Northern Light - a visit to Laos' Luang Prabang

Northern Light - a visit to Laos

Gafencu Magazine, September 2007. 

If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains.

Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in the dying sunlight, its ochre spires, old wooden shop houses and leafy, somnolent roads cast in a tangerine glow. Therapeutic chants rumble on the breeze from a monastery across the road. It’s the closest thing to a civic pick-me-up you’ll ever experience.

Luang Prabang’s change in status from remote outpost to burgeoning tourist mecca has been relatively swift since a modern airport was finished in 1998, and this culturally rich northwestern town is most easily reached from Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. This convenient option has lately transformed Laos’ former royal and religious capital of around 22,000 into a beacon for discerning travellers and overworked vacationers.

[See Gafencu LP for the original PDF feature]

STA Luang Prabang pix

Laos’ communist government only opened the country to tourism in the early nineties, its hesitancy explained, perhaps, by the fact that during the 1960s, more bombs were dropped on the tiny country by the US than were used in World War II. Laos also spent time

under the French in the early 1900s. Although Vientiane has sprung up and sprawled out as capitals do, the rest of the country is remarkably undeveloped and the north remains particularly elusive. Hill tribes here are less in touch with the outside world, and tigers can still be spotted in its topmost reaches.

Some reports speak of a place of captivating charm and fantastically intact heritage, evidenced by buildings such as The Royal Palace (now a museum), which was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family. One of the reasons UNESCO intervened here in 1995 is because of the town planning structure, which dates back to medieval times, something seen in only a handful of places. Tiny neighbourhoods make up the whole, each arranged around a wat and a pond.

There are about 34 wats – one for every occasion. Wat Saen is keeper of the monastery’s racing boats and one of the most striking, the small, quaint Wat Pa Khe, houses an impression of Buddha’s footprint. The heavily gilded Wat Xieng Thong is the most popular complex, and showcases a beautiful mosaic of the tree of life, along with the royals’ old golden funeral carriage.  All are breathtakingly beautiful, but feel real and active. Younger monks carry out cleaning chores, others bend over Sanskrit texts in shady corners. Many will stop what they’re doing to shyly practise their English.

As old as the place may be, it has learned how to shape up for the twenty-first century traveller. After Luang Prabang Airport was installed, intrepid pilgrims were overtaken by the more sophisticated traveller. Its restaurants, hotels and spas have upgraded accordingly (under the beady eye of UNESCO) and today the city is the master of the double act. It may ooze antiquated charm on the surface, but contemporary Asian interiors and fine culinary adventures lie within.

Two of the five star options that greet the Luang Prabang visitor are literally palatial. In 1992 Villa Santi – a former royal mansion – became one of the first high end hotels in Northern Laos, and though small it’s still one of the grandest. Swathes of polished rosewood give the place an old world smell and the stately dining room makes dressing for dinner a distinct possibility. The Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel channels glamour from the more recent past. Laos’ last royal Prime Minister used to live here and it’s a light, breezy affair with a large lush garden and a classic 50s-style pool. Wide verandas and an Angsana spa lure guests out from their rooms, and the place achieves a secluded feel, though it’s just a stone’s throw from the action.

More modern still is La Residence Phou Vou, slightly out of the hub, on a hill. I’d heard about the hotel’s spectacular sunset perch, and, gin fizz in hand at the bar, was not disappointed. The only step up would have been the view from the infinity pool. This spa hotel – under the luxury Oriental Express brand – was not renovated from royalty, but it pretty much serves it, depending on your definition of the word. Both the King of Cambodia and Mick Jagger have stayed here.

Much of Luang Prabang’s charm lies in its scale though, and I have always preferred my history in bite-sized chunks. The short walk between the main street and the riverbanks turns up a variety of converted boutique hotels, all looking to put a little hip into heritage.  My favourite The Apsara does this with industrial concrete floors and the driest martinis in town, while The 3 Nagas – near the banks of the Nam Khan – goes for a more minimalist approach.  Just a quick search turns up a handful of similarly well-situated gems.

All of these boast excellent dining options. Lao cuisine may not have travelled far but it is appreciated for its distinct flavours: spicy, savory and often loaded with raw, fresh herbs and galangal. You’re also rarely far from crisp white table cloths and a decent wine cellar:  the French did not have a hand in this country for nothing. Over the past ten years the international and fusion scene here has matured, and a few independent restaurants in particular offer an exhilarating experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay in Paris, or Hong Kong. L’Elephant Restaurant Francais is at the top of its game. Under French management, the place is all wood panelling, modest chandeliers and lazy ceiling fans, and offers a menu du chasseur, often featuring game from the surrounding forests. Consider wildboar in a Luang Prabang chanterelle sauce or crème brûlée with coconut. Near the night market the Blue Lagoon Cafe & Restaurant comes highly recommended by staff at Phou Vao. “International and Laos cuisine and Swiss management – good cuisine and atmosphere,” notes resident manager Denis Simonne, also extolling the virtues of the traditional Laotian menu at the 3 Nagas.

During my own explorations I dined on steamed fish with coconut at the Coleur Cafe, a small elegant bistro that offers, ‘cocktails et jazz’, and perused a pretty good wine list from the roof terrace of the Samsara Restaurant and Gallery. These small places make it easy to avoid the casual pizza joints that, though atmospheric, offer pretty generic food on the main strip. Down by the Nam Khan riverside things get a bit more local. Fruit shakes vendors set up shop, and I tried alfresco Laotian options like bamboo salad for as little as U$1. Low bottomed fishing boats drift by on one side, ladies on bicycles coast by on the other, bundled up against the sun. Being there at its off peak hottest and least busy was like vacationing on a stunning, high budget movie set peopled by a small cast of convincing extras.

Though tuk tuks and taxis hover semi-discreetly, the old quarter is easily explored on foot. It’s a skinny peninsular, less than a kilometre square, and lies at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The main thoroughfare, Xiang Thong is a postcard worthy street lined with shophouse-restaurants and small hotels, and I wandered the length of it in about fifteen minutes. Early mornings see it come alive at six am for takbat; a gliding procession of brightly-clad novice monks receiving alms. Sleepy eyed travelers mingle with residents and are usually rewarded with hypnotic, technicoloured photographs – splashes of bright orange against the dusty pink hues of a morning sky. I chose a respectful, effortless distance for my takbat experience:  reclining on my balcony, a steaming cup of Lao coffee in hand.

The heat of the afternoon sends all but the tuk tuk drivers scurrying for shade on Xiang Thong. A favourite refuge of mine, JoMa, is a Canadian-owned organic bakery that blasts coffee tinged air-conditioning. Its pastries are flaky and delicious, the owners often around for a chat, and upstairs the Mulberries boutiqu showcases a range of free trade, floaty clothes and accessories worth a peruse.

Few can leave Luang Prabang with luggage that weighs the same. As night falls and the stupa on the small, forested Phou Si (“sacred hill”) provides the perfect perch for sunset groupies, part of Xiang Thong gets cordoned off to traffic below. Merchants pour in, a few in traditional garb, and it quickly becomes awash with night market produce; a swimming, shimmering landscape of gleaming silk swatches, bed spreads, lamps and handmade toys. I picked up a pair of patchwork style slippers for as little as a US$1.50, or 15,000 kip.

Although many of the villages in the north are known for their skill at weaving, finding a great piece of silk or cotton in the markets can be a challenge. One on afternoon ramble I came across a large three storey shophouse with an unpronounceable name, filled with beautiful textiles at surprisingly steep prices.  One of the co-founders is a British photographer, Joanna Smith, who had set up Ockpoptok with a Lao weaver friend to help provide a sustainable link between the more remote, impoverished villages, and tourist demand. The shop works with the Lao women’s union and development agencies to help training villagers in product design. “They may be expensive,” she remarked as I balked at the US$100 price tag of a small aquamarine wall hanging, “but they’re nothing like the quality or workmanship of the stuff in the night markets.” Regular exhibitions at Ockpoptok take visitors into the technicalities and cultural significance of Laotian weaving, making use of Smith’s photography skills.

