Monday, July 31, 2006


Woolly Days spent the weekend in Ayutthaya (pronounced eye-you-TEE-a). Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam (now Thailand) from 1350 until it was sacked by the Burmese army in 1767.

In 1350 the city was founded by Prince U Thong who changed his name to Ramathibodi the First when he ascended to the royal throne a year later. Ramathibodi achieved his power by forging strategic alliances with other Thai royals. His reign brought together in one empire the Khmer rulers of Lop Buri, the Tai in the west, and the Chinese and Malaysian merchants who inhabited the coastal areas. The Khmer stronghold Lop Buri had been the capital but an outbreak of smallpox forced U Thong to move out. He built Ayutthaya and the empire was renamed after the new capital city.

The city got its name from the Indian city of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Although the Ramayana was a Hindu tale, it became important in South East Asian culture when Indians started to colonise the region from the 8th century onwards. In 1360 Ramathibodi declared Theravada Buddhism the official religion of Ayutthaya and brought members of a Ceylonese sangha, a Buddhist monastic community, to establish religious orders and spread the faith. Ayutthaya is strategically located at the junction of three rivers: the Chao Phraya (which flows through Bangkok), the Lopburi and the Pa Sak. The old city is on an island formed by a bend of the Chao Phraya on the west and south sides, the Pa Sak on the east side and, on the northern side, the Klong Maung canal.

The new empire came under constant attack from the Khmer empire to the East. Ramathibodi’s son Rasusuan retaliated by sacking Angkor Wat in the 1390s. As a result the Khmers moved further eastward away from Ayutthuya and toward Phnom Penh. Free from attack the Thais launched a golden reign and many of Ayutthuya’s beautiful temples date from this period. Over the next four centuries the kingdom expanded to become the nation that is roughly analogous to modern Thailand. The Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s to commence trading with the empire. Around this time too, the empire was renamed to Siam. This was to be the name of the country until 1949 when it was renamed as Thailand (Thai means “free” in Thai language). More European traders arrived in the wake of the Portuguese. The court of King Narai (1656-1688) had strong links with King Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. Louis' ambassadors compared the city of Ayutthaya in size and wealth to Paris.

In 1767, Burma invaded Siam, totally destroying Ayutthaya after a lengthy siege and destroyed its empire. The Burmese King Hsinbyushin took much of the Thai culture back home greatly enriching that of Burma's. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally obliterated, and the city was left in ruins. A new capital was then established at Thonburi on the west side of the river, before King Rama I built his palace on the east bank in 1782. He renamed this new city Krung Thep, meaning the "City of Angels". Krung Thep is more commonly known as Bangkok by foreigners.

The town of Ayutthuya is now a world heritage listed tourist stop on the main north-south railway linking Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Ayutthaya's English name is probably the least standardized of any Thai city: Ayutthaya, Ayuttaya, Ayuthaya, Ayutaya, Ayothaya, Ayotaya, Ayudhya and the Sanskrit original Ayodhya are all used.

Woolly Days took the 20 Baht third class train which took 90 minutes to get there from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong station. Ayutthaya city centre is a short cross-river ferry crossing from the station. The best way to get around the city is by bicycle and they can be hired for 30 to 50 Baht a day. Cycling around town is great fun and involves dodging slow moving tuk-tuks, being hooted at by buses, being chased by possibly rabid dogs, and working out whether it's possible to beat the traffic lights. As you approach the light, there is an indicator telling you how many seconds are left at green, it can be real adrenalin kick when it counts down to 5..4..3 and you are still 20 metres away from the junction!

Its an easy 12km or so lap around the town and most of Ayutthaya's sites are on the protected western half of the island. Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the largest temple in Ayutthaya, known for its row of chedis (Thai-style stupas). Next door is Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopitah temple which houses a large bronze cast Buddha image. Wat Ratchaburana on Naresuan Rd has a large prang (a type of temple spire) recently restored to its original condition. There are many others dotted around the city some better preserved than others which are crumbling ruins. It is well worth an overnight stop as most tourists come as a daytrip from Bangkok 85 kms downstream. Ayutthaya remains a potent reminder of Thai power in the past.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Sukhumvit a Go Go

Purely in the interests of research, Woolly Days went for a wonder down Sukhumvit Road last night. Sukhumvit Road is not only the longest road in Thailand, but one of the longest roads in the world. It goes all the way to Cambodia, but I didn’t quite make it that far.

Lower Sukhumvit Road lies mostly hidden in the concrete shadows of the BTS skytrain. Under the line lies a huge market carrying everything from luggage to fake Rolexes. Later at night it transforms into cafes and bars full of drunken expats and tourists. There are lots of small entertainment areas in the ‘sois’ (alleys) off the main road heading from the hotel.

Starting from the Ploen Chit end of Sukhumvit, the first stop is Nana Plaza. Nana Entertainment Plaza is a three-story building with an enclosed courtyard. The entire building and courtyard are full of bars. Each bar has its own “mamasan” the lady of the house, who approves any “take away” orders and collects bar fines.
At Soi 13 is found Clinton plaza. It takes its name from the misadventures of the Monicagate president. One establishment styles itself as the White House Go-Go, and features a columned portico in the style of the presidential mansion. Bring your own cigar.

You really have to wonder though what sort of cuisine is served by a nearby restaurant called “Cabbages and Condoms”. On further investigation, it turns out that this Thai restaurant is run by the Thailand's Population and Community Development Association and the odd name refers to the founder's belief that condoms should be as cheap as veggies. At the end of the meal, customers receive a complementary condom in lieu of the more traditional after-dinner mint.

At Soi 23, the street is known colloquially as Soi Cowboy. Here there a couple of dozen places where scantily clad Thai girls dance on their podiums, and there are another dozen assorted beer bars and cafes. The girls there are coyly described as “dancing sinuously to western pop music” in the brochures. I’m no midnight soi cowboy and I’m not sure how exactly a sinuous dance looks, though they certainly looked sinful from a distance.

Continuing further down at Soi 33 lies the artists’ quarter. These cater to the “upscale foreigner”. The area gets its name not because the locals are out with their canvasses but because several have adopted the names of famous European painters such as the Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Monet and Goya clubs. More weasel than easel. This is also the Little Japan area and there are a couple of clubs that cater exclusively for Japanese patrons. Have your Yakuza membership card handy.

And so on Sukhumvit goes, as likely serving cabbages and condoms all the way to the wats of Cambodia.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Thaksin Does Good Routinely?

Thai caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra celebrated his 57th birthday yesterday. Happy birthday Thakky boy. Shinawatra has been prime minister since 2001 and was re-elected in 2005 with a landslide victory. However this year he was placed under pressure to resign after a financial scandal. In March the opposition parties demanded the King replace Shinawatra. Shinawatra retaliated by calling a snap election which was boycotted by the Opposition. Shinawatra won but the Constitutional Court declared the election invalid. Shinawatra remains ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister while the country awaits fresh elections.

Shinawatra’s family are originally from Guangdong province in Southern China. His great-grandfather Seng Sae Khu moved to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai in 1908. The family changed its name to Shinawatra which means “does good routinely”. The family grew wealthy as tax collectors and then by moving into finance, construction and property development. The Shinawatra family became one of the richest and most influential families in Chiang Mai. Thaksin was educated at an elite Chiang Mai school and joined the Thai Police Department in 1973 aged 24. In 1975, he got his master's degree in criminal justice from the Eastern Kentucky University and obtained his doctorate in three years later from the Texan Sam Houston State University. He moved up through police ranks and married the daughter of a police general in 1980. His initial business dealings were failures and he ended up 50 million Baht in debt.

Shinawatra didn’t achieve any business success until he left the Police in 1987. He got into mobile phones and his big break occurred in 1990 when his company Advanced Info Service launched analogue mobile phone services. This required an important concession from the Telephone Organization of Thailand. It was listed on the Thai stock exchange a year later and became the largest mobile operator in the country.

He entered politics in 1994 joining the Palang Dharma Party (PDP). At the time it was a member of the ruling coalition and after a purge of its cabinet ministers Shinawatra was quickly appointed Foreign Minister despite not being an elected MP. The PDP withdrew from the coalition a year later and brought down the government. In the subsequent election Shinawatra was handpicked to take over the party by his mentor the retiring leader Chamlong Srimuang. The party lost half its seats in this election but still took its place in a new coalition. Shinawatra was appointed deputy PM and was given charge of perhaps Thailand’s most vexing problem – Bangkok traffic.

