Bomborra Media Productions
David Brown
Kitted-out, Australian filmmaker David Brown goes to work. David's extensive catalogue includes documentaries produced in Nepal, Australia and Cambodia through his company David Brown Films. David’s clients include government organisations of all types, businesses, individuals, community groups and Non Government Organisations(NGO’s) both in Australia and overseas. He believes the process of recording stories of all types is of great benefit in the development of individuals and communities. Going into a community and capturing that collective voice, the expression of that story is fundamental in creating understanding and change. Davids unobtrusiveness quickly develops trust in any environment, this enables him to get to the core a story and the hearts of the people involved. He has a gentle tenacity that enables him to work with a broad range of people in any environment without judgement, often guiding and supporting clients through the experience. His films have been broadcast nationally, shown on the big screens both in Australia and overseas. His considerable experience includes all aspects of film making.  
... more
Spotlight: Myanmar in Conflict
Is Myanmar Failed State?
Those questions were put on hold as Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen attempted to negotiate the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus with junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, creating a veneer of public respectability for all parties until Phnom Penh passed the ASEAN baton to Jakarta.

Indonesia has since indicated a tougher stand and as atrocities have escalated, including four massacres allegedly committed by the military this month, such questions are again being posed.

This author’s last Myanmar story published by The Diplomat was about the Tadaing massacre and had barely been posted when word came through of yet another atrocity.

This time, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) released details of the killings of 29 civilians on March 11, including three monks, at Nam Nein Village in Pinlong Township, Shan State, near its southern border with Karenni State.

A coroner, who declined to be named, investigated the killings and told an NUG press conference that many of the dead had been tortured before being shot at “very close range” and that people were “in great suffering… this is a serious inhumane war crime.”

The NUG also claimed that the junta was attempting to ignite a religious conflict by blaming the deaths of Buddhist monks on the NUG’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Force, and has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to expand its current in-country investigations.

The U.N.’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, then told The Guardian in regard to Russian arms sales to the junta that “the same types of weapons that are killing Ukrainians are killing people in Myanmar.”

More importantly, he said that under the junta’s rule, Myanmar is a “failing state” and would likely get worse. The U.N. envoy for Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, then told the U.N. General Assembly that “there is no prospect for a negotiated settlement” to the crisis.

Worthy acknowledgments not before their time.

There is no strict definition for a failed state, but it is usually defined as a state that has lost its effective ability to govern. That includes its people, territory, its ability to maintain infrastructure and exercise control over its economy.

A briefing paper released last September by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar found the military does not have effective control and could only claim to have stable control over 17 percent of the country’s territory.

It found that the NUG and resistance groups had “effective control” over 52 percent of Myanmar while the military and opposition forces were actively contesting the remaining 23 percent.

Adding further fuel to the argument is the Fund for Peace,which publishes an annual Fragile State Index (FSI). It scores states on 12 factors and 100 sub-indicators and then raises the alert on states that are at the tipping point of becoming failed. It stops short of labeling a state as failed.

Yemen, Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic took out the worst five FSI spots, respectively, in 2022 as teetering on failed, with scores of between 111.7 and 108.1.

Myanmar occupies 10th place with a score of 100, after Chad and Afghanistan.

Obviously, last year’s score did not take into account the travesties in Myanmar committed over the past three months – including the ability of human traffickers to ply their trade at will – nor mounting arguments that the military should not be engaged by the international community.

As a failed state, Myanmar’s membership with ASEAN could be suspended and negotiations restricted to the NUG while enabling the U.N., or more likely a Western coalition, to intervene and impose no-flight zones, further sanctions, and secure safe havens within the country.

Then the ICC would be in a better position to execute warrants for the arrests of Myanmar’s senior military leaders for war crimes and quite probably, genocide. It would still be a risky enterprise but also one of Min Aung Hlaing’s own making.

... more
Myanmar's Civil War
Three podcasts focussed on the conflict in Myanmar, which erupted after the military seized power from an elected government in February 2021. Since then National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing the People's Defence Force (PDF ) have formed the backbone of the resistance..

Security-risk consultant Ross Milosevic has worked across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for almost three decades but his focus has often remained on Myanmar. He backs international support for the forces arraigning against the generals and notes the similarities between Myanmar and Syria, and the realities of China.
Listen on Podbean
Listen through The Diplomat

The United States-based organization Unbound Now has spent the last decade focused on the prevention of human trafficking, professional training, and survivor advocacy. It has shifted its focus to Myanmar where -- because of the civil war -- traffickers are plying their trade with impunity.
Listen through The Diplomat

Scott Johnson is an Australia-based lawyer, journalist, and human rights advocate with more than 20 years of experience focusing on indigenous groups and geopolitical issues in Southeast Asia, in particular Myanmar, which he still calls Burma.
Listen through The Diplomat
... more
Tatmadaw, Why Negotiate?
This story was originally written by Luke Hunt for The Diplomat. It focuses on why ASEAN or anyone else should consider negotiations with the military junta, also known as Tatmadaw, in Myanmar.

Ever since Myanmar’s military seized power and ousted an elected government, international efforts to negotiate a clear way out have focused on dealing with a military that month by month becomes more belligerent, more violent, and less capable.

