Preeti Jha is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia


Cambodia-Thai kidney trafficking sparks fears of new organ market

PHNOM PENH: The seven-inch scar runs diagonally across the left flank of his skinny torso, a glaring reminder of an operation he hoped would save his family from debt but instead plunged him into shame.

Chhay, 18, sold his kidney for $3,000 in an illicit deal that saw him whisked from a rickety one-room house on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to a gleaming hospital in the medical tourism hub of neighbouring Thailand.

His shadowy journey, which went unnoticed by authorities two years ago, has instigated Cambodia’s first-ever cases of organ trafficking and the arrests of two alleged brokers.

It has also raised fears that other victims hide beneath the radar.

At the corrugated iron shack he shares with nine relatives, Chhay says a neighbour persuaded him and a pair of brothers — all from the marginalised Cham Muslim minority — to sell their kidneys to rich Cambodians on dialysis.

“She said you are poor, you don’t have money, if you sell your kidney you will be able to pay off your debts,” the teenager told AFP, requesting his real name be withheld.

Identical stories have long been common in the slums of India and Nepal, better-known hotspots for traffickers. Up to 10,000, or 10 percent, of the organs transplanted globally each year are trafficked, according to the latest World Health Organization estimate.

But on discovering the broker earned $10,000 for each kidney they sacrificed, the donors filed complaints, alerting police in June to a potential new organ trade route.

“Kidney trafficking is not like other crimes… If the victims don’t speak up, we will never know,” said Phnom Penh’s deputy police chief Prum Sonthor.

In July his force charged Yem Azisah, 29 — believed to be a cousin of the sibling donors — and her step-father, known as Phalla, 40, with human trafficking.

The pair are being detained and await trial.

– First case –

Trafficking is a widespread problem in impoverished Cambodia and police routinely investigate cases linked to the sex trade, forced marriage or slavery — but this was the first related to organs.

“This is easy money that earns a lot of income, so we are worried,” said Prum, adding there were at least two other Cambodian donors taken to Thailand who had not filed complaints.

The complicity of donors, whether compelled by poverty or coerced by unscrupulous brokers, makes it an under-reported crime which is difficult to expose.

In August media reports emerged about new alleged organ trafficking cases at a military hospital in Phnom Penh.

Prum, who investigated the case, said it was a training exercise between Chinese and Cambodian doctors, using voluntary Vietnamese donors and patients.

But he was unable to rule out whether money changed hands.

– ‘I regret it’ –

Chhay watches from the sidelines as boys his age play football, two years on from an operation that has left him feeling weak, ashamed and still in debt.

“I want to tell others not to have their kidney removed like me… I regret it. I cannot work hard any more, even walking I feel exhausted,” he said. In July he started work at a garment factory.

Little research has been done on the impact of transplants on paid donors like Chhay but the WHO has reported an association with depression and perceived deterioration in health, highlighting the lack of follow-up care.

Chhay remembers few details of a transaction that still haunts him, claiming no knowledge of the Thai city where he was taken or the woman he sold his kidney to.

In Thailand health authorities are trying to shed more light on the murky trade, with several Bangkok hospitals under investigation.

Focus has fallen on the documents traffickers forge to prove donors and recipients are related — a requirement in many countries where it is illegal to sell an organ.

“We’ve asked hospitals to be more careful” when checking documents, Thai medical council president Somsak Lolekha told AFP, adding his organisation was reviewing its transplant regulations.

– Tip of iceberg? –

Driving the demand for a black market in organs is the globally soaring number of sick patients waiting for transplants, especially kidneys.

In Thailand alone there were 4,321 people on the organ waiting list up until August with deceased donors’ organs forming around half of the 581 kidneys transplanted last year, according to the Thai Red Cross Organ Donation Centre (ODC).

World over this increasing reliance on living donors has left desperate patients scouring for volunteers in their families, or, in some cases, recruiting underground.

Prompted by concerns over trafficking the ODC, which oversees organ donations, launched a pilot project in April making it compulsory for hospitals to provide them with details of living donors.

“Before they could come to Thailand without our knowledge… We are concerned about hospitals where they are not following rules, that’s why we asked for a register of living donors,” said ODC director Visist Dhitavat.

While regulations are being tightened experts fear the booming medical tourism industry in Thailand, reputed for high-quality but low-cost care, could give rise to more criminal networks cashing-in on the vulnerable.

“It could be the tip of the iceberg,” said Jeremy Douglas, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, on the recent Cambodian arrests.

“There could be a lot of others (cases) that aren’t just simply coming to trial.”

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 27 October 2014 including here


Laos cracks down on social media critics

VIENTIANE: With their heads hung low, three Laos nationals quietly apologise on state TV for betraying the country through anti-government Facebook posts, a striking parade of apparent confessions in the communist regime’s latest crackdown on dissent.

The ominous broadcast in late May was the first news of the trio for families desperate to know their whereabouts since they were arrested in March.

“From now on I will behave well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation,” said 29-year-old Somphone Phimmasone on Lao National TV.

He sat between the two co-accused: his girlfriend, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and another man, 32-year-old Soukan Chaithad, each wearing the trademark royal blue uniforms of prisoners.

