The Elephant in the Room at TBEX Asia

A travel blogger requested on Twitter that I write something about the political situation in Thailand, rather than merely “trolling” by sharing links about the human rights situation there. And while this may not seem remotely topical by now – it’s well-known that Thailand’s human rights situation has been deteriorating steadily since the May 2014 military coup – it is relevant.

It's not elephant rights that are the elephant in the room at TBEX Asia - it's human rights.

It’s not elephant rights that are the elephant in the room at TBEX Asia – it’s human rights.

For, right now, at the TBEX Asia conference, “professional” bloggers are teaching ethical writing and responsible tourism to aspirants. Afterwards, participants with sufficient Instagram followers or link-vending clout will head off to free stays at hotels, in exchange for an almost always uniformly positive, generally undisclosed and sometimes, for the elite, even paid-for “review”. (Here’s Travelfish on this.)

Here’s the thing. Thailand has always had harsh lese-majeste laws. Yet under the new order, a man was recently sentenced to 60 years (that’s SIXTY years) for Facebook posts – reduced to merely half a lifetime on appeal. Military dictator Prayuth threatened to execute journalists earlier this year.

Holding sessions on ethical writing – not to mention responsible tourism – in a military dictatorship which Human Rights Watch describes as in a human rights crisis legitimises that dictatorship. (Last year’s TBEX Asia Professional Travel Bloggers Association meet-up was in Sri Lanka, a nation with its own history of disappeared journalists and PR problems to cover up.)

As it happens, this is not the junta’s first interaction with the world of “professional” travel blogging. A Thailand fam trip last year insisted as a prerequisite of attending the jolly that bloggers wrote positively about safety in Thailand: oodles of smiling soldier posts ensued.



And, as the junta endeavours to cover up safety concerns following the Erawan Shrine bombing, it probably won’t be the last. So, as the speakers at TBEX won’t have told you, I think it’s important to be aware, when considering travel to Thailand, that there’s more to ethical tourism than being nice to elephants. (Or, as Nomadic Matt pointed out during a previous TBEX PR disaster, not torturing dolphins.)

Does every blog post written about Thailand have to include a mention of the dictatorship? Of course not. But if it’s the dictatorship that is arranging, financing and controlling the content of that post – most of the 600 bloggers at TBEX will spend two weeks in Thailand on junta-led press trips – disclosure is more than usually relevant. A nice little graphic saying “certified junta-friendly” should do it.

Thanks to Michael for Elephants – Chiang Mai (last part), available on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

16 Responses

  1. I thought it was the TAT which create these opportunities, not the Junta. I’m honestly not sure. But would it be any better if funded by a corrupt government? What really do you know? I The human rights situation has deteriorated, but at the same time the country could be in civil war. Which other Southeast Asian country should Thailand follow. Which democracy in the region is better?. What’s the bomb at Erawan got to do with TBEX. What’s elephants got to do with any of this? TBEX might be a bunch of backpacking, freeloading ballbags, but the ‘professional’ travel bloggers opinions are guaranteed to show more neutral than your rants. It’s ridiculous. Note, I would go nowhere near the PTBA or TBEX or any ‘professional’ travel blog associations.

    • Theodora says:

      You seem to have copied and pasted this from a note on my Facebook page, Allan, and it seems to derive from your upset that I didn’t take your post about a 25-baht (70 US cent) “scam” at your local FamilyMart which could have been evaded by the basic strategy of totalling one’s shopping before taking it to the till as seriously as I might have done on Twitter. It’s true that I couldn’t get quite as concerned about the risk of being murdered by the mafia for exposing said 70-cent scam as you did (to be honest, few could). However: there are many democracies in the region (Indonesia’s is flawed, but not a military dictatorship). The bomb at Erawan is directly relevant to TBEX since TBEX helps diffuse understandable tourist fears that the junta may not have quite the control they boast, due to the entire shrine being blown up and all the casaulties et al. Good day.