Shinawatra resigned from parliament in 1996 but reappeared a year later in yet another coalition. He formed a new Party: Thai Rak Thai (Thai love Thais). Their election platform (universal access to healthcare, a debt moratorium for farmers, and a development fund for all Thai villages) proved immensely popular and TRT swept to victory in 2001. It was only the second time in over 70 years of Thai democracy that that a single party had gained outright government. The government instituted a series of reforms that were dubbed “Thaksinomics” a set of populist economic policies designed to increase the purchasing power of Thailand's rural lower classes, which make up the majority of the country's population. It seemed to work and by 2002 Thailand outpaced the rest of Southeast Asia by posting GDP growth of 5.2%, the fastest rate since the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Since the beginning of 2005, however, the wisdom of Thaksinomics has been increasingly questioned. Though the TRT won another landslide victory that year, economic growth has slowed down. Shinawatra blamed this on the Indian Ocean Tsunami which devastated much of Thailand’s west coast tourist resorts. However rising inflation, consumer indebtedness and trade deficits are also hurting the Thai economy as a direct result of Thaksin's policies. Corruption and the slow progress of Bangkok’s new airport are also factors.

The crisis this year started as a result of the Shinawatra family decision to sell entire stake in Shin Corporation to Temasek Holdings (worth almost $2 billion US). The Thailand Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the transaction but cleared the family of wrongdoing. There were a series of mass protests led by opposition parties looking for the PM’s scalp. The King was asked to appoint a replacement in March but he declined stating it would be unconstitutional. Thaksin dissolved parliament but the opposition boycotted the subsequent election. In May a court ruled the election invalid and ordered new elections. The opposition has declared they will take part but no date has been set. In the meantime Thaksin clings on to power.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Patpong Pingpong

Bangkok is a mass of noise, steel and heat. Over six million people crowd the concrete but there are occasional oases of quiet and repose. Lumpini Park at the junction of Rama IV and Ratchadamri roads is one of these places. Woolly Days walked past it last night on the way to Patpong markets.

Inside the park, there is a lake with some pleasure boats and a constant stream of walkers and joggers do the circuit of the park. There is a Chinese style clock tower, a Chinese pavilion and some graceful sculptures. But the peace and quiet of the park is interrupted by a mass aerobic session, several hundred people in a free jam bobbing to pop music and the instructions barked by a fit virago on a stage. Further on, another twenty or thirty slightly older people are also gyrating in step, this time to a Thai version of Tai Chi to a slower beat. But at the end of the park near the monument to King Rama VI is at least two more aerobic session, each one vying with the other for numbers and noise. The one at the gate is blasting out techno music and dancers aged 8 to 80, bob about in tune, most likely without the aid of ecstasy.

I cross the incredibly busy road (waiting almost 10 minutes for favourable light changes to get across four lanes) underneath the BTS station at Sala Daeng. From there it is a short walk to the Patpong markets. Patpong is for 'farangs' (foreigners, especially white foreigners). Patpong is also imitation city. Here is the place to find designer labels, DVDs, clothing, luggage and jewellery. All on the cheap, most of it illegal and totally uncaring of copyright. Nestled between Surawong and Silom Road, one long alley (or what the Thais call a ‘soi’) is jammed packed full of hawkers and their merchandise. It is also a dense home of pubs, bars, restaurants and strip joints. The ground floor is the entrée style but sequestered away on the upper floors are the full scale sex shows. The bars are gaudy and designed to prise gullible tourists from their dollars. These places are de facto brothels. If patrons want to take a girl out of the bar to pursue sexual relations they need to pay a “bar fine” to the premises.

The market is all privately owned. Patpong gets its name from the the Patpongpanich (or Patpongpanit) family that owns much of the area. They were immigrants from Hainan Island, China, who purchased it in 1946, when it was an undeveloped plot of land on the outskirts of the city. My thoughts are interrupted by another insistent hawker "Want see Pussy Show? Pussy Ping Pong Ball Show". No, thanks. Don't want to see pussy show, not even pussy ping pong ball show.

Eventually the constant stream of sellers anxious to get my business becomes too much and I leave the markets with my wallet unopened. There are easier places to have an unmolested beer than Patpong. Back onto the air-con BTS and home to the hotel for the night. I buy a few cans of beer from the local shop (at about a dollar a pop) and relax in the hotelroom before the oppressive heat finally claims me for the night.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thai King in hospital

The headline in this morning’s English language Bangkok Post was “Foreigners join long queues of wellwishers”. The wellwisher queues are at the Siriraj hospital because the Thai King is currently there recovering from spinal surgery he had last Thursday. He is now walking with the aid of a walking stick and doctors are satisfied with the speed of his recovery. The king fell and fractured a rib on June 24 while walking around the palace grounds but officials have not said if the operation was related to that accident. The king has suffered from spinal problems since 1995, which doctors said were caused by old age. The condition was diagnosed in 2003 as lumbar spinal stenosis, and the king has been receiving physical therapy as treatment since last year.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty which has ruled Thailand since 1782. The 78 year old King is a constitutional monarch. The last absolute monarch was King Prajadhipok (known as Rama VII to non Thais) who ruled from 1925 until his abdication in 1935. However in 1932 a bloodless coup took place. It was orchestrated by the so-called People's Party (Khana Ratsadorn) who took control of the royal palace in Bangkok and arrested key officials while the king was at his summer retreat in Hua Hin. The People's Party demanded that Prajadhipok agree to become a constitutional monarch and grant Thai people a democratic constitution. The King agreed and the first "permanent" constitution was granted on December 10, 1932. King Ananda (Rama VIII) replaced him in 1935.

The two dominant figures in Thai politics during the 1930s were Luang Pibulsonggram (later known as Field Marshal Pibul) and Dr Pridi Panomyong. There were both educated in France but held very different opinions on how to run the country. Pibul favoured dictatorship whereas Dr Pridi paved the way for democratic change. By the end of the 1930s Pibul was PM and Dr Pridi was foreign minister. After the fall of France in 1940 to Nazi Germany, there were border skirmishes which resulted in the return of areas of Laos and Cambodia to Thailand. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, they demanded free passage through Thailand to attack British territories in Burma and India. Pibul was powerless to resist and issued a declafration of war against Britian and the US in January 1942. Dr Pridi organised a resistance movement which eventually saw him regain power at Pibul’s expense. This enabled Thailand to avoid being seen as a Japanese collaborator at the end of the war.

King Ananda, meanwhile had reigned since 1935 as a boy of 10. But on June 9, 1946, Ananda was found shot dead in his room at the Grand Palace during an official state visit from the Swiss government. In October 1946, a Commission of Inquiry reported that the King's death could not have been accidental but that neither suicide nor murder was satisfactorily proved. This mysterious death brought his younger brother to the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was pronounced Rama IX (crowned in 1950) and he reigns to this day.

Dr Pridi was accused of complicity in the death of Ananda and was forced into exile by Pibul. He attempted two comebacks in 1949 and 1951 but both ended in failure. Pibul remained in power until 1957 until he too was overthrown by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957. In November 1971, Prime Minister Thanom executed a coup against his own government, thereby ending the three-year experiment with what had passed for parliamentary democracy. In October 1973, Thai students staged massive demonstrations that overthrew the military government and sent its leaders into exile. After an interregnum of three years, the rightists returned to power in 1976 in a violent coup.

The king is a constitutional monarch similar to the British royals but he is deeply revered. His role as mediator in the crises of the 1970s and 1992 won him great respect. His death, whenever it happens, will be the source of great mourning across the country.

Monday, July 24, 2006

arrival in Bangkok

Woolly Days landed in Krung Thep (the Thai word for Bangkok) at 6:15am this morning local time. June and July are the height of the rainy season and although it is certainly hot, humid and sticky, there hasn’t been any rain so far.

