Hinduism is the oldest world religion. With 1.2 billion followers, it is the third largest after Christianity and Islam. Most Hindus live in the Indian subcontinent, where their faith began. the Hindu symbol (above) is the word ‘Aum’ in Devanagari script, ostensibly the sound uttered at the dawn of our world. 

Strictly speaking, Hinduism is not a single ‘religion’. It has no founder, doctrine, creed or holy book. Rather, ‘Hinduism’ is an umbrella term for spiritual traditions originating in South Asia. The faith includes hundreds of different sects, each with its own rituals and understanding of the world. What unites Hindus are common beliefs, these include:

  • Reincarnation (samsara) – you are reborn in another body when you die. The human soul (atman) is immortal. 
  • Karma – actions have consequences in this life and the next. 
  • Dharma – good karma is best attained by following one’s moral duty. Henotheism – collective atman, and the gods themselves, are manifestations of the ultimate reality (brahman). 

Buddhism and Jainism, which derrived from Hinduism, share belief in reincarnation and karma.

Mahatma Gandhi: 

“The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life (not only human beings, but all sentient beings) is one … coming from the One universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara.’ 

The Vedas are the oldest Hindu text. Written between 1200 – 800 BC, they introduce the earliest Hindu deities, especially Indra, god of rain, and hymns and chants in their honour. Hinduism grew out of the Vedic religion. 

Although lacking a single scripture, several ancient texts, written in Sanskrit, continue to influence Hindu thought: 

  • The Upanishads – basis of Hindu philosophy. 
  • The Puranas – myths, legends and cosmology. 
  • The Ramayana – an epic poem about Rama and Sita 
  • The Mahabharata – an epic poem 3x the length of the Bible. 
  • The Bhavagad Gita – a discourse between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna on ethics, morality and dharma. Part of the Mahabharata. 

The Trimurti are the three main gods of Hinduism. They are Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. As Brahma no longer intervenes in the world – his work being complete – only Vishnu and Shiva are actively worshipped; by Vaishnavis and Shaivites respectively. 

Vishnu incarnates into human form to restore the world’s balance in times of need, most famously as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. At the end of our age, Shiva will destroy the world, allowing its rebirth, and continuing a cycle which goes on forever.

The Caste System divides people into an ordained hierarchy based on birth, determining their work and who they can marry – one’s caste depends on karma attained in past lives. Before the modern era, those outside the system were ‘untouchable’, though the term dalit is now preferred. While the caste system arguably dates to Vedic times, it took its current form in the British Raj. 

Hinduism once dominated Southeast Asia, laying the foundations of Cambodian, Malay and Javanese civilisation. While most of Southeast Asia is now Muslim or Buddhist, it home to ruins of Hindu temples such as Angkor Wat. Hinduism still thrives on the island of Bali, Indonesia. In modern times, it spreads mainly through Indian migration. Hindus are a sizeable proportion of Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji. Mauritius is the only Hindu-majority country outside of Asia.

The authors of the Puranas reckoned the world was 4.32 billion years old, an estimate closer to that of modern science than any other tradition.

Sources: Mainly Rachel Dwyer – What do Hindus Believe? (2008)

Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. Theirs is among the most brutal regimes in history. In pursuit of a utopia, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people in four years through starvation, execution and forced labour – one-quarter of Cambodia’s population.  

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, or the ‘Communist Party of Kampuchea’, were middle-class, French-educated socialists inspired by Stalin and Chairman Mao. Pol Pot (below), or Brother Number One, operated from the shadows – until 1979 few even knew who he was. The Khmer Rouge saw Cambodia’s impoverished peasants as the only force free from the corruption of modern capitalist society, and the force they could harness to take control of the country. To eliminate inequality for good, Cambodian society needed to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up, by whatever means necessary.

Khmer Rouge: Cambodia's years of brutality - BBC News

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 under Norodom Sihanouk, who tried to play both sides of the Cold War. He called the guerrillas in the countryside ‘red Khmers’, and the name stuck.

