Humour - Henry - Christmas

Henry Beauchamp remembers...

2. The Spirit of Christmas

Watching a stout young fellow in Central department store rigorously polish his baubles and grapple with a bulging sack the other day, I was reminded of the first time I dressed up as Santa and spread the spirit of Christmas.

I had been sent up from Bangkok in the late fifties to take charge of an underperforming nipple clamp factory just outside Mae Rim and after a long and arduous journey north, I was immensely relieved to finally throw my bags on the floor, mix a gin and tonic and collapse on what was to be my bed for the next few months.

I woke to the sight of my enormous manservant standing rigidly to attention.

“Boonlert! What in bloody blazes are you doing?” I roared.

From the bizarre series of grunts and moans that seems to constitute a language for the natives, I worked out that Boonlert was saying something along the lines of: “Oh great white master from the West, we simple savages run around half naked all day in a spiritual wilderness. Can’t you please burn our temples, brainwash our children and generally instill a pernicious sense of guilt and damnation?”

I rose slowly, poured a small pick-me-up and walked over to the window. As I gazed out over the filth and squalor of the village, it occurred to me that the fellow must be referring to Christianity.

“My dear chap,” I said “I think that is a thoroughly splendid idea. Let’s bring Jesus to the masses!” And with that we settled down to toast our new venture.

Finally running out of ice, we marched down to Sinotwatra’s silk shop to get some supplies. We emerged several hours later with myself dressed in a jolly red suit and hat and my enormous manservant nailed to a bamboo cross with knitting needles stuck in his head and a banana skin covering his wedding tackle.

Grabbing what was left of the gin, we headed off to the village hall where I sat on the headman’s chair and Boonlert kneeled on the floor. After several minutes, a small savage, who could have been no more than nine years old and naked as the day he was born, poked his head around the door and stared at us.

“Ignorant beggar” I muttered to myself, then “Ho ho ho, young shaver! Come on in, all are welcome. Why don’t you come and sit on Santa’s knee?”

But the snotty-nosed little fuzzy wuzzy just stood there, looking blankly at us.

“Right, Boonelert grab him!” I hollered, and with that my trusty manservant leaped up and charged after the heathen child. Boonlert snatched the kid – as best he could, hands nailed to the cross and all that – dragged him over and flung him across my knee. I looked deep into the savage’s eyes, and for a moment, beyond the crust and flies, thought I could actually see his soul.

“Say I love Jesus!” The child stared at me with such insolence that I found it hard to control myself. Nevertheless, I know how to deal with children having met one in Burma once, so I reached into my sack and pulled out a piece of dried mango. Holding it up in front of his greedy eyes, I repeated “Say I love Jesus!”

The child responded with a hearty “I rub cheeses!”, and thinking that good enough I flung the mango behind me and let the brat run after it.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, we must have welcomed the whole village to the joys of Christianity, and in so doing not only gave a tremendous boost to the dried mango trade, but also ensured that the spirit of Christmas would live on in even the most Godless of lands.

Citylife, December 2004

Review - Wine - Lungarotti

An ominous sounding pinot grigio from central Italy

My name is Mike and I'm a supermarket slut.

There, I've said it. Phew. It wasn't always thus, you know. I remember the days when I could walk the aisles of Villa and not snigger at mosquito repellent called Ars Liquid. Or when I could wander around Tops without spending my whole week's shopping budget on chewy sweets called Fanny. Those were also the days when I wouldn't take phone-pictures of Black Man mops and get into a sweaty, violent funk trying to send copies to all my friends.

So I've got a problem. But I'm trying to face up to it. Part of my rehabilitation is a kind of Ludovico's Technique which entails keeping a photograph of a Japanese fish sausage product called Homo Sausage as my screensaver and jabbing myself in the ear with a larb-flavoured Pretz every time I giggle. It seems to be working; I haven't eaten khao phad poo in weeks. (Chuckle ... Ow!)

But like everyone with an addiction, be it booze, jazz tablets or Fanny, I am only ever one packet of Collon away from relapse. My long dark night of the soul came last Sunday when, hopped up on red Fanta and chicken feet, I piled into Gourmet Market at Emporium and splurged my baby son's milk money on a bottle of Italian pinot grigio called Lungarotti (705 baht, 2007, 13% ABV).