Travellers with extra time tend to head for the hills, and Xiang Thong supports a number of adventure travel companies. I took a day trip with Tiger Trails, which specialises in small, eco-adventure excursions through hill tribe villages and beyond. It was one of the firm’s easier options – a relaxed ramble through dry bristling hillsides, visits to a few obliging Kamu villages with their stilted houses and piglet armies, and a kayak trip down the Mekong. The day was neither super taxing or incredibly thrilling, but it was pleasant, and the villagers seemed happy to have our small group around. The company is a co-operative effort with the hill tribes, Markus Peschke, its German owner had explained, and the warmth in the smiles we were met with led me to believe him.

Most Tiger Trail excursions involve a meal or a few nights stay at its luxury eco lodge, the Lao Spirit Resort, which sits across the river from the elephant camp, and I spent a memorable meal in the open air restaurant, being eyed by the establishment’s tame owl and listening to enthusiastic pop song renditions by the Mahouts, rising above the rush of the water.

Those that look can find more to Luang Prabang than its old wat-heavy hub, but most visitors choose to miss the typical urban sprawl of its suburbs, with their basic business hotels, utilitarian shop fronts and motorbike traffic. Many Laotians feel certain impatience at the pristine preservation of the downtown area, and the building codes that thwart their thirst for progress. They are just coming across the twenty first century and it must be infuriating to be told that the past is much more in fashion. Still, as someone from a city that has chosen commercialism over its cultural assets at every turn, I find myself glancing around Luang Prabang, and whispering a quick word of thanks to UNESCO.


The Great Land Grab

The Great Land Grab

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 7 October 2008: SCMP land grab (PDF)

15,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights.

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re literally building around them now, cutting off their entrances and exits. They have gangsters. A few of us have already had to physically step in in their defense.”

An opposition MP and a notorious thorn in the side of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Son Chhay has been fighting land-grabbing since at least 2000, when he found out that a piece of property he’d owned for five years was being eyed by developers; it was just outside of Siem Reap and he had planned to turn it into an agricultural training centre. After a convenient declaration was issued by the Council of Ministers, earmarking the area for a ‘hotel development’ zone, Son Chhay, along with 150 families had been told that if he moved out quietly, he would get a decent rate for the property.

“Cambodian property laws state that if the government buys private land they should be using it for the public interest, and they must pay the market price,” Son Chhay stressed. “If it was for schools or a road it would be different, but hotels? Why do we need them to build hotels when we Cambodians can do that?”

The families were offered between US$0.3 to US$2 per square metre, and Son Chhay himself was offered fifty cents. His land back then, he says was easily worth US$50 per sq metre, and now, having passed from the government-appointed Apsara Foundation to the Sokha Hotel Resort company and morphing into the luxury Angkor Resort Hotel, it’s easily worth twenty times that. After a messy, protracted fight, a third of the families managed to walk away with a figure slightly better than the original offer.

Many in Cambodia have been far less lucky. Following a violent eviction from Sambok Chap in PHNOM PENH, nearly a thousand families were dropped off at a field 22km from the city, with no shelter, electricity or running water – except for frequent ankle-deep floods. NOW, two years later they still live in damp squalor. Other eviction victims have simply had to move on to the streets.

Perhaps more alarming is the dwindling democratic space left for Cambodians to protest in. While the government insists that Cambodia is a credible business environment, reports are on the rise of arbitrary arrests and beatings, residents being forced from their homes, and of property burned or confiscated. In Kampot province this June, eyewitnesses described a standoff between approximately 30 villagers and 100 military police; men and women were beaten unconscious and four were charged with stealing and willful damage to property (the result, say NGO reports, of a policeman’s mobile phone being grabbed, and land allotment signposts being pulled out from the ground).

In 2005 five people were shot dead during a forced eviction, as were two last November in Preah Vihear province, including the wife of a community representative. Those responsible are rarely charged. Ties remain uncomfortably tight between the ruling party and the tycoons that support it financially; it has been noted by the Asian Legal Rights Commission (ALRC) that 99% of judges in the country’s fledgling court system belong to the CPP.

Cambodia was one item on the agenda at the Human Rights Council’s Ninth session in Geneva last month and forced eviction topped many delegates’ list of concerns. “Land-grabbing is rife,” said the ALRC’s representative Michael Anthony, in his address. “In 2007 it affected more than 5,000 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes and land without just compensation. An estimated 150,000 Cambodians are currently at risk.”

The problem, says Dr Lao Mong Hay, former head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, is how little organization there is in land ownership. After the war and Pol Pot’s four year course in intense and very bloody agrarian communism, those who had survived were given small plots of land to live from, but no title deeds. Sponsored attempts have been made to organize the land over the years but these, as Dr Lao discovered, come at a cost. “It was supposed to be free,” he says, when he went to register his own plot three years ago, “but at every step of the way, from the land officers to the registry office, a small bribe was needed, $10 here, then another $20, another $20. Then, to legalise the process it cost $70! The average Cambodian does not have that money.”

Villagers in rural areas are particularly vulnerable; whether along the south coast where the beaches are lucratively white and property has gone from $50 to $200 per square metre in the past year, or in remote rural areas, where space is snatched for logging and rubber plantations. In some cases businessmen have simply hired workmen to clear swathes of forestry land and threaten park rangers into submission. Few rural Cambodians know that they need to officially lay claim to their land and even if they did, the process is fraught with obstacles.

In Siem Reap – Cambodia’s second poorest province – an arm of the Cambodian NGO, LICADHO, tries to safeguard the rights of local farmers and residents through workshops. “They don’t really know their rights, so not many do complain,” says Sar Vannara, one of the four men in the small office, found along a dirt road near Angkor.  It’s a big job – the province has close to a million people – and it’s not the safest of vocations. When asked if they’d been threatened over the years, the group broke into gales of laughter. “Of course!” said one, on his recovery. “We are here opposing the government.”

In 2004, shortly before his re-election, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared war on land-grabbers, identifying many in his own party. Several high profile officials, including an army major, tycoons and provincial governors, were arrested or fined, and forced to return thousands of hectares of land. But little is being done to educated Cambodians on their land rights and since Hun Sen’s re-election arrests have dwindled and land continues to be cleared. “He acts as a safety valve,” says Dr Lao. “When the pressure gets too strong he’ll step in. It’s not consistent.”

According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) at least 70,000 people are still at risk of eviction in Phnom Penh alone, most in the government’s battle against ‘squatters’; many Cambodians have lived in the same ramshackle dwellings since the end of the war, and as Phnom Penh’s fortunes rise, they are less welcome.

Boeng Kak lake, in the north of the city, is one example. Last month bulldozers started to work among its stilted waterside houses, home to about 4,000 families, after the government leased the property to a private developer for 99 years.  The lake is to be filled in and turned into a tourism destination. Residents say they have been told little about what will become of their homes and businesses if this happens. Land laws in Cambodia state that in order for state public property to be leased it should be for a maximum of 15 years, and must keep its original function.

“If the government wishes to develop Boueng Kok Lake they should do so through a legal process,” says Dan Nicholson, Coordinator at COHRE. “The question is not just whether the level of compensation is adequate once people are forced off their land – it’s whether an eviction is justified in the first place.” Should this continue, both COHRE and Amnesty International warn that it could be the beginning of the biggest forced eviction since the Khmer Rouge lost power.

