Life During Wartime
I marched to the battles of the German
trench in a war that was bound to end all wars,
Phil Ochs, "I Ain't Marching Anymore"
It is always a pleasure to read comments on my articles. And so it was with Scott Montgomery's discussion of my column, "Death of the Thai Ruby" (Letters: JewelSiam, Dec./Jan., 1997, pp. 14–15). But his letter brought particular joy, for, as someone whose self-righteousness is quite literally off the scale, it is rare that I find myself in similar company.
Truth be told, I had written a sequel to my previous column, "Death of the Thai Ruby," in which I expanded upon some of the questions raised in the first piece. This is it, modified to address some of the issues raised by Mr. Montgomery in his letter, along with a few other thoughts germane to the subject. Readers bothered by discussion of sex, politics or religion should probably close the magazine now.
Are we ready? Okay, let's go to war.
Give words a chance
In my days as scribe, I have done my best to avoid writing down to people. I firmly believe that readers can judge for themselves my meaning, no matter what their level of English understanding and have fought tooth and nail with various editors and owners for the rights of those readers to do just that.
I am also a firm believer in ambiguity, feeling that the mental exercise of trying to decipher exactly what a writer meant is a productive process, one which brings new perspectives, new angles, new understanding. Humans are creatures of habit. We crave the familiar, abhor the different, the difficult. Learning does not come during periods of equilibrium, but in those instants of altered perspective, difficulty, madness. Thus I make a conscious effort in my writing to raise the emotional pitch of readers, to put them in a different psychological space. Mr. Montgomery refers to this as "attempts to be outrageous and controversial." I plead guilty. Mea culpa.
Since the "Death of the Thai Ruby" was published, I have had feedback from a number of different readers, several of whom speak English as a second language. But with the exception of Mr. Montgomery, not a single one had difficulty understanding my meaning. Reader response was generally one of sadness. This was my feeling also in researching and writing it. In sum, my article was about sadness, a sadness I felt after leaving Thailand for a prolonged period and then returning, and seeing the direction of the country. Thailand is one of the most glorious places on the planet. Thus it saddens me all the more to see its current path.
For the benefit of readers who might not have understood the theme of that article and this one, let me lay it out in black and white:
Environmentally, Thailand is going straight down the toilet. The rapid depletion of the country's gem resources is symptomatic of the country's depletion of other resources, such as forests and fisheries. If residents do not begin to pay greater attention to politics, education and the quality of their leadership (which directly impacts how resources are used), their quality of life and that of their children will be greatly diminished.
Mr. Montgomery took issue with my numbers. The unspoken implication from his letter is that, because Thailand's forest cover will only hit 10% in the year 2010, things ain't so bad after all. The sky won't fall til then. Thanks, Mom. Is it safe now to play on the freeway? With statisticians like this, I guess we really don't need ethnic cleansing.
The numbers in my article were never meant to be exact, but simply indications of the trend (which is why they weren't referenced). Call it artistic license. Any native speaker of English who truly believed that I meant it literally when I said "fish no longer swim in Thai waters" needs to take a remedial course in English literature. I guess that includes Mr. Montgomery.
"Death of the Thai Ruby" was essentially meant as a jumping-off point for a discussion of Thailand's environmental problems. I find many parallels between the country's rapid depletion of gem resources and depletion of other natural resources.
Before gettin' down to bid'ness let's get our terms straight. Here are a few definitions from Webster's College Dictionary (1995). Note that there is more than one meaning for each word (there's that damned ambiguity again):
Let's take an example closer to home, that of the final Anglo-Burmese War. By 1885, the Burman empire at Ava was so weakened by corruption and despotism that a relatively small force of 10,000 British and Indian troops was able to sail up the Irrawaddy River and seize control of the Burmese capital in a matter of days. Who did the Burmese have constructing their fortifications? A couple of Italian engineers, who immediately fled when they saw just which way most of the cannon balls were flying. Cholera killed more British soldiers than did royalist Burmese troops.
This is precisely an example of the impact of what Mr. Montgomery says is non-existent – the effect of superior technology on Southeast Asia in the past 150 years. Europeans were able to colonize much of Asia precisely because of their technological mastery. Was the colonial era a non-event in Southeast Asia? Tell that to the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Lao, the Burmese, the Indians and so many others.
Need a more modern example of technology's effect on Southeast Asia? Try Bangkok. Walk down any major road. Open your ears, your eyes, your mouth. What do you hear, what do you see, what do you breathe? If it ain't the effects of industrial-strength technology, baby, then I do believe you're a few slices short of a loaf. Early in 1997, the World Health Organization declared that Bangkok's air pollution had surpassed even Mexico City and was the world's worst. The city's pollution today is so bad that many EU countries will not allow young children to accompany their parents if they are stationed in Bangkok.
Go to a major First-World city. Do you find the same degree of environmental abuse? No. Why? It's education and democracy. They have greater mastery of the technology, along with a greater say in just how badly somebody in power can screw them. Does this have anything to do with language, cultural or religious differences. No.
