Steve Schertzer

From Boulder to Bangkok

Thailand at a crossroad


On Christmas night 1996, something horrible happened to a six year old girl. Someone snuck into the home of this little girl and waited secretly for her return. This "Someone" was obsessed with the girl in ways most us cannot understand. In the hours that preceded her death this "Someone" gained the girl's trust. Right now, we can only guess what was said to her by this "Someone." His obsession with the little girl, ugly as it was at the time, quickly turned uglier as he strangled her and bashed her on the head.

This little girl's name was JonBenet Ramsey and her home was in Boulder, Colorado. It was Boulder's only homicide that year, but it was a biggie. It would be a homicide that would grip a town, a community, a state, and a nation for almost 10 years. JonBenet's parents were suspects, and falsely accused of the murder by Boulder's District Attorney's Office and by many members of an overzealous media trying desperately to find the killer.

Fast forward nine years and seven and a half months from Boulder to Bangkok. The two places could not be more distinct. Or so it seems. Boulder, a calm, sleepy community of 97,273, nestled in Boulder Valley where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains. Clean air, wide open spaces. A good place to settle down and raise a family among almost 17,000 other families in Boulder.

Then there's Bangkok, a sprawling, suffocating megalopolis of almost 10 million people, many of whom are just trying to survive on its mean streets filled with cheap knock-off brand-names items and cheaper real no-name people. A place where the filthy rich lock themselves away behind iron gates when the sun goes down, while the dirt poor scour the streets day and night in search of food, drink, and a safe piece of pavement to call home.

On the streets of Bangkok nothing seems real, but everything is. From the noodle vendors trying to survive on $150.00 a month, to the seven and eight year old urchins selling everything from garlands to gum. From the old women fanning themselves, more to keep the flies away than from the oppressive heat, to the hookers hustling fat balding foreigners for their night's pay. Bangkok has it all. It is a city that truly doesn't sleep. And when it does, the sleep is fitful, like an old dirty dog twitching from fleas and nightmares. It is a city where anything can happen, and often does. A city where people come by the millions--- 12 million a year by last count--- to have fun, to laugh, to play. Some come to Bangkok to work and study. While some students study law, others come to Bangkok to escape the law. Bangkok is one of the few places on earth where one--- anyone--- can re-invent themselves, truly becoming someone else.

If you don't like yourself, (and how many of us really do?), if you're not happy with who you are, (and how many of us really are?), then Bangkok just may be the place for you. Many people come to Bangkok to find themselves, while others come to be themselves. Either way, Bangkok always has what people are looking for.

For those who haven't read my column steadily, I lived in Bangkok from June 2004 until December 2005. I taught English there for those 18 months and enjoyed it very much. I'm currently teaching at a public middle-school in Pusan, Korea. So when I heard that a teacher, an EFL teacher at that, had been picked up in Bangkok on suspicion of the JonBenet Ramsey murder, I knew that things would change. Or, at least, I hope that things will change. For the better. I, like everyone else, heard the name John Mark Karr for the first time when he was detained by Thai Immigration Officials on August 16th.

We now know that John Mark Karr did not kill JonBenet Ramsey. His DNA did not match the blood at the scene of the crime. So why did Karr confess to a murder he did not commit? That's something for psychiatrists to ponder. But Karr did talk, and what he said made a lot of people sick. Thailand has been a home and a haven for paedophiles for years, and although the situation has improved in the last decade, Thailand is still a home away from home for the perverted, the dispossessed, the sick, and the just plain weird with the promise of satisfaction for every sexual proclivity known to man.

Yes there has been, and still are other teachers in Thailand and elsewhere who take part in abusing children, but this case is different. What makes it different is that now, for the first time, EFL has a name and a face. And the name and face is that of John Mark Karr. The same John Mark Karr who married and divorced two under aged girls in the United States. The same John Mark Karr who's mother believed he was possessed by demons and attempted to burn him alive while he was an infant. The same John Mark Karr who was arrested in 2001 for possessing child pornography. The same John Mark Karr who had his facial hair permanently removed and acquired about a sex-change operation while in Bangkok. And the very same John Mark Karr who has spent the better part of the last five years globe-trotting around Asia and Central America teaching EFL. And that is just some of what we know so far!

No doubt that Mr. Karr has had a very interesting past. What makes Karr special and so very important for the EFL world, is that he is simply, and whether we like it or not, one of us. An EFL'er. For too long many of us EFL'ers have prided ourselves and our occupation on the fact that we accept just about everybody. No one is discriminated against in our world. Hey, got a Bachelor's Degree? A TEFL Certificate? No. No problem. You can still teach EFL. You got a mouth, don't you? You can speak English, can't you? Yes? There you go! You start Monday!

