of inflated menace and exaggerated threat. As ever, truth and perception can be as distant as fact and fiction. And never more so than in a country like Iran.
Iran might have plenty to hide, (like its election votes for a start) but it also has plenty to reveal. Iran revealed itself to me in many surprising and extraordinary ways. Maybe not all of this remarkable country was revealed to me, but it yielded more than I could have hoped for.

Iran is a complex country and it is very easily misunderstood. It is often reported in very one-dminesional, cliched terms. It is brimming with passion, grace and pride. What we do know is that something momentous has occurred in an important country in a vital part of the world.
I remember a wonderful saying someone told me. Before the revolution, they said, we used to drink in public and pray in private. After the revolution we must pray in public but we have to drink in private. As current events evolve I imagine the need to both drink and pray might come in useful.
I've seen my fair share of nasty authoritarian regimes around the world and witnessed the intimate consequences of their excesses. I know people who have been coldly crushed, imprisoned, beaten, silenced for doing little more than daring, yes daring, to speak out openly and freely. Nothing more. The harder a regime tries to crack down, the more afraid it is of being exposed and weakened and sometimes the clumsier it becomes. It will do everything it can to avoid losing credibility, authority and what it believes to be its own legitimacy.
What we need to bare in mind is the obsessive, almost paranoid, desire for self-preservation embedded into authoriatarian regimes which keeps the moats which circle around their gilded towers of illegitimacy wide and deep. Will they back down or crack down? And if they crack down, at what cost both to their own authority and the people of Iran?
The rich irony of these elections is that it is not the Supreme Leader himself who has had any courage to submit himself to a popular ballot of his own people. Rather like Gordon Brown, perhaps he find himself above and beyond the need to determine if his own people actually want to give him popular legitimacy.

Intolerant, oppressive regimes don't much care if a few people dislike or even hate them. They dont much care if a few, or even a lot of, foreign governments don't like them either. Actually that helps to strengthen them in a funny kind of way, bolstering their perceptions of legitimacy.
And yet what is it that eventually or suddenly forces them to yield or adapt? Sometimes, because they are so out of touch with the people they suppress, these regimes badly miscalculate and they can be prone to panic. The awkward truth, which we should have learnt from past mistakes, is that there are limits to what can be achieved from the outside. However tempting the urge to intervene from the outside, we need to tread cautiously for fear of provoking the opposite of what our good intentions might desire.
Freedom is a powerful word. It is one my favourite words, along with openness, transparency and accountability. It is the single biggest weapon people have when they want to make their voices heard. Iran's young people are wired into the world of aspirational modernity, which as we know, celebrates consumption, individuality, self-expression and assertive identity.

Technology will change the world for the better because there is surely an ultimate limit to how much an authoritarian regime can comprehensively seal up every last ounce of inconvenient dissent or undesirable information. Control cannot always and forever be imposed on peoples lives from the centre when the tentacles of peoples lives stretch further and wriggle deeper away from that centre in the form of internet access and mobile phones. This is the direction that China will ultimately be travelling in, in spite of what many people might now think to the contrary.
The most effective things our governments can do is to encourage greater openness without playing into the hands of the hardlines with the polarising language of threats and force. They must not shut countries off or shut them down becasue by doing so, they shut down the voices of the ordinary people. And it is these people who are nearly always punished by ineffective and imperfect sanctions which can be easily sidestepped and avoided by those in the elite of the regime, like the generals in charge of Burma. In Iran the doctrines of sacrficie and martyrdom still permeate deeply through the identity of those in control. Don't give them an excuse to justify using violence.

Yet, with stylish ambiguity, Iran lives in two worlds, public and private. Two very different faces. It can be so civilised and so volotile. On the outside, people change from individuals to behaving as representatives of themselves. The emphasis is on the behaving. Behind the black exterior though, is a world of colour and embracing vivacity. It is a world that you do not see from the outside. You will only see it from the inside if you go there to taste it, breathe it, smell it, digest it. It leaves you wanting more.

Many Iranians are thoughtful, educated and perceptive people. They are so far from being the hate-filled one dimensional fanatics many of them are tacitly perceived to be from far away. Hostage taking had been part of my trip through Iran, but it was the type of hostage taking that doesn‘t make news headlines, invitations into people’s houses for food and conversation. Now these same wonderfully natured people might find life becoming very difficult.
The most desirable way forward, I believe, would be an Iranian evolution, which outsiders can assist, not by threatening or meddling, but by opening the country up. This, more than anything, would expose the dinosaurs in the elite of the ruling regime for what they are: extreme, unpopular,unrepresentative. And it would also expose the Iranian people for what they are: hospitable, civilised, generous. Shut the country off, keep threatening it and it might harden Iranians, making them more nationalistic.

Iran is a complex, multi-faceted country, of which an outsider can easily get the wrong impression and misread it. It is land of contrasts and contradictions. A place where curiosity can lead to suspicion and suspicion leads to kindness and generosity. Iran is just not what youthink it is, nothing is ever quite what is seems, a country of elusive shadows where so much operates in private.