The assumption was that “the military now controls Myanmar and has all the guns” and that talks – however unpalatable – must proceed. To a large extent, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) was simply relegated and has struggled to get a hearing on the diplomatic front.

But a
briefing paper by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) challenges such assumptions and says that the military junta in Myanmar simply does not have effective control of the country to warrant its engagement with the international community.

The paper applied international standards in determining which side in the conflict best meets the criteria used to establish control of a state and found the NUG and resistance groups had “effective control” over 52 percent of the country.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his generals are being actively contested by opposition forces in a further 23 percent of Myanmar and therefore the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, can only claim to have stable control over 17 percent of the country’s territory.

According to the SAC-M, the “trajectory of the conflict favors the resistance, and the junta is losing what control it does have at an increasing rate despite the continued use of mass atrocities by junta forces.”

That correlates with dispatches from inside Myanmar that say independent ethnic-based rebels are increasingly working together and have emerged from the jungles and are taking out military posts in the villages and pushing the fight to the outskirts of provincial cities.

This was a turning point noted at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh when this year’s host Cambodia admitted negotiations with the junta had failed and the prospect of opening direct talks with NUG became real.

As Bart Edes, a Professor of Practice at McGill University, noted: “ASEAN countries are sensing the weakness behind the regime. They are facing an armed opposition from many different corners within the country. Their status quo can not last.”

This notion is finding much support amid a growing body of evidence that the junta is losing its grip on large parts of the country.

“Armed resistance to the junta has now saturated wide swathes of townships across most states and regions in Myanmar, demonstrating the strength of the population’s rejection of the military playing any further role in the nation’s politics,” the SAC-M added.

Others have noted the world is running out of excuses not to recognize the NUG and the United States is pushing Myanmar up the foreign policy agenda after its plight was raised by President Joe Biden in the United Nations General Assembly last week.

To date, talks with Tatmadaw have proved insipid, at best. And the execution of the four pro-democracy activists on the eve of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was as tragic as it was stupid and warrants Myanmar’s expulsion, or at least suspension, from ASEAN.

The removal of the Tatmadaw from the negotiating table would enable Indonesia, with backing from Malaysia and Brunei, to deliver on earnest talks with the NUG when Jakarta assumes control of ASEAN’s rotating chair in 2023.

The SAC-M briefing paper also found that the military had forced Myanmar’s former central administration to the brink of collapse, adding the junta is unable to govern and has been reduced to an occupying military force with a diminishing territorial base.

“The world needs to wake up to the reality that a new Myanmar is already taking shape,” Yanghee Lee, a SAC-M founding member, said.

“The NUG is not a shadow government or government in exile. It is the representative of the people’s revolution and resistance to the military junta, the combined of which control the majority of the country,” he added.

... more
NUG: Stepping Up
The National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF), are in dire need of weaponry as they push the civil war from the jungles into junta-held provincial zones where the military responds with Russian-made fighter jets and artillery.

But the Western response has been limited to sanctions.

The latest sanctions just announced by the European Union include travel bans on 16 individuals and entities, including the junta’s energy minister, high-ranking officers, the ministry of defense and private companies thought to be supplying fuel, arms, and funds to the military.

A number of sources who have had contact with the NUG and witnessed its efforts to seek military assistance from the West, including the United States, say perennial issues remain.

“I have spoken with Congressmen who want to provide military aid but they don’t know who to deal with,” said one ASEAN politician who recently returned from the United States. Despite having liaison offices in eight countries, including in Washington, D.C., “the NUG and PDF have no public face. There is no leader that people can rally around, there’s no central point,” the politician added.

Unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, few would recognize the leader and acting president of the NUG, Duwa Lashi La, and that’s more than two years after the Myanmar military – also known as the Tatmadaw – ousted an elected government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Observers who have had dealings with Lashi La say that he lacks charisma and is reluctant to fill the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is languishing behind bars, because of his sense of hierarchy and loyalty to the ousted leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi is deservedly recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate leader of Myanmar, despite her fall from grace over her backing of the military during the slaughter of the Rohingya in 2017.

Her ability to carry an audience was formidable and her cult of personality well documented, but her days as Myanmar’s savior are over. There’s just not that much she can do.

Meanwhile, despite Duwa Lashi La granting some interviews to the international press, those around the acting president have proven barely competent when dealing with journalists outside their comfort zone. Disunity remains a persistent issue among the official 135 major ethnic groups and seven ethnic minority states that contribute to the opposition forces.

Latest estimates say the PDF has more than 65,000 troops serving in more than 250 units but there is no single command structure and it would be impossible for each ethnic group to negotiate military aid with countries like the U.S. on their own.

According to the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, a local NGO, much of the latest fighting has taken place in Karen and Mon states and in Tanintharyi Region, which border Thailand.  It says the people in Karen State have been harshly impacted, which along with Mon State and the Tanintharyi Region, are being relentlessly and indiscriminately attacked by the junta.

“Destruction of property, including the burning of villages, is ongoing,” it said.

“Thousands more are being forced to flee their homes daily as military impunity and a lack of international action only encourage the junta to commit more atrocity crimes.”