Bangkok is officially the world’s hottest large city (according to the World Meteorological Organisation) and it is already living up to that reputation at 7am. It is also the city with the longest name (according to the Guinness Book of Records). The full name for Bangkok is “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udom Ratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit.” Schoolchildren learn this mouth-and-a-half-ful by rote and it means "the city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam." Apparently.

Paid 100 baht (worth about AUD 4) for a bus to town that I was assured was going down Sukhumvit Rd to the JW Marriott, the Mormon joint that work were putting me up in. Traffic moved relatively freely out of Don Muong airport north of the city (a new replacement international airport to the south-east opens later this year) onto Vibhavadi Rangsit Road as the time pushed towards 7am and the start of the ‘rush three hours’. Strange ads lined the side of the road such as “Fried Sun-dried Venison Meat” at the Smoking Pub...can't wait to find that smoking pub and its deer meat. Within minutes I saw the first klong (most of the canals have been filled in for roads) and then the first Thai Buddhist temple gleaming in reflected sunlight. The city stretches on forever like a hazy mirage. The free moving lanes also prove to be a mirage when we pull off the freeway into choking traffic. We inch along Sukhumvit Road while I peer out the window looking for the Marriott landmark. I don’t find the Marriott but we do stop outside the Landmark Hotel. No one gets off and the bus driver shouts out something incomprehensible. Then worse still we turn off Sukhumvit and get stuck at interminable lights that stay stuck on red for almost ten minutes before going green for 30 seconds. We end up at the bus station. I ask the driver about the Marriott, but looks as if I should have gotten off at the Landmark.

After a cigarette or two he takes me in his empty bus down the long clogged streets where the lights are forever red. I have enough of this delay and decide to get out and walk the ten blocks to the hotel. I still beat the bus there. Nearly 80% of everyone on the street was wearing yellow. This is their way of showing their love for King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the 60th anniversary of his ascension to the throne. The campaign is encouraged by the government. Yellow is the king's birth colour, traditionally corresponding to the day he was born, a Monday (today.) Suppliers say they're running out of shirts, and buyers complain they are being gouged by sellers.

Having checked into the Marriott, and showered and changed, it was time to find the office. I was told it was easy to get to on the Skytrain (BTS) from the Nana station near the Marriott to the Ari station near the office. Sure enough a mere 30 baht got me the eight or nine stations on the overpath. The infrastructure is ugly; towering over the roads but it is brutally efficient and it sure beats the hell out of the gridlocked roads. The BTS was built in 1999. I emerged at Ari into another sea of yellow. The Thais love and revere their king. Unlike how they feel about their controversial billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But that’s another story for another day. Time to go home soon and catch up on all the sleep I lost on the overnight flight.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Brother Number Four escapes justice

Ta Mok died on Friday 21 July. With him dies another chapter in the story of the Khmer Rouge. He was also known as "Brother Number Four" and his birth name was Chhit Choeun. He took the nom de guerre of Ta Mok, which means Grandfather (or Uncle) Mok. He was the military leader of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

He was born in 1926 and trained as a Buddhist monk at Pali High School in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. He left the order to take up the fight against French occupation. During the war years he was an active opponent of the Japanese occupation.

He joined the Cambodian Communist Party after the war and rose to become a member of its Central Committee. He commanded its forces in the south-west of Cambodia initially fighting the French after the war. King Norodom Sihanouk took over the country when it gained its independence in 1953. He held corrupt elections in 1955 which led many leftists in Cambodia to abandon any hope of taking power by legal means. The communist movement, while ideologically committed to armed struggle in these circumstances, did not launch a rebellion because of the weakness of the party.

While the Vietnam War raged, Sihanouk promoted policies he claimed would preserve Cambodia's neutrality. Pol Pot went to Vietnam to unsuccessfully drum up support for a communist rebellion. He returned in 1967 and decided to launch a national uprising in Cambodia without Vietnam’s support. But with a force of only 1,500 men they could only launch guerrilla offensives.

By 1970 Ta Mok was Khmer Rouge chief of staff and he lost a leg in combat in one of the many border skirmishes with Sihanouk’s forces. During this era the Viet Cong was using Cambodia as a base and the US retaliated by launching its secret bombing campaign and invasion against Cambodia.

Cambodia descended into full-scale civil war in the mid 1970s, and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took control in 1975. They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. They launched an ideologically-driven campaign against so-called "parasites" - intellectuals, city-dwellers and disabled people among them – and massacred up to 2 million people in the so-called Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia to year zero. They banned all institutions, including stores, banks, hospitals, schools, religion, and the family. In December 1978, after several years of border conflict and a flood of refugees into Vietnam, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979 and deposing the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Khmer Rouge fled to the west and continued to control an area near the Thai border for the next decade, unofficially protected by elements of the Thai Army and funded by smuggled diamonds and timber. In 1997, following a split within the movement, Ta Mok rose against Pol Pot, who was condemned to house arrest for life. In April 1998, following a new government attack, Ta Mok fled into the forest taking Pol Pot with him. Pot died in Ma Tok’s custody a short while later. In 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded and overran the Khmer Rouge who fled into the countryside.

Ta Mok - the last major Khmer Rouge figure still at large - was finally arrested, inside Thai territory, on 6 March 1999. He was taken to Phnom Penh, and accused of membership of the now-banned Khmer Rouge. The charges were then escalated to genocide and crimes against humanity. He was due to face trial in 2007 with the other key leaders. He leaves behind the living Brothers Number Two and Three, Noun Chea (the ex prime minister) and Ieng Sary (the deputy prime minister) to face the music at the Khmer Rouge trials.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pomona King of the Mountain

In Roman mythology Pomona was goddess of fruit and nut trees and she is associated with abundance. In geography, Pomona is a small town about 150km north of Brisbane. It takes its name from the principal island of the Scottish Orkneys and also shares its name with a small suburb of Los Angeles where Hollywood producers used to trial their new films. The theory was that if the film flopped in Pomona, it would most likely flop nationally. Thus California’s Pomona was deemed the testing ground for Middle America.

Queensland’s Pomona also has a connection with the movies. It is home to the Majestic Theatre, possibly the world’s only silent movie theatre. Every Thursday night for the last thirty years, proprietor Ron West provided an organ accompaniment to Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik. West has retired now but the local council has kept on the lease and are providing a new impetus for this wonderful old institution.

The Majestic is one of two things that Pomona is famous for. The other is the King of the Mountain race which happens every year on the fourth Sunday in July. Tomorrow Sunday the 23rd is the fourth Sunday of this year and is thus the occasion for the 2006 race. It has taken place every year since 1959 (it started as a pub bet as to whether it could be done in under an hour) and although the length of the run is barely 4km, what makes it unique is the fact that course goes up the 400 metre precipice of nearby Mount Cooroora. Cooroora is an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the local landscape.

Woolly Days has done the King the Mountain race once. That was in 2001 and it was a horrible mistake. I have long been familiar with the area especially the nearby town of Kin Kin where I have some close friends. As a runner, I was often encouraged to take part in the KOTM event but had never agreed. Then one foolish night in the Kin Kin Country Life Hotel after one or two too many schooners of VB, I finally said yes and entered the race that year. Before I could sober up and retract, the entry forms were thrust in front of my face and I had to hand over the $65 entry fee. The steep cost of entry alone should have been a warning. This was well in excess of normal ‘fun run’ prices. In fact it is deliberately priced to scare away the occasional runner.

I had only four weeks to prepare. I was reasonably fit having done many a 5 or 10 kilometre race but had no practice running up hills. Living in Brisbane I didn’t have easy access to the mountain itself so my training regime involved running up the side of the small but steep hill on Ivory Street next to the Medina Hotel at the Story Bridge. I started with five circuits and by the time my training was finished I was up to 15 circuits of the hill.

I went up to Kin Kin on the Friday night of the weekend of the race. As I drove through Pomona, the bunting was up and the grassy square of Stan Topper Park was transformed into a fair ground. Thankfully it was too dark to see the mountain looming ominously above. My stomach churned and I quickly put the town behind me. I met my friends and we made a bee-line to the Country Life Hotel. Most of the conversation that night was about the race and how I was going to do. Some had unreasonable expectations of my winning; I was more concerned about finishing and if possible avoid finishing last. The party moved on from the pub to someone’s house in nearby bushland. In the spirit of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, Woolly Days got hog-whimpering drunk as well as consuming a large amount of herbal jolliness. This was later to become a worry when someone asked the throwaway question “was there drug tests in the race?”

