From the Frontline

Journeywatch’s eyes and ears in Thailand, Chandler, gives a personal account of his experiences during the recent unrest and his lucky escape after being badly injured in a grenade blast. 

At approximately 1:20 pm on May 19, while unconscious and bleeding on a Bangkok street corner, I was pronounced dead.

For the last two months I had been on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protest movement. Over a hundred thousand people had massed in Bangkok demanding for fresh elections and an end to social and economic inequalities.

CBV_0731A protester waves a flag from a captured armoured personnel carrier

While the protests had been largely peaceful, Red Shirt leaders also had a secretive armed faction colloquially known as the Black Shirts.

The prospect of heavily armed militants clashing with the full might of the Thai military on the streets of Bangkok had already proved deadly.

On April 10th, I witnessed the first battle. During the day the protesters, armed with sticks and rocks, had fought running street battles with the Thai military firing M16s and hi-tech Tavor assault rifles. Thousands of live rounds were fired and I remember picking up a couple of spent shell casings, still hot and rolling away from troops, during the clashes.

But later that evening the violence would dramatically escalate. While skirmishes broke out on Bangkok’s tourist enclave of Khao San and adjacent Dinso roads, the Black Shirts made their debut. AK47s and rifle-launched M79 grenades, something that would later have terrible personal consequences, were wielded against troops.

The fighting was fierce and chaotic with the military and the Black Shirts exchanging fire amongst the crowd of protesters.

21 civilians and four soldiers were killed.

Reporters also suffered in the fighting. While most of us had been tear gassed and had minor wounds, some had been hit by shrapnel and bullets. A Japanese cameraman named Hiro Muramoto was shot in the chest and died.

In the aftermath of the battle I remember walking around the bloodied streets and bullet scarred buildings. The sight of armoured personnel carriers, captured and looted by protests, was a surreal spectacle. It no longer looked like a protest, it was a war zone.

That initial skirmish on April 10th would set the stage for even more violent encounters between protesters and the military. The protesters had hardened their resolve to oust the government while the government was equally recalcitrant.

The major difference was that an undeclared war had broken out on the streets of Bangkok.

 
Rebellion Begins
Between May 13th and 19th, Bangkok burned.

What had mostly been a peaceful protest for democracy and equality had been transformed in a rebellion. The military had sealed off the main Red Shirt encampment in the ritzy shopping district causing new protests to break out across Bangkok.

While the Red Shirts had been fuelled by an anti-elite ideology and desire for political change, the local nak leang – or tough guys – had taken over. The disenfranchised youths began a destructive rampage in the poor neighbourhoods of Bon Kai and Din Daeng. While most could only articulate a vague sense of injustice, they were fuelled by raw bravado.

They fought daily battles on burned out debris filled streets with the military. But while the military fought with sniper rifles, the nak leang fought with sharpened sticks, sling shots, and rocks.

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Amid tear gas and smoke from burning tyres, a rioter surveys the army positions from behind barricade cover.

They didn’t stand a chance. They would slowly move closer and closer to the military while hiding behind clouds of burned tires until, inevitably, snipers would cut them down. But after the killed and wounded were dragged away, the deadly game would continue. During the course of the protests and riots nearly a hundred would die and thousands were injured.

It was also a dangerous time for journalists. While the protest had transformed into rebellion, it became harder and harder to find the frontlines and the situation was extremely fluid.

The military declared a number of “live fire zones” and opened fire on anyone that moved.

Just how dangerous it had become was made abundantly clear when a close friend and fellow journalist was shot by the military. He was hit by M16 fire in the hand, abdomen, and leg while filming one of daily skirmishes. He was haemorrhaging blood and barely survived the trip to the hospital.

I remember returning home on the night of May 18th, the day before I was hit. My clothes were blackened from all the burning tires, I was exhausted from lack of sleep, and adrenaline was still pumping through my veins.

It had been an ugly day of violence and death in Bangkok. And the 19th would be worse.

