The Poor Man's Accountant


I once flew overnight from London to Bangkok. I arrived late morning, in the heat and humidity, totally exhausted. Running on autopilot I managed to change money, get out of the airport, catch the right local bus into town and then find a cheap hotel to crash in. In the middle of the next day I regained consciousness, and it was as if I'd just awoken from a bad dream come true. My memory of the last two days was a fuzzy blur and so it seemed as if, out of nowhere, I'd just instantly appeared here — right in the middle of the Third World. And all I could do was stare out the window at the alien landscape below.

This was my first trip to the Orient and so everything was new. The street was choking with strange little people dodging funny little cars that only barely managed to creep forward. They sing a language that seems not to have words in it. And you can't even guess at what the signs mean because everything is written in a bizarre curly-cue alphabet. There's nothing to grab on to.

The sun was blazing hot and the noise and pollution were overwhelming. All around me were buildings spreading out into infinity. I felt trapped in a sea of humanity. If I left my hotel room I knew everyone would be staring at the big fat white guy. And it wouldn't be long before everyone knew I was a lost, illiterate fool — completely at their mercy.

I was probably one big ball of jet lag and that made everything way more than I could handle. It was like I'd landed in the middle of a bad Twilight Zone episode, set in the future, where it's wall-to-wall people and there's nowhere to escape and you have to answer the question: "What am I doing here?"

Up until then, I would have thought of myself as one tough world traveller. But on that day I was scared. I didn't think I was ever going to get out of that room.

If you watched the CBC's coverage of the revolution last year in Thailand, you would have seen confused squirming reporters having a real hard time trying to explain what the fight was all about. And the reason they looked so uncomfortable was because they were sitting on the fence. Normally the CBC takes its cue from the government and then paints the guys on our side with white hats. But in this instance, our government was rooting for guys so black that no amount of spin could save them. The CBC was faced with the impossible task of trying to explain why we were backing the bad guys.

Faced with the impossible our intrepid reporters dodged the truth and spun the tale that this was just a Thai matter. Its causes were too twisted and confusing for a Canadian to understand. They perfectly crafted the story to give our government plenty of excuses for having so little to say for the cause of freedom and democracy.

Let me explain what our trusted reporters couldn't. Through democratic elections the poor in Thailand voted in a government that started taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The rich then bought the military and they had a coup. And the current revolt is the poor standing up for their democratic rights and asking that the rule of law be upheld.

In Burma, right next door, there is no question that we are on the side of democracy. We always speak out against the military junta and demand freedom for the oppressed masses. Back in 2007 we granted honorary Canadian citizenship to the now free pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Last year Stephen Harper invited her to come to Canada and described her as "an unwavering champion of peace." But in Thailand we support the junta.

In Afghanistan we ask some Canadians to play a deadly lottery where the losers have to give up their one chance to breath, to feel the sun on their face. But that's ok because the cause is just: ramming freedom and democracy down the throats of poor illiterate Muslims. And when I say "democracy" I mean: the Taliban aren't on the ballot and no one is really going to count the votes. We're spending a billion dollars a year backing up the Karzai democracy, and we can't even afford a kind word for the poor of Thailand, fighting the same fight. Someone from Mars might think we love poor Afghanis, but hate the poor in Thailand — but the exact opposite is true.

The best you can say it that we were just following orders. If the US sits on the fence then we're right beside them. Or maybe you think by backing the rich our government was just being pragmatic, siding with the likely winners? But that's not how we played it with Tunisia and Egypt — and where's the pragmatism in Afghanistan? Either way, it's no wonder the rest of the world rejected our bid last year for a seat on the UN Security Council. That's the first time since the UN started in 1945 that we've been turned down. Beat out by lowly Portugal — oh, the shame!

But exactly why can't we support freedom and democracy for the people of Thailand? Why are they outside the mould we use for every other country on the planet? Are they so alien from you or I that they don't deserve the same civil rights? If they want to vote in a tax increase and bring in a little socialism, why can't they? If we voted in the NDP, wouldn't our votes count? Are there terrifying dominoes about to fall that only our trusted leaders can see? Just exactly what is it that our government is so afraid of?

After it got dark I calmed down a little, and I thought I'd make a break for it. Hunger had summoned up the courage and I went out looking for something to eat. Within a block there was what looked like a restaurant, with everything cooking in big vats out front. All I had to do was point. No language required. These creatures weren't as alien as I thought. I had nothing to be scared of.


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