Thus the NUG leadership desperately needs to step up or move on, more so with Indonesia taking the helm of ASEAN for 2023. Jakarta has opened up the prospect of direct negotiations with the NUG, and hopefully, put an end to the dithering and silly political theatrics of the last two years.

The shift in direction matters with the military looking to shore up its legitimacy through rigged, stage-managed elections, which the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has already described as fake because “these are not the conditions for a free and fair election.”

“These are conditions for a fraud that is going to be attempted to be perpetrated against the people of Myanmar,” he quite rightly said. Hence, the NUG needs to get its political act together.

... more
Heydays with Hayes
Thirty years ago Michael Hayes arrived in Cambodia with his life savings of about US$50,000 and his then-wife Kathleen just as the United Nations began pouring into the Southeast Asian nation to oversee elections and hopefully end decades of war. Luke Hunt writes for the Phnom Penh Post.

Armed with a royal seal from King Norodom Sihanouk Hayes founded the Phnom Penh Post from scratch, and for the next 16 years was responsible for a newspaper that enjoyed a reputation for telling the truth while maintaining a sympathetic ear for this country’s plight and its tragic history.

But this reputation came at a price. Several Khmer contemporaries were assassinated and there were many sleepless nights from the top floor of his home and office in Street 264. Hayes literally slept one floor above the news room that produced every issue, once every two weeks.

By the time I returned to Cambodia as bureau chief for Agence-France-Presse (AFP) in mid-2001, his marriage had collapsed and financial insecurity was a constant. The wars were over and efforts to put the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial were dominating headlines.

In those days tribunal detractors were loud, not unlike now, and too often the people bellowing about the tribunal’s perceived inadequacies would hog the kind of attention that others thought belonged to Pol Pot’s many victims who had become an important part of the paper’s focus.

As such, the PPPost’s reputation was largely borne out of the Khmer Rouge and how these ultra-Maoists wiped out a third of their own population between 1975 and 1979. But covering what had happened all those years earlier could prove tiresome, especially when seen through the prism of the late 1990s when a low-level civil war persisted.

With conflict topping the agenda the economy became the most underplayed story in the country, particularly in light of the never-ending aftermath of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis which dominated news everywhere else in the region. Hayes often complained about the lack of economic coverage, and he understood the fiscal realities of the day first hand.

During the 10th anniversary of the newspaper, he quipped: “Basically I’ve spent the last 10 years not getting paid to worry about money every day, how this paper survived is an absolute mystery to me.”

In his own words Hayes also “daydreamed about finding boxes of cash” and once told me that “if I had a buck for every time I worried about money I’d be a millionaire.”
Things were tight but Hayes was also being modest.

The secret of the PPPost’s survival and its great successes was largely due to Hayes’s ability to attract young and talented journalists who were prepared to live on a shoestring and work their hearts out. As a result the paper became a giant stepping stone to wider careers.

The likes of Ker Munthit, Sarah Colm, Leo Dobbs, Liam Cochrane, Rob Carmichael, Nate Thayer, Matthew Granger, Jason Barber, Hurley Scroggins and Peter Sainsbury along with scores of other seasoned journalists have spent time at the PPPost.

They earned rich praise from heavyweight academics and commentators including David Chandler, William Shawcross, Milton Osborne, Peter Maguire and Craig Etcheson and this would continue through much of the first decade of this century when news coverage changed dramatically.

The US-led War on Terror had its own specific consequences on individual countries around Southeast Asia as al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) made its presence felt with a series of bombings, like the 2002 Bali blast which left more than 200 people dead.

In Cambodia the flak held added dimensions. Amid this post 9/11 atmosphere and its borderline paranoia, Phnom Penh was for the first time about to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and host leaders from around the world.

Conditions in the capital were rough, politicians blissfully ignorant of what was expected and Islamic extremists were using Cambodia as a hideout.

The Bali bombing was masterminded by Hambali who had entered Cambodia after passing himself off as Thai, a decision he would later fear and regret, and he spent much of the year plotting that bombing from a guest house behind the Phnom Penh Mosque on Boeung Kak Lake, which is now little more than a very big sand pit.

Following the blast Hambali held his ground in Cambodia until he panicked in late January 2003, after witnessing the whole sale destruction that erupted amid the anti-Thai riots that effectively shut down the country, spawning the memorable front page headline in the PPPost:  Mobs Go Berserk.

Hambali fled and was soon captured in Thailand.

A year later I was on Sabbatical, working regularly for the PPPost and investigating stories about hard-line Wahabi groups from Saudi Arabia allegedly funding Muslim Cham conversions and building opulent mosques in the Cambodian countryside where locals had known little more than traditional stilt houses and maybe a cow shed.

During a series of interviews Cambodian Muslims came forward and told how they had been ordered out of the Madrassas in Southern Thailand where they had studied. Trouble was brewing and from his contacts in Thailand and Phnom Penh, Hayes had also heard of a military crackdown.

The PPPost was all over the story and ahead of the game on the outbreak of a conflict that continues to this day, just as it had been during the years of civil war and when history was being written, such as the coup in 1997, Pol Pot’s death and the arrest of his cohorts.