      • Allan Wilson says:

        I see it more as trolling trolls. I don’t really use twitter. It’s boring as. But I saw your crap and thought I’d do the same as you do to others. Also that post that ended up on Twitter was slight tongue and cheek, and had little to do with the 25-baht (70 US cent) value, and more to reflect… I shouldn’t have to explain this to someone who writes for the Guardian. Anyway I’m copying and pasting again. Again it wasn’t “local”……

        “I’d be interested to know what factual inaccuracies you see in this “rant”?” is a weird thing to say when you’ve provided no facts. I’d be interested in seeing the facts and figures. I went to the TBEX site and flicked about a bit but didn’t see any elephants. Anyway, if you’re writing an article about these things, you should probably include ‘facts’ in the article? no? I might support them if you did, and in honesty I’d like to support them. But everything you mention is obvious. If tourism is down, you invest in tourism? and if there’s a bomb on your doorstep, do you promote it? TBEX was organised long before the bomb and I’m sure if you ask bloggers, they may have been asked to try not mention the negatives if possible, but I’m fairly sure they didn’t have to sign of on it. It’s easy to string together situations and sell them as real.

    • Theodora says:

      You’re getting repetitious, Allan. The links, which include facts and figures, are in bright purple. Click them to follow.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Respect to you for pointing out this very political issue – it takes serious guts in a travel blogging industry obsessed with marketing everything as oh so wonderful, especially the perfect, farang friendly paradise full of welcoming Thais that Thailand is marketing itself so well as.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Stephanie. I thought I’d catch more flak than I have, in fact (at least to date). But the “land of smiles” marketing campaign grates hugely, particularly after Prayuth’s edict about how people should smile more. I’m not sure how effective their 600 sploggers will be in furthering that image, but at least they will feel it helps.

  3. EMB says:

    Very good summary of the situation, thanks for writing it. Any incident in tourist-friendly areas is seen as a threat to Thailand’s most lucrative industry. Our experience with reporting an incident to the police eventually led to threats once word of it spread on social media. Next time we’ll go straight to our embassy instead – which, while relatively powerless, at least has interest in our human rights.

    • Theodora says:

      Wow, I wasn’t aware of that at all, Elizabeth. How horrible for you. And, noted. In the unlikely event I’m in Thailand in the near future, I’ll be sure to go straight to the embassy in case of trouble.

  4. Rosita says:

    Hi, Thea. How time! Hahaha but I’m here now 🙂 I don’t approve none form of tourism who uses animals without becoming informed before about how they’re treated, because I won’t approve animal cruelty about none circumstance. Despite the fact of being Christian, I believe in karma and reincarnation, so, I’ll not intentionally hurt an animal. OK, I have to confess that I visited some zoos during my travels around world, but, fuck off, I was just another traveller misinformed about correct animal welfare. Now, I know that those things can be done of the wrong form and only by money, so, I’ll become more attempt to those things 🙂 now, I’m the good type of traveller, who don’t accept none form of animal cruelty. I would like to move me to Caribbean and found a beautiful animal shelter with an idyllic view of the sea, to those poor and neglected animals know that some persons are very good for them. I also would like that all those wars and terrorism stop, because it’s too unnecessary and stupid. Make war and terrorism for why? I really can’t understand those people who do it. And I’m pretty sure that you also can’t understand them. Weh, I would like that the World’s Peace would be decreed TODAY, to talk the true. I also made a poem about it, you can read it above:

    If all of us awake all the mornings with the frangipani smell
    If don’t exist any form of suffering at this world
    If our world would be better, not that hell
    If our world would be better, without suffering
    If peace and love would be our offering
    For those next generations

    The true love and peace could cross borders
    If we learn the unconditional love
    And the loyalty of a dog
    It would be more gentle than flog
    The dreams of those next generations
    If we could learn the love
    And the hope of a dove
    If all of us would be pure like a child
    The world would be a better place
    With peace, love and grace

    Without war, only peace and love
    With the hope of a dove
    But the world peace could be a historical change
    A change for a better future
    With only happiness and smiles
    Zero deaths, millions of smiles

    What do you think about my poem? I know that’s pretty simple, but what’s your opinion about it? 😉

  5. Rosita says:

    Hi, Thea,
    Despite the sad Winnie story, do you would like to have a puppy or a kitten? 😀

  6. Rosita says:

    Oh, I don’t knew it. Sorry! And what about a puppy? I’m pretty sure that BAWA and BARC have plenty of cute (and healthy) puppies to you. Weh, what do you think about the idea of adopting a puppy?