Do I believe, as Mr. Montgomery suggested, that Southeast Asians are not mentally capable of handling modern technology? My answer is yes, they do not have the same capabilities as average First-World citizens – unless they are given proper training. Training levels in much of the Third World are far below those of developed nations.
Check out Singapore. It is truly a multicultural and multireligious place. By any historical, cultural or religious yardstick, they should be pounding each other into a bloody pulp, but they don't. Why? They have an educated, enlightened leadership, freely elected by an enlightened, educated populace. It is one of the most technologically advanced places on the planet. Okay, maybe I can't buy my favorite brand of bubble gum in Singapore, but there is also little chance that my children or I will choke from the pollution. In Southeast Asia today, Singapore is the exception, not the rule.
As for my comments on Thailand's gem mining industry, did I mean to imply that all the owners of Thai gem mines are pimps? No. Did I mean to imply that some are? Damn right. In the late 1970s-early 1980s, the Thai government banned the use of heavy equipment at gem mines in Chanthaburi and Trat provinces. Why did they do this? Just seeking squeeze? Possibly. But the major reasons were government officials' fears that mechanized mining would result in rapid clearing of forest and rapid depletion of the deposits that had provided generations of employment for so many families. Were they right? Of course. Modern methods provide employment to far fewer families, which means far fewer miners' families getting those "better clothes, better housing and better medical care…" that Mr. Montgomery is so concerned about. To top it off, careless application of modern mining resulted in serious deforestation in the 1970s and 80s.
I am not calling for an end to mechanized mining and will be the first to acknowledge that the pay layer of certain gem deposits is too deep for traditional mining methods (the prime example being Bo Ploi's sapphire mines in Kanchanaburi). But with the realization that gems are a non-renewable resource, surely it would be prudent to exploit such deposits at a rate which would provide good longevity and maximum employment, with minimal clearance of forested areas. This is precisely what has been done in Sri Lanka (2500 years and counting).
As for karma, Mr. Montgomery will have to save that for a meeting with his god or gods (if any). I don't believe. Karma is a nice fairy tale, something for keeping the poor and disenfranchised humble and stupid. I don't believe in the afterlife – no Mt. Meru in my future – it's now or never for me.
In addition, I simply don't buy into the noble savage/native jive, nor in any inferior or superior race or culture, no matter what the angle of the forehead or color of the eyes. As Mark Twain once said: "I don't need to know a man's race to hate him." Nor, I might add, to love him.
We are all humans. Different beliefs but the same motivations. Until and unless you change the motivations (hunger, sex, money, power, fear, ego), you are not going to change human nature. Which remains the same all across the planet.
My sins are many, but racism or cultural chauvinism (inter or intra or whatever) are not among them. Raised in America, I am a mixture of Scottish, English, Swedish, Jewish and French-German, but close to half my life has been spent in Asia. My wife is Thai-Chinese, my daughter is half Chinese and half of my mixed ethnic bag and is named after an African-American blues singer, Billie Holiday (primarily because I fell in love with her melancholy song, "Strange Fruit," about a white lynching of a black man in the American South).
In my life I've watched from both near and afar dozens of different political, religious, ethnic and cultural groups do their absolute best to both love and beat the bejesus out of each other. And so have come to the conclusion that those factors are marginal in the total spectrum of just who gets hit and who gets loved. So Mr. Montgomery will have to use his inter-cultural ignorance schtick-cum-shit to wax somebody else's pole, not mine. It does nothing for me. I don't feel a thing. No rise at all.
Frankly, if some general/politician decides to prop up a military junta by cutting timber or fishing deals with them, I don't give a 45-kyat chit if his name is Montgomery, Eisenhower, Khun Sa, Chavalit, Churchill, Westmoreland, Sadaam or Amin. It matters not the least if they "understand the local culture" or speak the local language. The issue has absolutely nothing to do with race, culture, language or religion. It does have to do with political power, economic situation, education and brain activity. Anyone with more than half an education and half a brain will realize what is best. But without economic clout and political power, the chances that their voice will be heard in the Third World today is nil.
Cutting timber in a neighboring country which represents virtually the entire watershed of your own will not get you a gold star during show-and-tell in my classroom. Similarly, I don't consider the idea of a country, which has exhausted its own fisheries, moving on to fish the waters of its neighbors an Einstein equation. There ain't no net stretched out there at the border between the Stupid Sea and Gulf of Gaff. If you have children, or give a damn about those who come after you, you can't like what's happening.
The choices are there to be made. Some are better equipped than others to make them. It has nothing to do with race, culture or language. I guess this is why I'd rather choose a surgeon who has been to Harvard medical school than a village witch doctor. But this is still no guarantee. Which is why democracy is important.
Let's take the example of a Southeast Asian fisherman. Once upon a time, he used to fish near his village with his father and brothers, but can no longer do so because the catch is continually declining due to overfishing. So he gets work on an ocean-going trawler owned by the village's business wizard. The trawlers are far more efficient at catching fish. Even so, due to overfishing, their catch is now declining.