Change in Iran might well have some very positive ripple effects from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Palestine. But we have to wait and see how things unfold. We don't have to meddle or lecture from the outside. To stand back is not easy. It requires smartness and intelligent calculation.
So, we don't know what it is yet, but Iran's people might just be on the cusp of something. The people of Iran have started something, but who will finish it and how? But as you follow on from faraway, spare a silent thought for the bravery and sacrifice of those who dare not to be intimidated, who dare to attempt to change their country.

15 Mar 2009

Trouble on the Chinese Border

This is the story of how I came to be arrested after riding all the way to the Chinese border.
From past experience, having a gun pointed at you does wonders for your powers of concentration. It wasn’t a situation I was keen to replicate as I heard the word ‘police’ uttered.
‘Please don’t take me to the police!’ I pleaded, but my protestations were fruitless.
‘We need to take you to the police [or the Special Government Office as it was officially and ominously named]. Otherwise we get into trouble.’
It was immensely deflating and then very unnerving not knowing what would happen to me next. What happened was that I got arrested.
I had wanted to see how just how far I could go. Plenty of people had told me it wasn’t possible. This was after all a country where original intentions or ambitions were seldom realised. But I wanted to find out for myself where the road would take me. So I set off for the Chinese border.
After two hours of brisk riding I arrived in the town of Lashio, which is about as far as any foreigner in Myanmar is allowed to go. The road beyond Lashio, which makes it all the way to the Chinese border at the town of Mu Se, is deemed dangerous. As I left Lashio behind me, the road didn’t feel at all dangerous. It felt exhilaratingly scenic. I cannot say for sure at what point I decided to embrace the flow of the ride without being certain of precisely where or how far it would take me, but that’s what I did. And how beautiful it felt. A sparkling afternoon sun danced off lush green rice fields. Glimpses of serene and vivid beauty were all around me. How free I felt. How alive. Like a number of other things I’ve done in life, before I’d come to properly cross-examine myself, ‘should I really be doing this?’, it was too late. For better or worse I was being reeled into another unstoppable adventure of my own making.
Perhaps I should have picked up on it earlier than I did - I was concentrating hard on maximising my speed, pushing myself to my riding limit without crashing to reach somewhere I could stay before it got dark - but the road was crawling with men in uniforms, men with guns. And barely any of them looked twice at me, which was a little odd. Perhaps it was becasue I had my helmet deliberately pulled down and my sunglasses on. So I just kept on going, overtaking everything I could from lumbering trucks and slow motorbikes to plodding water buffaloes and trotting horses and carts.
Nearly every settlement of note I rode through seemed to have not just one police station but two or three. But the road was good and I felt no inclination to stop.
‘Mu Se?’ I kept asking people for directions. I’d try to speak a few words of Burmese to them before reminding myself that, being from different tribes with their own languages, they probably spoke as little of it as I did.
‘Yes. Mu Se.’ one boy I stopped to ask answered very affirmatively. So affirmatively that I found him clambering onto the back of my motorbike for a lift. I thought I’d asked him for directions. He thought I stopped to pick him up. So, with an extra unintended passenger slotted on to the back of, I had little choice but to ride on. Eventually, because of the extra weight, he was slowing my progress too much so I took him as far as I could and dropped him off in a village. He thanked me, pointed airily into the distance and uttered, ‘Mu Se. Yes.’
I thought it would maybe take two or three hours of riding. It took five hours and I was riding in the dark for two hours. I had sailed through a whole succession of police checkpoints without being stopped. In fact, on a couple of them I had accidentally entered the wrong toll lane, but the soldiers just waved me back around and flagged me through. Perhaps because I had a helmet and sunglasses on I didn’t seem to raise any great suspicions. It got cold over the mountain plateaux when the sun went down. With turning back all the way to Lashio not a feasible option, I was overtaking everything I could in my quest to reach the comparative civilisation of Mu Se.
The only vehicles to overtake me were a succession of heavily loaded motorbikes, which I later learnt were probably loaded with opium to be smuggled on into China. To cut a very long story short, I found myself entering Mu Se well after dark as the cool and winding mountain road finally yielded to built up civilisation. I felt an enormous sense of relief, but didn’t quite know what to expect next. The great irony of Mu Se was that, unlike all the major cities in the rest of the country, it had 24 hour electricity, clean pavements and well stocked stores. It was virtually Chinese.
Sometimes obtaining directions or getting anyone to understand was like one man performance art. With some local assistance I went into a number of hotels. All refused to take my money and let me stay because I was a foreigner and that was trouble for them. That’s when I ended up being taken to the Special Government Office. I coldly contemplated what might happen next. I had landed myself in something serious.
The keys of my motorbike were confiscated, my passport was surrendered and I was led away into a fairly ordinary looking building behind high gates.