There were lighter moments, like the time Hayes confiscated a gun he gave to his guard after he was caught firing it at the next door neighbor’s property for target practice. The guard agreed to give it back and added the gun didn’t work anymore.

He put it to his head and pulled the trigger, there was a bullet in the chamber but it had jammed.

As AFP bureau chief from 2001 to 2004 the PPPost and its competitor The Cambodia Daily were highly prized sources of information. The Internet was only just making its presence felt as a news source and Cambodia as a hunting ground for journalists was all about primary reporting.

This meant reporters had to spend time in the field. Good yarns didn’t arrive in press releases, government handouts, and junkets. To be fair this has not totally changed in Cambodia like it has in most parts of the world.

But back then Phnom Penh was just a two paper town and the PPPost’s ability to produce highly informative, in depth articles without fear or favor was as appreciated as they were difficult to produce, and the staff on the paper held the respect of their peers and a community.

ED's note: The story was part of a 68-page supplement celebrating 20 years of the Phnom Penh Post
and won the World Association of Newspapers, Gold Prize for Best Feature in 2013. it was updated in 2022.

... more
Ashes from Annam
Author Thierry de Roland Peel, revisits the slaughter of French Catholics is Saigon as WWII drew to a close, and how the Japanese gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong and Pathet Lao
by LUKE HUNT / Phnom Penh

For decades author Thierry de Roland Peel was spell-bound by the stories his grandparents told of how their family, and their dog named Mephisto, had survived the slaughter in Saigon as World War II was drawing to its close in 1945, when the Japanese realized they had lost.

Hitler had been defeated and in Japanese occupied Southeast Asia local communists were attempting to assert independence with Tokyo’s encouragement before the inevitable arrival of the British and French.

“Before the Japanese surrendered it was total confusion, disorientation, there was no security and Saigon was ripe for trouble,” said Thierry de Roland Peel, author of Ashes from Annam, a Mother’s Tale. “No body knew what was going on or who was in charge.”

He says very little has been published about the southern Vietnamese city – now know as Ho Chi Minh City – at this point in time but the political machinations that evolved did culminate in civil wars which would last for decade.

“The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Viet Minh in South Vietnam and the Pathet Lao in Laos all had their start in what happened back then,” said De Roland Peel, whose family roots in IndoChina date back to the 19th century.

Central to Ashes from Annam is De Roland Peel’s French-English parentage – his mother Josette and her parents Emanuel and Germaine.

Their family villa in Saigon was caught in the crossfire as the frontlines changed repeatedly after the Japanese ended the Vichy French administration in March and began arming pro-independence groups.

“Mum kept very very quiet about what happened throughout her life. But my grandparents were a grand source of information,” he said, while toying with a double nip of single malt at the Raffles’ Elephant Bar in Phnom Penh.

De Roland Peel also put in a considerable amount research, fact checking with official archives and was helped by a cousin who had written a diary during the war.

Daily life was as spartan as it was dangerous and their only link to the outside world was Mephisto, a lively Groenendaelwho delivered secret messages hidden in his collar to sympathizers within the French colonial community. 

Hundreds of families were earmarked for slaughter by the Viet Minh, communist insurgents who would become known as the Viet Cong during the 1960s and 70s.

He said women and children had their throats slit and in many cases were buried alive by the Japanese-backed militiasdemanding independence from France before the allies could re-establish the pre-war colonial order.

“The Viet Minh buried children alive in front of their parents, and visa versa,” said De Roland Peel. “They skewered men and women with bamboo poles – like pigs in a market – and continued poking them to death.”

The massacres lasted for more than six months and the family was forced to move into a compound with other foreigners after a Japanese general commandeered their villa.

On September 2, the day Japan formerly surrendered, a French Catholic Priest, Father Tricoire, was murdered alongside five French civilians.

“He was a very well known priest because he was based at the Cathedral of Saigon,” De Roland Peel said. “If people were in trouble he’d be there to help.”

“Of course as soon as the Viet Minh were in charge, he was top of their list to be killed and he was dragged through the streets of Saigon by his feet,” he said. “Communists don’t believe in religion or religious people. Churches had to be destroyed, that was their mindset.”

His death also sparked fears of reprisals as the Vietnamese authorities began arresting French civilians and Vietnamese looters targeted colonial businesses culminating in the Herault Massacre when more than 300 Europeans were killed.

The British, under General Douglas Gracey, arrived later that month and attempted to restore some kind of order but the situation was further complicated when he rearmed Japanese soldiers and used them to suppress the communists.

“My family survived through faith, hope and charity and Mephisto was an unexpected bonus. My parents were allowed to keep Mephisto, that was a surprise, when they moved into the compound and he kept ferrying messages with outside contacts.

“That included words of encouragement and advice like ‘stay put’ and ‘don’t move’. They were also told the Japanese were digging fox holes in the garden and had found the family’s jewelry – buried under a tree in a silver Cambodian-madejewelry box.”

Gen. Gracey was soon joined by the Free French general Jacques Philippe Leclerc and gradually Saigon was brought under control and foreign civilians were ordered home.