The trawler-owner's son, with his newly-minted MBA from Pepperdine University, returns and decides that crew costs are too high. So he sacks half his crew. To increase his catch, he installs radar to locate fish, and begins to employ drift nets, along with decreasing the net size, despite knowing full well that this will impact all future catches (since young fish are caught and killed along with the adults). Soon, catches in local waters decline to the degree that he illegally sends his trawlers into the waters of neighboring countries. Crews are caught and imprisoned. His response? Fat bribes to government officials in that country so that his trawlers can use the same methods in foreign waters that have already had such devastating effect on catches in those of his own country.
Is this the only possible scenario? No, it isn't. Some people do think about tomorrow. Try this. The son of a prince of one of the feudal states in Southeast Asia is sent abroad to study. Because mining is a major industry in his home area, he studies mining engineering. Upon his returning home, he institutes land reform, returning what was once crown land to the peasants (let's avoid that nasty word, 'feudal') who work it. Simultaneously, he works to develop more efficient methods in both mining and agriculture. These methods are geared to be self-sustaining, with a minimum of environmental damage. But his power-to-the-people approach does not sit well with his country's military. They seize power in a coup; he is then arrested and murdered.
Two people, of similar ethnicity, religion, culture and education, but opposite approaches to solving problems. Who would you choose to be your boss, your headman, your leader, your father, your mother?
These are precisely the kinds of choices that much of the world is facing, particularly the Third World. Do we take a quick profit today, and damn the consequences, or do we think about tomorrow. For the disenfranchised, the hungry, those who lack the economic, educational and political clout, it is obviously more difficult to think about tomorrow. But for their leaders, those who do have access to fine education, money and political power, it is different. If they choose only personal profit, even though they know that the long-term consequences might be catastrophic to the environment and country as a whole, I believe they are wrong. And if saying so upsets Mr. Montgomery's satay-stick dart party, I don't care.
Today, Thailand is at war, waging war on the planet. Environmentally, the country is a setting sun. Worse still, she is exporting her sunset to her neighbors before theirs has even had a chance to rise. This has nothing to do with Thais, Chinese, Burmese, Lao, Cambodians, Indians, Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, monogamists, atheists, polygamists or any other ists, ese, ao, ians, ans or ai. It has nothing to do with the nationality, religion, ethnicity or culture of anyone in the country. It's the economy, stupid! The Third World's poor simply do not have the money to buy the education and democracy needed to understand exactly how they are being manipulated by their leaders.
It does have to do with the human beings who live in Thailand. Specifically, the leadership of the country, political, business, religious and otherwise. I truly believe Thailand's population is being sold down the river by her leaders, many (but not all) of whom I would label as pimps (despicable people). Need names? This magazine won't let me print them. Does this include all of the country's leaders? No. I hope that's not too ambiguous.
What can we do? If I had the answer to that, I'd be doing it. But while what to do isn't clear, what we need is obvious – greater education and democracy. Once people have a greater say in, and knowledge about their own affairs, corruption tends to lessen. It is much harder to buy the vote of an educated person, who realizes that any money they earn by selling their vote will later be re-extracted in triplicate via corruption. Need statistics? Vote buying in Bangkok, the best-educated part of Thailand, was almost unknown during the last election; vote buying was heaviest in the Northeast (the least-educated, poorest part).
When people have a greater say in their own affairs, they generally live longer and live happier. This is the power of democracy. While it might be Greek in origin, democracy is an idea that has universal appeal and significance. It has no culture, no ethnicity, no religion, no Asian values, no nothing. It is simply a good idea. Get it? Paper was also a good idea. The fact that Chinese invented it hasn't stopped the rest of the world from using it.
Will Thailand's environmental sun rise again? Yes, of course. But the way things are going, this will probably take several generations. Long enough that I don't want to hang around to watch myself or my relatives die from my own stubborn self-righteousness. I've had enough of life in wartime. I ain't a marchin' anymore. Unlike so many people in Asia, I have a choice. And I am exercising it.
I also have a chance, a chance to air my opinion. Again, many do not have this chance. They have my sympathy. Which is why I wrote what I did. If this devil has slaughtered somebody's sacred cows in the process, then so be it. Kill them all, God will know his own.
I wrote this and the "Death of the Thai Ruby" after returning to Thailand in 1996, following four years in the USA. Much of what I warned against has now sadly come true, but, at the time, the managing editor of JewelSiam deemed the present article "too controversial" and so refused to print it. Alas, perhaps there is karma, for she lost her job one month later and the magazine went tits up shortly thereafter.
It never ceases to amaze me that articles such as this, which would raise not a single eyebrow if published in daily newspapers or mainstream magazines, are thought "too controversial" for the jewelry trade press. Maybe jewelers and traders are just a bunch of wusses, or perhaps the editors of such magazines understand only one-syllable words: "See Dick. See Dick run. See Dick piss. See Dick piss on my leg."
See also Thailand After the Fall
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Page updated 16 January, 2014