‘Take off your shoes!’ a large fat man barked at me. He looked like someone who was used to barking at people. In fact his enormous girth and longyi skirt knotted around his fat belly like a tight bath towel made him resemble a sumo wrestler with clothes on. I didn’t dare even think of arguing with him. I felt like the naughty little schoolboy who’d just got caught and was being made to wait outside the headmaster’s office for his detention arrangements.
Yet as time dragged on and no one seemed to explain to me what was happening, I began to feel uncomfortable, frustrated and helpless. So I decided to be proactive.
‘I am tired, cold and hungry.’ I pleaded politely. ‘Where can I sleep tonight?’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that.’ he replied as he chewed relentlessly on his red betel paste. ‘You are illegal here. It is a big problem. You are the first person ever to do this and you should not be here. We need to make investigations and send report to the senior people.’
I protested again, seeking an answer as to what was going to happen to me. But the reply was always the same putdown: ‘Please sit down!’ said in such an affirming insistent tone that it was more a demand than a request.
Stupidly, I resisted the urge to sit down - ‘I’ve just spent seven hours sat on a motorbike. I’m quite happy standing up thank you very much!’ I replied, straining to keep a veneer of polite composure.
To which the response was an even firmer, ‘Please!’ It was the Burmese way of saying, ‘Please stop being awkward and do be quiet!’. Of course it was. While, ‘would you some more tea?’ usually meant ‘Let’s change the subject please!’
Questions were asked, too many questions. Forms were filled out. Time crawled. There was never anything less than a perfunctory lack of briskness. I went form being a little scared to annoyed to the exhaustion of blanking out.
‘Where did you get your bike from? What is his name?’
‘I cannot remember. I don’t know.’ I lied deliberately to protect the identity of the nice man who’d lent me a motorbike. I didn’t want him to get into any trouble.
Finally, late in the evening I was asked to go outside where a waiting vehicle and a couple of uniformed escorts would drive me somewhere. A nasty taste in my mouth took hold and I was sure I was heading for some sort of incarceration. My mind was weary but I tried to make a mental note of the streets and landmarks we were passing through. I feared the worst.
But the vehicle didn’t detour down any dark alleys or out-of-town secluded. It pulled up outside a hotel draped in glaring, gaudy riotous Chinese style neon. I looked around and a surreal air of familiarity washed over me. It was all casino lights, kitsch hotels and fancy jewellery stores within touching distance. [See my previous entry from last year for my experiences on the other side of the border in China]
‘Is this Las Vegas.’ I joked to the young officer next to me. ‘Shall we go play the casinos?’
By some twisted fate I was right on the Chinese-Myanmar border. It was the same identical gateway I had stood on the other side of some months earlier when I had been travelling around China. The peculiarly reassuring confirmation of knowing my bearings was confirmed by the intimate sight of green-uniformed Chinese soldiers strutting up and down a stone‘s throw away. Right there and then the familiarity of China seemed almost friendly and enticing like it had never remotely done before.
I was shepherded into a very Chinese looking hotel. Room rates were negotiated and lengthy instructions issued to the reception staff. This was where I was to spend the night under house arrest and, considering all other options, it was a very favourable outcome.
Compared to most of the guest houses I had stayed in - deliberately trying to avoid the expensive government run establishments so beloved by package tourists and morally bankrupt businessmen - this was very upmarket bordering on luxurious.
Room service was an unexpected novel luxury. In fact the room service options were so intimate and immediate they made me uneasy. I got no less than four phone calls from reception enquiring if everything was ok and if there was anything I might need. They were keeping an eye on me.
As was the man at the end of my corridor who was pretending to be some sort of janitor. After craning my neck into his office I noticed it was full of television screens. It reminded me of the time I was assigned a room in a state-run hotel - Iran I think it was - which actually had a microphone protruding from the end of the desk. I tapped onto the microphone and was rather startled to find a voice responding back to me. So I actually took the opportunity to order some room service and made a note to not say anything politically sensitive.
On going down to dinner I was greeted by a handful of over-eager staff keen to accompany my every move. Nothing was too much trouble for them. The vast restaurant was near deserted apart from a cotiderie of Chinese businessmen. After eating I asked if I could take a walk to see the town. This sent them into a mild panic. At first they tried to put me off the idea telling me the town was very dangerous at night, but I persisted, more to see just what I could get away with than anything else.
Eventually they uneasily relented. Two of them rushed to put coats on and chased after me as I set off out the door, not daring to let me out of their sight. When it transpired that I was not going to get very far at all without being watched I had to give in and decided to return to my room and go to bed. Beyond a retinue of inebriated Chinese businessmen the hotel was eerily empty and the words of the man at reception echoed in my head: 'We always know how to cater for special guests.'

6 a.m. I was woken by loud music. It was the Chinese anthem being blasted out from a few tens of metres away across the border. As I drew back my curtains I could see a large neon sign which blazed ‘CHINA DUTY FREE!’

