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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 3, 2005
Cashing in on Osama
By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - The Osama bin Laden cigarette lighter is adorned with his raised, chrome portrait, an embossed "9-11", sketches of the New York World Trade Center, an approaching airplane, and a big red splotch. When you flick the sleek, metal lighter open, a light-emitting diode illuminates the splotch so it glows bright red on one of the buildings, emphasizing the site of the first crash. Loud, computerized music beeps out a loop of Mozart.

Made in China - as are many of the latest gimmicky Osama bin Laden souvenirs - the butane lighter recently showed up in Cambodia.

"I paid US$2 for it, in the old Soviet market in Phnom Penh," a Canadian traveler, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview after visiting the Cambodian capital. "One man's catastrophe is another man's cheesy souvenir," he said. "I bought three, for the novelty. I'll give them to people who would appreciate the irony that they even exist. When you open it, it plays a classical tune. It's quite freaky, eh?"

The lighter came boxed with a gold-and-black cigarette holder, and was manufactured by Boerda Smoking Set Co Ltd. An Internet search indicated the Chinese company makes various lighters for domestic use and export.

In a crammed, middle-class shopping mall in Bangkok, other bin Laden souvenirs are also currently on sale. A Thai shop selling lava lamps, magic tricks and embarrassing gifts to surprise recipients, offers a small, inexpensive hand puppet of bin Laden wearing boxing gloves. Stick your fingers inside and wiggle them, and little Osama punches the air.

On Bangkok's popular Khao San Road, where thousands of backpackers flock to cheap hotels, restaurants, discos and an avant garde street market, stalls sell droopy, rubbery bin Laden masks alongside other scary faces.

The souvenirs appear to be made not by bin Laden supporters, but by profit-seeking factories that have slapped bin Laden's visage, and symbols of his international Islamist war, onto existing generic toys and other items in a crass effort to reach a fresh demographic of buyers.

While Asian customers often appear non-plussed or bored with the al-Qaeda leader's appearance in their markets, many foreign tourists express shock and awe at the commercialization of the world's most-wanted killer. Other tourists, including Americans, can be seen laughing with sarcastic delight at the cruel globalization of absurdity, despite the outrageous insult to bin Laden's victims.

Thai clothing sellers cater to both sides by offering a high-quality T-shirt adorned with a reverently painted, color portraits of bin Laden; another hangar dangles a T-shirt with the al-Qaeda leader's face targeted inside a red bull's-eye. One common T-shirt in Thailand, which seems to attract mostly cynics and anti-right-wingers, is printed with the faces of bin Laden and President George W Bush side-by-side, and captioned, "CIA and FBI Presents: Twin Terrors".

"I bought one of the T-shirts of the Twin Terrors," said a snickering New Yorker who visited Bangkok's tourist-friendly Patpong Road night market. "But I'm afraid of bringing it back to America. Can you imagine what customs might do to me if they find it in my luggage?"

Much bigger and more bizarre is a 15-inch (37-centimeter), battery-powered action figure of bin Laden. Its "Warfare Puppetry" box promises it "can dance and sing, hands can act, waist can wobble". The plastic bin Laden doll's excited singing is reminiscent of India's Bollywood film songs.

Two fake, plastic hand grenades clip onto the figure's vest. Five tiny, fake rockets, a pistol and a knife are stuffed into its pockets. The doll brandishes a plastic dagger in its right hand and waves a "V" - for victory - sign with its other. Long, gray, lifelike hair flows from its beard.

"Not suitable for children under 3-years-old due to the danger of tearing off and swallowing small parts," the box warns.

In October, French police demanded an investigation when the doll appeared in a Paris shop, amid allegations it was "apologizing for terrorism". The Paris police bust made headlines in Le Parisien magazine. Associated Press picked up the story and it was splashed worldwide, including in the Jerusalem Post.

Around the same time, the high-quality "action singer" doll also appeared in Bangkok's so-called Arab Quarter, where dozens of Middle Eastern, African and South Asian restaurants, travel agencies, hotels, shops, shipping agencies and other businesses cater to Muslims and other visitors who enjoy its crammed lanes lined with signs in Arabic and other languages.

Selling for about $12, the bin Laden doll is often found next to a near-identical one of Saddam Hussein. Both figures are "Made in China". Their boxes show illustrations of four other dolls, similarly armed, including what appears to be a Palestinian guerrilla with its head wrapped in a black-and-white checkered scarf.

Another is a Caucasian wearing a white shirt and bright red tie under its weapons-heavy vest. A bigger picture shows the doll wearing a hat featuring the official seal of the US government - an eagle holding arrows and olive branches.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a hand-held, "Laden vs USA" computerized game is available in Hanoi, Vietnam. The game includes photos of bin Laden wearing a white turban alongside a grimacing Bush. As one plays, using the game's 10 white push-buttons, a matchbox-sized screen shows an image of one of the World Trade Towers exploding while a second airplane bursts into flames after hitting the other tower. The player's low-flying airplane has to defend itself from attacks by jet bombers.

"The game is divided into 20 levels," the package explains. "What's more, the inspiring music will play during the game." On sale for $5, it is similar to a Nintendo Game Boy but built by Panyu Gaming Electronic Co Ltd in China.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. He received a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

(Copyright 2005 Richard S Ehrlich.)

 

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