PHUKET: The world renowned tourist destination of Borneo is without a doubt full of wonders: wild orangutans, the rare proboscis monkey, “head houses” with plenty of human skulls to go around, schools of hammerhead sharks and incredibly friendly taxi drivers.
Flying half way around the world to remote Malaysia Borneo isn’t worth the trip only to witness the honest, fixed-rate taxi drivers at work, but it’s certainly something to reminisce about upon returning to Phuket and getting involved in a taxi transaction, particularly one at Phuket International Airport.
Unlike the chain smoking taxi drivers who often greet visitors at Phuket Airport with dress shirts unbuttoned and attitudes meant to establish some fictional level of dominance, the drivers in Borneo are well dressed and incredibly polite.
More notably, however, is their genuine, non-threatening interest in their passengers. This is not to be mistaken for the kind of “interest” that led Phuket taxi driver Paitoon Kruain to kidnap and sexually assault a Chinese tourist passenger last year. The drivers in Borneo aren’t prying; they are just curious about a person’s trip – it’s like meeting a potential acquaintance at a backpackers’ hostel.
On the way out to see the orangutans at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Borneo recently, my driver began talking about how certain local plants are used in traditional medicines for a variety of illnesses. He wasn’t selling anything; he was simply imparting information he thought a tourist might find interesting.
Though perhaps not extraordinary, such conversation makes a person feel good. There is something undeniably welcoming about the interaction.
One of the main differences between Phuket and Borneo taxi drivers boils down to language barriers. Drivers who are confident in their English-language skills – much easier to find in Borneo than Phuket – are more likely to initiate a causal conversation, acting almost as informal tour guides while taking a person exactly where he or she asks to go, with no unwanted stops at tour companies.
Beyond English-language skills and a general quality of hospitality that puts Thai-taxi drivers to shame, the drivers in Borneo charge reasonable prices.
There isn’t a long pause as they attempt to calculate how big of a sucker they think a person is (so they can adjust the price accordingly). It’s a quick response that seems so reasonable the act of bartering feels unfriendly.
In general, people, especially tourists, don’t mind the price of a taxi. What they mind is the feeling of being ripped off. It is one thing to leave Phuket thinking that taxi prices are steep and completely another to depart knowing you have been taken advantage of.
Come the AEC 2015, I would welcome the drivers of Borneo to Phuket, as this island has a bounty of special reasons for visits – even without wild orangutans. Decent taxi drivers could make all the difference to countless people’s experiences here.
— Alex Stone
A perfect storm hits Flight JT 610
If you get into a car that has had, and officially logged, malfunctions over the past four outings – all critical malfunctions to the correct operation of the car – would you start the key and head out into the traffic?
That appears to be what Captain Suneja, and his co-pilot on Flight JT610, did as the sun rose on Monday, October 29 in the fatal Lion Air crash into the waters off Jakarta.
In the four preceding flights investigators now know there was a persistent problem with systems – either instrumentation or software, or both – that measured the plane’s angle-of-attack – the relationship between the angle of the air flying over the wing vs the plane’s airspeed. Too high an angle-of-attack and too little airspeed could result in a stall, when the plane’s nose would routinely dip down and need urgent attention from the pilot.
Whilst it could be months until we have an exact cause of the events that led to the fatal accident (the investigation will be much easier with the recovery of the cockpit voice recorder), we do know there was some key clues in the flights leading up to the disaster. All point to a preventable crash and the death of 189 people.
The pilot would have read the maintenance logs before preparing for the flight. Why would he take-off knowing that there had been systemic problems with the same plane over the past two days? In the two days before the flight engineers had tried to fix the issue at three different airports. Maintenance staff, the pilot and the airline would have been aware of the problems.
Still, just 13 minutes into the flight, the plane was hurtling, nose-down, engines at full power, into the sea. Hitting the sea at such speed has dislodged the cockpit voice recorder from its usual position, presumed to be be sitting in the muddy bottom awaiting discovery.
There was no distress call, no turn back to the airport. Whatever happened clearly embraced the full attention of the two pilots in mere moments.
Boeing, not mentioning the fatal crash, has issued a global bulletin this week advising pilots to follow its operations manual in such cases.
Bhavye Suneja, the 31 year old Indian pilot, and his 41 year old Indonesian co-pilot, Harvino likely had seconds to decide what to do. They certainly didn’t have time to refer to the jet’s operations manual. As the nose of the plane plunged downwards the pilots, under stress, had to ascertain the discrepancies of their instrumentation with what they could see and experience outside the windows of the cockpit – all whilst considering the passengers and crew sitting behind them, radioing for help and their own survival.
The Boeing operating manual refers to the pilots needing to switch off the power to the stabilisers in the tail of the aircraft that were pitching the plane into an increasingly problematic dive. The series of switches to turn off these systems, and the routine to disable the plane’s stabilisers, was probably not intuitive to the pilots on a new series, highly-automated plane.