It's a brilliant name, Lungarotti. It sounds like a health warning on a packet of cigarettes. Or slang for being strangled by a cheese wire. "Don Luigi, I found Fredo speaking to the carabiniere. Shall I put a horse's head under his pyjamas?" "Non! Give him the Lungarotti!" (The reality, as ever, is a little less exciting, the plonk being named after the Umbrian company's founder, Giorgio Lungarotti, in the early '60s.)

Pinot grigio can be a horrendously dull wine; watery and lacking in character, it can make David Beckham appear charismatic and profound. So much of the stuff is churned out each year that it is maybe no wonder that most of it is insipid muck. But not every last grass-tinged drop is "meh" and, despite the titter-worthy name, the Lungarotti 2007 is a perfectly pleasant drop.

Light and fruity with an elegantly understated floral whiff, the nose of this pale plonk is all lazy
Sundays by a lake. Dry and light-to-medium bodied, it goes down as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo on a bouncy castle, leaving the slightest of booze-burns and a mild puckering of the gob walls.
Quite delicate, there are notes of lemon, honey and almonds, and even a slight ginger quality. Thoroughly enjoyable. This is a clean and crisp drop with a touch of acid that would work well as an aperitif or, as I had it, with a healthy portion of Homo Sausage and some lightly waxed larb Pretz.

In email-land, Andy from Bung Kum writes with a recommendation for what he describes as "an el cheapo bottle of plonk that they usually hide away on the bottom shelf at Villa Thong Lor". The tipple in question is called Coyanza Blanco, apparently, and goes for a remarkably low 269 baht.

Seriously, Andy, I ain't touching it. The last time I bought a bottle that cheap was from behind the counter at a Tesco Express and, I kid you not, I ended up using it to unblock the sink.
"The label tells me its 'Vino De Mesa'," he continues, not realising that we all lost interest ages ago, "which I gather has something to do with desert rock formations."

Moving on ... Caroline Funck (!) is this week's winner of the Grapevine Silly Name of the Week Award (brought to you by Ars Liquid). Caroline, who says she "started drinking Chilean wines 20 years ago", agrees with my assertion last week that the South American slosh has improved since the '80s before - somewhat bizarrely - going on to recommend where to buy German bread in Bangkok. Thanks Caroline, but maybe 20 years on the grog is enough now, eh? At least have a cup of coffee and sober up. After all, everyone knows Germans don't make good bread. In fact (cue drum roll) they make the wurst!
Eh? Oh, suit yourself.

Bangkok Post, November 2008

Interview - Simon Napier-Bell

Enjoy what you do
Music guru, author and all-round bon viveur Simon Napier-Bell talks about his extraordinary career and how he has adapted to life in Thailand

Fascinated by the jazz clubs of Soho in the early 50s, Simon Napier-Bell’s earliest ambition was to be a professional musician. Displaying a taste for adventure that would serve him well, he sold his record collection at the age of 18 and travelled to Canada, where he picked up work as a trumpeter on the Montreal bar scene. Eventually deciding the jazz world was far too straight for his own tastes, Simon packed his bags and headed back to London in 1960, intending to pursue a career in writing.

The writing would have to wait though, as Simon fell into a job as an assistant film editor, going on to work as music editor on several notable films, including the 1965 comedy What’s New Pussycat?

He left the film business to go into music management, a career that has, to a greater or lesser extent, stuck with to this day. In 1966, he also doubled as a producer for one of his first bands, The Yardbirds, on their debut studio album.

Also in that year, he teamed up with Vicki Wickham, producer of the hit TV show Ready Steady Go, to write You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me for British singer Dusty Springfield. The song became a huge commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic and also supplied the title for Simon’s first book about the music business, released in 1983.

Simon went on to manage many other acts, including Marc Bolan, art-rockers Japan and 80s pop sensation Wham!. With two more books under his belt – Black Vinyl White Powder in 2001, and I’m Coming To Take You To Lunch in 2006 – he now lives in Pattaya with his Thai partner of 17 years.