For things to change, says Dr Lao, land laws need to be respected. “Hun Sen needs to do more,” he says. “He should end the practice of using executive orders to adjudicate land disputes, and should instead utilize the due process of law. He should also cease his control of the courts of law, clean up their corruption, provide them with adequate resources and respect their judgments.”

Foreign investors, too, can make a difference, say the group at Licadho. They should ask more questions about where the land is coming from, and ask for proof that the original land owners were willing to sell.

But as Cambodia’s development continues to boom and little of the profit trickles down to Cambodians – the ones stuck in makeshift shelters on remote plots of land, or who wake each morning at home to the sound of encroaching bulldozers – Hun Sen may find it harder to ease the pressure indefinitely. “No one can rule forever,” says Son Chhay. “I have to be optimistic. Sooner or later the people will make decisions about the society they want, they will decide enough is enough. Then they will move to the streets.”

The China Challenge

The China Challenge

Prestige, Hong Kong, October 2009

US-trained designer Lyndon Neri had a hard time getting used to the mainland, but now he’s revelling in the challenges.

Though passion is imperative in any good designer, it can be taken too far. This is something Lyndon Neri learned on the day he accidentally collapsed his own lungs. “I wasn’t well and I hadn’t slept for three days straight. So I spent two days in hospital then went straight back into studying again,” chuckles the designer of his breakdown at Harvard. “It probably wasn’t the best approach.”

Back then the man who would later co-found the Neri and Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai had been throwing himself full tilt into his thesis, about a pocket of a Californian Chinatown in which first-generation customs were still perfectly preserved. It was a critique mostly, but one that Neri felt he could give because he’d grown up somewhere not so different about 8,000 miles away.

As a boy Neri had found the Chinese Diaspora in Cebu, in the Philippines as conservative as it was watertight. “They hold on there to the China that they knew, much more than in Thailand or Singapore,” he says. “As kids we played with toys that people my age haven’t seen except in history books! But the problem is that it doesn’t evolve with the rest of the country.” Though friends commended his father for running such a Chinese household overseas, Neri knew even then that it wasn’t ideal.

The experience has led him to helm emotional explorations into ideas of ‘Chineseness’, much of it through design. He and his wife and work partner Rossana Hu may tap into tradition for their products or interiors, but they try to elevate or excavate below simple cliché. This is also thanks to an old Neri matriarch, still vocal at 99 years old. “My grandfather was a poet, but she was our family intellectual,” he says fondly, of his grandmother. “She would talk to me about the authenticity of a place, how you shouldn’t repeat history but interpret it. She says arts and crafts must be preserved, but if you continue to do new things that are copies, that is no different from somewhere like Disneyland.”

Neri mentions a big hotel the studio is working on in Xian right now: it comes with three hundred and fifty rooms, a tight deadline and the temptation to throw something easy and beautiful together; but instead the designers have been burying into history books and they’ve bought replica terracotta warriors and the armour they wore, “not to mimic them, but to try to understand the nature of the material and why they used it.”  The detail in the armour will be translated into a feature wall in the lobby. This kind of thinking pervades NHDRO design, no matter the size of the project.

But the pair’s affinity with China hasn’t always been so strong. He went to the States from the Philippines at 15, and she moved there from Taiwan. Traveling to the mainland, as a design associate with Michael Graves and later as a family, had its setbacks. Neri wasn’t crazy about the hygiene and the pollution, and he struggled with what he calls the ‘prolonged let’s-talk-about-it’ business approach. “In my first two or three years I was a straight-talking Chinese American and I was just not getting anything done; people were stalling me,” he remembers. “I was working on Three on the Bund as principal for Michael Graves and I realized that to make a significant difference it’s not how fluent your language is, and it’s not how much history or cultural knowledge you have. If you don’t understand the heart of the people there’s no way of communicating”.

The decision to move to China at all was a tough one. The pair left family members, good schools, clean air and prestigious jobs, but the problems they saw in China began to weigh heavy. “Every time I talked to my grandmother she would say, ‘look at yourself in the mirror: you look and you are Chinese,’ and she was right; inscribed on my back it says Made in China!” says Neri. “I love the food, I know the culture, I know the traditions and I raise my kids like Chinese. I could continue to criticise or I could do something about it, and all of a sudden I looked at things differently.” He began to see potential where he had once just seen shortcomings; the buildings that could be better and the café tables on the sidewalk that could one day be romantic, like in Paris, rather than simply unsanitary.

And so came Design Republic. In 2003, masquerading as a stylishly raw design emporium, the studio launched the place with education at its core. It sells their products and lines from Jasper Morrison, Frank Gehry, Isamu Noguchi and the like, but it also pulls in priceless modern design classics from around the world and presents them in exhibitions. Neri gives tours to students about once a month, and other designers make their own pilgrimages to see products that changed the history of their craft. “If we don’t bring these things to Chinese designers they will forever look at them from magazines” says Neri, “and they’ll look and say ‘that’s easy to do’ without understanding that what Jean Prive did with plywood in the 1920s was nothing less than a cultural breakthrough.”

And though the studio itself deals largely in luxury projects and high end products, Neri’s biggest lesson has perhaps been seeing this for the opportunity that it is, and understanding that in China, change happens from the top down and victory comes in many forms. Whether this is by sneaking a museum or a few sculptures in among the boutiques in an exclusive shopping complex, or fostering more time and tolerance among officials for slow, thoughtful design, he’s content, these days, with the manageable triumphs.

“I could be arrogant, but the reality is that this generation of designers is not going to be that great. We ourselves are not going to be that great,” he says cheerfully. “We’re just paving the way.” It looks like his lungs are safe for now.

Full Steam

Full Steam

October 2008, Discovery Magazine, China

Jo Baker takes the waters in Taipei


The air was dark and tinged with cool, old trees struck dramatic poses against the night sky and below them, a near-naked elderly man waxed lyrical about the stars. “This is a good place,” he said, a blue towel twisted jauntily around his head. “Out in the open air with the stars, the moon. It’s a very good way to relax.” The scene was a hopping Friday night at a Taiwanese public hot springs; the place, a sleepy town called Xin Beitou, just north of Taipei.

When the Japanese gave up Taiwan after World War II they left a number of lingering legacies, among them great sushi and a penchant for orderly queues. But their best loved hand-me-down is the onsen (in Japanese) or wenquan (Putonghua). The Japanese have been dunking themselves in steaming, therapeutic mountain ponds for centuries, and developments in ex-colonial towns like Beitou are long-standing tributes to this love affair.The minerals dissolved in geothermal springs are widely thought to have significant health benefits, and many cultures, from Roman to Maori have celebrated the restorative powers of a good, volcanic soak. Maladies from warts to wrinkles are supposed to be soothed by a dip, and though science may raise its proverbial eyebrow few doctors will dispute the good a hot bath can do for circulation, or muscular pain. Sophisticated complexes will feature water of varying temperatures and ph levels to keep everyone happy, however each district will vary.
With twenty or so semi dormant volcanoes hemming in Taipei’s northern edges, its forested vistas seethe with wispy puffs of steam. Hikers will rarely set off without a towel and hot spring resorts dot the region.  But for a steamy, laid back mini break under an hour from the city – and a pilgrimage to the roots of Taiwanese hot spring culture –Xin or New Beitou is the place to go.

‘Steamy’ was once the operative word for the town, which for some years after the Japanese became known as the place to procure many drinks and a lady for the night, particularly for US servicemen. However this has been a mixed blessing. While other Taipei spa towns have a polished, developed feel to them Xin Beitou’s revival came later, and it has a charmingly hodge-podge mix of old and new, in which old invariably seems to win. The place is walkable and very green, its roads hopelessly twisty, and public space is still hallowed. “That park was designed by the Japanese” says Tony Wang, director of Sweetme Hot Spring Resorts, pointing at a green in which old men played checkers, and locals splashed around barefoot in an adjacent stream. “It’s hardly been changed at all.”

