Logo

Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts, & Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia, with Patrick Winn

October 1, 2018

Detail from book cover of Hello, Shadowlands.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with author Patrick Winn. He's a journalist and author based in Bangkok, Thailand. He works on the show The World for National Public Radio (NPR). He is author of a brand-new book on Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asian underside, "underbelly" if you will. His book is called Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts, and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia.

Patrick, thanks so much for coming today.

PATRICK WINN: A pleasure to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: The underside of Southeast Asia. Your book is the result of a lot of work, at least a decade of reporting in Southeast Asia. What motivated you to write about this specific topic in Southeast Asia?

PATRICK WINN: A couple of things. One, these stories are not being told. Southeast Asia's criminal underworld is valued at $100 billion now. In the middle of the next decade it's going to hit $375 billion. I know those are big numbers, but consider that that's bigger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of some of the countries in Southeast Asia. It's bigger than the GDP of, say, Ireland.

So, wow, what a huge story that mass media has not touched on, that Hollywood doesn't fictionalize. We have all these stories in our heads of Latin cartels and Italian mafia and Russian gangsters. Why do we always ignore the Southeast Asian mafia? This is life-and-death stuff. This is not just entertainment. These criminal syndicates have the power to shape policy and skew people's lives, so I felt like I needed to write about it.

I'm also compelled by the stories of people who are mixed up in organized crime, and I like to tell their stories the right way. They're not all villainous, black-hearted people as the media often describes them.

DEVIN STEWART: Going to a sultry, mysterious place like Southeast Asia, it's often very hot and steamy. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, so I'm familiar with the climate a little bit. I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia as well. It's evocative of some kind of mystery that you're chasing after.

Can you tell us what it entailed to put this book together? You've gone to several countries and talked to people who are murdering people, are beating them, selling drugs, and other criminal acts. How did you get the stories, and how did you win the trust of your informants? Is "informants" right, or "interviewee"? What do you like to call the people you talk to?

PATRICK WINN: "Informant" sounds very police-esque, doesn't it? I would just call them "sources."

DEVIN STEWART: Sources, okay.

PATRICK WINN: It does entail gaining trust. When a foreign correspondent presents a piece to you that makes it seem like he or she just beamed down into a country and has amazing access to the underworld, or anything, really, they're lying to you. They're relying on local producers, local journalists that they work with, to get those stories, and that's what I'm doing.

When I go to Northern Myanmar and these quasi-anarchic places, I have people that I know, that I trust, that trust me, that are going in with me. Same goes with the Philippines, same goes with Vietnam, anyplace that I go. In the book I try to acknowledge that. I'm discovering things with the reader. I'm plunging into this crime ring with the reader, and often I have someone by my side who is a local journalist who is there with me.

I speak Thai. Southeast Asia doesn't have a common language. I don't speak Burmese, I don't speak Tagalog, I certainly don't speak Kachin, the language of far Northern Myanmar, so I rely on a lot of help.

DEVIN STEWART: You call these people "fixers"? What's your relationship with these people?

PATRICK WINN: I'm glad you brought that up. I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the word "fixer." Some of the people I'm describing would call themselves "fixers" because it's just the word that is used. But I don't like that it implies a hierarchy.

In the Philippines I profile an all-female crime ring. I went in with a woman who is an extremely amazing veteran journalist in the Philippines. She's older than me, she's more knowledgeable than me about her own country, she provided a lot of the translation, provided a lot of the access. Fixer? That doesn't cut it. She's a journalist, so she should be acknowledged as such.

DEVIN STEWART: I completely understand. My work in the Philippines and also particularly in Myanmar could not have happened without the help of local experts who probably know a ton more than I would ever know about their countries.

PATRICK WINN: Indeed, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: So I totally appreciate that.

You were starting to talk about some of the characters in your book. I'm going to do something a little unusual, which is to systematically go through your contents page. I hope you're okay with that.

PATRICK WINN: More than okay.

DEVIN STEWART: The reason I want to do that is because you have so many colorful characters in here, so many interesting stories and anecdotes that I don't to risk missing any of them.

Chapter 1 and 2, you're in Myanmar, you're in Burma. Can you just set the stage real quick? When is this?