I understand you recently built a house in Pattaya. What is it about living in Thailand that appeals to you?
It’s a strange thing about Thailand: I am a natural traveler and I like to be moving around the world. For 40 years I’ve been someone who is happiest when my work involves me having to get on and off planes and check in and out of hotels.
When I first started coming to Thailand, 35 years ago, I found it was the first place I’d ever been which I never had the urge to leave. Usually after a couple of weeks anywhere, the urge to be somewhere else takes over, but in Thailand that never happened. Whether it’s the people, the culture, the sound or the smell of the place… one way or another it gave me an ability to relax which I hadn’t found before.

How do you fell you fit in with the Thai way of life?
I’m a very non-judgmental person. I’m always amazed by the way foreigners who live here complain. It seems to me, when you’re not in your own country, it’s impossible to complain. You see letters in the Bangkok Post complaining about this and that – the quality of the cable television service, the amount of money someone’s business is losing because of an inefficient internet connection – and I just don’t understand it. You take the country as a whole: good, bad and indifferent.
In fact, the greatest pleasure of living in someone else’s country is that you absolve yourself from the responsibility of having to complain. It’s one of the great relaxing qualities about being an alien. In Britain, if things go wrong, I’m meant to complain, and vote, and help put things right. Here I’m being let off that responsibility. Things are as they are. I’m just here to observe and be interested, which seems quite close to the Thai attitude to things – very non-judgmental, very easy-going.

You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in pop music. Are those days over now, or are you still involved in the music biz?
Definitely still involved. But I’m not prepared to manage artists anymore, not in the personal management sense. It’s too time-consuming. Too much time is wasted one silly day-to-day aggravations.
What I frequently do now is work as a consultant, devising an overall marketing and promotion strategy while another day-to-day manager works with the artist. At this stage of my career, I find I have so much experience and so many contacts that it seems silly to waste time on listening to the artist’s personal problems or dealing with his morning-afters. Better to be looking at the overall big plan.
Currently I’m advising some people who are making an Asian-wide search for exciting new talent – from India to Japan and everything in between. They’re starting here in Thailand with a search of all Southeast Asia. Hopefully this will finally dig up what everyone has been waiting for – a real worldwide superstar from Asia.
At the same time I’ve also been working with a singer who is half Thai and half Vietnamese, though brought up totally in England, John Dang. He’s living in Bangkok and about to release some material through Sony. Between him and the Asia-wide search, I’m confident that in a couple of years Asia will have its first worldwide singing star. And hopefully I’ll have something to do with them.

What do you make of the current music scene, both in Thailand and internationally - any particular favourites?
I like Thai music enormously, everything from luk thung to the most poppy Grammy output. The local scene is both healthy and fun, though record companies wouldn’t necessarily agree. But then, when record companies talk about it they’re not really talking about music as such but about units sold and profit made.
For quite some time my favourite aritist out of Thailand has been Futon, a group that epitomises the eclectic international feel of modern Bangok. But to be honest, they’re just one of several new acts. And the established greats of Thai music – like Bird, or Sek Loso – still have the ability to produce current and relevant music.
My current international music favourites are quite predictable, much what everyone else’s are: Any Winehouse, Lilly Allen and so on. But you should also look out for Aqualung, Stephen Marley – son of Bob – and a new British group called Chauffeur Driven Aviator.

What work are you most proud of?
I’ve never thought in those terms, ever. For me, pride, and working in the music business don’t seem to go together. After spending several post-school years wondering what I would ever do with myself I fell into the business quite by chance. I’ve never thought of anything I’ve done in it as something to be proud of. Certainly I’ve learned the art of management, of organization, of getting the best out of people, that sort of thing. But to apply what I’ve learned to creating egomaniacs out of teenagers doesn’t seem to be something particular pride-worthy.
If anything is to be proud of it would have to be the creative things I’ve done – so, three books and a few songs. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me came out too easily to engender a feeling of pride, though retrospectively it looks like a good set of lyrics, and sure, yes, it came from me. But it wasn’t done with great attention or thought in expressing myself in a useful or worthwhile way.
My three books were hard work. I don’t find writing easy or straightforward. I have to force myself to sit down and do it.
Perhaps to have been completely without a way of seeing what I should do with my life, and then to have found ways to get through it without creating any major disaster for myself or anyone else is sufficient to engender some sort of quiet satisfaction.

