Gemmology Canada - Special Issue
It is always a pleasure to read comments on my articles. And so it
was with Scott Montgomery's discussion (Letters:
JewelSiam, Dec./Jan., 1997, pp. 14-15) of my column,
"Death of the Thai Ruby." 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
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.
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
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 mentioned 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!):
But in my article, I was not referring to those selling sex or
protecting those who do, but the second definitions of each word.
Prostitutes being those who don't use (or aren't able to use) their
talents to the best of their abilities and pimps being despicable
people (also people who don't use their talents in the best of ways).
If Mr. Montgomery has problems with these definitions, I suggest he
direct his complaints to Random House (who publishes Webster's
College Dictionary), not me. At no time did I mean to suggest
that Thai environmentalists were pimps. No, quite the opposite. They
are the heroes.
When I referred to much of Southeast Asia just emerging from the
feudal era at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, I meant exactly
what I said. Once upon a time, places like India, China, Cambodia,
etc. were more technologically advanced than Europe. Indeed, it was
this known superiority which drove Europeans to visit Asia. But by
the mid-nineteenth century, this was certainly not the case, as an
even cursory study of history will show. While Europe emerged from
its intellectual darkness, much of Asia retreated, held back by
religious dogma and despotic rulers. The following from J.M. Roberts
There had long been guns in Asia, and the Chinese had known about
gunpowder centuries before Europe, but the technology of artillery
had stood still there. European craftsmanship and metallurgy had in
the fifteenth century made great strides, producing weapons better
than any available elsewhere in the world. There were still more
dramatic improvements to come, so that the comparative advantage of
Europeans was to increase, right down to the twentieth century. This
progress had been and was to be, again, paralleled in other
The development of weapons in the nineteenth century gave
Europeans an even greater relative advantage than they had enjoyed
when the first Portuguese broadside was fired at Calicut [India;
early 1500s]. Even when advanced devices were available to other
peoples, they could rarely employ them effectively. At the battle of
Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, a British regiment opened fire on its
opponents at 2,000 yards' range with the ordinary magazine rifle of
the British army of the day. Soon afterwards, shrapnel shell and
machine-guns where shredding to pieces the masses of the Mahdist
army, who never reached the British line. By the end of the battle
10,000 of them had been killed for a loss of 48 British and Egyptian
soldiers. It was not, as an Englishman put it soon afterwards, simply
the case that: "Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they
have not," for the Khalifa had machine guns in his armoury at
Omdurman, too. He also had telegraph apparatus to communicate with
his forces and electric mines to blow up the British gunboats on the
Nile. But none of these things was properly employed; not only a
technical, but a mental transformation was required before
non-European cultures could turn the instrumentation of the Europeans
J.M. Roberts History of the World 1993, Oxford University Press, p. 501, 633
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 troops 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
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
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 I will choke from the pollution.
In Southeast Asia today, Singapore is the exception, not the
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
Karma cola culture
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
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, Welsh, Swedish and French-German ancestry, 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
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
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.
Sundown in smileland
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
Just do democracy!
What can we do? If I had the answer to that, I'd be doing it. But
while what to do isn't obvious, what we
need is--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 spent on votes will
later be extracted in 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
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
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 I've slaughtered somebody's sacred cows in the
process, then so be it. As they say, "Kill them all, God will know
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