My Best Job Yet

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Thierry Colombie The idea of overseas travel for its own sake had never been a priority for me which shows what a pedestrian mind I must have. Going overseas was something that would only ever come after I had taken a good hard look at the continent I was born on. Not out of national pride by any stretch but probably out of an awareness of how much this place has to offer anyone who is fascinated by different forms of animal and plant life, different and wonderful landscapes and different styles of humanity. The presence of an indigenous culture as old as any on earth and a complex migrant population which draws on almost every country made it easy to think that overseas travel wasn't going to show me anything terribly important which was reinforced by the difficulty and expense of getting off this island. I'm sure this attitude stems largely from the Australian style of jingoism that took hold over two world wars. I suppose I wasn't so different from big sister who spent 18 months or so circumnavigating Australia by road with her husband before they saw the world in a couple of years only to settle unchanged into their predictable suburban lives, laying eggs. I hadn't managed to get any further afield than Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and North Queensland over a period of about 20 years by the time overseas travel presented itself and the place which appealed the most was Indo China. As it turns out I concentrated both my visits in the one small region but even in a remote place like MaeHongSon one is bound to meet a wide range of people from different countries in the tourist guest houses and by chance I seemed to easily make friends with a few French people a couple of whom were there for similar reasons to me. Thierry and Wallon were both there to investigate the heroin trade for a specialist French publication called the Observatoire Geoplitique des Drogues whch was published in English as the Geopolitical Drug Dispatch. Thierry, doing a PhD thesis in economics on the Columbian cocaine trade was stopping over on his return from South America and I was fortunate that Gerard introduced us. I was ignorant of the basic techniques of news gathering and no idea how to approach the secretive, highly illegal, paramilitary world of the insurgent drug runners across the border but anyone who could brave the machismo of the Latin American cartels would be comfortable with the Buddhists in Myanmar. Thierry had what I was lacking and that was credentials, the publication he represented was published in three languages and subscribed to by a host of agencies including Interpol, FBI, UNESCO, UNDCP, Customs Cooperation Council, INSERM, numerous universities, state prosecutors, and documentation centers for drug addiction and was also regularly cited in the international press. I told him I worked for a public radio station in Australia and mentioned the nature of my interest in the heroin trade and was invited to accompany him when he went out. A pity he couldn't have stayed longer. We got on well together and maybe his primary interest in Columbia suggests he didn't feel as interested in this place as I was. He definitely wasn't interested in drugs but I did see his small brown bottle of White Shark which is a local tonic containing vitamins, minerals and amphetamines popular with the hard and long working locals. Our first excursion together was when he, Wallon, Gerard and I went by 4WD to the border with Kayah State in Myanmar. Refused permission to cross the border we returned a bit to speak with the occupants of the refugee camp nearest the border which was in constant danger of attack from Burmese irregulars in the DKBA. We met three Karenni guerrillas on patrol their purpose being, if necessary, to engage any attackers. They were hopelessly illequipped except for an assault rifle and a spare magazine each they had nothing and an enemy patrol would outnumber them at least four to one. I think their function in the end was to make enough noise with their gunfire so that their deaths would signal their families to scatter into the surrounding bush. Their english was non-existent like my Burmese or Thai and we left them to their work and spoke at length with a headman at the camp where we were appraised of their poor circumstances. The Karenni are famous for the Long Neck Karen who are a popular and profitable display in Thailand. Another jewel of humanity on the endangered species list. Camp 7 had nowhere to grow rice and minimal space to grow vegetables, lacking meat and building materials they were able to maintain their dignity at least and it became apparent what an asset the Long Neck Karen had in the brass rings adorning the necks and legs of their women as a source of revenue from tourists even if most went to the Thai police at the entrance to their safe and well placed camp. Camp 7 was almost within mortar range of the border and a few hours drive away from food and medical relief. Thierry also accompanied me when I went to BanMu the old TaiYai regional capital before MaeHongSon eclipsed it with its airport. PoySangLong is perhaps the most important festival on the Buddhist calendar along with SongKran. It is the coming of age of the men (average age about 12) while SongKran is their New Year when the rains come. The boys are dressed up like princes but instead of jewels they have sequins and orchids, with no embarassment they wear makeup all prepared and adorned in the temple over the preceding night