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Southeast Asia, explained

Philippines: Rogue "Sultan's Army" says US obligated to support its militants

You helped crush our sultanate in the 1900s. Now you owe us.
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Jamalul Kiram, sultan of the southern Philippine island chain of Sulu, tells reporters that his armed followers who have crossed over to Malaysia will continue to demand land that historically belonged to his sultanate. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

You'd be hard pressed to find much about this in an American high school history textbook. But, exactly 100 years ago, US forces violently subdued Islamic militants in the modern-day Philippines and the fighting left upwards of 10,000 dead.

That war was the last gasp of the Sultanate of Sulu, an Islamic kingdom that once ruled a large portion of the Philippine tropics. The conflict ended in American colonial victory and the sultanate drained of its power.

Well, guess who's back?

It seems the sultanate -- kept alive mostly in name only -- now has a new self-proclaimed "Royal Army."

And according to the contemporary sultan, a descendent of the ruler quelled by the US long ago, Americans are obligated to support his forces in a crusade to recover lost soil.

As the regional press has furiously reported, a group of roughly 200 militants -- a portion of them armed with assault rifles -- sailed two weeks ago from the Philippines to a lush corner of Sabah, a province of Malaysia. Their claim in a nutshell: though the land has been "rented" and bandied about between regional and colonial powers since the 19th century, it rightfully belongs to the sultan. They earned the territory fair and square, they say, as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei quell an insurrection in 1704.

The Philippine Star has a photo of the "Sultan's Army" in uniform here.

Though little reported in the West, high drama surrounds this endeavor, which is an armed invasion in the eyes of Philippine and Malaysian officials.

Malaysian forces have showed restraint but a standoff drags onward. The Philippine president, according to The Star, has told the sultan that "these times require you to use your influence to prevail on our countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause."

Instead, the sultan is prevailing on the US government.

Through a spokesman, the aging sultan said he intended to reach out to President Barack Obama to remind the US that, when America overran the sultanate, it promised "full protection" should a problem arise with foreign powers. He referred specically, the Inquirer reports, to a 1915 agreement between an occupying U.S. governor and his ruling sultan predecessor.

You can read the agreement here. I'm no lawyer but it doesn't appear to promise anything about protection. It states that, in return for accepting America's sovereignty, the sultan is assured that the US won't strip his nominal title or undermine his religious gravitas.

In short, it's a lousy deal for a ruler who just lost a very bloody conflict and has scant bargaining power.

What are the odds of Obama siding with a ragtag "army" of 200 over two sovereign nations with which it enjoys good relations?


But the ensuing conflict is a reminder of how America's largely forgotten colonial wars can to continue to reverberate into the modern news cycle.


China's knick-knack diplomacy

Pushing sovereignty on the sly
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A Filipino activist burns a Chinese flag during a protest in Manila on July 27, 2012, amidst the heightening tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed South China Sea. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Introducing China's latest tools of political subterfuge: chintsy globes and paper lanterns.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam are irate over knick-knacks produced in China and exported into their soverign territories.

Why? Because they bear maps or titles that depict Asia as China's government sees it, i.e., with almost all of the oil-rich South China Sea belonging to China.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines claim large swaths of the sea, which lies in their aquatic backyard.


Myanmar: Kachin guerrillas turn down Suu Kyi's offer to broker peace

Why help from one of Asia's best-known dissidents isn't always welcome.
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Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 3rd Brigade soldiers stand guard as they secure an area on Hka Ya mountain in Kachin province on Jan. 20, 2013. Fighting in Myanmar continues between Myanmar’s military and the KIA — a rebel group which occupies territory along the Chinese border. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A full 20 months into a civil war inside her homeland, dissident-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi says she'll help ethnic guerrillas and government officials broker peace. The guerrilla army's response? No, thanks.

Thailand: How the cops failed a tortured girl from Myanmar

A maimed 12-year-old mishandled by police
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An image published by Daily News, a Thai-language outlet, of a 12-year-old from Myanmar who was allegedly kidnapped and forced to work for a Thai couple under torturous conditions for five years. (Screengrab)

Old-school newspaper editors call it the "breakfast test."

If an image is vile enough to cause readers to upchuck into their cereal while perusing the paper, it doesn't make the front page.

Well, I hope you're not eating breakfast.

This is the full photo, taken in a rural Thai police station, of a 12-year-old girl -- shirtless and pigtailed -- facing away from the camera. Her back has been boiled to the raw meat. She's surrounded by grown men taking snapshots and it appears she's being examined by a cop.

As the Thai-language "Daily News" reports, the girl hails from the persecuted Karen ethnic group in Myanmar. She's reportedly told police that a Thai couple kidnapped her, forced her tend to their house pets like a slave and tortured her with boiling water. As she told the Daily News, it was "like falling into hell."

For the full details of this sickening saga, I defer to a Thai writer who blogs in English, Kaewmala, who has posted a lengthy account on the Web site Asian Correspondent. Her excellent post explains how this case is reverberating throughout Thailand.

