Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Australian Psycho

Eleven years ago this month a gunman with an assault rifle killed 35 people at a tourist resort, in the biggest mass murder in Australian history. What happened next is instructive as America wrestles with the aftermath of its deadliest mass killing, the murders at Virginia Tech.

Port Arthur is a small tourist town on the coast of Tasmania. It boasts an old penal colony that has been turned into a tourist attraction. Late April is the tag end of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and there were still many tourists at the Broad Arrow Café.

Among the lunchtime patrons on that balmy Sunday, April 28, 1996, was Martin Bryant. He calmly finished his meal on the balcony, and then he walked into the main dining room, laid a satchel on an empty table, pulled out an AR15 assault rifle and started shooting.

The first victim was an Asian, Moh Yee Ng, shot through the head literally as he was raising his soup spoon to his mouth. His girl friend was next followed by a dozen or more in the café. Bryant killed some 20 people there in less than two minutes.

He then left the café and moved through the seaside resort, seeking more victims. Several tourists emerging from a tour bus were shot. (It is said that some tourists actually moved toward the sounds, thinking that the gun shots were part of some re-enactment.)

He climbed in his car and drove about three hundred yards. Along the road he spotted a woman and her two children and shot them, actually chasing one of the girls down as she tried vainly to hide behind a tree.

Then he held up in a cottage with one hostage (whom he killed) until finally surrendering to the police nineteen hours after the shooting began. In all, he killed 35 (two more than the Virginia Tech killer, for those keeping count) and wounded 18.

Unusually for such cases, Bryant survived to tell his tale – or sort of, as he never actually confessed, and there are conspiracy theorists who still maintain he was a patsy for other shooters, a latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John F. Kennedy.

He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and was (inevitably) described as a “quiet lad and a bit of a loner”. Nevertheless, he was judged legally sane, convicted of 35 counts of murder and sentenced to 35 life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.

As in the case of Virginia Tech today, there were fears about “copy cat” killings, and for good reason. The Port Arthur Massacre came a little more than one month after the mass killing of 18 school children at Dunblane, Scotland.

But here is where the story diverges sharply from the American experience, since the recently elected conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard went into overdrive to enact sweeping new restrictions on gun ownership.

The federal government strong-armed the states and territories into enacting uniform gun control laws, even threatening to cut off federal funding if they didn’t comply. Under Australia’s constitution the federal government cannot regulate fire arms, but it insisted that the states do so.

Howard even threatened to call a national referendum to pass an amendment to the constitution allowing stricter gun control if the states did not fall in line. He personally appeared before shooter groups to lobby the changes.

Australia’s gun advocate groups are considerably weaker than America’s National Rifle Association and concerned mainly with hunters’ rights rather than self-defense, which is the American obsession. The NRA tried to stiffen their opposition but was firmly told to butt out.

The upshot: mandatory gun licensing; registration of all firearms; an almost complete ban on all semi-automatic weapons, including pump-action shot guns. Additionally, the government levied a temporary 1% income tax surcharge to raise money for a gun buy-back program.

Howard’s strong position on strict gun control apparently did not hurt him with the electorate since his conservative coalition went on to win two more national elections, and Howard himself has become the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history.

Yet Bryant’s Port Arthur killing spree wasn’t the worst mass murder in modern history. That “honor” belongs, with grim irony, to another South Korean, Woo Bum-kon, who killed 58 people, including himself, and wounded 35 in Uiryeong County South Korea in 1982.

In South Korea only the military and the police are supposed to have guns. Unfortunately, Woo was a policeman.

Disgruntled over being transferred from Seoul to the sticks and troubled by some personal problems, he got drunk and went to the police armory where he took a high-powered rifle and a supply of hand grenades (the latter something that can’t be purchased at your neighborhood pawn shop, even in Virginia.)

He then went door-to-door in several of the villages on his beat methodically murdering the occupants before he finally pulled the pin on a grenade to kill himself and a couple hostages.

It is further ironic that the Uiryeong Massacre may have actually altered the history of South Korea in a way that could hardly be predicted. The Interior Minister, responsible for the police force, resigned to atone for the killings. He was replaced by the hitherto obscure Minister of Sport, one Roh Tae-woo.

The more visible and higher ranking cabinet post may have given Roh a leg up since in a very few years he became the sixth president of South Korea.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Letter from Thailand (4)

HUA HIN, Thailand - When I worked for Asiaweek magazine back in the 1990s, we had a feature called the “50 Most Powerful People in Asia.” In the first edition, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand had ranked very high on the list.