PATRICK WINN: This is in recent years over many trips. To give the backdrop, I don't know how many people listening to this watched Breaking Bad, but if so, you probably think that the world's largest meth trade is coming out of Mexico and that meth is only this crystal meth stuff.

The world's largest meth trade is not in Mexico, it's in Southeast Asia, being produced in Myanmar. Their top-selling product is—they make crystal meth, but they also make this little pink pill called ya ba. Ya means "medicine", ba means "crazy" in the Thai language. It's about 20 percent methamphetamine. You take this stuff, you're high for about eight hours.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you take it?

PATRICK WINN: You can swallow the pill, you can smoke it off a piece of foil, which used to be called freebasing, I think. I don't know if that term is still used in the United States. It has this effect of everything around you becomes dazzling and interesting. For that reason, people take it when they're doing drudge work, repetitive labor.

DEVIN STEWART: Factories?

PATRICK WINN: Factories, fishing industry.

DEVIN STEWART: Textiles?

PATRICK WINN: Textiles. Making cheap stuff, cheap food, cheap clothes for—where else?—more affluent countries, to be exported to places like New York City.

DEVIN STEWART: We're not going to talk about Nike, are we?

PATRICK WINN: I don't know who's using meth at the Nike factory, but I'm sure it's possible that someone is.

DEVIN STEWART: The chapter is "Hot Pink Speed: Where drug barons churn out candy-colored meth." Why is it pink? Did you get a sense of that?

PATRICK WINN: Why is it pink? I don't know. That's great bar conversations for me and my friends. We haven't figured it out.

DEVIN STEWART: You said the largest meth operation in the world is in Myanmar. I wouldn't call Myanmar a transparent society.

PATRICK WINN: No.

DEVIN STEWART: It's full of fake news and gossip and disinformation and rumors and hearsay. How in the world did you find this giant operation in such a difficult place to operate?

PATRICK WINN: Knowing about the existence of the operation certainly isn't hard because they're churning out more than 2 billion per year of these little candy-pink pills. Starbucks doesn't sell that many cups of coffee in a year. So it's everywhere. It's the go-to drug in Southeast Asia.

As far as getting close to the operations, what I do in the book is I profile not only drug traffickers and police and people who have been involved with drug-producing militias, but I also look at the social upheaval that it causes. I go to the far north of Myanmar, where I had heard that local Baptist churches had decided: "Mm, we can't take on these drug lords in our backyard who are a menace because they have M-16s and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They're drug lords. We can disrupt their market. We can go out, and if we catch someone with heroin or these little pink pills, we can teach them a lesson."

I heard that Baptist vigilantes were going out and doing home invasions and running in people's houses and pulling out drug users and flogging them with bamboo sticks and making them praise Jesus and detaining them in secret church facilities. So I went up there and asked, "Would you mind if I tagged along while you do this?"

DEVIN STEWART: They were okay with it?

PATRICK WINN: To make a long story short. If this book was written as it played out, you would have me sitting there for a week hanging out with vigilantes and vigilante associates drinking tea, drinking beer. It would be very boring. So I skipped to the part where they say: "Okay, fine. You seem okay."

DEVIN STEWART: You had to make friends with them first.

PATRICK WINN: Journalists are always uncomfortable with the word "friends," but I was friendly with them, for sure.

DEVIN STEWART: Friendly. Was there some Rubicon that you crossed, some threshold where you said the magic word or whatever, and they thought you were okay? Trade secrets.

PATRICK WINN: As I describe in the book, my guide to the area is someone who is, let's just call him a police "agent." These vigilantes are not cool with the police because the police are trying to shut them down, but this police agent happened to be from the same ethnic group, the Kachin, who are largely Baptist. They knew who he was, a man about town. They trusted him, actually. They trusted another person who I can't name who was there, who I've excised from the book to protect their identity.

Ultimately, they have this history of American missionaries coming there and this folklore—it's not folklore, it's true—these stories of American missionaries coming and bringing them the word of God, some of whom are from the South, some of whom are Baptists, and there was an assumption—that I usually would try to correct—that I was Baptist myself. They would say: "Oh, you're Baptist like us."

"Um, some family"—

"Yeah, yeah, you're Baptist. He's all right."

DEVIN STEWART: Good enough.

PATRICK WINN: Good enough, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: The person that you're referring to that you can't name is the person you allude to in the acknowledgments, I believe.

