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Blog Archive April 2013

When The Spirits Wage Battle

Spirit Houses are a common sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses, condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the gesture of a wai.

A problem arises when a spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.

In Burma, Violet Cho authored a piece for The Voice disclosing a conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in the construction business, and local people in Burma.

The Burmese have their own set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as supernatural Burmese elves.

There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant, Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang Mai.

In Missing in Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for examination.  Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the identity of the Burmese.

The clash between the Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts. Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming and murdering.

According to Violet Cho’s account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the mountain named Mayingyi Paya.

The Nabule villagers claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one spirit house on the mountain.  There are spirit houses in front of the company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners, in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out the local Nats.

It is unclear whether the local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of the spirit houses.

As Nabule is scheduled for development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.

Violet Cho quotes a senior leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals. “We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be against it,” said U Hla Shain.

This being Southeast Asia, it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual. What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien supernatural beings.

On both sides of the border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments of Hindu gods.

As an example of the straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the Nats.

“We do believe and worship the village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.

We will keep an eye on the 2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.

Local gods need accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring lands.

This is only the beginning for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders.  Yet what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all: Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to reinvention of identity.

Nabule has had its welcome to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up, blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods. Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.

Posted: 4/25/2013 8:51:37 PM 


Confusing Noon and Midnight: Time in Thailand

There’s a reason that the military, police and professional criminals use a 24 hour clock to co-ordinate ambush, surveillance, or other operations with a team of people who must act in unison if they want to be successful and accomplish their goal.

The 24 hour clock is perfect for making certain everyone shows up at the same time to knock over a gold shop or surprise a group of insurgents planning an attack.

Catching an international flight is another example of exact timing co-ordination. You need to know when the flight departs so you can be at the airport in time to board the flight.

The least ambiguous measure of time is the military 24 hour clock. 24.00 (twenty-four hundred) hours is midnight, and 12.00 (twelve hundred hours) is noon. Unlike the decimal system, time has a number of different ways of being expressed depending on language and culture.

What made me examine the issue of cultural timing was a call I received from a good Thai friend. I was in the middle of dinner.

“Khun Chris, are you busy?”

“Never too busy for your call Khun Chai.”

“My travel agent is making me crazy.”

“How so?”

“My flight to Berlin leaves at 12.30 a.m. and he is trying to tell me that is a night flight. I keep telling him a.m. means it is an afternoon flight. I mean, I’ve been on that flight before. It leaves in the afternoon. How can he say it is night time?”

“When the sun is high in the sky and it is noon, is that a.m. or p.m.?

He paused as if I’d asked a trick question.

“I told him a 12.30 a.m. flight is a day time flight.”

“So noon is a.m.?”

“That flight leaves during the day.”

“And midnight? Is that a.m. or p.m.?”

“But he’s wrong, isn’t he? I knew you that you’d know.”

In the Thai language this confusion doesn’t exist. Noon is tien. And Midnight is tien kuun. The kuun part means ‘night’ eliminating any argument. But near a.m. or p.m. have any reference to day or night. The problem is when we see only 12.00 a.m. or 12.00 p.m.—this twilight moment which seems—well, confusing.

This confusion comes from the Latin. A.M. is an abbreviation for before noon or midday, while P.M. is afternoon.

It is the 12.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. designations that confuse people who show up at the airport twelve hours early or twelve hours late for their flight.  If you concentrate on 12.30 a.m. you can remember this is the beginning of the new day which in this case is Monday 1st April.

So 12.30 a.m. on 1st April is what we’d think of as night even though a new day is born. It is, in other words, not Sunday 31st March any longer. But it feels like an extension of Sunday night of 31st March to our senses (especially if we’ve been drinking). We are fooled by our senses which tells us that it is still some time on Sunday before the sun rises on Monday which was already born at 12.01 a.m. 1st April.

And 11.59 p.m. is the ending of a day—in our case a Sunday ends.

One problem we have is when we fix out mind on a certain formula we cling to the idea our understanding of the formula is correct. When someone gets the time wrong, you can gently explain by saying your watch is slow or fast. Over the phone people don’t time check in the same way. They can read each other’s facial expression. If Khun Chai could have read mine, he would have know that I had tried to explain that magical moment 23.59 hours when the 31st of March becomes the 1st April at 00.01 and counting. When someone makes up his or her mind in Thailand, it is hard to change it without a loss of face. When it comes to knowing what time it is—Thailand has been in many ways having this debate, and many are as confused about the current as Khun Chai is as to the departure of his flight.

