Friday, February 26, 2010

The man who refused to die

By Allan Little
Today programme

They came to think of themselves as the forgotten army - the men who endured years of suffering in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II.

Yet many of the survivors, when they came back, never spoke of what they had seen and suffered. Now, one survivor of the camps has broken his 65-year silence.

Alistair Urquhart, then a 22-year-old Gordon Highlander from Aberdeen, became a prisoner of war without firing a shot.

This is a story of almost unimaginable suffering. The POWs were transported deep into Thailand on rice trucks that were more like steel coffins.

Alistair Urquhart describes the horrific journey into Thailand

He, with hundreds of others, was marched through the jungle to a prison camp. Many died from dehydration and exhaustion on the long march.

They were then put to work on the building of a railway. It involved cutting a path through a sheer stone cliff face the men came to call Hellfire Pass.

Inside 'the black hole'

The men survived on a few handfuls of rice a day. Many succumbed to disease - cholera, beriberi, tropical ulcers. Their weight fell to five or six stone. Beatings were routine.

In the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwei the men whistle Colonel Bogie and the officers valiantly defy their Japanese guards.

Alistair Urquhart says it was not so. The film sanitises the depths to which the men sank on the building of the infamous railway bridge.

For years he went barefoot and naked except for a simple loin cloth. After another death march through the jungle, Alastair Urquhart was taken back to Singapore and, with 400 other men, loaded into the hold of a cargo ship.

There was standing room only. It was airless, fetid, the heat baking. Many died here too.

Surviving the cargo hold

The ship did sink, torpedoed at sea by an US submarine.

'I went up like a champagne cork'

He spent five days and night alone on a barge. By the time he was picked up by a Japanese whaling ship, he was dehydrated, hallucinating and close to death.

He ended up in a camp in mainland Japan. He was there when the war ended. But his prison camp was a few miles from the city of Nagasaki.

The blast of hot air from the bomb that fell on August 9th knocked him off his feet. Within days he was on his way home.

He arrived in Aberdeen in November. For years he'd dreamt of being re-united with his family. When, finally, he was, they scarcely recognised each other.

Those who returned came home to a country that did not understand what they had endured, and which, for the most part, did not want to know.

Like many of his generation, Alistair Urquhart didn't speak about his experience for 60 years. His wife died after 46 years of marriage without knowing any of it.

I am breaking my silence now, he writes in his book, to bear witness. I am a lucky man, but I am also an angry man, and my business with Japan is unfinished.

Germany has atoned. Young Germans know of their nation's dreadful crimes. But young Japanese are taught nothing of their nation's guilt.

Alistair Urquhart's book, The Forgotten Highlander: One Man's Incredible Story Of Survival During The War In The Far East, is published by Little, Brown.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Migrant workers in Thailand


Life gets harder for Thailand’s guest-workers

Feb 25th 2010 | BANGKOK | From The Economist print edition

THEY sew bras, peel shrimps, build blocks of flats and haul fishing-nets. In return, migrant workers in Thailand are paid poorly, if at all, and face exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers and the security forces. Up to 3m migrants, many undocumented and mostly from Myanmar, fall into this category. So a scheme to start registering this workforce and bring it into the legal fold sounds like a step forward. Migrants have been ordered to apply to their home countries for special passports so that they can work legally in Thailand and, in theory, enjoy access to public services, such as health care.

But the plan has run into practical and political difficulties, mostly among workers from Myanmar, who rightly fear their awful government and do not want to return home, even temporarily. Many are unaware of the registration drive. So the first applicants have come mostly from migrants from Laos and Cambodia, where the authorities are more willing to help.

The Thai government says 400,000 Myanmar nationals have so far joined the process. Under pressure, the Thai government has reportedly modified its original deadline of February 28th for filing papers. Now that is the deadline only for migrants to fill in a form agreeing to go through the “nationality verification” process. They have until the end of March to submit forms to their home government.

But Thailand has not lifted its threat to arrest and deport migrants who do not comply by the new deadline. The government apparently believes that unregistered foreigners are a security threat. This raises the spectre of mass expulsions on a scale not seen since the 1990s. Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations official in Geneva dealing with migrant rights, has said that this would breach Thailand’s human-rights obligations, since workers might also be asylum-seekers.