 
Blown Up

After two months on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protest, I was hit by an M79 grenade and nearly lost my life.

It was May 19th, during the final military crackdown on the Red Shirts, and I changed tactics and was travelling with the army. Considering Thai troops were firing live rounds and nearly 100 would die and thousands were injured, it seemed sensible precaution to make.

But the military was not the only armed group. The Black Shirts had engaged the army on the corner of Sarasan and Ratchadamri roads in the heart of the protesters camp.

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The author before the grenade blast

While I took cover from the Black Shirts’ automatic fire, a series of M79 grenades were launched on to an empty road, into a park, and right into a group of soldiers and myself.

The blast sent 24 pieces of shrapnel tearing through my back and legs, broke a number of ribs, and punctured both my lung and colon. Three additional pieces of shrapnel had struck the back of my head, shattered my skull, and entered my brain. A journalist would later tell me he found pieces of my skull on the ground.

I was unconscious, my eyes were open and staring vacantly, and I was heavily bleeding. Military medics at the scene took my pulse and pronounced me dead. They also stole my camera.

Journalists soon arrived, noticed that I was trying to breathe, and rushed me to hospital.

I woke up three days later in a Bangkok intensive care unit.

While my shrapnel wounds would take an astounding seven weeks to heal, my head injuries were the most serious.

Shrapnel had penetrated my skull and hit my brain. The neurosurgeon was able to removes two pieces but the third was too dangerous and remains lodged in my head. Damage to my brain caused my right arm and leg to be completely paralyzed and had serious damaged my vision.

Despite the seriousness of my injuries, I surprised everyone – including my gaggle of doctors – by hobbling out of the hospital just three weeks after the incident. And two months later, I emerged with very few permanent injuries. I have hearing damage from the blast and a serious limp, but I am up and walking and back at work.

While those of us who were on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protests are left with physical scars, Thai society has my psychological scars to heal.

The political divide in society has split apart families, friends, and communities.

While everyone hopes that peace will return to Thailand, very few see a solution in sight.


Travel tips for August

August is a time of year when millions of people traditionally leave their desks to go on holiday. At the start of this holiday season, here are a few travel tips to help you to keep mind, body and belongings together.

1. Always ensure you carry your passport on your person or in luggage that is attached to you. Absent mindedly leaving your passport in a plane seat pocket or on a taxi seat could put a premature finish to your holiday and leave you stranded for weeks.

2. Always agree the taxi fare before you get into a cab. If you don’t you could find that, at best, you pay more than you should, at worst you end up getting into a heated argument with your driver resulting in you being dumped in an undesirable part of town.

3. When in India avoid salads, ice, tap water, unsealed mineral water and uncooked meat & vegetables. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll get violently ill for a few days. If you do get ill, a good remedy is to stick to boiled rice and flat Coca Cola until normality returns.

Image source: www.india-shopping.net


Peace in the Nordipodes

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland ...

Excitement in Iceland (NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr)

If the tales of armed insurrection and crime rates in the last couple of blog posts have caused some to reconsider travel plans, it should be noted that it’s not all doom and gloom out there. In fact, there are destinations so safe, your primary risk might be dozing off. So, if your travel itinerary doesn’t include posing for snapshots with AK47 toting freedom fighters, you might consider visiting some of the safest countries in the world.

According to the Global Peace Index’s 2009 listings, the five destinations below are the safest places in the world. Perhaps coincidentally, four out of five of these are in the Nordic and Antipodean regions.

Number 5: Austria

A high GDP, stable government, free university education, and the rugged Alps, Austria really has it all…except for crime and violence that is. What should you worry about then? Avalanches perhaps.

Number 4: Iceland

There is an apocryphal story that Iceland acquired its name in a cheeky ploy to avoid excessive immigration. While the story might not be true, could it be possible that the icy climate keeps crime at bay? Not likely. What might be a more rational deterrent is Iceland’s enviable third place ranking on the UNDP’s human development index. Mix the country’s highly developed welfare system and universal health care with a clean and beautiful environment – notwithstanding the once in a double century ash-spewing volcanoes – and it really is a surprise that more people aren’t migrating to Iceland.