Bangkok Post, July 2007

Review - Wine - Ottosanti

A classic option for fruit, fun and sheer drinkability

Agent Starling struggles to keep her composure as Lecter's mocking barbs dig deep into her soul, clawing at her already fragile sense of worth.

"Why don't you look at yourself and write down what you see," she stammers, desperate to appear strong, desperate to be in control. "Or maybe you're afraid to."

Lecter slams the papers back into the drawer and fixes Starling with a cold, murderous stare. "A census-taker once tried to test me," he deadpans. "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice drop of Blue Nun - it was on at two-for-one at Tesco Express. Not as bad as you might think. Slurpity, slurp!"

Phew. For a minute there I thought I was going to have to hide behind the sofa again, like I do whenever something truly scary comes on TV. Like The Exorcist. Or John Dykes on Football Focus. (Nobody can be that clean. It's frightening.)

But, of course, Hannibal Lecter doesn't say Blue Nun in Silence of the Lambs, does he? No. He says: "A nice Chianti." Much different. One's a marvellous drop of Tuscan magic, while the other's a sickly German relic of the '70s that people are embarrassed to admit they like. No, hang on. I'm thinking of The Scorpions.

Anyway, Chianti. Let's hear it for checked tablecloths! Whoop it up for straw baskets! And, ladies and gentlemen, a warm hand for Ottosanti! At 699 baht (Central Chidlom, 12.5%), this ain't the cheapest bottle we've ever had at Grapevine Towers, but the quest for decent wine at a good price is a perilous one, dear reader, and sometimes that means paying 100 baht or so more than you normally would.

It's the sort of wine you might miss, actually, hidden away on a lower shelf. Unassuming dark red label, not much information, middling price range. Basically it just says: "I'm a Chianti. Want some?" Well, yes, Mr Ottosanti, we do.

A sumptuous ruby red colour invites the nose in to a warm bouquet of cherries and, naturally enough for a drop that's 95% sangiovese, strawberries. There's a pleasant sensation to the mouth as this breezy drop slides down, and an ever-so-slightly sweet taste that brings to mind ripe red fruit dipped in mildly spicy milk chocolate.

So, a Chianti that's fruity and easy to drink, I hear you muttering. Isn't that the point? Well, of course it is. But timeliness is next to wineliness, and this is a little beauty from just outside Florence that is absolutely perfect for the party season. Turn up to a seasonal bash with a bottle of this and nobody will be frowning as you plonk it on the table and start digging into the single malts.

On the subject of the festive season, I'd like to know what you will be serving alongside your celebratory feasts. Will you be lounging around the pool with pineapple and cheese on sticks and a chenin blanc colombard from up the road at Khao Yai? Or flopping out in front of the TV with some leftover turkey sandwiches and a big fat Spanish Rioja? Or maybe you'll be gnawing on chicken ligaments and glugging Hong Tong with the motorbike taxi guys. Never did me any harm.

And now, from our Care in the Community project, a plea from Jim Rodford in Chiang Mai: "Mr Atkins" - a polite start, very good - "while I appreciate all your efforts in assessing bog-standard plonk from around the world, why don't you review Thai wine? Is it because it's all rubbish?" Well, Jim, the short answer is no, it's not because it's all rubbish. In fact there are several Thai wines I'm quite partial to, although not many in the price range for this column, admittedly.
That's the problem here, as I'm sure you know - the price. Kim came through last week with a perfectly reasonable Mont Clair syrah, but value like that - 285 baht - is all too rare. However, point taken, Jim, and I will endeavour to cover more Thai wines. Hallelujah! Sawasdi krap! Chon gaio!
Bangkok Post, November 2008

Review - Wine - Graffigna

Argentinians aren't just for scoring goals, you know - as this drop clearly shows.

Ah, Argentina. What a country. The tango; Madonna; corned beef. You can't argue with that line-up, can you. And then there's Ernesto "Che" Guevara. You might think you know him from a million student bedroom posters, but in actual fact - and I'm quoting from Wikipedia here - he was a gorilla. Amazing.

And let's not forget Diego Maradona, the footballer who reinvented the beautiful game in the mid-'80s. He reinvented it as a game you play with your hands while hopped up on Bolivian marching powder.

