TIME Thailand

Is the Thai Junta Really Going to Jail Sommeliers for Recommending Wine?

TO GO WITH STORY Lifestyle-finance-econo
In a picture taken on July 6, 2009, Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailand's first female winemaker tests her wine at a wineshop in Khao Yai National Park 155km (96 miles) north of Bangkok. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL—AFP/Getty Images

A threatened booze crackdown hasn't materialized yet, but it speaks of a moral tension in the so-called Land of Smiles

Earlier this week, local officials in the sleepy city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, called a meeting of media and hospitality industry representatives to outline draconian curbs on alcohol promotion.

All drinking, they said, was to stop at midnight. Advertising and happy hours were to be banned; promotional staff could no longer serve beer while wearing branded uniforms; glasses, ashtrays and any other items sporting brewery, winery and distillery logos were to be removed. Even decorating a pub or trattoria with empty bottles could mean six months in jail — as could “verbal promotion” of alcohol, which could be something as innocuous as a sommelier telling you which wine to try.

“This law was put into effect due to the rapidly growing costs of alcohol to this nation,” Second Lieutenant Taweesak Jintajiranan told the meeting, which was reported in the Chiang Mai City News. “Alcohol-related accidents have increased significantly in recent years. While the government makes 70 billion baht [$2.2 billion] income per year from alcohol tax, the cost to the government is upwards of 150 billion baht [$4.7 billion].”

Predictably, social media erupted with indignation. “No booze sold or consumed after midnight?” wrote one Bangkok expat on Facebook. “Ludicrous in what purports itself to be a world class capital city and something of a nightlife capital.”

As it turns out, none of the proposed curbs on alcohol promotion are new. They are already provided for under a strict interpretation of the 2008 Alcohol Control Act. The act has never been enforced because it is seen as unworkable in a nation that depends on free-spending tourists for much of its income. But the threat of its implementation in Chiang Mai — described by Andrew Bond, editor of travel website 1stopchiangmai.com, as “a local official taking his orders from the junta a little too literally” — has drawn attention to a growing split between the military’s moral agenda and a nation synonymous with cold beer and cheap cocktails.

Alcohol is a major Thai industry. The firm Thai Beverage brews the nation’s iconic Chang beer and Sangsom rum and boasts distilleries in Thailand, Scotland, Ireland, Poland China and France — along with annual profits nearing $1 billion. Boon Rawd Brewery, which produces the popular Singha and Leo beers, enjoys royal patronage and has lucrative marketing deals with English Premier League goliaths Chelsea and Manchester United.

Little wonder alcohol moguls enjoy enormous political sway. The poster-girl of the recent Shutdown Bangkok protests, which culminated in the May 22 coup, was Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, heiress to the Boon Rawd fortune. The photogenic 28-year-old openly called for the overthrowing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, prompting pro-democracy Red Shirts to boycott Singha and Leo beers in response. A ban on alcohol advertising by the junta she helped install might see her rethink her political loyalties.

There is no doubt that the junta has taken on an increasingly priggish character. It has set about attempting to address “social ills” such as inflated state lottery prices and undocumented migrants. Raids have also targeted sex workers, particularly from the “ladyboy” transsexual community, and this week officials swooped on markets hawking counterfeit and pirated goods.

“The military is trying to legitimize itself as some kind of moral force,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor for Southeast Asian studies at Japan’s Kyoto University and an outspoken critic of the coup. “But such matters do not concern them at all,” he adds. Pavin suggests that the moral crusade is instead a political trap to goad the nation’s protesting demimonde — what he calls “dark influences” and “godfathers” — out into the open, which then provides further legitimacy for the junta’s grip on power.

There could be another reason. There is a tradition of Thai leaders embracing ascetic Buddhist values after becoming embroiled in bitter tumult. Military dictator General Thanom Kittikachorn famously entered the monkhood in 1976 after the Thammasat Massacre; firebrand Shutdown Bangkok leader Suthep Thaugsuban followed suit immediately after the May coup. According to Pavin, Prayuth could similarly be trying to atone for the sin of seizing power and so “really wants to prove something to society.”