In 1973, the Nixon Administration began bombing the jungles where the Viet Cong operated from across the border. That year, pro-American general Lon Nol took power in a coup. As, American bombs devastated the countryside, the peasants who lived there came to detest the government and its city-dwelling backers. 

Although both communists, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese did not see eye to eye. The North Vietnamese were aligned with Moscow and the Khmer Rouge with Beijing.

Year Zero began in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over Pnom Penh. On the pretence of an American bombing raid, they evacuated the entire city and forced everyone to abandon their property. Soldiers and members of the old regime were rounded into the Olympic Stadium and shot.

The Khmer Rouge divided Cambodia into two groups: Old People and New People. Old People were peasants who lived in the old, liberated zones in the countryside, whereas New People were relocated, city dwellers.They were distributed into agricultural collectives and forced to work ten-hour days without pay. All public institutions, including hospitals and schools were closed. By 1979, up to 80% of Cambodians had malaria.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.pngThe Khmer Rouge were determined to move as quickly as possible to a rural communist society. They envisioned a land free of private property and commerce, where everyone worked as rice farmers – the purest occupation. Everyone wore the same dyed black clothing with red and white headbands and car-tyre sandals. Individualism of any form was prohibited. The only acceptable possession was a spoon.

Filmmaker John Pilger, 1979:

The new rulers of Cambodia call 1975 “Year Zero”, the dawn of an age in which there will be no families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music, no song, no post, no money – only work and death. 

Khmer Rouge cadres targeted anyone suspected of impeding their vision; intellectuals too steeped in the old way of life. Those who complained or spoke out were chosen for ‘re-education’ which in practice meant torture and death. Victims included:

  • ethnic minorities.
  • Christians, Muslims, and Buddhist monks.
  • speakers of foreign languages.
  • wearers of eyeglasses.
  • anyone suspected of treason, hoarding, or unliscenced foraging.

To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge used rifle butts and sharpened bamboo sticks. They threw their victims into mass graves, dubbed ‘killing fields’. Children of political victims were killed as well, lest they grow up to take revenge. A Chankiri tree outside Pnom Penh still bears the marks of the infant heads bashed against its trunk. A Khmer Rouge adage was ‘to keep you is no benefit, you destroy you is no loss.’

Most Khmer Rouge cadres were illiterate peasants, both men and women. The most fanatical were teenagers who had grown up in the civil wars.

In 1979, tensions between Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam reached a boiling point. The communist Vietnamese invaded. They overthrew the Khmer Rouge and set up a new government. Led by China, the international community condemned the invasion and continued to recognise Pol Pot’s ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ as the country’s legitimate government until 1991. The Khmer Rouge survived in the remote countryside until Pol Pot died in 1998.

Although they ultimately failed, the Khmer Rouge changed Cambodia for good. Today the old political elite and much of Cambodian high culture are no more. Many of the country’s leaders are former associates of Democratic Kampuchea.

From Newcastle and New Zealand to the Killing Fields of Cambodia | The  Independent | The Independent

Sources: Asia Pacific Curriculum, Pnom Penh Post, Real Dictators

Ruc People

The Ruc are a small tribe indigenous to the mountains of Quang Ngai province, Vietnam. Until 1959, they lived in complete isolation from the outside world as they had for thousands of years. The Ruc were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and grottos and shunned contact with mainstream Vietnamese society. Upon their discovery, the North Vietnamese government forced their integration. Today they no longer live as hunter-gatherers and are recognised as one of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a land of dense mountain jungle that houses the world’s largest caves and oldest limestone deposit. The Ruc have lived there since the Stone Age and their name means ‘cave people’ in a local dialect.

To the ethnic Vietnamese that farmed the lowlands, these mountains were a wilderness home to dangerous beasts and mysterious tribes. Though their ancestors likely settled northern Vietnam at the same time, while the lowlanders adopted agriculture and formed kingdoms, the Ruc and their cousins maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle free from outside influence.

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In 1959, a group of North Vietnamese soldiers were investigating the aftermath of a bombing in the mountains of Quang Ngai when they spotted a band of ‘forest people’. The strangers were short, naked and incredibly agile. They fled up trees and into caves and grottos. The soldiers followed them and spent all day persuading eleven families to relocate to a nearby village.