I was genuinely concerned that this might be the case even if I could only be accused of having taken performance distracting drugs. The other question I was asked was equally important: “have you been to the top of the mountain yet?” I had to admit that no, I hadn’t. I immediately decided that a Saturday morning recce was in order. I found a moment of brief sense enough to call a halt to proceedings and cleared my head somewhat with a 1 kilometre walk on a clear night back to the property I was staying on.

I got up mid-morning Saturday and drove down to Pomona after breakfast. The festival was hotting up, there were lots of people milling around and I could hear people directing events with megaphones. I ignored all this and drove through town to the start of the walking path that led to the mountain itself. I parked the car and walk about 800 metres to the base of the mountain. Worryingly I seemed to be going down as much as up in the early stages. It occurred to me that this would be an uphill climb on the way back tomorrow and I would need to make sure I had some energy left for this exertion. Then I got to the mountain. It looked more like a cliff and almost immediately it got difficult. There were concrete steps drilled into the rocks as well as a chain. Then the steps disappeared and then the chain disappeared too. I was scrabbling up bare rocks. Half way up I had to stop. I was sweating profusely and dog-tired. I scrambled up another 100 metres but my legs were turning to jelly. I had to stop again. At last, the chain reappeared to help me climb these monstrous rocks. After several more fitful efforts, I finally got to the top. I felt a mixture of elation and utter fear.

The view was extraordinary up here, down south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the rugged endless interior. But dear o dear, what effort it took me to get there. I was totally spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a very long day indeed. After a lengthy rest, I was finally rest for the descent. This was difficult in its own way. Gravity was not working with me, and determined to get me down faster than I would have liked. I gingerly inched my way down and was inordinately glad to be on "terra firmer" at the base of the mountain. I was not surprised that I didn’t see a single soul going up or down. No-one in their right mind would attempt this willingly. On the bright side, a check of the watch showed me that like the pub bet, I could do the run in under an hour.

The rest of the day passed without incident. Unlike the Friday night shenanigans, I deliberately kept a low profile on the Saturday night and went to bed relatively early. I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, the memories of the climb up that dreaded hill kept coming back to haunt me.

The Sunday arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I pushed and prodded at my breakfast plate without making much of an impression. The race time was 3pm but entrants had to be there at 2pm to register. A friend gave me a lift down to Pomona after midday and I left the property to cheers of good luck. The rest of the crew would come down to watch the race itself. I was dropped off in a town which suddenly had ten times its usual population of a thousand people. The central streets were roped off. The fun run, the real fun run, had already taken place and it was sensible enough to skirt but not actually tackle the mountain. I registered and found out there was only 60 entrants. I got a sheet which told me the terrifying 439 metre height of the mountain. The start and finish were at Stan Topper Park and the run to and from the mountain would take a different route to the one I took yesterday.

Butterflies increased as time slowly progressed to the start time. Kids played in the bouncy castles and took donkey rides without concern. The racers had to marshal around the start point and then came an unexpected and unwelcome development. Each racer was introduced by name and had to run a little catwalk of 20 metres or so while the announcer introduced them. Thus I found out about the calibre of my fellow competitors. “Heres (name forgotten), a New Zealand commonwealth games hopeful”…”here’s (name equally forgotten), a Champion British fell runner” “heres (name etc) an Australian under 17s 5,000 metres record holder” and then near the end “here’s (Woolly Days), er we don’t know a lot about (Woolly)…he could be a dark horse” loud applause rang in my ears as I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me. But as I warmed up, I saw one other person that looked a little out of his class. Here was a guy dressed up in a half cat half kangaroo costume who was introduced to the crowd as “Feral Foulpuss”. He may have looked silly but he had done the run before. I asked him how he got to the top of the mountain in that gear. He told me that he has a mate at the edge of town who minds the costume for him while he does the main part of the run in more traditional running attire.

Finally the starter’s gun rang and we were off. For the first time in 48 hours I relaxed and concentrated on my running. To my surprise I was well able to handle the early pace and was tucked in halfway up the field. We left the town behind and cheers gradually died out as we moved into the forest. It was still noisy as an overhead helicopter circled the route and marshals barked instructions into their walkie-talkies. We got to the start of the mountain and to my pleasant surprise no-one was running. Some were walking, some were scrabbling but everyone was taking this lump of rock seriously. Around the same point as I had my crisis yesterday I needed to take a break again today. I kept going until about 150 metres short of the summit, I had a severe breakdown. I needed to stop for at least a minute and saw most of the field hurtle past me. As I started up again, I had to stop and admire the leaders going past me on their descent, as graceful as gazelles, sure-footedly picking their path and defying gravity with their death-defying leaps down the treacherous rocks. I made it to the top and allowed a moment’s elation grip me. No time to admire the view today, it was a quick turnaround for the descent.

It was on the way down where the locals made up the time. While us newbies carefully trudged our way down they seemed to know exactly where to land on each step and most of them bounded past me. By the time I got back to the bottom, I was alone. But I was not last. As I shepherded my resources for the last kilometre run, I could hear the heavy breathing of someone coming up my rear. That person had a tail! It was Feral Foulpuss. I was determined not to be beaten by a stock cartoon character that was half mammal, half marsupial and totally ridiculous. I redoubled my efforts but could feel he was making ground. But then he had to stop and put on the rest of his costume and I knew I had him beaten. I came out of the forest and into the crowded town. People stood and cheered. I was cheered by name by people I did not know “Well done (Woolly), not long to go”. And sure enough I turned into the straight and saw the clock over the finish line. It was ticking towards 40 minutes. I found some unknown reserve of energy to cross the line in 39 minutes and 40 seconds to great applause amid the promptings of a frenzied MC.

I was found by a friend who immediately thrust a can of VB into my hand. I turned and saw Feral in all his glory hopping over the finish line. He wasn’t last either. There were another 10 or 11 stragglers. The last (and oldest) competitor crossed the line in 55 minutes. I found out that the winner, a New Zealander winning for the fourth time, had clocked a sensational time of around 24 minutes. The result of my achievement and that single beer sent me spiralling into la-la-land. After a quick change and a medal ceremony I wandered into the packed Pomona pub where I proudly wore my ceremonial t-shirt and my finisher’s medal. It was one of the proudest days of my life. I told anyone willing to listen to me that I would be back next year. I wasn’t and still haven’t been back. But some day I will return to Stan Topper Park on the fourth Sunday of July and celebrate the monarchs of the mountain with the goddess of fruit and nuts in the town of the oldest silent cinema in the world.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Reflections on Cronulla

Earlier this week, the NSW Police taskforce set up to investigate last December’s riots in the Sydney beach suburb of Cronulla was officially wound down. The few remaining riot-related investigations will now be handed to the NSW Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. The taskforce known as “Strike Force Enoggera” arrested 51 people in connection with the riot and another 53 were charged over their alleged involvement in the reprisal attacks that followed.

NSW Police Minister Carl Scully pointed out that the roughly equal number of arrests showed that the police force did not just concentrate on the riot itself rather than the retaliatory attacks. He also blamed a mix of "sun, alcohol and rising tension" for the riot. Scully takes a rather simplistic approach to problem. Certainly, sun and alcohol may be contributing factors but they do not explain the large-scale nature of the violence. But perhaps the answer may be in his throwaway “rising tension” rationale. Tensions did rise. And there were many eager to fan the flames of the wildfire that resulted. Racism was at its heart. September 11, the Bali bombing, the Tampa affair all added to the fuel.

Cronulla is about 26km south of Sydney on a peninsula framed by Botany Bay to the north, Bate Bay to the east, Port Hacking to the south, and Gunnamatta Bay to the west. It is on a suburban train line and is a popular tourist attraction especially for its beautiful beaches. The name Cronulla is derived from kurranulla, meaning ‘‘place of pink seashells’’ in the dialect of the original inhabitants, the Dharawal people.