There is one big difference, on the issue of a.m. and p.m., I suggested that Khun Chai ‘google’ the question and see if what he finds supports his belief that 12.30 a.m. is thirty-minutes after noon or thirty minutes after midnight.  Knowing the time has a political dimension. In this case, it isn’t whether it is morning and evening, but what century we are telling time in. If you need to check which century you are living in  you might discover that your Google search has been blocked by the authorities, who have already decreed you are living at the dawn of a new age.

Posted: 4/18/2013 8:55:42 PM 


Dispatches from the frontline of Crime Fiction’s Extremistan: Part 3: Censorship

What controls Extremistan authors, what keeps them off the grid is an effective system of censorship backed by punitive laws. Unless you’ve lived outside of North America or Western Europe, you won’t have experienced the ‘eye’ of authorities (and their true believers or paid for shills) monitoring all communications, including books for possible breaches of national security or other equally vague, open-ended phrases designed to preserve an image. The broader the better for purposes of chilling the kind of expressions that question, criticize or challenge authority, institutions, dogma or beliefs.

The mere presence of a censorship regime induces self-censorship. Authors are never certain where the authorities will draw the line. Monday it is one place, Tuesday it has moved somewhere else and the week is only two days old. This makes sense as the authorities in charge of enforcement rarely speak with one voice as to where the boundaries of permissible and impermissible meet. To be on the careful side means authors error by staying as far away from the border as possible. As a result with speech stifled, the creativity writers in such regimes are given a couple of choices—either write hagiography, historical epics of glory or vacuous entertainments.

Alternatively, they can circulate their poems, stories, novels and memoirs under a pen name with photocopied handouts or, if they have access to a secure Internet line (that is difficult in most cases), have access to a computer, have the technical skills to use word processing programs, they can ‘publish’ their work on the Internet. We have seen the Internet being used to upload video footage from protests, repressive actions by military and police, and the aftermath of bombings and shootings.

It is time to recognize that ‘crime fiction’ and the reality of life upon which fiction emerges are no longer separate. The idea of ‘crime fiction’ as contained in a book needs broadening as well. Uploaded images from Extremistan communicate graphic, brutal noir stories as powerful and haunting as found in a crime novel by Hammett or Chandler.

For centuries censorship has largely been local. Each culture identifies the ‘sacred cows’ that can’t be touched. There hasn’t been agreement on a universal sacred cow and it is unlikely to be one any time soon. Going through the unmapped parts of Extremistan the ‘sacred cows’ are often quite different beast. What is common is that the guardians have used censorship to protect and defend the local herd (there are often a number of sacred cows as it turns out). The chief herdsmen use whatever force may be necessary to keep the herd in a stable state of unquestioned worship, respect, and awe.

Authors in Extremistan—at least the risk-taking ones—like to slip through the thought net cast by the authorities and raise questions about the grazing rights of sacred cows. That often ends in unpleasantness of the extreme kind.

Censorship is not going to stay confined to remote areas of Extremistan. Authorities are developing technology that will make censorship of the past as quaint, remote and inefficient as the quill and ink. In even the most impressive regimes, it has been possible for courageous men and women to challenge authority through books circulated underground. The old regimes are basically inefficient clap-trap machines that used flaw intelligence to repress free speech. That is about to change.

Here is what I see one possible future for authors living inside Extremistan.

First, the authorities in the West are developing the capability to monitor in detail large areas. Every person, vehicle, dog, bird to within a 6” radius can be clearly observed within a fifteen square mile corridor. Have a look at this chilling segment from the program Nova:

Second, the authorities are on the brim of creating powerful identification software that will allow them to identify every person on the ground, given name, age, nationality, associations, ID numbers, date of birth, known associates, medical health record, list of ‘likes on Facebook, articles read, books bought, consumer items purchased, school and university records. The ID system will run on fine-tuned algorithms as the amount of big data would vastly exceed an army of people filtering for signals. Authorities are end users of targeted information—they know who is where and when they are were in a place, and who are their friends and associates. Such information is incredibly powerful.

Third, the authorities are developing a new generation of drones. The censors’ goal is to cull the dissent within and without. A carrot is good. But a big stick is better. Why not adapt the existing drone technology? One limitation is controversial—drones fire rockets that blow up innocent children and women and old people leaves the authorities a bad reputation. Authorities seek ways to burnish their reputation and to reduce information that tarnishes it. That’s difficult to explain away when killing insurgents but quite another to explain for an enemy who is using only a pen. Technology continues to improve, and some projections as to what might be in store may increase the censors’ arsenal.

The chances are high that advanced drone technology systems will be created to eliminate the stigma of collateral damage. This requires surgical isolation of damage to a single target. With the new technology outlined above, finding that target will become infinitely easier. Moving targets will be not present a challenge. And it will be infinitely easier to persuade most would be dissenters that yielding to silence is the only alternative.

