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Americans tend to misuse the Buddha image, but a Florida nightclub takes it too far – OPINION

Caitlin Ashworth

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Americans tend to misuse the Buddha image, but a Florida nightclub takes it too far – OPINION | Thaiger
Photo by Tangra Club

Americans tend to misuse the Buddha image, but a nightclub in Tampa, Florida has taken it too far by placing a giant Buddha statue at its rooftop bar, allowing drunk people to sit and pose for photos, and even jump off on the statue. Businesses play an important role in society, and when they misuse a religious figure or image that is highly respected in other countries, it can lead to widespread ignorance and misconception.

If you’ve been in Bangkok, you’ve likely seen some of the billboards by the Knowing Buddha Organisation put up to educate foreign tourists that Buddha is not for decoration and tattoos of the Buddha are extremely inappropriate. Some tourists in other Southeast Asian countries have faced arrest and deportation for having a Buddha tattoo, unaware it is illegal and extremely inappropriate to have the Buddha image on their body. Knowing Buddha says “the world has gone too far in using Buddha images wrongly, with lack of consideration.”

The Tampa nightclub is just adding to the misconception and leading to more cultural unawareness. Go go dancers posed in front of the Buddha in a photo posted on the club’s Instragram page. One woman at the club sat on the Buddha as she chugged a bottle of what appears to be champagne. Another woman posted a photo of her basically in her underwear sitting on the Buddha statue and wrote the caption “Pray to your goddess.”

Americans tend to misuse the Buddha image, but a Florida nightclub takes it too far - OPINION | News by Thaiger

Tangra Club is in Ybor City, a historic Cuban district in Tampa known for its wild and eclectic nightlife. It’s got just about everything for everyone – numerous drag shows, both male and female go go dancers, dive bars, raves, craft beer bars, Cuban cigar lounges, a Coyote Ugly bar, night clubs with music of all the popular genres, even a fetish club.

Right in the beating heart of all the madness is Tangra Club with a giant, sparkling statue of Buddha sitting in the meditation pose at the club’s “Paradise Rooftop Bar.” If you want to talk about misuse, well that’s it.

The “Super Bowl streaker” even hit up the club the other week and jumped off the Buddha before taking off his shirt, revealing the same pink one-piece he wore when he ran nearly-naked across the football field, interrupting the Super Bowl game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The #SuperBowlStreaker back it again at the Bucs private celebration party 🤦🏻‍♂️😂

Posted by Tangra Nightclub on Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Buddha looks like it’s become a logo for the club. They even put an eye patch and Mardi Gras beads on a graphic of the Buddha with pirate ships in the background on a promotional post for its after party for Gasparilla Pirate Festival, an annual parade and reenactment of the pirate invasion by local legend Jose Gaspar. Basically a pirate-themed Mardi Gras. The caption said “Our Buddha is Gaspy ready…Are you?” One commenter even asked “Do you have a name for your Buddha?”

Americans tend to misuse the Buddha image, but a Florida nightclub takes it too far - OPINION | News by Thaiger

Instagram

On the club’s website, it says the Tangra’s “multi million dollar renovation will feature pieces & furnishings made #EXCLUSIVELY for Tangra Nightclub by European artists, architects and craftsmen.”

If the Buddha statue was done by a highly paid artist, you would think at least one person would have done a little research… like a quick Google search. Instead they’re just cashing in on a trend they don’t seem to understand. And in America, Buddha is in fashion.

For the American “millennial hippie” (that’s what I’m calling them), Buddhism seems to be based on meditation and opening the “third eye.” And a lot of Americans don’t even get into Buddhism until they’ve tripped on acid a dozen times and decided to start on some psychedelic path to what they think is “enlightenment.” There’s even Buddha ecstasy pills and Buddha LSD blotter sheets. (Google it.) Take what you want from other religions when exploring your spirituality, but don’t put Buddha on a blotter sheet.

Americans who are into “Buddhism” often say they’re “spiritual, but not religious” and that Buddhism is actually a “philosophy, not a religion.” (I guess that’s why no one cares about breaking the no drugs and alcohol rule.) An associate professor for religious studies heard the same thing and wrote an article about it for the website The Conversation called “Why so many Americans think Buddhism is just a philosophy.”

