Saturday, February 28, 2009

Accidental ‘Jihadist’ tells his story


INSIDE a prison in Thailand’s restive south is a Malaysian accidental jihadist. Muhammad Fadly Zainal Abidin, a 23-year-old Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) student, is waiting to face trial for illegal entry and disturbing public order.

Minor transgressions. But what shocked the Thai authorities was Muhammad Fadly – after he was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a motorcycle in Sungai Golok – confessed to slipping into southern Thailand to wage jihad against the Thai military.

And Thai military intelligence was also shocked to discover that Muhammad Fadly was from Malacca.

Typically, the Malaysians linked with Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand are Kelantanese who hold dual citizenship – Malaysian and Thai.

They are ethnically and culturally similar to Muslims from Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, the three Thai Muslim-dominated provinces synonymous with shootings, bombings and beheadings.

Curious to see the face of a Malaysian jihadist, I flew 90 minutes from Bangkok to Narathiwat town, the capital of Narathiwat province.

Before my journey, I was told by contacts familiar with the Deep South that it was unlikely that I could interview Muhammad Fadly, who is locked up in a maximum prison because he is a terrorist.

The visitor hall at the Narathiwat prison was filled with two dozen tudung-clad makcik (aunties) waiting for their names to be called so that they could meet with their imprisoned loved ones.

The boy in charge of visitor registration wore a blue prison garb, and outside the prison wall about six inmates (also dressed in blue) performed manual labour without any supervision.

Surprised, I asked around and was told that it was a minimum security prison.

I wrote down my name, Muhammad Fadly’s name and my passport number on a registration form, and the inmate rewrote it in Thai.

I asked him in Malay what were my chances of meeting up with Muhammad Fadly. The boy said: “Memang boleh (definitely you can).”

An hour later I was searching for a Malaysian face among the 10 prisoners standing behind reinforced glass and iron bars. The inmates in brown uniforms looked the same, as Thai Muslims shared the same DNA with Kelantanese Malays.

The only prisoner wearing glasses smiled at me. The face of a Malaysian jihadist is that of a bespectacled baby-faced student.

In my interviews (three 12-minute prison visits) with Muhammad Fadly, he related that Ustaz Muhammad, a secretive religious teacher in his early 30s, had convinced him to slip into southern Thailand to help Thai Muslims oppressed by the government.

The final year mechanical industry student believed the ustaz after watching video footage of the massacre in Tak Bai, a Thai border town on Malaysia-Thailand border, where 78 Thai Muslim protesters – who were packed like sardines – died of suffocation and injuries while being transported in military trucks on Oct 25, 2004.

Upon arrival in Sungai Golok, a Thai border town about 63km from Narathiwat town and separated from Kelantan by the Golok River, Ustaz Muhammad ordered Muhammad Fadly and a 17-year-old Malaysian high school dropout, to buy knives and parangs, steal a motorcycle, and kill Thai soldiers and take their weapons.

“I was shocked, as these were not appropriate tasks for me to perform. And they were beyond my capabilities,” recalled Muhammad Fadly.

Nevertheless, he could not defy the orders as Ustaz Muhammad told him it was a sin to disobey.

On June 28, 2008, Muhammad Fadly and the 17-year-old tried to steal a motorcycle at a village near Sungai Golok town. Suspicious villagers alerted the police who arrested them at around 3pm.

Asked why he confessed to wanting to wage holy war against the Thai military, Muhammad Fadly said: “Inside my bag were knives and parangs so it was difficult for me to sell another story.”

The fact that Muhammad Fadly is a student at UTM alarmed the Thai military intelligence as it is the alma mater of prominent Jemaah Islamiyah members Noordin M. Top and the late Dr Azhari Husein.

“Yes, I have heard of them. But I’m not influenced by them as I’ve never met them,” he said.

Asked if Ustaz Muhammad had ever visited him in prison, Muhammad Fadly, whose court hearing begins in August, said the ustaz had since disappeared.

“I regret believing him,” the accidental jihadist sighed.

(Published in The Star on Feb 28, 2009)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cleansing bad karma from a past life


TWO pig’s heads, three boiled chickens, rice, lao khao (Thai whisky), fruits, sweets and coins were placed on a table as offerings before a half-metre tall golden Buddha statue at Wat Umong, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai.

On the base of the statue was the statement: “Chao Moon Muang and Chao Sin demand power to be returned to Chao Chai (prince) Sika. Let’s forgive one another.”

Beside the offerings was a framed photo of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister who has been in self-exile since August last year to avoid corruption charges.

On Tuesday, in a Lanna-style rite – which The Nation described as “a combination of animism, voodoo and Buddhism” – the abbot of Wat Umong and eight monks chanted and prayed to “correct” Thaksin’s bad karma and ward off evil coming his way.

General Chaisit Shinawatra, a former army chief and Thaksin’s cousin, presided over the ceremony witnessed by about 300 Thaksin loyalists who were mostly wearing red, the colour of the anti-government movement.