  7. This is a common problem in the world now a days. Most of the countries are not taking care about human rights. Most of the Asian countries are suffering from human rights crisis. You have described very nicely. Thanks a lot.

  8. Rosita says:

    Hi, Thea,
    I have a new puppy, her name’s Winnie (the Winnie of zombie story that I wrote you was inspired on my own puppy 🙂 and I’m sending you her story, as you can confer it above:

    I was really wanting to have another dog to make company to Cleo, our beloved Yorkshire Terrier, so, I googled “cachorros para vender no Brasil [dogs for sale in Brazil]”, and clicked on an advice that I liked: some puppies for sale in Minas Gerais. And then there was Winnie. Gorgeous, floppy-eared, black Winnie, who didn’t seem to know how to be a normal puppy at all. I loved Winnie at first time, perhaps due to her sweet green eyes or her unique appearance, although it was just typical Pastor da Mantiqueira (Mantiqueira’s Shepherd, in good Portuguese) appearance. I liked she, and, if the dog at the posts about your Winnie (part 1 and 2) was really it, my Winnie may be a reincarnation of your one hahaha but the hard thing was to convince mommy to have another dog at our tiny apartment. Could I do it? Well, yes, I could try. I didn’t knew if she would really accept that, but it was OK. I showed her a photo of the puppy, but, to talk the true, I was concerned with what she would think about it. Luckily, she accepted it…with a promise: that I would walk it all weekends. Weh, I could try, because the idea of having that puppy was mine. Yet having already inflicted two dogs on our long-suffering family, there was apparently no space for poor, forlorn Winnie, but I was decided to keep it with me. Even if she resolutely refused to play with her ball, or her squeaky toy, or show any interest in the sticks I desultorily threw, and seemed positively resentful about being removed from the sofa. I am fresh back from a travel around Chile, and grippling with the vicissitudes of local internet connection, when the gate opens.
    Several months ago, the long-awaited day finally arrived, and cute Winnie was on our home! The first step was taking it to the vet, to an appointment. On release from the vet, I noticed that Winnie was even more quiet than Cleo, so, I really wasn’t waiting anymore of her behavior, because if it was more calm than Cleo, who was very tranquil, it was a zen puppy. Luckily, Winnie, like Cleo, don’t had the worst phase of a puppy: chewing furnitures. The vet said that Winnie really need walk, like all dogs. Mommy and I hold a summit meeting. We ARE, we decide, going to do this properly. We will buy a leash, and take Winnie for walks on the front of the condo, like a pedigree dog. We will spend a small fortune on stupidly expensive pet food so that she gains weight. She might be born onto a little city, we conclude, but Winnie’s lifestyle aspirations are firmly cosmopolitan. Obviously that puppy deserves to walk at Fifty Avenue and Miami Beach and Beverly Hills. How a smart doggy! And so it begins. Winnie does not like her leash. Nor does I like the idea of walking a dog. I literally have to drag myself out of the house. Yet, the more we walk her, the more socialized she becomes. She stops and sniffs at other dogs – occasionally yapping at them, rather unnervingly. I interact with other dog-owners, as the dog-lover person that I am. In one night, I was feeling very bad, with fever, thirsty, but I couldn’t drank nothing due to a terrible sore throat, and, plus, with severe body aches. It isn’t a restful night’s sleep for me, who was feeling bad, with intense pains and I was missing a pet to make company at that night, so, I decided to pick Winnie to my room. “Only that night”, I tried promise to myself. It takes me approximately three seconds of inspecting the scared, disoriented creature in the sofa to conclude that Winnie is somnolent, and, when I took it, she bit me on the right arm. “Mommy!”, I call. “What occurred?”, she asked.
    “Winnie bitten me!”, I said.
    “Just wash it”, mommy said.
    I was concerned about the risk of contracting rabies, so, I dig out Winnie’s vaccination book. She has not had her rabies shots. Drug! It means that I would die on a horrible way, of rabies. Aaarrrrgggghhhhhhhhhh! I washed frenetically my arm, but I was really concerned about catching rabies, although I really wouldn’t like the idea of killing poor, forlorn Winnie to make rabies test, who consists on sending a sample of animal’s brain to lab. I don’t like this possibility, so, I’ll keep Winnie with me, looking if it have any temperament change. Spoiler: no, it didn’t. And killing a dog, specially my own dog, was out of hypothesis, due to profound respect toward all sentient creatures, specially dogs, which I consider as holy creatures, I believe that they can accompany their owners to Heaven, so, I’ll never mistreat a dog. I didn’t took rabies vaccines, but I monitored Winnie temperament during all that time, and I learned valuable life lessons with her. One benefit of small city living? Your favorite restaurant is closely to your home and you can watch a good movie while eating a delicious pizza. I was immersed in a nonsense movie when Winnie jumps on the couch and starts running up and down it. This seems both odd and unlikely to improve the cushions, so I pick her up and put her on the floor. She jumps back on, and sleep on the couch. Winnie always had that odd “sleep ritual”, I don’t know if it’s common to other dogs, because Cleo never did it. Winnie was always a bit strange puppy, but I like it.