Other Beat poets, hippies and, later, New Age DIY self-helpers have also paradoxically mistaken Buddhism for a kind of self-indulgent narcissism, despite its teachings of selflessness and compassion. Still others have commercially exploited its exotic appeal to sell everything from “Zen tea” to “Lucky Buddha Beer,” which is particularly ironic given Buddhism’s traditional proscription against alcohol and other intoxicants.

With the lack of travel over the past year due to the pandemic, it’s likely that the cultural divide will only grow. Based on the Tangra Club’s Instagram, it looks like they’re only adding to cultural ignorance among Americans.

Want to know what’s considered respectful? Visit knowingbuddha.org.

Caitlin Ashworth is a writer and editor at The Thaiger. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect the views of The Thaiger staff.

Got a Thailand-related topic you feel strongly about? Submit a story to editor@thethaiger.com. In the subject of the email, please write “OPINION: (suggested headline).”

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42 Comments

42 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Craig

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    Typical American. I’m an American and somethings we do are looney. Whether it’s conspiracy theories or jumping off a Buddha, there seems to always be a show of little respect. Unfortunately, many bring that lack of respect here and I’ve probably been put into that category, too.

  2. Avatar

    Ynwapso

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    Who cares? Thai people don’t even follow any of the basic Buddhist teachings. It’s funny to think that Thailand is a Buddhist country with everything that’s going on. But humans are always good at finger pointing so let’s focus on things that absolutely don’t matter but make up for good headlines.

  3. Avatar

    Brian

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 2:38 pm

    This is a little hard to take seriously. I’m not sure I’ve met a Thai person who meditates as much as I do. The Buddha doesn’t mind being treated disrespectfully at that bar. The Buddha advised people to meditate, not to light incense and bow and such. Let’s get real. Are any Thai people actually upset about this? Do those people meditate?

  4. Avatar

    Me and John Forever

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Funny, because Thais have ben using Buddha images inappropriately for millennia. In buddha’s teachings he expressly asked adherents to NOT build temples and worship or revere images of him

  5. Avatar

    Ray

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    In western Europe you can find literally hundreds of Buddha statues and heads in interior decoration stores. The market is saturated and I think the hype is over. True it is for decoration purposes but people also have some understanding of the teachings and are attracted to the serenity of a Buddha statue in the room. It is mainly superficial and harmless. The Tampa nightclub owners are idiots in many western eyes as well.. Hedonism and nightclubbing in some sub cultures goes hand in hand. There are also clubs with crucifixes or statues from catholic saints. I know a restaurant where the waiters wear Jesuit monk robes. It is an example where freedom of expression goes to the extreme but it is incidental. Thai should not take too much offense.

  6. Avatar

    Issan John

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    Being generous, it’s an extension of the Charlie Hebdo argument – that personal “freedom” gives you the right to be as deliberately offensive as you want, but only within “local” limits.

    So you can trash someone’s religion, just as long as you don’t mention that they’re fat.

    You can crap all over their beliefs, just as long as you don’t wolf whistle that they’re pretty.

    Being less generous, it’s an easy way to get cheap publicity – clearly they succeeded.

  7. Avatar

    luca

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    it is an era in which in the world there is too much sensitivity to traditions, religions are such only for those who believe in them, if you are in Thailand you must respect Thai traditions if you are in America American traditions and so on in the rest of the world, but if I am in my country I respect my traditions but those of others are respected in their respective countries

  8. Avatar

    Ian

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 5:09 pm

    Americans do take everything to far it’s what they do ,my first trip thier I thought omg why is everything so big and that’s not just the people 555

  9. Avatar

    Issan John

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Caitlin, while I agree without reservation with respecting other people’s beliefs and religions, since you’re citing the Knowing Buddha Organisation (KBO) as an authority evidently you either have a very different view or you know very little about them.

    The KBO is regarded by many as fundamentalist, the IS of the Buddhist world, the Proud Boys of Thai Buddhism, similar to 969 and the MaBaTha.

    Did you know that the KBO want Buddhism made the state religion on Thailand, enshrined in the constitution in the same way that Islam is in Iran?

    That the KBO want blasphemy of Buddhism to be made illegal, in parallel with the Lese Majeste law, with similar penalties – in parallel because the KBO’s view is that reverence for the monarchy is an intrinsic part of Thai Buddhism – with both laws being rigorously applied?