This argument is unlikely to sway a government that shows increasing contempt for refugees. In December it expelled more than 4,000 Hmong to Laos, including 158 refugees recognised as such by the UN. Most were packed off to a remote camp. A Thai-government spokesman has claimed that the 158 refugees were happy to be in Laos. Foreign diplomats in Bangkok, still fuming over the expulsion, doubt it.

Kicking out millions of migrants who do dirty, low-paid jobs would be unpopular with Thai companies. Too few locals are willing to take their place. Garment factories in Thai-Myanmar border towns such as Mae Sot would probably go bankrupt if they had to offer decent wages and benefits. Fisheries and plantations also depend on imported labour. The government, however, believes that deported workers would soon be replaced by others eager to escape misery in Myanmar.

Not all foreign workers are under the radar; over 1.3m migrants registered in 2009 for work permits under the old system. These are the workers whose nationality Thailand wants to verify first, before tackling the rest. But being a legal migrant in Thailand confers few benefits. Workers are still at the mercy of employers who can cheat them of their wages and dismiss them summarily. Complaining can be futile or worse. Workers face extortion, rape and even murder by the very officials supposed to be protecting them, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a watchdog that this week released a report on the abuses suffered by migrants. It noted that officials treat them like “walking ATMs”.

There is little reason to believe that holding a special passport would protect migrants from rapacious cops and stingy employers, says HRW’s Phil Robertson. Migrants will still be unable to travel freely or organise into unions. In some provinces it is illegal for them to use mobile phones. Labour-inspectors pay little heed.

Employers have the upper hand and can keep down labour costs, but at a price to Thailand’s competitiveness. Surveys of Thai workers show a steady decline in their productivity, says Pracha Vasuprasat, an expert on migration at the International Labour Organisation. An abundance of poorly paid migrants means less incentive to upgrade to a more skilled workforce. Thailand’s is not the only Asian economy hooked on cheap labour. Neighbouring Malaysia also depends on millions of guest-workers. So much so that its home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has suggested that, to lessen the dependence, political refugees be allowed to work.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Top 10 Most Beautiful Beaches in Thailand

  1. Ko Samui - Ko Samui is very well known and the two best known beaches there are Chaweng and Lamae But there is a more secluded beach known as Silver Beach, better known by its official name, Tong Takien. It’s suitable for families and well worth a visit if you’re on Ko Samui Island, which is located in the Gulf of Thailand.
  2. Phuket – Phuket is highly developed, and if you’re on a beach the chances are that you will be surrounded by scores of other holidaymakers and plenty of touts selling you anything from squid, friend chicken, shrimp, watches, clothes, and much more. Most of these items are going to be a lot cheaper if you take the time to go to a proper market, particularly in Bangkok, but if something catches your eye there and then, they’ll be pleased to oblige. Surin beach is one to watch out for in particular, where you can enjoy a nice swim in the sea.
  3. Ko Phi Phi - Ko Phi Phi is comprised of two islands, and not far from Krabi on the Andaman Sea. It’s about a two-hour ferry ride from Krabi. The beach to look out for is Tonsai Bay, which is extremely stunning.
  4. Ko Samet – Ko Samet is about an hour past Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand, and it has a famous beach known as Diamond beach, with a second name of Crystal Sand Beach. It’s a really beautiful beach not far from Bangkok, and popular with city dwellers on the weekends who need to escape the bustling metropolis to enjoy sand and sea.
  5. Krabi – Krabi has its own excellent beach, called Ao Nang. You need to get to the southern part of it to enjoy the best scenery there. Krabi has all the restaurants and services you would ever need, and faces the Andaman Sea. Venture further south and you will find Noppharat Thara, which is a national park with its own spectacular beach scenery. This is an ideal family beach, and you can walk to three islands just offshore when the tide is low.
  6. Ko Tao – This is the island to get away from it all, and also a diver’s paradise. The beach to visit here is Sairee beach, where you can feel like you really are in another world.
  7. Prachuap Khiri Khan – Near the border of Myanamar is one of the best and least tourist visited beaches in Thailand called Ao Manao, or Lemon Beach. Great for family holidays this beach is well worth a special visit, and one of Thailand’s jewels.
  8. Ko Chang – Elephant island as it is called is the second biggest island in Thailand and located near the border of Cambodia. There are a great selection of beaches on its west coast. The White Sand beach is one of the most popular on the island.
  9. Pattaya – the beach in Pattaya is not one of Thailand’s finest by any stretch of the imagination, but you can take a short ferry ride to one of the nearby islands and enjoy much better beaches for swimming and splashing about. Pattaya is well known for other things that may or may not appeal: be fully aware of what to expect before setting out.
  10. Hua Hin - Hua Hin is a developed resort with some fine hotels and a long stretch of beach. The more commercial beach isn’t that great, but it is still highly popular among visitors and suitable for families. There are some other nearby prettier beaches to be discovered, and Hua Hin is a great place to relax in one of its fine resort hotels. People come to Hua Hin because it’s a great town and it’s well maintained, as it’s the main residence of the King of Thailand.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thailand Immigration Select Pattaya for Interpol Office