But the reality is that vice is deeply imbued in modern Thailand. Prostitution is officially illegal, but up to two million sex workers toil in the country’s twinkling neon go-go bars and massage parlors. And while alcohol is undeniably conflated with social problems — Thailand’s roads are ranked as the second most dangerous in the world with 44 road deaths per 100,000 people, a quarter of which the WHO says are alcohol-related — even the junta would struggle to make an impact.

The tourism industry is worth up to $60 billion annually, and the nation welcomes over 20 million foreign arrivals each year, drawn by the pearl-white beaches, beautiful temples, fabulous cuisine and, well, the pumping bars.

“I don’t think we’ll see an immediate effect on tourism because Thailand’s reputation for vibrant nightlife continues, whatever the reality is,” says Joe Cummings, author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand. What’s more, “Thais are among the most clever people in Asia when it comes to finding legal loopholes.”

There could also, of course, be a domestic backlash. One poll conducted soon after the coup found an astonishingly high 93.5% of respondents approved of the military’s intervention. But petty booze curbs, if enforced, could well turn the tide.

One bar owner in Chiang Mai, who asked to remain anonymous, gave his own caustic assessment. “It won’t last if they ever do enforce it,” he said. “Give it a few months and they’ll have to change the stupid law. Maybe we’ll get some clarification instead of just paying off the cops whenever they want.”

TIME Thailand

Thai Court Drops Murder Charges Against Former PM and Deputy

Former Thai Prime Minister Vejjajiva and his then deputy Thaugsuban arrive at the Department of Special Investigation in Bangkok
Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, and his then deputy Suthep Thaugsuban arrive at the Department of Special Investigation in Bangkok on May 14, 2013. Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

The decision will infuriate Red Shirt opponents of May's military coup

Murder charges against former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his erstwhile deputy Suthep Thaugsuban were dropped Thursday. The charges related to a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in central Bangkok in 2010 that claimed more than 90 lives.

Thailand’s Criminal Court ruled that it could not hear the case as the two accused held public office at the time of the deaths and were acting under emergency powers, reports the Bangkok Post.

Only the Supreme Court could hear the case, the bench added, and the nation’s anticorruption body must decide whether it should be referred upward. However, any decision could take years.

The protesters who Suthep and the Oxford-educated Abhisit stood accused of killing were ardent Red Shirt backers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a military putsch in 2006.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinwatra was elected prime minister in 2011, but she was removed in another coup on May 22, following six months of fierce antigovernment protests spearheaded by the firebrand Suthep.

Red Shirt supporters of the Shinawatra clan are sure to be incensed by the court’s decision, but have been cudgeled into silence by a raft of extrajudicial detentions and intimidatory tactics by the Southeast Asian nation’s new military rulers.

TIME Hong Kong

Prominent Hong Kong Democracy Campaigners Raided by Antigraft Officers

Jimmy Lai, chairman and founder of Next Media, speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters in Taipei
Jimmy Lai, chairman and founder of Next Media, speaks during an interview in Taipei on Nov. 29, 2010 Nicky Loh—Reuters

The swoop comes just as the city prepares for long-threatened Occupy Central protests

Updated: 8:38 a.m. EST on Thursday.

Hong Kong anticorruption officers raided the home of media mogul and outspoken democracy advocate Jimmy Lai early Thursday morning, just days before Occupy Central protests are slated to commence in the city’s financial heart.

“ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] was here,” Lai told reporters outside his home, according to the South China Morning Post. “They’ve all gone now and there is no further comment.”

According to documents leaked in July, Lai, who runs Next Media and founded the hugely popular Apple Daily newspaper, has donated more than $1.2 million to pan-democratic causes over the past year.

Pan-democrat lawmaker and Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan had earlier admitted that he received a total of $190,000 from Lai, which allegedly stayed in his personal account for a short time before being moved to that of his party.

Under Hong Kong law, donations to political parties are lawful and do not even have to be disclosed, but payments to individuals holding political posts are prohibited.

ICAC officers also swooped on Lee’s home on Thursday and banking documents were seized, reports the Post.