Flanked by a row of straight-backed police officers, beneath a banner proclaiming “peace, independence, unity, prosperity” in Laos, Soukan stressed their confessions weren’t forced by the authorities.

Their grave crime, explained an unidentified narrator, was to threaten national security. He claimed they did this by protesting against the government while working in neighbouring Thailand, and posting critical content on Facebook, the social media site that has gained most traction in the tiny landlocked nation.

Laos, one of the last single-party communist states in the world, tolerates zero opposition. But the “arbitrary, incommunicado detentions” reveal a worrying new clampdown, said Andrea Giorgetta of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

“The most troubling aspect of this case is that the Laotian government has gone to great lengths to monitor its critics beyond the country’s borders, and has significantly stepped up repression of online dissent,” he said.

The nation of only seven million people routinely falls at the bottom end of press freedom lists, with its media tightly controlled by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Laos ranked 173rd of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders index.

To beat the censors, Laotians are increasingly turning to social media for their news, even though the government introduced stiff jail terms for critical internet users in late 2014.

Last month’s broadcast carried a clear message: “Everyone who uses social media such as Facebook should be careful. Don’t believe untrue propaganda, it only slows down the country’s development,” said the voice-over during the video. A uniformed police officer then warned that anyone “who derogates the country will be prosecuted”.

The three Laotians were undocumented workers in Thailand, arrested after they returned home to apply for passports to re-enter Bangkok with proper permits. Somphone worked as a factory security guard, Lodkham as a domestic helper, and Soukan as a delivery driver. Through their now-closed Facebook accounts they accused the government of corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations, said Giorgetta.

Despite boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies, hundreds of thousands of Laotians leave the still vastly poor country in search of jobs. Most, like these detainees, take up low-paid positions in Thailand.

Alongside employment, they also found an unlikely opportunity in December to protest against their government outside the Laos embassy in the military-ruled kingdom, which has itself severely curbed free speech since a 2014 coup.

Few would dare stage such a protest in Vientiane. Glimmering new malls are sprouting up in Laos’ capital, whose laid-back charm is increasingly interspersed with the dust and din of construction. But beneath this rapidly transforming landscape, much of the country’s political system remains unchanged. Last year Laos refused to accept key UN-backed recommendations on protecting freedom of expression and human rights defenders.

Social media offers a small yet still guarded space to articulate views unimaginable in public life. One woman in her 20s, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera people were sharing reports of the recent arrests on Facebook.

“Rich kids here don’t get in trouble for running over a person on the road. But these guys did for protesting. I just wondered why. It’s not fair,” she said.

In January, Laos’ secretive communist party appointed a new president and prime minister, the same year it assumed chairmanship of ASEAN, the powerful bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations. Later this year, it also expects to welcome Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Laos, in a trip intended to boost warming ties between the former foes.

Yet like their predecessors, the new Laos leaders show no sign of opening up political debate, said a Western diplomat in Vientiane, who also asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions.

“The regime doesn’t take any criticism directed at it. It’s a direct threat to their survival,” he said, adding the recent broadcast was “a message to all the young people in Laos”.

It’s unclear what charges or sentences the three detainees face but last year a Polish national of Laos heritage was jailed for nearly five years for alleged anti-government criticism online.

Previous attempts at protests have also been vigorously quashed. Two pro-democracy student leaders still languish in jail more than 16 years after they were arrested for planning peaceful rallies calling for democratic freedoms.

The Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights said the government has refused to reveal the whereabouts of two other students detained over the same event and claims that a fifth member died in police custody.

Laos government officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment by phone and email.

In Vientiane, there’s one case that still hangs heavy in the air. The disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, internationally renowned for his non-confrontational approach to environmental issues, has cast a palpable fear about speaking out in Laos.

CCTV footage shows Sombath being pulled over by police at a checkpoint in Vientiane on the night he vanished in December 2012. His jeep is then driven away by someone else before he gets into an unknown vehicle.

High-profile figures from US Secretary of State John Kerry to Desmond Tutu, as well as the UN and EU, have urged the government to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. But it has provided his family with no updates on the probe since mid-2013. Calls to Laos’ police about the case also went unanswered.

Rights groups say hundreds of people have been “disappeared” in Southeast Asia in the past few decades, going missing at the hands of state or state-affiliated agents to settle scores and root out opposition.

The exact numbers are unknown but it’s become a worrisome scourge in a region where authoritarian regimes – including Laos, Vietnam and Thailand – are ramping up their surveillance of online dissent.

Sombath’s Singaporean wife Ng Shui-Meng, who still lives in Vientiane, has devoted her life to finding her husband. Speaking from a trip to visit relatives in Singapore, she said many Laos families “keep quiet for fear” after an arrest or disappearance.

“If keeping quiet would lead to a return, that would be a strategy. Keeping quiet yields nothing. Being active yields nothing. But what I hope is that his case is never forgotten, until we get the truth. I have to continue to pursue it.”

