Hello, Shadowlands
by Patrick Winn
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★★★★★

Non-fiction books about organised crime have a particularly loyal band of readers. With a few exceptions (Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah [2006], Ioan Grillo’s El Narco [2011]), I haven’t enjoyed many of them. But Patrick Winn’s Hello, Shadowlands is so addictive that it has me chasing down everything else he has written.

Subtitled Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia, this page-turner is as much an homage to the people of the region, and their adaptability and heroism in the face of extreme odds, as it is an exposé of a criminal underworld worth US$100 billion a year.

If you think you know all about, say, Myanmar’s drug trade, Thailand’s sex industry or Asia’s consumption of dog meat, think again. Winn, an award-winning, American-born, Bangkok-based journalist, overturns many preconceptions and probes much little-known terrain.

For example, how often do you read that, running parallel to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, a second, equally brutal war is being waged by an all-male Catholic priesthood against women seeking to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies in that country?

What an American in Southeast Asia learned about organised crime

Hello, Shadowlands was born in part from Winn’s frustration at the way parts of Southeast Asia are portrayed by Western media. To that end, it reads like a vibrant travel narrative, but not one you’ve read before. Winn has the ability to take the reader with him on his journeys into places that few travellers will ever see.

Still, if you’re after a forensic accounting of the kind of stomach-churning violence that characterises Mexico’s drug wars, Winn cautions you may be disappointed.

Not that he shies away from depicting violence – be it in his account of his journey deep into Myanmar’s Kachin state, where Christian vigilantes are engaged in a kind of holy war on methamphetamine, or on the streets of Sungai Golok, a Thai town on the border with Malaysia and a heavily fortified out­post of Thailand’s multibillion-dollar prostitution industry that thrives in the face of regular bombings by Islamic insurgents.

[Winn] is also a master of the quick, ironic and illuminating aside. In a chapter on Myanmar’s meth trade, he likens the country’s mission of wiping out meth and heroin to “Kellogg’s vowing to rid the world of cornflakes”

Winn witnesses one such bombing and its grisly after­math in this strange red-light district, located in a region that has racked up more conflict deaths than the Gaza strip in the past dozen or so years. This statistic ensures that Thailand, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, also appears on the United States government’s list of the 10 countries with the most terrorist attacks.

Winn has a keen eye for paradoxes. He is quick to note that, unlike Thailand’s other red-light zones, the clients for Sungai Golok’s prostitutes come from across the border in Muslim Malaysia’s Kelantan province. Many of those he talks to – “men with greedy appetites” – are happy to gamble with their lives as they seek pleasures forbidden by Islam.

He is also a master of the quick, ironic and illuminating aside. In a chapter on Myanmar’s meth trade, he likens the country’s mission of wiping out meth and heroin to “Kellogg’s vowing to rid the world of cornflakes”. Nor can he resist slipping in a factoid about former US president Barack Obama’s 2014 visit to Myanmar, during which he stayed at the Kempinski, a hotel co-owned by a firm caught shipping bricks of heroin to Taiwan. But what most characterises his narrative is a compulsion to understand the forces that drive well-meaning people to live outside the law; his desire to capture what he calls “a twinkle of their humanity”.

Winn acknowledges his own country’s role in bringing “so much mechanised death to the region” and the hypocritical moralising tone it adopts in its diplomacy with Southeast Asian countries. He also drily notes that this is likely to change under an administration set on gutting foreign aid and “which believes that fretting over human dignity is an ‘obstacle’ to America’s business interests”.

As Winn examines some of Southeast Asia’s key 21st-century criminal underworlds and engages with their diverse characters, he explains how the West helped shape them and highlights how the “tremors of history” can sometimes warp lives for centuries, such as those of women in the Philippines seeking to prevent or termi­nate unwanted pregnancies.

Winn admits to an obsession with organised crime in Southeast Asia, declaring the region to be entering a “golden age” of criminality. This “hypothesis of sorts” emerged after a decade of reporting in the region on everything from coups and ethnic cleansing to street food and pop culture, as well as organised crime.

One main factor he cites as spur­ring this “golden age” is the migration of millions of people from farming hinterlands to cities in pursuit of the Asian dream – “a far more modest dream than its American counterpart” – and the enormous obstacles they must overcome.

Big demand for Asia’s ‘crazy medicine’ amid Rakhine crisis

Most of these migrants end up in servitude. Many, such as a woman named Bam working in a Sungai Golok karaoke joint, have traded the back-breaking toil of growing rice for the more lucrative (and dangerous) labours of Thailand’s sex industry. Bam is just one of millions involved in a “mass scramble for cash”, which, Winn says, is the backdrop to many phenomena, including the expansion of the underworld.

Winn describes Southeast Asia as a region where “old codes are clash­ing with modern appetites”, where authoritarianism is entrenched and will stay that way, and where bribes are an essential source of funding for law enforcement. Add to this the transformation of infrastructure, and the promise of more improvements to come with China’s New Silk Road initiative, “and there’s never been a better time to move speed, people, wildlife and weapons around Southeast Asia”.

It is the movement of speed that Winn focuses on in Hello, Shadowlands, given that Myanmar is home to the biggest meth industry on the planet. To find out how Myanmar achieved this feat, he travels to Kachin state, in the country’s northern hinter­lands, where billion-dollar meth syndicates rake in more profits than many Fortune 500 companies.

Readers are taken deep into the complex, troubled history of Myanmar and its minority peoples and infamous drug lords. These days, Myanmar’s drug lords have exchanged the production of heroin and opium for the manufacture of Tylenol-sized pink meth tablets, which they view as a less risky bet. Each year, two to six billion pills are exported to neighbouring Thailand and China, and more recently Bangladesh.

It is no small irony that these tablets of meth, known in Thailand as yaba, are stamped with the number 88 – a reference to 1988, when thousands protested for democracy in Myanmar’s streets, only to be mown down by the mili­tary. Winn argues that dreams of democracy have been reduced to a sick joke in Myanmar, where minor­ities still answer to local warlords or chieftains, and the military gave ground on the West’s “democracy project” in cities such as Yangon to distract attention from their accelerating ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the hinter­lands. Meanwhile, as the West con­gra­tu­lates itself for helping to give birth to Southeast Asia’s newest democracy, “both ends of the country are on fire”.

It’s hard to say what is more potent in Hello, Shadowlands: Winn’s rich characterisation, his canny reportage or the way his interrogation of the past illuminates 21st-century Southeast Asia and its criminal networks.

A keen sense of humanity and optimism colours the book, so the reader laughs out loud or is moved to tears. It provides a view of Southeast Asia through fresh eyes. As one endorse­ment declares on the book’s flyleaf, “This is a page turner with soul.”