From the hotel reception I was escorted to the police office across the road. It was a cramped slightly chaotic interior. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed almost casual. One of the officers seemed to spend the entire morning working hard casually playing golf on the computer. I watched on as a couple of others dealt with the passing border arrivals, mainly Chinese doing business or tour groups in transience.
Another man counted out a large pile of dollars.
‘Very rich man!’ I joked, looking up the appropriate words in my Burmese dictionary to pass the time. ‘He can now leave for China and buy a big house. Maybe we can go halves, split the money and I can go with him!’
Fortunately, the policemen laughed. After all they were just human beings like me, I figured.
So I went further and, as it helped to make time go quicker, I started to make jokes about the fat policeman and how miserable he always seemed to be - while he was out the room of course. I told them his sarong must be a tent and they laughed. It seemed I had struck a chord.
‘Nobody does this before. You are the first person to do this. The senior people in the capital, some of the generals, they are not happy. They want to know how this happened because you should not be here.’
‘Who do you make the report to?’ I asked out of curiosity and the desire to engage them. ‘Than Shwe?’ I joked, referring to the Burmese president. ‘No.’ the officer replied matter-of-factly. ‘It is to some generals below him in Naypyidaw.’
‘Would they like to speak to me themselves?’ I was half-joking.
‘Perhaps, yes this is possible.’ he replied, again matter-of-factly. ‘They need to know why you are here because you should not be here. It is illegal.’
I need to know why I’m here, I silently and ruefully lamented.
The most heart-stopping moment of my detention came when I heard very loud police sirens. I looked out the window and saw a convoy of military tanks with soldiers and guns protruding from the front of them. Lights flashed and guns were pouting in all directions. They began to slow down and everyone got up. My pulse pounded. Then they carried on through and I learnt that it was a very important general who was on his way somewhere or other and thankfully nothing to do with me at all.
People came and went, most of them in uniform and none of them appearing to do anything of purpose. Perhaps they had just come to gawp at me.
I was surrounded by dusty files. Plenty of stapling and tipexing seemed to be taking place. I managed to read the title on one of the documents which read rather ominously ‘Shining Path’. There were torn calendars and faded provincial maps.
I could only amuse myself for so long by making jokes. The rest of the time I was extremely restless. I wanted to know what was going to happen to me. What did these people want to do with me exactly? I got the sense that they didn’t know. As I waited to learn my fate they were certainly waiting for orders from higher up.
One of the officers offered me an entire packet of cigarettes. I’ve never properly smoked in my life but I thought I might as well have one as it was one of those peculiarly apt moments. More phone calls were made.
I strained my eyes to read the upside wording on the report form. It was in Burmese apart from my name which someone had corrupted in to Mr. John Alistair. Underneath in bold letters it read, ‘ILLEGAL’.
With weary reluctance I stared again at the iron bars across the window hole.
‘So I am prisoner?’ I asked, looking up the Burmese word for prisoner.
‘No not prisoner.’ came the reply.
‘But if I’m not a prisoner, then why can’t I leave.’
‘You cannot leave.’
Actually I learnt from one of the friendlier officers that they were actually more suspicious of me because they thought I could speak Burmese, which I really couldn’t.
I looked down at the floor and discreetly rummaged through a pile of discarded newspapers. One of them had an English Language Tips section which offered suitably colloquial English phrases. ‘It’s not your day!’ one of them read. No it certainly wasn’t feeling like it.

