LAST week I emphasized that with regard to the death—under suspicious circumstances—of a certain North Korean named Kim Jong Nam in a major Malaysian airport, Malaysia must continue to conduct a thorough, professional and impartial investigation in accordance with relevant Malaysian laws (which are typically in line with most other British Commonwealth countries) and also other widely accepted international practice. Despite having 11 of its citizens effectively held hostage in Pyongyang, Malaysia must not accede to the pressure exerted by a certain party which has long been ostracized by the mainstream international community for obvious reasons. Because this other interested party seems to strongly suggest and threaten that the investigation should be hastily concluded, with Kim’s cause of death to be summarily declared a natural and non-suspicious one, and his body handed over soonest.
If such unreasonable and highly unusual implied demands were to be accepted, then the danger of not only Malaysia but a large part of Southeast Asia becoming a “garden of adventures” or “spy heaven” will be imminent. Agents with special or “interesting” backgrounds from all around the world will find it even more inviting—if not already so—to descend upon this easy-going, free-for-all region and operate blatantly without respect for local rules and laws. Sometimes they may just be taking care of their own “family business” here, as was likely in the present case. But sometimes they may take advantage of this region as staging ground for something more horrible.
Are there other such “spy heavens” around the globe? I can think of several. One was vividly depicted in the classic Hollywood movie which bears the city’s name, Casablanca. A major city of Morocco, Casablanca was a famous catchall spot for espionage activities before the Second World War, as depicted in the movie. At least at the beginning of the US-Soviet Cold War, Casablanca remained a famed staging area for special operatives hailing from the conflicting Eastern and Western camps, with exciting dark scenes enacted along its narrow streets. Across the Mediterranean Sea to the west, at the tip of the juncture opening out to the Atlantic Ocean, the British, after having won a war, carved out a little corner of the Spanish coast and built a colony called Gibraltar. Often shown with its splendid cliff, Gibraltar has similarly witnessed many such spy chases over the centuries, with unsung heroes sacrificing themselves for their respective countries under Gibraltar’s famed Rock.
And almost smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, next to the Italian island of Sicily, is the island state of Malta. Throughout history, Malta has been a transit point for various fighters on their way to their spiritual or physical war fronts. St. Peter stopped by the island after a shipwreck on his way to Rome, where he later laid the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. This was only a milder part of Maltese history.
A millennium later, the Roman Church had by then become the dominant religious and even political force in Europe. The Pope then mobilized a crusade, calling upon both the regular forces as well as scattered armed groups throughout Europe to band together and try to “reconquer” the Holy Land, which had by then fallen into non-Christian hands. And one of the most important transit hubs for the rambling Crusaders was indeed Malta. Since then, Malta has become one of the most fought after locations in history. For a long time, Malta was effectively ruled by an organized group of warriors first formed during the Crusades.
During the Cold War, Malta’s strategic location and its then relatively lax governance also rendered it a center for international clandestine activities. In the 1980s, the US Reagan administration adopted a harsh line against the Libyan regime under Colonel Muamar Qadaffi, which also reacted strongly. The Libyan regime then was undoubtedly one of the major state sponsors of global terrorism. It sent at least two of its operatives who, taking advantage of the relatively relaxed security of Valletta airport, placed time bombs onboard flight Pan Am 103. As the plane flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, it exploded and killed all passengers onboard and some below. That was one of the most horrific terrorist attacks before 911.
Nearly two decades ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Malta during a working trip. As I stepped into the main cathedral in Valletta, I was mesmerized by the colorful floor tile patterns. On closer inspection, however, I noticed that they were actually tombstone slabs. As I read the epitaphs (mostly in Latin) which summarized the origins (from all over Europe) and seemingly important accomplishments of those buried below, I couldn’t help but feel for the solemn fate of the island. I had a similar feeling a few days ago as I read of the collapse of a famous natural arched coastal feature in Malta. I hope it will continue to provide a safe but not “easy” heaven for all.