Spies, Spooks and Stories

"I'm not a literary writer. I'm a storyteller. I write fairy tales for adults. Because most of them have a shit life." This according to Gérard de Villiers, 83, just back from Afghanistan, in an interview released early this year in New York Times magazine. He died on 31 October. He was about to write his two hundredth novel in the S.A.S. (Son Altesse Sérénissime) espionage series featuring lead character Malko Linge, an Austrian prince who works as a freelance agent for the CIA in order to finance the repairs to his castle. The previous adventures of this nobleman, which began in 1965, have sold 150 million copies worldwide, enabling the author to live a life akin to that of his fictional character in a splendid Parisian apartment and a villa in Saint Tropez.
The New York Times interview was entitled “
The spy novelist who knows too much”. It’s the perfect definition, and explains the success behind his stories. De Villiers wrote stories that were extraordinarily close to the truth. In some cases he was ahead of the events. With a dose of extreme sex and violence and absolute precision scene-setting.
“Real espionage is a tangle within tangle, plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party . . . interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.” So wrote Winston Churchill.
“Spying is itself a form of fiction, the creating of invented worlds,” wrote Ben Macintyre, an intelligence expert in a review of an espionage novel,
An American Spy, suspecting that the author, Olen Steinhauer, was himself an agent for some service or other. While Evan Thomas, another journalist studying the world of spies, talks of the “wilderness of mirrors”, quoting the theory of James Jesus Angleton, who headed the counterespionage section of the CIA from 1954 to ’75, who in turn was quoting T. S. Eliot.
Even from the grave, Gerard De Villiers is able to set off an apparently deceiving web of plots. You really do get lost in a wilderness of mirrors and little by little you can't distinguish real from false. But in the end, you realise that everything can be anything at the same time. It all depends on which world you inhabit, which story you are reading or experiencing.
I, for example, knew Gerard de Villiers very well. I travelled around Bangkok with him many years ago, before settling in the City of Angels, as he liked to call it. He was writing a story set here. I don't remember the plot. I do remember that he showed me every single facet of the city. It wasn't enough for him just to explore the dark side. Which he did with enthusiasm. He managed to grasp every connection between what he saw, what his sources revealed and the information he put together like a collector. Adding a little imagination and a lot of intuition, he succeeding in bringing worlds and times together: visible and concealed, past, present and future.
"There's no secret to predicting things. I follow the trends revealed to me by experience, I use my contacts and what I read, including the reports I manage to find. Then I put it all together," said Gerard. It was a modus operandi also used by his friend Jean-Louis Gergorin, one of the founders of the Centre d’analyse, de prévision et de stratégie of the French Foreign Ministry: “in order to be credible, a report must refute current opinion, cross-reference sources and points of view. Exactly as he does”.
“His style of reporting is old school. He seeks to understand without judging. His crude, rough descriptions, in contrast with the current opinion, are close to the truth,” commented Hubert Védrine, a diplomat and socialist politician who cannot be accused of sympathising with De Villiers, dubbed un reac, a reactionary scorned (but read) by the Gauchiste intelligentsia.
That way of working, blending crudeness with harsh reality, in the tradition of the dying breed of great reporters, is all the more useful in places such as Bangkok, where geopolitical analysis blends in with bar gossip. I would have confirmation of this a few years later, when a character seemingly from one of his novels, a Vietnamese business broker met me in a pizzeria on a side road off Sukhumvit, Bangkok's main thoroughfare. I knew he had business contacts with all kinds of people and I wanted to know if relations between Thailand and the USA were really threatened by the Kingdom's closer relations with China. He smiled with that air of ironic complacence that Asians of a certain standing reserve for farang, foreigners. "Don't forget that Thailand houses CIA's biggest centre for cover operations outside Langley," came his reply.
If you look at Bangkok like De Villiers did - or that Vietnamese guy does – it's not surprising to read in Edward Snowden's leaks that American, British, Australian and Canadian embassies in Jakarta, Hanoi and Bangkok were used for cyber-intelligence operations across Asia. Snowden's document points out that surveillance instruments are often hidden in fake superstructures. Which, if you think about it, may explain the futuristic design of the Australian embassy in Bangkok.
Many years later, in 2009, he would return to what was now my city to write another adventure set there, SAS: Le Piège de Bangkok. In this case the plot centred on the life of Viktor Bout, a former officer of the Red Army turned arms dealer. A book has been written about him: “
Merchant of Death: money, guns, planes, and the man who makes war possible”. The film adaptation, “Lord of War”, starred Nicholas Cage. In 2008 Bout was arrested at the Sofitel Silom Hotel following a long undercover operation by officers of the CSD, the Thai Crime Suppression Division and DEA, acting on a capture warrant issued by the United Nations. Bout found himself at the centre of a legal battle between the US government demanding his extradition and the Russians, who claimed he was an “innocent businessman”. For the Thai government he was, by turns, a problem and an opportunity. In 2010 he was extradited to the United States “suddenly, secretly and in breach of both international and Thai laws”, according to a statement from the Russian embassy in Bangkok. In the meantime, the master of “romanquête”, or investigative novel, had “put together” the whole affair, adding the character Ling Sima, a beautiful yet ruthless colonel in the Chinese secret services. This was going on at a time when, as many analysts have now discovered, China was building an espionage service capable of competing with the CIA. Coming between Thailand and the United States fits right into the Chinese strategy of undermining the enemy's allies.
Chance would once again have it that I too was looking into this story: our paths probably crossed in the red light district controlled by the Russians, or in the halls of the big hotels where those characters that “solve problems” in Bangkok hang out. But we did not meet.
In reality, I have never met Gerard De Villiers. I knew him, but not personally. Only from his books. I wrote the introduction to two of them – one of which was his first in Bangkok. I took them with me on my travels to beautiful yet troubled places. He never got a coordinate, street number or description wrong. Whether in Burma, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, De Villiers was the perfect travel guide. One time, in Yangon, I believe I met an old friend of his from SDECE, Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage (which later became DGSE, Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure).
And then I had a friend – this little story is dedicated to him - who worked for the Secret Services and he had interviewed him. He told me of a man who impersonated his lead character, with a secretary-bodyguard (or was there more than one?) in a black latex bodysuit.
One way or another, De Villiers had become a ghost, a spectre. But not the stuff of nightmares or horror films. More the mysterious, fascinating, ambiguous kind, flesh and blood yet living in the underworld or in the world of the Great global Game, in the wilderness of mirrors. In America they call them Spooks. As Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicolas Cage, says at the end of “Lord of War”, just before he is released: “Sometimes they need a freelancer like me. You call me evil, but I'm a necessary evil.” Twas ever thus: when reality becomes fiction, it loses its original nature and enters a mythological dimension. Then, when it becomes reality again, it moves to a place of shadows.
In Thailand, where Spirits share the same space but in another dimension, observing us from the saan phra phum, the Houses of the Spirits, dotted around the streets, in homes and gardens, a De Villiers figurine could go alongside those of Jim Thompson or Tony Poe. Both are characters I have followed around Thailand, Laos and Malaysia and who have gone from writing material to spirits that appear and disappear when I least expect it. Their life is an insight into adventure, history, geopolitics and novels, one of those stories that could only be set in a theatre like the Mekong Basin.
Jim Thompson, also known as “the Thai silk king”, arrived in Thailand at the end of the Second World War as an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. He later resigned to go into business and art collecting at his beautiful house on the banks of a khlong, or canal. Many, however, believed that he continued in his old job as a freelancer. The house where he welcomed celebrities passing through Bangkok was an operational centre collecting vital information for America, which at that time was about to lose itself in the jungles of Vietnam. Over time, though, Thompson became increasingly similar to Thomas Fowler, the character in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, more interested in the traces of a smile on a Buddha's face than in political strategy. It's a story that has fuelled and continues to fuel suspicions around his mysterious disappearance, on Easter Sunday 1967 along a path in the Cameron Highlands, in central-northern Malaysia.
On the other hand, Anthony Poshepny, better known as
Tony Poe, died peacefully on the morning of 27 June 2003. After the Second World War, in which he had fought as a marine on the South West Pacific front surviving the Iwo Jima landing, he became an agent for the CIA. In the Sixties, he was based in Laos, conducting his own guerrilla warfare against the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, with forays into China and Burma, from which, it is said, he returned with trophy necklaces made of ears. It is also said that the character Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was based on him. In the end, though, even Tony began to have his doubts about war. "It was the simple reality, more than anything else, that defeated Tony," says one of his junior agents.
Reality is defeating myth, and perhaps the death of De Villiers is really the end of an era. The end of so-called HUMINT, intelligence gathered by people, and the start of cyber-intelligence, in which everything takes place in another parallel world, the cyberworld. No wonder that The Kill List, the latest novel by another great spy writer,
Frederick Forsyth, is set in this new theatre. Men, such as those in the Joint Special Operations Command, are to do what drones cannot.
"The cyberworld is the new frontier of the wild west," said General Dani Arditi, former president of the Israeli National Security Council, at the
seminar on Cyber Warfare held recently in Bangkok. But he added that, precisely because of this wildness – as in the wilderness of mirrors - "You have to be flexible. Nothing is stable these days." And he concluded with a smile: "These are interesting times." He reminded me of De Villiers.

