The War on Drugs: Inside South East Asia’s Shadowlands with Journalist Patrick Winn
American investigative Journalist Patrick Winn is no stranger to danger. Since moving to Bangkok in 2008 he has covered countless stories of crime in South East Asia, infiltrating gangs and speaking with those involved in the criminal underworld. In his fantastic new book Hello, Shadowlands, Patrick details the war on drugs ravaging parts of South East Asia such as the methamphetamine epidemic in Myanmar, Burma and shines a light on other criminal activity taking place within the region, telling stories through the characters whose lives have been directly affected by the issues. We spoke to him recently about his unique experiences covering the problemed areas of South East Asia’s shadowlands.
The MALESTROM: You start the book by writing about how you want to share these stories of compelling characters, there are some incredible characters that you’ve met on your different journeys…
Patrick Winn: My overall goal is to tell the story of a place, but of course I don’t want to tell it in an academic way or a dry way and I think the only way for people to relate to all these different crises and phenomenon’s going on in these places, that they might already know very little about, for them to get their heads around it, is to tell the story of an individual or individuals and hopefully that helps carry it through.
TM: What is it about organised crime that interests you so much?
PW: For starters, when I landed in South East Asia I didn’t set out to write about organised crime, it just sort of happened. I was drawn to people who’d been forced to make really gruelling decisions, people who were sort of at a crossroads and had to decide am I going to take a major risk to have, what in their opinion would be, a better circumstance, more money coming in, protecting their families, protecting their communities, in the case of Burma, against armed occupation. And I would always be interested in the people that said “ok, screw it, I’m going to break the law, I’m going to break the rules to do what I need to do”.
And I don’t mean to sound like anyone who has ever indulged in crime has made the right decision, they might just be compelled by greed, or they might be swept into it by their families, but I was always interested in that decision. I’m from a small town in the US and we don’t know much about South East Asia there, it’s not really taught in school, so It’s easy to create an image of people there, especially those who are in the underworld, so menacing, or often as the media portray them as deranged madmen. So I really wanted to show people that if you meet these men or women you’ll come to a point where you think, yeah, I would have done that too, I would have sold methamphetamine too, I would have become a vigilante too. That’s where I wanted to get to.
TM: You make it clear that as in life there’s no black or white, many of these people have turned to crime because it was an enforced choice. It’s not something they necessarily wanted to go into…
PW: I think overwhelmingly those who traffic drugs or are sex workers, or even jihadis, probably would have preferred a different outcome. Meaning, if they could just go to work and have a 9 to 5 and get everything they need to be happy that way, almost inevitably they’d have taken that route, as their lives are quite uncomfortable.
TM: One of the themes that crops up throughout the book is the sheer levels of corruption inside the law, be it the police, the military. It’s rife it seems…
PW: It’s interesting, I’m over in the UK in Sheffield and I just went into Waterstones to see if they had my book. The first place I looked was the true crime shelf because I thought that’s where they would put it. True Crime is this genre that fixates on the deranged, killers, mafia or whatever. And the police officer is often the hero, chasing evil in the darkness. (Laughs) I have to laugh because It’s quite the opposite of my portrayal, the police are often not the good guys, certainly not the people you turn to when it comes to uprooting crime because they are so utterly enmeshed in crime, acting essentially as protection rackets. There’s no successful crime ring in South East Asia that does not have some links to the police, you simply wouldn’t last very long. Those that don’t have those relationships with police or military officers will fail because their rivals will form those relationships and will succeed in their place.
TM: At one point when you spent time with a missionary for drug rehab, one guy told you about the military trying to subdue the population with drugs. Do you think there’s reality in that?
PW: That’s a really good question. In that region, the methamphetamine heartland of South East Asia, up in the Northern hills of Myanmar, this is a place where you can stop people in the street and they will tell you that indeed there is a conspiracy theory, the reason that drugs are allowed to circulate so freely in these areas because the central state wants to erode the power of minorities, they want to tame a rebellion, they want to use needles instead of guns to stop people resisting. I’m not convinced there was ever a meeting at the Myanmar military headquarters where they said, “this is our plan”. They were never going to take addiction seriously because there’s warfare going on in that region, what occupying force goes in and sets up a load of clinics and rehabilitation centres for the people that they’re trying to undermine?
So I think that the circulation of drugs is kind of a happy accident, I just don’t think they care about these people enough in order to do much. In much more affluent societies in the United States, there’s an inadequate response to addiction and there’s no warfare going on, so this is something that governments aren’t too great at around the world. I just don’t think they care enough.