    That the KBO directly blame the internet for global warming since “digital data, which is basically the web of electromagnetic wave or, in this case, microwave, is therefore classed as the type of energy. One of the characteristics of microwave is that it heats up the surrounding atmosphere during transmission due to the friction between the wave’s molecules and water molecules in the air.”? (That’s an unedited quote from KBO)

    ” “We need to start now because the climate change problem is now at crisis point. Humans must slow down all Internet-related activities and innovation. We have to be less dependent on technology and the Internet and return to more natural living,” the KBO president said.”

    If you did, and you still think the KBO aren’t a cult but are somehow representative of what Thais and Thai Buddhists think, then fine. we’ll just agree to disagree.

    If you didn’t and you were unaware of their views, maybe some homework would be in order.

  10. Avatar

    Dr Seuss

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    Thaiger, would it be possible to put a character limit for comments, say 300, so we can avoid having people post unnecessarily long and boring comments?

  11. Avatar

    John Brown

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 6:37 pm

    The Knowing Buddha people are crazy and delusional. They do not speak for the majority of us Thais, they are a fringe group that supports using violence against non-violent people. They have a lot of money and government connections but they do not have our respect. We laugh at their ridiculous billboards and feel slightly ashamed that foreigners may think we actually believe this nonsense.

    Please respect real Thai culture and do not indulge their vulgar misunderstandings of what Buddhism is. It is not a state religion, and it must never be, both so that people can choose our own religion freely and so that Thai Buddhism will not be further corrupted by political issues.

    And please also don’t try to import the toxic Western culture of taking offence at small things to Thailand, thank you, we have enough native problems already, we don’t need more, this Western colonial attitude won’t help.

  12. Avatar

    Jason

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    There is a word that has been bandied about very much in recent years. Not so much practiced as used. I am not a Bhuddist, but I understand that respect is one of the most basic tenants of Buddhism. It is also a foundation of many of the worlds belief systems. It is also at the foundation of secular thinking. So why is it not practiced in reality. In some cases it is just ignorance. No one told them it was disrespectful to misuse images of the Bhudda. In my country, we have only recently become aware that images of deceased persons are not permitted by indigenous people. When we are unaware of the offence because of ignorance, it can be excused. But once it is known to be offensive, then we need to move quickly to stop and observe due respect (even if we cannot see the offence it causes). To the same measure it is incumbent on those whose beliefs have been offended to say clearly, why it is offensive, so that others can understand and change their behaviour. So, it is “a two way stree”.t

  13. Avatar

    Mike

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 7:53 pm

    Thais have been using Buddha images inappropriately for hundreds of years. In his teachings Buddha taught his disciples NOT to build temples or worship images of him.

    Also, who says people from other countries use Buddha images inappropriately? Thais? Buddhism is a Thai religion, Thais are adherents just like everyone else.

  14. Avatar

    Jacques

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    What a joke Thai people love Thai whisky and getting drunk and visiting a prostitute after that .is that. Following the Buddhist way

  15. Avatar

    Roger C

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 8:32 pm

    Caitlin, how’s the food in Thailand. Are the people amazing? Do you just love living there?

  16. Avatar

    MARK GOODYEAR

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    ALL TOTAL BOLLOCKS!

  17. Avatar

    Ynwapso

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 9:37 pm

    Oh these are great insights. Thanks so much for sharing.
    I found an online shop for KBO approved buddha statues hahaha

  18. Avatar

    EdwardV

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 9:59 pm

    To expect Americans to be sensitive to religious sensibilities of another country while in America is absurd. It’s not only their right, it’s almost a pastime to them. What I find interesting is the fact the author being an American already knows this. Yet still felt the need to write an article which itself shows cultural ignorance. Ironic.

  19. Avatar

    Issan John

    Sunday, March 7, 2021 at 10:19 pm

    For once we’re in total agreement, John Brown.

    The KBO is to Thai Buddhism as IS is to Islam.

    I appreciate the Thaiger’s caveat that this is an “opinion” piece, nevertheless “Caitlin Ashworth is an editor at the Thaiger”.