Lion Air is also coming under acute scrutiny with a decade of safety-related issues. Boeing and Airbus are struggling to keep up with the demand of aviation growth around the world and the training of new pilots, maintenance, operational staff and air safety regulators appears to be lagging behind.
The smaller, discount airlines are under even greater stress to find competent, trained pilots and usually end up with the pilots with the least hours on their log books. At the same time pilots routinely seek jobs with larger, more prestigious airlines. Captain Suneja had 6,000 hours under his belt before he stepped onto the new Boeing 737 Max 8 jet on Monday, October 29.
“The problem is, the less-desirable airlines are the ones with the least resources that are scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of human resources,” says Martin Craigs, chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia, an industry advocacy group in Hong Kong.
Lion Air started 20 years ago when an Indonesian travel agent established the budget airline to provide low-cost flights through the many islands of Indonesia. Over the 20 years there have been 15 major safety lapses and pilots complaining about being overworked and underpaid. A former investigator for Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee claims that Lion Air repeatedly ignored orders to ground planes for safety issues.
Since the crash of flight JT610, Lion Air was involved in at least two other minor safety issues. A plane’s wing clipped a pole taxiing on the ground in Jakarta and a flight from Malaysia suffered hydraulic failure after landing.
As the investigation continues to unfold, and details about the incident are revealed, it is clear that a perfect storm of problems were already lined up before the plane dropped its nose and started hurtling towards the sea below.
The ‘war on drugs’ is a complete failure
Authorities are losing the war against methamphetamines – pills and crystal meth.
The demand for both crystal meth and ‘yaba’ is escalating as is the production to meet the increasing demand. The much-publicised ‘Wars on Drugs’ being waged from time to time in south east asian countries are doing little dent the rising popularity and production of the drugs, whilst thousands lose their lives in extra-judicial killings, legislated by governments.
The cynical political point-scoring from these ‘wars’ might be boosting the ‘tough guy’ reputations at regional polls but doing very little to prevent the drugs from getting through, indeed in greater numbers.
Meth, in all its forms, has become the dominant drug of choice across the south east asian region. It’s not a drug of the poor and desperate, it reaches into all classes, ages and gender.
Methamphetamine is a synthetic drug. It’s made in a lab using chemicals and doesn’t require drug makers to cultivate crops, such as poppies, as is the case with heroin. Large swathes of agricultural land are hard to hide. A meth-lab is much smaller and easier to hide. They’re also built so they can be dismantled and moved quickly when the ‘heat is on’.
The majority of meth production is still happening deep in the jungles of the infamous Golden Triangle, a lawless area which crosses the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Drug enforcement experts admit it’s easy to conceal drug production in the jungles and move it on at short notice. They’re sophisticated organisations, fully teched-up and able to remain one step ahead of enforcement. They are well-armed and able to protect their assets if the need be.
Meanwhile the new Belt and Road initiative – China’s reach out from it borders with loans for trade infrastructure – is enabling the movement of these illicit drugs on new roads and railways, cutting through areas that were earlier unpassable. Beijing has already spent up big in Myanmar where it has poured billions to connect China’s landlocked Yunnan province to the nearest port cities in Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. More trade through these regions, and people movement, is helping mask the movement of the drug shipments.
Regional police trumpet the seizures of huge hauls of pills each week. The numbers are staggering, often counting in the millions, truckloads with sacks of these drugs. Of course the small-time couriers are nabbed and arrested, the police get their ‘selfie’ and the governments rest easy at night thinking they are winning the war.
They’re not. Not even close.
Profits of hundreds of millions of dollars, are being intricately laundered through trans-border officials, shelf companies, international banking and abuse of lax legislation, enabling it all to happen.
The organisations are tech-savvy, are willing to sacrifice a few million tablets and drug mules, and operate out of corporate offices – they’re modern business people providing a product to fill a need.
John Coyne, a former head of strategic intelligence with the Australian Federal Police and now works on border security at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, says the methamphetamine situation is a perfect storm.
“It’s pushing Southeast Asia into what could be in time a methamphetamine epidemic,” John said in a CNN interview.
Whilst Thai and Laos drug authorities believe they have a broad understanding of the operations in their sections of the Golden Triangle, a large portion of the meth seized, headed for the Asia Pacific region, can be traced to Myanmar’s northern Shan State, an area where militias and warlords run the shop, thousands of kilometres away from the prying eyes of central governments.
The regions are run by quasi politico-military organisations that have been shunned by their country’s mainstream politics.
Amid the manufacture of meth in the Shan state, there is also an ethnic struggle for land, a good poppy-growing climate and little law enforcement. The UWSA (United Wa State Army), one of the leading ethnic factions in the region, is accused of funding their armed struggle against Myanmar’s government with their huge profits from meth production (and earlier heroin and opium in past decades).