Instead, I choose to focus specifically on Thailand's police.

Last year, GlobalPost published "Seafood Slavery," my investigation into migrants (mostly from Myanmar) duped into servitude on filthy fishing trawlers. As with this girl, those victims were failed by Thailand's police. 

A pertinent quote from the series:

The accounts of former captives portray local police as vultures, not liberators. “The Thai government must address the fact that most Thai police at local and provincial levels are predators of migrants,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Let me use that word clearly,” Robertson said. “Predators. Who will extort and abuse migrants. If a migrant goes to make a report at the local police station, they will not be listened to and, in fact, will likely be arrested.”

Three years ago, this girl slipped away and made her way to the police.

They reportedly returned her to her captors.

There she remained for two more years. When she finally got up the nerve to escape once more, the Daily News reports, she was coerced by local villagers to try her luck with the cops once again.

She's now safe in a government shelter. The couple face serious charges.

But this photo reveals that, while in the hands of the police, she was brought out -- topless and scarred -- before grown men with cameras and inquisitive cops.

A little girl, failed once again, by the police.


Bangkok: the world's first campaign ad courting the transgender vote?

Thai capital's leading candidate for governor panders to a niche demographic
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A still image from a transgender-positive campaign video launched by Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a candidate for governor of Bangkok. (YouTube)

Is there a hidden, transgender voting bloc ripe for a political awakening? 

At least one Thai politician seems to think so.

"Our modern world increasingly accepts varied genders... Bangkok must be a city that understands sexual differences, not just accepting different lifestyles ... it must be a friend to every difference."


Thailand up in arms over Saturday Night Live

Culture czar fears Thailand's reputation in peril after a sketch about the Rosetta Stone and sex tourism.
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A screen grab from a Saturday Night Live sketch depicting American men using "Rosetta Stone" language software to study Thai in advance of sex tours. Thailand's Ministry of Culture wants U.S. assistance in removing the video from all Web sites. (YouTube) (YouTube)

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has aired a throwaway sketch about American losers using Rosetta Stone language software to study Thai.

Why Thai? So they can travel to Thailand and parlay with prostitutes.

I shouldn't know about this video. I stopped watching SNL in eighth grade. But thanks to Thailand's stuffy Ministry of Culture -- forever at war with those who might darken Thailand's image -- the video is circulating through Thai social media and the Thai-language press.

The ministry is aghast that the video depicts Thailand as "a source for sexual services," the TV outlet Thai PBS reports. And as Thailand's largest newspaper (Thai Rath) reports, the ministry plans to file a complaint with the U.S. embassy with hopes that the American government will rid this sketch from the Web.

The sketch's premise is actually quite promising. But the execution is hacky and mediocre at best. You can imagine how it unfolds: a series of dumpy creeps like this guy pore over Thai phrases such as "How much?" and "Is that for the whole night?" And, of course, there's an unoriginal zinger about ping pong balls.

I'm left thinking that far funnier sketch comedy shows -- like this one -- could have twisted this concept into something obscenely hilarious.

In complaining to the U.S. embassy, Thailand's culture ministry is propagating the same misguided beliefs we saw during the "Innocence of Muslims" protests -- that the American government is in the business of ridding the Web of shlocky online videos deemed offensive.

The U.S. government isn't going to take that route. So here's an idea for any Thais intent on a rebuttal.

Film a Rosetta Stone parody of misfit Thais learning English.

Why English? So they can fly to America and purchase assault rifles.


Vietnam's execution cocktail dilemma

Firing squads are out. Injections are in. But who'll supply the poison?
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Nguyen Thi Ha, aunt of Ho Thanh Tung, one of six defendants sentenced to death, sits crying next to her grand-son outside Ho Chi Minh-City's Court where the judge announced the sentences of the country's biggest ever corruption scandal, June 5, 2003. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Like many of its Communist brethren, Vietnam enforces the death penalty. The European Union abhors it.

This is a dilemma for Hanoi, which wants to use lethal injection drugs on its 500-plus prisoners on death row. Germany is a major supplier of sodium thiopental, a standard execution drug that's also used to induce anesthesia. But modern European mores dictate that enabling capital punishment is unethical and that Vietnam is unfit to receive the drug.

So, as the BBC and many other outlets are reporting, Vietnam now intends to create "domestic poisons" that will end the lives of its death row inmates.

Vietnam doesn't profess to care much about its death row inmates' condition. There's a reason Vietnam is suddenly seeking lethal drugs: last year, the government opted to quit using firing squads because it worried about the psychological toll on the shooters, not the anguish of the executed.

Those bound for execution — many of them drug traffickers — are reviled as "the seeders of white death to society," according to this excellent series on Vietnam's firing squads by the outlet Tuoi Tre. As Tuoi Tre uncovered, the firing squad was typically treated to an "alcohol-fueled party so that they could air their grievances and relieve their minds before going home."