The Dragon Lady, the Taoist and other demons

“The climate is perfect for entrepreneurs here. But you have to be ready to take some risks. You can’t survive on your own.” This was uttered while sipping drinks on the beach of the Knai Bang Chatt, the boutique hotel in Kep, on the south coast of Cambodia. Kep, with its history of rise, decline and rebirth, is one of the places where you can relax and talk about the meaning of life, moving effortlessly from remembering past horrors to society living. Where every conversation is loaded with implications and the sound bites often sound macabre. “If you want to die while looking at the sea, look towards the forest,” says the hotel owner. But this is an old story.
Kep now has a new one and it stars yet another French architect. Many have come through here, starting with Roger Colne, who designed the Kep casino, protégé of the then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today Kep has filled back up with architects studying and renovating the ruins of its modernist villas, seeking out a bit of good luck or basking in that already gained in Cambodia Redux. The architect featured in this story is called Patrick-Henri Devillers. He is 52, has lived in Cambodia for six years, has a Cambodian wife and a son, lives in Phnom Penh in a rented two-storey colonial villa and has bought a small plot of land in Kep, where he has designed and built a cottage using natural materials. He drives around in an old pick-up or on an electric bike. He has a very calm demeanour, yet is betrayed by his wry smile, his grey hair, his slightly stooped shoulders, and his reading glasses hanging from a black cord round his neck.
“He's not a criminal living in the shadows. He’s more like a poet,” says a friend of his. “He’s a sweet person,” ensures a businessman who worked with him. His father, Michel Devillers, agrees, saying a little harshly, “He’s no good at business. He is an artist.”
Devillers probably feels more like one of those wise men who used to wander around Asia, rebelling against the tradition and coercion of habit, and trying to affirm the value of individuality. They were the followers of Tao, the scholars of the
Tao-te-king, which holds the teachings and thoughts of Lao-tze, one of the venerable men that developed the system of thought in the 6th century BC. Devillers also calls himself a Taoist, citing in his defence a teaching of the Tao-te-king: “Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” The problem is that he has many demons to oppose, particularly those defined as the “Chongqing devils” and who are the source of his current predicament. Because Devillers was arrested on 13th June and seems to be being held at a jail near Pochetong, Phnom Penh airport. He was detained at the request of the Chinese government due to his possible involvement in a homicide connected to the biggest political thriller China has seen since Lin Biao, who died in mysterious circumstances after a failed coup against Mao in 1971. The Chongqing devils are the “red prince”, Bo Xilai, and his wife, Gu Kailai, a couple that until recently was amassing enormous power and wealth in China's newfound position as the world’s second superpower. Son of Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” (Mao’s trusted companions), Bo enjoyed a swift rise to power in the last twenty years: mayor of Dalian, minister of commerce, member of the Politburo, mayor and party secretary of Chongqing, China’s largest metropolis with a population of almost 34 million. Bo seemed destined to rise to the very top and was implementing neo-Maoist policies. But after the rise came the sudden fall. On 15th March he was relieved of his duties, dropped from the Politburo and placed under investigation for “serious disciplinary violations”. On 10th April his wife Gu was arrested and charged with homicide.
At this point, we should jump back to 15th November 2011, when the body of British businessman Neil Heywood, 41, was found in a Chongqing hotel room. Heywood had been Gu’s business partner for over 10 years and had helped her son, Bo Guagua, to gain admission to a top English school. An initial report found that he had died from a heart attack brought on by alcohol abuse. For some strange reason no autopsy was performed and the body was quickly cremated. This is when suspicions were raised among Chinese investigators. The main suspect is Gu, a very charming and ambitious woman, who is also alleged to have been Heywood's lover.
For some time it seemed that this was destined to be just another unsolved mystery in the corridors of power. Until last February, when Wang Lijun, Chongqing chief of police turned up at the US consulate in Chengdu requesting sanctuary. Apparently Wang had gone too far in his enquiries and feared Bo’s reaction. The man stayed at the consulate for just one day before being returned to Chinese security service officials who had come from Beijing. In the meantime, though, he revealed his suspicions about Gu Kailai and other information about the business dealings between the family and Heywood. Gu allegedly ordered the murder of her lover because he had demanded an excessively high commission on a transfer of money out of China. As if all of this were not dramatic enough, it turns out that Heywood was not just another businessman. He had worked for Britain’s MI6 intelligence service and had maintained business relations with a private intelligence firm employing former MI6 agents.
Things now take a political turn in the never-ending game of strategy that is the Chinese power stakes. A nest of vipers is unearthed. Accusations of kidnap, torture, extortion, trafficking and prostitution fly. According to a Hong Kong tabloid, one of the women who allegedly sold sex to men in the Gu clan is actress Zhang Ziyi (who has sued the paper). We remember her in the film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: delicate yet sharp, light yet strong, her gaze seems to scan the surrounding space, her raven-black hair framing perfect skin, her physicality lending credibility to the fantastical action sequences.
But scandals like this are just embellishment around the core issue, which is one of corruption, extortion and power intrigue worthy of the last days of the Qing empire. Here another major player in this story enters the scene; Xu Ming, a close business associate of Bo Xilai, of whom nothing has been heard since the end of March, when he was arrested. In 1993, when Bo became mayor of Dalian, Xu, then little over twenty years of age, had just set up a crayfish export business. In 2004, when Bo was made minister of commerce, Xu’s company obtained the license to import crude oil and petrol. The following year, Forbes magazine named him the fifth richest man in China.
This is where our gentle Taoist, monsieur Devillers, comes in. Living at that time in China and married to the heiress of an important Dalian family, he is the one acting as consultant for Bo for the reconstruction of the city. And he is Gu’s partner when she decides to open a business in the UK for the recruitment of the European architects that would go on to design the new cathedrals of the Chinese economy. Even after leaving China for Cambodia, Devillers maintained close contact with the couple. In 2006 he and his father Michel – despite the apparent contempt in which the latter holds him - set up D2 Properties, a property company based in Luxembourg that allegedly served as cover for exporting Gu’s capital.
These are the operations that may have put Devillers in contact with Xu Ming and Neil Heywood. And that is why the Chinese are anxious to talk to him. It's little wonder, notes The Telegraph, that Devillers’ arrest came just one week after a visit to Cambodia by He Guoqiang, member of the Chinese Politburo and head of the Communist Party disciplinary committee, behind Bo’s downfall. Following that visit, the Chinese government, already Cambodia’s biggest creditor and financer, further increased its influence with 430 million dollars of investment.
Perhaps that figure was not high enough, given that Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong has declared that he will deny Devillers’ extradition if China does not come up with sufficient proof of criminal activity. “Although China may be able to put more money on the table, the Cambodian elites are still closely linked both personally, financially — their money is there — and emotionally to France,” writes Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a specialist in French-Chinese relations at Hong Kong Baptist University.
So Devillers will probably be able to return to Kep to eat crab with pepper while looking out to sea. If he does, he may not be able to fully enjoy the moment. His mind will go back to Gu, the woman who may have been one of a number of lovers.
In the end this story may get a sequel, with the reappearance or definitive disappearance of Gu, the last of the Dragon Ladies, those mysterious Asian enchantresses, at times good, more often cruel, and always powerful. Women featured in adventure films, novels and comics in 1930s America, but whose real-life counterparts were even more disturbing.
Such as Cixi, meaning “Motherly and Auspicious”, a title given to her upon the death of Emperor Xianfeng, in 1861, when she succeeded in becoming Empress Dowager. Her rise had begun when she was a concubine called Little Orchid. “Her lower lip, painted red in the shape of a tear, looked like a cherry”.
Another was Soong May-ling, wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who dominated China for twenty years. “Brilliant, intriguing, incredibly sexy, deliberately fascinating, courageous, corrupt, a chameleon of a woman.”
Then Jiang Qing, the pseudonym of Li Shumeng. Actress turned Communist and the last wife of Mao Zedong, it may have been her that came up with the Chairman’s historic declaration, “Women hold up the other half of the sky”. In 1976, one month after Mao’s death, she was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government. She died a prisoner in ’91, perhaps from suicide, perhaps from lack of medical treatment.
What does fate have in store for Gu?