The riot occurred seven months ago, Sunday December 11, 2005. On that day, a group of approximately 5,000 people gathered in the place of the pink seashells for an ad hoc protest to "reclaim the beach". The protest was organised in response to a spate of reports of assaults and intimidatory behaviour on and around the beach over a number years. Matters came to a head the previous weekend when two volunteer lifeguards were assaulted on North Cronulla Beach. Surf lifesavers said the attack was carried out by a gang of youths who regularly visited Cronulla to harass locals and beachgoers. The item led the Sydney news that night on the commercial stations seven, nine and ten.

The culprits were deemed to be of Lebanese extraction from Sydney’s western suburbs. As a result an SMS text circulated in the week leading up to the 11th calling on a vigilante action that amount to a racial war. The text message read “This Sunday every Fucking Aussie in the shire, get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day ...Bring your mates down and let’s show them this is our beach and they’re never welcome back.” The SMS was picked up by radio, TV and newspapers and received wide coverage during the days leading up to the Sunday. The demagogue-in-chief Alan Jones stoked up the fires on Monday when he agreed with a caller to his radio show that people will “take the law into their own hands. There'll be an escalation”. On Wednesday the 7th “tensions were rising” to the point where a brawl erupted at the beach when a gang of youths clashed with a media crew. NSW Premier Morris Iemma issued a warning asking people not to take the law into their own hands. He also promised those responsible for the surf lifesavers attack would be brought to justice.

The Sunday itself started overcast but the sun soon broke through. By 10am over a thousand people had answered the SMS call and were gathering on the beach. Many of these had started already consuming alcohol. Many wore flags and displayed Australian paraphernalia. It was a big event, a show. But it also attracted extremists neo-Nazi groups such as Australia First, the Patriotic Youth League and “Blood and Honour”. Blood and Honour’s goal according to their website is to “provide White Youth with an alternative to the hip-hop culture so eagerly promoted by the Zionist media”.
Some of the demonstrators wore tee-shirts with racially-divisive slogans such as "We Grew Here, You Flew Here", "Wog Free Zone", "Aussie Pride", "Fuck Allah - Save 'Nulla", and "Ethnic Cleansing Unit". There were chants of "Lebs out", "Lebs go home" continuously shouted out by some demonstrators. Despite this, the first few hours passed without direct confrontation but the atmosphere soon turned to violence.
As the crowd moved along the beach and foreshore area, one man on the back of a Ute began to shout "No more Lebs" - a chant picked up by the group around him. Others in the crowd, carrying Australian flags and dressed in Australian shirts, yelled "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie ... Oi, Oi, Oi".

When some people of Middle Eastern appearance were spotted, the mob went rampant. One of this group was chased into a hotel bistro. Within a minute the hotel was surrounded by several thousand people screaming and chanting. About a half an hour later a fight broke out across the road and police led away a man with a shirt over his head as the crowd lobbed beer cans at him. As the day progressed anyone of "Middle Eastern appearance" was fair game and several were assaulted including a Jewish boy and a Greek girl. Police leading away the injured were then attack as was an ambulance which was treating six injured people. One ambulance officer was hit over the head with a glass bottle and another on board received lacerations.

At this point the police finally got serious and intervened in riot gear with capsicum spray. Police reinforcements arrived from Maroubra and local roads were closed to traffic. At the end of the day seven people were arrested and four charged. Broken beer bottles scattered Elouera Road, which runs along the foreshore. Dozens were treated for minor injuries. Tensions remained high throughout the evening. There were reports of vandalised cars and windows in the nearby suburbs of Maroubra and Rockdale. By 1:00 a.m., reports of violence had also spread to Brighton Le Sands, where police wearing riot gear sectioned off Bay Street in a confrontation with a crowd of people of Middle Eastern appearance.

On Monday Sydney’s Islamic community hit back. Islamic Friendship Association of Australia president Keysar Trad said the violence was "bound to happen" because of racist rhetoric on Sydney talkback radio throughout the week. "Sections of the media took this issue far too far and one can only surmise that the way this issue was dealt with on talkback radio amounts to incitement," Mr Trad said. He went on to say the media had turned a common youth issue into an issue of ethnicity. NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney, with delicious unintentional irony called the behaviour "un-Australian". Premier Mr Iemma weighed in and said lawlessness would not be tolerated and there would be no compromises in upholding the law. PM Howard also pontificated, calling the riots “sickening”. However his statement that he did not believe racism to be widespread in Australia shows that he too did not understand the extent of the problem.

That evening a new SMS flash made a group of a thousand people gather outside Sydney's Lakemba mosque. They claimed they were there to defend the Mosque against attacks from gangs, as had been threatened by the Cronulla rioters. Though they dispersed without violence, residents of Cronulla started to report that cars full of Middle Eastern men had driven into the area and were on the rampage. The local shopping centre was targeted, with several vehicles vandalised. Further carloads made their way to Maroubra for another revenge attack, organised again by SMS. They were armed with baseball bats, crowbars and bricks, and vandalised private property. Many residents took refuge in their homes, while others who tried to confront the gangs were attacked.

The premier announced on Tuesday that police will be given "lockdown" powers which would allow them to prohibit entry into specified areas. On this day the frenzy had spread nationally. Local media in Victoria and Queensland reported that SMS text messages, inciting further riots, were being sent to mobile users. NSW opposition leader Peter Debnam cynically used the riot to attempt wedge politics. He promised that if elected he would “round up the 200 Middle Eastern thugs still on the streets of Sydney” "At dawn on the 25th of March” he theatrically continued “my instruction to the police commissioner will be to take as many police as you need and charge them with anything to get them off the streets."

He was hosed down by the president of the Police Association, Bob Pritchard, who said: "politicians should not be involved in operational policing."
But the problem has not gone away. The question remains what caused the violence: Was it racism, revenge or simply alcohol-induced aggression? There has been years of brooding disagreements and hatred between the two main ethnic groups involved in these incidents: Anglo-Celtic Australians, on the one hand, and Middle Eastern Australians on the other. Tensions have simmered since 9/11 and fears of Islamic based terrorism. The Islamic community has had to deal with racism and has become defensive in return. There are no easy answers and plenty out there ready to light the match again.

One of the many SMS messages that was doing the rounds in the week following is chilling: "We'll show them! It's on again sunday... send this to everyone in your phone book... this is a straight up WAR! We must continue to come together to help the innocet an family's (sic) so every one can enjoy our beach's!" Though the rest of the season passed without incident, the worry is that the problem is just hibernating and will explode again in the coming Summer.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Enter Syria stage right

Syria was the centre of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism claims “every Person has two homelands, his own and Syria”. The quote is originally by French archaeologist Andre Parrot who, in 1933, discovered and excavated the Mari kingdom site which flourished in Syria the 3rd millennium BC. It remains an important country today. It has major oil reserves and occupies a strategic position bordering Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. These latter two countries have been involved in escalating tensions and the link with Syria is bubbling under the surface.

The UN is planning to send negotiators to Syria to defuse the tensions between Israel and Lebanon. However Syria has rejected one of the three negotiators Norwegian diplomat Terje Roed-Larsen. He caused offence when he overstepped his mandate in dealing with implementation of a September 2004 resolution which called for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and the disarming of militias especially Hezbollah which controls southern Lebanon.

Syria has been heavily involved in Lebanese politics for thirty years. In 1976, they sent an invasion force of 40,000 troops to prop up the regime of Suleiman Frangieh. Although Frangieh represented a Maronite Christian faction, he had known then Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad who was following a secular, pro-Soviet agenda (which earned him the wrath of Islamists in Syria). Syrian troops entered Lebanon, occupying Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley and imposed a short-live ceasefire. The Arab League then proposed that the Syrian troops stay as a peace-keeping force. The Phalangists Maronite militia backed by Israel then emerged as an enemy of Syria and President Assad shored up his force by placing ground-to-air missiles in Lebanon.

Israel invaded southern Lebanon to drive out the PLO bases and besieged Beirut. A UN delegation restored a temporary peace and Israeli and Syrian troops withdrew from the country. Complex internecine violence remained through the 80s between Lebanon’s various ethnic clans. The Taif Agreement of 1989 gave a prominent role to Syria in the implementation of peace for the country. Maronite General Aoun denounced the Taif agreement and launched an unsuccessful ‘war of liberation’ against Syria and their Lebanese allies. Though hostilities formally ended in 1991, Syrian troops remained in the country for another 15 years. Their departure was hastened by the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri in a car bomb explosion. Though never proven, Syria was deemed responsible for the attack, due to its extensive presence in Lebanon and to the public rift between Hariri and Damascus over the constitutional amendment extending pro-Syrian President Lahoud's term in office. Popular demonstrations known as the “cedar revolution” allied to international pressure forced Syria to remove its remaining 15,000 troops in April, 2005.