Thailand Immigration Select Pattaya for Interpol Office

Well over 130 of Thailand’s leading Immigration Officers met at the Jomtien Beach Nusa Playa Hotel south of Pattaya for a very large conference. This important meeting was attended by the Deputy Immigration Minister from Bangkok and the highest ranking immigration officials from every part of Thailand.

Pattaya, February 2010 [PDN]: The highly experienced Chonburi Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Khun Niti Kongrut was the opening speaker, and even took time out to answer impromptu questions. The question regarding the foreign ownership of beer bars was also raised, and it would appear that this matter will be investigated by government authorities in the appropriate manner.

One query was related to foreign visitors gaining a second visa extension, once their original 60 + 30 day tourist visa has expired. This requires such persons to leave Thailand and gaining an extension depends on your point of re-entry back into Thailand. The Vientiane / Kon-Kien Immigration office on the Laos border often grants a second 60 + 30 day tourist visa, so maybe there is a case to see more uniformity in this area. Foreign visitors have trouble in understanding the complexities of these regulations, which vary considerably and depend on their interpretation by individual immigration offices.

The big news was the announcement to have an Interpol Office established in Pattaya, as this is seen as a very practical way to control international crime and the arrival of suspected criminals from overseas. This new Interpol Office will be sited at Soi-5 in Jomtien under the direction of Police Superintendent Police Colonel Athiwit Kamonrat, who is based in Chonburi. The Chonburi Immigration region now has more than 2,000 warrants to arrest foreigners for crimes that they have committed outside of Thailand, and in addition to these they have approximately 1,000 warrants issued by Thai courts against foreigners for crimes committed within Thailand.

Interpol also works closely with other world-wide law enforcement agencies, such as America’s FBI and “Scotland Yard” in England. This development will certainly not be appreciated by criminals, who have chosen Pattaya and other parts of Thailand as a safe haven for their past illegal activities

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thailand's Thaksin Running out of money and places to hide

Posted: 18 Feb 2010 06:36 PM PST

February 19, 2010
By Thanong Khanthong
The Nation

FUGITIVE former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's whereabouts are mostly unknown, as he is concerned about his safety. After visiting Uganda to launch Go Lotto, the latest gambling craze in town there, it was reported that Thaksin had gone back to Dubai. But is he really in Dubai?

The Observer, an online newspaper from Uganda, reported in its February 17 edition that Thaksin was in Uganda for the launch of Go Lotto. Thaksin serves as chairman of the Advisory Board to Global PS Lotto. During his Thai premiership, Thaksin introduced the two-digit and three-digit lotteries, much to the delight of lottery-addicted Thais. The interim Surayud Chulanont government, which came to power after Thaksin was ousted in the September 2006 coup, scrapped the two-digit and three-digit lotteries.

Wearing a red shirt and red sports jacket, Thaksin presided over the bonanza event in Uganda, handing out prizes to lucky winners, including a Toyota car. "Each time I come here, I appreciate more and more why Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa. I am very excited about launching this service in Uganda and I hope that Go Lotto will benefit the people of Uganda," he said.

The Observer reported that Global PS Lotto Investment chose Uganda because the lotto project worked in Thailand and Thaksin wants to repeat the success in Uganda. About 30 per cent of net proceeds from the lotto will go to social development and other programmes in Uganda, such as education, sports and healthcare.

"I feel very passionate in these areas, and with my experience in Thailand, where I introduced the lotto while still the prime minister, we got millions in revenue that I used to develop these sectors. I hope that by bringing Go Lotto to Uganda, similar benefits can be achieved here," Thaksin said.

