Weekend reads: How Asean workers are caught in the fray of Hong Kong

👻 plus some spooky, scary reads 👻

Hello friends!

This is a chunky one. What app do you use for this? I’m a huge Pocket fan, but the explore page is always 2 minute reads about some ~productivity hack that boils down to ‘read books and do podomoro technique’ and is very dull. 

If you’d like to sign up to the premium Dari Mulut ke Mulut, do so here for $6 a month or $60 for the year:

See you next week!
Erin Cook


🇹🇭 Did the Heir to the Red Bull Empire Get Away with Murder? (The Walrus)

In Thailand, the Red Bull heir alleged murder of 2012 is kinda old news but every now and then it gets the foreigner treatment. I love when this happens because it is truly compelling and says so freaking much about a country which has the widest inequality gap in the world. I think it’s grotty enough for me to now formally quit my worst vice — sugar-free Red Bulls.

For victims’ families, the consequences of impunity and corruption are far more visceral. The disparity that exists in Thailand can be seen when looking at Boss’s life in relation to that of Sergeant Major Wichean Glanprasert, the man who was killed.


🇲🇲 After the gold rush, fierce competition in Myanmar's telecoms sector (Frontier Myanmar)

Myanmar’s telcos was once a mainstay of the regular Dari Mulut ke Mulut, with quick moves in the sector changing business but, far more vitally, how society interacts. Ooredoo was one firm that looked set to dominate. But now the Qatari-government enterprise is facing a very Burmese pushback: Islamophobia. 

In 2010, a SIM card from the state-run monopoly Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) cost US$1,500. Today, MPT and its competitors sell them for $1, and the International Telecommunication Union puts SIM card penetration at 114 percent in 2018. Competition is fierce: 1GB of data is typically less than 70 US cents, making Myanmar one of the most affordable places for phone use in Asia.


🇲🇲 ‘Nobody Is Coming to Help Us’ (The Atlantic)

It’s becoming very clear that there are only two options for the Rohingya of Cox’s Bazar, neither of them safe or permanent. Stay in Bangladesh as their host government fractures under stress and the rest of the world moves on to the next humanitarian disaster, or return home to Rakhine State where safety will never be guaranteed. The Atlantic looks at this stress from the perspective of 44-year-old teacher turned community leader Mohib Ullah. 

This relative unwillingness to criticize either the Myanmar or Bangladesh government—seen by UN agencies as necessary to preserve relationships with the two countries so that they continue to allow them to carry out relief work—has rankled Rohingya leaders such as Ullah, who argue that the language of international politics and humanitarianism is instead being used to mask inaction.


🇮🇩 Where China fits in Jokowi’s plan for Indonesia’s US$33 billion new capital city (SCMP)

After President Jokowi announced his intention to move the seat of the capital from Jakarta to a newly made city in Kalimantan most responded with bemusement (he wouldn’t be the first to say it!), but now it seems like it really is going ahead. SCMP looks at how those living in the region feel about the huge announcement and how Chinese money fits into the expensive equation.

Not all residents of East Kalimantan are happy with Jokowi’s decision. Imam Suhadha from Tenggarong, for example, is worried about the increase in Indonesia’s foreign debt to fund the relocation, as well as the potentially higher cost of living in the province.

“I think there are more losses than benefits from the decision. The government will have to sell national assets and borrow money to fund the construction of the new capital,” said the 21-year-old, an administrator at a coal mining company. “With the capital moving here, I also fear that prices of goods and health care would skyrocket and poor people wouldn’t be able to afford them.”


🇰🇭 A digital echo of the Khmer Rouge haunts phones in Cambodia (Coda Story)

“Angkar has the many eyes of a pineapple,” one Cambodian man who was young during the days of the Khmer Rouge says of the regime’s intelligence operations. The Cambodian government today is no Khmer Rouge, but there are chilling similarities, not least of all the reemergence of the digital Angkar, known as Seiha.