Rather than leave them be, the authorities forced integration. According to communist doctrine, history is progressive and the Ruc would be better off by settling down and adapting to modern, agricultural society than remaining in their primitive and oblivious state. By 1971 the Ruc had all abandoned their caves and were living in permanent homes.

The Ruc moved into state-provided houses, and their numbers grew from 109 in 1971 to 500 today. Many longed for their old ways, however, and to this day some still live in caves up to three months a year. In 2013 Ho Tien Nam became the first Ruc to graduate from university. He now works as a teacher.

Anthropologists place the Ruc language in the Chut group, which encompasses five other indigenous tongues and is part of the Austroasiatic family. Their ancestors may have retreated to the mountains when farmers settled northern Vietnam. Their language is small and, because they had no tribal or family names, after 1971 they took Vietnamese ones.

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Traditionally the Ruc foraged for food, mainly the edible powder of the Doac tree, fished and hunted small animals. They slept standing up. Ruc believed in magic and cast spells to protect from pregnancy, stave off wild beasts or in, in some cases, cause harm. These spells and rituals are upheld by elders with secrecy and reverence. In 2005, scientists identified the small animal Ruc hunted as the Laotian Rock Rat, an animal they thought died out 11 million years ago.

Sources: English-Vietnam, Species Conservation, Spiritual Travellers Blog, UNESCO

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Thailand’s Rap Against Dictatorship

Prathet Ku Mee (Which is my country), is a 2018 protest song by 10 Thai rappers called ‘Rap Against Dictatorship’. The music video targets the country’s military regime, corruption and legal double-standards in a pounding and defiant delivery reminiscent of late 80s and 90s American hip-hop. Uploaded in October 2018, it has over 89 million views. In May 2019 the Human Rights Foundation awarded them the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissen.

Thailand has had the most coups of any country. The military seized power in 2014 and has yet to relinquish it, despite promises of a return to democracy.  

The song is viciously critical – a bold move in a country where censorship is strong and offending the wrong people can put you in jail. Some wear masks, others do not. Under aliases, the rappers criticise the military for interfering in politics and ruling through fear and the conformity of Thai society. It mentions:

  • construction tycoon getting away with poaching and eating an endangered black leopard in February 2018
  • the heir of Red Bull getting away with vehicular manslaughter
  • judges building estates in a sacred national park
  • the Prime Minister’s Rolex collection

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha condemned the song for inciting unrest and violence, and being ‘un-Thai’. In November he commissioned a government rap video in response. It is as bad as you might expect.

Despite their objections, the Thai government did not block Rap Against Dictatorship. Doing so would involve shutting down the whole of Youtube and causing public scandal – more trouble than it was worth. Thailand’s economy and politics are closely tied to the West and it lacks the state capacity China enjoys to build its own internet. They did, however, threaten to jail anyone who shared the video for 5 years.

Hip-hop serves an apt vessel for the frustration and resentment of these young men against injustice in their home. 

The video is shot in black and white, the rappers performing on a backdrop of a cheering crowd. The only colour to feature is red white and blue of the Thai flag, emblazoned on the guitar playing near the end. It is revealed the crowd are cheering not the men rapping, but a man beating a limp corpse hanging from a tree with a chair.

This grisly scene is from the 1976 Thammasat Massacre, where conservative paramilitaries slaughtered 200 pro-democracy activists. It shows a counter-demonstrator beating a student’s corpse with a chair as it hangs from a tamarind tree. The photograph was caught by American Neil Ulevich and won the Pulitzer Prize. Amongst activists today, ‘chair’ is slang for establishment brutality.

Rap Against Dictatorship say nothing has changed. The soldiers still control the state, and ‘fuck the law with a machine gun’. What’s worse, the ’76 Thammasat massacre is taught nowhere in Thailand and the government is doing its best to disappear it from collective memory – an Orwellian move reminiscent of Tiananmen Square.

In February 2019 the Thai government held elections, on the precondition the military hold half the National Assembly’s seats in reserve. Prayut Chan-Ocha won with 99% of the vote. Echoing those of 1976, student protests erupted in August 2020.