The park is just a short walk from Xin Beitou MRT station, and a push through the usual gaggle of chain stores and past a rocky stream will bring visitors to the town’s oldest bathhouse. Longnaitang sits crouched, thatched and whitewashed in a light cloud of sulfur-scented fog, and Mr Lee on reception will happily chat about the area, his family home for five generations. As he speaks the sound of vigorous slapping keeps steady pace behind a curtain. Some kind of massage service? “No, they do that to themselves!” he said. “It’s part of the bathing tradition.”

For those that worry about the perils of onsen etiquette, the local council has put out an A4 sheet of ‘prohibitions and matters for attention’ in English, which Mr Lee keeps to hand. Many of the rules – such as, do not take pets into the baths and stay away if you have an infectious disease – are common sense, but it is worth noting that there should be a fifteen minute immersion max, and that a full body wash is expected before entering. Other potential pitfalls, such as whether to be clothed or not, or how best to brandish your little wenquan towel will usually come from other local bathers, happy to show newbies the ropes. Still, if being nude with an egg-smelling roomful of strangers pushes your pleasure threshold to the max, alternatives beckon.

Not far along Beitou’s steep, narrow alleyways, flanked by little houses are two old bastions of its hot spring history, with baths of the communal and in-room variety. Both catered to the Japanese military and ruling elite in its early-century heyday, and many a kamikaze pilot took their last dip here. The I-Tsun has been in the So family since the Japanese left, and both building and hostesses are ageing but gracefully hospitable. I-Tsun’s interiors are a fascinating mix of eras; architectural Kyoto-style detailing in wood and stone from the turn of the century, curtain and sofa fabrics that have hung on since the late eighties. Further up the hills, Whispering Pines Inn is more polished with Koi Carp ponds and tatami rooms, though still rather dated. At night the sounds of traditional nakashi bands waft up from its popular function rooms below, bolstered by electronic keyboard. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the renditions of ‘Please Release Me’ for salary man’s karaoke, rather than, as we were told rather severely, professionals charging NT$2,000 an hour.

Xin Beitou does have its modern side. McDonalds , Mos Burger, swish real estate offices and brash new hotels suggest that once the economy picks up again, the town’s landscape could see further changes. But where a few Las Vegas-inspired options let the side down, there are also those that offer affordable weekends away in tasteful three and four star comfort. Hotels such as Pacific Wellness and Spa Club and SweetMe Hot Spring Resort combine decent breakfast buffets with sleek design and modern hot spa complexes covering entire floors.

One place in particular has dramatically hoisted Xin Beitou’s chic credentials. Villa 32 was built by Taiwanese millionaire Chiu Ming-hung on a secluded side of town’s primordial Geothermal Valley; a steaming pond and popular tourist site. It was designed as a luxurious guesthouse but Chiu later spent years and millions of Taiwanese dollars converting it into a boutique hotel. He kept many of the personal touches of a wealthy home. Sleek, modernist hot spring complexes lie under century-old camphor and maple trees, and the villa’s five suites – three split-level in a European style and two with tatami mats, fusuma doors, both with sweeping private spas – are served by around 70 staff. The place rivals Taipei’s top luxury hotels, but for those unable to book a room, the Italian restaurant offers a fine lunch.

Diversions tend to be limited in Xin Beitou, but there are hiking trails, a museum of hot spring history and another of indigenous crafts, as well as modest night-market dining adventures to pull visitors out of the bath. Flitting in and out of Taipei is also easy from here. However once the pace of life has got you in Xin Beitou, it can be reluctant to let go. You’d be far better advised to lay back, give in, and sample the joys of a holiday in hot water.


Getting there and where to stay:

The drive to Xin Beitou takes around eighty minutes from Tauyuan International Airport, thirty minutes from Taipei’s main train station, and less by MRT, the user-friendly Tapei metro system.

The I-tsun Hotel
1 40 Wen Chuan Road, (02) 2891 2121-3

Pacific Wellness Spa & Club
No 1, Quiyan Rd, (02) 2893-1668

SweetMe Hotspring Resort
No 224 Guangming Rd (02) 2898 4505

Whispering Pine Inn
No.21, You Ya Rd, (02) 2895 1531

Villa 32
32 Zongshan Road, (02) 6611-888



Pakistan's Persecuted Minority


Asia Sentinel [link], Hong Kong, 30 September 2009; also carried in the World Politics Review

Ahmadis face serious danger and death, some of it possibly fomented by the government

Last month Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari observed the country’s National Minority Day by calling minority groups “a sacred trust for Pakistan” and lamenting the ‘extremist elements’ responsible for their insecurity in the country. But his words fell flat for Pakistan’s Ahmadis, for whom a fresh surge of hostile incidents, some linked to the state itself, is capping decades of persecution.

The issue was taken up this month by Iqbal Haider, the co-chair of NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: “Ahmadis are the worst victims of such discrimination and deprivation, mainly because they refuse to regard themselves as non- Muslims,” he said to Daily Dawn’s political magazine, the Herald. “The state and the society are unwilling to let them have any rights, let alone the freedom to practice their religion. Pakistan has most oppressive laws when it comes to Ahmadis and the suspicion runs deep.”

Ahmadis are arguably the most vilified minority across the Islamic world. They are not considered Muslims by mainstream branches of the religion. Founded in the 1880s by a religious figure named Ghulam Ahmad, Ahmadis differ with the mainstream on the death and return of Jesus, the concept of jihad and, most controversially, the question of whether the Prophet Mohammad was the last messenger from Allah. Ghulam claimed to have received messages himself from god, making him a later prophet.

Pakistan is hardly alone in discriminating against Ahmadis. In Indonesia, where they are known as the Ahmadiyah, they have been terrorized regularly, with their places of worship attacked by fundamentalists and members being banned from taking part in the Haj in some parts of the country. Laws were passed in Indonesia last year restricting their activities and prohibiting them from proselytizing. In many parts of Kyrgistan, they have been told to cease worshiping.

The depredations in Pakistan have been particularly distressing. Since the mid 1980s, the Ahmadis have been dying in droves. Some 104 have been murdered in targeted attacks or lynchings and 117 others have escaped murder attempts, according to the community’s records. Other forms of harassment are also common: mosques have been demolished, set on fire and forcibly occupied and Ahmadi corpses have been dug up from Muslim graveyards.

Statistics tend to run from 1984 because that’s when a column started to appear on all official forms, asking whether or not a person believes in the ‘finality of the prophet;’ part of dictator Zia ul Haq’s ‘Islamization’ drive that cordoned off Ahmadis and other minorities from mainstream life. But recently things have become markedly worse, with at least eight Ahmadis murdered in the last year alone in Pakistan, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and many more falsely arrested. Doctors are a popular target, possibly because Ahmadis tend to be well educated (the group claims a 100 percent literacy rate for women) and at least seven have been murdered in the last three years.

Bouts of anti-Ahmadi or anti-Qadiani sentiment have long seemed to kick in with a ruler’s loosening grip on power.

“In Pakistan religion has been used by the political leadership to sustain their political agenda for a long time,” notes Khawaja Zafar Iqbal, a non-Ahmadi journalist and founder of the Kashmiri-based NGO, Press for Peace (currently in hiding due to a fatwa). “Even our former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was considered very liberal, received considerable public support during his rule by declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims.”

Similarly, seven years into the reign of dictator Zia ul Haq in the 80s, when his power base was seen to be slipping, he strengthened specifically-anti Ahmadi legislation with an ordinance and a couple of amendments to the penal code. And these days a struggling President Zardari appears to be making no concrete commitment to combating public aggression against the sect, much of it linked to the Punjab Provincial Chief Minister, Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif and his ambitious brother and opposition party leader Nawaz Sharif.