This article was published on 6 June 2016 on Al Jazeera


In search of fame and fortune at Myanmar’s finishing schools

YANGON: Knees pressed together and sitting bolt upright, Myanmar students watch a demonstration on personal grooming, the latest batch at a Yangon finishing school chasing dreams of celebrity and success.

A small but rapidly growing middle class in the once-cloistered nation is seizing the chance to master western manners after decades of military rule ended in 2011.

The shifting cultural scene comes as Myanmar braces for perhaps its most dramatic transformation of all with next month’s polls seen as a key test of the country’s transition towards democracy.

For the girls studying etiquette inside a smart high-rise flat in northwest Yangon, the lure is mostly a chance to enter beauty pageants banned under the former junta whose clinch on society smothered all forms of expression.

“We have to know how to walk properly, about posture and how to fold our legs (when sitting) so they don’t look short,” Su Myat Nilar, an aspiring actress, told the class in Burmese.

She’s one of the latest to join Style Plus H, a personal grooming school that launched the same year nearly half a century of junta rule gave way to a quasi-civilian government.

It targets the rush of young people clamouring for a foot into the pageant, modelling or acting industries as global pop culture takes grip in the once pariah nation.

Classes have blossomed since 2013 when Myanmar fielded its first Miss Universe contestant, a US-educated business graduate, to represent the country in more than 50 years.

But this small school is also catering to aspirational parents eager to give their children the best chance in a fast urbanising society.

“When we were young we didn’t need this. But now Myanmar is booming,” said founder Hla Nu Tun after training her class of 10, including two boys, in wardrobe management, lift etiquette and gestures she deems fit for the global stage.

It’s preparation for the foreigners who arrive and “look for people who can work with them”, added the English-teacher-cum-entrepreneur in a British accent honed from studies and telesales in London.

– ‘Equal standard’ –

As Myanmar opens its long-sealed economy to foreign firms, demand is surging for nationals with the language and skills to ease their entry.

It’s providing a niche for personality development schools such as John Robert Powers, a franchise of the US brand that in March opened its first branch in Yangon, the 15th in Asia.

“Myanmar needs to catch up with other countries” in the region, school director Alexey Naumov told AFP, saying their courses offered a chance to “polish” communication skills.

Businesses have been among the first to sign up — the company has already trained staff at flag carrier Myanmar National Airlines and some local hotels as firms try to better cater to the record numbers of foreign tourists now visiting the country.

But the Russian director admits they’re “struggling to explain” exactly what personality development means to Asia’s newest middle class and so far reaches affluent families whose children are headed for studies overseas.

Though hemlines are rising, Buddhist-majority Myanmar remains a deeply conservative nation.

Most of the women walking past the billboards now advertising foreign fashion and make-up brands still wear traditional floor-length “longyi” and smear cream thanaka paste on their cheeks.

Recent photographs of Miss Universe wannabes wearing scantier adaptations of the national dress sparked outrage on social media with accusations the styles were vulgar and unsuited to Myanmar.

Others question why a nation with its own graces and growing sub-cultures needs to follow a prescriptive pattern of decorum.

Tin Moe Lwin, an early etiquette pioneer when the country was still in the junta’s steely grip, says the opening economy has led to a surge in demand for western-style manners but with a local twist.

Her Talents & Models Agency, initially focused on the entertainment industry, is increasingly targeting new businesses and families with disposable incomes.

Currently she is training 600 mostly rural nurses in communication skills for a new private hospital under construction in Yangon as “customers are changing”.

Most worked in village clinics with no hospital experience, says the seasoned trainer, explaining she starts with simple healthcare concepts before imparting “very basic western manners” in Burmese.

For the 45-year-old, who has taught everyone from teens to generals, the new wave of classes are not a replacement of traditional Burmese values but a chance to understand international norms spanning handshakes to queues.

“When we were young the impression of Myanmar people (lining up) at airport immigration was different to others… I want us to be (seen) at an equal standard,” she said.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 19 October 2015 including here


Young Laotians break out of the communist mold

VIENTIANE: With a nimble leap the boys scale railings and somersault into the air. As they navigate the contours of their city, the first freerunners of Laos hope the urban sport will catapult the once-isolated communist nation onto the world stage.

Vientiane, the country’s capital, is their springboard. It is the heart of a very small but expanding middle class in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, where creativity buds within the parameters of authoritarian rule.

Pongphone Lamanggoun, better known as T-Bom, started the country’s first free-running group three years ago, after discovering the sport on YouTube. He is part of an increasingly connected generation hungry to engage with ideas beyond their borders.

“I wanted to start something new. And for people to learn about Laos,” said the 25-year-old, sporting a baseball cap, goatee and chin-length hair, as he fist bumped other freerunners massing at a popular downtown cafe.

It is a manifestation of the globalized youth culture common in Asia’s wealthier capitals, but one that is also now emerging in much-smaller Vientiane.

Laos is home to the fastest rate of urban spatial expansion in East Asia, according to the World Bank, and ranks among the fastest-growing economies worldwide. A new young demographic can reveal a “different image” of the country, said T-Bom, who works as a video editor for Laos’ first digital-focused marketing agency.

