Friday, March 30, 2007

I Just Died in Baghdad

How much do think about the Iraq War? If you're like me, as little as possible. Yes, sometimes I catch a hideous news item - 77 dead in truck bombing, 36 corpses found by a substation - and my stomach turns and I get very angry, and I shake my head and feel a sense of awful bleakness. But then I quickly move on and think about something else. Because Iraq is just too depressing. It's like Ulster in the 70s. there's nothing I can do about it - so why ruin my day dwelling on it?

But very occasionally something happens which brings the terrible reality home. That happened to me yesterday morning. I was vainly Googling my name - as egocentric writers often do, to find reviews of my books, etc - and I discovered, from a PA news item, that I had just died in Baghdad.

Put it another way, a soldier with my name, 33 year old Sargeant First Class Sean Thomas of Lycoming County, north Pennsylvania, was killed two days ago in central Baghdad by a mortar attack on the Green Zone, supposedly the safe part of the city.

The more I read about National Guardsman Sean Thomas the stranger it got. His full name is Sean Michael Thomas. My full name is Michael Sean Thomas. He has a new baby, his first, a six month old daughter. I have a new baby, my first, a ten month old daughter. His grieving friends back in Hughesville PA describe him as something of a party animal, outgoing, extrovert - I guess some of those are my attributes too. I certainly like a party.

There is much that seperates me from this other Sean Thomas. He's American, I'm British. He's 33, I'm 43. He's a brave and hardworking soldier, who fought in Afghanistan, twice, before serving in Iraq, twice - and I'm just a comfy writer, who likes to Google his own name.

Most of all, I'm alive, and he's dead: leaving behind his mourning friends, his grieving wife, and a tiny baby who will grow up without a father.

Maybe I should sometimes think about the Iraq war just a little more.

Friday, March 23, 2007

In Israel

More foreign reportage... published in the thefirstpost this week...

The World's Biggest Fire Drill

The siren rings out across the Armenian quarter of Old Jerusalem. I've been expecting it, so I am unfazed, but passing tourists look alarmed. Their fear grows, as other sirens join in.

It's 2pm, on Tuesday March 20th, and these sirens are wailing throughout Israel: along the beachfront boulevards of Tel Aviv, in the ancient streets of Nazareth, in the sun-baked villages above the Dead Sea.

Thankfully, the sirens aren't for real. Today Israel is conducting the "largest civil defense exercise" in its history. Along with the klaxons, teams from the army, the Home Guard, and the emergency services are rehearsing their response to "mega-terror" and "non-conventional" scenarios. Which is code for chemical or nuclear attacks.

It seems a little extreme. But as I have discovered - travelling around Israel in the past two weeks - Israel as a nation is extremely anxious.

These feelings extend from left to right. During this fortnight I've talked to hippies, peace activists, soldiers, and Likudniks, and they all give the same impression. They sometimes talk tough but they always act frightened.

The reasons for this fear are threefold. The perceived defeat of the Israeli Army in last year's war with Hezbollah has shaken the once solid faith in the Jewish army's invincibility. As one soldier ruefully put it to me, 'when you look at it, we haven't actually won a war since Yom Kippur'.

Another factor is Iraq. Israelis believed that the removal of Saddam, who funded Muslim terrorists, would benefit their security. Instead it has created more chaos, and weakened Israel's great protector, the United States.

Finally, there is Iran: emboldened and energised, and soon to have nukes. This last is the chief worry gnawing away at Israelis. The Jewish state alone cannot take on Iran. The USA might be unwilling to strike at Tehran, following the Iraq debacle. In a few years Israel might be facing the first proper threat to her existence since the war of independence in 1948.

Yesterday I had lunch with a top Tel Aviv civil servant. He admitted he used to be a hardcore Zionist. But now? 'For the first time', he told me, 'I wonder if we will survive. Now I think the only hope is peace. Just give us someone, anyone, to talk to. We are desperate for a solution.'

Here in old Jerusalem, the sirens are over. The monks go back to their monasteries. And the tourists shuffle once more along the Via Dolorosa. Some may wonder if Israel is taking the same route.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I know I haven't blogged for about seven years, but I have a reason: I am in Israel and I have been treking across the Negev dodging Hamas rocket attacks (well, there was one about ten miles from my camp) and so I have been too distracted.

When I reach the peaceful haven that is Jerusalem I may be more effusive.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thailand, the Other Side

Yala, yesterday.

I have been doing some proper work while I've been sunning myself in southeast Asia. Honest. Here's a couple of pieces that have appeared in thefirstpost, all about politics and terrorism and stuff.

Crikey, I must be getting middle-aged.

Thailand's Forgotten War

As I arrive in the sultry little town of Yala, it looks just like any other provincial Thai capital. The songthaew drivers snooze in the noonday sun; the pavement cafes are doing a good trade in noodles and fishballs.