Enter Seiha, a modern upgrade to Angkar that listens to phone conversations, intercepts text messages, which it feeds back to Hun Sen. Originally a little-known Facebook page, Seiha rose to notoriety in 2016 when the page began hosting recordings of secretly leaked phone calls. Seiha played a crucial role in attacks on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition party, exposing internal conflicts, sex scandals, and allegedly “defamatory” criticisms of the government. Seiha’s message reached even wider audiences when it became a mainstay of government propaganda machine, Fresh News, a highly-ranked news site. Videos posted on Seiha’s page were immediately redistributed by Fresh News, reaching an audience of millions.


🇸🇬 A local’s guide to Singapore (Washington Post)

Singapore reminds me a lot of Canberra. People not from Canberra always dumb stuff about how it sucks and how it’s boring and what a bummer I didn’t grow up in Sydney (ha!) and I used to pushback saying EXCUSE ME if you grew up there and had friends all the secrets would be revealed. People also say this about Singapore. If you’re not as lucky as me to have so many Singaporean friends, you can just pretend you and Washington Post’s Shibani Mahtani are besties (I do it all the time!) and let her tip you off. 

Please, no chewing-gum jokes. Yes, its sale is banned, except for dental and nicotine varieties. No, you won’t get fined for chewing it. (You will see Singaporeans jaywalking without fear of fines or canings. We aren’t that straight-laced.)


🇹🇭 He Acquitted 5 Men of Murder, Then Shot Himself (New York Times)

The suicide attempt of Kanakorn Pianchana, a judge in the Southern Thailand province of Yala, disappeared quietly from the headlines amid royal dramas, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Kanakorn shot himself in court after reading a 25 page document outlining how he’d been pressured to sentence five Muslim men to death over a murder he said had not enough evidence.

“My words might be as light as a bird’s feather but my heart is as heavy as a mountain,” he said as the defendants and their families looked on. “Return the verdicts to the judges. Return the justice to the people.”


🇮🇩 Could This Tree Be An Eco-Friendly Way To Wean Indonesian Farmers Off Palm Oil? (NPR)

Indonesia’s palm oil industry might be in trouble with boycott campaigns across the world, but that won’t stop deforestation. Indonesians in Sumatra and Kalimantan who work on palm plantations will just move on to a different crop, goes the common wisdom. But could damar be the solution?

The forest where Marhana harvests damar in South Sumatra is pretty much Indonesia's poster child for the strength of agroforests versus deforestation. In the 1990s, when the palm oil industry came in and tried to persuade locals to cut down their damar trees, it didn't work. The majority of farmers stuck with damar. Around this time, Indonesia's forestry minister decided to formally grant the community ownership of several thousand hectares of woods.


🇸🇬 Mandarin Was Never Our Mother Tongue. Here’s Why This Matters (Rice Media)

This is truly, madly, deeply one of my favourite reads of the year. The region’s languages and its histories are fascinating, but I always find myself attracted to Singapore specifically. Something about Singlish just really gets to me. This piece looks at the history of how Mandarin came to dominate the city, even if it’s mythology is historically inaccurate.

Singapore, in its own race toward efficiency, underwent a parallel process of simplification between 1969 and 1993. The process began with the Ministry of Education’s release of simplified character charts, and ended with the 1993 update of identification documents. Our eventual simplified Chinese characters were made to match those decided upon in China. 

As a result, communications between mainland China and Singapore were prioritised over relations with places like Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and certain coastal Chinese districts. The Singaporean government settled on a “Use simplified, recognise traditional” (用简识繁 yòng jiǎn shì fán) approach to deal with this disparity. 


🇹🇱 Betting on black (Southeast Asia Globe)

Oil is supposed to be Timor-Leste’s golden ticket into prosperity. Experts, both Timorese and abroad, have long raised the alarm that it will unlikely to be enough. Which raises the scary question that even after securing the Greater Sunrise fields, how long will it last?

Timor-Leste is gambling on a straightforward solution to its future financial woes: it will successfully find the estimated $16 billion needed to finance the Greater Sunrise onshore development plan, including a pipeline across the Timor Sea, and that oil will start flowing before Bayu-Undan stops producing.


