Been waiting for this one. An absolutely splendorous debut from Patrick Winn, bloviating (almost four hundred pages!), without any monotony, on the intricate, seldom-covered anthro-cosm of modern South Asia & the litany of difficulties, crisis & threats facing this extraordinary region. This is an expanse of stupendous versatility & complexity, much of which gets almost no attention in the international press save the odd incident, – “On the mainland, militaristic Buddhist kingdoms abut a pseudo-communist regime that is, in fact, ravenously capitalistic. All this is half-encircled by a largely Islamic archipelago – one that terminates in islands beholden to the Vatican.” Originally from the southern US, Winn relocated to Bangkok in 2008. His enthusiasm for his adopted geo-strata is very apparent, as is his eagerness to understand & uncover the sprawling multifarious commotions of this richly intricate giant. His in-theater training has prepared him well for this audacious book – “Over the last decade I’ve covered coups, street cuisine, ethnic cleansing, pop-culture fads, and more protests than I can recall. But i’ve always gravitated back to one subject: organized crime. “. And so, meth labs in off-grid jungle hinterland provinces of Myanmar, run by localized militias, funded by Chinese subsidizers & tapped & tolerated by the military regime, spill out stupefying quantities of pink crystal meth with zero obstruction. It’s growing. & with China’s abysmally destructive, great homogenizing cultural-effacement mega infrastructure project the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ and beyond, it’s only going to expand, extradite & empower criminal enterprise. Patrick plunges head-long into the badlands of Myanmar, covering a staggering demographic of actors in this convoluted conundrum – the Kachin rebels, christian anti-drug militia Pat Jasan, addicts, informants, corrupt cops, regime military personnel. There’s even coverage of the notorious river pirate Naw Kham (now deceased after massacring Chinese traders & incurring the vengeance of a Chinese state). The details, interviews, history & observation are off-the-rails… this is first class, excessively attentive journalism at it’s best. 122 pages later & Winn has transmigrated to the Philippines, where macho mass-murdering mayor turned more massively murdering president Rodrigo Duterte is rolling out his death squad pogroms over the din of gutter-expletives. Luckily, that shit-faced son-of-a-whore doesn’t dominate the exposure, as Winn typically bifurcates into other idiosyncrasies & struggling characters in this poverty-wracked quasi-theocracy where unforgiving conditions necessitate the very things that incriminates you (birth control, stimulants – just to make the days slog for standard subsistence in this unforgiving & densely populated nation). The next chapter is “Pyongyang’s Dancing Queens”, which magnifies the allure of the DPRK hostess restaurants that dot southeast asia, sating punters with a fetish for pariah pageantry. This premise explodes into further Korean gallivanting & disclosure (North Korea, sanctioned to shit internationally, has long since resorted to ‘shadowland’ substitution & clandestine economic operations to maintain it’s oxygen reserves). ‘Neon Jihad’ divulges in great detail the full-optics on Thailand’s restless & violent South, where the army has been fighting a growing Islamic insurrection. I have followed with earnest, small scraps of info on this conflict for some time, whenever they can be obtained (very rarely) as little explanation or derivation is ever reported in the international press. Patrick provides the absolute mother-load, reporting from Sungai Golok, interviewing agents on all sides, which culminates in an extraordinary interview with a representative of the violent rebellion itself. The final chapter, Swamp Hounds, jumps to Vietnam & covers the awful dog meat trade. This progresses to the despised ‘trom cho’, a bitterly hated & ultra marginalized sub-group of illegal dog-thieves. Police impotence & corruption has resulted in village vigilantes maiming or mob-killing these deeply abhorred outcasts, resulting in fatal-fights out in remote rice paddies with swords-wielding bike-gangs. What an incredible subject! – pouring with the worst & best of the human spectrum. A truly amazing piece from an already utterly engrossing, both fantastically researched & written book. Subjects that have been neglected, suddenly are pounced-on & thoroughly devoured bones & all. A tidal wave of expertly sifted recondite information on a rarely discussed section of the world.
Beyond fascination & supremely-satisfying intrigue, this is exceptionally important work. Patrick Winn joins a rare brilliance from the likes of Richard Lloyd Parry (In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the edge of chaos, & the much vaunted People Who Eat Darkness) & Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act Of Killing, The Look Of Silence). He accrues testimony form a huge ambit of personnel, with most attention to those that rarely receive any representation, but know the realities better than anyone else. Concerning police/state corruption, the pernicious ramifications (intentional & inadvertent) of capitalism & ‘development’, colonialism, poverty, bullshit-free economics, narcotics & the overwhelming argument for the legalization of drugs, this book proves an essential manuscript. Whats more, his side-door forays into localized history from the countries perspective (specifically murderous aggression from US & European empires), along with exceptional scribe on Queen Victoria’s infamous Opium Trade – imperial state drug-dealing, are also a precious provision for anyone wanting a rigorously informed & diligently researched inquiry into the subjects depths. It’s worth mentioning the excellent Sarah Chayes, who has specialized in corruption & the disastrous military interventions of western regimes in the third world with some of the most compelling writing on the subject (most dramatically in Thieves of State).
One hell of a book.
Icon Books, 2018, 391 pages.