In 2008 and 2009 a spate of vociferously anti-Ahmadi conferences (known as the Khatme-E-Nabwat movement) have gone ahead in Punjab, with street processions and two-storey billboards in town centres proclaiming ‘Friendship with Mirza (Ahmadis) is like the enmity of Allah’ (see image). One of the official sponsors in a number of these events was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the provincial ruling party; their insignia appears on the billboards and members of parliament attend. Ahmadi groups also point out that frontline PML-N politicians – including current Chairman Raja Zafura-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s former president Rafiq Tarir have belonged to aggressively anti-Ahmadi parties such as Jamaat Islamiah. For sect members in this province in particular, these conferences are a time to keep their heads down.

This seems particularly necessary when looking at the lack of help Ahmadis tend to get from the legal system; in a country already notorious for police corruption, violence against them can appear state sanctioned.

Late last year a guest on the religious program ‘Alam Online’ (hosted by the former federal minister for religious affairs) repeatedly and freely urged Muslims to kill Ahmadi sect members as a religious duty.

The next day a 45-year old Ahmadi doctor was shot 11 times on his hospital floor by six men, and a day later a 75 year old community leader was shot in the street in Sindh. In the former case although the shooters were seen sauntering casually out of the hospital’s front entrance, no one has been arrested and no official moves were made to hold the program accountable (a weak apology was made after much NGO lobbying).

No one has been arrested for the murder of a trader earlier this year, who died when three men asked him to identify his religion, then peppered his car with gunfire. Ahmadi groups say that little progress has been made in the prosecution of two madrassa students who tried to behead a sect professor this June, but were successfully fought off.

In fact the law for Ahmadis appears to be working inversely, blasphemy laws in particular being misused – it is estimated by the AHRC that 500 Ahmadis are currently charged with offences that vary from ‘impersonating a Muslim’ to desecrating the Quran, which is punishable with death, and in most cases little evidence is used to book them.

In Punjab early this year four teenagers and a teacher of theirs were arrested for writing the name of the Prophet on the walls of a toilet at a mosque in Layaah, though no evidence was given to link them to the mosque or the area itself; police later lamented pressure from fundamentalists groups to make the arrests and the judge trying the case himself became a target of street protests by Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam lobbying for strong punishment. Media reports this week noted a fresh wave of police operations in Lahore to pull down Quranic verses or plaques from above Ahmadi shop doors. This official line has done little to set a positive example in the community.

“People are very loyal and lovely,” insists Munawar Ali Shahid, the General Secretary for Amnesty International in Lahore, an Ahmadi. “The problem is the politicians and political parties and their underground alliances with religious groups.” Nevertheless he talks of discrimination against his son at school – he was told not to drink from the same tap as other students by his teacher – and of reluctance to tell people of his religion.

Munawar Shahid

The feeling extends to the press, which commonly prints fatwas issued by religious groups against minorities (see image) yet refused across the board last year when Ahmadi group tried to place an advertisement explaining that they were boycotting the general election because of religious discrimination.

“All these beautifully constructed articles take a 180 degree turn while considering the status of religious minorities, especially Ahmadis in Pakistan,” says human rights lawyer Rao Zafar Iqbal, of the laws in the penal code that protect the right to religion. “The Zardari government [are] unable to do such things because they are playing in the hands of unseen powers who have their own priorities.”

Iqbal himself narrowly escaped assassination earlier this summer and is in hiding, after fatwas against him were published by the Daily Pavel newspaper, decrying his legal defense of minorities. “I think it’s the failure of the government that religious minorities, activists and human rights defenders protection is still a vague thought in Pakistan,” he says.

A start, says Munawar Ali Shahid, would be the repeal of the ordinance that enforces religious declarations on official documents. Next, he says, Ahmadis must have their right to vote along with the rest of the country, rather than in a separate electoral role (Muslims with Christians, Hindus and other minorities were united electorally under Musharraf, but not Ahmadis). At 46 years old Munawar has never been able to bring himself to vote as a ‘non-Muslim’.

At face value the Zardari government agrees. “This is a Pakistan People’s Party’s Government that is deeply committed to the protection of minorities and to accord them rights a full criticizes” said parliamentarian Sherry Rehman earlier this month. Yet it’s likely that the teenagers with the near-lethal graffiti convictions, the fatwa-burdened lawyer, the disenfranchised father and the professor who nearly lost his head this year, would all like to see a little more bite behind the bark.

Jo Baker is a Hong Kong based journalist and program coordinator for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Comments (11)add




Witness the peril of the “Latter Days”
written by Matin, Jameel , October 29, 2009

Great post


Witness the peril of the “Latter Days”
written by Abdul_Ahad , October 22, 2009

Writer Jo Baker: 

Thanks for an eye-opening article. Alas, one cannot awaken another who is determined to continue feigning sleep.
The mullahs in Pakistan are determined to run the country into the ground, as long as they can command some position/prestige in the crumbling entity that is their lamentable nation. The federal government there has become the supreme tyrant, by virtue of its unrelenting persecution of the peace-loving group, the Ahmadis. Incredibly, in this day and age, that government declared the Ahmadis to be non-Muslim by (of all excuses) majority vote in Parliament! It has allowed a reign of terror to be let loose against Ahmadis, documentation of which is available freely.
Yet the irony is this: it is the Ahmadiyya Community that is at the forefront of the immense task of introducing the superbly-benevolent qualities of Islam to the world at large. Ahmadis construct mosques emblazoned with the Kalima (the Islamic creed). People world-wide click on for authoritative expositions of Islamic beliefs; they turn to Ahmadi scholars for intelligent explanations of Islamic concepts; and they respect the fact that that highly-educated group, though relatively small, has produced a Nobel Prize winner and other leaders of our eternal struggle toward a more-peaceful existence.
Pakistanis, wake up! The nations around you are progressing by leaps and bounds! Cast off your stupor and your chains of servility to the demented mullahs in your midst! If not for the Ahmadis, then do it for your nation’s survival!

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Wonderful to see someone
written by waseem sayed , October 21, 2009

Members of the Ahmadiyah Muslim community are renowned the world over for their attachment to peace. They are taught from their infancy that they must be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. 

Their motto is: Love for all, hatred for none. They believe that faith devoid of good deeds and service of God’s creation is no faith at all. Thus, in every society where the Ahmadis are found, the communities bear witness to their unblemished record of peaceful, law-abiding nature and can show the good works they are involved in to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged members of the society.

The Ahmadiyah Muslim community has now built some 15,500 mosques, more than 500 schools and 30 hospitals. It has translated the Holy Koran into 60 languages.

It propagates the true teachings of Islam and the message of peace and tolerance through a twenty-four-hour satellite television channel (MTA), the Internet – – and print (Islam International Publications).

It has been at the forefront of disaster relief in the United States and worldwide through an independent charitable organization, Humanity First – It is strange that such totally harmless, indeed beneficial members of society should be made the target of attacks.

What is more alarming is that not just the authorities, but the vast majority of Pakistanis are totally blind to the deadly consequences of this persecution that they have seen unfold before their very eyes. If Bhutto and Zia the two masterminds of this ‘service to Islam’ had in fact done Allah’s work why would they and their nation have been flushed down the toilet after such magnificent service?

I fear the end will be the total destruction of the Country! God save us from this disaster.

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written by Atifa , October 16, 2009

hello, and thankssmilies/grin.gif its good to see that other people are realising the discrimination being done against ahmadies and other minorities…its quite amazing how politicians and mullah’s are educated but still illeterate…
you should also look into the more recent things the Mullahs have gotten upto.
there have been cases of kidnapping ahmadi children (one waseven, sadly murdered) and asking ransom money from Ahmadi communities OUTSIDE of Pakistan, since they know we live freely outside Pakistan.
its sad how the Mullahs and other people think they can kill us as they please. if they hate us as ahmadies they should atleast consider us as humans. wives have lost their husbands who are a support for them, children have lost their fathers.
it would be great if you could notify others aswell of these horrid acts against minorities in Pakistan. 