  20. Avatar

    BalancedView

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 4:29 am

    The use of the Buddha image in the night club is disrespectful at the very least. But in a free society everyone can have an opinion on this. My point her would be what would the Lord Buddha (Indian born) think of how the Indian people are treated by Thai people today? I also wonder why Thailand thinks it owns the intellectual property rights on Buddhas image.
    To all out there who want to use religious icons for promotion or decoration, do so with at least respect.

  21. Avatar

    Peter

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 5:12 am

    Sorry Australia and America are friends but that’s it. I lived in Phuket for 3 years and found most of them loud mouthed, rude and a complete don’t care attitude to another cultures beliefs and creeds.
    When I heard an American I would walk the other so save embarrassment.

  22. Avatar

    funny coz its true

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 6:37 am

    Thai people pay lip service to religion for appearances and money. that is all

    Just look at all the bad monks

  23. Avatar

    Manu

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7:52 am

    From IJ above…

    “Being generous, it’s an extension of the Charlie Hebdo argument – that personal “freedom” gives you the right to be as deliberately offensive as you want, but only within “local” limits.”

    Why do you keep wasting your whole life trying to lecture people by posting comments on TheThaiger (!!???) about subjects that you obviously do not have a clue about????? This (stupid) comment, as many others from you, sounds like an English junior teacher trying to lecture an assembly of Professors of Mathematics how to teach maths: a mad man always sure of himself who comletely lost his mind. I am not going to bother to explain to you how your comparaison is so … ridiculous (that’s an understatement), it would be pointless cause you are just a bitter old man with huge authoritarian tendencies: it is simply too late for you.

  24. Avatar

    Craig

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 8:38 am

    It’s interesting reading the comments on this article. It’s enlightening (excuse the pun) to learn some stuff. But, yes, people will be people whatever religion you follow. Some leave a bar at 2am, some jump off statues, some visit a pristine after a drink, etc., etc. That’s not me, yet?? and some would hate to be me. BUT, I am fortunate I am not one who goes to a bar and jumps off statues. 555555

  25. Avatar

    Wavey Davey

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 8:43 am

    Can someone please ask Thai people to stop saying “Oh My God” as it is offensive and disrespectful to some Christians…

  26. Avatar

    Issan John

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 10:26 am

    “I am not going to bother to explain to you how your comparaison is so … ridiculous… etc”

    Of course you’re not, Manu – I’d never expect you to.

  27. Avatar

    Billy Barty

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Is this an issue about Americans or Westerners? Is this just a disgruntled American youth looking for her niche in journalism.
    As an American, I feel it is inappropriate for another American to use a foreign publication to bash Americans. May I suggest to write a letter to the editor on one of the newspapers in the US?

    Secondly, I find no basis in fact that Americans are targeting and profiting from Buddha symbols. The most atrocious use of Buddha here is the garden variety. If anything, seeing a Buddha in a beautiful garden with promote the mystique and allure of Buddhism as alternative to Christianity or meditation science.

    Thethaiger is, at best, an aggregator of news that breaks from other publications. I honestly don’t visit Thethaiger for “news” or in this case, thought provoking editorials. To be honest, I like the comments. I also like the way the graphics are displayed.

    Caitlin reminds me of my niece who moved to Berlin to get a free education and comes back preaching to us about how superior Berliners are.

  28. Avatar

    Larry

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 12:47 pm

    I thought it was interesting that I read this article right after reading one about a Thai laying in ambush to assassinate political rivals from behind a Buddha statue in a temple here in Thailand. There wasn’t a single reference to anyone commenting about disrespecting the Buddha in that article.

  29. Avatar

    Dave

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    Thailand lecturing anyone about Buddha is hilarious. Gambling, prostitution, drinking, animal abuse…

  30. Avatar

    Issan John

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    Excellent, excellent point, Larry.

    I just re-read that article, on the shooting, and guess what?

    It was ALSO written by Caitlin Ashworth, the same “editor” of the Thaiger who wrote this “opinion” piece!

    😠 Un-B-frigging-lievable 😠

  31. Avatar

    JJ

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Entertaining. The comment section is firing off at Thais for being overly sensitive when it’s an American who wrote the article.

  32. Avatar

    Comicus

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    @Dr Seuss

    If it bothered you, just skip it. Do not try to censor others’ opinion!

  33. Avatar

    Alan

    Monday, March 8, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    Do the same thing with Jesus and se what happens.