“When the French evacuated there was one man wandering around the deck of the ship, naked, he had gone mad, lost his mind, lost his children, lost everything he had,” De Roland Peel said. “it was a great tragedy”.

Following the end of World War II, the family moved to Ceylon where De Roland Peel was born and another civil war was unfolding; and then to Britain where he spent three years in the British military before embarking on a career in finance.

Over the past 30 years De Roland Peel has worked as an investor in Cambodia following a request from King Norodom Sihanouk – extended through his mother – to help in post-war reconstruction, which began after long running civil wars ended in 1998.

More recently he has toured Cambodia promoting Ashes from Annam, published last month, which has received flattering reviews.

De Roland Peel notes that the legacy of the tumultuous events that his family survived all those decades ago are still being played out to this day in Phnom Penh where an international tribunal is winding down after securing convictions for war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. 

“Wars are great tragedies that leave their mark on the generations to come. Eighty years ago my mother witnessed this and we’re seeing it again today, in Ukraine,” he said.

Luke Hunt is the author of the Punji Trap, Pham Xuan An The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us

... more
Dancing with Mortality
Excerpts from Face Masks & Hand Gels; A Year of Living Covidly. These works were first published by Howl in Siem Reap, 2021, in response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A near-death experience raises a question for Luke Hunt—international correspondent and author—’should I stay or should I go?’ “… my life review – a euphemism for near death experience or NDE – really didn’t do it for me.”

As the new coronavirus took hold about 100 people were doing what they do best, sorting a barbecue, the last to be held in the garden of House Nine on Street 830 in Phnom Penh, my home for the last eight years.

Old friends and the odd luminary – famed correspondent Jim Pringle among them – indulged in a hedonistic mix of food, music and intoxicants of choice on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

It was on the eve of lockdowns. Government quarantines, social distancing, face masks and must have sanitizers were still over the horizon. Hugs, kissing and the odd dance were still allowed.

Two weeks later I collapsed with severe abdominal pain, fever and volcanic chills. 

My doctor, Gavin Scott, listened to my gut with his stethoscope and said: “I can’t hear anything at all. Nothing.” Gratefully, I couldn’t feel anything either but the look on his face said too much.

My organs were shutting down as I was rushed into ER at Royal Phnom Penh Hospital then five hours later into an ICU with suspected salmonella or typhoid as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, up-ending and closing-out life as we knew it.

Dr Kraipope Jurapaiboon got it. As my internal organs were nearing retirement he did the charts. A stomach inflammation reading of one to three is considered normal, five is high.

I was clocking around 265.

The ICU resembled a NASA control room. Ten electrodes connected me to the EKG. Three intravenous needles delivered a milk substance and antibiotics. There was a catheter, assisted breathing and four or five staff on hand 24/7 as I drifted in and out of consciousness.

Needles and blood tests followed more needles, more blood tests and CT Scans.

Kraipope diagnosed salmonella leading to complications, which included pneumonia with pulmonary embolisms in both lungs, peritonitis, thrombosis on the liver, kidney stones and diverticulitis resulting in a perforated colon.

That infected my stomach and sent me into sceptic shock, twice.

Blood was turning into sludge and clots, of which I was blissfully unaware. The morphine – a must have at the next barbecue – was terrific.

But as the bells and whistles sounded from my ICU, I instinctively knew exactly what was happening and I was ready to go. I also had the best view. I could see Kraipope, another doctor and a team of nurses dart to my bedside. I was impressed.

I was looking at them from just above, then drifted towards the window as my life review, also known as a near death experience or NDE, began to rewind through a montage of black and white photos.

It was entertaining, I liked my life but like too many of the photographs I’d taken over the previous decades my NDE was in large parts dreadfully out of focus. There was a light that ran in a curve out through the window and up, and I was overwhelmed by a comfortable urge to follow. Just go.

I hesitated for a nano-second. My life review looked a bit clumsy. It lacked clarity. It was a bit like my old school report cards: “Could do better”.

Then I thought of friends and family. Mum had passed barely 12 months earlier leaving a tribe of grandchildren behind and I didn’t need to add to their anguish by buggering off so soon afterwards.

Last and least, I didn’t want that concrete skeleton – the Booyoung construction site next door – to be my last picture of a planet blighted by environmental destruction.

I shot upright. Literally; awake, throughly alive and totally aware.


Broken Needles & Busted Veins

Luke Hunt
, on the road to recover, questions those who query the rights of the elderly during these Covid times—in this, the second part—of his personal medical account.

“Covid, senicide and shades of Hitler in the ranks of the self-entitled.”

Near death experiences are not that uncommon but doubts over the veracity of such stories are understandable, particularly in a world riddled with self-righteous petty indignations and expressed all too loudly as the new coronavirus took hold. 

But as I awoke there was a second doctor who was watching over me and with a reassuring smile he reminded me to thank Dr Kraipope for saving “you, you nearly succumbed twice”.

Asked whether I had contracted Covid-19 – at that point the diagnosis was incomplete – he laughed, saying: “Nooooo, you’re four, five, six times worse than that”. Hardly encouraging.

The following days, weeks and months were difficult. More blood tests, more needles. I actually ran out of veins. They were all broken. My weight dropped from near 90 kilograms to under 70.