Lethal injections are certainly easier on those tasked with carrying out state executions. But whether Vietnam's homegrown death cocktail will prove as painless to the executed as sodium thiopental — or offer a more painful death experience — remains to be seen. If it's the latter, the EU ban may inadvertently play a role in making the capital punishment system it disdains just a touch less humane.


Myanmar: the cease-fire that wasn't

Gunfire shatters peace pledge.
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MYANMAR: An injured rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldier gets an injection from a medic on Hka Ya mountain in Kachin province on January 20, 2013. Kachin ethnic minority rebels in war-torn northern Myanmar accused the military of launching a fresh attack on January 20, just days after a ceasefire pledge by the country's reformist government. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

It now appears that, as the United Nations Secretary-General publicly praised a weekend cease-fire agreement in Myanmar's war-torn north, the pledge was already broken by fresh attacks.

Several outlets, including Al-Jazeera, reported military strikes on Sunday.

So what's next?

It's likely that the suspicious and conflict-weary guerrilla combatants — the largely Christianized Kachin Independence Army — never believed the cease-fire pledge was sincere in the first place.

The Kachin militants certainly didn't retreat from their positions. On the day fighting resumed, a Kachin news outlet reported that a pan-ethnic alliance in Myanmar was conflating government reports on the conflict to "Nazi-like propaganda." The mayor of the Kachin militants' core stronghold told another outlet, The Irrawaddy, that his town's residents were so accustomed to war that they no longer felt fear.

This is the deep well of cynicism and mistrust Myanmar's government — in particular its military — has to crawl out of when it attempts to hammer out its next ceasefire pledge. And this so-called ceasefire, which failed to last even one weekend, certainly won't help.

P.S. Extremely graphic images from the frontlines — a body tossed down a ravine, a man split open by munitions — have been published via The Irrawaddy in footage called "Kachin Conflict Scenes" on YouTube.


Why do mobile phone numbers outnumber humans in Cambodia?

An impoverished nation awash in SIM cards
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A Cambodian man talks on his mobile phone in Phnom Penh on June 24, 2011. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia is among Southeast Asia's most impoverished nations where, according to the United Nations, the majority of the population gets by on just $1 a day.

But that hasn't stopped them from buying mobile phones like mad. As the Phnom Penh Post reports, the country has somehow managed to reach 20 million sales in SIM cards, the little chips inserted into cell phones that are encoded with unique phone numbers.

That's a wild statistic considering that the population stands at 14 million.

How is this possible?

For starters, SIM cards in Cambodia sell for just $2. Basic cell phone models run for about $20 and users can simply pop their SIM into a new handset when they upgrade.

Those prices aren't just a reflection of Cambodia's meager incomes. They're the outcome of intense competition among Cambodia's service providers. The loosely regulated and oversaturated market had, at one point, a whopping nine providers jockeying for customers.

And, finally, Cambodia's mobile phone mania is also owed to its decrepit infrastructure. As the CEO of the Cambodian provider Hello recently told the Phnom Penh Post, the "fixed line infrastructure in Cambodia is quite poor. So, this country has sort of leap-frogged technologies and gone straight to mobile."

All of that amounts to a telecommunications landscape marked by $2 cell phone numbers, effortless handset upgrades and cheap rates. Now don't you despise your U.S. carrier just a little more after reading this?


Myanmar air strikes creep closer to Chinese border

As mortars rain down, president hails military's "sacrifices in blood"
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Unverified locations of Myanmar military air strikes around the nation's northern border with China. The image, created by the Kachin News Group, details alleged positions of government strikes against the Kachin ethnic group's guerrilla army, known as the Kachin Independence Army. (Image created by Kachin News Group) (Screengrab)

So much for peace in Myanmar.

Though lightly reported in the West, air assaults appear to be intensifying along the remote Myanmar-China border -- a mountainous zone where ethnic guerrillas and state forces are locked in combat.

These are scenes government leaders claim they want to leave behind: mortars lobbed into a populated insurgency town (Laiza, a stronghold located right on the Chinese border) and helicopter gunships firing munitions into guerrilla camps.

As I've written previously, hard facts from this region -- populated by the largely Christianized Kachin ethnic group -- are hard to come by. But several air strike locations on this map, created by a Kachin news outlet, are backed up by independent sources.

Myanmar's leaders -- eager to spotlight their grand new reforms -- have finally admitted to using attack aircraft on guerrilla forces that have none of their own.

That doesn't mean the nature of these attacks are entirely clear. Example: while the Kachin fighters claim to have shot down a chopper, the government reports a helicopter's "emergency landing due to engine failure" in which three crew members "sacrificed their lives for the country."

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein is lauding the "sacrifices in blood and sweat" made by Myanmar's military, according to Agence France-Presse. An op-ed in a Kachin news outlet warns that the government is "enouraging Balkanization" and that "there is no choice but to rebel."

Though failing to capture many headlines in America, this intensifying war at China's border could very well portend the course of a nation growing closer to the U.S. while continuing to suffer all-out ethnic conflict both in its mountains and on its coast.