Sources: Khaosod English, Bangkok Post, New Mandala

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Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei

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Hassanal Bolkiah (1946-) is the Sultan of Brunei Darusallam and the only absolute monarch in Southeast Asia. He is the former richest man in the world and, enthroned since 1967, the second longest reigning monarch after Queen Elizabeth II. Famous in the past for his excess, Bolkiah has recently made headlines over his implementation of  sharia law in Brunei.

Brunei's Economy 2016 - Facts and Figures – The Savey FoxBrunei is a nation the size of Delaware on the island of Borneo, Southeast Asia with a population of 400,000. Like the Persian Gulf states it is Muslim, conservative and rich in oil. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 – 1984, where its sultans controlled internal affairs but bowed to the British Empire. Independence came under Hassanal Bolkiah and he has maintained close ties with the British monarchy since.

According to Forbes, Brunei is the fourth richest country in the world. Since its discovery in 1957, Brunei’s gas and petroleum reserves have powered its industrialisation and the Sultan’s wealth, constituting 90% of the country’s GDP. So lucrative is its oil, Brunei has free education, free healthcare and zero income tax. The population are wealthy but tightly controlled.

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The Sultan of Brunei leads an extravagant lifestyle. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is worth a net of 20 billion dollars and during the 1980s was the richest man in the world. His palace is the world’s largest private residence, with 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms and a great hall that can house 5,000 guests. His private automobile collection of 7,000 models includes a Rolls Royce plated in 24k gold. The Sultan eats with golden utensils, flies in a private Boeing 747  and owns mansions across London, California and Las Vegas.

In 1996 he commissioned Michael Jackson for a 17 million dollar private concert. 5,000 attended, including the British royals.jefri bolkiah.jpg

Bolkiah’s younger brother, Prince Jefri surpasses his decadence. During Jefri’s tenure as finance minister from 1986 – 1997, beauties from around the world flocked to his private harem. The prince squandered over 14 billion state dollars on private investments which included a free amusement park and properties around the world. Hassanal’s case against his brother, which seized his assets, was the biggest in British legal history.

At home the Sultan’s power is absolute. Since the anti-monarchist revolt of 1962, martial law rules in Brunei. In 2006 the Sultan amended the constitution to vest legislative and executive authority in himself. The only democratic concessions were the creation of President and Prime Minister positions, of which the Sultan fills both.

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Despite his lavish lifestyle, Hassanal Bolkiah has recently enacted ultra conservative social laws at home. In 2013, the Sultan legislated sharia law in Brunei, a strict code based on Islamic tradition, but refrained from full implementation. In April 2019 he went through: thievery is now punishable by amputation and adultery and homosexual sex is subject to death by stoning (if witnessed by at least five people). International outcry followed – the UN condemned the legislation and George Clooney proposed a boycott of the Sultan’s international hotel chain, which includes LA’s Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Sultan has refused to back down.

Sources: AP Images, The Economist, Forbes, Getty Images, The Guardian, Reuters

Update 5/5/19: Sultan Bolkiah rescinds the death penalty for homosexuality after international condemnation. 

The Southern Dispersal

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The Southern Dispersal, also called the Great Coastal Migration, was the first major migration Out of Africa.  50,000 – 100,000 years ago a single band of Homo Sapiens crossed the Bab-el Mandeb Straits to Asia. Over multiple generations their children migrated across the Indian Ocean coastline until they reached Australia and beyond.  Their direct descendants form the ancient populations of Oceania and Southeast Asia.

Ice Age sea levels were 77 meters lower than today. Glaciers and pack ice trapped much of the world’s water and what are now shallow seas was then dry land. A land bridge closed the mouth of the Red Sea, Borneo, Java and Sumatra were joined to Indochina as the land of Sunda, and New Guinea and Australia formed a single continent called Sahul.  Though foreign to Homo Sapiens, Eurasia was already home to other human species like Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and Denisovans.

Related imageArchaeological sites and fossils give a rough idea of when Homo Sapiens were first living in a particular place.