According to the Bangkok Post on Wednesday, following the prayers was a ritual performed by a 50-something trance medium dressed in white.

She told the crowd while in a trance that in his past life, Thaksin was Chao Moon Muang, a local king who lived 100 years ago.

Chao Moon Muang, the medium said, had inherited bad karma when he killed his Burmese enemies and plundered their treasures, including Buddha images.

The bad karma had followed Thaksin to his current life, and that was why the fugitive billionaire politician was facing misfortune, the woman was quoted by Bangkok Post as saying.

A Thaksin loyalist shouted, “When will Thaksin return?”

“The lady, who then claimed to be speaking on behalf of the late ruler, said, ‘He will return, but now he is ordered not to’,” The Nation reported.

Later, General Chaisit told reporters that the ritual would cleanse Thaksin of his past bad karma; after being rid of his bad karma, Thaksin would return to Thailand.

However, he said he did not know when it would happen.

General Chaisit also rejected a report that Thaksin needed the rite to be performed because he was in poor health.

The Bangkokian, a columnist with The Nation, disagreed with the medium’s contention that Thaksin’s misfortune was due to his action in his past life.

“Bangkokian would like to argue that Thaksin is in fact paying the price for deeds committed in his present life – such as tax evasion and political conflict of interest,” the columnist wrote on Thursday.

The Bangkok Post reported that Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, was a deeply superstitious man.

“A few years back, while still in power, he staged a religious ritual at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which provoked criticism from his critics that his conduct was improper,” the news report said.

“Also, he once held a Cabinet meeting at the Phnom Rung ruins in Buri Ram, the hometown of his former right-hand man, Newin Chidchob, supposedly to seek divine blessings to strengthen his grip on power.”

The Bangkok Post article continued: “However, it remains to be seen whether the Almighty has heard the prayers and respond to them and come to Thaksin’s rescue.

“And for the time being, he has to hop from one country to another like a vagabond – as he had described himself – and the only means that he has to keep in contact with his loyalists is through his regular phone-ins.”

The Irrawaddy news magazine reported that critics have alleged that Thaksin fell from power because his karma changed as he did not hold “proper” rituals.

The Lanna-style ritual ended with Thaksin loyalists cursing his enemies after writing their names on pieces of paper which were then burnt inside a bowl, so that misfortune would befall them.

Among the names were that of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban, president of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda and People’s Alliance for Democracy leaders Chamlong Srimuang and Sondhi Limthongkul.

The ritual was also so that Thaksin could overcome his present life’s misfortunes and return safely to Thailand.

(Published in The Star on February 21, 2008)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Facing Death at every turn

Thai Takes

THE 29-year-old woman sitting next to me during a 90-minute flight from Bangkok to Narathiwat did not look like the typical passenger heading to Thailand’s troubled south.

She was fair-skinned, wore an elegant silk dress and clutched a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Curious, I asked her why she was flying to Narathiwat, one of the three Thai Muslim-dominated provinces synonymous with shootings, bombings and beheadings.

“I’m a judge,” said the woman, a Buddhist born and bred in Bangkok.

The deep south is not exactly her dream posting as government officials are favourite targets of Muslim insurgents. But for her to climb up the judicial ladder, she has to survive a one-year stint in Narathiwat, which is under martial law.

I asked if it was andtaraai (Thai for dangerous) living in Narathiwat.

“It is safe for me, as I am under police guard day and night, and I only stay in the city,” said the judge, who has two months left of her stint.

The city she was referring to is the provincial capital, which is also called Narathiwat. It sits on the Gulf of Thailand, about 30km from the Malaysian-Thai border.

Narathiwat province has a feel of Kelantan – women wear tudung, Malay with thick Kelantanese accent is spoken, and nasi kerabu (a Kelantanese dish) is served in Muslim restaurants.

In fact, the Narathiwat Malays are ethnically and culturally similar to the Kelantan Malays.

“Is it safe here?” I asked Abas, a 44-year-old motorcycle taxi driver as we zoomed through the capital – a charming small town with a sprinkling of Sino-Portuguese buildings more than a century old.
“Yes, because there are so many soldiers patrolling,” he said, referring to the soldiers who move about the town on foot and in Humvees.

“But there have been bombings in this town,” I countered.

“Yes,” he said, and gave me a tour of the establishments – mostly owned by Thai Chinese and orang Siam (people of Thai ethnicity) – which through the five years of bloody conflict had suffered from explosives hidden in a motorcycle or plastic bag and detonated by handphone.

“Six months ago this karaoke lounge was bombed,” he said, before moving on to a Chinese-owned coffeeshop that was bombed five years ago.

I had lunch at the Chinese coffeeshop where 16 people were injured in a bomb blast in late 2003. On one wall hangs a photograph of Thai Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn with the shop owners.

“The picture was taken after the shop was repaired by soldiers sent by the Crown Prince,” said Atit Jearun­grot, a 28-year-old Thai Chinese.