The ICAC said in a statement that it launched the raids after receiving a complaint. “The Commission investigates every case impartially, without fear or favour and in strict accordance with the law,” it said. “The ICAC, as always, has no political consideration in enforcing the law.”

Nevertheless, the raids come at a time of high political tension in Hong Kong. Authorities in Beijing are meeting this week to discuss how to administer the Special Administrative Region’s next leadership election in 2017.

Hong Kong residents have been promised the right to elect their own Chief Executive, the territory’s highest post, by that year, but the Chinese Communist Party wants a veto over which candidates can stand.

Democracy activists claim this will ensure a Beijing proxy controls the city of 7 million, and have organized the Occupy Central protests to press their demand for freer nominations. A July 1 pro-democracy rally drew as many as 172,000 people, according the University of Hong Kong.

Sources told local media that Beijing is mandating a 1,200-member nomination committee that will then approve two or three candidates for Chief Executive. Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have indicated such a system would be unacceptable, and so Occupy Central may commence as early as Sunday, when a separate though aligned pro-democracy rally has also been planned.

This leaves the possibility open for violent confrontations, as police have indicated they would forcibly remove anyone seeking to block the city’s teeming business district.

TIME Innovation

Ralph Lauren Debuts Biometric Shirts at the U.S. Open

Fashion-Wearable Tech
Ralph Lauren's new garment offers smart technology to send heartbeat, respiration, stress levels and other data to tablets and smartphones AP

But don't get excited. You won't be able to buy them until early 2015

Fashion guru Ralph Lauren has sought to morph fashionable sportswear into wearable technology with the launch of the Polo Tech smart shirt, which is being worn by some ball boys at this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament.

The compression garment comes with technology from a Canadian firm, OMsignal, that feeds detailed information about a wearer’s heart rate, breathing, activity and so on directly to a smartphone or tablet.

Silver-yarn-based sensors gauge athletic performance by measuring the expansion and compression of the wearer’s chest along with electrical changes associated with heart rate. The information is collected in a small black-box-type recorder, which can be removed when the garment needs to be thrown into the washing machine.

While the Polo Tech shirt is making a splash at the U.S. Open, the public won’t be able to purchase it until the spring.

TIME India

India Just Asked PepsiCo to Help Improve the Diet of the Nation’s Children

Indra Nooyi Meets Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, right, meets Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal in New Delhi on Aug. 26, 2014 Saumya Khandelwal—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Wait, aren't they the people who make Doritos and Mountain Dew?

India’s government is soliciting the help of an improbable partner in improving the nutrition of millions of its hungriest children, reports Bloomberg. That partner is the world’s largest snack producer, PepsiCo.

Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal met PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of developing nutritious processed foods for use in school lunches across the country, Bloomberg says. The move is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of upgrading the diet of the South Asian nation’s 1.2 billion people — especially that of its 440 million children.

“I suggested [that PepsiCo develop] products which will be healthy and will also contain proteins,” Badal told reporters following her meeting. “As people are becoming busy, the children will be immensely benefited if such products are launched.”

India has a poor reputation when it comes to food safety. A nadir was reached last year when 23 children in the country’s northern state of Bihar died after eating a free school meal that turned out to be laced with pesticide. In addition, some 47% of Indian children under 3 are underweight, according to the U.N.

Critics wonder if processed foods, from a company better known for its sugary soft drinks and potato chips, are really the best way to address such chronic malnutrition.

“No respectable dietitian or nutritionist will recommend processed foods over freshly cooked meals,” Vandana Prasad, national convener of the Public Health Resource Network, told Bloomberg.

PepsiCo India did not reply to Bloomberg’s emailed questions about the meeting.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Food & Drink

The California Quake May Cost Wine Country Billions

On the other hand, it could have been much worse

+ READ ARTICLE

Financial damage from the earthquake that rattled California’s Napa Valley on Sunday may barrel from hundreds of millions of dollars of immediate property damage to billions in total economic losses, Reuters reports.