PATRICK WINN: That's correct.

DEVIN STEWART: You had a nickname for him, I think.

PATRICK WINN: It means "little brother." That's it.

DEVIN STEWART: Little brother. Great.

The flogging, religious flogging, anti-drug flogging. What was the success rate? Did it work for them?

PATRICK WINN: I would love to see an academic study of someone going to see how often it works. Again, I went out with them into someone's house. They pulled this guy out, and he went sheepishly, and they flogged him many times, and then they put him in these Medieval wooden stocks and held him for a number of days.

DEVIN STEWART: Stocks like a stoning stock with your head and arms sticking out?

PATRICK WINN: If you're picturing something you would see from a cartoon or an old Medieval painting, yes, except they put it around his feet, and said: "We accuse you of using meth. You need to get better. You've done wrong by God. You've done wrong by your race."

They did say at certain points: "Oh, by the way, if you don't like what we're doing"—this secret tribunal, this secret interrogation—"we can just turn you over to the cops."

And he said, "No, no, no, no, no, no."

DEVIN STEWART: That's worse?

PATRICK WINN: That's worse. Oh, yes. At least he's being dealt with by his own people, other Christians, other Kachin, which is the ethnic group they belong to.

It might be in the book—I can't remember—but we go back and check on him and make sure he was okay. We really profiled that guy in particular and kept tabs on him, but they're doing this stuff all the time, so plenty of people have gone through this experience.

DEVIN STEWART: A drug offense in Southeast Asia is known to be severe from the cops. Are you suggesting that getting caught by the cops would get yourself thrown in a very scary prison?

PATRICK WINN: It's complicated. Every prison is scary in Myanmar as I see it, and I think most of the citizens would agree.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the famous one?

PATRICK WINN: Insein Prison.

DEVIN STEWART: Insein Panopticon. Horrible.

PATRICK WINN: It's really nasty.

It's funny. Up in this area, meth territory, the police there are colluding with traffickers. They're being paid not to arrest people, and they actually don't crack down on low-level users that much. They let people do their thing, and that creates a lot of conspiracy theories among the locals: "They're allowing drugs to spread here, to destroy our population so we won't rebel."

I think that's an oversimplification of it, but it's easy to run around and do meth up there. If you get caught with it in what I would call Central Burma, where the army has full control and there's no rebellion and things are a little more locked down, yes, they treat it seriously. Seven years in prison wouldn't be outrageous.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's move over to the Philippines. Your chapter is called "The Devil's Cocktail," which is a reference to what you're referring to as an elixir, but it's not really an elixir. Tell us what you found in Manila, which is where Carnegie will be leading a delegation in a few weeks actually looking at climate change, so it's about typhoons and things, not anything like this. Tell us what you found.

PATRICK WINN: That's great that you're doing that, and Manila is a great city. I love Manila.

Just to back up a little bit to segue here, most people have probably heard in the Philippines that there is a drug war that has killed more than 10,000 people. They're going after low-level meth users. My argument is that that's atrocious.

But guess what? There's a second drug war waged by the Catholic Church, which is very powerful in the Philippines, that is going after a drug that's even more popular than meth, which is birth control, trying to keep it out of clinics. They would really like to keep it out of stores, period.

Women have trouble getting their hands on birth control. I was looking at polling data and seeing that a lot of Filipinas say: "We are having more children than we want to have. We can't get birth control." Often this is not affordable, to have that many children. What is the answer to that? They have to go to the underworld to find things that can cause a miscarriage, and it's namely this elixir that you referred to, or potion, or whatever you want to call it. It's an herbal drink that can induce a miscarriage, and it's illegal, and it's very much in demand.

DEVIN STEWART: You mention explicitly that it's a female-run crime ring. Why is it female-run?

PATRICK WINN: Mostly female-run, yes. It's quite interesting. When the Spanish Empire came many centuries ago they did their best to wipe out indigenous beliefs, indigenous practices, and there were these women back then who were priestesses of their local village unit, and they administered herbal treatments to people for all sorts of reasons.

The Spanish said: "You can't be running around praising false gods. You have to be Christian. So, you're demoted. Now you're just an arbularyo," which is linked to the Spanish word herbolario—sorry, I don't speak Spanish—but "herbalist." "You're an herbalist, and you can continue doing your herbal stuff, your herbal treatments, but you have to praise Jesus now. You have to praise our God."