Death in Remote Places

FakingItInBangkok2Murders happen everywhere people live. No country is spared. For those left behind, a murder is a tragedy, one that remains in their memories for a lifetime. The reality is that most murders are domestic affairs. They often occur in the same country where the killer and victim were born, educated, worked, and played. The killer and victim often shared a common culture and language. They likely watched the same TV shows and movies. They recognized the same celebrities who, outside that culture, moved anonymously among others who did not recognize them. In other words, they consider themselves as belonging to the same "tribe."
When the murder victim dies violently in a foreign place and the killer or killers are natives to that foreign land, the killing ignites the interest of the media. Ever since Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, we have the suspicion that when someone is murdered in a foreign country we ought to pay special attention to the tribal affiliations of the victim and killer, although in Death in Venice the killer was cholera, and not someone with a knife or gun. The point is that death on holiday attracts attention.
First, we all take or dream of taking holidays to foreign lands. The attraction of such a holiday is to sit on a pristine, white sand beach with a tall drink capped with one of those little paper umbrellas. This is a time to sit back and relax, enjoy the breeze off the sea. If someone just like you—a respectable, hardworking middle-class person—opens a newspaper and reads about someone who resembles the details of your own life who was found with a knife in his back, you take that death more personally. That could have been you on the beach in France, Italy, Greece, Thailand or India, the kind of places you may have been to or intend to visit.
Second, like Mann's Death in Venice foretells, the police and government officials in countries, which promote the "tourist dream holiday" may be less than forthcoming when a foreigner is violently assaulted or killed. Such governments have a conflict of interest. They wish to be seen as a country that administers a system of criminal justice that is worthy of respect internationally. No country's police force or judicial system is happy to suddenly have an international spotlight placed on an investigation into the death or severe beating of a foreigner. The relevant embassy makes phone calls to important officials, the victim's relatives and local MPs to make certain that the embassy follows up on requests for information and evidence. Journalists from the victim's country show up and ask questions. Internet social sites buzz with fear and loathing.
In May, tourists arrivals here were up 66 percent compared with a year ago, and Thailand has the greatest gain in tourists of any country in Southeast Asia.
It all threatens to go slightly out of control, not to mention that the government of the place where the murder takes place has other worries. Their officials (like in Death
in Venice) worry about a dip in the tourist numbers and the impact that would have on jobs and hotel vacancies, along with the general knock-on effect as less revenue circulates in the holiday centers. Tourist centers are full of voters. The heat from abroad is hot but never so hot as the blast of heat that comes from disgruntled voters.
I raise the issue as resort centers, such as Pattaya and Phuket, have recently been in the news for locales where foreigners have been mugged, raped, assaulted or murdered. The foreign press doesn't always distinguish between the cases of tourists versus expats. Perhaps they shouldn't, although a case can be made that an expat who lives in another country (as opposed to someone visiting on a short holiday) ought to have better information and more experience with local people, customs, and culture and are able to steer clear of trouble with greater ease. Anyone who has known a cross-section of expats will find a number who go out of their way to expose themselves to risk of assault or murder because of their own involvement in criminal activity. In such a case, the heat dies down as the murder victim tumbles from the innocent mirror image of you going on that holiday to Thailand to someone likely involved in a criminal enterprise. Of course, tourists get themselves into trouble, too…

The pressure of bad publicity is deflected when the suspected killers are themselves foreigners. There's evidence that the Swedish man killed in Phuket on that Monday was murdered by two Swedish nationals who were subsequently arrested by the authorities in connection with the killing, according to news accounts.
In other words, if someone is killed in an exotic land by someone from their own country, it has a different emotional impact on potential tourists considering their holiday plans. It seems that the real fear isn't just being murdered; it's by being killed by a foreigner in a distant land. Being killed by someone of your own nationality seems business as usual. Being killed by someone else's nationals, well, that is bad for business, especially if they are locals, as these are the happy people in the travel brochure who convinced you that this holiday location was an ideal place to relax (as opposed to getting yourself killed). Why we mentally categorize the killings by whether they are within the tribe or by someone outside is an evolutionary question scientist may figure out one day. Until then, tourists continue to have a greater
reaction to and feel more fear when the killing of a foreigner occurs, especially a tourist, in a foreign land by a local.
The tragedies that governments are more likely to avoid calling attention to often involve issues of lack of training, inattentiveness, shoddy maintenance, lax health standards, lack of control on how food or domestic animals are brought to market, and generally reckless behavior. These categories cover the ferryboats that sink, the planes that crash, the trains that derail, car crashes, epidemics, viral infections, extreme weather and pollution-related diseases.
Unlike a murder, death from these non-murder-type causes also make the headlines around the world and, if the scale is sufficient, will also disturb the tourism business. Conversely, when the tsunami struck Thailand in 2005, thousands of people were killed, including thousands of foreign tourists, but the tourism business did not spend years in decline as a consequence.
The reason the tsunami, far more powerful and damaging than an isolated murder, is less disruptive is simple. Foreigners don't blame the locals for the death of their loved ones as a result of natural disasters. If anything, the foreigners felt admiration for the efforts launched by the Thai government to recover bodies, inform loved ones, and provide information and comfort to the survivors. But one murder is enough to cause a potential tourist to sit back and have that moment of doubt: should I change that trip to Thailand or Mexico or Sri Lanka because a tourist was shot and the police and government don't seem all that keen on doing anything about it? What hardly matters is whether the police or local officials are working around the clock on the case; it is the perception that someone from their country has been murdered and the police haven't arrested anyone.
Putting international pressure on local police in exotic locations can also backfire. They may pick out a scapegoat and pin the murder on him or her. The suspect is videoed reenacting the crime. It all looks so real. But real or not, it will have the desired effect—it reassures the foreigners about the efficiency and diligence of the authorities to deal with such cases. That gives a feeling of deterrence, and that is enough to erase that tiny bit of doubt about your holiday plans. However, what is good for your psyche isn't necessarily good for the poor cutout who is frog marched off to prison.
The next time you read about a tourist murdered in a remote, exotic place, ask yourself not whether you should cancel your holiday to that place, but whether, on balance, you are genuinely at any greater risk of being murdered on vacation than you are in being killed in a car crash on the way to the airport. If you do the math, in most instances, the most dangerous part of your holiday will He on the road to and from your local airport. Also, if you run the math on the relationship between murder victim and killer, in the majority of cases they know each other. They are members of the same tribe. On that next holiday, it would be wise to watch the road to the airport carefully, and when you check into that hotel in an exotic land, keep an eye on members of your fellow tribe. Because, statistically, that's where your greatest danger of being murdered lies.

From: Faking It in Bangkok, Haven Lake Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Christopher G. Moore.