On top of more than 200 people injured, around 50 buildings in the city of Napa — the famed wine region’s economic hub — were deemed unsafe to enter following the 6.0-magnitude quake. The temblor was the fiercest to hit the state’s Bay Area in 25 years, Reuters says.

Disaster-modeling firm CoreLogic estimated that the total insured economic losses to the region could range from $500 million to $1 billion; but as only 6% of local homes are estimated to have earthquake coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York City, the total bill is likely to be much higher.

While Napa’s 2014 vintage is still slated for great things, a large amount of stock was destroyed by the quake. “It’s a big mess right now,” Rick Ruiz, operations director for the wine retailer TwentyFour Wines, told Reuters. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”

However, wine buffs need not totally despair, as the timing of the quake was in fact somewhat fortuitous — coming after the 2013 vintage had been dispatched for delivery but before most of the current year’s grape harvest was picked.

[Reuters]

TIME Australia

An Australian MP Says Sorry for Calling Chinese Officials ‘Mongrels’ and ‘Bastards’

House Of Representatives Question Time
Leader of the Palmer United Party Clive Palmer during Question Time at Parliament House on July 15, 2014 in Canberra, Australia. Stefan Postles—Getty Images

And says he looks forward to "greater peace and understanding in the future"

Australian legislator and mining tycoon Clive Palmer has “most sincerely” apologized for a blistering attack on the Chinese government, reports the BBC.

During a live debate shown last week by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the 60-year-old billionaire — whose own Palmer United Party holds the balance of power in Australia’s Senate — slammed Chinese officials as “bastards” and “mongrels” who “shoot their own people.”

“They’re communist, they shoot their own people, they haven’t got a justice system and they want to take over this country,” he said at the time. “The Chinese government wants to bring workers here to destroy our wage system … they want to take over our ports and get our resources for free … I don’t mind standing up against the Chinese bastards and stopping them from doing it.”

China is Australia’s top trading partner, and Palmer’s tirade prompted a fierce backlash in a state-linked Chinese newspaper, the Global Times.

His remarks were also criticized by other Australian politicians. “Mr. Palmer’s comments are offensive, they are unnecessary, and it’s unacceptable for a Member of Parliament to make such comments, particularly on a national television program,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the radio.

In a letter to the Chinese ambassador revealed Tuesday, Palmer said, “I regret any hurt or anguish such comments may have caused any party and I look forward to greater peace and understanding in the future.”

TIME Physics

Supersonic Submarines Just Took One Step Closer to Reality

That would make San Francisco to Shanghai in two hours a possibility

Chinese scientists say there could one day be a high-tech submarine that crosses the Pacific Ocean in less time than it takes to watch a movie, the South China Morning Post reports.

Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology, in northeast China, have made dramatic improvements to a Soviet-era military technology called supercavitation that allows submersibles to travel at high speeds, the Post says.

Supercavitation envelops a submerged vessel inside an air bubble to minimize friction. It enabled the Russian Shakval torpedo to reach speeds of 230 m.p.h. — but theoretically, a supercavitated vessel, given sufficient power at launch, could reach the speed of sound (some 3,603 m.p.h.). That would mean crossing the 6,000-odd miles from San Francisco to Shanghai in just two hours.

One of the problems of supercavitation has been how to steer a vessel at such speeds. The Harbin scientists say they could have the answer.

According to the Post, they’ve developed a way of allowing a supercavitated vessel to shower itself with liquid while traveling inside its own air bubble. The liquid creates a membrane on the surface of the vessel, and by manipulating this membrane, the degree of friction applied to different areas of the vessel could be controlled, which would enable steering.

“We are very excited by its potential,” said Li Fengchen, professor of fluid machinery and engineering at the Harbin Institute’s complex flow and heat transfer lab. “By combining liquid-membrane technology with supercavitation, we can significantly reduce the launch challenges and make cruising control easier,” he told the Post.

Li stressed, however, that many technical problems needed to be solved before supersonic submarine travel could take place.