  • 85,000 BC – Yemen (Al Wusta site)
  • 75,000 BC – Southern India (Jwalapuram Site)
  • 70,000 BC – Phillipines (Callao Man)
  • 44,000 BC – Australia (Lake Mungo remains)

Why the coast? The pioneers of the Southern Dispersal were beachcombers. Deliberately avoiding the colder northern climes, they followed the coast where shellfish and tropical fruit were plentiful and there was no competition from Neanderthals. Due to the scant number of archaeological records, their numbers were likely small. The ancestral band who crossed the Red Sea like Moses was probably no more than 160 individuals.

The later ‘Northern Dispersal’, which gave rise to the Eurasian peoples, either branched off  early from the Southern Dispersal or was a later migration from Africa. They expanded north as the ice caps melted.

Today direct descendants of the Southern Dispersal include:

  • India: Andaman Islanders (Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese), Dravidians?
  • Sri Lanka: Vedda
  • Malaysia: Semang and Senoi
  • Philippines: Aeta, Ati and Manamwa
  • Thailand: Maniq
  • Melanesia: Papuans, Solomon Islanders, Fijians, Vanuatuans, Kanaks
  • Australia: Australian Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders

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Jarawa girls, Andaman Islands

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Senoi children, Malaysia

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Aeta man, Philippines

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Women from Bougainville, Papua New Guinea

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Korowai man and child, West Papua

solomon islanders
Children from the Solomon Islands. Blonde hair sometimes shows in children, though the associated gene is different from the European one

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Arunda Aboriginal man, Australia

Though diverse in their own right, descendants of the Southern Dispersal stand out from later arrivals by their dark features and woolly hair (though not for Aborigines). Unlike most Eurasians, they maintained high levels of melanin because they never left the tropics. In Southeast Asia and the Andaman Islands they are called Negritos, owing to their black skin and short stature.  Rising sea levels and new migrations have forced them into isolation, where many still live as hunter-gatherers.

Humans arrived in Sahul by boat. The migrants spread across the continent and hunted Australia’s megafauna to extinction. By the time outsiders arrived tens of thousands of years later, there were at least 600 distinct Aboriginal groups, each with their own language. Despite being only 1.5% of the world’s population, Melanesia is home to 20% of its languages.

Related imageLike all non-Africans, ‘Australo-Melanesians’ have 1% Neanderthal ancestry (though less than Europeans).  Unique to them however, is the 4-5% DNA they inherit from another species – the mysterious Denisovans. Interbreeding must have occurred in Southeast Asia, as the Andamanese lack Denisovan admixture. Aside from genetics, all the Denisovans have left us is a fingerbone and a skull.

Sources: New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Nicholas Wade – Before the Dawn

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Southeast Asian Migrations

Related imageThe people of the Indochinese Peninsular (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) descend from four principle migrations. Each has contributed to the languages, cultures and genetic makeup of the region today.

It is uncertain who the original inhabitants of Southeast Asia were or the languages they spoke. Homo Erectus and the mysterious Denisovans lived there in prehistoric times, with the first Homo Sapiens arriving 50,000 years ago. They were likely ‘Negrito’ hunter-gatherers; far shorter, darker-skinned and curly-haired than most Southeast Asians today.  According to genetic sequencing, Indochina’s ancient inhabitants were related to Andaman Islanders, the Semang of Malaysia and the Ainu of Japan.

southeast asia buddhasAustroasiatic speaking farmers migrated from the north around 2,000 BC and introduced wet rice cultivation and bronze tools.  They were part of a population boom from the birth of agriculture in China. More numerous and better organised, they replaced the indigenous population and spread throughout the region as far as East India and Malaysia. Indian traders strongly influenced the Mon and Khmer, who adopted Theravada Buddhism and Indic scripts. Austroasiatic farmers in the Red River Delta, who were more influenced by China, would become the Vietnamese.

tai languages

The Tai-Kadai family includes Thai, Lao and Shan Burmese. Rice farmers from southern China, they migrated to the highlands of Indochina in the 8th century under pressure from the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The Tai-Kadai built cities, assimilated local Austroasiatic people and adopted their Buddhist customs and scripts. Some Tai-Kadai speaking tribes, like the Zhuang and Tai-Lue, remain in southern China.