To cut a long story short, they eventually let me go. I was instructed to report to a number of police check points on the long ride back to Lashio. More paperwork and questions followed at each stop. I was anxious to ride back as quickly as I could, but the procedures were so laboriously slow. I was assigned motorbike escorts to ‘protect’ and ensure I didn’t ‘get lost’ on the way (code for wandering off into areas they didn’t want me to go and see) ‘When can I leave. I’m ready to go. Can I go now?’ I kept asking.
‘Not authorised. Need permission.’
One policeman took me behind a curtain in his office and demanded a large bribe. In a country where the police were only paid relatively poorly, collecting such fees was an important and accepted source of extra income.
‘How much money do you have?’ he asked.
I flatly refused to give him anything.
‘Look I have nothing.’
I emptied my pockets. He didn’t know where I’d hidden my money. I walked outside and started to attract film star like attention. Eventually they gave me permission to continue to the next checkpoint.
One of my motorbike escorts couldn’t keep up with me. But as he had my passport I kept having to wait for him. When I was passed on at the final police checkpoint just outside Lashio they had obviously learned their lesson and assigned me no less than two officers on motorbikes. They were certainly more clued up probably having been forewarned of my track record. One of them even paid to fill up my bike with gas for me. I managed to persuade them to let me have my passport back.
It was like a game of cat and mouse trying to get away from them. I’d put the keys into my bike ignition and turn the engine on as if to prepare to leave and he’d reach over, fish them out and temporarily confiscate them. When I’d got them back again I’d manage to start the engine. Then he’d come and stand directly in front of my bike to politely but firmly give me the message that we could only leave when he said so.
Eventually, I got the go-ahead to set off. Fearing that the two of them would be breathing down my neck, I rode quite cautiously for the first ten minutes or so. But then - as it was near pitch black dark on the road - an opportunity afforded itself to overtake a truck. I accelerated off, backed myself, pinned my ears back and never looked back. I rode as hard as I could for the best part of two and half hours all the way back to Hsipaw. I was cold, tired and hungry, which made me ride harder.
It was very dangerous riding at night because my front headlight was fairly weak and there was a regular array of potential obstacles: unseen potholes, clouds of dust, stray animals and dark shapes of people, roadworks, sudden twists in the contours of the road, wrong turnings, thundering trucks, motorbikes appearing out of nowhere with glaring headlights, my own tiredness.
I was wearing down my wrists from accelerating and braking. My knees were aching from being jammed into the same position. Various insects collided into my face every now and again. The blackest of skies were spilling over with the glisten of bright stars. It was just me, my faithful bike and the noise of my engine. It was as surreal as it was strangely magical.
It was with great relief that I arrived safely at the familiar rickety bridge which crossed the river back into the town of Hsipaw. There is nothing like the relief of arriving somewhere you know well and recognise, especially well after dark. I took my motorbike back to its owner ensuring the police wouldn’t come on to him. Then I went to eat in Mr. Food’s restaurant. Actually ‘restaurant’ is far too strong a word. Nonetheless, I was content to return to my guest house.
Sometime around 10:30 p.m. the manager informed me he’d had a phone call from the head of police.
‘He would like to see you?’ he told me.
‘Really? Why?’ I asked. ‘Its quite late now. Do I really need to see him now?’ I feared the worst again.
‘Yes’ he replied. ‘I think it would be a good idea for you to see him now. He wants to apologise to you for the police disturbing you.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘He wants to apologise to you.’
So off we went on his motorbike to the police headquarters on the outskirts of town near the old royal palace. Inside I was greeted by a small welcoming committee of casually dressed policemen. Handshakes were undertaken. It was all very cordial and civilised. Tea was wheeled out. Chairs were shuffled. I began to feel like I was some sort of important guest rather than someone they wanted to detain.
And in the chief’s office I came across my two ‘bodyguard’ riders. They had only just arrived back. It was a good hour and a half after I had returned and they looked very weary and rather cold but served up warm smiles to me. We all sat down together and I listened as the man form the guest house translated for me.
‘He says to tell you that you are not a prisoner any more. He wants only to look after you and make sure you travel safely. He says he has to make a big report into this and many investigations because this never happens before. It is the duty of the Myanmar government to investigate this.’
Until then I had no idea of the magnitude of what I’d started just be riding my motorbike into places I shouldn’t have gone to.
The police chief and I sat smiling and nodding appreciatively at each other as the man from my guest house translated our words. He did indeed want apologise to me. He told me I was very welcome as a guest in his town and in the country. The next time I came back I was always welcome at the police station (I didn’t quite know if that was a good thing or not!). He wanted me to have a safe journey to Mandalay.
Looking him square in the eye, I thanked him for his hospitality and told him with great sincerity how wonderful his country was and how friendly the people were. When he mentioned about the generals needing to know about me, I offered to go to the capital to have a friendly meeting with them. He didn’t rebuff this and for a moment I envisaged a scenario where I might actually get to go the country’s closed off capital, Naypyidaw. How many countries in the world do you know of where foreigners are not allowed to travel to the capital? Only in Myanmar.