And then, of course, there's wine. Great big lakes of the stuff. Argentina, you see, is one of the world's biggest producers of plonk, ranking fifth after France, Italy, Spain and the US, and coming in ahead of Australia, Germany and South Africa. Quite impressive for a country that was almost colonised by the Welsh.

Argentina's wine industry shares much in common with its neighbour over the hills, Chile. First of all - and predictably enough - both sprang from 16th century Spanish conquistadores. It's those foothills of the Andes you see - nice and sunny, dry and easy to irrigate. And until relatively recently, both countries had a name for producing huge quantities of pretty ordinary jug wine, most of which was consumed domestically.

Seeing the success Chile had in reinventing itself in the 1980s, especially its successful marketing to huge markets in North America and the UK, Argentina followed suit and did very well. By the mid-'90s - around the time Maradona stopped eating salads and his sister, Madonna, started getting her Golden Globes out - Argentina was shipping out vast quantities of plonk.

Now, although Argentina is home to nearly 20 successfully cultivated grape varieties - tempranilla, cab sav and sangiovese being particularly agreeable - it's malbec that has become synonymous with the country. Although not exactly dismissed in its native Bordeaux, the French generally think of malbec as a blending wine; something to pad out the good stuff. In Mendoza, a region west of Buenos Aires responsible for almost 70% of wine produced in the country, malbec is boss.

The malbec I grabbed from Gourmet Market at Emporium (Graffigna, 2006, 580 baht, 14% ABV) actually comes from the region just north of Mendoza, San Juan. Unfortunately, although only a stone's throw away, San Juan is not and never will be Mendoza. Much hotter than its southern pal, the grapes tend to be high in volume but low in quality. Basically, San Juan is to Mendoza what Phil Neville is to Maradona. And I don't mean taller.

Not that the Graffigna was awful. There's a light, ripe berry nose to it, and after being ignored for a good half hour the harsh, boozy thwack that characterised opening swigs had been replaced by a gentle, boozy thwack that got less and less thwackish the more ratatouille (courtesy of Madame A) my guests and I shovelled down our gullets.

But no one buys wine actually wanting alcohol to be the dominant taste (although I guess Maradona may have done in his youth), and the overriding feeling was that if we could force the wine back into the bottle for another six months or so, it may well have "found itself".

But, much like my own teenage conviction that I had a future in authoritative, well-researched, hard-hitting journalism - sometimes you've just got to be realistic. And so, all I was left with was a compulsion to hunt down a reasonably priced Mendoza malbec to compare and contrast. And my Che "Cuddles" Guevara poster.

The issue of how little is too little is causing all sorts of anguish in the Grapevine Towers mailbox. Peeraya (last week's letters) gets support from Andy Rankin, who argues that 500 baht is the equivalent of 8 (probably nearer to 20 by the time you read this), and if he were spending that kind of money at home in England he'd expect something "better than passable. And so," he continues, "while in Thailand, I'm a beer man!"

But enough of the handwringing, let's move onto Kim, who actually put his 285 baht where his mouth was and sent a bottle of Mont Clair Bin 9 Reserve (2007, shiraz, 13% ABV) round to Grapevine Towers. Not a bad drop either, Kim, cheers. A light, easy-drinking drop that although somewhat lacking in character, is certainly something you could glug every day without ruining your palate or you wallet. The grapes are South African, the bottling is Thai and the savings are yours. Not a bad deal, doncha think?

Bangkok Post, November 2008

Review - Music - Mika

Music to scratch blackboards to

MIKA : Life in Cartoon Motion

There can be few things more embarrassing than having Queen guitarist Brian May stick up for you. Despite a slew of positive media for Mika's debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, ("One Man Scissor Sisters", "Enter the New Freddie Mercury", "Mika Shall Inherit the Earth", etc), Bri got narked by one crappy review and started ranting to anyone who'd listen about the ignorance of the hack and the brilliance of the Beirut-born singer.

This outburst might have meant something if May was still seen as a titan of the music world. As it is, it's hard not to just think of him as that grumpy old sod who fills time between selling Queen's legacy down the swanny with Ben Elton musicals and cash-in reunion projects by mucking around with telescopes and campaigning to save hedgehogs. Rock on.