Last year he was part of a group who competed in an international freerunning contest in Bangkok. It was the first time Laos participated in a sport that has mushroomed worldwide since evolving as a more expressive form of parkour, the art of jumping through urban obstacles which began in the Paris suburbs in the late 1980s.

Such displays are unlikely to disturb the rulers of the former French colony, despite their lingering suspicion of Western cultural influences. But creativity in Laos is still practiced with deep caution under a single-party regime that cracks down on the slightest perception of subversion.


For Khongphon Xaysongkham, freerunning is about self-expression. “Everybody doesn’t see things the same way,” said the privately-educated 18-year-old in between practising flips along the wide sandy bank of the Mekong River overlooking northern Thailand.

Hip-hop is his other outlet in a society that encourages conformity. “I’m working on my first album,” said Khongphon, speaking in English, unlike the other state-schooled freerunners. But he prefers to write in Lao, to reach a wider domestic audience. “It’s about society. I write about what I see.”

While the Laos economy has been growing faster than that of neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam, efforts at reducing poverty have lagged behind. Three-quarters of its nearly 7 million population live in the countryside on low incomes and without access to basic services. And Laos sits among the bottom 30 countries in civil society group Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.

Khongphon is careful not to offer any personal opinions in his songs. “I don’t say what’s wrong or what’s right.”

Freedom of expression has long been suppressed in Laos and in late May, the government in a stark statement warned social media users in particular against what it called “derogating” the country. Three recently detained nationals were paraded on state television for posting anti-government content on Facebook.

Even as the space for free thinkers shrinks, new ideas are cropping up across Vientiane and creative professionals are testing official boundaries.

In an affluent neighborhood north of the city center two members of Lao New Wave Cinema Productions edit a corporate video, a commission that helps fund their feature-length films.

The collective, which launched in 2010 and operates from one of the founder’s family homes, has helped to revive the Laos movie scene, which suffered from decades of neglect under communist rule. But it must navigate the country’s draconian censorship rules to get films on screen.

“We start to filter ideas in our heads. It’s not healthy. You have to worry,” said bespectacled filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, 37, who, like the majority of the group, studied film overseas. There is no film school in Laos and only a clutch of cinemas.

Culture of censorship

Their first film, “At the Horizon,” which addressed the gap between the rich and the poor in Laos, quickly fell foul of the censors.

“In our film the voiceless stayed voiceless. But the government weren’t happy. They said the bad guys have to end up in jail,” said Vannaphone Sitthirath, the collective’s only woman, also 37. She explains how they compromised with “two different endings” — a Laos version of the film tweaked to keep the “government happy,” and an international one that stayed true to their script.

Another plot line was axed for showing a Chinese migrant in a criminal role. Beijing exerts increasing influence on Laos as it invests in everything from mining and hydropower to Special Economic Zones running on Chinese time. “Anything to do with China is very sensitive,” Xaisongkham says.

The group try their best to navigate the political landscape but acknowledge their pushback is minimal. “We were raised not to question,” said Xaisongkham, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Independence and self-respect.”

Both he and Vannaphone grew up under communist rule and an education system which, designed to reflect the ruling party line, stifled critical thinking.

“There was a nascent intelligentsia and cultural scene in Laos before the 1975 revolution, and greater freedom of cultural expression,” said Simon Creak, a lecturer in Southeast Asian history at Australia’s University of Melbourne.

“This was later eliminated by the new leaders, who banned non-Party cultural activities and ended the Western foreign aid that had underwritten the pre-1975 economy, including cultural production.”

Laos began opening up to the world in the 1990s after the introduction of market-based reforms, a move that led to a proliferation of new forms of homegrown culture, from magazines to music. Three years ago it was admitted into the World Trade Organization.

Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight, thinks the resource-rich nation is on track to become an upper middle-income country by 2030, forecasting strong annual growth of around 7% over the next five years.

“Hydropower remains the key growth engine. But industries such as construction, retail, tourism, restaurants and business services have grown rapidly around this, helping to boost the growth of the urban middle class.”

Across Vientiane new eateries, bars and coffee shops are cropping up to cater to the small but growing cohort of customers.

Riding the wave are foreign-educated Laotians returning home with the advantage of new skills and capital.

Ariya Khamvongsa, also known as Pop, moved back to Vientiane in 2012 after a decade studying and working in Sydney. It would have been easy for him to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up a government job, but the 32-year-old “wanted the freedom to express himself” as an entrepreneur.

He set up Naked Espresso, a boutique cafe selling a high-quality brew, to bring Laos coffee “up to date.” In the second of his three branches, mostly foreign customers sip lattes twice the cost of a street-side coffee. They comprise the mainstay of business, explains Pop, but the number of Laotian customers has doubled.

“They now make up around 40% of the total. The culture is changing,” he said.

This article was first published on 2 July 2016 in the Nikkei Asian Review


The Africans making it big in China

HONG KONG: From a windowless room in a dilapidated Hong Kong high-rise, Ali Diallo sells Chinese electronics to retailers across Africa. The modest surroundings belie the multi-million dollar business the West African trader has built in the five years since he moved to the city.

The 39-year-old from Guinea is part of a growing number of African entrepreneurs thriving in southern China, as trade between the world’s second-largest economy and fastest-growing continent soars.