Number 3: Norway

While its fun to think of Norway as home to rampaging Vikings bent on pillaging Europe, reality is far different. Norway might better be characterized by its egalitarian social security system, universal health care, subsidized higher education, and robust economy. Chances of being attacked by Vikings: 0.

Number 2: Denmark

Is crime and social unrest a by-product of poverty and economic inequality? Ask a Dane and they might say yes. This is because Denmark has the highest level of economic equality in the world and issues of crime and social unrest are largely absent in the Kingdom. The only danger for visitors, depending on your taste buds of course, might be the pickled herring.

Number 1: New Zealand

When was the last time that you saw New Zealand on the world news? Possibly it was a story about the stunning scenery used as the backdrop in the Lord of the Rings trilogy because it certainly wasn’t a story of political unrest or crime. Respect for human rights, a strong environmental protection ethnic, high literacy, lack of corruption, press freedom, the list of positive traits just goes on and on. Congratulations New Zealand! 

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Trip to Bangkok

With the protests happening in Bangkok we thought it would be a great time to spread the word about Journeywatch to the backpacker areas so… we went there and stuck stickers on the tuktuks and taxis! Here are some of the photos.

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Hotspot destinations – part two

In part one, we looked at how common business and leisure destinations like India, South Africa, Mexico, Kenya, Turkey, and the Philippines are all unconventionally dangerous places.

Despite the travel brochures promising sunny coastlines and local culture, visitors are just as likely to experience violent street crime or political instability. This is not to say that you should not go. Somewhat hazardous locations are often the most interesting places. With this in mind, we look at the risks in South Africa, Thailand, Brazil, Morocco, and Russia.

Tourist slogan: South Africa, It’s Possible.

Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs: “Travellers are advised to exercise a high degree of caution in the country.

FIFA World Cup action is ramping up in South Africa and throngs of football-mad fans are expected to descend upon the country. While there will be excitement on the pitch, the streets of major cities can offer another kind of excitement: crime. Not your standard level of crime either, but a level of violent crime more akin to a Mad Max movie. With an average of 50 murders each day, President Jacob Zuma has unleashed the police to exercise a controversial shoot-to-kill policy in an attempt to reign in the violence. Economic inspired crime is not the only issue. Xenophobic violence aimed at economic migrants from Mozambique, Somalia, and Zimbabwe has raged in the Johannesburg townships forcing some 30,000 migrants from their homes and has produced truly horrendous scenes of mob violence.

Tourist Slogan: Amazing Thailand.

UK Foreign Office warning: “The political situation in Thailand is volatile.. exercise extreme caution throughout the country and avoid demonstrations and large gatherings, which may turn violent.

Sandy beaches, spicy cuisine, and the famous Thai smile are what the Tourism Authority of Thailand would like you to think. Yet Thailand is also home to one of the world’s most violent Islamic separatist insurgencies. The conflict, just south of popular beach destinations like Koh Samui and Krabi, has claimed more than 3500 lives since fighting surged in 2004. While separatist violence remains remarkably contained to the three southern border provinces (largely due to insurgents preferring to be labelled freedom fighters rather than terrorists), Thailand in general is not a particularly safe place. The country ranks third globally for firearm murders and fatalities on the country’s chaotic roadways are more comparable to the statistics of a small war rather than road accidents. Finally, protracted political turmoil has kept Bangkok in a state of unrest for the past five years. Violent demonstrations, riots, and frequent M79 grenade attacks make visiting Thailand amazing indeed.

Tourist slogan: Brazil, Sensational!

