Monday, August 21, 2006
THAILAND IN THE HEADLINES
he Jon Benet Ramsey case suspect was expelled from the country last night, topping off four days of media circus activity and generating innumerable headlines in US newspapers and TV shows. Frankly I wasn't planning on mentioning it, beyond perhaps recounting how bizarre it was to come into my office last Thursday morning, tuning in Associated Press TV on the sat dish, and seeing the street scene located just a few blocks away from here at the Immigration Dept. jail.
So there you have it -- hardly worth mentioning really, and I probably wouldn't have bothered. But the sensationalist American pop media were pretty darned excited about it all, and in the frenzy to get every possible lurid angle covered, a lot of crap was written about this country and its supposed "dependence" on sex tourists. If a person knew nothing of Thailand but what they picked up from the cascade of stories on John Karr, they would come away with an impression of the Kingdom that had only the most tenuous relation to reality.
My intention is not to white-wash the situation. Tourism is a major sector of the economy, which isn't surprising for such an amazing and unique country. Prostitution exists here, and some foreigners evidently come for that reason. Within that small minority of visitors is a subset of creeps looking to do things with kids. Sex with minors is highly illegal, and carries very heavy penalties. When such people are caught, they are prosecuted to the fullest extent and sent to prison, or in some cases expelled to their home countries for prosecution there (where such legal agreements exist). This stuff is not tolerated here, as Thai society -- like most societies -- is sickened by it.
Every government I've seen in the past 15 years has taken this issue seriously, because the citizens were sick and tired of the reputation (often excitedly touted in western media) that drew these paedophiles to the Kingdom. Thailand is practically off the paedophile trail now, though it's by no means eradicated (if such a thing ever can be, anywhere). They've mostly moved off to Cambodia, Vietnam or other places where enforcement of law is less committed on this issue.
But for the sensationalist pop media to conflate the weight of tourism in Thailand's economy, the existence of prostitution and the problem of child exploitation -- wrapping them all up in one big package and declaring the country a "paedophile's paradise" that is dependent on a "billion dollar sex industry" (and children being touted as a major part of that) -- is absolutely idiotic.
Maybe some of these journalists and experts might consider visiting once before making such declarations, or at least have one visit under their belt within the last 10 years. If you think I must be exaggerating the seaminess of the reports, 2Bangkok has a roundup of US media coverage over the past few days. "The way Wall Street is to finance — Bangkok is to pedophiles..." Yeah, well screw you too, ABC News. You don't have a clue.
The really annoying thing for me is that we have recently witnessed the most incredible, inspiring and emotionally moving expression of Thai culture and nationhood, with the celebrations for His Majesty's 60th Coronation Anniversary. The Thai people put on a display of their cultural identity as an expression of love and deep respect for their King, the magnitude of which will not be found in any other country on earth. The outside media gave it passing notice.
Most of us will not be fortunate enough to experience anything like that in a lifetime, so it would seem to have been noteworthy enough. But only last week I read somewhere, in a story about Fidel Castro, that the ailing revolutionary was cited as the world's "longest serving head of state." H.M. King Bhumiphol has that distinction, as any journalist who has been paying attention lately would probably remember. Queen Elizabeth II has also been head of state longer than Cuba's dictator. I suppose constitutional sovereigns are just less romantic than communist revolutionaries.
But never mind. Thailand is getting far more column inches from John Mark Karr. And millions of people will have the pop media version of Thailand (and Bangkok particularly) as some sort of vast kid-sex playground, seared into their brains. Not to mention some of those news consumers who may just happen to go for that sort of thing, and are already making their travel arrangements.
Creeps like that need to be told that they will not be welcomed here, and that they face the prospect of living out their life in very unpleasant prison conditions should they be caught here indulging their fantasies. John Karr (if he indeed had any such plans for his life here) should be damn glad he's in the States right now. Whatever cell he sleeps in tonight, it will be luxury by comparison.