TM: One shocking thing coming out of the book was that Myitkyina University (in Northern Myanmar), had syringe depositaries in its bathroom due to the levels of drugs being use, that seems incredible…
PW: Yeah. I made several attempts to get inside that university to see it for myself because I’d seen so many photos. This was something that a lot of people in that area had seen as a bridge too far. Had you seen these photos of the syringe depositary in the universities? That was held up as a big tragedy to me. Look how bad it’s gotten, if the college kids are using heroin at school, what hope do we have? It’s tough enough to become a college student at the university, most of the people from that remote area, have little electricity, and are perhaps a long way from the nearest paved road, the university is held in very high esteem. The university itself is under the control of the Burmese government because there’s no way of having a functioning institution in a war-torn rebel-controlled area. So it was just held up as a really tragic symbol of what had gone wrong.
TM: Was it odd for you, in terms of the research you did, sitting around watching all these strangers do drugs, was that a weird experience?
PW: I was nervous, but not for the reason you might think. I was never actually worried about the drug users because I could tell they had no ill will against me. In every chapter, I do my best to make it seem like I haven’t just flopped down into a country where I might not know the language, which is every country apart from Thailand and Laos, and I just magically start meeting people. I’ve tried to include my local colleagues, journalists that I worked with on the ground who got me to those places. One country in which I was not fully able to explain why I was given access to those places was Myanmar.
There’s a person there with whom I worked very closely who I just cannot risk their safety at all by mentioning them in the narrative. I was primarily worried about my colleague, if the police come in and there’s heroin use and meth use going on I have a feeling that I would be deported and not see the inside of a prison, but the people who brought me there, who care so much about getting these stories out, they would most likely face a different outcome if I couldn’t quickly bribe the police. So when I was in the opium den or with the meth addicts I had quite a lot of US dollars on me, around $600, just thinking I could throw that at the problem and make it go away. I’m comfortable being around drug users, even those who are quite seriously addicted. Millions of people who are reading this in the past month will have been around drug use themselves, for example in their local pub, drugs are everywhere. You don’t have to go to South East Asia to be among people using drugs, and because they were from this embattled ethnicity that did not make them more menacing to me.
TM: You mentioned the opium den just before, that was quite a hairy situation where you raised some suspicions by not taking the pipe and then you were sort of forced into it from the guy from the military…
PW: I am a walking suspicion in that area, It’s uncommon to see people with my face. So if you put me in a situation like that inside of an opium den where there’s an army officer, a doctor not a soldier, sitting there using drugs… I just got the vibe It was going to be better for everyone if they had their little moment where I was implicated too through using. I didn’t pick up that pipe with glee or excitement, I didn’t want to be high because I wanted all my faculties. If I was on holiday on a beach somewhere maybe it would be a different story, at the time I wanted all my wits about me and so I probably didn’t get the full experience because in an echo of what Bill Clinton said in the 90s “I barely inhaled” (laughs). It was just enough to get them to be “yeah, alright, he’s cool.”
TM: One of the big moments in the book was when you rode out on motorbikes with the religious anti-drug vigilantes Pat Jasan. That must have been quite a heart in the mouth moment? There was initial excitement when you set off with them though…
PW: There was, because just hanging out with these vigilantes, they’re perfectly pleasant people and despite what they were doing, which was going out in the night with a list of drug users, pulling people out of their homes, beating them, putting them in what amount to secret prisons in far off churches in remote neighbourhoods – ok that sounds really terrifying – but I don’t think these vigilantes are malicious, meaning they weren’t going out to rob people or exploit people, they really beleived that they were helping them. And that made it difficult for me to draw a moral line in the sand, I really just had to be an observer.
I still can’t bring myself to depict them in menacing terms, I just came away thinking, well if you let drug lords produce massive amounts of methamphetamine and heroin in a wartorn area, right in someone’s backyard and they have some sort of over the top reaction to that then what do you expect? They just want to feel like they have some sort of control over the situation and about the only thing they can do is beat up drug users. That’s awful, it’s exactly what I’m against, I don’t want people who use drugs to be beaten, or terrified, or thrown in cages and yet… that’s what it was, so I just did my best to document it.
TM: It’s a shame with all the resources in the region, as you mention in the book, with the jade and the hills filled with poppies, that the wealth goes to so few rather than the many who need it in the region…
PW: This is not the Gobi desert, or a middle of nowhere place with no resources, there are plenty of resources, there are plenty of minerals in the ground, it’s a lush place, so easy to grow food and farm. This is a place that could have a really strong economy on par with Thailand if not better, so the crisis and the chaos that effects Myanmar is political in nature, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can really trace it back to the British Empire and having these cartographers just draw lines around this country and say “ok you all belong to a single territory”, we’ve seen around the world the pain and the trauma and the warfare that causes, in the Middle East as well. So they’re still dealing with that, you have this nation-state that doesn’t entirely make sense with its current borders and it’s just priming people for conflict. So if these societies were allowed to develop without colonial intervention I can imagine that they could be quite prosperous.