U.S. State Department warning: “The conditions in favelas vary widely, but these areas are often sites of uncontrolled criminal activity and are often not patrolled by police

Images of Carnaval or scantily clad sun-bathers makes Brazil an almost legendary destination for travellers. Equally as legendary is the crime. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Brazil has the dubious distinction of being the global leader in firearm related deaths. Responsible for much of this carnage are street gangs and organized criminal networks. In 2006, after a vicious prison riot, gang members and police fought pitched street battles across Sao Paulo leaving 170 gang members, police, and civilians dead. Drug gangs operating in Favelas, sprawling shanty towns that exist as quasi-autonomous cities, are extremely well armed and police are either incapable or simply unwilling to confront them. In the absence of state control, the gangs are apparently spending their profits on more and more sophisticated weapons – including anti-aircraft missiles – and this is likely to ensure that Brazil’s legendary sights on the beaches are matched by the legendary violence on the streets.

Tourist slogan: Morocco, Travel for Real.

France-Diplomatie Advice: “Il est conseillé aux voyageurs de faire preuve de vigilance au cours de leurs déplacements au Maroc.

The stark minimalist grandeur of the Sahara’s golden dunes stretching across North Africa is one of the most awe inspiring natural wonders in the world. For intrepid travellers on gear-laden motorbikes or rugged jeeps, eastern Morocco is the starting point of travel into the desert. It is also the starting point of a journey into a region largely void of governance and the rule of law. Run-ins with bandits are not uncommon and stories of travellers being robed and/or killed after offering a lift to hitchhikers are rife. For travellers heading south, they will encounter the disputed territory of the Western Sahara in which a secessionist struggle remains unresolved. While hundreds of thousands of refugees remain camped in neighbouring Algeria, the POLISARIO Front remains adamant in their demands for a separate state apart will be realized. Finally, the risk of terrorist attacks remains high. Morocco has experienced a number of major terrorist attacks and it is reported that there are both local and foreign terrorist groups operating in the country.

Tourist slogan: Visit Russia

U.S. State Department warning: “Acts of terrorism, including bombings and hostage takings, have continued to occur in Russia, particularly in the Caucasus region

The Russian Federation is beset with potential dangers. From the much feared Russian mafia to secessionist struggles Caucasus, one does wonder if it is really the right time to Visit Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the state’s social security network, crime has flourished. Of particular concern is the power of the mafia which is involved in drug and human trafficking, money laundering, extortion, prostitution, and employs a small army of professional hit men. While travellers can likely sidestep run-ins with the mafia by avoiding vodka-fuelled debauchery in seedy bars, terrorism remains a serious concern both in the Russian heartland and the Caucasus. While fighting in Chechnya officially ended in 2009, conflict there and across the Caucasus continues to sporadically flare and often fuels terrorist attacks in central Russia. It’s hard to forget the notorious hostage taking at a Moscow theatre which claimed 129 innocent lives or the Beslan school siege in which many children were among the victims. While these might be notorious cases, terrorism originating out of peripheral conflicts continues to reverberate in the Russian homeland.


Hotspot destinations – part one

There are often sensational lists of the ‘world’s most dangerous countries’ which revel in the chaos and violence that plagues many nations. While interesting to see just how bad, bad can get, such lists are not useful for leisure and business travellers. Were you really planning a trip to soak up the historic sites in downtown Mogadishu or planning on trekking through Pakistan’s scenic tribal areas? Even for business travellers, PJ O’Rourke aside (below) and not including those dealing in AK47s and RPGs of course, such destinations are generally avoided.

Rather than the usual suspects – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen – it is more useful to look at how some normal travel and business destinations are actually unconventionally dangerous places.

The following list of 10 countries takes a critical look at places which aggressively market themselves as tourist destinations despite the fact that crime, political unrest, and armed conflict within their borders doesn’t exactly jive with their glossy and reassuring tourist brochures.

In part one; we look at Mexico, India, Kenya, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Mexico

Tourist slogan: Vive Mexico!