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written by Farooq , October 11, 2009

Good Article, keep it up 

More journalists need to take up the case of persecuted minorities such as Ahmadis in Pakistan to give them a voice with a view to bringing this to the attention of the World so that justice can be done

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written by Tarique Malik , October 09, 2009

Hello Jo, 

It’s a very nice articles, keep it up carry on this good work. We have to do something to stop this main stream Mullah of Pakistan to save not just Ahmadies( the peace loving ,the only loyal community of Pakistan even before the creation of Pakistan) Christians, Hindus, Sikh and other minorities in Pakistan. May Allah give you the best reward for doing this great work.smilies/kiss.gif

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written by Umar Rasheed , October 02, 2009

Hello Jo Baker,
Very good articles, keep it up carry on. 

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justice in Pakistan
written by Abu Luqman , October 01, 2009

this is good thing keep it up.only the ahmadies are not hatted in pakistan rather the minorities are also in dangers like Hindus chritians and many more.
Keep pakistan out of mullah s hand,if not concern cheef justice of pakistan to look into the matters.
thanks and thanks for ur brave ness. 

Abu Luqman
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written by ASU Rajput , October 01, 2009

Hello Jo,
It is good to see someone speaking the truth about the Ahmadis living in Pakistan. I would suggest you to investigate the following topics as well.
1. See what happened to the National Assembly that termed Ahmadis as Non-Muslim.
2. See the fate of the the most powerful political figure of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB), who was the leader of the house in 1974.
3. How the institutions in Pakistan depleted and corrupted ever since the doors on Ahmadis were shut.
4. How the extremism made Pakistan a threat to the whole world, the first bow-down to them was done in 1974 when the then government accepted their demands. 

There is a lot to investigate and you will come up with lot of surprises if you dig deep into this subject.


ASU Rajput

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Commander (Retd)
written by Munir Varraich , September 30, 2009

Hello Jo Baker, 

Good to know that someone talks about Ahmadis in the media. But what you write has been written many times in the press and the media.

I must make it clear that when we talk about Democracy then there is no majority and no minority. Whether it is Benazir’s PPP or whether it is Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP, first and foremost the policians of Pakistan and the society of Pakistan have to decide whether they want an Islamic Republic of Pakistan or a Democratic Republic of Pakistan.

If it is Islamic, then we can talk about Majority and minority in the religious context. Hard luck Ahmadis, in such an Islamic State the rule of Shariah (according to the Mullah) will be implemented. That means Blasphemy Law must be implemented with full Islamic vigour. In that scenario all Ahmadis MUST be killed to purify the Islamic State of Pakistan. Because Mirza Ghulam Ahmad has claimed that he is not only a prophet but has appeared after the Last Prophet who was Mohamad.

As afr as the Law of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is concerned, the DEATH SENTENCE to all Ahmadis in Pakistan and all the Muslim countries in the world, is LAWFUL and LEGAL.

Hello Jo Baker, can you stop this “MURDER OF HERETICS” in the name of Democracy (here it means that majority vote is right and has the right to implement its decision) which goes on in the Muslim World?

If not then all this effort which you want to do is of no use. When madness which has been let lose for the last 400 years by the Church and which during the colonial times was copied, ney, monkeyed by the Muslim world, and when any sense was attempted into the blocked mindset, those very persons and communities was sent to the gallows or the stakes and in today’s world beheaded and their houses burnt. All in the name of religion.


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'My son was murdered and the police did nothing'

September 8, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in Ethics in Action, Hong Kong, The Alaiwah archive on Human Rights, Pakistan, and by the Aboriginal News Service

Journalist and activist Baseer Naweed encountered the opaque operations of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies when his son Faraz Ahmed was kidnapped, tortured and killed outside his office during a major campaign against corruption. Five years and various threats later, he works for the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, but is no closer to the truth.

    Faraz Naweed
    Faraz Naweed. Photograph: supplied by Baseer Naweed
    My whole life I have been an activist. I was a student leader, then joined trade unions, then became an investigative journalist. I wouldn’t say that my son was following me; in fact he would tell me I was making compromises. He’d probably have called himself an anarchist back then.

    When he was 14 he started writing on his own, though at that time I didn’t know it. In fact he was like an ordinary Muslim, going to the mosque and praying; it was only when he started arguing about religion and the existence of God with his mother and grandmother that I realised he was a different kind of man.

    Faraz was very fond of reading Einstein and Stephen Hawking, and at the time of his death he had just started studying philosophy at university. He would spend days reading books in second- hand book shops, using his pocket money at night to eat dinner with the garbage collection boys – he’d sit with seven or eight. Once I saw him and asked what he was doing and he said: “I have to learn about how other people live”.

    I was the community organiser of a big campaign at the time. The Lyari Expressway project would displace 300,000 people from a slum, and the government didn’t have any right to do it. We fought and we got a historical resettlement deal – each family got an 80-square-yard plot and 50,000 rupees (£364) – something like this had never happened in Pakistan. And the size of the plots was good. Here in Hong Kong only the very wealthy have that much space.

    This all took three years, but corruption had also started in the use of public funds and we were fighting that too. I was seen as a real troublemaker. I was told that President Musharraf once said to the governor: “You cannot handle that man with white hair (I was not colouring my hair in the way Musharraf did).”

    During this time I was being threatened regularly. They would call and say that I was against the army and its chief, Musharraf; that “we will kill you”, or “you won’t be able to walk on your legs.” I told them to go ahead. But my son used to take my mobile phone some evenings and he too would pick up these calls and get threats, though he didn’t tell me.

    I presented an Urdu radio program on FM103 called Current Affairs. It was November, I was at the station and people had mentioned mysterious movements around our office. Then my son came to get his fees for university so I told him that he could read out some of the poems we were broadcasting that day by Urdu poet Joan Ellia, who he loved. Then he went to the washroom, but he didn’t return. It was only the next evening when we started to really worry.

    The day after that, moments before the news program somebody came and said, “there is a body of a man outside”. I said: “Look, I’m going to start the program, why are you telling me?” But after, I went down. In those days there were two gangs who were always fighting and killing each other, but I thought that the young man looked educated, not like a militant, so I asked the police to check his pockets. He was so mutilated. His whole jaw was out and there was blood oozing from bullet wounds in his back and his neck was broken, I think because of being thrown from an upper window. It was not possible for me to think that it was my son. Then the card came out and, yes, it was him.

    You cannot imagine. At the official hospital we sat there for two or three hours with the body of my son out in the open, waiting for an autopsy. They kept delaying and making excuses. A philanthropist organisation eventually encouraged me to bury him, but the police refused to get the body themselves. The mullah and other Muslim people said that it was too late and that the prayer had been completed, so I felt I had to bury him.

    A few days after the burial, when our house was full of people, one of my female relatives smelled burning. We rushed upstairs to find all Faraz’s photos and some of his writing on fire in the bath; now we have just one or two photos left. Really, these people wanted to punish me.

    At first the people were protesting on my behalf but I discouraged street protests and I pursued the case with a human rights organisation. But although the [government] made a committee to probe it, they appointed a higher official who was notorious for putting sensitive cases into cold storage. We had four or five head investigating officers in less than one year, all transferred from the case or suspended. They have given us nothing. And now no evidence is left, my friends in the courts and the police have told me that.