Sitting in a small room cluttered with cardboard boxes destined for Nigeria, Diallo welcomes the latest delivery of Chinese-made mobile phones to his office in Chungking Mansions — a bustling labyrinth better known for budget hotels and no-frills restaurants.

The building is also the go-to place in Hong Kong for African buyers in search of cheap electronics, with phones selling from around $8 each.

“In China there are opportunities for people who can start from scratch and build up their own business. Obviously not in one day but through hard work and networking you can do it,” says the trader, whose company sees an annual turnover of $11 million a year through the sale of phones and tablets alone.

Trade between China and Africa hit new highs of nearly $200 billion last year, according to official Chinese data, driven by Chinese industry’s appetite for African raw materials.

The African traders in southern China are the flipside of this deepening relationship. Entrepreneurs like Diallo have made Chungking Mansions one of the most important passageways for Chinese gadgets air-freighted to Africa.

According to Gordon Mathews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, up to a fifth of all mobiles in Africa have passed through the building’s corridors in recent years.

But while this 17-storey hive is the storefront, the engines behind this trade lie in the industrial heartland of neighbouring Guangdong province in southern China.

This mecca for low-cost manufacturing has drawn entrepreneurs from across Africa, creating one of the largest black communities in Asia.

– A pivotal role –

In the provincial capital Guangzhou, at least 20,000 Africans live in the city, research from local Sun Yat-sen University shows.

Though their number is a fraction of the million Chinese now living in Africa, these migrants are playing a pivotal role in their new home.

“Traders bring with them vast skills and capital, supporting large amounts of Chinese manufacturers… If all the African traders were to vanish it would have an enormous effect on the south China economy and business people realise this rather strongly,” says Mathews.

Many traders work in and around a downtown neighbourhood dubbed “Little Africa”, or more insensitively “Chocolate City” by the local media. Along its winding central alley, a restaurant serves Tilapia with fufu — a staple Congolese meal of fried fish and cassava –- as well as traditional Chinese fried rice and steamed fish.

A few kilometres away at Canaan Export Clothes Trading Centre, a vast complex where Igbo is spoken as often as the local Cantonese language, Lamine Ibrahim loads thousands of jeans into bags destined for Africa.

He is one of several hundred Africans who has forged a deeper connection to the city by marrying a local Chinese woman — a relationship founded on love but also economic prudence.

“For (communication) with the Chinese people… she can do. I buy my car, she is there, I open my own factory, she is there. So if I have no wife it’s not easy,” says the Muslim trader from Guinea in broken English.

Five months ago Ibrahim and his wife Choi Zoung-mai — renamed Maryam Barry after converting to Islam — opened their first factory hiring 43 Chinese workers. With this latest investment they hope to secure a bright future for their four-year-old son who speaks fluent Mandarin as well as French, English and Fula.

– Prejudices can run high –

While there are several success stories, not all African entrepreneurs make it in China — for some rising costs and intense competition make it difficult to stay afloat. But this migrant community, which began forming in Guangzhou in the 1990s, has built a network of groups to support each other’s ambitions.

This is vividly apparent in the handful of African Pentecostal churches that have sprung up across the city. Tucked away on the ninth floor of a building behind Guangzhou railway station, 150 worshippers crowd into Royal Victory Church.

“Our prayer is that you will prosper,” the pastor preaches to cries of agreement from a mostly male congregation drawn from Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.

The African entrepreneurs who are flourishing in Guangzhou are succeeding where many foreigners fail. Not only are they navigating the notorious Chinese bureaucracy but at times overt racism in a country where prejudices can run high.

This can range from mild snubs from taxi drivers who refuse to pick up black customers to more serious accusations of traders being unfairly targeted by police when they conduct raids for illegal immigrants.

Even so others report good relations with the Chinese. “Many traders feel much more comfortable working in China than they do in Europe,” says Roberto Castillo, a Lingnan University researcher in Guangzhou.

Ojukwu Emma, president of the local Nigerian community, says the main problem for Africans trading in China are the increasing clampdowns on visas. He says it is getting harder for African residents in the city to renew visas, or for those travelling back and forth to gain re-entry.

“You cannot allow foreigners to come in and not give the foreigner confidence to stay. Once you are out to the world, you must be open,” says the businessman who has lived in the city for 16 years.

But for now booming Sino-African trade continues to draw new waves of African entrepreneurs, drawn to the shores of Guangzhou in search of the Chinese dream.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 20 September 2013 including here


Ignoring dying strangers on India’s roads

NEW DELHI: When a road accident occurs, bystanders will usually try to help the injured, or at least call for help. In India it’s different. In a country with some of the world’s most dangerous roads, victims are all too often left to fend for themselves.

NEW DELHI, India: Kanhaiya Lal desperately cries for help but motorists swerve straight past him. His young son and the splayed bodies of his wife and infant daughter lie next to the mangled motorbike on which they had all been travelling seconds earlier.

The widely broadcast CCTV footage of this scene – showing the suffering of a family of hit-and-run victims in northern India in 2013 and the apparent indifference of passers-by – troubled many Indians.

