It was only when I left Bangkok that I actively investigated the human rights issues plaguing the country. As risible as it sounds, when I was there I was so stuck in the bubble of expat life and ingrained in the culture, that I didn’t pay attention to what was happening around me – the military overthrowing a popularly elected government, Martial Law, anyone who criticised the Royal Family getting chucked in the slammer; that and rampant poverty. I even worked in a Catholic Primary School owned and operated by some of the most right-wing Monarchist creatures I’ve ever met – they were essentially Southeast Asian versions of Franz von Papen. I guess I was so grateful for my own slice of Apocalypse Now that I accepted the lunacy of the environment.
Something that’s troubled me recently is the extent to which one can ignore the human rights abuses of a host country, choosing to discard the unpalatable for the pursuit and pleasures of adventure. I piss around a lot on Instagram, and I am daily presented with the most apolitical of travelogues, almost completely divorced from reality.
In the often trumpeted ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ that is the Middle East, ladies are lashed for the temerity of being raped as jet-setters sip club sodas on trendy rooftops. On another popular page, ‘fearless’ folk hit North Korea for the banter, which consists of karaoke in an empty Pyongyang hotel bar. Meanwhile, government agencies bug your room and the peasants starve to death in Kim Fatty the Third’s death camps.
It’s gotten to the stage now where ignoramus tourists (us interlopers) shuffle around Tiananmen Square bereft of a Scooby that there was a rather … significant uprising there back in ’89. Perhaps the lone protestor halting the column of tanks was from a movie (Tank Man).
In all of this I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw singing Stalin’s praises and spunking all over the Soviet Union as if it were a utopian Animal Farm minus the pigs. As famine raged in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands rotted in the Gulag system, and the Lubyanka Prison accommodated nightly executions, Shaw sat down for a cosy meeting with the “Georgian gentleman”, and shortly afterwards spat out his unforgettable statement: “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them.” Such a contemptible act borders on intellectual bankruptcy, and worse, appears the deliberate propaganda of Mephistopheles himself.
By mingling with such repressive societies, the argument goes, we open them up to progressive politics and liberalism. One should respect their unique way of life, and not expect to transplant our values on them. This rubric also maintains that ‘responsible tourism’ contributes greatly to the economic well-being of the oppressed, especially if you stay in family-owned lodgings and buy from small businesses.
A movie I saw recently, Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), sort of channels this we-know-best zeal, though this through the lens of religious imperialism. In the film, two 17th-century Jesuit priests travel from Portugal to Japan to locate their mentor and spread their faith. At first dedicated to protecting the persecuted local Christians from the authorities, they end up doing more harm than good, inflicting untold misery on the local believers.
That age-old question, wholly prescient in our era of regime change, is whether seeking to convert a ‘backward’ country is more or indeed less beneficial to the oppressed there; will it deliver them more freedom or extend their subjugation, with us as an additional (colonial) overlord?
And it’s not like we in our ivory towers are without our own glaring deficiencies. What is the Electoral College in the US but the manifestation of a gerrymandered, rigged franchise? And what of the colourful catalogue of miscarriages of justice that stain our judicial systems, or even the wanton spying practised illegally for years by surveillance agencies? Democracy ain’t what it says on the tin.
So the prevailing dogma is that you can see these retrograde places but just keep your mouth shut. Boycotting won’t help and neither will donning your missionary garb. I’d like to say I’ll pass on these countries out of a sense of misguided morality, and reserve my travel to Google Images. But I’m just too selfish to not tick these maligned countries off my list. My ‘moral compass’ doesn’t outweigh my curiosity/vanity. I’ve reached that jaded stage in my life where I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I shape nothing. Or maybe I can help a few folk (with generous tipping) on my way to some Instagram hits.