[SCMP]

TIME India

India’s ‘Untouchables’ Are Still Being Forced to Collect Human Waste by Hand

World's Dirtiest Job
Devi Lal, a 43-year-old manual scavenger, cleans drains in New Delhi on July 13, 2012 Sagar Kaul—Barcroft Media/Getty Images

They face violence, eviction and withheld wages if they do not take on the hazardous job of emptying private and public latrines

The practice of forcing low-caste people in Indian communities to remove accumulated human waste from latrines is continuing despite legal prohibitions and must be stopped, says a leading advocacy group.

In a report released Monday, the New York City–based Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed the practice of “manual scavenging” — the collecting of excrement from latrines by hand. The job is done by those considered to be of the lowest birth. These Dalits, or untouchables, often face threats of violence, eviction and withheld wages if they attempt to leave the trade.

“The first day when I was cleaning the latrines and the drain, my foot slipped and my leg sank in the excrement up to my calf,” Sona, a manual scavenger in Bharatpur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, told HRW. “I screamed and ran away. Then I came home and cried and cried. I knew there was only this work for me.”

Laws exist to curb this form of subjugation, yet it remains widespread across India. Dalit women typically collect waste from private homes, while the men do the more physically demanding, and hazardous, maintenance of septic tanks and public sewers. Many suffer injuries and serious health problems.

“The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery,” says Ashif Shaikh, founder of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign to end manual scavenging. “It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.”

HRW’s 96-page report, Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India, is based on more than 100 interviews with manual scavengers, and documents how these wretched people are coerced to collect human excrement on a daily basis, carrying it away in nothing more protective than a cane basket.

“People work as manual scavengers because their caste is expected to fulfill this role, and are typically unable to get any other work,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW. “This practice is considered one of the worst surviving symbols of untouchability because it reinforces the social stigma that these castes are untouchable and perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion.”

HRW called on the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to enforce existing legislation aimed at assisting manual scavengers to find alternative, sustainable livelihoods.

“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” adds Ganguly. “The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”

TIME Sri Lanka

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen
Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka. TIME

Saffron-clad monks have been instrumental in anti-Muslim riots in Burma and Sri Lanka, and have their eyes on sowing discord farther afield

During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.”

Touring her scorched neighborhood, the bevy of gutted buildings and roofless homes indicates Sahabdeen actually fared better than many. Three people died in the violence, all Muslims shot by police shepherding a 7,000-strong mob, claim locals, while another two people had legs amputated after receiving gunshot wounds. At least 80 more were injured.

What sparked this bloodletting between two communities with virtually no historical grievances? Throughout the ashes of Dharga Town, scrawled graffiti reading “BBS Did This” leaves little doubt where the victims lay blame.

BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, otherwise known as Buddhist Power Force, is a Buddhist supremacist group accused of stirring sectarian hatred in Sri Lanka. Led by a monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, BBS accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims of threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity, and enjoys support at high levels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who also serves as Secretary of Defense, has been an outspoken supporter of BBS in the past.

“BBS echoes the sympathies and the prejudices of the majority Buddhist population,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO. “So the views have a certain resonance, and the media gives voice to that, and the counter view is toned down or even censored.”

The June 15 violence was sparked by an innocuous traffic dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist monk. Immediately afterward, Buddhist extremists descended on the monk and urged him to report the matter to the authorities. When the police declined to take action, a rally was organized. Gnanasara was there, addressing the mob. “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person — let alone a monk — it will be the end of all of them!” he bellowed to raucous cheers. When the mob approached Muslim-majority Dharga Town, some people started throwing stones. This was all the provocation needed for a night of bedlam. In the aftermath of the riots, 135 people were arrested, say officials. To date, no one has been charged.

Gnanasara denies that BBS organized the march and blames the “uncontrolled behavior of some of the extreme Muslim communities in the area” for the ensuing bloodshed during a phone interview with TIME. But even before his firebrand oration, portents of trouble were clear; on the Facebook post to announce the gathering, one of the first comments asked, “Shall I bring a can of gasoline?”

So why is Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million that for three decades was decimated by a vicious civil war between the Buddhist state and largely Hindu Tamil minority, suddenly gripped by anti-Muslim hatred? Historically, the island’s Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces.