The Observer further wrote that in late 2008, it was reported that the UK had frozen US$4.2 billion (Bt139.4 billion) of Thaksin's assets. However, the UK government has not confirmed or denied this claim, it said.

One Thai official told me that Thaksin can no longer use Dubai as his political base because he is facing complications arising from his financial arrangements there. But Thaksin still gives the impression that he is using Dubai as his home base. In fact, he is spending more time in Africa and elsewhere, including Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia has emerged as Thaksin's strongest international ally.

It is believed that the UK authorities have indeed frozen about $4.2 billion of Thaksin's assets and might have already seized this huge amount. The complication is that Dubai money is also part of the $4.2 billion that has been frozen or seized. When Thaksin bought Manchester City Football Club, with a grander plan to acquire a casino licence, he co-invested with Dubai money. Since the money transferred into the UK came under nominee names and from dubious origins, the UK authorities ordered a freeze of those accounts totalling more than $4.2 billion. The Dubai money also got trapped in the same web. During that same period in late 2008, the UK also denied Thaksin and his wife Pojaman visas to enter the country.

I understand that nobody has shown up to claim that he or she is the beneficiary owner of the $4.2 billion frozen in the UK. It is not in the interests of the UK to place this incident in the public domain, since this amount could conveniently go into state coffers. Having somebody showing up to reclaim this money would pose a big legal challenge.

Since the Dubai money has also been mixed up and trapped in the freeze, this probably explains why Thaksin is having a difficult relationship with Dubai, where he can no longer claim a home base. Thaksin has also reportedly lost a big amount in his investments in Dubai, which is suffering an economic meltdown.

It is no surprise that Thaksin is making an all-out effort to secure the return of his Bt76 billion currently frozen in Thailand. The Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the matter on February 26. Thaksin's desperate situation has turned into a national complication, with tensions escalating between the red shirts and the Thai military. This tension will play out well ahead of, or after, the Supreme Court's "Judgement Day".

A potential clash is looming.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thailand business fear house dissolution, civil war or coup

A House dissolution, civil war and a coup top the list of investment risks facing businesses ahead of the February 26 landmark verdict on the Bt76-billion assets foreclosure trial.

Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra may be guilty or not. His family's enormous fortune may be forfeited entirely or partially or the whole amount returned.

All these are among the possible scenarios that are prompting virtually all businessmen in this country - Thais or expatriates - to keep their finger crossed.

Many wish the political situation before and after February 26 will not be as bad as the brief street riots last April or the November 2008 airport closures.

Most importantly, they hope there will be neither a civil war among those with divergent political ideologies nor a coup that suspends the country's democratic governance system once again.

These perspectives were shared during last Thursday's roundtable discussion on Thailand's economic recovery versus its political crisis with a focus on the February 26 court verdict - jointly organised by The Nation and Krungthep Turakij.

When the yellow-shirted protestors shut down Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Muang Airport back in late November 2008 to pressure then Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat into tendering his resignation, visitor arrivals plunged 23 per cent the following month, just when the tourism industry was entering its high season.

Then came April 2009 when the red-shirted protesters went on a rampage on Bangkok's streets in a bid to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The tourism industry took another major hit, marked by a 22-per-cent fall in visitor arrivals.

Many businessmen now like to joke that Thai politics has become so "colourful" over the past several years, just like the colour-coded teams on the traditional college Sports Day.

In the end, they hope the players, red- or yellow-shirted, will respect the judges' verdict so that the country may return to normalcy.

Given the protracted political rifts, Thailand has missed chances to focus on the longer-term strategy of national development, especially with the enforcement of the crucial Asean Economic Community coming up in 2015.

One roundtable panellist said he's really sorry for the sad state of political affairs here, suggesting that more and more businessmen and investors are losing patience and growing increasingly hopeless. Another participant warned that the possible bankruptcy of several European governments, which are now sinking under huge fiscal deficits, might stall the global economic recovery, which is still fragile.

The US economic recovery is still not creating jobs, while Japan remains mired in deflation after two decades of low growth. And China's economic bubbles are increasingly worrisome.

All these factors could trip up Thailand's exports and GDP growth this year.

If the domestic political situation is not stabilised anytime soon, Thailand could be heading for another round of economic troubles.

To protect against uncertain times, a panellist suggested holding onto cash and bullion while selling off stocks and bonds.