  34. Avatar

    Issan John

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 12:19 am

    Only if you’re reading a different comments section to everyone else, JJ. 😂 😆 😂

  35. Avatar

    Steve

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 1:25 am

    There really is not much of a story here. It’s Americans in America acting like Americans. No big surprise there, nothing newsworthy. I’m sure the Thaiger has more relevant stories to report on.

  36. Avatar

    Dr Seuss

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 6:18 am

    @Comicus
    Thats more like it, a short comment. At least you bowed down to my demand.

  37. Avatar

    J West

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    Thai entrepeneurs knowingly and willingly slid down the slippery slope into an identity of debauchery, perversion and of lacking a moral compass by allowing the sex industry to dominate the landscape. It’s no wonder Buddha has been dragged through the mud as well by westerners who now identify Thailand as a ” Jack Ass” movie set rather than a spiritual and respectful community. The solution is obvious.

  38. Avatar

    Steve

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    I remember going out of Thailands main airport and noticed a sign. It was directed to tourists and said somthing like Buddha is somthing to be reviered not a fashonable tattoo sacred sancts are for Thai not for fashion please respect this. This was directed at tourists, why not direct it to the Thai tattooists who are putting these sacred images on none belivers instead of as normal putting all the blame on the Thai themselves. Go to Pattaya or any tourist spot look in the provinces and think do these people really believe in Buddha and the answer will be a resounding no. As one girl said to me I belive in Buddha somtime.

  39. Avatar

    Steven Seagal

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    Bring back P*ss j*sus and a erect a very large replica at the entrance to this silly bar. Who could possibly be offended? Fill with beer and take a golden shower to cleanse sins.

  40. Avatar

    Amy Sukwan

    Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 10:22 am

    Hey at least the strippers are wearing facemasks. Buddha should be pleased about that! Come to think of it, why isn’t Buddha wearing a face mask?

  41. Avatar

    Pietr

    Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    I live in Thailand and soon we will be opening the Jesus has a Boner restaurant. It’s a steal restaurant but will have a cross with Jesus on it with a big shanker. You won’t see the boner because we will have a small flag draped over it with the words ‘Jesus was gay.’ Well, it’s all in good fun. We plan to have our own special drink called ‘Holy Water’ and of course the body of Jesus in the form of bread and his blood in our selection of wines. Adam’s rib will also be served. Our waitresses, all with the name Eve on their nametags, are all trans women who of course were made by God from a man. You know the story of Adam’s rib. By the way, we are looking for investors. Stop by sometime for some heavenly treats and good laugh

  42. Avatar

    cj

    Monday, March 15, 2021 at 11:47 am

    This is how many in the US are towards others who don’t follow their way of thinking it is wrong. The government only violates others 1st amendment rights in the US and they have always been this way If your not Christion don’t know why.

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Caitlin Ashworth is a writer from the United States who has lived in Thailand since 2018. She graduated from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media studies in 2016. She was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette In Massachusetts. She also interned at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia and Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida.

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Opinion

Tourism developments threaten Cambodia’s forests and coastline

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Tourism developments threaten Cambodia’s forests and coastline | Thaiger
Chinese developer Yeejia has cleared large areas of once-forested land in Cambodia’s Ream National Park for its tourist resorts / Photo by Roun Ry for China Dialogue

The following story is by Danielle Keeton Olsen and Roun Ry for China Dialogue, a nonprofit focused on environmental news related to China and Asia.

“Before when we wanted to eat, we just went and caught some fish, but now it’s nothing like before, as all the natural resources have disappeared,” says 68 year old Sen Chantha who lives in a coastal hamlet within Ream National Park in southwest Cambodia. His house faces the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The mangrove forests, wetlands and rocky coasts that supported abundant wildlife in the park have also attracted opportunistic developers. Cambodia’s government has granted development rights for mass tourism resorts leading to deforestation and the drainage of ecologically vital mangroves.

“On the way out, you will see many big trucks clearing land all over the place… They’ve started clearing about four kilometres away, and they’ll probably come here,” says Chantha, who has lived in Prek Trabek village since the early 1990s. As forest cover has disappeared, Chantha has become a campaigner, keen to defend his community against a Chinese developer backed by the Cambodian elite.