🇵🇭 Understanding Filipino youth culture through regional cinema (Scout)

I love Scout’s lede on this! There’s no one Filipino youth, across the archipelago to be young and Filipino looks different everywhere. But regional cinema gives us an insight into those different perspectives. Read AND watch this, some real talents coming out of the Philippines! 

Honing his passion for queer filmmaking, this young Rizaleño’s thesis film explores life as a gay teenager below the poverty line. “I wrote ‘Kontrolado ni Girly’ as a journey from the province to the city. We shot it in San Mateo and in Brgy. Batasan, which is right in the middle of San Mateo and Quezon City,” he explains. “It shows how the rural youth, personified by Girly in the film, seeks a brighter future in the city—and how the city and life’s realities challenge this dream.”


🇱🇦 How Laos lost its tigers (Mongabay)

Laos has lost its tigers and probably its panthers. Snares are likely to blame, experts say. While they’re typically set for the kind of animal hunted for food — deer and the like — tigers had frequently fallen prey. As numbers dwindled and conservationists feared the worst in the early 2000s, money came in to protect what was left but was way too little way, way too late. But this sad one ends on an optimistic note.

Conservationists, and journalists, can get blinkered by their obsession with tigers, but, in fact, even though the investment was “too late, too late” for leopards and tigers, it’s likely had a major role in maintaining other animal populations in Laos’s largest protected area.

Johnson said other species “definitely benefited” from tiger funding as her research in 2016 showed an increase in ungulates in the park. Meanwhile, many threatened Asian animals still inhabit the park, including dholes (Cuon alpinus), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), gaur (Bos gaurus), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), Owston’s palm civet (Chrotogale owstoni), as well as several primate and otter species.


🇮🇩 This Indonesian village thrives on American trash. Its future is bleak (LA Times)

I am lowkey mad LA Times’ Southeast Asia coverage is going from strength to strength. Another paywall I need to pass! But it truly is worth it for pieces like this. The Western rubbish stories have drifted off in the last month or so, but LA Times is here to add some much-needed nuance. 

Since June, Indonesian officials have sent more than 330 containers of waste back to where they came from — including at least 148 to the United States — because the shipments violated laws against importing household trash or hazardous materials. Hundreds more containers have been seized and are under investigation.

Environmentalists cheered the news. Residents of Bangun had a different reaction.

“Waste from the U.S. means jobs here,” said Wahyudi, who once employed 20 workers to sort trash outside his green-painted house, paying them about $3.50 per day.


🇭🇰🇮🇩🇵🇭 Domestic workers search for rights amid pro-democracy protests (Al Jazeera)

Reporting from Hong Kong out this way have typically meant one thing — Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers hanging out in the park on Sundays. But with everything that’s going on now, it’s a different story. While Hong Kongers are fighting for their freedoms, domestic workers are stuck in the middle and suffering for it. 

But Maricel, 26, was almost three hours late for a curfew imposed by the family she worked for. 

Her boss fired her on the spot by phone. She tried to get a taxi home but found none because the protests had disrupted traffic, so she stayed at a friend's house overnight. 

The next day, Marciel's boss wouldn't let her inside to take her belongings and said she would pack them herself and take them to the employment agency


🇹🇱 Barlarke in Today’s Timor-Leste (New Naratif)

Barlake is a tradition in Timor-Leste is akin to dowry, but mutually exchanged and more about tying families together. Now, there’s questions about its continued role in modern Timor and how the practice will shift for generations ahead. This is truly excellent reporting that we really get to read from Timor-Leste, so thanks to Sophie Raynor for writing it and New Naratif for ensuring it gets out there.

“To understand what’s going on with barlake, you have to understand the social transformation in a wider way in society,” she says. “Since independence, the number of people in waged work has increased, and young people are becoming more independent from their families to bring together the resources needed for barlake. There’s [a new] individualism, which is a big change. It’s a consequence of the significant monetisation of Timorese society.”