Razor's Edge

Razor’s Hedge, Introduction
img008Most employment experts suggest putting a professional “summary” at the start of one's resumé or CV. I think mine describes me quite well.
The majority of my professional life has been associated with the military/security industry. I have had extensive local and international experience, dealing with multi-national, high-profile clients. I have strong management and training skills, and continue to be very much involved operationally.
This means I prefer to spend at least part of my time in the fìeld “doing” as well as planning, managing and training others to do - important as that is. But what have I been doing? There are a few questions one might ask. Am I a mercenary? Am I a security consultant? Am I a private military contractor? Am I a freelancer, or, as they sometimes say today, a deniable? Am I a bit of all of them, perhaps? Decide for yourself as you read on. Personally, I am not sure the question really needs an answer, or that an answer is really relevant.
See the movie
The Wild Geese. This first-rate film is loosely based on the career of Major “Mad” Mike Hoare and events in the Congo in 1964 and 1965. This is a good film, but also one with lessons. The lead character, played by Richard Burton, and the other main and supporting characters, are soldiers for ‘hire’ - and for a lot more money than they earned in the military. The soldiers Burton and his men are fighting against are brutal and murderous, seemingly more interested in serving their commanders and their own privileges than in serving their people. Burton and his men are working to rescue a democratic leader. So who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys?
Is soldiering for pay, by definition, bad if you do it for another government? But is it no problem if you do it for your own government? Is regular military service a good thing if it is for a bad cause?
Reading this book, you are going to realize that I did not always use good judgment - no one always uses good judgment. But I like to think that at least, as to goals, if not always methods to reach the goals, I was ethical, or at least tried to be. One lesson I learned is that the ethical way tends to be the more practical way. Rough methods, to put it mildly, may be necessary - but be very careful. Ends only rarely justify the means. Doing a small bad for a big good only rarely works.
Whatever I am, I joined a long tradition.
Probably the first work of serious military history was
The Anabasis — at least after the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Anabasis by Xenophon tells of the adventures, or misadventures, of a force of Greek mercenaries trying to get home from Persia. Xenophon and his men get caught up in and end up on the wrong side of Persian politics. Their leader was betrayed and murdered.
Xenophon was one of those who took over and had to get his men home. Getting home from a war has been a classic plot element since The Odyssey. Cave men probably sat around the fire telling tales of how they returned from some adventure. It still appears in such books as
Star Rangers, the classic science fiction novel by Andre Norton, heavily adapted from The Anabasis.
The tradition hiring outside soldiers continued. The Roman army hired auxiliary troops, recruiting them directly or through local chiefs. Most of these troops were non-Roman citizen residents of the empire, or of friendly barbarian tribes. The auxiliaries were first hired to bring skills in that the Roman army was short of, in particular, cavalry. However, the Romans probably had no conception of deniability, at least in dealing with other nations. They wanted people to know about their power. In the Middle Ages, in a transition time between feudal armies raised by the local lords, and varying mixes of professional and draft armies, kings sometimes relied on mercenaries when they could not afford to keep a regular army.
During the American War of Independence, both sides used American Indian allies to attack the other side, even civilians supporting the other side, often brutally. The British government most famously used troops hired from the ruler of the German kingdom of Hesse - the infamous Hessians. About one quarter of the British combat troops in that war were Hessians. Not so infamous in ali cases, it seems, as many of them stayed in America after the war ended - roughly 5,000 of the roughly 30,000 who served.
The young French aristocrat, the Marquis de Lafayette, ended up commanding troops in George Washington’s army. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer, showed up claiming to have been a general under Frederick the Great. He was a bit of a con man - he had not been a general, maybe not even an officer, and the “von” marking Prussian nobility was questionable - but this con man delivered what he promised, professional quality training to American troops, and contributed to the birth of the United States.
Things have changed since World War Two. The concept of “deniability” has always existed, particularly with spies and other secret agents. During the Cold War, a country, particularly a major power, did not want to have its 'signature' on a military operation. One example is the British/French/Israeli actions, which managed to tie down thousands of Egyptian troops in Yemen, with only about 100 men in the early 1960s. The American involvement against the Soviets in Afghanistan after 1979 was much the same. But, this time, the deniable third parties were the Afghan rebels. This is also a good example of the need to stick around after the job is done, and of the need to control those working for you. Neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989 left a power vacuum and is credited with helping to set the scene for the Taliban to come to power, and all that followed. Afghanistan is a complex situation, not solved as of this writing -the end of 2010.
Deniability can be clearly defined when we use the dictionary. However, in reality, it is massaged into any given situation, with no clear answers. It is used in such a way that those asking the questions are confused and frustrated with the lack of progress in attempting to find the 'truth'.
'Watergate' is one of those very public good examples of deniability. (From the Nixon Administration point of view, the best thing to do might have been to keep denying - and not plot a cover up while you knew you were being recorded.) For many of you who have 'normal' jobs, when such news hits the TV screen, it is hard to believe what you are hearing. It's probably a good thing that you really don't know the 'facts'.
There have been occasions in the past, when I did ‘contract’ work for certain parties. It was always made very clear from the onset that, if things went bad, I was on my own. In other words, they would deny that they had any part to play in what I had done. They would deny that the action ever existed. They would not, under any circumstance, step forward.
When I went before the courts on a particular occasion, an Australian Federal Police officer who was going to address the court advised me, “Don’t get upset with me; I'm going to tell them that you are a ‘Walter Mitty’. If they accept that you are, you will get a lighter sentence.”
(Walter Mitty, from the James Thurber story, was a man noted for heroic daydreams, while leaving a mundane life.)
As it turned out, the officer was right. In short, deniability is stamped on both sides of the coin, and things really depend on what side of the coin you are on.
Private military contracting, like normal ‘public sector’ warfare, requires understanding and proper response to the context. It requires command and control, and taking responsibility, even if not publicly, for results. It requires thinking about all the consequences and, since you cannot anticipate every consequence, monitoring for the almost inevitable unexpected results...
The debate over the private military contractor, PMC, seems to be one of who does the job best. But it should also be expanded to one of control - see just above. Governments are responsible for seeing that such jobs get done, whomever they choose to do the job. The control may not be perfect. The Iraq War has produced incidents of PMCs going way overboard, and some Coalition troops, crossing the line. In defense of whatever the allegations were, or maybe in the future - only those 'on the ground' truly know what actually happened.
PMCs are likely to continue to be a fact of life, as long as there are wars to be fought and governments seek the cover of ‘deniability’. Look at the recent Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker. In one scene, the American unit on which the story centers runs into what they think is a group of Arabs in the desert. They turn out to be British personnel - probably PMCs. (My guess; as was portrayed in the movie, and the kit they had, they were ‘22’ boys!)...
We have to be sure that PMCs are used in the proper context. That whatever the task, it falls within the legal frame work that has been sanctioned by the government. They must be willing to take the ultimate responsibility for the PMCs actions. When all is said and done, let them get on with doing what they are trained to do. Be there to oversee, but don't interfere. Because the job of government is to ensure that things are done by the most efficient and effective means possible - private sector or government.
P1060970… Some of you may think I'm a ‘nutter’. I hope that there are some out there who can read between the lines and see what I am really saying.
At the very least, I hope it creates the opportunity for you to put yourself in just one of these places, when it was at its worst, and try to imagine how you would not only survive, but how you would adjust when you came home. Take some time out, and put yourself there!
But enough philosophy - travel with me on Razors’ quest to fìnd himself.

Ruins and demons of the Khmer high life

“It’s better not to go into certain old houses; they are haunted”. So says the learned Frenchman studying the ruins of the Kep villas, a village on the Cambodian coast hemmed in between forest-covered hills, palm tree-fringed beaches and swamps. The fences no longer keep any one out. The newer, painted walls surround empty spaces, where even the ruins have been demolished to make way for new building land. Among tall palm trees, thick bushes and canes appear unsettling, gaping geometric constructions: a post-modern Angkor, where vegetation, climbing roots and India-rubber trees cover and devour the walls, framing the gaps of former windows, drawing metaphysical designs on the walls on which mouldy greens and yellows have stained what is left of the blue, ochre and pink decorations beneath.


The traces of colour, the latent forms, fragments of multi-coloured tiles, a staircase leading nowhere like a metaphysical architecture painting from the past.