Let’s call the new drone Aerial Reconnaissance Sniper or ARS—which is also Hebrew slang for a low-class male. It turns out that in Arabic ars also is a term associated with:

•    A pimp in general

•    A cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to him

•    A man who pimps his wife

•    A wicked or contemptible person, a “bad guy”

•    A bastard, an illegitimate child

If there is any agreement in the Middle East, it is that ars is a term used for someone no one is going to mourn once he’s dead. Before ARS we called them terrorists. Language like technology evolves; in this case, in tandem.

The innovation of the new generation of ARS arms the drone at 17,000 feet to deliver with absolute precision a bullet to the, well, let’s be honest, what the authorities have concluded are a low-class male, a bad guy, who has through his conduct sacrificed his right to live. This “bullet” will be a tiny guided missile the size of a 50Cal round with video camera. The bullet guidance system locks on and tracks the target. You can run but you can’t hide. One less Ars the new reports will say. The video footage will confirm the kill. Call this elimination program an example of national security interest gone global.

The authorities in Extremistan will trade resources for those controlling ARS technology to take care of their local ‘bad guys’ who just so happen to be writing books that ridicule or challenge the role of sacred cows or put them in an unfavourable light.

We are the last of the free men and the last of the free women. Those who follow after us, if they read our books will marvel at how much freedom we had. Or maybe they won’t. In all those vast stretches of Extremistan where authors seek to put a message of hope in a bottle casting it into the sea of the future, and trusting it will wash up on some beach, will likely find the beach empty. People will no longer walk along such beaches. They no longer find such bottles and the messages hidden inside. The sacred cows roam will be left unmolested by writers. Words and images will extol the virtue of the authorities.

The fields and pastures belong to them and from 17,000 feet trespassers will find themselves in the cross-hair of ARS. There will be nowhere to hide. Freedom will be transformed in Arsdoom. And there will be no one left standing who is able to question the herdsmen as to why, how, and when that new global state came into being. In the future, our successors in the writing life will write and live in a version of North Korea?

Posted: 4/11/2013 8:49:32 PM 


Dispatches from the frontline of Crime Fiction’s Extremistan: Part 2

What is the limit of our knowledge about the library of crime fiction novels written, published and read each year inside Extremistan? There are no shortage of people claiming knowledge about a library that may not be Borges’ infinite library, but a library with shelves filled with books that are inaccessible to most readers.

The point is we are having a debate where there is a vast body of work that is unavailable for analysis. When what is essential to an argument is largely unknown or missing, it is a caution that we must exercise humility in making grand statements about the direction or trend of crime fiction. I can draw inference from what I know about Southeast Asia but event those are flawed, as I can’t read the work in the original language.

Whenever the debate of crime fiction occurs, the question of who are the best crime fiction authors arises. And usual names appear. Here’s Gunter Blank’s list:

James Ellroy: LA Confidential,
Dashiel Hammett: Glass Key, Jim Thompson: Pop 1280,
Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely,
George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle,
Richard Stark: The Hunter (Point Blank),
Charles Willeford: Miami Blues,
Elmore, Leonard: Freaky Deaky,
Marcel Montecino: The Crosskiller,
Edward Bunker: No Beast so Fierce,
Chester Himes: Blind Man With a Pistol, Ted Lewis: GBH”

As list go, I’d agree with many of these selections. I know this neighborhood and have lived in it, been a part of it as a writer and reader. But I’m also aware that by the very act of preparing such a list I am placing my own cultural and availability bias on display. Would someone from Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia believe this list is relevant to his or her experience? Such lists appear to be delivered from a Western cloister, insular, confined, and narrowly clustered. There is a much larger world excluded and that should be the one we ought to be seeking to understand. They are the missing names from the headliner list.

Who has gone missing? The answer is a lot of crime, detective, and mystery authors are hidden under the veil of inaccessible languages.

Here’s a list of African crime fiction writers who are likely not familiar to even the most well-read English, German or Swedish language crime fiction reader.  In Latin America, translations from Spanish are hit and miss. For every Roberto Bolaño there are many Ramon Diaz Eterovic and Santiago Gamboa whose novels haven’t been translated into English.

The Japanese had the first crime books (though they were non-fiction accounts of court proceedings) before authors in England and the USA came along. Saikaku Ihara’s 1689 title Trials Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree pre-dates Edgar Allan Poe 1841 Murders in the Rue Morgue  and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone. The Mystery Writers Club of Japan  has 600 members, and I’d bet a first edition of the bible that only a fraction of them have been translated into English. Every year in Bangkok the Southeast Asia Writers Award  since 1979 has announced the winning author from each country of the ten countries in Southeast Asia. Scroll down the long list of authors and ask yourself how many of the names you recognize.