Rights threatened

Chantha’s family is one of more than 100 in his village engaged in a years-old conflict over land with the Chinese company Yeejia Tourism Development, whose concession surrounds their homes. The company has allowed them to remain in the area, but severely restricted their space to live and work.

55 year old Choeun Trop says Yeejia has taken part of her land and stopped her from collecting rattan from the forest.

Over the past 2 or 3 years, officials from the company have monitored her community tightly, at one point requiring members to carry identification cards and barring outside visitors, she says.

Trop’s son, then 16, is now in jail after joining a protest against Yeejia during which some protestors dismantled a guardhouse at the entrance to the company’s concession.

“We’re poor. It’s been very difficult, and we couldn’t ask anyone to help,” she says. She tried to enlist the support of 2 Cambodian human rights organisations, but both told her they could not intervene. “I cry and cry, and if I cry too much, I’m afraid I will faint again, and no one will take care of my son. My son cries because the situation inside the prison is terrible, and he has a very small space to sleep.”

Forests and wetlands

Ream National Park covers 34,000 hectares of diverse landscapes that include the Prek Toek Sap estuary, low-lying mountains, miles of mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs and parts of two islands.

General forests cover 55% of the land, while mangroves take about 7%. A vital ecosystem for biodiversity, mangroves support many plants, fish and crustaceans, and the fisheries they nurture feed local people.

Elsewhere in the park, remote areas of dry forest, covering 13%, could still conceal one of the last populations of rare wild cattle known as kouprey, according to a 2006 report by University of Copenhagen ecologist Robert Schmidt.

When Ream was established in 1995, it faced significant levels of commercial logging and fishing – at least one-third of its area had already been heavily changed as a result of resource extraction.

Finding ways to stop this was one of the new park’s main concerns, and international organisations, including the Asia Development Bank and the United Nations, were deployed to help find solutions.

Internationally funded projects concentrated on developing a management plan for the park and on training park rangers. Opening the park’s headquarters in late 1998, the then-environment minister, Mok Mareth, promised Ream would be a “role model” for protected areas in the country.

But although the funded projects did manage to end commercial resource extraction, illegal logging and fishing continued to flourish, with corrupt police, navy officers and fishermen combining forces to plunder the park. Then, when international funding ended in 2000, the park was left with very little financial support.

Several reports at the time recommended ecotourism as a way to fund the park. In one from the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, published in 2001, academic Thanakvaro Thyl de Lopez outlined a “dream park” scenario, in which revenue would be generated through nature-driven tourism, allowing local people living inside the park to continue using its resources in a sustainable way.

But the report warned that this scenario would require the support of international donors, at a time when their programmes had not been renewed due to “lack of interest”.

Developers descend

With the promise of sustainable tourism starting to fade, commercial tourism stepped in.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed decrees granting concessions to two companies – Yeejia, and Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development.

Yeejia was given rights over 3,300 hectares of the park, an area they named Golden Silver Bay. When reporters visited the concession in January 2021, they found around a dozen half-built hotel-sized structures, most flanked by Cambodian guards. Outside one of them, a sign reads Qin Yue Ream National Coast in both Khmer and Chinese characters. Further in, patches of newly-paved road led to clearings where rows of identical off-white cottages stood out against the raw, red earth. Another road opened out onto a fresh construction site, where excavators were levelling a hillside, the roots of the remaining trees dangling over the manmade cliffs.

The other company, Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development, was given a concession of 2,377 hectares.

Evergreen Success is tied to Hun To, a nephew of the prime minister, who has been investigated by the Australian authorities in connection with drug smuggling and money laundering. According to a 2012 report in The Age newspaper, To was of interest to Operation Illipango, an Australian investigation into heroin concealed in Cambodian timber shipments. Plans to arrest To were derailed when the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh cancelled his travel visa.

Powerful connections

To has since become a co-director of the Lixin Group, a Taiwanese construction and property company that has already developed a hotel in Sihanoukville under the US-based brand Wyndham.

Lixin is heavily promoting its “New City” development in Ream National Park. An advertisement on the resort’s WeChat channel from September emphasised the eco-tourism side of the project. But plans for the resort include massive developments inside the park, from a golf resort and a horse racing track to casinos and hotels, all flanked by mangroves.