In the ’20s Kep was “The Jewel of the Côte d’Agathe”, one of the French colonial administration’s favourite destinations. Following independence, in the ’50s and ’60s, Prince Norodom Sihanouk wanted to make it into the Saint-Tropez of South East Asia, the jet-setting haunt of the new elite of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or “Popular Socialist Community”. Sihanouk’s movement combined elements of socialism, nationalism, conservatism, Buddhism and populism, almost a precursor for the “illuminated dictatorships” of contemporary Asia. Cultural eclecticism, as seen in the Sangkum modernism of the New Khmer Architecture, combined the style practiced at that time in Europe by Le Corbusier and a reworking of ancient Khmer forms, under the banner of a primitive functionalism to adapt to climate and territory. The master of this style was Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, behind the Phnom Penh stadium, who created some of his most interesting work in Kep province. Another key figure in the movement was Frenchman Roger Colne, who designed the Kep casino.
The Saint Tropez of the Gulf of Thailand was canonised in one of the films produced and directed by and starring Prince Sihanouk. Kep became the showcase of a new Cambodia: cultured, wealthy, refined, and apparently far from the war in Indochina.
The title of that film, Crepuscule, anticipates the dark years to come. In March 1970 General Lon Nol, backed by the United States, deposed Sihanouk and Cambodia entered the Great Game of war. This in turn strengthened the movement of the Khmer Rouge. On 31st May of that year, the architect Colne was killed in an ambush by Pol Pot’s followers while travelling in the Kep province with a group of journalists. His body has never been found. Hell was unleashed in Cambodia: Lon Nol’s dictatorship, those “3 years, 8 months, 20 days” of horror of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invasion (or liberation), the civil war.
During those years, the Kep villas were at the heart of the battlefield. In reality, despite the bullet holes of all sizes in the walls and the stories, now recited parrot-fashion by the locals, the clashes that occurred here were limited. The Khmer Rouge never destroyed Kep’s modernist villas with the same determination they gave to colonial buildings. Perhaps because these pared-down, functional concrete blocks were reminiscent of others in the Soviet Union. Perhaps because, unconsciously, they felt their Khmer spirit. Perhaps because they just didn’t understand them. So how did they end up looking this way? “The good old technique of vampirization”, says the Frenchman, who has studied them. For the local population they provided a reserve of all sorts of materials, especially in the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, when people were dying of poverty and anything could mean the difference between life and death.
In those years, the casino was first converted into a market, then a stable, then a stable and latrine for a mini slum that had grown up all around. Tangled roots now grow on what used to be the corniche and the interior. The present is much more visible now: huts lean against the ruins or on top of what is left of the floor of an entrance hall, cows drink from the puddles leaking out of cisterns adjacent to what must have been a bathroom. One of the few buildings still intact belonged to Sihanouk’s mother, Princess Sisowath Kossamak Nearireath. Now it’s a tourist attraction. The one dollar entrance fee is collected by a guardian sporting a kind of military uniform who tells that in 1982 the palace was at the centre of a battle between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge fighters. A regular face is local guide Mr Oeu. He says that as a child he lived nearby and saw Sihanouk’s children playing, but never dared approach them. Beyond the walls, the house is a mere shell: only an elegant spiral staircase to the first floor still stands. From the terrace you can see the long concrete structure where the Princess Mother embarked on trips to the islands off Kep. The back of the house is half destroyed, of the kitchen only a wall remains blackened by the fires lit for cooking: the place’s function is the same, the methods and equipment have changed.
“It feels like these buildings are weeping”, says the Frenchman. And the ghosts of the villas’ former occupants feed on this pain. In the magical Khmer world, arb, or demons, are an immanent presence in nature. They manifest themselves at night, when they go on the prowl for human beings to suck their blood or devour them. In their metamorphosis into a portal to an occult world, the ruins of Kep, like those of Angkor, become that space-time machine described by French anthropologist Marc Augé in
Time in Ruins: they reveal a sense of a time that does not feature in the history books. A pure time, with no fixed dates, absent from our world of images, effigies and reconstructions, from our violent world whose rubble no longer has the time to turn to ruins. “The rubble accumulated by recent history and the ruins creating out of the past do not resemble one another. There is a big difference between the historical time of destruction, which reveals the folly of history, and pure time, time in ruin, the ruins of time that has lost history and that history has lost”.
This lost time is recreated by talking about it and talking of the meaning of life on the sea shore, opposite
Knai Bang Chatt, a boutique hotel built on the ruins of a ’70s villa designed by one of Le Corbusier’s pupils. It’s not down to the restoration, which is good, but to the implied idea of luxury and escapism, the mental dimension where we continue to seek refuge.
“If you want to die looking at the sea, then look at the forest”, says the hotel’s owner. In Kep, the desire to flee one’s demons is fierce.

Bangkok Noir

Behind the Thai smile and the gracefully executed wai, in the near distance is another realm: the geography of conflict, personal grudges, anger, revenge, disappearance and violence. Where loss of face, personal rivalry and competition for power often have fatal consequences. The risk of danger, like an irregular heartbeat, is unpredictable. Most of time the danger is out of sight, out of mind. But when it unexpectedly explodes, the victim goes down hard and doesn’t get up.
Glide along the daylight surface of Bangkok, and the gritty world of noir often seems light years away. The surface is polite, pleasurable and fun -
sanuk. But dig deeper below the sanuk layer, and the tropical paradise reveals a far colder, damp darkness of lost souls - souls stranded, battered and estranged, Writers are often among the first to kick over that noir rock, and their readers watch as the spiders, scorpions and cockroaches scatter in all directions.
The dozen authors in
Bangkok Noir lever their collective boot to that stone in the heart of the City of Angels. Hints of noir appear like blimps on the Bangkok radar screen. The members of local charities who cruise around in vans to collect the dead and injured are called body snatchers. Newspapers announce the latest official crackdowns, which in the past have been directed at bar closing hours, abortion clinics, car thieves, hired gunmen, speeders and underground lotteries. And whispers posted on the social networks speak of unofficial shakedowns. At every turn there is a new noir-like incident, such as the Bangkok temple morgue, found to contain two thousand aborted fetuses. Art follows such dark spaces of human activity. Already a horror movie about the morgue is in the works for 2011, titled 2002 Baby Ghosts. Noir in Bangkok happens fast. The subject of noir is often taken from the latest headlines of the Bangkok Post or The Nation. And of course the noir history of past coups looms, casting a long black shadow that feeds the fear of future coups.
The potential list of subjects is long, but the stories in this collection will give more than a few insights into the Thai noir world. The idea of the national sport, Muay Thai - a combination of ballet, boxing, kicking and kneeing - is pure noir. That’s the idea of
sanuk dipped in bruises and blood. Muay Thai may be closer to assassination than normal boxing. Whatever it is (or isn’t), Muay Thai is the sport of noir. With ancient rituals and music the fighters perform before a huge, cigar smoking, game fixing, betting crowd, where gangsters, fraudsters, boiler room operators, bar owner and crooked cops and officials, wearing gold chains and amulets, gather. The kind of men who know each other’s birthdays and what’s expected in terms of keeping the wheels greased. Men and women with advance knowledge of who is going to win before the fight starts.
There is no consensus on the definition of “noir” that covers all cultures. Writers don’t agree on one version of noir, and photographers and painters translate noir into their image of darkness. Slowly, a general idea of noir in Bangkok has emerged over the last ten years. The foreign and Thai artistic noir movement has been growing during this period.
BangkokNoirRalf Tooten, an award-winning photographer, has captured Bangkok noir in his photographs (on of which graces the cover of this book).
Asoke_Corner_Beer_BarThe artist Chris Coles has painted the faces of men and women who move through the Bangkok underworld. The authors represented in this anthology, foreigners and Thais, have contributed stories that create powerful images, bringing the Bangkok noir movement another step forward. Thais and foreigners live together inside the world of noir. These stories record their experience of Bangkok’s dark side.
Bangkok Noir contains twelve short stories by professional authors who have developed an international reputation for their writing about life in Asia. Not all of the writers in this collection are crime writers or even, normally, writers of fiction. What unites them is their knowledge of Bangkok, their depth of cultural understanding and their love of storytelling. As a group they are professional authors whose books are published in many countries and languages. You will find a diversity of original voices and perceptions of noir - as well as various approaches to tone, structure and characterization - in these deeply felt, insightful and thought-provoking tales. This volume is special for another reason: it is the first time that foreign and Thai professional writers have combined their visions of Bangkok within a single volume.
I opened this introduction with a comment about the ambiguity of noir as a concept. It is worth noting some basic background. “Noir” is the French word for black or dark. The French used the term to describe certain dark films portraying characters doomed by the hand of fate. Appropriated years ago by Anglo-Saxon critics and authors, the word “noir” in English has been used to describe a certain category of crime fiction. American authors like Thompson, Willeford, Goodis and Caine made a reputation selling a bleak, nihilistic vision of life. The contemporary notion of noir, traceable to the original French idea, is based on an existential space where the characters find themselves caught without the possibility of redemption. Noir fiction chronicles a world where a person’s fate is sealed by a larger and more powerful karma, one from which, despite all efforts, they can’t break free. The stories in this collection are in the tradition of past noir authors who were masters at leading characters onto the platform, slipping the noose around their necks and springing open the trap door.
What Westerners call a fatalistic vision of life, in Asia often passes as karma. All of those good and bad deeds from your past life work themselves out in the streets, bars and back alleys of this life, and there’s not much room for free will inside this concept of a universe where payback awaits in the next life.
With this anthology this group of authors, known for their writings about Thailand, have put their creative talent to the task of showing that noir is geographically unbounded. If noir is looking a little tired in the West, in Thailand it has all the energy and courage of a kid from upcountry who thinks the Khmer tattoos on his body will stop bullets. Dark stories, like a good
som tum, need the right number of red hot peppers to press the pain and pleasure buttons, and when a noir writer runs short of hot peppers, he throws in a Thai dame (she may be a ghost), knowing she can drive any man to ruin with the flash of her smile.
What makes
Bangkok Noir different from, say, American, English or Canadian noir? There’s no easy answer. But a stab in the heart of noir darkness suggests that while many Thais embrace the materialistic aspects of modern Western life, the spiritual and sacred side draws upon Thai myth, legends and customs, and remains resistant to the imported mythology structure of the West. In the tension between the show of gold, the Benz, the foreign trips and designer clothes, and the underlying belief system creates an atmosphere that stretches people between opposite poles. I like to think of noir as the by-product of the contradictions and the delusions that condemn people to live without hope of resolving contradictions. No matter how hard they struggle, they can never break free.
Take a late night walk through some poor neighborhoods in Bangkok. Hear the
soi dogs howling as the angry ghosts launch themselves through the night, and observe that modern possessions don't stop the owners from making offering to such spirits. In the slum life is short and cheap, and it's a tough life filled with uncertainty and doubt. But noir isn't just about the poor or dispossessed. The rich occupy their expensive condos and drive their luxury cars, sheltering inside the circles of influence and power, only they, too, like the poor, can find their world overturned by an accident of fate, stripping them of their safety and exposing them to terror and loss.
No one is going to provide a definition of "noir" that satisfies everyone. Critics and writers try to distinguish hard-boiled fiction from noir fiction. Strip away the fancy stuff and it comes down to nothing more than this: the difference between hard-boiled and noir is the difference between hemorrhoids and cancer, Hard-boiled stories make for uncomfortable reading, but you know somehow there's the possibility of hope at the end (no puns are allowed in noir). Noir is black in the way certain death is black. No redemption, no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.
Tough guys, players, losers, the tormented and lost souls all appear in
Bangkok Noir. But the heart of Bangkok Noir is the existential doubts that haunt the characters. Many of them are expatriates washed up like pilot whales on the shore, thinking that someone is going to save them. Instead they get rolled over, sliced up and processed as another part of the food chain. The heat, the corruption, the lies and double-crosses, the bars and the short-time hotel conspire to lull, entrap, encircle and finish off anyone who betrays the system.
In Bangkok there is an old trail that leads through a thicket of historical noir cases told by Thai storytellers of the past. Books and TV shows have created a mini-industry around the likes of See Ouey, the Chinese-Thai cannibal executed in the 1950s for murdering half a dozen young children. His preserved body is exhibited like a ghoulish alien creature inside a see-through display case at the Forensic Museum. Another noir celebrity is the ill-fated Jim Thompson, not the noir writer, but the American (rumored to be a CIA agent) who reintroduced silk-making into Thailand and who mysteriously disappeared on a walk in the Malaysian jungle. His body was never found.
This anthology of contemporary stories weaves a pattern of intrigue and mystery where the living and the dead occupy the same space. Crooked lawyers, crooked cops, transsexuals, minor wives, killers and ghosts take you along for a tour that unlocks the space where Thais and foreigners work, live, play and die together. The only mystery not uncovered by the writers in this collection is why it has taken sol long for a volume of
Bangkok Noir to appear.