How I would have loved to have gone to have an audience with the generals. I even dared to suggest to the police chief that it would be a positive thing if the country opened up more and the system was less complicated. It would make life easier for him and for people like me, I diplomatically pointed out.
‘We are healthy and well with our complicated system, thank you very much.’ he replied.
‘Really?’ I thought to myself.
Eventually the ‘meeting’ was concluded with more warm handshakes and smiles.
‘So Mr. John, it was a pleasure talking with you. We have never spoken with an international traveller like you before. It was a pleasure for us. We are sorry again for disturbing you I this way. We want you to have good experiences in our country as our guest.’
‘Thank you again for your hospitality.’ I replied. ‘I would also like to thank you and your colleagues for some different and unusual experiences.’
More nods and smiles. I couldn’t resist the urge to make one more joke.
‘So tomorrow I go by motorbike, yes? I can drive?!’
The man from the guest house filled me in some more after we’d departed.
‘They say about you it is like you are flying on your motorbike to get here. You ride very fast. They call you the flying Englishman! I think they are sweating a lot because of pressure from high up. It looks very bad for them. Big problem for them especially as you are British. Anyone who is American or British, they are very afraid. Especially writers and journalists. You’re not a writer or journalist are you?’
‘No, of course not!’ I laughed.
‘Tomorrow, as a symbol of their welcome to you, they would like to offer you a car and driver to take you to Mandalay. You will not need to pay for this, it is free. You can leave any time you want. The car and driver will pick you up.’
‘Do I have a choice?’ I asked him.
‘It is better for you I think to accept.’ he replied in a very diplomatic way. I had little option but to accept.
The next morning at my designated time a car pulled up outside my guest house. My bags were carried for me and I was on the road back to Mandalay. They’d finally cottoned on to me and I was assigned four officers to accompany me this time. We passed a massive army base where 30,000 soldiers were based. Outside the entrance a giant sign proclaimed: ‘DO NOT DESTROY UNITY OF THE NATION’
Lunch was even bought for me. I practised a little Burmese with the officers and asked them questions. I learnt that there too many types of police in Myanmar to keep count of - city police, immigration police, special police, tourist security police (where were they?), intelligence police, military police, crime police and paperwork police.
The only catch was that in Mandalay, instead of being taken to my hotel, I was deposited at the main police station. My heart began to sink again. More form filling, mounds of pointless dusty paperwork, questions and confusion. I caught sight of an off duty casually dressed soldier wearing a dated top which was ironically emblazoned with ‘US ARMY’.
It was a hot afternoon and my fuse was short. I was fed up of spending so much time in the company of uniformed officials, however polite or obliging they were. Sometimes I felt like there couldn’t be anyone in these offices who didn’t seem to know or recognise me. I just wanted to be free to do my own thing again.
‘Please sit down sir. Please. Would you like a drink?’
‘I would like to be free to go to my hotel.’
‘Where are you going to tomorrow?’ he asked me.
‘I don’t know. Why do you need to know? Why are you keeping me here?’
I could tell I was beginning to irritate them slightly with too many awkward questions. He reverted to the old refrain of pretending not to understand my English before letting out an exasperated, ‘Please!’
‘It is security. Where are you travelling to next?’ the officer in charge enquired a little more assertively.
‘I don’t know. I’ll decide later when I’m free to go to my hotel. You said to me I am not a prisoner, but you won’t allow me to leave.’
‘But we would like to know. It is important.’
I kept trying to evade his question but he was persistent so I told him I planned to go to Bhamo in the north.
‘No Sir, it is not possible for you to go there.’
‘How about Myitchina?’ That was also in the north.
‘No Sir, this area is dangerous for you. If you want to go to Yangon [the capital] we can arrange for you to fly tomorrow. We will pay for your ticket.’
I was half-tempted. But it was a very polite but blatant attempt at deportation and I had no intention of leaving the country just yet.
‘But I don’t want to go to Yangon.’
I started listing various places where I would and wouldn’t be allowed be to go. In the end I had to settle for taking a boat trip to Bagan.
‘I don’t really want to go to Bagan.’ I protested mildly
‘You will go to Bagan.’ he announced with a flourish, as if satisfied that it would comply with his procedures. ‘It is very nice there and popular with tourists.’
Most tourists who come to Myanmar regard Bagan as unmissable. I had no great desire to go there - the remoter places in the north were far more appealing - but I was made to buy a boat ticket to go to Bagan. And with that I was almost back to being just another tourist again - quite possibly the only tourist in Bagan who hadn’t particularly wanted or intended to be there.
In the end I had sign my name to letter which made me promise to comply with the rules of the government of Myanmar and basically not make any more trouble. I had once done a similar thing in the Egyptian Sahara. Right to the end they kept getting my name wrong by misreading my passport and calling Mr. John. I was more than content to let them do that.
When you first arrive in Mandalay you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Is that it?’ All that greets you is dust and beeping bikes. It is irredeemably scruffy and a good place to leave. I was glad to catch that boat to Bagan.
On the boat to Bagan - it was a leisurely journey and the relaxed air of being on holiday was rather unfamiliar to me - a middle-aged American lady saw me writing and asked me what I did. ‘You’re not a journalist are you?’ she joked.
‘No, of course not.’ I laughed it off and changed the subject.
‘I’ve taken so many great photos.’ she enthused. ‘Isn’t this country incredible?’
‘It certainly is.’ I smiled.