Syria is again under pressure from the US and Israel not to get involved in the Lebanon crisis. Israel has signalled it does not want an all-out conflict with Damascus and its only target is Hezbollah. It did claim however that Syria is resupplying Hezbollah with rockets. Israel claims that most of the rockets that have dropped on Haifa in the last week were manufactured in Syria. Syria removed its troops from Lebanon under UN supervision 12 months ago after the international outcry over the assassination of five-time premier Hariri. But with the Gaza offensive a month old and the two-week Lebanon operation, Israel cannot afford to immediately open a third front. For that they require the support of the US.

The US has repeatedly called for regime change in Syria and believes it to be a sponsor of terrorism. They are supported by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. On Wednesday he chillingly called for the elimination of “the threat posed by the axis of terror and hate - Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran". Israeli MP Effi Eitam, a member of the foreign affairs and defence parliamentary committee made it clear what the intention when he told AFP: "we will have to take care of Syria at some point.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Magna Carta

Magna Carta is an English charter written in 1215. It is the Latin word for “Great Charter” and it is a fundamentally important document of constitutional law worldwide.

It contains few statements of principle, but is a set of concessions wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons. What Magna Carta did do was to establish for the first time a significant constitutional principle: that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant. Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by law.

The British Library holds two of the original copies of the documents, the other two are held in the cathedral archives at Lincoln and Salisbury. All four copies declare themselves "given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of June in the 17th year of our reign." The 17th year of John’s reign is 1215.

By the beginning of the 13th century, the English king had become the most powerful monarch in Europe. England had grown in power due to the combination of the centralised leadership of the Norman Conquests overlaid with the native Anglo-Saxon systems of governance. The country was at the heart of what was known as the Angevin Empire. Angevin's last true emperor, the "coeur de lion" King Richard I, died in 1199. Richard was killed in a siege of the castle of Châlus-Charbrol in Limousin, France and left no direct heirs.

His brother John had been the de facto ruler during Richard’s extended overseas adventures and crusades. However, the Norman French territories initially rejected John as a successor, preferring his nephew Arthur of Brittany, the son of Richard and John's dead brother Geoffrey, whose claim was technically better than John's. John himself was known as “Lackland” in English (or “sans terre” in French) for his lack of an inheritance as the youngest son while also alluding to his loss of territory to France. He, like Richard, was a son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine whose alliance put so much of France in their hands – through them the English throne held more French territory than the King of France.

At the time of John's accession to the throne, there were no set rules to define the line of succession. Arthur held a claim over the Anjou empire but John struck an alliance with the French King Philip Augustus to go over Arthur’s head. As part of the bargain, John gave Philip vast tracts of the French-speaking Anjou territories. John then lost the rest of his French empire when his marriage to Isabella d'Angoulême caused her ex-boyfriend to appeal to the French king to declare Lackland’s lands forfeit. Philip then held on to his new possession by winning the Battle of Bouvines.

At the same time, there was a fierce battle in England going on to decide how to elect the Archbishop of Canterbury. Traditionally this was a king’s appointee but the pushy bishops now wanted a say. The king and the bishops elected different candidates and the Pope rejected them both. John ignored the Pope’s compromise candidate and was promptly excommunicated. The Pope then backed an invasion of England by the French. At this threat John backed down and struck a deal with Rome that left the English barons powerless and unhappy.

The loss of French income severely hurt the government bank balance. Henry II had appointed an efficient civil service but the lack of taxes hurt their ability to raise a fighting army. John introduced new and unpopular taxes and the barons revolted.

Some of the barons took London by force in June 1215. These attackers got the key help of the moderates to force King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons". John attached his Great Seal to these articles in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John four days later. This compromise deal was recorded in a formal document created by the royal chancery a month later - this was the original Magna Carta.

An unknown number of copies were sent out to government and church officials. One important clause established a committee of Barons who could at any time overrule the will of the King, through force if needed. John had no intention of honouring the agreement and was forced to fight the First Baron War to oppose it. But he died of dysentery in the war within 12 months. His nine year old son Henry III was more malleable. But it was his extended reign of 56 years would establish Magna Carta as a legal precedent.

Two of the important clauses that have survived are the right to due process and the freedom of the Church. The Magna Carta was re-issued several times after 1215. The edict had varying force until Elizabethan times when jurists started to reach back into the charter for a sense of historical continuity. It became the basis of common law.

The English Civil War saw the king executed and Magna Carta temporarily suspended but it was revived with the reign of Charles II. Throughout the 17th century parliament grow in influence and with it the charter. Later the American revolutionaries quoted Magna Carta as the precedent to their claim to seek representation with taxation. Magna Carta influenced the US Bill of Rights, which enumerates various rights of the people and restrictions on government power where "due process" also gets a mention. It is one of the rare documents still revered in England, US, Canada, Australia and all other countries based on common law.

The word has even entered the language to denote any key law. So for instance, the Philippines Department of Interior and Local Government has recently reminded local officials to fully implement the provisions of what it called its “Magna Carta for Public Health Workers”. The great charter resonates on far from Runnymede, almost 900 years after it was written.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Australian media laws due for shake-up

“Rather than a reformer, Communications Minister Helen Coonan resembles a 15th century mayor of Mainz trying to protect the guild of scribes against Herr Gutenberg and his new-fangled printing press”.

Thus thundered The Australian newspaper in the first sentence of its editorial on Saturday July 15, 2006. It makes a good point but also comes with a billionaire-shaped caveat. Coonan’s new blueprint for diversity involves several following key directives due to take place in 2007. The changes announced on July 13 have yet to be passed by the federal parliament but that appears a formality due to the coalition senate majority.

The three key items in the proposal are:

1. Foreign ownership restrictions on Australian media companies will be removed and will require only a government approval to proceed.
Current media laws bar foreign companies from controlling more than 15 percent of a television company and more than 25 percent of a newspaper publisher.

2. Cross media laws (governing newspapers, TV and radio) will be relaxed. Cross media transaction can occur subject to there remaining a minimum number of media groups in the relevant market – four in regional areas, five in capital cities. Current laws prohibit ownership of newspaper and TV media.

3. Allocation of new digital services as part of a “Digital Action Plan”. The analogue TV service will be switched off by 2012 (delayed from 2008 due to poor digital take up). There will be 30 new digital channels which will only be available to Pay TV and mobile phone technology. The anti-siphoning legislation will be changed to a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario as the owners of the sports rights are forced to screen events or give them up to Foxtel and others. ABC and SBS will also have additional channels under the arrangement.

What is not touched by the legislation (and is the source of The Australian’s ire) is TV free-to-air channel coverage. The existing limit on broadcasting licences is unchanged by the legislation. The three commercial stations will be protected from competition until 2012. The Murdoch owned News Corp has attacked the reform plan as "an even more aggressive protection racket" for the free-to-air television networks. They criticised the Government's decision not to issue a fourth commercial television licence while at the same time allowing the free-to-air networks to add extra channels.

Australia has one of the most restricted media fields in the world. According to Reporters Without Borders in 2004, Australia is in 41st position on a list of countries ranked by Press Freedom. This is primarily due to the high concentration of media ownership. Newspapers are controlled by either News Corp or Fairfax and they combine to form AAP (Australian Associated Press) to distribute and on sell news to other organisations. Murdoch alone has interests in more than one hundred national, metropolitan, regional and suburban newspapers throughout Australia. The third major communications player in Australia is the Packer owned PBL (Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd) which owns the Nine network, 25% of Foxtel and publishes magazines.

The fear among many is that the proposed changes will cause even further restriction in the media market. A likely outcome is a Packer dominated Fairfax/Nine alliance competing against a Murdoch dominated News/Ten alliance.Australia’s media laws were last overhauled in 1992. Controls over media ownership are laid down in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. The one fly in the government’s ointment for the industry may be renegade Queensland National senator Barnaby Joyce. Joyce said the package would be scrutinised over coming weeks to see whether it ensured a "multiplicity of voices" in regional areas.