Such pessimism also prevails because Thailand is passing through a significant political transition but lacks an effective mechanism to resolve conflicts.

A society cannot solve its problems with street politics. Yet, the parliamentary system also appears to be losing its effectiveness as far as elections are concerned.

One panellist said the flow of funds behind street politics should be cut off by authorities so that we could expect to see an end to the current protests.

An army without logistics and funding will quickly become feeble.

For many optimists, the darkest hour may come on February 26 when the Supreme Court hands down its historic verdict on the assets seizure case.

After that, Thailand should be able to come to terms with any of the outcomes. Political stability should gradually return. Or is that just wishful thinking.

Online dating in Thailand

'Slender figure, white-yellow skin and outgoing personality." stresses the importance of user security to minimise the risk of nasty surprises emerging offline later on. SAROT MEKSOPHAWANNAKUL

I clicked "enter" and waited for the man of my dreams to appear. Within a few hours, my inbox was filled with dozens of invitations - some polite and appealing, and others aggressively boorish.

Welcome to the world of online dating in the 21st century.

"Our system can find men or women matching your specifications. Just register and fill in what kind of people you are looking for - like handsome, tall, or even rich. A lot of profiles will pop up in a few minutes," said Torboon Puangmaha, CEO of Sanook Online, which operates the local online dating website

In addition to the photo upload option, which is key to attracting other members, the website provides a video clip browser.

A security system is also essential. The webmaster must closely observe and protect members' personal information, although the system can perform preliminary screening. All e-mails are sent directly to members' mailboxes. They can then respond through e-mail until they trust someone enough to give him or her a telephone number.

"You must take care of yourself especially when you are dating. The only thing we can do if you complain that you are harassed is to close that account and inform other members who are in contact with him or her about the issue," said Mr Torboon.

The online dating market in Thailand is still smaller than in other countries, he added. Thailand is estimated to have only about 12.6 million internet users, about 20% of the population. So the business has considerable room to grow.

A 31-year-old PR executive said it was difficult to meet new friends because she spends most of her time working and only sees the same people in her office.

"Online dating is a tool for me to find someone and see others without obstacles like distance or nationality. In the online dating world, I can be both chooser and chosen person. I have met many good people through the website," she said.

After she registered, the PR executive said a lot of e-mails were sent to her mailbox. "Nice to meet you" is the most popular way to start a conversation, she said.

For example, "Nice to meet you. I am a warm guy, funny and sincere. I'm looking for lovely women to chat with and share the future together. Is it possible to talk with you? Please respond to my e-mail. Have a nice day." Another message read, "Hello, my name is Ton. I'm a web engineer. I love eating out and sports. Do you like sports? Hope to talk with you soon." Another corespondent wrote love songs in his e-mail.

"I am a simple guy. I've been divorced for many years and stay alone. Chatting with people through online dating keeps me from loneliness. I just want someone to talk with. I choose people through profiles and pictures. If her appearance is okay, I will send her an e-mail to say hello. If she doesn't respond, I will look for others. That's it," said a male member of an online dating website.

Mr Torboon sees online dating as different from social networking.

"I think online dating is more serious than social networking but people can use both to know each other," he added.

More than 80% of online daters are aged from 20 to 40 years. Most men are seeking younger women. But women prefer middle-aged men because they believe these men will be ready to build a family and will be more able to take good care of them.

Mr Torboon said membership of the 11-year-old now stands at 1.3 million, with an average of 30,000 visits per day. Thai online dating business has about five big local players and three or four foreign websites.

Ninety percent of Thaimate's revenue is from membership fees and just 10% from advertising, he added.

The business's main problem is that most Thais misunderstand and distrust online dating, he said. It will take time to educate people, although the number of Thais using online dating is rising fast. Thaimate's members are growing at a double-digit rate every year.

Apart from technology and systems, the key to the business is service and activities, said Mr Torboon.

"We have below-the-line campaigns every quarter such as speed dating and organise a group to make merit or give a donation together. We believe that activities will help attract people and build relationships between members and between members and us," he added.

Sanook Online is teaming up with Ripley's World of Entertainment Pattaya Limited to attempt to break the world speed dating record today in Pattaya. The record is currently held by Dating Cafe' GmbH in Germany, with 252 participants in November 2008.

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