Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Two-faced Nature of Tourism and its Consequences

Anyone who grew up in Alaska is well aware of the antipathy felt by locals toward tourists--they come with their stupid questions and their condescending attitudes. They clog the highways and drive up prices for the summer. They bring their money and their complaints and their disregard for the year-round lives of the residents. Their sense of entitlement is damned near unbearable, as is the knowledge that their dollars give them an experience that few who live in the area will ever be able to afford. When they all leave as winter approaches, it feels as though a very tight girdle has been removed and everybody takes a deep breath.

But what happens in a country where tourists arrive 365 days a year, with the onslaught separated only by high season and low? Where the host culture and those of the visitors clash so severely that the country tries hard to give visitors a watered-down, pre-packaged contact point? Where etiquette is so much a part of tradition that tourists appear barbaric to local eyes?

In Thailand, sometimes the tourists are murdered. Or death comes under clouded circumstances.

This wouldn't be noteworthy if Thailand weren't so insistent that deaths in their country were nobody's business but theirs. And the first order of business is to cover the whole thing up so thoroughly that nobody will think twice about the death. The foreigner who leaps to his death from a top floor in Pattaya is such a timeworn cliche that it's become a bitter little joke. Less amusing and more obfuscated were the deaths of Chiang Mai tourists in one of that city's hotels. There were a number of them in 2010, all at different times and all of them with the same symptoms. Authorities claimed the deaths were from heart disease until two healthy young women died. Then the reasons for their inexplicable and fatal illness ranged from the misuse of recreational drugs to the consumption of bad Japanese seaweed. Foreign medical examiners determined that probable cause of death was from improper use of high-powered insect repellents, intended to kill bedbugs. Thai authorities ignored that implication of manslaughter--tourists don't like to think that death might lurk in their bedroom. And tourism, as ugly as it can be, keeps Thailand afloat.

Social media,as ugly as it can be, is breaking down the institution of cover-ups, as has been evidenced in the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. Every facet of the police investigation has been revealed on twitter and facebook, and shown to be inept to the point of being a tragic farce. No arrests were made until most of the foreign journalists had left the island, but amateur whistleblowers were on the scene when two Burmese migrant workers confessed to the crime after five hours of interrogation by the local police.

The attention to this case has been humiliating to the Thai powers that be; even the Prime Minister has rallied to the defense of a dubious end to a bungled investigation. The burden of his remarks is that foreigners just can't understand the intricacies of Thailand. In other words, mind your own business and keep your noses where they belong.

Meanwhile the country's leading forensic expert has decried the methods used in the Koh Tao investigation and the 300-plus- page police report has been rejected by the local court system as being unclear. The two suspects have claimed their confessions were made under torture and human rights lawyers have come to their defense. This case is not a nine-days-wonder, thanks to the attention drawn to it by social media.

In 1998, pre-facebook and twitter, a Canadian girl was raped and murdered on the island of Koh Samet. A laborer working on the island was arrested immediately and was executed for the crime within a week or two of the death. Much was made of the fact that the dead girl had been drinking in the resort bar with friends and before bedtime had gone alone to the bathhouse to take a shower, clad only in a large towel. A charming little warning was handed to female incoming tourists at Don Muang Airport (yes this was the Dark Ages) saying that they had to dress appropriately while in Thailand or bad things would happen to them. The implication of course was those bad things would be their fault, much like the PM's pronouncement in this century that women in Thailand were only safe in bikinis if they were not beautiful.

Except for people who read the English-language Thai newspapers, and the people related to the dead Canadian, this crime went unnoticed. Even in the 20th century, that rush to execution was extraordinary. Now with what has come to light through social media, it seems suspicious--and very pragmatic. A life or two is easily sacrificed to sustain the economic necessity of Thai tourism.

Death to travelers happens in every corner of the world and so do cover-ups of the crimes. It's the blatant nature of cover-ups in Thailand and the lack of accountability that pervades the institutions of authority that is so incredibly horrible. The deaths of the two British travelers may change this state of affairs, just so long as social media keeps its gaze focused on the official proceedings.

Don't stop looking.


shaved monkey said...

A very well considered and intelligent essay, Janet. I would point out, though, that the Thai knee-jerk reaction of covering up embarrassing crime is not only in place when the victims are foreign. If a young Thai woman is found murdered, the crime will only be investigated if her family has power. If she's poor, and especially if she's a bar girl, the crime will never be investigated. At least that's the way it was 20 years ago, and I don't have any reason to think it's changed much.

Janet Brown said...

True. That poor child who was murdered on the train a few months ago got huge amounts of news space because it was on the Bangkok-Butterworth route that foreigners often take. Another little girl was murdered upcountry shortly after and rated a quick note. It's all face.