“After the shop was bombed, Queen Sirikit and the Crown Prince visited our shop to give us moral support.”

In the past year, two shops and a market within 100m of Atit’s shop were bombed. I asked if he felt safe living in town.

“I’m used to it. It is safe in town as there are soldiers protecting us. But I’m afraid to go to the villages,” he said.

At Kampong Batu Besar, a Muslim village about 23km from Narathiwat town, three men were rolling rokok daun (palm-leaf cigarettes) and drinking tea sweetened with condensed milk at a run-down shop facing a mosque.

“It is difficult to talk about the situ­ation here. There are mata-mata (spies) from the military or the other side. If we say the wrong thing, they will come and kill us,” a 60-year-old rubber tapper said in a thick Kelantanese accent.

Who are these killers? I asked.

“We don’t know. Some wore hijab, baju dakwah (Muslim cleric garb), military camouflage uniform or a monk’s robe,” he said as four soldiers on foot patrol passed by.

Earlier, in Narathiwat town, Su­waibah, 24-year-old waitress, had told me that when she returned to her village on her weekly day off she would not venture out of her house at night.

“Why are you afraid? You’re a Muslim,” I said, assuming that most of those killed in the conflict were Buddhists.

“More Muslims have been killed in this conflict,” she said. Since January 2004, 1,788 Thai Muslims and 1,384 Thai Buddhists had been killed in the deep south conflict.

Like others I interviewed, Suwai­bah fears the unknown. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.

(Published in The Star on February 14, 2009)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Beauty queen turned spy and now chef

Thai Takes

LINING the walls of a Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok are newspaper clippings trumpeting the owner’s illustrious past as an FBI agent.

And yet some of 58-year-old Vietnamese-American Meyung Robson’s customers still think the former spook is in deep cover.

“Many people suggest that I’m working undercover as a restaurant owner. But once I quit (the FBI), I quit,” says the owner of Xuan Mai restaurant.

Pointing at the framed articles from American, French, Japanese and Thai newspapers and magazines, Robson continues: “If I’m undercover, I would not – you know – show off.”

Asked why she displayed her clippings, she replies, “I’m proud of my past (as a FBI agent).” Her past reads like a best-seller memoirs.

Robson, the daughter of a threestar general who was second-incommand of the South Vietnamese army, was Miss Saigon in 1970.

On the afternoon of April 29, 1975, a day before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army, her family – carrying only US$60 – fled the city via a South Vietnam navy ship for the US.

“We went from the sky (a privileged existence in American-backed Saigon) to the bottom (refugees picking strawberries in New York),” she relates.

In 1984, she became the FBI’s first Vietnamese-American special agent.

She went through a 16-week training programme, and to pass she had to score 85% in 10 exams (including firing 8,000 live rounds).

Although she is not generous with anecdotes of her undercover days, Robson did show me a photograph of her masquerading as a refugee. It was amazing to see the beauty queen transformed into a downtrodden immigrant.

In 1999, Robson was posted to Bangkok, working at the FBI legal attache office at the US Embassy.

Her two biggest achievements as an agent are assisting in the capture of two fugitives in the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list – a Vietnamese-American murderer who fled to Vietnam and an American paedophile who jumped bail when he was arrested in Bangkok.

On Christmas night in 2005, Robson – after retiring from the FBI – opened Xuan Mai (which is named after her daughter).

The plan was for her to be a silent investor while her Vietnamese friend, a professional chef, took charge of the kitchen.

“On opening night we had a huge fight (it had been simmering for three months because she disagreed with the chef’s preference for MSG and artificial colouring) and I was left to cook the ten dishes on our original menu,” she says.

It turned out to be “a totally happy accident” of how she became a chef.

Robson taught herself Vietnamese cuisine. And she does not use a recipe book. “I have a gift of taste. I can even remember the taste of dishes that I ate when I was 10,” she says.

Back in the 70 s, her family who “entertained a lot” had two full-time chefs. “I grew up watching the chefs prepare the dishes and, somehow, I can cook the dishes from memory,” she says.

Since her debut three years ago as a Vietnamese cook, numerous Thai publications have named her as one of Bangkok’s top chefs. She credits her accolades to her philosophy of serving authentic Vietnamese dishes.

Is her restaurant popular because she is an ex-FBI agent or is it her cooking?

“At first customers come because of the write-ups. For some reason – I did not plan it – this formula of ‘exbeauty queen + ex-FBI agent + chef’ works,” she says.

“FBI is a catchword. But if you cook junk, trust me, they will not come back.”

Asked if she had used her FBI skills in running her restaurant, Robson says: “Profiling? It is fun to watch people.”

How? “It is a trick of the trade, so I can’t tell you,” she replies, giggling. Who do you profile – your staff or your customers?

“My customers,” she says, quickly adding “sometimes so that I can serve them better”.

“What other FBI skills have you found useful as a restaurateur?” I query.

“No, I can’t tell you,” she says. Probably if she did, she would have to shoot me.

(Published in The Star on Feb 7, 2009)