But back to Mika Penniman, an unfairly handsome, rather foppish singer/songwriter who appears to be a cross between Freddie Mercury, Robbie Williams and a bag of Haribo Gummi Bears. He recently blasted to No. 1 in the UK with Grace Kelly, a catchy pop workout as annoying as a pube on a toilet seat and as camp as a row of tents.

He certainly isn't for everyone, which is a pity, because you get the sense he's not going to go away quietly.Life in Cartoon Motion is an ugly little ragbag of self-congratulatory skits and bargain basement pop that is the aural equivalent of Mr Bean. Legend has it that Grace Kelly was written as an "up yours" to a record company suit who had the temerity to turn down the then-struggling jingle writer. Personally, I'd like to find that record exec and buy him a pint of the finest ale. At least he tried.

Falsetto floods the album, as does the kind of faux soul interludes that would make all but the most forgiving of Pop Idol devotees puke their guts up. When a full gospel choir takes over at the climax of Happy Ending, you can almost see a poor little orphan wipe a tear from her cheek and walk off into the sunset. It made me want drown something.

And what the chuff is this song Big Girls (You are Beautiful) hoping to achieve? Apparently the dandy saw a documentary about fat Yank lasses at a disco and realised he wanted to champion them in a song. But can he really think that the big-boned sisterhood is going to thank him for essentially saying that they've got lovely personalities?

The ghastly song sniggers at people ordering "a diet Coke and a pizza please," and posits that "a whole lot of woman needs a whole lot more". At least when AC/DC (Whole Lotta Rosie) and Queen (Fat Bottomed Girls) did this kind of thing, it was funny. Here, it seems like Mika thinks he's actually being constructive. (Oh, and if it does become an anthem for the circumferentially challenged, you'd better memorise the opening chords so you can evacuate the dancefloor tout de suite. You know what happened with I Will Survive.)

Does the world need Mika? Of course it doesn't. The world needs Aung San Suu Kyi to be freed, global warming to be countered and Pizza Company to deliver after 10pm far more than it needs a smarmy looking git in orange trousers singing about fat girls. On the other hand, lots of people seem to like orange trousers. Brian May, for example.
Bangkok Post, April 2007

Feature - Burma - Muslims

The Outsiders
In a country where discrimination against minority groups is a fact of life, Muslims are bottom of the heap.

There is a saying that if you lose control of your bicycle in Burma’s western Arakan State, you shouldn’t worry as it will stop when it hits a kala.

Kala is Burmese slang for outsider, or alien, and although Caucasians are sometimes referred to as white kala, the term is more commonly used for anyone dark skinned, usually of Indian origin. While some shrug the term off, others consider it abusive and degrading: an insult to people whose ancestors may have fought for the country and who consider themselves wholly Burmese.

However the name is interpreted, the fact remains that Burmese Muslims of Southern Asian descent—there is also a small community of Chinese Muslims, the Panthay, with roots in southern Yunnan province—are treated very much as outsiders. Some Buddhist Burmese complain that Muslims refuse to integrate, or sneer at their religious practices. Others will look you in the eye and tell of a Muslim master plan to convert Burmese women to Islam, raise children and, eventually, take over the country.

A Buddhist taxi driver in Rangoon rolled his eyes when I asked him whether he liked Muslim people: “They kill cattle,” he said, referring to Eid Al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. “We need cattle to work in the rice fields, but they kill them.”

The ceremony is an important date in the Muslim calendar, commemorating Allah’s challenge to Ibrahim, and the meat from the sacrificed animal is shared among the community. Although the meat is gratefully accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, many Buddhists find the ceremony offensive.

“We definitely have an image problem,” admits Ahmed, a local Muslim leader speaking after Friday prayers at one of Rangoon’s downtown mosques. “We encourage people to be discreet, so as not to offend others, but I think sometimes we make local people feel like they are living with strangers—the way some of us dress, the way we speak, our activities. We are partly responsible.”

The “some of us” here illustrates the divide even within the Muslim community. As Moshe Yegar points out in his 1972 study The Muslims of Burma, there are deep-rooted differences between the Rohingyas of Arakan State, the fundamentalist “Indian Muslims” who are mostly based in Rangoon and those who have striven for total integration: “These are different groups that do not identify with each other, do not share the same goals and aspirations, and hardly ever cooperated in any of that community’s struggles.”