by doting female relatives until in the morning the monks come to conduct the ceremony which inducts them into the Sangha. After all this they are taken outside where they are toted on the shoulders of their fathers, uncles, and big brothers around the town until they finally retreat to have their finery replaced by robes, their heads shaved and to undergo a few weeks of meditation and schooling which will equip them spiritually to endure what life has in store. It is a tradition they share with their cousins in Myanmar where life at the hands of the military is often cruel and always hard. Outside the temple I saw an old man who was covered in tattoos composed of script and esoteric designs and I asked my interpreter if I could meet him. We went to a nearby house where this itinerant Salar was staying for the duration of the festival and he told me of his life as a local militia man who at the age of 14 joined a small band of about 25 men which had about a dozen firearms, the others equipped with spears and swords. At 86 he was a respected member of his community and still travelled to religious festivals and military bases where he equipped young men with tattoos that would protect and strengthen them physically and psychically when they needed it. We talked of his experience in WWII when the Japanese had occupied the region and I asked him his opinions of then current insurgent commander KhunSa. "Good soldiers don't live long" was his reply when I asked "why do people admire him is he a good soldier?" language is a huge barrier in these circumstances but so is the influence and aura of someone like KhunSa and his followers so a lot goes left unsaid. I was proud that he was happy to tattoo my skull with three circles to allow Ki to flow from the ground through my head to the stars and my shoulders with symbols "to protect against knives". After all these years they still work "as long as I keep all my knives razor sharp", his parting advice. On another visit, Thierry and I went to have dinner with a Shan Princess - the daughter of a Sabwah from Myanmar. Before the British invaded the place this region had been divided up into numerous principalities dating back to the 13C ranging through Yunnan, Myanmar and Siam (Siam pronounced sheeyum is derived from the same word as shan pronounced shun) and each was governed by a Sabwah (pronounced sapoah) seventeen years back one would be hard pressed to meet someone like her and now even more so. As a refugee she worked in a tourist office where her language skills equipped her well. She was living in a small two room flat near the airport and at dinner was joined by SengFa, a young Shan from Myanmar who was continually risking imprisonment for illegal entry as he travelled north Thailand with messages and news for the expatriate diplomats and leaders from across the border. For once we all spoke fluent english and spent our time discussing the problems facing civilised people who are forced to deal with a strong and vicious opponent and the social dislocation that generates. Thierry also took me with him a couple of times when he visited the headquarters in MaeHongSon of the MongTai Army which was the name of the biggest insurgent group in Myanmar at the time and the principal army of the Shan States. Claiming a strength of 40,000 I was assured by a Salar in the local prison that it was closer to 20,000, a significant force well equipped with M16's, RPG's, heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-aircraft guns. They got most of their money from the heroin trade but put some back into civillian infrastructure in their main strong hold at HoMong but what they did for the people of Shan State is a matter of debate. What we saw was a video done by Adrian Cowell, uncut it had graphic footage of the execution of deserters, the treatment of heroin addicts and the treachery of Chinese-Shan commanders from opposing armies. On our last visit we wrote for permission to cross the border and visit HoMong where we could meet with KhunSa but he was pre-occupied - "the general is at the front" (no doubt a euphamism for something else), I was told to come back when I had renewed my visa but went to prison instead. Before he left Thierry told me that when I returned to Australia I should write to the OGD as they needed a correspondent there. I told him I wasn't going back but wiser than me he simply said "if you ever do". As it turned out I was deported not much later after spending a short time in prison for a drug offence, occupational hazard, so I was glad to be in the pay of such a distuinguished publication. Australia is something of a backwater in the international drug trade and definitely a dead end, in news and publishing it isn't much different but I kept busy sending news reports and articles on local events and yearly reports based on information from Customs and AFP reports as well. The demise of such an astute organisation came after it published an article which linked Axa the U.S. insurance company with illegal casinos. The court case brought against the OGD was prohibitively expensive and they were forced to close, another blow against the forces of enlightenment and probably the most civilised enterprise I have been associated with so far.  This will show you what happened to a highly respected publication in the field it covered and clearly a valuable asset to any organization dealing with international affairs or news. After what happened to their new Australian corespondent before he returned from Thailand it was not unprecedented.