I was locked down in hospital and then home for about two months amid a crazy mix of symptoms that were similar to Covid-19; respiratory issues, blood clots, pneumonia.

My only access to the outside word was a television fixed on CNN and the Internet where the plight of the human race was unfolding as the new coronavirus took hold and leaders like the US president Donald Trump crashed to an unprecedented level of incompetence.

Covid-19 was the common cause, lockdowns were enforced and the world as we knew it flipped from great freedoms to house detention and it continues to bring out the best, and the worst in too many people.

But what stunned me, were the horrible attitudes expressed about old people as if some kind of Darwinian experiment was being played out through the new corona virus. I never realized so many people simply didn’t care about their plight.

Scorned and blamed for quarantines, right wing twits were prepared to put business before health as one Texas governor suggested grandparents should be willing to die for the sake of the economy.

In the online world – where every expert, every idiot and everyone in between can express themselves badly – such attitudes are all too easily amped-up.

In Australia and the Covid hotspot of Melbourne, one on-liner points out that total Covid deaths announced for Victoria today were one female in her 80s, three females in their 90s and one female in her 100s, and this does not justify lockdowns.

That prompts responses like: “Mate, just because they were old, doesn’t mean their lives are worthless.” and then: “Why not ban death hazards altogether. No cars. No skateboarding, cycling, hijinks or hipsters. Then we can all die of nothing.”

The attitude is ‘people should ignore the science, do as they please and if the elderly die off a bit earlier than they otherwise might have then that’s an acceptable price to pay so that the rest of us can carry on as usual’. 

There’s a mangled argument in there. A sizable minorityare saying the elderly are too prone, too inconvenient, too expensive, and too old to treat. Unworthy of care, besides they’re going to die soon, anyway. Expendable.

But why stop there? Why not just abandon all help and hope for the elderly in all circumstances, relieve society of their burden and everyone else can go to the football or do as they please.

That would remove awkward questions like who decides who dies and when.It’s actually called senicide, a disturbing, Hitleresque word which means the killing of elderly or their abandonment to death, which makes the issues that exploded out of lockdowns with the stir-crazy protestors of the Black Lives Movement look rather petty.

Humans don’t do Darwin, animals do. Humans – perhaps not all – have ethics and culture. That’s how we sort out the bullies and how people look after society as a whole. I never did get to the other side so I can’t vouch for it but at 57 I went close.

I’ll be forever grateful for the doctors, nurses and the caring people who helped me, whether I last another 10, 20 or 30 years. They were professional, ethical and served according to the needs of the patient. It’s the type of care all people should be entitled to, including the old.

There could be exemptions. Those advocating senicide come to mind.


... more
Sri Lanka's Easter Bombings
Luke Hunt examines Islamic militancy in the wake of the 2019 Easter bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which claimed 269 lives. The story was initially published by La Croix and UCA News before syndication.

Ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) emerged as a ruthless, rampaging force to be reckoned with more than five years ago, the question that has haunted intelligence circles has been: If home is an option for foreign jihadists, what will they do if they return?

IS has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that left more than *250 people dead and hundreds more wounded, confirming what many had feared.

IS, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiyah, have a long history of inspiring and coordinating Islamic suicide bombers.

Before Easter Sunday, IS alone had inspired 143 attacks in 29 countries while acting as a magnet for fanatical Muslims wanting to reshape the world in their own image, sucking them into war in Syria and Iraq.

As IS nears defeat in the Middle East, its militias are leaving to rejoin their families at home and hook up with the ranks of other jihadist groups in Asia and the West, where terror tactics have become an unfortunate and deadly norm.

Nightclubs, city malls, office blocks, public transport, pop concerts, hotels, schools, hospitals churches and mosques — with lots of people and lax security — are the low-hanging fruit for terrorists of all stripes.

Immediately after the attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, suspicion fell on local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), which had been named in an intelligence warning 10 days earlier.

Jama’ath means council, while thowheeth has been romanized from Arabic with various spellings. The most popular is tawhid or tawheed and signifies oneness with God, Islam’s central and most important tenet.

NTJ’s brand of Islam is straight out of the IS playbook: cheap, homemade simultaneous bombings targeting society’s most vulnerable, using fear to underscore a political or religious agenda. In military parlance, it is the very definition of terrorism.

What they want is a Sri Lankan Islamic caliphate and for non-Muslims to submit.

Almost 40 Sri Lankans are known to have fought with IS in Syria, similar to jihadist numbers from as far afield as Malaysia and Indonesia to Australia and Britain. Perhaps the most infamous Sri Lankan IS jihadi was Sharfaz Shuraih Muhsin, killed in an airstrike on Syria in 2015. More came from the nearby Maldives.

Small in number, potent in reach

Radical groups such as NTJ are small. Jemaah Islamiyah terrorized Indonesia and beyond for more than a decade but could only boast about 1,500 core members. Including the periphery, often made up of family and close friends, the number was closer to 5,000.

The group’s ties with bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan were extensive. That included funding, tactics, political strategies and demands for a caliphate encompassing most of Southeast Asia and northern Australia — a stupid and incredulous claim.