Some motorcyclists and police eventually came to the family’s aid but it was too late for Lal’s wife and daughter. Their deaths sparked a nationwide debate over the role of bystanders – the media hailed it as a “new low in public apathy” and worse, “the day humanity died”.

But what safety campaigner Piyush Tewari saw wasn’t a lack of compassion but an entire system stacked against helping road victims.

His work to change this began nearly 10 years ago, when his 17-year-old cousin was knocked down on the way home from school.

“A lot of people stopped but nobody came forward to help,” Tewari says. “He bled to death on the side of the road.”

Tewari set out to understand this behaviour, and found the same pattern repeated time and again across the country. Passers-by who could have helped were holding back and doing nothing.

“The foremost reason was intimidation by police,” he says.

“Oftentimes if you assist someone the police will assume you’re helping that person out of guilt.”

The discovery spurred Tewari to set up SaveLIFE. In a 2013 survey, the foundation found that 74% of Indians were unlikely to help an accident victim, whether alone or with other bystanders.

Apart from the fear of being falsely implicated, people also worried about becoming trapped as a witness in a court case – legal proceedings can be notoriously protracted in India. And if they helped the victim get to hospital, they feared coming under pressure to stump up fees for medical treatment.

In a country with smoothly functioning emergency services, bystanders often need to do little more than call an ambulance, do their best to provide first aid and reassure victims that help is on the way.

But in India ambulances are in short supply, sometimes very slow to arrive and often poorly equipped. This makes it a country in need of Good Samaritans – and according to Tewari there are many Good Samaritans out there. They just choose carefully when to leap into action.

He contrasts the reluctance of passers-by to help victims of road accidents with their response to train crashes or bombs blasts.

In these cases, he says, “before the police or media arrives everybody’s been moved to hospital”.

The big difference with road accidents is that there are usually just one or two victims. “The chances of getting blamed are much higher,” he says.

SaveLIFE filed a case with India’s top court to introduce legal protection for Indian bystanders and a year ago there was a breakthrough when the Supreme Court issued a number of guidelines, including:

allowing people who call to alert emergency services about a crash to remain anonymous
providing them with immunity from criminal liability
forbidding hospitals from demanding payment from a bystander who takes an injured person to hospital

Just two months later, though, another hit-and-run incident caught on camera shocked the nation.

“See how they’re just watching?” murmurs Anita Jindal as she scans the CCTV footage, once again, on her mobile phone in the cramped room-cum-corner shop she once shared with her son, Vinay.

A speeding car had hurled 20-year-old Vinay off his scooter in east Delhi, and the footage shows a crowd of onlookers surrounding him, and doing nothing.

It went viral on social media last July, triggering a new bout of soul-searching, and was even mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his monthly radio broadcast to the nation.

“If someone had helped he may have been here today,” says Anita Jindal. “Everyone told me they were scared of the police.”

For Piyush Tewari and SaveLIFE the struggle goes on.

In March the Supreme Court guidelines were declared compulsory. To ensure that they will be enforced, the foundation is now campaigning to get each of India’s 29 federal states and seven union territories to enshrine them in a Good Samaritan law.

Shrijith Ravindran, the chief executive of a restaurant chain, is one person for whom this legislation cannot be introduced soon enough.

In January he came across an elderly man bleeding by the roadside in the western Indian city of Pune. A gathering crowd of people was still deliberating what to do when Ravindran put the man in his car and drove him to hospital.

The closest hospital gave him a bunch of papers to fill in before turning him away.

The next one swamped him with more paperwork before tending to the patient.

In total, he says, he spent three hours filling in these forms.

“They ask, ‘Are you a relative?’ The moment you say ‘No’, they don’t do anything,” says Ravindran.

“They wait for somebody to give them assurance that they will pay the bill. Valuable time is lost.”

The elderly man finally received treatment once the paperwork was completed, but it was too late. He died of his injuries.

This article was published on 7 June on BBC News Online


Secretly fast and furious in Hong Kong’s street racing world

HONG KONG: As night begins to give way to dawn, 40 high-performance cars pull up on an empty Hong Kong backstreet. While the city sleeps, their revving engines fill the air with a heavy smell of petrol.

The drivers huddle together to set the route, always at the last possible minute. One of them spots the red and blue glare of police lights and they scramble to their cars, regrouping a few miles away to continue the race.

By day, Eva is a nurse. For one night each week she is also an illegal street racer — one of hundreds in Hong Kong who are bound by their addiction to breakneck speed.

With the engine of her black Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII modified to generate maximum power, the 25-year old is only the second woman to join an illicit club whose members include teachers, businessmen, lawyers, and even a Taoist priest.

Most of them would not even cross a pedestrian walkway on a red light in the day — jaywalking is an offence in Hong Kong — but the rules of a normally ordered city are put to one side in this twilight world of street racing.

Tearing along public roads at speeds of up to 200 kilometres (124 miles) per hour, Eva is fiercely proud of her secret identity as an illegal racer — one that she never plans to reveal to her parents.

“They cannot imagine what racing is because I’m a girl and I’m a little girl in their eyes… So I will not tell my parents. I don’t want to bother them.”