So there is this tradition of herbal treatments that goes back centuries, pre-colonial, and that has created a pool from which women can be cultivated to do this job, a kind of underground herbalist. Maybe you go to her for things that you're not supposed to get, for things there are no over-the-counter medicines for, and they can fix you up.

The woman that I reported with, who I reference a lot in this book, referred to them as "witch doctors," but I was a little uncomfortable with that phrasing. I preferred to call them the Tagalog word, which is arbularyo.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the access to birth control changing in the Philippines to make this illicit stuff less likely to cause any problems?

PATRICK WINN: This new pill—I shouldn't say new, but in semi-recent years this new pill has hit the Philippines that has changed the game. It's available here in the United States as an ulcer medicine, but people have found that if you take enough of it and you take it in the right ways, it will cause a miscarriage. So that is starting to replace some of the herbal elixirs, and it's much safer than taking these potions.

As far as on the legal front, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has decided this is one of their big issues, and they're going up against a lot of polling data that suggests people want more subsidized birth control in the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte, for all of his viciousness when it comes to the drug war, sorry, he says some of the right things when it comes to reproductive rights. I think he said any woman who wants birth control should be able to have it.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. And the current state of the law in the Philippines regarding birth control?

PATRICK WINN: Very rare in public clinics. The recent war that the church had fought—if I could oversimplify the issue a little bit—is they wanted to make sure that certain types of birth control, including injectables, expired so the patent would run out, and they were challenging that through the courts. That didn't quite go through the way they wanted, but it's an ongoing battle.

DEVIN STEWART: The next part of your book, "Pyongyang's Dancing Queens." The location is Bangkok, Thailand, and Seoul in Korea. You're describing hostesses who were trained in North Korea, and they're getting jobs in Southeast Asia. This is a story I'm not sure many people have come across. It's not the image that you would think about with a country that sees itself as an independent duchy, very serious-minded country, and very traditional. For example, during the Korean summit recently the South Korean president was greeted with traditional clothing.

Who are these dancing queens, and why does it matter?

PATRICK WINN: Oh, boy. In North Korea, young girls—and boys to an extent—will be recruited at a very young age if they have the right look and they have certain talents to dance, to sing, to play instruments, and to exalt the regime through song.

DEVIN STEWART: Boys and girls.

PATRICK WINN: I know less about the boys. I mostly talked to young women who have gone through this. I talked to a semi-famous gymnast and another woman who—these are defectors, that's the only way I've been able to talk to them—have gone to South Korea.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the look?

PATRICK WINN: Big eyes, round face. They don't want people who are too short. Of course, they're children, so they guess how tall so-and-so is going to grow to be.

I should mention that different organs of the state, including the People's Security Ministry, will have their own dancing troupes, their own singing troupes.

DEVIN STEWART: So they're recruited by the state.

PATRICK WINN: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow.

PATRICK WINN: It's an honor.

DEVIN STEWART: Okay.

PATRICK WINN: "My nine-year-old girl has been plucked from school." Maybe instead of working on the farm in the afternoons she can go study to sing or play the lute or whatever.

Some clever North Korean cadre in the late 1990s realized that these women are great and all, but they're not making much money for the state, and we need money.

DEVIN STEWART: Even though we're a Leninist-Stalinist bunch of communists, we still need the money.

PATRICK WINN: Leninist-communist mostly in name only.

DEVIN STEWART: Money talks.

PATRICK WINN: Money talks. How do you make money off these women? You can send them abroad to countries that will have them—mostly China, but also countries in Southeast Asia—to these restaurants. They serve mediocre food, but also these women come out and do a cabaret act. I've seen them perform Beatles songs, John Denver, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," they really like to do that one. In Yangon, Myanmar, I saw two women perform beautifully "My Way."

DEVIN STEWART: I was going to guess "My Way." Don't people sometimes get attacked for singing "My Way" in Southeast Asian countries?

PATRICK WINN: That is a meme in the Philippines, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it true?

PATRICK WINN: I've never seen any "My Way"-related violence. No one was certainly violent when these two very lovely North Korean women were playing the flute. No vocals, but harmonizing with the flute doing "My Way."