But it doesn't take long for me to see that Yala is different. Down the street comes a lorryload of conspicuously armed Thai soldiers. The local market is virtually deserted. Customers emerging from a restaurant glance anxiously around, then they slip home. The ambience of the town is sinister, gloomy, and deeply apprehensive.

And for a good reason. Because Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, a trio of tiny Thai provinces on the frontier with Malaysia, constitute yet another one of Islam's "bloody borders". Since 2004, Muslim secessionists in this region have been fighting the Bangkok government. And they've killed 2000 people in the process - almost as many as died in the entire Ulster Troubles.

Back in the 18th century these Muslim lands were semi-independent sultanates, paying mere lip-service to the Siamese king. Then in 1907, a complex Anglo-Thai agreement saw the area ceded to Bangkok outright. Through the twentieth century this led to sporadic friction with Thailand's Buddhist majority, even some fighting. But it's only in the last few years that this rebellion has gained real savagery and force. And this savagery is intensifying.

Recent weeks have seen dozens of schoolteachers, monks, farmers, and rubber tappers shot, on the streets, in markets, or in their own homes. At least fifteen people have been decapitated; often the heads are left nearby - booby trapped. Bombings are frequent: explosions can occur in teashops, karaoke bars, schoolyards, banks, police stations, even motorcycle showrooms. Snipers execute local officials on a weekly basis, before melting into the bush.

The bloody carnage reached a crescendo last weekend - the Chinese New Year - when 35 different bombings and innumerable arson attacks and ambushes were reported across the "Deep South". Some bombs were defused, some not. Nine people died and 53 were injured in the wave of violence. The whole region was plunged into darkness when one bomb took out the power grid.

When the insurgency began in 2004 the Bangkok authorities sought to blame local youths and criminal gangs, supposedly fuelled on yabba (potent local amphetamines). However, as the rebellion has grown in size and sophistication, the authorities have changed tack: perceiving sinister links with overseas Islamist movements, in Indonesia and the Philippines. More than one expert sees the influence of al-Qaeda. Officials now estimate there could be as many as 15,000 rebel fighters, when originally they guessed at 500.

What no one really knows, however, is exactly who these insurgents are. Or what they really want. The terrorists are self evidently Muslim, yet most of their victims are Muslims. They obviously have links with Malaysia yet they speak their own separate Malay language - Yawi - and sometimes seem to shun Kuala Lumpur as much as they despise Bangkok. The Thai government can therefore, perhaps, be forgiven its schizophrenic response, which is sometimes draconian, sometimes emollient. How do you properly deal with such an enigmatic, nihilistic enemy?

Whatever the answer, the violence makes this part of Thailand as bizarre as it is depressing. The palm fronds still wave over the white-sand beaches, but this tropical paradise harbours a very nasty serpent. After one nervous day in Yala province I am happy to fly out. As I head for the check-in desk, a Thai squaddie talks to me.

'You go Bangkok?'

I nod a Yes. He wishes me a good journey. Then he turns and looks at the sullen streets beyond the airport window. 'I stay here,' he says, very quietly. This may be the Land of Smiles, but his expression is infinitely sad.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Love Spies

Kuala Lumpur is famous for its beautiful women.

Malaysia's Taliban?

As Muslim countries go, Malaysia has a pretty positive image in the west. Sun, sea and spicy noodles - a land of intriguing but unthreatening exoticism. Hence its tourist slogan 'Malaysia, truly Asia'.

Dig a little deeper and you find a strange, and increasingly puritanical society. On Tuesday this austerity topped out with the formation of a voluntary vice squad, the 'Mat Skodeng'. These semi-official snoopers will tip off the state religious department about unmarried couples indulging in 'khalwat'. In Islamic law, khalwat means 'close proximity' - i.e. kissing and cuddling. Anyone convicted can be fined, or even jailed.

According to State Islam Committee chairman Datuk Wahid, the new love spies will be recruited from hotel staff, enabling them to eavesdrop on guests. Or they could be janitors, able to peer into cars. Other spies will furtively patrol city parks, looking for twosomes spooning under the tamarind trees.

Perhaps embarrassed at the image this gives the world, the government emphasises that khalwat does not apply to non-Islamic couples. Fun-seeking, high-spending tourists will still be able to slap and tickle as much as they like. Only Muslims - like the young Malay woman recently fined $1000, for lingering in a foreign soccer player's hotel room - will be of interest to the carnal KGB.

Yet you could be forgiven a certain skepticism about the "Muslims only" pronouncement. Especially if you are 62 year old American Randal Barhart. Last October, Randal and his wife were woken, at 2am, by policeman battering on the door of their Langkawi retirement home. The cops were, convinced they had encountered a hotbed of khalwat, and demanded to see the marriage certificate of the sexegenarian Christian couple; Mrs Barhart was so terrified she flew to America.

Given these developments, the Kuala Lumpur government might need to change the country's tourist slogan. How about: "Malaysia, truly Afghanistan"?