Perhaps you think I'm being a bit silly here. Maybe. But how many EFL'ers are working illegally in Thailand, (and elsewhere), because the schools need them and can't be bothered with the legalities of the paperwork? No one knows for sure, but it's a lot. How many EFL'ers are teaching in Thailand, (and elsewhere), with a fake degree or with no degree because the schools need them and can't be bothered doing a simple background check? No one knows for sure, but it's a lot. How many EFL'ers are in Thailand under the guise of teaching, but are really here to scratch a sick sexual itch? No one knows for sure, but it's probably more than anyone cares to admit.

This from an editorial from the August 22nd edition of The Nation titled, "A perfect lure for paedophiles."

"Another worrying trend is that some paedophiles, fully aware that commercial sex involving minors has become scarcer and riskier here, now come to Thailand to live and work under the guise of legitimate professions like English teaching. Such jobs are plentiful and allow paedophiles access to impressionable youths.

Indeed, many paedophiles busted by the police were found to have used fake credentials to land teaching jobs at reputable schools, thanks to lax screening procedures and a failure by the Education Ministry to regulate language schools."

I fully realize that the vast majority of paedophilia, whether in Thailand or elsewhere, is home-grown and aimed mostly at the local population. But it doesn't excuse the fact, and should never excuse the fact, that a lot of it is not. I also fully realize that around the time that Karr was detained, two male Thai teachers where themselves accused of raping five underage girls at a Bangkok school. In fact, the Director of the school, a woman, came out in support of the teachers and allowed them to stay at the school, (and to even perform rites), while they are being investigated. These teachers are innocent until proven guilty, but it is interesting to say the least how this local case was handled compared with John Mark Karr.

Which raises the question of what should be done with the foreign element who abuse children, sometimes the very children that they have been entrusted to teach. A lot has been said in the press and on the ajarn forum about background checks, including both credential and criminal background checks for all foreign teachers. This is a great idea, but for this to work the Immigration Department needs to clean up its act as well. It also needs the help of the schools, the parents, and the general public all working together to ensure that only law abiding and truly qualified teachers are hired. Is all this doable? Let's look at the facts.

First, Immigration officials in most poor and developing countries hardly make enough money to survive, and that includes Thailand. Any bribes that they receive for turning a blind eye, is usually most welcome. Second, the schools need teachers. It wasn't too long ago that many English language schools in Thailand where fighting a new MOE regulation which required all foreign EFL teachers to complete a 120 hour TESOL course in order for teachers to receive both a work permit and a teacher's license. Even to this day there are far too many EFL teachers without a TESOL certificate and thus without the required work visa. Third, although most parents are concerned about unqualified EFL teachers, both they and the public in general feel powerless to prevent unqualified and under-qualified EFL teachers from working in their country, and paedophiles posing as teachers from entering their country. They feel that the checking of a teacher's credentials is each school's specific priority, while imposing criminal background checks should be the exclusive domain of the Immigration Department or the Department of Justice.

For far too long, English language schools throughout the world have put unqualified and under-qualified teachers into the classroom, not to mention the sick, the perverted, and the just plain weird. It's a simple case of supply and demand. There are just not enough good and qualified teachers for all those who want or need to learn English. For most language schools, it's better to have an unqualified teacher in the classroom than no teacher at all. No teacher at all doesn't pay the bills. No teacher at all doesn't keep the language school owners happy when they see their bank accounts blossom. No teacher at all cannot fool the parents into thinking that their children are actually learning something. So any warm, white skinned, Western body in the classroom is better than no body at all. One can only hope that this kind of greed and stupidity does not extend to paedophiles as well.

As for getting a criminal background check, it's pretty easy and painless. In my case, I did it from overseas here in Korea. I had to have my fingerprints taken at the local police station. I sent those fingerprints along with the application form and a fee of $25.00 Canadian to the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP) in Ottawa, Canada. It cost an additional $16.00 at the post office, and if I include the taxi fare to and from the police station, it was another $10.00. So $51.00 Canadian or about 1,700 Baht to have the privilege of teaching in a public school. It usually takes between six to eight weeks to receive a reply.

Checking the teacher's credentials and demanding criminal background checks are just two things that must be done. After all, this is considered routine in first world countries that employ teachers. But focusing primarily on an EFL teacher's credentials, or lack thereof, in Thailand's quest to improve the quality of English teaching would be just plain silly. Yes, qualifications are very important, but remember, John Mark Karr came to Thailand highly qualified. He was a substitute teacher in California, and is probably more qualified than the vast majority of EFL teachers currently in Thailand. He also dressed well and looked like a real teacher, according to the people who hired him. "Packaging" seems to be nine-tenths of what constitutes a "real teacher" in this part of the world.

Israel's national airline El-Al likes to say that there are no suspicious packages, only suspicious people. They're right. By focusing mainly on the package, Thailand, as well as many other Asian countries, may be fooling themselves into believing that just because a teacher wears a long-sleeve lily-white shirt and a plain grey tie, that he is somehow above the sick, perverted, paedophile fray. This is simply a perception, not necessarily a reality. Focusing less on the package and more on the person is a good place to start.