This is quite tricky. Is it okay to go to a restaurant like this—they're very kitschy—and eat food and watch these performances when you know the money is getting funneled back to North Korea? Furthermore, is this forced labor?

DEVIN STEWART: Your question is, is it okay, as if these customers have any moral qualms about going and wondering where the money is going?

PATRICK WINN: You could ask me. I've been to quite a few of them. I suppose that I've handed over my cash.

DEVIN STEWART: You're probably not the target audience, though.

PATRICK WINN: No. There's a lot of South Koreans who are into this because it's such a naughty thrill. The South Korean government says, "You better not go to these places. Maybe the noodles that you paid for will buy a few screws in the next transcontinental missile."

DEVIN STEWART: I believe there are some of these restaurants in Japan, too.

PATRICK WINN: I have not seen them in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: I've heard that. I'm not sure if it's true.

PATRICK WINN: Loads in China, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi.

DEVIN STEWART: Or at least not the hostess restaurants, but North Korean-owned establishments in Japan that funnel money back.

PATRICK WINN: Well, they need money—

DEVIN STEWART: Always controversial.

PATRICK WINN: —however they can get it because of sanctions.

I deal with the moral complexity. I see the argument that it's forced labor. They get paid quite poorly. They don't have freedom of movement. I live up the street from one of these restaurants. I can look in and see the women working, but if they were to walk outside the door—it's a glass wall—and go to the mall without getting permission, I think they would be in a great deal of trouble.

Yet, when I talk to women who are from that same sort of propaganda scene who had defected, they said: "These women are the pride of their families, and they are real success stories. Please don't ever say that they're slaves because that's so demeaning."

DEVIN STEWART: Your next section is called "Neon Jihad," which takes place in Thailand, "Where Islamic rebels terrorize Asia's strangest party town."

First of all, what is Asia's strangest party town?

PATRICK WINN: Sungai Golok, right on the border of Thailand and Malaysia. It means in the Malay language, "sword river."

DEVIN STEWART: Why is it so strange?

PATRICK WINN: That whole area is in the midst of an Islamic insurgency that has been going on for more than a hundred years, but it has really heated up in the past 15-20 years. Yet you can go to this border town and do all these things that people associate with, say, nightlife in Bangkok—red-light districts, karaoke bars, brothels. I profile the way in which the jihadis have targeted these nightlife places as fair game: "You"—Thai Buddhist—"want to conquer us, our native land. This should be Islamic land. This should be our own sultanate, but you are bringing in these impure elements, so we're going after them."

That's not their main motivating factor. They would prefer to be shooting at police or troops, but these guys are also guilty of targeting the mailman or the local teacher, anyone affiliated with the state. These women have been swept into that and seen as fair game.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe—"fair game" for what?

PATRICK WINN: Fair game for having a bomb go off in front of your karaoke bar, for being shot at. Mostly bombing. The red-light districts are heavily defended by the Thai military—barbed wire, guards on the streets, armed personnel carriers with turrets with .50-caliber machine guns, the whole deal—so it's hard to get into the main drag to do anything, but they attempt to do so.

While I was there, there was a bombing on the outskirts of the red-light district that killed a woman, a totally innocent bystander, by the way. She was not involved with the red-light trade. She was a Muslim woman just driving by on a motorbike.

I talk to both the sex workers who are being targeted, and then I go to Malaysia to talk to a former insurgency leader to ask him: "What are you doing? Why are you targeting these women?"

DEVIN STEWART: You got both sides of the story.

PATRICK WINN: Indeed.

DEVIN STEWART: What did you hear?

PATRICK WINN: This particular guy that I talked to had softened up over the years and would say: "Bombing teachers, that's no good. We should stop doing that. We should only go after hard targets."

But I said: "Yeah, great. But what about these sex workers? I mean, come on. Why pick on them?"

He was like: "Eh," and kind of drifts off. He's like, "I shouldn't say anything."

He wouldn't come out and say: "You're right. That's not acceptable."

He seemed to think, You want to come down here and do your nightlife thing, what do you think is going to happen?

He said—and this I would count as a progressive opinion within the insurgency—"You know, at the very least, why don't they put that stuff outside of town and put a wall around it? You've got it right downtown in our area. Maybe you shouldn't have done that."