As an interesting aside, a few days later while reading up on the history of the country I came across some rather eye-opening information. To me, police checks aside, the road to the Chinese border had seemed very safe. Yet, in spite of my pleasantly benign passing impressions, the people who inhabited the areas of jungle close to where the road went through, were potentially more dangerous than I might have taken for granted. Known as the Wa people, apparently years ago they had a well deserved reputation for head-hunting (not of the business recruitment kind) with a particular penchant for collecting exotic foreign looking heads and placing them on large sticks on the main roads to ward off spirits.
So perhaps all the police were right in telling me this was a very dangerous area and giving me escorts. It made me think of the words of Rudyard Kipling about treating the twin imposters of triumph and disaster both the same:
‘If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs…’

This is just one story from my time in Myanmar. In due course I shall write up a book about my time in the country and upload the photos on my website.

11 Feb 2009

The Moustache Brothers

These are The Moustache Brothers. Where they live, to makes jokes about the government really is no laughing matter. They'll put you in jail. Comedy is deadly serious. So what is the best response? To keep making fun of them course and laugh loudly in their faces. That takes an enormous amount of courage.
The Moustache Brothers are officially banned by the Myanmar authorities from performing but they continue to perform in their own living room and, as they proudly admit, they are always under surveillance from the 'KGB'.

Have a brief look at them here...

Mr. Bald & Mr. Funny

'You are Mr. Bald and I am Mr. Funny!'
Every time he said these words, it sent him into hysterical laughter. I was sat behind him on his motorbike as we roared around town looking for the fighting goats balls.

29 Jan 2009

Golden Rock Rollercoaster

'Am I allowed to go?'
Its usually the first question you ask here.
'Yes, yes.'
'No foreigner, no problem!' came the confusing reply.
'So I can go?'
'Ok, no.'
'Is that yes or no?'
'Yes or no.'
In describing rough bus journeys in various parts of the world I might have used the term 'rollercoaster' once or twice. But today's experience truly was the closest approximation yet - a real life rollercoaster only without the strapping or safety rules. So let me share with you what it was like to ride a real life rollercoaster on the way to Kyiktiyo, the Golden Rock.

I arrived just in time. The young man was beckoning the final passengers on board and I found myself in the back seat corner where it was more comfortable to stand on the back decking rather than sit.
The bus was essentially a crudely modified cattle truck - seven rows of six bodies all condensed into narrow wooden slats. The hard stell of the back cage like decking had so many protruding edges of niggly bolts it felt like someone had designed the thing to exterminate every ounce of comfort potential.
The ticket boy leapt up beside me and two latecomers were fervently ushered on as well to join the merry throng.
One man squeezed up tightly behind me. After a while I could feel something big and bulging jutting out of his midriff or his crotch area. Only after a good look down did I realise it was the huge knot of his longyi (sarong) that happened to be vigorously rubbing against me.
Being the tourist I am, I was attempting to take photos when a severely crunching section of road saw my own crotch area collide with unavoidable forecfulness into oneo the proitruding metal sections on the cage. Ouch! As I grimmaced, the ticket boy took little time in enthusiastically enquiring after my health before thoughtfully sharing what had happened with the remaining entirety of the truck who collectively craned their necks around to stare and laugh while I was on the verge of tears.
Regaining my lost composure, I told myself to concentrate harder with my hand holds as they really were the difference between me staying onboard the vehicle and ending up in a messy splatter on the dusty road.
The driver was nothing less than an impatient lunatic whoi insisted on lauching the truck over humps, flinging it around tight bends and accelerating over narrow cranking bridges like they were take off runways.
From the back of the vehicle the suspension was gloriously redundant. In my radjusted position (there were many)or rather body contortion I now found myself slumped over the back row with my arm around an old lady. She turned to give me a toothless red gummed grin. My thigh was rubbing against a pink-robed nun. Neither seemed affected in the slightest by drama of the ride.
The nuns had clothed over their shaved heads to fend off the fierce afternoon sun while the old lady took up puffing what looked like a fat cigar but was actually a mild cheroot.

On we hurtled, steaming through hilly jungle, the road never less than torturously twisting. The succession of endlessly bumpy humps strangely reminded me of something I had not done for a very long time: skiing down a mogul field.
And there all of a sudden ahaead of me as I squinted ahead and fought off the intrusion of dust and the mini streams of sweat was the high glinting flicker of gold - the very reason I had chosen to come here, the Golden Rock itself. It was still very far away and necessitated a strenuously steep climb by foot, but it was just about worth it.
You cannot complain or moan, I kept trying to tell myself. You wanted to seek out adventure and now you've well and truly found some.

The return journey was even more full on mainly becasue it was near total darkness by the time we left. I was instructed quite assertively by one man to sit myself down on the back bench. But I simply could not insert the width of my thighs into the meagre space afforded. So I stood and half-crouched like a man on the verge of sitting down on the otilet. Bats swooped in the warm night air. Another old lady was puffing on her cheroot. Every now and then as we roared through it, out of the jungle darkness swung an overhanging vine which thrashed its way backwards with some venom towards the back of the truck. I usually managed to catch the last whack square on my uncovered head. Again this - the sounds of my pain infliction and repeated attempted aversions - seemed to provoke mirth and merriment all round. I looked up at the sky, it seemed so inviting, and I saw the plough. And however much my hands were being worn down from the tight grip pf clinging on, however tired my legs were from being battered, however much my back was aching, for a brief moment I perversely decided there was nowhere else I would rather be. I felt alive.

Here was a country, where amidst all the dire warnings and misinformation, you might well find a quiet slice of travellers' paradise.
In fact I have so many experiences to write about that I simply do not have the time or internet access to do them justice.