From: “bangkok noir” edited by Christopher G. Moore. Reprinted with permission of Haven Lake Press.

Burma Boxing

“There have been five deaths since I’ve been a coach”
“How long have you been a coach?”
“Three years”.
U Kyaw Win is a coach at the Myanma Traditional Boxing Club, a shed converted to a gym on the outskirts of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, formally known as Burma. If we calculate that matches are held once a month, that no matches take place during the rainy season (May to October), and that many fighters give up boxing due to the injuries incurred during their first fight, you will get an idea of the violence of myanma let-hwei, Burmese boxing.
Very similar to the better known muay thai, Thai boxing, both sports date back to around 2300 years ago, to the time when people from southern China were migrating south. Forced to face hostile ethnic groups along the way, they developed a form of combat that used any part of the body to attack and defend: feet, teeth, fists, knees, elbows, even the head. As the generations passed, muay thai lost many of its more extreme components, now focusing on the athletic side of the sport. Burmese boxing, on the other hand, has retained many of its tribal, ferocious elements. Boxers fight bare-handed and almost any kind of strike is allowed, on almost any target, with the exception of the eyes and the testicles. The head may be used and flying kicks can be hurled at the neck. The most violent and most dangerous strikes involve the knee hitting the face, gripping the adversary by the back of the neck, and the elbow hitting the throat, the face or the upper spinal column. Punches are considered the least effective, while kicks to the legs are used mainly to weaken the adversary’s resistance. As they say, “A fighter who cannot stand cannot fight”.
Most matches are held during paya pwe, the pagodas festival, in a makeshift ring with earth on the ground. There is no time limit, no allowance for differences in weight or age, and adversaries often fight to solve personal disputes. There is no medical assistance, only a priest of the Nat, the Spirits that oversee all human activity and nature. National fights do have regulations, however, especially those held in the park around Kan Daw Gyi, the Yangon lake, in the shadow of the Shwedagon pagoda. Adversaries fight in a ring measuring 19 feet by 18. Matches are divided into 5 rounds each lasting 3 minutes and fighters can request a break in the first 4. Boxers have to belong more or less to the same category and first aid is on hand.
Fights almost always end in a draw or a knockout. Even those that, according to western or muay thai rules, would be a points victory for one or the other fighter.
“It doesn’t matter if you get beaten up. What counts is courage, strength and the ability to withstand pain”, explains U Kyaw Win. On the contrary, “those who are afraid and avoid fighting, are declared the losers after three being given warnings”.
Courage and pain provide the only possibility of earning anything. There is no prize money up for grabs; boxers have to earn donations from the spectators, who reward the best and encourage the man they have bet on. To demonstrate their indifference to pain, many face their adversary with their arms open, ready to be hit to show their courage. To ask for the strength to withstand the pain and take the hits, many tattoo their legs and chest with propitiatory statements and pay homage to Khun Tho and Khun Co, the Nat spirits of myanma let-hwei, before the match.


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Cities of the Apocalypse

The term ‘post‐traumatic’ refers to the evidence of the aftermath – the remains of an event that are missing. The spaces around this blind spot record the impression of the event like a scar.
How does a system make sense of an experience that exceeds its capacity for integration? Since recognition is only ever retroactive, the process of reintegrating the event, of sense making, begins when we start to sift through the evidence, to build a plausible story, to construct a narrative and develop the coordinates of a new experiential landscape. Slowly repetition returns to weave its supportive tissue, and new futures come to replace old ones.
Trauma is the drama in which both history and the future are at stake, held in a suspended crisis; the cards have been thrown up in the air but they have not yet landed. Trauma stages the point at which the system must re‐imagine itself or perish.
Another term can be introduced to account for the possibility of action in this context: ‘resilience’. If the twin poles of continuity/repetition and discontinuity/trauma form two asymptotic tendencies, resilience describes the ability to move between them. Resilience is the ability of a system to recover after it has absorbed some shock. Recovery, however, is never a simple return to its previous state of periodic repetition. After absorbing a shock, the resilient system creatively explores and trials new forms of stability. Some form of continuity is central here (we must reiterate our distance from the idea of a tabula rasa). Resilience is never a return, but it is never quite a full break either; though it leaps over interruption, it carries with it the continuity of a historical charge that lends it adaptive strength.
We are now in a position to give a provisional answer to the question that was asked earlier; what new demands would be made of urbanism by raising it alongside the term trauma? To begin with it would mean augmenting design discourse focused on optimisation with ideas that are calibrated to crisis, such as adaptation and resilience. A resilient city is one that has evolved in an unstable environment and developed adaptations to deal with uncertainty. Typically these adaptations take the form of slack and redundancy in its networks. Diversity and distribution be they spatial, economic, social or infrastructural will be valued more highly than centralised efficiency.
The post‐traumatic city challenges all cybernetic theories of information flow and computation since it argues that these apparatuses of knowledge and calculation always imply the coexistence of blind spots, especially for the hubristic application of quantitative methods to qualitative domains. Further, the pre‐emptive, the pre‐traumatic and the post‐traumatic are nothing less than the invention of new and highly complex scales and temporalities, where past and future durations intermingle and where short instantaneous traumas (violence, conflict) nest within glacial ones (climate change, environmental degradation).
Finally, post‐traumatic urbanism suggests that we know most about something when it breaks down, when it withdraws its invisible support and enters into the domain of all those things that can be interrupted, threatened and destroyed.