DEVIN STEWART: But he might be reconsidering his moral position. Or at least he's got some cognitive dissonance going on, he's a little confused. Perhaps.

PATRICK WINN: No, it makes sense to him. He thinks you're asking for it: "You want to bring a nightclub into an Islamic insurgency? You're asking for it."

DEVIN STEWART: That's the moral justification?

PATRICK WINN: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: So when you talk to the sex workers, do they have their own ethical system? What do they say to you?

PATRICK WINN: I think they come from more of a survival mindset. Most of them aren't from the area. They're brought down from Isan, this rice-farming region in Thailand, one of the poorer areas of the country. They come down there and—

DEVIN STEWART: You said, "brought down." Brought down by whom?

PATRICK WINN: I don't mean to imply human trafficking, if that's the insinuation. I haven't met anyone down there that didn't come willingly. Perhaps they didn't know how bad it was until they got there.

Night after night, you're not going to see any violence, but it's the type of thing that might happen once a year, twice a year, and if you work there for five years, you will encounter this in some way or another if you are in the red-light trade, or at least it's very likely.

Look, maybe they couldn't get a job in Bangkok, or maybe the friend that brought them on happened to be down there. The money's consistent because on the other side of that border in Malaysia, it is like Kentucky down there. It's super-orthodox. It is Sharia law. So if you want to party, you just pop over the river and go to Thailand. That's why the red-light district is there. The customer base is pretty steady, so I think they can make a more steady income, work there for a few years, and get out.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see this violence perpetuating for the foreseeable future, or do you see any kind of resolution happening there?

PATRICK WINN: I see it continuing to go on. The Thai military government is not offering enough of a political solution, which would look like some degree of autonomy, which would siphon off some of the anger and energy going toward the rebellion.

There are very legitimate grievances for the Muslims who live in that area, and if you give them no political solution—because frankly, they're not giving anyone a political solution right now, they keep nudging back elections in Thailand—you are increasing the likelihood that someone will go to the dark side. More autonomy in that region I think would go a long way. I'm not a policy advisor to anyone, certainly not the Thai government, but that seems to make common sense to me.

DEVIN STEWART: The final section, Patrick, is looking at Vietnam. The title is "Swamp Hounds," and it's about dog thieves. Why are these dogs being stolen, and what happens to them?

PATRICK WINN: We hear about the dog meat trade in Vietnam usually in a tabloid-y, trashy way. I have this thing where I just love to take on stereotypes and subvert them.

DEVIN STEWART: Flip them over.

PATRICK WINN: Flip them over and show you how, no, it's not as simple as you think.

DEVIN STEWART: It never is, right? It is never simple.

PATRICK WINN: It never is. Sometimes it takes writing a 374-page book to get to the bottom of it.

There are more people eating dog now in Vietnam than before. It used to be a celebratory treat, and now there are more people with money and more of a market for it. It doesn't mean everyone is eating dog. The people who want to eat it are more likely to have money because the economy has grown.

So you have this demand, but the supply can't keep up. To fulfill some of that supply you have these motorbike bandits going out and stealing people's pets. That's why they're getting stolen.

DEVIN STEWART: This is all over Vietnam or just in specific towns?

PATRICK WINN: It is all over Vietnam. It seems to be pretty concentrated in the north and central areas. I profile one village that has been tormented by these motorbike bandits stealing dogs, and the people who live in these farming villages are old-timers. Most of the kids have gone to the city to get real jobs: "I don't want to be a farmer."

DEVIN STEWART: How do you pronounce the town's name?

PATRICK WINN: Nhi Trung. Nhi Trung is an example of one of the villages that gets preyed on by these dog thieves, which the police don't seem to be doing much to stop.

You have older men, older women in these villages. Easy prey for the dog thieves. They go in with machetes and Tasers and try to scare these old folks. If you have a village of elderly people and you want to go steal their dogs, what are they going to do about it?

Well, some of the older guys in this particular village were ex-Viet Cong, ex-communist forces. First they told me: "Despite what you have heard in America, we actually really love our dogs." They wanted me to know that. They spoke glowingly of their pet dogs, these old Viet Cong guys saying: "I let my dog lick my face. Come on, these are parts of our family."

The other thing is: "We know a thing or two about getting rid of invaders"—wink-wink.