It’s a relationship that NTJ and IS appear to have mimicked.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Strategic Studies, the number of jihadists globally has quadrupled since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and the number of people killed by them stands at about half a million. Terrorism is cheap, nasty, psychotic and potent.

As recently as the Vietnam War, Hanoi and the Viet Cong reputedly had a hand in teaching the Irish Republican Army terror tactics, while their use of plastic explosives inspired the Tamil Tigers who used similar terrorist techniques in their bloody 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka.

Not since that war ended in 2009 has Sri Lanka endured such carnage.

The Easter Sunday bombings were carried out with precision, even if word had leaked. Ten days before the attacks, police were warned by international intelligence agencies of a threat by bombers to “prominent churches” and the Indian High Commission in Colombo.

"A foreign intelligence agency has reported that NTJ is planning to carry out suicide attacks,” it read in part.

There have been other threats in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists make up 70 percent of its population and 12.6 percent are Hindu while Muslims and Christians account for 9.7 and 7.6 percent respectively, but reports of ethnic and religious strife are not that common.

According to the Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, there were 86 verified reports of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians last year. That’s hardly rampant in a country of 22 million people.

NTJ has been active in recent years, earning a reputation for vandalizing Buddhist statues, and it went very public with its goal of importing the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka. Secretary Abdul Razik was charged with inciting racism in 2016.

Following his arrest, one commentator noted: “Tawhid Jama'ath [sic] is an organization which is despised by the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka, India and the world over. They are a minority of minorities who carry no respect whatsoever in the community.”

Maniacal dogma

For all the ethnic bloodshed which has dogged Sri Lanka, the island state had escaped the tentacles of Islamic terrorism and the type of maniacal dogma normally associated with bin Laden and IS.

The latest bombings put the Vatican and its dioceses, and any government that felt immune to this type of attack, on notice.

Forensic scientists have determined that at least seven suicide bombers were deployed. At least 40 people have been arrested and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admits security measures initiated after the intelligence warning were inadequate.

The Indian High Commission was presumably warned and was not hit. Whether the churches and hotels were warned and what measures they took to protect their parishioners and guests may well emerge as one of the great issues in this tragic and bloody terrorist act.

From the Vatican down, prayers will be said alongside reminders to turn the other cheek. Priests will deliver sermons based on peace and eternal love and the victims will be deservedly venerated.

Writing in The American Conservative magazine, commentator Rod Dreher noted that “we live in an age of martyrs.” Perhaps. But the Church has no shortage of martyrs. Its most confronting issue is the laity and their security. Parishioners would like to go to Mass in peace.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt

... more
Bulletin Board
Launch of the Punji Trap
The Punji Trap was officially launched on January 24, 2018, at Meta House in Phnom Penh with more than 100 people attending. Journalist and videographer Craig Skehan hosted the event and former Saigon Reuters bureau chief Jim Pringle gave a telling talk about the Tet Offensive, which erupted at the end of January, 1968, and turned the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. Further launches followed in Kampot and Bangkok. See More.
... more
Kelly Slater Buys Thai Stick
“I don’t really see marijuana as a drug. Nobody has ever died from using marijuana and more people today die of prescription drugs than drugs on the street,” Slater, renowned for his clean living, said.

His sympathies lie with the authors of Thai Stick – Mike Ritter, a former smuggler, and Peter Maguire, an academic and a big wave surfer in his own right. Slater intends to turn the book about the lives of young Western smugglers into a television series.

He says the recent change of mindset around marijuana – from a legal perspective – meant  the timing was right to create the interest with the right people.

“This can be as much an educational and travel piece as anything.”

Indeed, Thai Stick won its accolades because it took a scholarly approach to a subject often trivialized as “something a little bit naughty.” The industry was worth billions of dollars and became a focal point for America’s War on Drugs by the 1980s.

Some of the smugglers were horribly killed by the dreaded Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to early 1979 – after their vessels strayed into waters controlled by Pol Pot. Others were caught and served long terms in Thai and American prisons.

Maguire said American law enforcement is basically in the same place as the U.S. military was in Vietnam during the early 1970s, in that Washington has conceded defeat in the war on pot and they are now looking for a face-saving way out.

“However, there is none as it was a massive waste of time and resources. Today pot is basically legal in California and the marijuana industry is growing more quickly than even the tech sector.”

Pot is not a hard drug nor in the same league as cocaine or heroin but methods used by smugglers back then are still used today, with tragic consequences.

On death row now in Indonesia is Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Gularte – who has been diagnosed as mentally ill – for smuggling 6 kg of cocaine into Indonesia hidden inside surfboards. He is scheduled to be shot alongside Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Their sentences have caused a public outrage in their respective countries, where Indonesian authorities and their laws have been branded as excessively mean and unfair to foreigners. They have also cast a shadow over recently elected president, Jokowi Widodo, a great hope for moderates.

In Thai Stick, no one kept their booty and retired gracefully, a point not lost on Maguire, who has also written for The Diplomat.

Maguire said shooting would start soon with the series to cover the years 1968 to 1983, but the priority was securing a large enough budget “to do this right once.” Talks have begun with Hollywood documentary makers Jeff Miller and Kevin Klauber who made King Corn and 20 Feet from Stardom.