TM: Another situation that seemed quite tragic was that in Manila. How did those visits make you feel?
PW: I’m not sure to what degree the casual newsreader from around the world is aware of the war on drugs in the Phillipenes, I think a lot of people have heard of it, I try to put it into context in the book. You have a war on methamphetamine users and dealers, who are often the same people, that has killed more people than were killed in the worst mass killing in Europe following the Holocaust, and that’s in Bosnia Srebrenica, so I’m trying to put this in context for people, this weird drug war, we don’t usually compare them to atrocities in war as we traditionally understand it, but the death toll is just as severe.
So what I wanted to do there is to find someone who was being hunted by the police in this war and tell their story and that’s how I ended up talking to a woman named Karen who had chosen to sell methamphetamine to support her four kids and was now literally being hunted by police kill squads. I got an update on her situation a few months ago and nothing had really changed, I worry about her a lot, I worry I’ll just never find out what happened to her and we’ll completely lose touch.
TM: That concern must be echoed with all the other people you’ve spoken to…
PW: Yeah, I mean if you were to go through the book and ask me what’s happening to this person or that person I might be able to tell you about 20% of the time, but often I’ve spent a week or so with them and then there’s no more communication. The way that I even contact people, as there is often a language barrier, is through this network of colleagues who are working throughout the region and they’ll often have an inkling about what’s happened to someone I profile, but often I just entirely lose touch.
TM: What would you say is the scariest situation you’ve found yourself in? The party town of Sungai Golok? where jihadis were attacking seemed scary, not that you came across as worried in the book…
PW: It’s interesting what makes people afraid, I don’t lay awake at night worrying about physical violence. I’m a total wimp and I can’t fight, so it’s not because I think I could fend off any problems, It just doesn’t scare me. I lay awake at night thinking about going to prison or getting somebody else in trouble and ruining their life, that really informs the precautions that I take. So when I was in this town Golok there was a bombing spree, I couldn’t even get into it in the book, but that night there were multiple bombs going off throughout this border town and it just happened that one of them went off near my hotel and as soon as I heard the boom I thought, I know what that is! I looked out of a window of the hotel and saw that one car in the street was just lit up in flames and I just started running towards it. It’s really not advisable.
I don’t know if I would do that today but I was on an adrenaline high and thought, this is what I’m here for. Indeed there was a woman killed by shrapnel and the military and the police responded extremely quickly because it’s so fortified they’re on every corner in these cities to protect against this thing. I kind of took my cue from the soldiers and the local residents and they were not so much scared as angry. If they were freaking out I would have been freaking out, but I was able to tap into their way of living. That was scary in a surreal sort of way, but it’s not the scariest situation I’ve ever been in. It won’t carry the same resonance but this is a story not in the book.
It was an encounter with human traffickers in a Thai port town called Samut Sakhon, there were guys that I was meeting that had first-hand experience with keeping Burmese guys on fishing boats and not paying them, essentially enslaving them and lording over them if they resisted in any way, often hurting them. Just sitting with these guys who were very hardened and telling their story that actually freaked me out more than anything cause it felt like I was in the presence of a lot of trauma and these people were the ones doling out the trauma, it felt very prickly. It’s not as good as a story but when I think of the time I was most uncomfortable, that was it.
TM: One of the most uneasy chapters in the book has to be when you look into the dog thieves who steal and sell dogs for meat and you go to that slaughterhouse.
PW: So that scene is probably the most nauseated I’ve ever felt. It’s a different emotion, it’s zero fear, all visceral discomfort. I’ve just had an English breakfast and I wouldn’t like to see the inside of the slaughterhouse that produced my breakfast, which is pure hypocrisy, I probably would have had a similar reaction to that as well. I wanted to walk through the scene and then present to you the person that was carrying it out, he was just doing his job, he’s not really doing anything that multi-national corporations don’t do when they’re producing our breakfast and that’s just the way it is.
TM: There’s a whole chapter on North Korean hostesses, you have a small window into the North Korean world. What are your thoughts on the current situation, their relationship with the world and America?
PW: Since I wrote that chapter I’ve spent even more time with North Korean defectors and other experts in South Korea and I have this overwhelming sense that the team around Kim Jong Un are really excellent diplomats, masters. I have my doubts about the American diplomatic skills, the United States has not marshalled all of the diplomatic talent that it could to bring to the situation.