Another area of interest for the media over the coming days will be the breaking story that prominent Melbourne business man and Fairfax chairman Ron Walker spent more than $1.4 million to nearly double his stake in Fairfax in the days before the Government revealed its media reform package. Fairfax shares rose each day from Monday and on Thursday hit a six-month high of $4.14, giving Mr Walker a paper profit of $101,780 or an immediate return of 7.1 per cent. Given that Walker is a former treasurer of the federal Liberal Party, the deal has a strong odour of insider trading. Walker defended his actions today "I've been wanting to buy more and more shares for months, and that was the only window of opportunity when I could. And of course the cabinet decision could have gone either way because it's a very controversial issue," he said. "I just wanted to show staff and investors that I supported the company."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Loveless in Gaza

While the world’s attention is focussed on the Israeli-Lebanese tensions, the war continues on another front. In the early hours of Monday morning, July 17, the Israeli air force bombed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry Building in Gaza City. The building, already damaged by earlier attacks, has been completely destroyed. A separate air strike gutted the offices of the Palestine security force in the Islamist stronghold of Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip. This follows an Israeli tank and troop invasion into northern Gaza 24 hours ago. Six Palestinians have been killed in clashes and air strikes.

Israel launched the Gaza offensive three weeks ago after Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier, in a cross border raid a few days earlier. He is the first Israeli soldier to be seized by Palestinians since 1994. The Hamas government demanded that Israel free all Palestinian women and under age prisoners in exchange for the soldier's release. Israel currently has thousands of Palestinians locked up including 95 women and 313 under-18s. Israel refused to deal with Hamas and instead sealed off Gaza. On June 26, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert told a meeting in Jerusalem "This is not a matter of negotiation".

The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) launched “Operation Summer Rains” in response. Within a few days, a large IDF force of infantry backed by tanks formed a ring around Gaza. Israeli forces entered the Southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis on June 28 to search for Shalit. Four Israeli F-16s flew over the Syrian port city of Latakia which is the residence of President Assad in a symbolic move to show up the Syrian leadership as a sponsor of terrorism, and as well protest the presence in Syria of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. The IDF also targeted bridges to cut the Strip in half. They destroyed a power station which provided Gaza with 65 percent of its electricity. On June 29Israel arrested 64 Hamas officials. These included senior Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The IDF stated that the captured Hamas ministers "are not bargaining chips for the return of the soldier - it was simply an operation against a terrorist organization". The Palestinians described it as “an act of war”.

The captured soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was the gunner on a tank attacked in a pre-dawn raid by militants from a 300 metre tunnel dug under the Gaza border fence. Two other soldiers were killed in the attack. The raid was claimed by the military wing of the ruling Hamas party, Izzedine al-Qassam, with help from two smaller organisations, the Popular Resistance Committees and a little known group called “Army of Islam”.

This was a serious escalation in the tensions between the two sides. Hamas ended an informal ceasefire with Israel earlier in June following the deaths of eight members of a Palestinian family on a Gaza beach. The Israeli army said it "regretted" the deaths and called a halt to the shelling. Israel said it has fired thousands of artillery shells into the Gaza Strip in response to armed Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad who have been firing hundreds of “Qassam” rockets (homemade steel rockets filled with explosives) into Israel. Israeli shells have killed about 15 civilians this year, including five children. The Palestinian rockets have not claimed any lives but have wounded several Israelis.

But it would be naïve to believe these are all spontaneous reactive events. Many of these actions such as the Palestinian kidnap, the Israeli response and the seizure of Palestinian politicians were all planned months in advance by the participants. All that was missing was something to spark the inevitable escalation. There is no desire for peace in either the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership.

Meanwhile, the world seems impotent to intervene.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Israel and Lebanon on verge of all out war

The Israel-Lebanon crisis has taken a dangerous new turn today. The Lebanese ruling Hezbollah party has declared ‘open war’ on Israel. The audiotape declaration came after Israeli missiles struck the group's headquarters and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's house in southern Beirut. Nasrullah’s message ran: "You wanted an open war. You will get an open war," This is a dramatic escalation of the conflict which began on Wednesday. In the wake of Hezbollah’s warning, an Israeli vessel enforcing a naval blockade on Lebanon’s ports was hit by an unmanned airborne vehicle known as a “drone” which was packed with explosive. The ship was badly damaged and four Israeli soldiers are missing.

The tensions started on Wednesday July 12. Hezbollah launched a diversionary cross-border attack on Israel. Hezbollah fighters fired dozens of Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds on the Israeli occupied Shebaa Farms border area. This was followed up by an attack on two Israeli humvees with a combination of explosives and antitank missiles. Eight troops were killed and two were captured. These two are now being held as bargaining chips to release Palestinian fighters from Israeli jails. However instead of negotiating, the Israelis responded with massive aerial attacks on Lebanese targets.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the Hezbollah attacks as an "act of war" by Lebanon and promised a "very painful and far-reaching" response. Israeli ground forces crossed into Lebanon to search for the captured soldiers. Two Lebanese civilians were killed and five people wounded in retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

On the day after the initial violence, a rocket attack was launched on the Israeli port city of Haifa. Hezbollah denied firing the Haifa rocket but their guerrilla forces were responsible for firing scores of Katyusha rockets on targets across northern Israel killing two Israelis and injuring another 120. The Israeli army Home Front Command ordered residents of Haifa and nearby towns to stay indoors and listen to radio broadcasts. Hezbollah has declared it has over 10,000 rockets to use against Israel. People have started to evacuate from border towns towards safer areas such as Tel Aviv.

The Israelis have also imposed a total sea, land and air blockade on Lebanon. As well as a naval blockade, this involved bombing Beirut international airport and the main highway to Damascus, Syria. The airport was closed and all international flights were diverted to Cyprus. Several airlines, including Qatar Airways and Gulf Air, have suspended flights to and from Beirut. Israel also targeted Hezbollah's al-Manar television station, but Hezbollah continued transmission from another location.

The Iran backed Hezbollah (which means Party of God in Arabic) is the main political party representing the Shia community, Lebanon's largest religious bloc. It calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon and runs hospitals, news and education services. Hezbollah emerged as a force during the 1980s war in Lebanon. In 2005, the European Parliament branded them a terrorist organisation but this has not yet been acted upon by the EU. The 45 year old Hassan Nasrallah was elected as the secretary-general of Hezbollah in 1992. The continued existence of Hezbollah's military wing after 1990 violates the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war, which requires the "disbanding of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" and requires the government to "deploy the Lebanese army in the border area adjacent to Israel."

The current tensions may provide Israel with an excuse to demolish the military wing of the party. Meanwhile the G8 leaders currently meeting in St Petersburg, Russia are divided in their response to the crisis. US President Bush has unsurprisingly backed Israel's right to “defend itself” in the same week as the US blocked an Arab-backed UN Security Council resolution demanding Israel halt its simultaneously military operation in the Gaza Strip (which was also started by the kidnapping of an Israel soldier). Russia meanwhile has called Israel’s response “disproportionate” whereas the European members of the G8 have endorsed a EU call for Israel to show restraint.

The most immediate international effect of the crisis is likely to be at the petrol pump. Oil prices hovered above US$78 per barrel yesterday, near record highs, as the intensifying violence prompted concerns of a possible supply disruption.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lashkar-e-Toiba deny responsibility for Bombay bomb

Indian authorities have arrested 350 people in connection with Tuesday’s train bombings in Mumbai. The arrests came as investigators were looking into a possible link with one of the several Kashmiri militant groups fighting for independence from India for the Himalayan region. The blasts, which ripped apart the first-class compartments of two trains, killed at least 183 people and injured another 700. They came just hours after suspected Islamist militants killed eight people, seven of them tourists, in five grenade attacks in Srinagar.