Yeejia’s rise in Cambodia has also depended on elite contacts. Company chair Fu Xianting’s resumé includes time in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and then in state-owned companies, one of which brought him to Cambodia for a conference on agricultural machinery and light manufacturing.

According to a 2016 Financial Times investigation, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers revoked Fu’s concession in Ream after concerns about forest clearance from environmental groups. But Fu, who has close personal ties to Hun Sen, met with the Cambodian leader and obtained his support for continued development.

Yeejia’s development plans for Golden Silver Bay range from casinos and luxury hotels to a conference centre and medical rehabilitation facilities. Its WeChat social media presence shows it is advertising to Chinese developers seeking a slice of Cambodia, as well as to tourists. In November, Yeejia held a small ground-breaking ceremony with Zhonghai Tianhong Real Estate (Cambodia), which has leased 4 hectares of land from the developer on a 99-year lease – the same timespan as Yeejia’s 2008 concession within the park. This is despite the fact that, according to Cambodian law, concessions cannot be sold to another company without a new contract being drawn up with the government.

Neither Yeejia nor Lixin would respond to requests for comment from China Dialogue.

Ongoing destruction

Beyond the bulldozers currently clearing land in the name of tourism, illegal logging for timber has continued in Ream. Chantha, the community activist, says the state-employed park rangers conduct frequent patrols, but will release loggers who pay them. Chantha has accompanied the patrols and claims to have witnessed bribe-taking.

According to the 2001 de Lopez report, about half of rural households inside the park engaged in illegal logging in the past. Chantha and other villagers admit to cutting trees for their own use before Yeejia officials stopped them.

But things are different now. “The Ministry of Environment officials blame the community for deforestation, but it’s not us,” he says. “It’s someone outside and hired by some oknha (tycoons) or rich businessman to come clear land here.”

Meanwhile, the coast of Ream and the rest of Preah Sihanouk province is also under threat. Ouk Vibol, director of conservation in Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, says overfishing is a significant challenge, with trawlers scooping up whatever fish they can find, destroying seagrass beds in the process. The loss of mangroves due to the park’s tourism developments is also having a big impact on fish stocks, says Ouk.

“If you destroy one habitat, there are real negative impacts on the species that move from one habitat to another.”

Just outside the national park, a little-known Chinese–Cambodian company, Canopy Sands Development, has undertaken a massive coastal reclamation project on 427 hectares granted by the Cambodian government. The company was formed one month before it received the land. Its shareholders also chair powerful companies in Cambodia, including Prince Group, whose China-born director, Chen Zhi, has obtained Cambodian citizenship through his investments.

This and other developments along the coast, which once boasted waters teeming with lucrative squid, crab and fish, have changed local fishers’ lives.

Docking just north of the Canopy Sands development, 27 year old Chan Ra says he has to be very careful where he drops his fishing lines. The traditional gear he uses to catch squid is made with large shells strung out along a line. The squid nestle into the shells for shelter without the need for bait. The shells are durable but expensive and are often damaged by the sand-dredging boats filling the Canopy Sands area, says Ra. There are still some squid to be found close to the shore, but the fisher says he has to travel further to catch crabs.

Ra lives mostly on his boat these days, because another company has been reclaiming land from the sea on the bay where he used to live. “Before we could reach home by boat, but now they’re filling it with land,” he says.

Ra has had to move three times due to development projects. Like many local people, he built a home without procuring an official land title – a requirement that was seldom enforced until land prices began to climb.

Nowhere is safe

32 year old Nam Then runs a small shop selling sundries on a hillside a couple of kilometres from the entrance to Yeejia’s concession. He has not been directly impacted by the long-running dispute between local people and the Chinese company, whose concession overlaps their customary land. But he shares his neighbours’ concerns and attends meetings about the issue at the Ream commune office.

“We share information around the community,” he says. “We are the same people who have the same affections. I am also living in one part of the community, just in a different area.”

In June last year, the government finally allocated land and promised titles to the three communities in the park affected by Yeejia’s concession. Details have yet to be worked out, however. Then keeps a plastic folder full of documents showing the outlines of plots. Some families are missing out, he says, but he and others are watching the process closely.

Then moved to his current home and shop in 2007 after Ream Naval Academy – part of a military branch that is caught up in controversies over Chinese versus US access – decided to expand into the land near where his family lived.