Richard Nash’s What Is the Business of Literature is worth reading. A point that emerges from Nash’s article is that we fall into the trap of equating the value of literature with the commercial success of a book. If the crime fiction novel is a best seller, and you are a reader of crime fiction, the chances are you are aware of the book. You’ve heard about it from friends in the analogue or digital communities where you spend time.

The publishing industry in North America and Europe has had a freedom to publish quite unlike most other places. Hundreds of thousands of English language books enter the marketplace every year.

Books are part of the entertainment-corporate-profit centered industry in these places. They cater to the taste of consumers who have many other entertainment choices. There is little risk of imprisonment, exile, or torture from the authorities from authors who challenge beliefs inside the Western publishing industry. The risk is the book will be failure and the author’s next book won’t be published. In neighborhoods in the unmapped neighborhoods, a different fate other than commercial failure needs to be understood. Authors who are successful in revealing a truth about a country’s institutions or challenges an established dogma risks a prison term. It doesn’t stop at prison. Authors in the unmapped neighborhoods face extrajudicial remedies as kidnapping, disappearance, torture or death. In English speaking neighborhoods, a nasty review may be felt like a bullet to the chest. But in non-English unmapped neighborhoods writers know that the critics use real bullets.

One of the major differences between the Western publishing industry and other places is the sheer number of books pumped into the system. Nash quotes Clay Shirky who writes that “abundance breaks more thanks than scarcity.”

My first novel His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in September 1985. That year the number of USA titles published by traditional print publishers numbered 80,000. By 2010 the number of published titles had mushroomed to 328,259 titles in  one year. In this world of abundance, the moderately gifted author writes a book with little prospect of financial reward. Writing inside such a publishing system, where commercial success means value, these writers are discarded not so much as worthless but as offering an economic justification to read them and take them seriously.

Authors are writing and trying to survive inside a business empire where profit not only matters; it is basically all that matters. Competition in the publishing industry, like other areas of the entertainment industry, is often presented as another business story with the emphasis on the size of an advance, the best seller ranking, the volume of sales, and movie deals. Reviews have withered in most places in the print media. Discussions revolve around money, which has become the primary benchmark, the ruler that measures success. Thumbs up or thumbs down is an accounting decision. No one is put against a wall and shot.

Books written for money in a society where money is the measurement of value has created an impoverished class of authors who like idealistic slaves believe that a lotto-like win will allow them to escape their fate and joint the ranks for Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. Much of our English language crime fiction library is money driven.

Outside of the world of money, there is another Extremistan. It isn’t created from account ledgers. In this Extremistan, the crime fiction author chronicles the systemic changes in class, politics, and social relationship through the lens of criminal law enforcement. To stay alive and out of prison is a measure of success. To have a voice and influence in the debate of how to modernize and allow a society to change without falling apart is a measure of success. The fiction writer as part of the political process, using the vehicle of crime fiction to deliver a challenge to authority invites a level of danger and uncertainty. It is, in other words, not about the money.

Thomas Wörtche is one of the very rare editors (and I can’t think of another one) who had the vision of searching for and publishing such writers. His imprint called Metro, Unionsverlag was the publishing house, was known throughout Europe. I admired his determination to dig deep and find authors either ignored or little known by the mainstream publishing industry in the West. Metro published writers as: Jean-Claude Izzo, Nury Vittachi, Garry Disher, Leonardo Padura, Celil Oker, Pablo De Santis, Bill Moody, Jorge Franco, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, José Luis Correa. (Disclosure: I was also an author on Thomas Wörtche list.) Metro was a window into Extremistan.

Since leaving Unionsverlag, there has been no editor like Thomas with the experience and knowledge of crime fiction to explore Extremistan for the new generation of writers who remain largely lost to international readers. That is regrettable. The crime space inside Extremistan has receded from international readers and has become as inaccessible as the dark side of the moon. We know that it is there every night but what it looks like and what goes on out of sight is left to our imagination. The purest form of noir is absolute silence.

Writers like Ali Bader, who live in regions such as Iraq where the blast from the violence like jackhammers pound their days and nights, are cut off from the rest of us. Yanick Lahens  who writes of Haiti. These are two of many voices who require a cultural detective to find. For each one Ali Bader and Yanick Lahens, how many are lost to us? We are less rich in the depth of our understanding without their clarifying commentary from their crime space frontlines.

Two great sites to visit for developments in Extremistan are Detectives Beyond Borders and Words Without Borders If you want to find a new author, visit these websites.

To paraphrase William Gibson, “The vast majority of writers live inside unmapped neighborhoods of Extremistan, where the measure of their value is unevenly understood.”

Posted: 4/4/2013 8:56:22 PM 



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