Four Friends at the Bar

An extract from chapter 4 of Ron Chepesiuk’s book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.
With the kind authorisation of Strategic Media Inc.
It’s a minor scene is a much more complex story. But it gives an insight into how Bangkok entertainment scene was at that time.
The scene features some key figures. William Herman Jackson, the Jack mentioned in the bar’s name, a former comrade-in-arms of Atkinson, his business partner and the one that convinced him to move the nerve-centre of the business to Bangkok. James Warren Smedley, another former soldier, was the manager of Jack’s bar and an important member of Ike’s gang. Last but not least (by any means), Luchai "Chai" Ruviwat, a Sino-Thai businessman. He often appears as a shadowy figure, described by some as “a ghost”, but he was perhaps the key figure that made the heroin trade possible between the Golden Triangle and Bangkok. In this extract they appear as “four friends at the bar”.

The Bangkok entertainment scene reflected the tense racial situation in America and Vietnam at the time. Whites and Blacks tended to hang out at bars whose clientele was drawn predominantly from their own race. “The bars were strictly segregated by music,” recalled Pete Davis, a retired Black DEA agent who came to Bangkok in 1971 to work. “You would have country music in one bar and soul music in another. If you were Black and wanted to go into a country music bar, even the girls would give you attitude. They would look at you as if to say –what are you doing here?”

The segregation could lead to racial tension, especially over Thai women. “Many Thais considered any Thai woman who went with an american GI, Black or White, to be a whore,” said Steve Jarrell, a former U.S. airman stationed at Utapao Air Force Base at Sattahip in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “But those same Thai women who went with White GIs held their noses up when they saw Thai girls with Black GIs. The vice versa was also true. So the Thai women were as segregated as the American GIs.”

But few bars in Bangkok catered exclusively to Black GIs. Soul Sister was a big place with a live band and a coffee shop upstairs. The Whiskey Jazz also had two floors but it was small. La Fee’s had become one of the more popular places, but it too sometimes gave patrons the feeling of being packed in a sardine can. Jack and Chai recognized a business opportunity and they renovated a building on Petchaburi Road and opened it as a bar in June 1967. To massage Jake’s ego, the bar was called Jack’s American Star Bar. Both Ike and Jimmy Smedley became partners, with each of the four partners investing $8,000 in the venture. Ike became a silent partner and Jimmy Smedley worked as the manager, a good fit despite Smedley’s fondness for alcohol, because everybody seemed to like the retired U.S. military man who always wore a nice smile.

Peter Finucane, a journalist with the Bangkok Post newspaper since 1967, remembers Smedley as a congenial man with a shoulder twitch and a pocked-marked face adorned with a permanent smile and lots of laugh lines. “Jimmy would sit at the bar facing the door so he could see everybody coming in,” Finucane recalled. “He always had a drink in his hand, and nobody could figure out what kind it was. He wouldn’t tell any one. It was like a classified military secret.”

Finucane and John McBeth, a friend and fellow journalist, were two of the few Whites who frequented the bar. “Sometimes we would get a little aggravation and a few stares,” Mc Beth explained “But Jimmy would always take care of us and seat us at the bar. He kind of presided over thing at Jack’s.” Smedley told everyone he met that the opening of Jack’s American Star Bar had given him a niche in life. No way would he ever go back to Saigon and exchange dollars for MPCs.

While Smedley played genial host, Luchai kept an eye out for potential trouble and hired the girls. It was a requirement to include a Thai partner in a business arrangement. The Thai partner, as was the case with Chai, would also have the local contacts and could serve as a buffer in case the partners had any problems with the authorities…

For Ike, the investment and money he made from Jack’s was pocket change, because he was still going full blast with the profitable MPC scam. Yet being a business partner gave him a legitimate reason –a front, if you will- for being in Bangkok…

Patrons of Jack’s American Star Bar would enter through a heavy creaking front door that had a large red tinsel star on the right. On the bar’s round floor was a dance area where Thai girls, some of them sporting elaborate afros, danced with Black male patron to the funky sounds of such popular tunes as “Funky Chicken,” “Rubber Legs” and “Mechanical Man.” Anybody could stand up and sing, if the had the desire or the nerve. “One of the funniest things I saw at Jack’s was a small Thai man who weighed about 90 pound, singing James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” Davis recalled. “He’d screech: ‘Hot Pant!’ And then shout: ‘Yeow!’ trying to imitate Brown.”

On the second floor was a restaurant with the best soul food east of Harem. A patron could feast on Bar B-Q ribs, pork chops, pig’s tail, feet and ears, chitterlings, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, grits and collared greens until the wee hours of the morning. Smedley would boast: “We sell everything on the pig from the tail to the ears”.

The partners would stock the liquor supply with booze purchased from the local U.S: Army PX. With Ike, Jack and Smedley being retired military, they could buy cheaply and in quantity and avoid the steep tax the Thais put on booze. They bought cigarettes and food items cheaply from the PX as well.The bar had no problem recruiting pretty young Thai girls or getting them to become part of an internal spy network that reported on what the GIs patrons were saying.

The Rime of the Esmeralda

About ten years ago, I was on my way out of a hotel in Santiago de Chile, when an old man asked me if I wanted to buy a model ship. It was a beautiful, four-masted schooner. Sleek and completely white. “Her name is Esmeralda. We called her the White Lady”, said the old man, who went on to boast that he had served on her crew. He was not charging much so I bought it. And carried it with me on my travels to Patagonia. “I’m on a voyage with Esmeralda”, I’d chuckle to myself.
Once I got back to Italy I set the model ship on my bookshelf. Then, when I moved to a smaller apartment, I had to store it under my bed, but I always meant to let her unfurl her sails again once I’d eventually got a bigger place. My umpteenth move took me and Esmeralda to the home of another former sailor, who, like any old sailor would, began searching for Esmeralda’s history.
And unfortunately he found it.
Esmeralda, a training ship for the Chilean Navy, entered service in 1954 and between 1973 and 1980, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was used as a floating jail and torture chamber. According to reports by Amnesty International, the US Senate and the Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least one hundred people became victims of the death cruises. It’s a story that came to be known as “the dark side of the White Lady”.
Esmeralda is still used today as a training ship. She also takes part in regattas and shows. She is much admired, but also contested as symbolising the impunity still enjoyed by many criminals of Pinochet’s regime.
After making this discovery I didn’t know what to do with my model Esmeralda. She seemed to be the materialisation of the vessel in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel T. Coleridge, a symbol of fear and disaster.
I wondered who the old sailor that sold it to me could have been or, worse, could have done. I began to think that evil could be passed on, like an infection, from men to ships, ships to men, men to model ships. And, finally, to me.
Should I keep it, as a personal object of meditation, a sign of the attention that should be paid in our every action, of the vital curiosity that leads us to search for the meaning of everything?
Or should I get rid of it, as a way of exorcising any evil it may hold within?
In the end I decided to let it go in the sea. I would swim far away from the shore and leave it out there, in the hope that that would somehow atone for the victims. That would also be in keeping with the spirit of the ship and purify it of the evil it had witnessed and been contaminated by.
And that’s what I did one beautiful September morning. The water was still warm but a sharp north-east wind was whipping up two-foot waves that broke against a barrier of rocks thirty or so yards off the shore. I swam beyond those rocks, pushing Esmeralda out in front of me as I went. When I thought I was far enough out, I let her go. She tipped to the left, showing her green keel, a little darker than the water. She was still beautiful, and quite at ease on the water. I watched as the current carried her quickly away from me. I turned back to shore and started swimming faster than usual, keeping my head underwater and trying to imagine the sea bed and its ghosts. When I stopped, she had disappeared from view behind the crest of the nearest wave.
As soon as I got back to the shore a kid came up to me. “Where’s your ship?” he asked.
“I let it go”.
“Because it was a bad ship”.
“But bad ships are black and have the skull and crossbones. Yours was all white”.
“It was still bad though”.
I didn’t think a kid with Captain Hook on his mind would understand the concept of karma or of cosmic order. Then I wondered whether I understood it myself. Whether, in the end, Esmeralda was innocent and I hadn’t been trying to get rid of something inside me, to wash it away in the sea water.
On a lookout above the sea the old sailor who had revealed the history of the Esmeralda was waiting for me. He had watched the model ship drift and eventually smash against a rock. I looked up the exact coordinates: 43°37’05.01” N and 13°32’02.73” E.
Sooner or later, in a few months maybe, when the water is cold and the sea calm, I might dive down to look for her. Perhaps I’ll find the answer to the voices troubling the Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing –
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the ocean doing?