The statistics are staggering. It only took five months for seizures in Malaysia and Myanmar this year to surpass the 2017 totals. In Thailand, seizures of drugs (and the almost daily selfies of the proud police and the seized booty) has increased markedly throughout 2018.
While those busts are being interpreted to mean that law enforcement is winning its fight against traffickers, it also a bold declaration of the sheer quantity of meth being moved around the region.
Meth producers have gone into overproduction in the past 12 months, driving down the cost of making the drugs, in turn making it easier for dealers to live with the massive busts. The reality is that the drugs intercepted are a tiny fraction, maybe less than a few percent, of the total quantities of meth being shipped around the region and making its way into the streets we live in.
The government gets a ‘rap’ on the knuckles
13 million views and still going strong. That’s 20% of the population of Thailand.
Any pop group would be astonished, amazed and pleasantly surprised by such popularity of their video clip in such a short time.
But in this case the clip is a subversive rap from ‘Rap Against Dictatorship’, a five minute rant against military rule in the Kingdom. The YouTube clip includes English subtitles.
“My country preaches morals, but has a crime rate higher than the Eiffel
My country’s Parliament is a soldiers’ playground
My country points a gun at your throat
Claims to have freedom but gives no right to choose
My country’s government is untouchable
The police use laws to threaten people
My country asks you to stay quiet or in jail.”
A military spokesperson, Col. Siriwat Deepor said on Friday said, “Investigators are trying to identify those in the clip, because the content is quite defamatory to the country and causing a lot of damage.”
He said that the group faces five years in jail and a 100,000 baht fine if convicted under the Computer Crime Act. Worryingly, he also threatened those sharing the clip would face the same punishment (several Thai media have already done so – we’re not quite so brave).
But it was only the start of this month when NCPO leader and current PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha fully embraced the social media world.
“Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who previously said his real happiness was staying away from social media, is now fully equipped with the famous platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as his personal website…” – The Nation
Reactions at the time thought the Thai PM had proven a bit thin-skinned in the past when responding to criticism. The NCPO has responded to criticism over the past four and a half years with threats, ‘attitude adjustments’, the enforcement of the controversial Computer Crimes Act and charging perceived dissenters.
Plunging head first into the rabbit hole of social media, for any politician, will not be good for their ego. A few decades of social media show that it can be a toxic space for the faint-hearted.
You’ve either got to be a Donald Trump-type and use social media for all its good and bad, post any sort of rubbish and hope some of it sticks. Then go on the attack against your detractors. That takes time, ego and energy.
Or you just use it to spread the good word, block commentary and not engage your audience.
There’s not really much space in the middle with social media.
The Junta’s reaction, perhaps even over-reaction, to the rap song on YouTube, which attacks everything they don’t like about Thailand’s military government, has just added to the click’s fame.
The YouTube views have sky-rocketed since the government spokesperson spoke about it on Friday. Rounding up the musicians and charging them under the Computer Crimes Act will surely further add to their fame, the clip’s clicks and unwanted outcry from outside Thailand about a ‘heavy-handed unelected government’, etc, etc.
All this at a time when Prayut and his team are vying for voter love and support in their, yet unannounced, standing for election in next year’s poll. This test of their resolve has come at a bad time. If PM Prayut and his ministers are to stand for election they will need support from the widest constituency possible. That will include reaching out to their detractors as well and taking a few punches on the chin as part of the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics.
I pose two possibilities.
The Government rounds up and charges the team behind the offending rap. After questioning there would likely be some charges laid and a period of months waiting for their day in Court, likely to be a date post February 24, 2019, effectively silencing them in the time leading up to the election.
The Prime Minister invites the group to government house, or sends one the country’s deputy PMs to Thammasat University, for a closed discussion. In this way, no one is losing face. Following any meeting there would be a ‘very Thai’ photo opportunity with a polite wai from the performers and a statement from both sides saying that they “appreciated the chance to meet and share their differences.” Everyone’s a winner.
The public relations outcomes for the Government would be very different.
The government’s newly appointed official spokesman, Puttipong Punnakanta, stated on Friday that the government feels sorry that Thailand’s young generation wants to harm the country.
“They should’ve used their musical talent in a way that is more beneficial to their motherland and become good role models to others,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that doing this is cool or fun. I’m not sure if they did it on their own will or if there’s someone else behind this.”
Youth sharing their voices and ranting against sitting governments and institutions is nothing new. In this case it’s just been words shared, not blood or civil disturbance.
Of course in 2018 their opportunities for doing so are vastly increased, compared to the old media paradigms. They must have either been acutely aware of the timing of their release or perhaps just uploaded the file as a dare.
Either way, the government’s reponse to the matter may play an important role in the next few month’s electioneering.
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