U.S. State Department warning: “Kidnapping in Mexico has become a lucrative business”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches, bullfights, and burritos might be stereotypical ideas that come to mind when contemplating a visit to Mexico. Alternatively, one might think of a brutal war with heavily armed drug gangs in which more than 16,000 murders have been committed since President Felipe Calderón began combating drug-related crime in 2006. Such is the ferocity of fighting that up to 50,000 balaclava-wearing-troops have descended upon high crime areas effectively making parts of Mexico resemble a war zone. If the drug war doesn’t bother you, violent street crime and proliferation of kidnapping might. Armed robbery is particularly high in major cities such as Mexico City, Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo with some estimates claiming there are more than 4000 criminal incidents each day in Mexico City alone. Finally, the threat of kidnapping is very real for locals and foreigners alike with an estimated 60 to 70 incidents each month. A particular speciality is the so-called “express kidnapping” in which victims are temporarily detained and taken from ATM to ATM until their available funds are completely withdrawn. Instead of learning how to ask for a beer in Spanish, consider remembering the phrase “secuestro express” before you arrive.

India

Tourist slogan: Incredible India

U.S. State Department warning: “Incidents of violence by ethnic insurgent groups, including bombings of buses, trains, rail lines, and markets occur with a degree of frequency…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the snowy Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan to the beaches of Goa, India certainly measures up to the hype of being an incredible country. Unfortunately, the incredible geographic and cultural wonders are also tempered by the incredible range of dangers.

The first danger that might come to mind is terrorism after the shocking attack by Islamic extremists in Mumbai on November 2008 which witnessed ten coordinated attacks across the city claiming 173 lives and wounding 308. India remains on high alert for further attacks. Yet attacks by extremists are only one of a myriad of dangers. Insurgent warfare with Naxalite rebels, Maoist inspired leftists with approximately 20,000 armed cadres dispersed over 40% of India’s territory, have claimed an ever increasing number of casualties with 1134 deaths in 2009 alone. And don’t forget the looming specter of nuclear war with neighboring Pakistan. The scenarios of a possible nuclear exchange are truly staggering with estimates into the tens of millions and the conflict remains one of the most fragile balances between peace and nuclear holocaust in the word.

Kenya

Tourist slogan: Discover Kenya

U.S. State Department warning:“Violent criminal attacks, including armed carjacking and home invasions/burglary, can occur at any time and in any location, and are becoming increasingly frequent, brazen, vicious, and often fatal”

Is it the savannahs, snow-capped mountains, or wildlife that comes to mind when thinking of Kenya or is it ethnic violence, carjacking and terrorism? While Kenya offers all of the above, tourist brochures obviously don’t like to emphasis the last three. In 2007, controversial elections triggered long-running ethnic tensions between Luo and Kikuyu tribes resulting in vicious mob violence that claimed about 1000 lives. The ethnic tensions hark back to unresolved land issues from the colonial period and have resulted in communities being partitioned along tribal lines and a simmering unease between neighbours. Crime, with a particular penchant for carjacking, is another concern. Nairobi is a hotbed for carjacking with assailants well armed for the job and not hesitant to assault or kill victims should they resist. Should rampaging mobs and violent crime not bother you, the risk of terrorist attack remains a final consideration. It’s hard to forget the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1998 which claimed 212 and wounded around 4000 in downtown Nairobi. Particular concern is with fundamentalists and al-Qaida members crossing the porous border from Somalia to launch attacks in Kenya against government and Western targets.

Turkey

Tourist Slogan: Turkey Welcomes You

U.S. State Department warning:“In Istanbul, small-scale bombings and violent demonstrations, and more recently vehicle arsons, have occurred regularly since 2006”

The caves of Cappadocia, the mesmerizing inner sanctum of the Hagia Sophia, or the range of culinary delights certainly do warrant a visit to Turkey. Yet there also a host of less desirable, and downright dangerous, issues which will also welcome you. Recent reverberations from an alleged military coup are a reminder of the often tumultuous political environment in Turkey. National soul searching over the issue of secularism vs. political Islam often results in violent demonstrations and acts of terrorism on the streets. Yet the primary danger is from the long-running secessionist struggle largely conducted by the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, struggling for a homeland called Kurdistan. The insurgency has claimed more than 40,000 lives in the last 25 years and large swaths of Eastern Turkey remain no-go areas.