The spotlight of blame fell initially on a Pakistani terrorist group known as Lashkar-e-Toiba, (“Army of the Pure” in Farsi language). They are the armed wing of the Pakistan-based religious organization, Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI)—a Sunni anti-US missionary organization formed in 1989. Their earliest role was as fighters in the Mujahideen resistance against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s. It now has several thousand members in Azad ("Free") Kashmir, Pakistan, and in southern Jammu and Kashmir and Doda regions and in the Kashmir valley. Most of these members are veterans from the Afghan campaign. The L-e-T’s goal now is not just to remove India from the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Lashkar's ‘agenda’, as outlined in a pamphlet titled “Why are we waging jihad” includes the restoration of Islamic rule over all of India.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir where more than 45,000 people have been killed in the Muslim separatist revolt since 1989. Although a peace process has improved relations between India and Pakistan over the past two years, tensions remain, largely over the disputed Himalayan region. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both countries claim the region in full.

Lashkar-e-Toiba (sometimes transliterated as 'Lashkar-e-Taiba') has been blamed for several major attacks in India in recent years, including bomb blasts in New Delhi in October last year which killed more than 60 people. However the group have categorically denied any role in the bomb blasts in Mumbai and described the attacks as "barbaric" and "outrageous”.
"These are inhuman and barbaric acts. Islam does not permit the killing of innocent people," a man who identified himself as "Doctor Ghaznavi", spokesman of the Lashkar-e-Toiba said.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf banned LeT, along with four other Islamic groups, in January 2002 following US pressure in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Jama'at-ud-Da'wah (JUD) is believed to be an LeT front although the JUD have denied it. According to their website the JUD is a “movement that aims to spread the true teachings of Islam”. The JUD is popular in Pakistan for providing free medical care and education for the poor. The leader of the JUD, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed (pictured), is also believed to be the leader of the LeT.

Tuesday’s bombing is the first major terrorist incident in Mumbai since August 2003. In that incident, the city was hit by two powerful car bombs that struck within minutes of each other. The death toll in this incident was 44 and up to 150 people were injured. Lashkar-e-Toiba were blamed for this as well as a string of other attacks in Bombay in the months leading up to the 2003 bombing.

The LeT is financed by its contacts in Saudi Arabia as well as its donation campaigns with overseas Pakistanis, especially middle class and wealthy Punjabis in Britain, Australia and the Middle East. According to Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, Osama bin Laden has also financed LeT activities until recently. Under the banner of JUD, it uses an outreach networks of schools, social service groups and religious publications to attract and train recruits for jihad in Kashmir and elsewhere.

The ultimate goal to impose Sharia Law on India. India has 137 million Muslims, the third largest Muslim country in the world. But that is only 13% of the population and the Hindu majority will never accept Islamic Law. Mumbai has one of the largest populations of Muslims in India and the Bollywood industry stars mostly Muslim actors. The choice of Mumbai as the bombing target is unlikely to be accidental. The so called 'Bombay Riots' of 1992-93 were racially motivated. It is critical now that the city moves back to as normal a footing as quickly as possible so that neither side of extremists can gain traction.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Syd Barrett is dead. The crazy diamond stopped shining on Friday July 7. He was 60 years old. Barrett is best remembered for three years between 1965 and 1968 when he was the singer in the band Pink Floyd. Though his entire recorded output amounted to only three albums, Barrett achieved mythological status in the music industry due to a combination of drug-induced madness, his influence on one of the world’s great bands and a reclusiveness that rivalled Greta Garbo’s.

Roger Keith Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge, England. He was the fourth of five children in a wealthy middle-class family. His father Arthur was a well known pathologist. He and his wife Winifred encouraged their youngest son in his music. At school Barrett acquired the nickname Sid as a reference to a local Cambridge drummer, Sid Barrett. Syd changed the spelling in order to differentiate himself. Inspired by the skiffle craze of the mid-1950s, he took up the ukulele and at 14 had learned guitar. He played with several local groups before gaining a place at London's Camberwell Art College in 1964 to study Fine Art. It was at Camberwell where he met Roger Waters who was studying Architecture.

Pink Floyd were first formed in 1964 and performed under many names such as Sigma 6, The Meggadeaths, The Screaming Abdabs, and The Abdabs. When this band split up, guitarists Bob Klose and Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason, and wind instrument player Rick Wright formed a new band called Tea Set. Syd Barrett, joined the band as guitarist and principal vocals. When Tea Set appeared on the same bill as another band with the same name, Barrett came up with a spontaneous alternative name “The Pink Floyd Sound” (after two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). The word “sound” was quickly dropped and the definite article followed before they released their first album.

Pink Floyd soon changed from a blues band playing the pub and college circuit to a burgeoning psychedelic outfit. The change was chiefly inspired by their leader's discovery of LSD, which had become popular in Britain with teenagers who used morning glory seeds, which contain small quantities of the drug. LSD's hallucinogenic properties provided Barrett with much of his inspiration, and the group was slowly developing a distinctive sound. In 1966, the band debuted at London's Marquee Club. Their innovative technique of layers of howling feedback was well received. They were signed by the management team of Peter Jenner and Andrew King and became house band at the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road, where their frenzied performances and primitive light show garnered much attention.

Barrett was the main songwriter, composing 10 of the 11 songs on their 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. This album cemented the group's reputation as the darlings of London's psychedelic scene. He composed the group's two early hit singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. Arnold Layne was a song about a transvestite Barrett knew in Cambridge. The song broke into the top 20 in March despite a radio ban due to the subject matter. In June, See Emily Play was an even bigger hit for the band reaching number 6 in the charts and getting them a performance on Top of the Pops. The stage was set for the album release in August. The album was critically and commercially acclaimed.

But signs of trouble were already evident by the Summer of 1967. Barrett’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic under the influence of LSD. A series of walkouts and temperamental fits, coupled with the fact that the Floyd's third single Apples and Oranges failed to become a hit, served to hasten his departure from the band. Pink Floyd went on a disastrous US in November supporting Janis Joplin. They were not used to the large American venues and they were not well received. As Tim Willis wrote in the Observer “The crowd weren't into feedback or English whimsy - acid-inspired or not.” Barrett didn’t help by being constantly stoned. It was in the States where his legendary “melting look” was created. After a bad hairdo experience, Barrett was preparing for a show in Santa Monica when he took a tin of Brylcreem and tipped it over his head. As the gunk melted, it slipped down his face until Barrett resembled 'a gutted candle'. When he went on stage it looked like he was decomposing. Girls in the front row screamed, as they saw his lips and nostrils bubbling with Brylcreem! On TV appearances he refused to move his lips or speak or mime.

When the band returned to Europe, they plotted how they would get rid of Barrett. David Gilmour was asked to cover for him on lead guitar. In January 1968 the band had enough and decided not to pick him up on the way to a gig in Southampton. Barrett didn’t immediately accept this and turned up at Floyd gigs expecting to go on stage. He had to be firmly told he was no longer part of the band.

Barrett drifted through the rest of 1968, briefly homeless before returning to Cambridge to live with his mother. Barrett made two solo albums, both released in 1970. Neither the “The Madcap Laughs” (which Melody Maker described as "the mayhem and the madness of the Barrett mind unleashed") nor the follow-up “Barrett” achieved much commercial success. The same year he gave his only solo performance on stage at London’s Olympia. Accompanied by David Gilmour and the drummer Jerry Shirley, he tore through four numbers at breakneck speed before abruptly ending proceedings with a mumbled "Thank you and goodnight". His abrupt exit even took his bandmates by surprise.

Barrett promptly headed back to his hometown. There was only time for a brief stint with a band called Stars in 1972, and some abortive recording sessions in 1974 but essentially he left his music career behind for good. He did achieve wealth during this period thanks to royalties as Pink Floyd became increasingly successful. When he turned up for a reunion with the band in 1975 his shaven-headed, bloated appearance meant that his former bandmates failed to recognise him. At this session, the band played the song “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” written about Barrett including the lyrics: ”Remember when you were young?/You shone like the sun”

He reverted his name to Roger and lived a reclusive existence in Cambridge. In 1991 his mother died and a year later, he turned down a recording contract of half a million from Atlantic Records. His sister continued to look after him at his mother’s house where he spent most of this time painting and writing. The 2002 Pink Floyd platinum retrospective “Echoes” double CD contained many of Barrett’s songs.

He died due to "complications arising from his diabetes".