The first Muslims to settle in what is now Burma are believed to have been Persian and Arab mariners who landed on the Arakan coast back in the 8th or 9th century and, according to records, their descendents served under King Anawrahta (1044-1077) and his son King Sawlu (1077-1088). The 12th and 13th centuries saw the arrival of more seafarers, as well as an influx of Muslims from present-day Bangladesh—the Rohingyas. The kingdom of Arakan fell to the Burmese toward the end of the 18th century and was ceded to the British 40 years later, during the first Anglo-Burmese war.

When the British embarked on their annexation of Lower Burma in 1824, they brought with them significant numbers of migrants from South Asia, a number of whom assumed key posts in business, politics and the civil service. Many retained their positions following independence in 1948, and during the fifties and early sixties there were several notable Muslim MPs and ministers.

But when General Ne Win swept to power on a wave of nationalism in 1962, things began to change. Expelled from the government and army, Burmese Muslims found themselves ever more marginalized. The position of Muslims in society and the legacy of independence heroes such as Abdul Razak, better known as Saya Gyi U Razak, who was assassinated along with national icon general Aung San, was slowly being eroded.

A 2002 report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (“Crackdown on Burmese Muslims”) notes: “There is no written directive that bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government...but in practice that is what happens.”

“There is definitely discrimination in the workplace,” says Aesop, a local Muslim businessman. “There are no Muslim headmasters or directors of companies. No professors. There are sergeants and corporals in the army, but nothing above that.”

While all but the elite must wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to slowly turn in Burma, many Muslims feel the wheels turn more slowly for them. As Aesop says: “Our citizenship rights are denied.

Identification cards—which show you are Muslim—are confiscated or not granted in the first place. Without an identity card you can’t travel, conduct business or study. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”

A recent article in the government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar (“Myanmar [Burma], Where all Citizens Enjoy Freedom of Worship,” December 2, 2005) trumpets the country’s cordial relationship with the Muslim population, who officially make up 3.78 percent of the nation’s 54 million citizens, though other estimates put the figure as high as 16 percent. It also rather confusingly claims that “unlike in some countries, there have occurred no conflicts nor riots based on religious or racial disputes in Myanmar. Whenever there was a racial tension due to an instigation or a wedge driven among the religions, the government has always settled the disputes in coordination with respective racial or religious leaders.”

While this ties in neatly with the guidelines for Burma’s ongoing constitutional convention—which espouses “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health”—it may surprise those who hold the government responsible for the waves of anti-Muslim violence that have erupted in recent years.

The Human Rights Watch report also details events from 2001, when angry mobs attacked Muslim homes, businesses and mosques in Sittwe, Taungoo and Prome. Anger at the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, or the conversion to Islam by local women marrying Muslim men may have proved the catalyst for violence, but many of the attacks, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of properties and dozens of deaths, were first blamed on Buddhist monks. Reliable reports, however, suggest the ringleaders were in all probability disguised government agents sent in to stir up trouble.

Heavy restrictions were placed on the towns where conflict arose. Evening curfews were imposed and group prayers of more than five people were banned. Existing laws meant that permission to build new mosques, or even repair those damaged during the riots, was consistently denied.

The same is true in the new satellite towns that have sprung up on the outskirts of Rangoon. When the government forcibly relocated thousands of residents from rundown inner city neighborhoods in the early nineties—ostensibly to demonstrate its commitment to urban development, but in reality to sell off vast swathes of land to private developers—no provision was made for any religious practice, other than Buddhist. One almost completely Muslim neighborhood in Tamwe Township was scooped up en masse and dumped in a new location outside Pegu. Permission for the building of mosques has been turned down time and time again and Muslims are forced to pray privately and behind closed doors.

More and more, Muslims are being encouraged to shut themselves off from society at large, to become more self-reliant, to become more insular.

Bus driver Mahmood sends his son to a Muslim school, where he studies the Koran every day. Mahmood does not describe himself as a particularly devout Muslim but, with a young family to support, he cannot afford the fees to provide all his children with a state education. The school is funded by a group of private Saudi Arabian companies and is free to any child with a basic knowledge of Islam.

“I’m so happy for my son,” says Mahmood. “His future is safe.”