Sino-Tibetan speaking migrants entered Burma at the same time. Foremost were the Bamar (Burmese), renowned horsemen who settled the fertile Irrawaddy valley and forced other groups like the Karen, who arrived in the 6th century, and the Mon into the mountains.  The Bamar founded the powerful kingdom of Bagan (pictured) and still dominate the region today.

Image result for baganAustronesian speakers related to Malays and Filipinos founded the kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam. First Hindu, then Muslim, it lasted over a thousand years until its conquest by the Vietnamese in the 18th century. The Cham are now a minority in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Image result for hmong mien languagesHmong-Mien is another language family from China, possibly the original inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley. Today, their 6 million speakers are scattered across the mountains of China, Vietnam and Laos. The Hmong, who migrated to Southeast Asia in the 1800s, are the largest group.

Modern Southeast Asians have a diverse heritage.  Most have varying degrees of ancestry from the different migrant groups, with significant Han Chinese contribution in Thailand and Vietnam.   The 300 Maniq people of southern Thailand, who speak an Austroasiatic language, are the only remaining Negrito group.

Sources: EthnologueGenome Biol Evol, Jared Diamond –  Guns, Germs and Steel, Science Daily, Southeast Asian Archaeology

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Thailand (ราชอาณาจักรไทย), formerly known as Siam, is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonised by Europeans. Thailand is a devoutly Buddhist nation known for its temples, elephants, cuisine and military coups.

Four regions constitute Thailand, each with its own history, dialect and culture.

  • thai regions.jpgThe Central Region, centred on Bangkok, is the richest and most politically significant. Central Thai is the main spoken language.
  • The Northern Region is the heartland of the old Lanna kingdom. Most people speak the Northern Thai dialect of Kham Muang. Hill tribes like the Hmong and Karen inhabit the mountains.
  • The Northeast, also known as Isan, is the poorest and most populated part of Thailand.  Isan people are ethnically Lao and speak a Lao dialect. Khmer is also spoken in the south.
  • The Southern Region is the skinny peninsula to the south, a tropical land of islands and picturesque beaches popular with foreign tourists. Local speak the Southern dialect and, in the Muslim areas of the far south, Malay. A quiet insurgency haunts the Malaysian border provinces.

Thailand’s official language is the Central dialect, or simply ‘Thai’. Outside the Central Region, most learn Thai at school and their regional dialect at home.  Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal a language, where words have different meanings based on their inflexion. It is influenced by Sanskrit, Pali and Khmer, and closely related to Lao. Thailand has used its own unique script since the 14th century. It looks similar but is not the same as those of Burma and Laos.

The Thais migrated from southern China in the 11th century, introducing Theravada Buddhism, walled cities and wet rice cultivation to their new home. The indigenous population were assimilated or driven to the hills. In their place, the Thais established the lowland kingdoms of Ayutthaya, Lan Na and Sukothai. In the 1400s Ayutthaya replaced Angkor as the dominant power in Southeast Asia. By 1700, Ayutthaya was the most populated city in the world.

In 1768 Burmese invaders burned Ayutthaya to the ground. Taksin the Great, an Ayutthaya general of Chinese descent expelled them but was overthrown by his lead commander Chakri. Chakri founded the kingdom of Siam, with a new capital at Bangkok, and the dynasty that rules to this day.

rama v.jpgThe fifth king, Chulalongkorn (1853-1910, pictured), modernised the kingdom, opened trade with Britain and earned recognition on par with the monarchs of Europe. He is credited with the abolition of slavery and saving Siam from colonisation.

In 1932 a bloodless revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional one. One of the revolutionists, Phibun, was a fascist and admirer of Mussolini. As Prime Minister, he changed Siam’s name to Thailand, mandated western dress and sided with the Axis in WW2. The royal family went into exile and others, including some 1932 leaders, fought with the Allies.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej was head of state from 1946 to 2016, the longest reign of any monarch. He reinstated the institution of monarchy and oversaw Thailand’s rise from a rural backwater to a robust middle economy. Bhumibol is revered among Thais today.