DEVIN STEWART: Yes. The French and Americans. They're very proud of that. I visited Vietnam, and they're very nice but also proud that they've kicked all the invaders out.

PATRICK WINN: From a military perspective it is very impressive to have done that with few resources.

They took me to the road that leads into their village and said, "This is where we ambushed them."

"Ambushed who?"

"The dog thieves."

They caught a couple of guys using tactics they learned from their Viet Cong days and taught those guys a lesson.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you elaborate on the tactics?

PATRICK WINN: These guys are in their 60s and in one case 70s. They got the younger guys to basically pen them in on all sides when the thieves came. They just had to wait until the thieves came. Pen them in on all sides, and then they rushed them. So the guys call out: "We got them, we got them, we got them," and then everyone—including the old guys, including the 19-year-old girl up the road, including grandma, everybody—just pours out of the village and—

DEVIN STEWART: Tackles them or what?

PATRICK WINN: Cathartically beat them, and—well, spoiler alert—it doesn't end well for the guys.

DEVIN STEWART: Deaths?

PATRICK WINN: Yes. They were killed.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this a deterrent?

PATRICK WINN: I think so. This happened in 2012. Since then there have been many more incidents like this. Often they are recorded on camera phones.

DEVIN STEWART: On which side, the vigilantes or the dog thieves? Which incidents have, both?

PATRICK WINN: Village vigilantes catching dog thieves and beating them severely and sometimes killing them.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there repercussions for the village people, the people living there?

PATRICK WINN: I have noticed that often the police go easy on the vigilantes. They're really ad hoc vigilantes. They're not like the guys in Northern Myanmar who put on little camouflage vests and go out and beat up drug dealers all the time. This is for a specific purpose.

It's often filmed and put on YouTube. Type on YouTube trom cho—in Vietnamese that means "dog thief"—you will see some pretty upsetting footage.

DEVIN STEWART: Patrick, thank you for sharing all these stories and all these characters. Before we go, just a couple of questions about what you learned in all your travels and meeting all these people and seeing all these stories, the whole spectrum that you've seen.

First, who is your favorite character? Do you have a favorite personality or someone who was particularly funny or charismatic?

PATRICK WINN: The person that I think I learned the most from is this woman named Bam. She is a sex worker in the town I describe, Sungai Golok. She was quite philosophical about life, about how hard it is, and about her need to be malleable and flexible and to never complain or show anger because she's living in this sea of testosterone and warlike men. I was really impressed with her wit and her cunning.

Just being a sex worker, period, is a dangerous job. It's a job that no one would want. You've got guys who are misbehaving in the bar and pulling out knives, and she would have to defuse all of those situations in addition to the insurgency going on outside of her door. I found her to be one of the more clever people, and I thought, Man, if she was just doing something else, she would really be a huge success story.

DEVIN STEWART: Finally Patrick, before we go, what would you say all of these stories amount to in your mind? Is there a big political story here? Is it about globalization? Is it about the rise of China and the setting of the American influence? Or is there some other motif that you've pulled out?

PATRICK WINN: Yes, two things. One, I would just add the caveat that these are stories about organized crime. You could go do stories about mafia in the United States, and I think most people would know, "Well, those are just mafia stories."

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

PATRICK WINN: My book is not the story of Southeast Asia. This is not a particularly dangerous, criminalized place. However, I like to focus on these stories because I think they're matters of life and death, and I note the ways in which the American government is implicated in some of these things, American society is implicated in these things.

I could answer it in a few different ways, but I'll go with this one: The economy is getting bigger. Everyone is go, go, go. Southeast Asia, if it were a single country, would have the fastest economic growth of any major country except for China and India. This is a side effect of that. People are buying more toothbrushes, they're buying more washing machines. They're also buying more methamphetamine and other illegal things.

You can see in these stories about methamphetamine and vigilantes societal upheaval, the end of this agricultural, quiet farming society into this go-go, urbanized, plastic-y, fast-cash type of world that more closely resembles the one that you would find in America. That is a theme that I saw throughout the book.

DEVIN STEWART: It's an important theme. Patrick, thank you so much for spending time with us. Patrick Winn is author of Hello, Shadowlands, and he's also a reporter based in Bangkok, Thailand. Hope to see you again soon, Patrick. Thanks.

PATRICK WINN: Anytime. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less