While illegal street racing is a global phenomenon, rife in cities from Los Angeles to Sydney and Kuala Lumpur, in Hong Kong it is as much about being part of a racing community as it is a battle on the road.

“Every day we do the same thing, the same time. And then suddenly we can have our time to drive together,” says Alex, 27, who has been racing for four years.

Blazing down a clear road normally clogged with traffic unleashes the tension of living in an overcrowded city, he explains.

All other cars are obstacles “when you’re driving at 250 kilometres an hour,” the jewellery trader says.

“All of them are walls. I’m the one who can win, win the road… I’m king of the road.”

Alex didn’t overtake anyone on this particular morning, after noticing an unmarked police car following friends ahead, but drove at more than 200 kilometres per hour on a road where the speed limit is 70.

– ‘A dangerous, selfish act’ –

The potentially devastating consequences of racing are far from the minds of the drivers comparing cars after the “morning drive” — the seemingly innocuous term they use to describe breaking the rules of the road.

“When I’m driving very fast, I feel I’ve combined with the car. The car is part of my body. I am in control,” says one 36-year-old, even though like most racers she knows at least one person who has had an accident while speeding.

Hong Kong police said there are no figures on injuries caused by illegal racing and there have been no related deaths in recent years, but stress that one fatal case would be one too many.

“Road racing is a highly dangerous and selfish act that puts other members of the public in severe danger… What we want to try and do is to make sure that the road is safe,” Inspector Ngai Chun-yip, who heads the illegal road racing unit in the northern territories of Hong Kong, told AFP.

Last year there was an eight percent rise in the number of illegal racing complaints compared to the year before. Ngai led 291 anti-racing operations, increasingly using online videos uploaded by racers to help track them down.

Richard was one of the 1,700 people prosecuted in the crackdown.

Back at the winding road where he was caught speeding, he points at the bushes in which police rigged speed cameras. After 120 hours of community service and losing his driving license for a year, the 41-year-old says he rarely races anymore.

“If I really want to drive fast, maybe I will go to China (and use) the racing track. But not on the roads in Hong Kong.”

He added that if arrested again he may face jail and would lose his job as an English tutor.

Police describe racing in the city as an ad-hoc rather than a large-scale or well-organised activity. The racers gathered for breakfast paint a different picture.

Morning or midnight races take place every week in several different parts of the territory, while there are also more spontaneous contests when drivers eye a willing competitor on the street or simply take a chance to rip down highways alone.

Beneath the racing community’s camaraderie lurks an undeniable sense of the status that cars and racing bring.

“There are too many rich people in Hong Kong. All my friends race, all own sports cars. Most of it is to show off,” says Nick, who owns a Porsche and a Ford Focus rs500.

With the cost of cars and modifications — faster wheels and engines or louder exhausts — running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s an expensive as well as a risky way to make a mark.

Amateur racers have long been lobbying for an official race track in Hong Kong which they claim will stop people racing illegally on the streets.

Some already cross the border into mainland China to use a circuit where two races over a weekend can cost as much as US$10,000.

Others admit a track will never replace the thrill of racing on public roads. “You cannot match the excitement,” says Nick. “Some people will always race on the streets.”

(All racers’ names have been changed.)

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 8 May 2013 including here


How a 92-year-old led a people’s revolt to overthrow Malaysia’s ruling party

KUALA LUMPUR: The world’s longest-ruling coalition had never been more frightened of its own people. As it sought to stay in office, Malaysia’s government, led by the scandal-afflicted Najib Razak, promised lucrative cash handouts, redrew constituency boundaries and rushed through a bill to quash “fake news”. But the state machinery was ultimately overpowered by Malaysia’s voters, who ousted the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime that had ruled the country for 61 years.

It was a resounding cry for democracy in Southeast Asia. Yet the 9 May election was also a contest between long-standing elites. In a region where “strongmen” are busy dismantling hard-won freedoms, it was no small irony that the triumphant opposition alliance was led by the former autocrat Mahathir Mohamad, previously head of the BN, who at 92 has become the world’s oldest elected leader.

By reuniting with formerly jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his 70-year-old former deputy, Malaysia’s new-old prime minister assumed the highest office in an extraordinary political saga.

Few had predicted the historic win by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). “You still have to pinch yourself,” said Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the website Malaysiakini, a rare independent voice in Malaysia’s tightly controlled media. The site was temporarily blocked by the state regulator at around 10pm on polling day as it became clear that the BN had lost crucial seats. “We were worried,” said Gan at his office in the industrial outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. “We thought that they [BN] would organise a fightback.”

Such fears are well-founded in Malaysia, where a vibrant civil society and opposition have long fought electoral manipulation, censorship and the suppression of civil liberties by an authoritarian state. Uncertainty over the results lingered for hours after Mahathir declared victory.

But such concerns were displaced swiftly by the question of whether Najib, accused of misappropriating state funds in one of the largest-ever global financial frauds, would now face prosecution. “We are not seeking revenge,” Mahathir told journalists. But to cheers from supporters, he added: “If the law says Najib has done something wrong he will have to face the consequences.”

