Swatting away visions of refugee hell
This week the drowned Syrian boy rattles the conscience of Europe — and hopefully the oil-rich Arab nations — while in Bangkok, the Uighur fiasco keeps sending repercussions. In Europe, fierce debates ring across parliaments from the UK to Hungary as to whether countries should take in more refugees to cushion this humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, true to form, the Thai police awarded themselves with cash even though the suspects haven’t been tried and while every suggestion that the Erawan blast was connected with our foul deportation of 109 Uighurs in July is adamantly deflected, as if with fly swatters.
The image of the banished Uighurs covered in black hoods, like medieval prisoners on their way to the gallows, is disturbing, though not nearly as disturbing as the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach. The toddler was among 12 people killed while trying to cross the Mediterranean to a Greek island — and he would have been one of the nearly four million Syrian refugees who have fled war-ravaged Syria, had the high waves hadn’t taken him. What hits a raw nerve, what many believe to be a turning point in the political push to solve the problem, is the photograph of the lifeless boy lying face down, so small and hopeless. There was no blood, no gore, no sensational context, and yet it’s one of the most horrifying images you’ve seen this year.
Of course there are differences. There are geopolitical nuances and finer arguments, but the human problem of refugees around the world has the same gist, from the Syrians fleeing wars to the Uighurs fleeing oppression or the Rohingya fleeing everything. Usually they come by boat, and they run or walk or pay smugglers or officials, because to risk death in unknown waters is better than waiting for one in the place where they were born.
The dead Syrian boy was the latest reminder that people won’t take that kind of fatalist decision, those mad voyages into the cruel sea, unless life gives them no silver linings. Have we forgotten the mass graves in the South with the Rohingya corpses? The hooded Uighurs aboard the plane? We’ve seen photos of those incidents, and while the photographic composition and fate-dictated shots weren’t as heartbreaking as the picture of Kurdi, their implications are the same.
This is a human predicament, but the solution has to be political. And yet in every crisis, we have people like a right-wing MP in the UK tweeting that the dead Syrian boy was “well-clothed and well fed. He died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe”. Remove your ear plugs because there are always powerful men who flirt with inflammatory speeches. In the UK again, David Cameron used the term “swarms of refugees” and, as if this was a competition, our own prime minister recently had his Uighur moment and said they “breed litters of children”. The accident of birth is said to be the most tragic, but remarks like this confirm that the worst tragedy always comes from human and not fate.
So the Uighur connection in the Ratchaprasong bombing has become more visible — despite new hypotheses from the police on a daily basis even after their self-awarded head-scratcher — and even if it turns out otherwise, the way we treated them remains a dark blemish on our records. At the same time, our loathing of the dark-skinned Rohingya sometimes resembles Donald Trump’s rants. That’s where the world is heading, maybe. In handling refugees fleeing tyranny and hardship, I think we fared better in the 1970s with the nearly one million Cambodians running away from the Khmer Rouge. Yes, we got plenty of aid from international organisations then, and sure, there were sinister reports of corruption, abuse and the tacit support of Pol Pot as a buffer against the feared communist Vietnam. But still, NGOs had access to the camps, and we emerged from that harsh decade with some humanitarian dignity.
At present, the nationalist rhetoric has unfortunately gained grounds in depth and breadth — in military-ruled Thailand as well as in some parts of democratic Europe. A nation means us, ethnically, religiously, historically, and those refugees are clearly not us: They’re them, and “them” is a mild poison, a term of cynical exclusivity that is very useful when you need to strengthen your domestic stranglehold. The refugee problem — 13 million of them around the world — is an international problem, and no single nation can handle it alone. Does our leader have that vision? Europe may be awakened by that single photo of a Syrian boy, but we seem to need more than that here in bomb-rocked Thailand.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.