“This story is personal, very important to both Mike, myself, and our sources. Given that we began interviewing people more than 15 years ago many people who helped us greatly are now dead,” he said.

By Luke Hunt, he can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

Originally published by the The Diplomat.

... more
Radio & Podcasts
Timor-Leste in ASEAN
A podcast with Kupa Lopez. Timor-Leste initially applied for membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 11 years ago, but since then Dili has been frustrated and disappointed, finding entry into the club of 10 nations a difficult ask.
This prompted Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta to remark earlier this year that: “It seems as if to reach ASEAN, you have to fulfill all the criteria to enter heaven. And then the next step is ASEAN.”
Membership seemed assured this year after Cambodia assumed the role of ASEAN’s rotating chair, with Prime Minister Hun Sen promising to do all he could to ensure Timor-Leste’s admittance as the bloc’s eleventh member state. That was not to be.
Luke Hunt spoke with Kupa Lopes, Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Cambodia. Listen here
... more
Photo Essays
Malaysia's Refugee Crisis

Children without U.N. or Malaysian papers recognizing their refugee status are denied access to schools and health facilities while their parents are forced to work illegally while Muslim girls recognized as refugees attend better schools on Gaya Island. There are up to four generations of Filipinos living around the Borneo coastline. 

Malaysian counter-terrorist forces on patrol in the Sulu Sea struggle to stem the flow of refugees fleeing decades of war in the southern Philippines for the relative safety of Borneo which is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

Estimates vary but most observers believe there are up to 2 million refugees and illegal immigrants living in water villages and squatter camps around the northern coastline of Borneo.

... more
Obituaries & Absent Friends
Nate Thayer: 1960-2023
American journalist Nate Thayer, who died on January 3 at the age of 62 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, left behind a trail of good friends and colleagues and a wealth of stories that spanned from Cambodia and China to Iraq and the United States.

by LUKE HUNT / Phnom Penh

The obits were many and deserved. The New York Times, NPR, Asia Times, Voice of America, NK News and Sour Milk were just a few to publish his exploits alongside the international news wires. Nate Thayer arrived in Cambodia as a reporter with Associated Press.

He then worked as a freelancer for the Far Eastern Economic Review and by the early 1990s had become a consistent contributor to the Phnom Penh Post. He covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and between 2011 and 2016 we collaborated on North Korea-related stories.

That collaboration waned as his health deteriorated.

In Cambodia, he scored about 30 front-page bylines in the Phnom Penh Post alone across five or six years in the 1990s, a solid effort given the newspaper came out only once every two weeks.

Often his stories were grand, excellent examples of a journalist writing a first draft of history and they still resonate today. His 1997 interview with Pol Pot remains a case in point; it was a story that has overshadowed all his other work.

But the edgiest story and the one that raised the greatest fears was published in August 1994 when Cambodia was led by two prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, and detailed corruption within the ranks of the military.

“This is the Nate story that gave me the most jitters and worries about blowback,” said Michael Hayes, co-founder and then publisher of the Phnom Penh Post.

Another story that I liked but received much less fanfare was published in the same issue. Headlined “Chinese City of Dreams,” the story detailed how the Cambodian government had rejected Chinese plans to build a “new Hong Kong” in the heart of the country.

Thayer was ahead of the game when he broke the story. It included plans to allow 200,000 Chinese nationals the right to immigrate and inhabit the city to be built in an exclusive zone on a 20 square kilometer plot with $1 billion earmarked for its construction.

These were colossal numbers for that time and the article created its own stir both within government and out, particularly among diplomats who were yet to grasp Beijing’s expansion plans and Thayer’s story did serve as an early warning.

It was to be Cambodia’s fourth largest city, to be built despite the ongoing civil war, and according to the Phnom Penh Post, “some Cambodian official supporters say it was designed to replace Phnom Penh as the commercial capital.”

That, plus the sheer number of Chinese immigrants – when Cambodia had a population of about 10 million people – was enough to scuttle the plan.

Twenty years later, however, Chinese designs on Cambodia were back on the agenda as investors spent billions of dollars rebuilding Sihanoukville into a gambling mecca rivaling Macau.

More than 200,000 Chinese arrived with work permits and another million came each year as tourists, including organized crime, creating a great deal of consternation among Cambodians.

By 2019, speculation persisted on the diplomatic circuit that up to five million Chinese would immigrate and that real estate agents had been told that more than two million apartments were being built to cater to the incoming Chinese market.

Few believed these numbers, too, given Cambodia’s current population of just 16 million and, like Thayer’s original story, those plans again fell apart, this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese have persisted.

Late last year, the Cambodian authorities announced plans to receive about seven million Chinese tourists by 2025 and a $16 billion new township to be built in Ream, near Sihanoukville, a sensitive area because of the nearby naval base.

In short, a long-forgotten story broken by Thayer almost 28 years ago still matters today, and Washington is genuinely upset, claiming the Ream Naval Base will be China’s first military outpost in the Indo-Pacific and only its second on the planet.

I like the idea of Nate Thayer doing a follow-up.

He will be missed.

... more
Notes, Background Files & Works in Progress