    After two days we went up to the top floor of my office building and we found blood stains. So we told police to take a sample of them and they said they would do it. But because I was suffering from depression so bad I could barely talk, barely stand in those days, it was some time before I asked again. Then they said the stains had been washed away because there was rain. So what can you think? After twenty days my other son was dragged out of his school bus and beaten – he was 14 – and told to tell his father not to pursue this case.

    I’ve even given them permission in writing to exhume the body. I talked to the superintendent of the civil hospital who assured me that he would get permission from the judge and do the autopsy himself. That was in 2005. Before leaving the country I had gone to see the officers to help some friends of my son who were being interrogated, and the officers said: “We have this report that it was a suicide”. I asked them what finding they had to prove this and they said: “It’s just our own conclusion”.

    I think there is no hope that the government will solve this case because the military is still so powerful.

    Here in Hong Kong my family feels safer and I have more freedom and more space. After my son was taken there was no real hope in life, we were just living for our remaining two children. Working with a direction to help expose other human rights violations gives me energy, and patience and strength.

    Once I was in a mood to take revenge, but to whom will I do this? It’s not possible. But last year we did a lot of good work supporting the lawyers in Pakistan as they campaigned against Musharraf, to protect the rule of law and have the Chief Justice reinstated, which eventually happened.

    I still work very closely with journalists, NGOs and lawyers in these kinds of cases. Still, really I feel like I’m only living now for my other two children’s dreams – I hope that some of them have survived.

    • Baseer Naweed was interviewed by journalist Jo Baker.

A Thankless Task

A Thankless Task

August 22, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
August 27, Sri Lanka Guardian, Sri Lanka, and and as ‘Thankless tasks: Rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan’ in Selected Articles on politics, human rights & the rule of law in South Asia, Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 03, September 2009 (PDF)

As a truth commission secretary MCM Iqbal helped gathered evidence on thousands of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, only to see it disappear itself

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties watches him from across an ocean with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff.

MCM Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s ‘truth commissions’, presidential commissions of inquiry into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late eighties and early nineties in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course.  He knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the governmental closet; enough, he believes, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

“I still remember when Rajapaksa was on the way to a UN session with photos of torture victims and was caught going through customs,” he recalls, during a recent visit to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. “You know as a minister he used to be at the front of the struggle against these incidents. Now I would consider his regime as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances.”

Back in 1994 Iqbal was working as a senior government administrator when he was asked aboard. It was the first commission of its kind – the result of an election pledge by new president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – and was split up to cover three zones. Iqbal’s job at the central zone inquiry force meant setting up a system that could allow a handful of officers to document thousands  of possible atrocities across four provinces. The team, made up of Iqbal, the chairman and some of their two dozen support staff, would travel around the country setting up shop for open questioning sessions. The idea was that they would compile a report for the president on the number and circumstances of the disappearances, who was responsible for them and how they should be charged, with a final analysis of how, legally, things had been allowed to get so bad. It was expected that the report would lead to legal action against the alleged killers; the public had been promised as much.

But the set up was grueling. For two years the small panel would spend two-week stretches in back-to-back interviews, and at night, away from their families they would dictate and record the cases they’d heard that day. “I had worked in public service for forty years, twenty of them in courts, so this procedure of listening to complaints was not new to me, but it was harder in the sense that some of them touched me,” Iqbal admits. “Sometimes  I felt like sobbing . But my task at the time was to lead the evidence: what happened, who came, was there enough light for you to identify them, did you try to stop them?”

Iqbal remembers many of the stories, but he gives one example; not one of the worst, he adds. According to a woman they heard from in Badulla in the nineties, local police had arrived at her house in the night and taken away two of her three sons; she remembers running, screaming after the jeep. At the police station the following morning the officers denied having arrested the boys, but the woman made such a commotion that her sons heard and started shouting. She waited all day on the verandah, hoping for access. Yet when the night shift officers arrived, they invited her back into the police station, and they gang raped her.

Iqbal says that the women said she could hear her sons shouting throughout the ordeal.  “I can still remember, she narrated what the five did to her, and after that she was almost dead from exhaustion,” he recalls. “But she went home and she complained to the elders who couldn’t help her, and then finally she came to us.”

This act cost her.  A few days after her testimony the same officers picked up her remaining son for a robbery.  Little could be done for her two older boys – by then almost certainly dead – but the commission chairman was able to contact the magistrate and help prove that the police were framing the 17-year-old for theft. “She came running to the commission with her son, crying, and laying on the floor shouting thank you,” he remembers. “All we could tell her was that she better take her son and get out of the area“.

This was one of the more rewarding outcomes. After two years in the central zone and more work with a follow-up commission, Iqbal helped write the report, and says that though some of the cases were clear cut, it was not made public (parts of it would be published in 2002, but without the names of those implicated). “We thought we had enough materials, we thought that this will at least send a signal to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future; that all victims would get compensation and at least  some perpetrators would be punished,” says Iqbal. “But the compensation paid was a pittance for most: 15,000 rupees for a young boy ranging to 150,000 for a public servant. Hardly any of the perpetrators were punished.”

Not yet disheartened, Iqbal took a job with the National Human Rights Commission and the US-based Asia Foundation, logging the same cases in a database and lecturing on human rights. Still, many of those implicated continued to hold high profile positions. The biggest blow then came when members of the National Human Rights Commission, considered relatively independent, were replaced.  The new staff were appointed by the Rajapaksa’s government, and according to Iqbal they had different priorities; the moved was also criticized in international press. “It had become a political commission,” he remembers. “I still remember the chairman, the late Justice Ramanathan, telling me to abandon [our work]. To use the exact words, he said: ‘why are you raking up all the muck?’”

At this point Iqbal resigned. But he would still receive calls from the families of the disappeared, telling him that they saw one perpetrator getting into a car, or that another was still officer in charge of the local police station. It appeared that the files had simply been put aside. “I believe the president did not implement our recommendations because she would have alienated the military and police on whom she depended – terrorism was at its height then and they protected her,” he says.

With no legal reforms made and very few held to account, disappearances continued in Sri Lanka. In 2006 17 locals working for a French NGO were notoriously massacred in a tightly controlled military zone. Scandinavian monitors pointed the finger at security forces but no one was charged. Iqbal refused the invitation to join another such inquiry.

However in 2007 when a group of international observers (the International Group of Eminent Persons) arrived to monitor the new commission’s work, the UN office in Sri Lanka suggested that they take on Iqbal as an adviser. He remembers dusting off his old files and indulging in a bit of straight talking. “I said, look at this list of perpetrators: So-and-so is now commander in chief there, So-and-so is minister of this district and the president knows and he keeps them there. Now he wants you to start making recommendations?” Three months later, when the observer’s released their support for these earlier, buried recommendations (not long before resigning), Iqbal remembers the shock and displeasure from the Attorney General and the higher ups. At that point the death threats started again.

“I’d had such calls in the past, but I didn’t take them very seriously, but these were too frequent and sounded a little more genuine, ” says Iqbal. “They came to me and my wife, and to me they would say you’ll be killed if you keep working there (with the monitors). Finally the observers’ security services monitored the calls and they said you need to leave immediately”. Late in 2007, without a word to anyone, the Iqbals locked up their house and left the country.

And now from a colder climate, with six months in a refugee camp behind him, a schedule of seminars and workshops ahead and his name carefully removed from the phone book, this reluctant keeper of grisly secrets watches the latest Sri Lankan leader with a weary, wary eye. He has no regrets about the path he took, though it essentially led to exile; but he doubts he can say the same for the president.
“When Rajapaksa came to power he had the option of doing something. He was a minister at the time of all this, he knew the contents of these reports and that nothing was being done,” he says. “He knew who was involved in all the killings, and yet he has put all those people around him, given them positions.”

Last month the president made a speech. In it, he declared that he only wants to look to the future now, that the past, essentially, is dead and buried. This, to MCM Iqbal, is eerily close to the truth.