“Prejudices are growing because there is a small but influential group of extremist Buddhists who are having a relatively free run and are able to articulate very national sentiments and highlight the insecurity of the Sinhalese,” says Perera, himself a Sinhalese Christian.

The Sri Lankan experience is far from unique. In Burma, officially known as Myanmar, just 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the Bay of Bengal, an extremist Buddhist movement called 969 is waging a parallel war, using identical tactics as BBS. (Both groups rose to prominence around 2012. Its leader is also a monk, Wirathu. When anti-Muslim riots erupted in the central Burmese town of Meiktila in April last year, clashes that killed dozens and displaced thousands, he arrived in the middle of the carnage, although later claimed to have tried to halt the bloodshed. Then, during last month’s communal riots in Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is based, he fanned the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists.

Both he and Gnanasara make virtually identical xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into unholy polygamous unions, and using their corrupt business acumen to swindle hard-working Buddhists. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told TIME’s Hannah Beech last year. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” (In fact, neither Burma nor Sri Lanka has seen a Muslim population explosion).

BBS speeches are very similar. Halal certification is apparently funding al-Qaeda and Hamas; Islamic blood sacrifices are summoning forth “ghosts and demons”; Muslim perverts are using burqas as disguises to carry out licentious deeds; and, most bizarrely, the Quran requires Muslims to spit three times into any food or beverage served to a person of another faith.

“I think they are learning from each other,” says Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “It started in Myanmar, but Gnanasara has perfected it.”

Certainly, the similarities between these nations are striking. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities making up about 70% to 80% of the population. Both nations have Muslim communities, of about 10% of the population, that historically backed the establishment. Both are going through the aftermath of decades-long civil conflicts against other ethnic minorities — the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; a smattering of mainly Christian rebel groups in Burma. Now both boast extremist Buddhist movements led by rabble-rousing saffron-clad clerics.

Gnanasara is quick to laud his Burmese counterpart and admits the pair met over the summer to “establish an international network of activists stationed in Buddhist countries.”

“We are all in the same boat in terms of attacks on Buddhist communities,” he says. “What is happening in Burma and Thailand, especially the southern part of Thailand, [resembles] what happened recently in Bangladesh.”

BBS and 969 are embarking on a partnership with similar organizations and activists across the region to face off “international threats,” reveals Gnanasara. “It would be better to have some sort of cohesion between us so we can respond collectively.”

Gnanasara maintains he did not “discuss any tactics” during his meeting with Wirathu, yet a shared modus operandi is obvious. The Burmese incidents, just like the Aluthgama clashes and hundreds of others, were sparked by a personal grievance between a Muslim and Buddhist — an argument between shopkeeper and customer over gold rings in Meiktila; an allegation of rape in Mandalay that the accuser eventually admitted was a total fabrication — that quickly spiraled out of control. After the initial complaint, an extremist clique descends on the town to aid the “wronged” Buddhist party. Before long there are lootings, beatings and torched houses.

Now that existentialist threats to Sri Lanka and Burma have disappeared with the end of their respective civil conflicts, the specter of Muslim extremism is convenient means of justifying political control.

“It’s in this government’s narrow political interests of winning elections to foster the divide, to foster Sinhala nationalism,” says Perera. Hilmy agrees: “We feel that it’s likely to be government-orchestrated as the government has lost the confidence of the minorities. The Tamils and Christians are completely alienated.”

Sahabdeen, for one, needs no convincing. When hundreds of young men ripped her home apart, the security services stood idly by, just a block away. Eventually, two rioters escorted her toward these officers before returning, unhindered, to resume their plunder. “They took me out the gate as if I was being walked to the gallows,” she says. “The police just stood there.”

Ironically, while the reality of creeping Islamization is almost certainly bogus, the perceived threat may be instrumental in fomenting its creation. “Muslims don’t have any option but to live here and die here, and so I’m very worried if Muslims are pushed beyond a certain point forces from outside could exploit that,” says Hilmy.

If that happens, Sri Lanka and Burma could head straight back toward a fresh round of civil conflict.

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