Before the sun sets I’ll be on a flight to Thailand, a country which underwent a military coup less than three weeks ago. At the moment, Thailand is ruled by a junta which has enacted curfews as well as martial law. Their actions are directly opposed by another group, colloquially known as the Red Shirts movement. The Red Shirts have hinted at a willingness to use extreme measures to get rid of the junta. Things look tense from the outside. Several policy articles have even mentioned a potential outbreak of civil war.
I’ve received quite a few messages from friends and family expressing their concern on my behalf. “You’re going to Thailand? Now? They just had a coup, it’s dangerous!” The international press has done their part to make a circus of the situation, by both mocking the new government’s policies and acting as fear mongers. So am I worried about going to a country which just had its government overthrown?
Not at all.
Information from outside sources almost always has some sort of bias or inaccuracy. It’s important to keep in mind that the media needs to capture your attention, and to do it cheaply. Good research is a rarity, and exaggeration is the norm. It is essential to learn to separate the “truth” in the media from the truth on the ground. Off the top of my head I can recall a few glaring examples in which there were huge disparities between reporting and reality.
In December 2008, massive riots swept Greece. According to most reports, they were due to the killing of a 15-year old student by the police. The Greek friends and acquaintances I contacted told me a completely different story. The protests were sparked by the killing, yes, but the main focus was in opposition to policies which had crippled the Greek economy and led to massive unemployment. Since the economic crisis, I have listened to dozens of foreigners crack jokes about the ‘lazy Greeks finally getting their comeuppance’. Greek citizens had been protesting against government policy for years before their economy crashed — and Greeks get no credit for this in the international press. Pre-crisis economic protests barely received any airtime. Why? It seems that for some reason or another the media found it better to turn Greece into the court jester of the EU rather than to acknowledge the subtleties of the issue.
- In November 2010, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four and injuring 19. At the time I was living in Seoul, which is within easy range of North Korean artillery. Obviously, I received many concerned messages from friends and family. The international press made a huge deal out of the attack, and both North Korean and South Korean governments participated in much-publicized chest thumping to maintain national pride. Numerous articles were devoted to discussing the severity of the attack, the largest one since the 1953 armistice. Talking heads on every major network openly discussed the possibility of a second Korean war. In Seoul, life continued without interruption. Korean friends and colleagues expressed absolutely no concern over the issue. I had to struggle to get anyone to talk about the attacks for more than a minute or two. Koreans were unafraid, because they saw the situation for what it was: just another attention-grabbing attack from North Korea, with very little chance of escalation.
I’ve sent quite a few messages to friends in Thailand asking about what’s actually happening after the coup. Unilaterally, their response has been the same: Thailand has a coup every five or ten years, making recent events not so unusual. Stay away from the protest areas, don’t talk politics, and have an escape plan just in case. Otherwise, things should be fine.
It seems that I forgot to mention something which is very important. The most vital part of going to a politically unstable country is knowing what locations are safe and what locations are unsafe.
Many countries like to blame outside forces for political problems: the foreign bogeyman is always an easy scapegoat. This is a popular technique because it is rarely necessary to back up these claims. Do not go to an unstable region if your country is the one being accused of sewing unrest. Even looking like a person from the accused country can provoke suspicion or violence: xenophobes rarely pay much attention to subtlety.
In March, after the invasion of Crimea, I considered making a trip to Ukraine. It’s a country that I have always wanted to visit and foreign invasion does have a nice way of lowering the cost of plane tickets. Most of the country was perfectly safe for foreigners, and would have caused no issue. Yet if I were to travel to the Russian Federation occupied areas — as an American with no apparent reason for being there — the situation may have been unsafe. That is because the Russian Federation accused the United States of trying to secretly generate chaos in Ukraine. We were a scapegoat. Stumbling across the wrong overzealous soldier, suspicious policeman or drunken ultra-nationalist could have been quite a problem for me.
In Thailand, the US is seen as more-or-less irrelevant to the political upheaval. My nationality shouldn’t make things any more dangerous for me. In fact, as is true in many Asian countries, it may actually help. Being an obvious outsider, as long as I don’t directly involve myself in anything stupid I expect to be completely ignored by the police, military and protesters. If I looked Thai, things would be different. As a tall, heavily bearded guy with a torso as wide as a tree trunk, I really doubt there will be any confusion.
As I shove things into my backpack and prepare to leave, I do so without a trace of fear or concern. Just this time… well, I think it’s better if I leave my bright red t-shirt in Seoul.
[Photo from Chiangrai Times]