    One of our friend’s baby had routinely play with Cleo, and she wanted to know our new puppy, Winnie. Ignoring all advice from interested parties of ‘for god’s sake, get rid of the dog’, and breathing a quiet sigh of relief that I’ve mentioned nothing about having a new dog to the neighbors, specially one of big size, but they probably had noticed until that, mommy and I decide that we will go walk her properly, and bring her a toy to play with while Cleo’s also wanting to play. Luckily, we never had neighborhood problems due to dogs. I delve deeply into the complex and wonderful world of canine breeds and animal health books, and I solemnly decide that I need to train Winnie, as I did with Cleo, but, first of all, we bough a toy for Winnie, who is, after all, only a puppy – and a much-loved puppy, with lots of canine and human friends, as one of our friend’s daughter. And so, they finally visited us, or better, Winnie. “Oi [Hello]”, the child says, brightly. “Au au [Woof Woof!]”, she said, pointing to Cleo, although she wasn’t obviously referring to Cleo, but yes to Winnie. I was a little surprised, but took them through. Winnie entered on a cage, pretty isolated from Cleo, both food and water bowl untouched. Winnie is more forlorn and skinnier than usual, although she was growing a lot. She was growling and snarling to Cleo, and brought her own toy to our friend’s daughter. Mommy and I looked at each other, laughing. Winnie’s always doing funny things, that make me laugh. Winnie’s becoming bigger, with a gorgeous thick black shorthair and looking like a black German Shepherd, although some says that she’s a Doberman, but we’re sure that she’s a purebred Pastor da Mantiqueira (Mantiqueira’s Shepherd, a very own Brazilian dog breed, with an unique genetic pool and a distinctive appearance), due to her pedigree, although it’s unofficial one, because this breed isn’t officially recognized yet. I’ll would found a strictly no-kill dog shelter at future, to compensate all those years of hedonism, buying purebred dogs instead of helping homeless and neglected ones and to honor Black, my first dog, who died due to vet negligence, without any help. To compensate that, I’ll found a strictly no-kill shelter to help stray and mistreated dogs at my city. I am, I decide, assuring, definitely a dog person. Winnie’s most than special for me, as she teaches me to don’t get concerned about small problems and issues neither past, but yes to live the moment and only the moment. Only more one time, if the dog on the photo about Winnie story (part 1 and 2) was really Winnie, I can conclude that my Winnie may be a reincarnation of your hahaha Weh, what do you think about my idea of founding a dog shelter? And what about my loved Winnie’s story? 😉

  9. Ronny says:

    I hope Thailand returns to democracy soon … this has gone on for long enough!