Thailand is Asia’s 8th largest economy. The biggest industry in Thailand is rice cultivation, which employs 40% of the population. After India, Thailand is the second biggest rice exporter in the world. Tourism is another major industry, accounting for 12% of Thailand’s GDP. In 2017 Bangkok was the most visited city in the world.

bangkok 2.jpgDespite Thailand’s recent growth and status as a newly industrialised country, prosperity is not even. In 2016 Credit Suisse ranked Thailand as the third most unequal country, after Russia and India. The top 1% owns 58% of the country’s wealth.

Modern Thailand shifts ceaselessly between periods of civilian and military rule.  Typically the people elect a government, it threatens the interests of the elite then the military overthrows it. Thailand has suffered 12 successful coups since 1932, the most of any country. The current government seized power in 2014.

Every time there is a coup, the new regime will introduce a new constitution. As a result, Thailand has had 20, again the most of any country.

Thai society has generally remained stable despite changes at the top. Unlike the rest of Indochina, modern Thailand has never suffered a civil war.

Sources: Bangkok Post, Cathay Pacific,  Credit Suisse, Global Security, Washington Post, Wikipedia

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Khun Sa and the Burmese Opium Trade

khun sa 3.jpgKhun Sa (1934-2007) was a Shan Burmese warlord who once supplied half the USA’s heroin and a quarter of the world’s. In the 1980s his private army defied both the Thai and Burmese governments and the DEA. Despite a 2 million dollar bounty on his head, the self-styled King of Opium was never brought to justice.  The US ambassador to Thailand referred to him as ‘the worst enemy the world has’.

Khun Sa was born Zhang Qifu in the poppy fields of Shan State, Burma to a Chinese father and ethnic Shan mother. The remote highlands where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet then produced 70% of the world’s opium.  Though the local tribes of the Golden Triangle had cultivated the poppy for centuries, by the 1950s the Indochina Wars and a growing heroin market transformed opium into a cash crop that could bankroll armies.

golden triangle.gifFollowing their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, in 1949 remnants of the nationalist Kuomintang descended on Northern Burma and established themselves as masters of the opium trade. Zhang Qifu joined them as a child soldier and by 16 commanded his own armed band.

In 1962 a coup d’etat replaced Burma’s federal democracy with an ethnic Burmese dictatorship. Disenfranchised minorities like the Shan promptly rebelled and the country plunged into civil war.

Now commanding a 700 strong militia, Zhang switched allegiance to the Burmese government. In exchange, they granted him military equipment and a license to freely grow opium in his own fiefdom. His militia battled the Kuomintang, Burmese Communist Party and Shan Nationalists, trading opium for guns on the black market. A year later Zhang broke ties and established a private operation along the Chinese border.

khun saIn 1967 Zhang attempted to smuggle 16 tons of opium to General Ouane Rattikone of the Royal Lao Army. His mule caravan was ambushed by Kuomintang soldiers, however, and subsequently bombed by Rattikone, who seized the drugs for himself without payment. After this defeat, Burmese forces imprisoned Zhang Qifu from 1968-73.

When a hostage exchange brought his freedom, Zhang reunited with his followers in northern Thailand. The Golden Triangle’s political climate had since changed. Rattikone and other CIA backed traffickers lost the Laotian Civil War, leaving a gap in the market, while American GIs had withdrawn from Vietnam, bringing their taste for opiates back home. Zhang exploited the power vacuum. In 1976 he adopted the nom de guerre ‘Khun Sa’ meaning ‘prosperous prince’ and reinvented himself as a champion of Shan separatism.

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In 1985 Khun Sa formed the Mong Tai Army in a merger with other Shan insurgents. The largest rebel force in Burma, it controlled a 150-mile radius across the Burmese-Thai border region. Khun Sa rented his territory out to heroin manufacturers across Asia who paid for the protection of his private army, now 20,000 strong and better armed than the Burmese military.