Philippines

Tourist Slogan: Philippines, More than the Usual

U.S. State Department warning: “Some foreigners who reside in or visit western and central Mindanao hire their own private security personnel”

With 7000 islands, the Philippines certainly offers much in the way of an exotic backdrop. Adrenalin junkies are also equally in luck with a myriad of dangers which include armed insurgencies, poverty fuelled crime, and political violence. Insurgencies, both separatist conflict on the island of Mindanao and a nation-wide communist conflict, have claimed more than 160,000 people and has displaced up to 2 million. In the case of conflict in Mindanao, peace talks between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been ongoing but there are serious doubts whether a lasting peace will emerge. Crime remains another problem with the capital Manila being particularly dangerous. Confidence scams, pick pocketing, and credit/ATM card fraud are reported to be common problems. Finally, political violence and a culture of impunity for the wealthy ruling elite remains a serious issue. As previously written about in the Journeywatch blog, the Maguindanao massacre was an audacious slaughter of political activists and journalists allegedly by a powerful clan called the Ampatuans who are politically linked to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. A political risk analyst recently told this blogger that it would be very doubtful for justice to be served despite the notoriety of the case. Political violence is likely to spike soon with general elections coming in May this year.

To be continued…

Photos: Vive Mexico aeroplane, http://www.airlinersgallery.wordpress.com. Incredible India, India Tourism Board. The Taj Hotel Mumbai, Nov 2008. http://www.topnews.in. Nairobi and giraffe, http://www.thetalentjungle.com. Turkey, Turkish tourism board. Philippines ‘more than the usual..’, i.ytimg.com/vi/9BJ_hbj306M/0.jpg.

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It’s a dangerous world for journalists

On November 23 2009, in the politically fractured southern Philippine island of Mindanao, a convoy of political activists and journalists were stopped by approximately 100 armed militia members. Forced out of their cars, they were led to a remote clearing with two freshly dug pits and summarily shot. The so called Maguindanao massacre took a total of 57 lives and included 29 journalists and 2 media support workers. It was the single largest murder of journalist ever recorded by Committee to Protect Journalists and marks a particularly dangerous year for the media professionals around the world.

For many journalists, a degree of risk is part of the profession. Good reporters are after the truth and, in politically tumultuous environments, the truth is not simply hard to find but can be dangerous. Probing the faults of politicians, questioning militaries or militants, and filming frontline conflicts all raise the spectre of violent retribution.

2009 highlighted a particularly dangerous year for the media with
71 journalists being murdered. The Maguindanao massacre gave the Philippines the dubious distinction of having the highest number of journalists murdered with a staggering 33 reporters killed. The Philippines was followed by Somalia with 9 killed, Iraq and Pakistan both at 4, followed by Russian with 3.

While the yearly statistics garner headlines, violence against journalists is a long-running problem around the world. Take Sri Lanka for example. The 26-year civil war, which recently witnessed the military defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has fostered a dangerous environment for the press. Since 1992, 10 journalists have been murdered while there have been no convictions for their deaths. Effectively, a culture of impunity has emerged in which attacks against the press are conducted with scant concern for legal repercussions.

Yet the list of governments which are hostile to the press is a long one. Recent controversial elections in Iran has seen a systematic attack on the press with 47 journalists in detention and non-state media effectively being made illegal. The acquittal of suspects in the notorious murder of prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya remains a serious indicator of the dangers of practicing journalism in Russia. And the Chinese government continues to demonstrate an entrenched hostility to media with at least 24 journalists imprisoned. These are just the highlights in a long list of countries which demonstrate hostility to press freedom.

While journalists associations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists continue to provide detailed reports on specific countries in an effort to “name and shame” the perpetrators of violence, the reports also offer great insight for travellers. The manner in which a country respects a free press and protects journalists will be a reflection of that country’s respect for human rights. And a country’s respect for human rights is often a reflection of how safe or how dangerous a country is.