Muslim schools funded privately from overseas are increasingly common in Rangoon and, with the Burmese economy currently in tatters and the education system in freefall, they are proving an attractive proposition. The image of Muslims “looking after their own” is gaining admirers on a wider scale, too. “It’s not unheard of for poor Buddhists to convert to Islam to take advantage of funeral services, which the local mosques pay for,” says one Rangoon journalist. “Now some Buddhist organizations have even started similar services.”

But while foreign bodies continue to lend financial support at a community level, many are asking whether the world’s Muslim community could do more to help its Burmese brothers.
“Our only real contact with the Middle East is with the Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca or Medina that Muslims are expected to complete at least once in their life],” says Ahmed. “In the Middle East, they don’t know where Burma is.

Their only point of reference is “that lady” [Aung San Suu Kyi] or the place where bogus monks throw stones at mosques.”

With the denial of citizenship, restrictions on religious practice, professional discrimination and a growing sense of alienation, one might expect Burmese Muslims to be easy prey for extremist groups operating in the region.

Separatist clashes in Indonesia’s Aceh province and the southern Philippines, together with continuing violence in Thailand’s Deep South have thrown Islam into the Southeast Asian spotlight as never before. Paramilitary groups such as the Malaysian Mujahideen Group (KMM) and the pan-Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah—whose latest series of suicide bombings left at least 19 dead in Bali—have been linked with Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda network and are believed to be laying foundations for a hardline Islamic state, comprising parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

For now, though, disaffected young Muslims are more likely to flee the cities and join ethnic resistance groups. The All Burma Muslim Union, which the government routinely brands “Muslim terrorist insurgents,” actually operates alongside the largely secular Karen National Union and, despite a swelling of its ranks following anti-Muslim riots in the eighties, remains a very minor force. Extremist Muslim groups simply do not appear to exist in Burma.
But many feel it is only a matter of time.

“If the persecution continues,” says Ahmed, “Burma could become a breeding ground for terrorists.”

By Harry Priestley/Rangoon
The Irrawaddy, January 2006

Humour - Henry - 1.Mango

Henry Beauchamp remembers...
1. The Mango Thief

“Watching a pair of magnificently breasted Norwegians stroll along Moon Muang the other day, I was reminded of the time I met my first wife.
I had been sent from Jasper & Berkeley’s head office in Bangkok to a jungle north of Phrao, where I was to oversee the running of a rubber bed linen factory. One morning the foreman – a stout character by the name of Boonlert – approached my cabin dragging what appeared to a large sack of potatoes, however upon emptying the sack I was surprised to find it contained a naked man. I was informed that the native was one of the factory workers and he had been caught picking a ripe mango from one of the trees in the forest.
Not quite believing the insolence of this savage, I put down my gin and tonic and told Boonlert in no uncertain terms to take him down by the river and give the mango thief a bally good flogging.
Sometime around noon I ran out of ice and not quite knowing what to do with myself, I decided to go for a stroll and see how the flogging was getting along. Imagine my surprise when, upon reaching the river I found no sign of Boonlert or the thief. “The crafty buggers” I thought to myself and headed towards the village to flush them out.
As I approached Boonlert’s hut, I became aware of the most peculiar sound – a kind of grunting and panting. I crept up to the hut then burst through the door. The image I was confronted with was enough to shame a Frenchman! Boonlert and the savage’s wife were going at it like a privvy door in a gale.“Good God man!” I bawled “get off that woman and put your loincloth on!” Which he promptly did.
Looking around the hut, I quickly spied the savage hiding behind an enormous pile of ripe mangoes. Obviously unflogged, the cowering thief stared at me for a second then leapt up and ran out the door screaming like a crazed banshee. Boonlert followed suit, leaving the savage’s wife and myself quite alone.
With the intention of burning the shameful hut of sin to the ground I struck a match. However, when I caught a proper look at that fine filly as she lay startled on the bed, I quickly changed my mind.
And so I took the woman to be my wife. Despite her complete ignorance of English and pig-headed refusal to even try to understand the finer points of cricket, we spent a very satisfactory three days together before she too, somewhat predictably, ran screaming into the jungle.
Funny girl that one. Never did catch her name. But the things she could do with a mango…”
Citylife, November 2004