Polo Returns to China

Polo Returns to China

March 2008, Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong

Jo Baker delves into the Middle Kingdom’s new highlife on horseback

Download original: Prestige Polo

A line of Australia’s finest polo ponies fidget unhappily in their stalls, one picking moodily at the stable planks with his well-bred teeth. China is in the throes of its worst winter in fifty years, and it’s not only the people here that are suffering. “They don’t really like being inside,” says Romiro Pellegrini, a young vet and skillful Polo player from Argentina. “They’re athletes. They want to be out playing, and this snow just gets them down.”

The ponies of China’s new Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club may well be dreaming of last October; three days in which man and horse tussled on a field of verdant grass to a backdrop of fizzing champagne, hats of architectural daring and delicate wahs of enthusiasm. Shanghai’s elite were learning how to do ‘garden party’ and in the process, sporting history was being made.

Polo hasn’t always come with champagne. Its roots in Central Asia – Persia around 600BC it is guessed – suggest a sport played among horse-hardy villagers, with its past incarnations using the carcasses of goats and the heads of men. However during its move through Tibet and India, and into the British Empire (where it was largely used to train Calvary) it was successfully refined, and ‘the Sport of Kings’ emerged in all its present Mumm-quaffing glory.  Prince Charles and his brood play it, as did the Sultan of Brunei, and many a deal in the Middle East has been eased along by a chukker or two. With Polo’s role of honour ranging from Dukes to CFOs, it seems only fitting that it be poised to hit one of the world’s fastest growing elites.

“As prestige goes, it’s only really matched by having your own Formula One team” says Steve Wyatt, the man who made both China’s first international polo tournament, and its home – Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club – a reality. He founded the club six months ago on a development belonging to his partner, millionaire tycoon Qin Fu Li, where it complements a marina and a golf club, all encased in rosy, faux-Mediterranean architecture. The site between Hangzhou and Shanghai has it within easy reach of a rich, restless client base, and it nurtures a small but enthusiastic team of Chinese Polo players in-training.

Still, as impressive as the sport is, even Wyatt –  a keen player –will admit that polo is only 10% of time spent on a horse; most of the club’s 300 or so members have taken the less-active ‘social’ membership. When considering polo for his Nine Dragons property, Li, who’s among the top fifty in China’s Hurun Rich List, had foreseen a powerful new social niche for those in China’s top tier; one that would have been unthinkable just ten years earlier.  “In the future we can see polo attracting a lot of leaders from other countries like Britain or the Middle East,” he says from behind acres of desk in his forty-third floor Shanghai office. “Not long ago the Japanese Prime Minister played tennis with the Chinese premier during a visit, and it was a very good chance for them to nurture their relations. My suggestion is that if Prince Charles can come to Nine Dragons Hill and play polo, ties between our countries can develop and bilateral trade will develop further!”

Wyatt also stresses the global power of the polo network, or as he also terms it, the ‘family’. “It’s a small community anywhere in the world, usually of successful business leaders.  If you have an international handicap you’re automatically welcomed into the circle in exclusive club X in country Y,” he says. “Several times I’ve just turned up; somebody will be out exercising the horses, you’ll get chatting to them over a coffee and then you find out that they’re running the Hermes fashion house or something like that.” He picked a good example. Patrick Guerrand – Hermes, director of Hermes International, does indeed play Polo. He also owns The Polo Club du Domaine de Chantilly, France’s premier club.

This expansion into China is all part of an emerging global trend. As the rich grow richer and ever-fond of seclusion, high end villas, marinas, golf and equestrian clubs are being rolled into mega watt, gated leisure packages –like the impending Culu Culu in Argentina (a country that harbours the highest concentration of skilled players) or Apes Hill in Barbados. For wealthy Chinese, time in the saddle can map the way into an airtight world of wealth, heritage and high culture overseas.

However these are early days, and it hasn’t been easy to start a club from scratch in a country with little horsemanship in its modern history. Polo circles have the bar set high, and quality control is Wyatt’s major worry. He and Li brought in fourteen thoroughbred polo ponies from Australia, Pellegrini from a club in Thailand and the deftest of Mongolia’s young horse hands, as well as a clubhouse furnished with antlers and polished leather. But the key, he says, was in peaking the interest of the right men. “The point is, you only get one chance to create a first impression, so it’s important that you have people who are of the kind that you’d expect to be gentleman players or patrons,” he explains.

He found his gentlemen – three of them at least – on the race track. Ferrari racers have just the right combination of wealth and personality, Wyatt decided, plus an essential competitive streak. His idea was to train them up for participation in a pioneering international championship at the club that could rally the local elite.  The three, Larry Lin, Michael Wang and Tony Wang are a group of chairmen, managing directors at the very top of their professional game. The club’s fourth Ambassador Team player is Brian Xu, whose company Shanghai Marco Stationery is responsible for manufacturing a vast proportion of the world’s pencils. He had come across the sport during a stint in Santa Barbara and was keen to get back in the saddle.

From little or almost no equestrian experience, the four men found themselves in front of a 3,000 strong crowd ten weeks later, on two newly inaugurated polo fields recently pulled from the sea. Each man was placed in a team with some of the world’s top polo contenders, including international championship winners, a former national team captain and the reigning world champion elephant polo player, James Manclark. A landmark exhibition match also took place between new, mostly overseas-trained teams from Shanghai and Beijing.

As aficionados will probably note, a real appreciation of the sport can’t be honed in a year; and polo’s frilly spectator culture is as big as the sport itself. “We spent a while beforehand with PR getting the message out there about what polo is,” remembers Wyatt. “We did an etiquette day for ladies with sponsorship from a hat manufacturer. Champagne flowed. It was a way of talking about Garden Party – how to look and be the part. Those not dressed appropriately on the first day – by third day they’d all got it.”

Tournament sponsorship came from Royal Salute Whisky, with its brand ambassador, the 13th Duke of Argyll rambunctiously present along with other hues of European nobility. The Royal Salute Cup came from HRH Queen Elizabeth’s jeweler, Richard Fox. Divots were gleefully trodden in, luxury cars test driven, best hat competitions held and an extravagant gala dinner hosted among the Renoirs and Degas of a fine art fair at Shanghai’s Exhibition Centre (a horse and carriage were also craned in specially); all hooking a local upper crust which, until then had thought golf, or sailing, as good as it got.

Wyatt is determined that the next event raise the bar higher and he’s keen to expand his Ambassadors team among the business elite. Another generation of new players has signed up for the club’s intensive tournament skills course, one of few in the world (for where clubs in other countries are jealously protective, here there’s a well directed push – provided you have the right credentials). “I don’t know if polo will happen in the next Olympics, but the next World Cup…” Wyatt pauses, “well, it would be awesome to have a Chinese national team there.”

He’s not alone with his ambitions and there are a few other small polo operations in China now, though allegedly none with thoroughbred polo ponies. Li also has grand plans for the property as a whole, and speaks with a gleam in his eye of an intricate Disney-meets-Sea-World-meets-Monaco kind of sprawl that aims to rival Macau as a mini-break destination down south. But for now, the ponies must just get themselves through one very chilly winter, warmed perhaps by the knowledge that being a pioneer has never been easy.


The Rule of the Game

Polo teams generally consist of four players, each on a horse, with a game split into six or eight chukkers (or chukkas) of seven minutes each. There are breaks of three minutes between each chukker, plus a five-minute half time. The aim is to get the ball through the opponent’s goal using a long mallet. Goal posts are 24 feet apart, and an outdoor polo field is roughly the size of ten football pitches. Since the safety of the polo ponies (which are actually horses) is primary, penalties are given for reckless play and riders must take care not to bodily intercept the ball. Despite this, games are fast paced, tremendously strenuous and often aggressive.