War Dog

“Anybody on the wrong side of sixty who believes that he can contribute something by going to war in a helicopter gunship in one of the most remote corners of the globe has got to be a little crazy. Or he’s into what aficionados like to term ‘wacky backy’...” So writes Al J. Venter, quickly adding that, in his case, neither possibility is true. He is a war correspondent, as well as a documentary maker, writer and military strategist. He has covered many conflicts, well before turning sixty, chiefly in Africa and mostly alongside those mercenaries dubbed The Dogs of War by his old colleague, Frederick Forsyth. The extract below is taken from one of Vender’s books entitled War Dog. It is set in the summer of 2000, when Al was embedded with the mercenaries of Executive Outcomes who were fighting rebels attempting to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. He was flying in a Russian Mi-24 helicopter piloted by Neall Ellis, known as Nellis.
Some say that was a “just” war. But that’s not the point here. Once again, journalists are seen here living the life of travelling storytellers. Of those that make you want to keep on living. Even on the wrong side of sixty.


Nellis turned to me. “You got water ?” he asked while his eyes scanned a map on his desk. He did not see me nodding in reply.
“Something to eat?”
“We going out that long?” I asked.
“No, but you’ll need food in case we go down”
“All I have is a can of bully beef”.
He didn’t ansie.
The regular gang traveled light. Most times they didn’t take much of anything other than a singl bottle of water, whic was enough for a couple of hours of Flying. Somehow they just knew that they were going to get back, but then so does every aircrew in just about every war.
I was fractionally more skeptical. From day one, I never went up without a handful of water purifying tablets and my precious Shell Petroleum road map of sierra Leone which, word had it, the rebels also used for navigation, if it came to that, at least I’d know how to get to Guinea.
“Side arms?” Nellis quizzed the others with a studied air of disregard. Each member of the crew had an AK-47 as standard issue. For “luck” one of the gunners cradled a compact little Czech 9mm submachine gun. When dismantled, it could be ridde inside a car’s glove compartment.
The evening before, Hassan had given to me the rundown of what to expert should there the problems. Whatever happened, he tought, we’d have enough firepower to fight our way out of almost any mess. The problem was that the GPMGs we carried onboard, stacked under the seats of the main compartment behind the cockpit when not in use, were comparatively heavy as these things go. Their ammunition cases were in obtuse, sharp-edged wooden cases, whic would have made for awkward lugging in difficult terrainif we had to extricate ourselves from a dangerous situation on the ground in a hurry.
“If anything happens, you’ve got to help fight,” the lebanese gunner told me with a wry smile. There were no ifs or buts about it, he suggested almost as an afterthought. One time he joked that since I was a journalist, I needn’t worry: “Just show them your Press Card”, he chuckled.

From: “War Dog. Fighting Other People’s War. The Modern Mercenary in Combat” by Al J. Venter. Reprinted with permission of Casemate Publishers. Excerpts from page 25, 36-7.

Piracy Today

“Modern piracy has nothing in common with the pirates you see in the movies or read about in novels...”. This is the opening statement to John C. Payne’s paper entitled Piracy Today. Payne is a professional mariner who has spent thirty-five years on merchant ships and offshore oil industry vessels. He has also been on ships that were attacked by pirates and robbers in his long career.
The latter is a thorough analysis of the phenomenon of piracy: its history, evolution, the politics that help cause it, the means by which it might be put in check and a detailed report on the current situation. Payne takes us with him as he navigates these pirate-infested waters, of which he says: “Piracy ebbs and flows like the tide. It is a fluid, moving from one place to the next as social, political and economic unrest throws nations into chaos and creates an environment where piracy can flourish”.
As daily news reports will confirm, the most dangerous waters today are the ones surrounding the Horn of Africa, off the coast of Somalia. However, reports from the
Piracy Reporting Centre demonstrate that South-East Asia is also doing its part to keep its age-old tradition of piracy alive.
Courtesy of its publisher Sheridan House, here then is a substantial excerpt from a book dedicated precisely to piracy in Asia. It is interesting not only from a current affairs perspective; the information it contains also represents an opportunity to understand the history and culture surrounding the events occurring in that area.

With these excerpts, we inaugurate a new section of Bassifondi, a “Stories” section dedicated to narrative and reportage.

Prior to the rise of piracy in Somali waters and the Gulf of Aden, piracy in Asia was a major and longstanding problem. The hot zones were the Malacca Straits off Indonesia and in the South China Sea. The Malacca Straits are a narrow waterway about 550 miles in length and are the busiest sea route in the world, linking Europe to the major Asian exporting countries of Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Korea, and other emerging Asian economies.Approximately 50,000 ships pass through it each year, or roughly 600 per day. The strait carries 25 percent of world commerce and around half the world’s oil, or roughly eleven million barrels of oil per day! The thousands of nearby islands and many rivers that empty in to the straits create an ideal place for pirates to hide.
The Malacca Straits were once home to the infamous Bugis pirates, who came from South Sulawesi. The word bogeyman (Bugisman) derives from the Bugis. Evidently, British mothersin Singapore used to frighten mischievous children into behaving correctly by saying, “Watch out or the bogeyman will get you!” The orang laut pirates also operated in the area, along with the Malay and Sea Dayak pirates from Borneo. in July 2009, a German treasure hunter and diver recovered around $ 12 million from the sunken pirate ship
Forbes off the Borneo coast. The ship sank in 1806. The booty totaled about 1.5 tons of silver coins, porcelain, gold jewelry, and many other items.
The piracy problem in the Malacca Straits created quite a fuss, which isn’t surprising given the vital importance of these waters. As the attacks ramped up in recent years, the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia took decisive action, sending naval vessels and aircraft to aggressively patrol the area. Thailand also joined the patrol program, and provided cover for the northern part of the straits and out into the Andaman Sea. The coordinated air and sea patrols significantly reduced the number of pirate attacks, most notably near Aceh, in Indonesia. The tsunami that devastated the area in December 2004 also reduced the number of pirate attacks, killing many pirates and destroying their boats.
The waters around the Philippines in the South China Sea have always been a traditional haven for pirates. However, as with the Malacca Straits, increased air and sea patrol has markedly decreased the number of pirate attacks...
The most notorious areas in the Asian region are said to be the ports, islands, and anchorages off Indonesia, India, and Vietnam. Between 1980 and 1985, the United Nations reported that pirates has raped an estimated 2,283 women and had kidnapped 592 people, preying upon the Vietnamese boat people that were headed south at that time.
In 2005, Lloyd’s of London listed the Malacca Straits as the world’s leading piracy hot zone, whic resulted in the levying of large insurance premiums amounting to one percent of the value of any cargo transiting the straits. Obviously, the move fanned controversy and anger among shipping companies. Patrols were increased in 2006 as attacks soared both in the Malacca Straits and near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. At this time, the pirates were also becoming more sophisticated and arming themselves with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. in August 2006, following a marked decrease in the number of pirate attacks, Lloyd’s removed the region from its war-risk insurance category...
However, there are fears in the region that an increase in pirate activity is possible due to the global economic crisis. It was stated that joint counter-piracy operations would continue between Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore. During the 1997 economic crisis piracy spiraled within the straits.
By the end of June 2009, matters began to change, While any incidents that did occur generally involved robbing ships at anchor, there was a slight increase in incidents that occurred when ships were under way in the Malacca Straitsand in the South China Sea. The theft of cash and personal property in these attacks shifted to somewhat more of an emphasis on stealing ship’s store and equipment. Attacks on tugs started to increase, and this was pronounced in Vietnamese waters, in particular at the anchorages of Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau. The level of violence also increased, with hostages being taken.

From Piracy Today: Fighting Villainy on the High Seas by John C. Payne. Copyright © 2010 by John C. Payne. Reprinted with permission of Sheridan House, Inc.