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For the next ten years, Khun Sa controlled 75% of the Golden Triangle’s opium and produced over 660 tons of heroin annually, most of which was 90% pure. 600 million dollars a year funded a well-developed private kingdom, complete with satellite dishes, hospitals, schools and an anti-air defence system.

In 1995 the Mong Tai Army caved under pressure from the Thai military and rival narco-armies. Sections of his force were concerned Khun Sa and his Chinese officers cared more about the drug trade than Shan nationalism, and the army splintered.

Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese government in 1996. In exchange, they provided a mansion in Yangon and the promise not to extradite him to the USA. Khun Sa retired with a fortune and lived his last eleven years in peace.

The glory days of the Golden Triangle are now over. Since the early 21st century, the centre of opium production has shifted to Afghanistan, with the Golden Triangle accounting for only 5% of the drug supply. Khun Sa is remembered favourably by  Shan today, many of whom are still fighting the Burmese government.

Sources:  The Economist, Factsanddetails, Getty Images, The Guardian, iWonderling, New York Times

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The Laotian Civil War

indochina.gifThe Laotian Civil War (1959-1975) was a Vietnam proxy conflict that left 40,000 dead. Officially uninvolved, the CIA recruited an army of hill tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese and Lao communists while making Laos the most bombed country in history. It was not enough. By 1975 Laos was the last of the Asian dominoes to fall.

In 1953 the French colony of Laos, a  thinly populated and landlocked backwater situated between Thailand and Vietnam, gained its independence. The French transferred power to the old royal family, who established the Kingdom of Laos.

Image result for royal lao flag vs pathet lao flagLike Cambodia and South Vietnam, a Marxist insurgency threatened Laos. The North Vietnamese Army invaded in the 1950s to support the Pathet Lao, a local communist group. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which supported the insurgency in South Vietnam, flowed through Lao territory. Heavily backed by North Vietnamese troops and Soviet and Chinese arms, the Pathet Lao sought to overthrow the Lao monarchy and establish a socialist state.

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The Royal Lao Government was weak in comparison. Despite American support, they could not match the Communists’ numbers or determination. Internal division and low morale beset them.

From 1964, the CIA conducted a ‘Secret War’ on Washington’s behalf. While the 1962 Geneva Convention obliged foreign powers to respect Lao neutrality, North Vietnam ignored it and the USA only pretended. They never officially stationed troops in Laos and never declared war. Using $3.3 billion a year, the CIA outsourced operations to Hmong militias and Air America. Their base at Long Tieng housed 40,000 people, was Laos’s second-biggest city and one of the world’s busiest airports, but appeared in no Atlas and officially did not exist. In fighting this Secret War, the CIA hoped to divert North Vietnamese manpower and halt the spread of communism.

Related imageThe main strategy was aerial bombardment. From bases in allied Thailand, American planes bombed communist territory daily.  The CIA dropped two million tons of explosives on Laos from 1964-73, an average of one planeload every eight minutes. More explosives were dropped on Laos than Germany and Japan in WW2 combined. Today unexploded ordinance still kills an average of 300 Laotians a year. The American public was kept in the dark.

As the Royal Lao Army proved ineffective, CIA operatives trained and equipped a ‘Secret Army’ of 20,000 Hmong militiamen under major-general Vang Pao. An ethnic minority from the mountains, the Hmong proved capable fighters; rescuing downed American pilots and matching communist guerrillas at their own game. A further 20,000 Thai mercenaries assisted. With 60% of Hmong men serving in the Secret Army, the CIA turned a blind eye to opium trafficking and child soldiery in their ranks.

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In 1973 President Nixon made peace with North Vietnam and abruptly ended US involvement in Laos. Abandoned by their allies, the royalists resisted for another two years alone before they surrendered on the 2nd December 1975, eight months after the fall of Saigon. The Indochina Wars had come to an end.

The Pathet Lao established a one-party dictatorship and exacted brutal reprisals against the royalists and the Hmong, whom they promised to wipe out. 300,000 of Laos’s 4 million people, including a third of the Hmong and 90% of the intelligentsia, fled Laos by the 1980s. Thousands of others suspected of working with the Americans and the old regime were sentenced to ‘re-education camps’. The royal family were worked to death.

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