I TOOK a very short break from covering Thai politics on Tuesday to check out an unusual ceremony taking place almost unnoticed in a meeting room at the UN building on Bangkok's Rajadamnoen road.
You could be forgiven for thinking Thailand is at war with itself.
The media is full of terms like war room, sabotage, M79 grenades, protestors, crackdown, bloodshed and barricades.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has for days, been operating out of a military base rather than his own office at Government House. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra with other red shirt leaders now talks about a "class war".
As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, the army has erected sturdy concrete and razor wire barricades on all approaches to Parliament, apparently in preparation for a session of the House on Wednesday.
Facing them down — or not quite at this stage — are a few thousand apparently unarmed and so far peaceful red shirted demonstrators from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
The men in the room at the UN were from a country with a real war on — Afghanistan. And they were there not to talk about war and weapons, but about the environment.
Afghanistan, where the history of the world has often turned, is usually in the news because of bombs, battles and drugs — not because it complies amidst all the mayhem, with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Destroy the Ozone Layer.
The Montreal Protocol is the world’s most successful environmental accord.
The visitors in the meeting room were from Afghanistan's Customs Department (ACD). For a department with generally low credibility, it was a rare proud moment.
The Montreal Protocol came into force in January 1989. Afghanistan only signed on six years ago, yet achieved compliance in eliminating certain gases, at the same time as far more developed and organized countries that had been working at it for 20 years.
The ACD is on the frontline in more ways than one. Revenue collected has been abysmally low mainly, reports state, because of corruption — among the topmost grievances of Afghans against their own central government and acknowledged to be a huge problem for the credibility of President Hamid Karzai.
The ACD is therefore, on the frontline of a drive to reduce corruption.
In an interview earlier this month with Reuters, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was quoted as saying: "We can fight the insurgency, we can defeat the forces of the insurgency, the ground forces and whatnot. But if we don't have effective governance, credible governance, then you don't defeat the cause of the insurgency.
"Our number one objective may be to put corruption front and centre."
General McChrystal was apparently speaking just before a trip to a border area. Afghanistan is landlocked, so its border is of critical important for national security.
Western governments plan to start building a US$20 million (S$28 million) customs depot at one point later this year, reports say — and there is a frantic effort to build capacity and train personnel. The ACD has this year, launched a Customs Academy in Kabul.
For years, only a fraction of potential Customs revenue has been collected — which essentially means the border is a free-for-all, oiled by the grease of petty graft.
There are signs of hope. In the last year, the ADC has almost doubled revenue collection, from 19 billion Afghanis (around US$38 million) to 29 billion Afghanis (about US$58 million). But it remains a paltry sum.
Against this backdrop, in a wildly beautiful, rugged but battle-scarred country in a brutal civil war, the fact that a few dedicated officers bother to sniff out the gases that are used in various industrial applications, that destroy the ozone layer, is creditable to say the least.
The gases are usually smuggled in small cooking gas-sized cylinders, often hidden with other goods in trucks, or under-weighted in the goods manifest.
The only other journalist there — Ron Corben — and I had a quick chat with Afghanistan’s deputy minister for Customs, Said Mubin Shah, after the ACD signed a partnership agreement with the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) on combating the illegal trade in ozone depleting substances (ODS) which is still smuggled across borders.
We discovered that Mr Shah, who is in his mid 40s, is a former lecturer in economics, and a former senior advisor to Afghanistan’s ministry of finance.
"As part of the international community, we feel we should contribute to the preservation of life," Mr Shah told us.