Since we’re talking about the underworld, there’s a number of things that North Korea can do via the underworld if things go bad from these negotiations, which could very well happen, if not now in the next six months. Let’s say there is a total breakdown, one of the things North Korea can do if it sees that sanctions are going to remain, it can hack banks online. I didn’t really get into this in the book, but North Korea they’ve become some of the world’s best bank robbers, and they’re doing it entirely online. They’ve attacked well-known banks in the States, like Wells Fargo and a lot of banks in South East Asia as well. So if they feel the screws are tightening they can try and make up for the money that they are losing in sanctions through robbery.
As for the characters that appear in that chapter, the female hostesses that they send around the world, the outcome of these negotiations effects their fate, as it is currently the screws that have been tightened on these guest workers and even China have sent a lot of them home, they need money, they need foreign currency really badly and they have all sorts of extremely clever ways to get it. Many of which are not entirely legal, so they can ramp those things up if it goes bad. If things are going good, who knows? They would prefer to make money just selling coal and fish legally, so they won’t need this stuff as much.
TM: Just going back to this ongoing war on drugs. If you could put some things in place to try and change the situation as it is now, what would you try and do?
PW: Ok, so step one is the most obvious one, any government in this region or around the world like in the United States, if they encounter drug use, don’t have the police shoot them in the head, which is what happens in the Philippines and don’t throw them in a cage, not just for a week, don’t throw them in a cage at all like they do in countries like Thailand where for a little bit of methamphetamine you can end up in prison for many years, it creates a huge blotch on their records, which is true in many countries. That’s step one, I think every country has to have a serious think about whether it wants to go down the decriminalisation route, where you’re still going to have people using drugs, or whether it wants to go down the legalisation route, you’re most likely to see that tactic in Europe.
There are places in South East Asia, believe it or not, where this is being taken quite seriously, and there’s actually some good news from Thailand, where very important people within the justice framework are looking at the United States’ drug war method as a total failure and they’ve come out and said that and they’re working from within to change things. It hasn’t happened yet, but they’re really inspired by states like California and Colorado who’ve legalised this once forbidden drug marijuana, and they’re thinking can we do that with methamphetamine? That’s what 90% of our drug users are taking. So it’s going to be patchy, the Philippines is going to continue to be in chaos for quite some time, Thailand, fingers crossed, might turn the corner in not being so cruel and unrelenting to drug users. But even since I’ve written the book there are the beginnings of a drug war in Bangladesh, so that patch is getting worse now too. I think it’s going to vary by country. So I think it’s about decriminalisation and if the society is willing to tolerate it some form of legalisation would be good. But it’s not for me to say, I’m not a voter in any South East Asian country, people have to want this, it has to come from within.
TM: You’ve painted a certain picture of the area and the places you’ve been. What would you say to those looking to travel to these countries?
PW: The worst thing that I could hear from a reader is “I bought your book and now I can’t go on holiday”. If I write about the mafia in Sicily, are you then going to cancel your holiday in Venice? I hope not. Often people don’t know this part of the world well, so they confuse the countries, and the places that are involved in organised crime are often very far away from the tourist trail. These places are not close, so if you hear about something going on in the Philippines, don’t cancel your holiday to Vietnam and furthermore, it shouldn’t stop you from going to the Phillippines. This is one of the most interesting parts of the world, one of the most populous and the fastest growing economies. In the West, it’s our responsibility to do a better job of understanding it and if we don’t, we will be left behind. I have chosen to talk about organised crime but that does not define the region. Put it this way, I would much rather go to the roughest area in Bangkok than the roughest area in America.
TM: We always like to ask for a piece of wisdom you might have picked up along your way. Does anything come to mind?
PW: I was always the guy who would say “I’m bad at languages, hopeless with them”. But it’s a total cop-out. I know a lot of people feel that are native English speakers, that think they couldn’t learn Spanish or Chinese or Japanese, but I would really encourage people. If they’re young especially in their early 20s, to get out and if you’re lucky enough to go, spend some time, not as a traveller in one of these countries that I profile, but try to live there for a while if you can. Really devote yourself to learning the language, because it will really change your brain, it will make the full array of potential thoughts and ways of seeing the world open up in a way that can’t happen if you just stick with your native language. When you’re young it comes to you a lot easier, but maybe that’s another cop-out (laughs).
Get your copy of the gripping read that is Hello, Shadowlands: Inside South East Asia’s Organized Crimewave by Patrick Winn HERE.