Since 9/11, law enforcement officials and agencies around the world have been sharing information in an effort to prevent another huge terrorist attack. They call this "interoperability" and it seems to be working. The same technology, communication systems, and information sharing that is keeping terrorists off airplanes, should be used to keep paedophiles out of our schools. It should be done, and it must be done.

A friend of mine teaching here in Pusan contributed this idea on www.pusanweb.com if we want to take this new technology and information sharing one step further. He sees a new kind of passport coming into fruition. In his words, "This new passport would contain a biometric thumb print, a retina scan print, a DNA/medical chip containing information about a person's blood type, etc., and a government chip. This new passport would instantly connect Immigration officials with the traveller's government thereby revealing whether or not the person has a criminal record or is listed as a suspicious potential enemy of the State."

Sounds like something out of Mission Impossible to me, but who knows? In the kind of world we're now living in, it just may happen one day. Although his idea of this kind of passport would be used to protect us against terrorists, it can also be used to keep paedophiles out of countries like Thailand, and especially, out of EFL classrooms.

This from an article in the Bangkok Post on August 27th under the headline, "Thailand under a familiar glare":

"The coverage of the Karr case has left Thailand, however unfairly, in its aftermath, looking pretty ugly to much of the world. What is doubly disappointing is this publicity (aside from that it was brought on by an American paedophile that Thailand never asked for) is that it perpetuates an image that Thailand has spent much of the last 10 years trying to undo."

Yes there has been certain NGO's and individuals, both in public and private life, that have been working tirelessly in bringing about positive change in this area. But Thailand's reputation as one of the sex capitals of the world is very much earned. As anyone who has ever lived in Thailand knows, there are hundreds of thousands of locals who benefit from the sex industry. And it's going to take a very long time indeed to undo it. It has been said numerous times that the Thais are a very tolerant people. That's true. But could it be that this very tolerance is one of the driving factors that perpetuates a sex industry that is destroying the very foundation of what supposedly constitutes a civilized society?

Thailand needs a lot of angry people--- very angry people--- to stand up and shout, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!" But the apathy, powerlessness, and fatalism that has permeated all levels of Thai society has strangled any real efforts to make any serious dent in a sex industry that has kept hundreds of thousands of people dependent of sex tourists and paedophiles for their very livelihood. In a situation like that, the John Mark Karrs of the world are a very welcome sight indeed. While some Thais are angry and really want to do something, too many others throw their arms up in the air in resignation and say, "Oh well, another pervert farang. I just hope he has money." And the story and cycle continues.

In the end, it's up to Thailand. They got themselves into this mess, and it is they who will have to clean it up. That may be horrible to say, but Thailand is now at a crossroad. Will the Thais get together and finally stand up and shout in unison, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!", or will they simply sit back, close their eyes, and think of the money? After all, the sex industry in Thailand is a one billion U.S. dollar a year business, or between three and four per cent of Thailand's Gross Domestic Product. That's a lot to give up for a developing nation.

There has been great strides in Thailand during the last decade. Law enforcement officials are arresting more people who abuse children. More children and young adults are attending school. Loans for students and vocational training for them have been introduced to some poor families. And it also must be repeated again and again that there are many kind-hearted, dedicated, and well qualified EFL teachers living and working in Thailand. These teachers work tirelessly in an effort to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. Their efforts should never go unnoticed or taken for granted. But more needs to be done, and more will be done once more Thais enter the middle-class. If one statistic tells the story, it is this from the August 20th edition of the Bangkok Post under the headline, "Reality still harsh for many."

"A radical inequality in income is visible as the richest 30% of the population hold 82% of the income while the poorest 30% hold only 9%."

The rich and the middle-class do not sell their children into prostitution. If the rich and the powerful of Thai society really want to change Thailand's image from a sexual playpen where far too women and children are bought and sold to the highest bidder, to a caring and compassionate society where children and their futures are valued, then they would do well to help the poorest of their own country. And as for the poor who sell their children into prostitution, it is time to begin loving your children more and start loving money less.

Although we now know that John Mark Karr did not murder JonBenet Ramsey, he remains one sick charlatan among the thousands of sickos, weirdos, and perverts that are allowed to enter the Kingdom of Thailand every year. Karr is, and should remain, a black eye on Bangkok's already bruised and battered corpus. There are many in the Kingdom, from politicians to members of the media, that would love to blame us foreigners for the mess that Thailand finds itself in. Although many of us are not totally blameless, we should never allow Thailand to get away with placing the lion's share of the blame on others, while much of their own population languishes in the mire of poverty and sexual exploitation. That would be too convenient and give the Thais an all too easy escape route instead of taking the long, hard road into solving their own problems.

But wouldn't it be nice if John Mark Karr became the impetus for positive change in Thailand? Wouldn't it be nice if we EFL'ers stood together to say, "He's NOT one of us?" Wouldn't it be nice if Thailand used Karr as an example of who NOT to allow into their beautiful country? The opportunity is here. There is no better time than now. Thailand is now at a crossroad. Which way will it go? Positive change, or the status quo?

It's, as the Thais love to say, "Up to you!"




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