🇸🇬 Explainer: How the food that Singaporeans eat contributes to climate change (Today)

Singapore and food is always a guaranteed good read, but this is a little different. Singaporeans need to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions produced by the city’s brilliant food culture, but how do we do that? Pork has a huge carbon footprint from being shipped in from further abroad than beef. But that’s just the start, not all meats are created equally. 

If business were to go on as usual and locally produced food in Singapore remains at below 10 per cent in the year 2030, but the population grows to 6.7 million, the environmental impact would be great, the researchers said.

The per capita greenhouse gas emissions would remain the same as in 2018, but the absolute or total greenhouse gas emissions for food in Singapore would increase by 19 per cent compared to last year, because of population growth. 


🇸🇬 The nun who walks death row inmates to the gallows (BBC)

Singapore is keeping its death sentences very quiet now. But Sister Gerard Fernandez made sure the condemned wouldn’t suffer alone. For 40 years she counselled detainees and their families through the process and I’m adding her to my list of incredible women I feel lucky to have learnt about.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the mother of a drug trafficker said the nun was a positive influence in her late son's life.

"Sister Gerard never judged him or gave up," she said, adding that she saw a huge change in his attitude. "His anger and resentment transformed into acceptance and remorse."

The elderly cleaner added: "She was very kind and was also there for me when I did not know what to do or how to feel."


🇵🇭 What It’s Like to Be a Witch in Deeply Catholic Philippines (VICE)

I’m not usually one to go for the witch-y stuff. But combining Catholicism and deep traditional roots, ooh I’m in! VICE speaks with two young witches and takes a look at how it might have some heritage in the country after all.

And, despite the taboo placed on witches in the Philippines, witchcraft is actually part of Filipino culture. Small towns often have their own albularyo or shamans who use witchcraft to heal and exorcise demons for money.

“Filipinos, even if they deny it, are actually practicing a lot of rituals which have roots in what one would consider traditional witchcraft: praying to saints, offering food on All Souls Day, etc,” Rebuyas said.


🇹🇭 From Village to Airplane Cabin: How Thai Ghosts Evolve Alongside the Living (Khao Sod English)

It is safe to say I am not so quietly obsessed with the ghosts of Asean and what it tells us about each country or community. So I was all over this one! Thai film professor Pilan Poonyaprapha watched over 200 spooky locally-made films to untangle what scares Thai people and why.

“Similar to when they are alive, elder ghosts are respected due to their seniority. People believe that elder souls rest in peace, so they are treated as guardians,” Pilan said. “Child souls normally possess objects because they are too weak to manifest themselves. They are also benign since they are still pure and innocent.”


🇵🇭 Americans, look to the Philippines to see a dystopian future created by social media (LA Times)

It’s Maria Ressa, what more do you want! In this LA Times op-ed she lays out the facts for American readers that what happened (and is happening) in the Philippines by way of social media and attacks on journalism could happen there, or in any democracy. But she’s still remarkably optimistic. 

The Philippine Constitution, which is patterned after the U.S. Constitution with a Bill of Rights, guarantees freedom of the press. But as the wheels have begun to come off our democracy, the laws meant to protect us have been turned against us.

If you’re American, look to us to see a dystopian future. Still, I believe there is a way to avoid our fate.


🇹🇭Soup's On! And On! Thai Beef Noodle Brew Has Been Simmering For 45 Years (NPR)

Do not read this if you’re hungry, you’ll either order a surely-not-as-good beef noodle from somewhere nearby or book a flight to Bangkok. Wattana Panich in the Ekkamai neighborhood (are Bangkok neighbourhoods never not referred to as ‘trendy’?) has been stewing away for generations and keeping hungry Bangkokers satiated for just as long. 

"Lots of people think we never clean the pot," he says. "But we clean it every evening. We remove the soup from the pot, then keep a little bit simmering overnight."

It's that little bit, he says, that forms the stock of the next day's soup. So, yes, at least a taste of what you put in your mouth is 45 years old and counting.

"Since my grandfather's time, we've never really had a set recipe about how much of each ingredient to put in," Nattapong says. "So the person making the soup will constantly have to taste it to know what needs to be added."