This was in the early 1990s when the King had intervened to defuse a dangerous political stalemate in Thailand, after troops had fired on unarmed demonstrators in the capital.

The next year the list was published the King ranked considerably lower. There had evidently been no crisis to defuse in Thailand. Or at least he ranked lower before we caught ourselves and realized “we can’t demote the King.”

If we published the list with a lower ranking for the King, we might get our publication banned in Thailand for lese majeste , insulting the King.. But if we kept him at a level that he didn’t really deserve, we would compromise the integrity of the list. What to do?

We finally hit on an excellent compromise. We carved out a separate box story, called it “Asia’s Most Powerful Monarchs” and put King Bhumibol at the top. That was a safe bet. The Sultan of Brunei may technically be the only absolute monarch in Asia, but elsewhere in the region no constitutional monarch came close to his prestige and subtle power.

Lese Majeste has been in the news of late. A Swiss man named Oliver Jurer was recently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for lese majeste. His offense was to take a can of spray paint and deface several of the King’s ubiquitous portraits in Chiang Mai.

A few days ago the King gave Jurer a full pardon, and he left Thailand for his native land. (presumably never to return to Thailand. At the same time the junta cracked down on the Internet portal YouTube because it had broadcast some images of the King that were viewed as being disrespectful.

Indeed, one of the underlying motives for the September 19 coup was the belief among the military and elite that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had also been, in his own way, disrespectful.

That is not so unusual., Of the several dictators who have ruled Thailand since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, many have taken cover behind lese majeste laws. In the recent political turmoil there has been a surge of lese majeste complaints as political opponents make such accusations to score political points.

When media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul was leading demonstrations against Thaksin a year ago, he was hit with 37 lese majeste charges for comments he or one of his publications supposedly made against the King.

During the uproar over the bungled, one-party national election last April, which was eventually nullified after the King intervened, a certain army captain filed a lese majeste charge against Election Commission chairman Vasana Puemlarp.

His offense: he had defended the general election as being “democratic” when the King himself hadcalled it “undemocratic” in a speech. So in his mind it was an offense not just to defame the King but also to contradict him.

The King himself is free with pardons and has talked vaguely in the past of allowing his subjects to criticize him in a respectful manner. Not many Thais are inclined to take him up on the offer.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

When Speech Can Get You in Jail

Last month policemen arrived at the offices of the Philippine Enquirer, the nation’s leading newspaper, and arrested the publisher, editor-in-chief and several senior editors. Their alleged offense: libel.

Libel? Since when can libel get you arrested in a free country? It might empty your pocketbook in punitive damages in a civil suit, but jail time?

In the Philippine case, the newspaper had printed articles attacking President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s husband Mike for alleged corruption. Those arrested spent a night in jail and then were released after posting bail.

Last week another media mogul, Sondhi Limthongkul head of Thailand’s Manager Group was convicted of criminal libel and sentenced to two years in jail, the maximum penalty. He is free on bail pending appeal.

Both these cases brought me up short, and not just because, as an editor for Asia Times Online, I work for Sondhi. I’ve worked as a journalist in Asia for 20 years, I know that the region is very litigious, yet this was the first time I had heard of criminal libel.

To be clear, civil libel is common, and, in many cases, appropriate, even though it has sometimes been misused in Asia to bankrupt political opponents. Criminal libel uses the organs of the state to punish defamation, and in Asia criminal defamation is used with alarming regularity.

The Philippine news papers targeted in the First Husband’s campaign have not had to pay him a peso in punitive damages, yet they’ve had to shell out thousands of dollars in bail just to keep their editors out of jail. This in a country known for vigorous free press.

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup d’etat last September, was notorious for using libel or threats of libel to intimidate political enemies and cover up misgovernance. Sondhi, who in early 2006 led many anti-Thaksin protests, was hit withat least six civil and criminal suits.

Interestingly, one of the strongest setbacks for criminal libel took place in Indonesia. In 2006 the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that Tempo editor Bambang Harymurti serve a year in jail for libeling a wealthy businessman.

Lest one think that criminal libel is something that only happens in authoritarian governments of Southeast Asia, it is worth noting that 17 states in the Land of the Free also have criminal libel laws, and not all are dead letters.

There have been criminal prosecutions for defamation in Colorado and Oklahoma as recently as 2004, Many cases involved prominent politicians feeling slandered on websites.

Last month Utah’s Legislature repealed criminal laws relating to libel and slander that had been on the state’s statue books since statehood, acting after the courts had invalidated a prosecution. Yet the legislators stubbornly refused to repeal the law making defamation a criminal offense.