28 Jan 2009

This is Burma

"This is Burma," Rudyard Kipling once wrote. "It is quite unlike any land you know about."

Well we're not supposed to call it Burma these days - nearly everyone I speak to calls it Myanmar - but his words still ring true. Here indeed is a country very different from any other I have travelled through and that is quite a few.

My flight from Bangkok was delayed. Through a dense early morning mist the mysterious shape of the country finally began to reveal itself. I could pick out the pin gold flashes of religious stupas. There was the very real sense of entering an unknown country. It was exciting and enthralling, the pleasurable tinge of being on the cusp of having new things revealed to me. Here was a country that we really know so little about from the inside.

Yangon used to be called Rangoon under the British. In some ways, architectuarlly at least, its like they never really left. Here is a city which has been fermented by years of neglect and troical rains, still glued to its past. The lifestyles of many of its people are still....

see the photos here:

Should I go?

In case you didnt already know I am now inside Burma. Some people may disagree with me being here (I wonder how many times or how well travelled many might be) but let me address why I believe it is the right thing to come to a country that very few people know much about. For what its worth I met a man who has been visiting this country on and off for nine years. Not once in all that time did any person in the country tell him he shouldn't have come.
Tony Blair - amongst other so-called esteemed (but not informed obviously) experts - called for people to boycott this country. Please remind me how many times he actually visited here. Are we all supposed to unquestioningly defer to such people and lose all ability to think and act independently for ourselves?
Travel - and I write here with a strong weight of conviction - is an incredibly powerful force for good not least in raising awareness, deepening understanding and broadening knowledge and insight. Tourism, if conducted with a sufficiently open well informed mind, independent thought, sensitivity and discretionary purse can do a great deal to open up a country. In particular it affords some people in that country the opportunity to open up their lives to the outside world.
To some people I am effectively contributing to the human rights abuses of the Burmese government. Of course a small amount of money is likely to unavoidably end up in their pockets. But I am extremely discreet and careful where I choose to spend my dollars. I always try to travel as locals do. I eat where they eat. And I talk to people, lots of people. I listen respectfully to what they tell me. I am offering an income to them and an opportunity to opine which they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
How exactly can people ever be free when we keep them isolated? You tell me inwhich other ways are we going to so fully and comprehensively inform ourselves about a country whose regime thrives on being 'isolated'. This country is anything but isolated to those who matter and the sooner we stop pretending that sanctions - over 20 years worth - are working the better. Lives depend on it. They depend on us being well-informed, realistic and genuinely open-minded. The sanctions have been in place for two decades and they patently have not worked.
Under which of the following circumstances do you think a government is more likely to repress its people?
a) with no allowed in to see anything.
or b) with international visitors like me walking around asking awkward questions, probing for answers, taking photos, recording mnemories and conversations, interacting with local people...?
Ultimately, is it not better to be as well informed as possible or to remain in the dark?
How exactly am I legitimising a nasty government when I intend to do no more than share with you what I see, hear and what people I meet tell me?

If poeple want to feel ethically better about themselves for choosing to boycott and to help salve a conscious, thats up to them. But do you know what most boycotts and sanctions do? They make the poor poorer while the rich powerful elite drive fancier cars and live in more luxurious houses.
Who really pays the price of isolation? Who really has to make the big life-changing sacrifices of having sanctions imposed against them. You've guessed it, the people at the bottom. Who really gets punished?
SO why push a country, any country backwards. The only things we end up sanctioning - if we take a long hard cold look at the effectiveness - are the regime's own propaganda when we should be doing all we can to help demolish it. It is just like Iran.
Why not make the country a proper part of the world? Why not just flood it with travellers, trade, but also with information, ideas, technology, journalists, observers and opportunities?
boycotts can never be perfect or consistent anyway. WHose going to tell the French and the Germans that they have no morals for going on package tours? They'll just laugh at you dismissively.
By the same perverse logic are all smokers responsible for the deaths and exploiutation of children in developing countries by big tobacco companies because they purchase cigarettes? Are all American taxpayers responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq becasue they happen to pay taxes to the American government?
And it matters very little what we ethically chose to do anyway because of one word: China. China controls much of the economy here already. It quietly got on with asserting itself and because we all stayed away we are near blind to it.
Tourism is anyway a drop in the economic ocean to this government compared to the revenues it generates from selling gas, teak and soon oil to thel ikes of not just China, but also Singapore and Japan.
Through apathy, misguided and ill-informed ideology and complacency we have left an entire people in near muted silence.
We should be encouraging as many people as possible to go and see and listen for themselves.
Its like a man said to me the other day...
"We are alive and I can feed my family because of tourists. Why is my country so neglected and forgotten? Please ask more people to come and speak to us."
"Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Then you can decide. What will you know, or anyone know if you never come and never speak to us and us to you?"