The nonagenarian, whose 22-year rule transformed Malaysia from an isolated backwater into a modern state, came out of retirement expressly to stop Najib, his former protégé, from wrecking the country. US investigators allege that Najib’s associates stole $4.5bn from the state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), between 2009 and 2014, with as much as $700m deposited in the politician’s bank account. Najib, 64, has denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by a domestic probe, but investigations continue in several other countries.

The scale of the scandal is credited with forging the most unlikely of political reunions. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar over political differences, after which the latter was jailed for abuse of power and sodomy – charges he denied. Gay sex is criminalised in Muslim-majority Malaysia but convictions are rare and the case was condemned as politically motivated. Anwar was imprisoned again in 2015, this time during Najib’s rule, for a sodomy conviction also regarded as politically motivated as the opposition grew in strength. Now, in a remarkable denouement, Mahathir has promised to transfer the premiership to Anwar, who has been released from prison. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, is the new deputy prime minister.

In a bustling banana leaf restaurant in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the still-inked index fingers of voters can be seen. Like millions of people across the country, Joel Paul is enjoying a late-announced public holiday after waiting until dawn for a result few anticipated in their lifetimes. The new government must now “question openly the corruption”, the businessman said. He remains suspicious of Mahathir, who as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 undermined many of the laws and institutions that he has now vowed to reform. But the weight of corruption allegations against Najib ultimately determined his vote.

Chin-Huat Wong, a political scientist at the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think tank, cited the economy as the “driving force” behind the result. For voters, inflation and the unpopular Goods and Services Tax were not offset by the cash handouts promised by Najib. “Over time, the elites became too self-serving,” he said. “The emergence of Mahathir, who stands for Malay nationalism, then removed the Malays’ fear of regime change.”

The swing of the Malay majority to the opposition was crucial to its victory. By forming the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, and joining a multi-racial alliance supported by the country’s sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, Mahathir led a winning coalition.

Wong Chen, a former corporate lawyer and now a fast-rising MP in Anwar’s centre-left People’s Justice Party, is hopeful that the result will herald a new liberal era for Malaysia. He is unconcerned by the return of Mahathir, the autocrat turned reformer. “Just look at the numbers,” he said in reference to his own party, the largest in the victorious coalition. The mood was jubilant at a small celebration he threw for his campaign team on the night Mahathir was finally sworn in as prime minister. They sang “A Whole New World” – a popular song from Disney’s Aladdin, but one that also symbolised their hopes for a new Malaysia.

Back at the office of Malaysiakini, Gan hopes Malaysia has taken a small step towards becoming “a normal country” that is “not obsessed with race and religion”. For now, he takes pride in an assertion of inclusive nationalism. “We have shown the world that while the silent majority has spoken, it’s a different kind of silent majority as compared to Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. This is a silent majority that we can be proud of.”

This article was first published on 18 May 2018 in the New Statesman.


Malaysia turns away boats as death stalks weary migrants

OFF KOH LIPE, Thailand: Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants while one boat turned up in Thai waters, as critics accused Southeast Asian governments Thursday of playing “human ping pong” with desperate boatpeople.

Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships bearing migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh from entering Southeast Asia waters, triggering warnings from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and rights groups that the hardline approach could endanger thousands at sea and falls short of their international obligations.

On Thursday, a boat crammed with scores of Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar — was found drifting in Thai waters.

As dusk fell several visibly emaciated men jumped into the sea to retrieve food packages dropped by a Thai navy helicopter.

An AFP reporter saw one of the men eat handfuls of raw instant noodles in the water before swimming back to the boat.

“About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water,” one of the migrants shouted in Rohingya to a boat full of journalists.

“We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet.”

Many young children were among the weak-looking passengers on the wooden boat, which was found near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea.

– ‘Children are sick’ –

Sajida, who was travelling with her four young children, said she was also trying to reach Malaysia, but the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

“We haven’t had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep… my children are sick,” the 27-year-old told AFP.

A Thai naval officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine “so they can go to their destination”.

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed to be stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.

But Malaysian patrol ships intercepted two migrant vessels beginning late Wednesday off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

They carried a combined 600 people, the official added.

“Last night, one boat was pushed back after it entered Malaysian waters off Penang and one more boat was prevented from entering Langkawi waters,” the official said.

The boat off Langkawi may have been the same one that later turned up in Thai waters. Both carried a makeshift banner declaring the passengers as Rohingya.

Rights groups say Thailand — which has called a May 29 regional meeting on the issue — also has a policy of not allowing such boats to berth.

– ‘Vulnerable people’ –

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday urged Southeast Asian countries not to turn back the migrants, telling them that rescue at sea was an international obligation.

In a statement, Ban voiced alarm that “some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants”.

He urged governments to “ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld” and to “keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.

Washington, meanwhile, urged “countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

International human rights watchdogs were also critical.

“The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

More than 1.3 million Rohingya — viewed by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Malaysia refused to budge Thursday, with the deputy home minister putting blame for the problem squarely on the migrants’ home countries.

“Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people,” Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP.

“So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive.”

He said Bangladesh also needed to do more to prevent illegal immigrants leaving its shores.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 14 May 2014 including here