“Looking back at 2007, we didn’t have anything, the people were weak, information systems didn’t exist, and we were living in a military zone, so when you’re trying to protest, there was big pressure (on us),” he says.

The family’s current home is on the other side of the same mountain. They have remained relatively undisturbed since they moved, but, on a morning in late January, Then told reporters that much of the land facing his house had been cleared. He was not sure what for. When reporters passed his house again at dusk, a digger was forging a new road around the mountain, leading back to the naval academy.

When he first moved in, Then recalls: “It was all forest, huge forest, there wasn’t any road yet.” Now, for the villagers of Ream “it’s very difficult, because the houses are all on company land.”

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Tourism

We took a poll in Phuket… re-opening the island in July

Tim Newton

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We took a poll in Phuket… re-opening the island in July | Thaiger

The Thaiger put up a poll on our YouTube channel yesterday. Completely unscientific, but trying to guage some of the viewers opinions about the latest plan, Phuket Sandbox, to open up Phuket, in July this year, as a pilot for future re-openings around Thailand for travellers, without quarantine.

With the government claiming that the plan won’t go ahead unless 70% of the island’s population are already vaccinated against Covid-19, there remains as many questions as there are answers to this plan. What about the expats? What vaccinations will be used? How will the residents be alerted? Who will be the 30% who won’t be vaccinated before July? Where will the vaccinations take place? Which department will manage all the additional ‘vaccination’ paperwork for arrivals? Will passengers still have to apply for visas at the Thai embassy in their country? Will they still have to buy specific insurance policies against Covid-19 before their journey?

At this stage, as a Phuket resident, I have heard NOTHING, nada, zip, zero about this plan. Even searching for information and contacting the Provincial Authority, no additional information is forthcoming. Basically “we haven’t been told yet” was the answer. You’re welcome to add your comments as well HERE.

Obviously it will be great to have some sort of schedule to get ready for re-opening Phuket but vaccinations are only a part of what will be required to make Phuket a viable tourist destination again. But to walk a mile you have to start with a single step, etc, etc.

Here are some of the other responses, out of 280 comments, to our quick poll…

We took a poll in Phuket... re-opening the island in July | News by ThaigerJames
I doubt enough of the folks on Phuket will be willing and able to get vaccinated by July to reach that target.

DaGr8
I have kept in contact with many Thais , some living in the province of Phuket and has not heard anything about this plan, even though the vaccine is being planned for distribution.

Martyn
Doing 70% of residents not good enough. What about everyone else? Most people working there are registered elsewhere. And of course the expats?

Oliver
Will Open Just when the Rain Starts

Lightning
I just don’t see it being sustainable for businesses if you still require to social distance, wear masks and limit the amount of people you are travelling with. More than 70% of Phuket tourists are group travellers. It won’t bring enough numbers in to sustain a business. Open up fully with no quarantine, no social distancing, no masks, no limits on groups, no testing. If these rules are not applied then you can kiss Patong beach and Phuket businesses goodbye forever. But I guess thats what the globalists want right? World longevity? Sustainable environment? Every political move seems based around the World Economic Forum. There is a plan for most countries. Covid is just the gateway to the end goal

Alana
I have not heard anything about where we can get vaccinated here in Phuket. I got an email from Bangkok Hospital to guage interest in the vaccine and the brand you would like to take (last week) but if they are only at that stage of gathering data and ordering vaccines then I don’t think we will reach 70% within 3 months.

Paul
The problem here is other countries are well in front of Thailand on vaccine rollout. And that Burmese undocumented persons problem.. And many older Thais with no ID card. Expect chaos corruption.. and delay. And ideas changing every 14 days. Phuket is finished as a tourist destinations for the foreseeable future. Mal-administration is Thailand’s problem.

Trader
I can’t see that there will be free and open travel until 2022 at the earliest, I hope I’m proven incorrect but at this point I don’t see it.

Shahbaz
Just another ‘plan’/ ‘model’ made out of desperation as a result of missing tourist dollars, the Thai government should implement measures that are genuinely meant for the safety of the Thais and the tourists, not just act out of desperation to get the go go bars rolling again, any step they take should be credible and long term, not one that is going to jeopardise peoples health just to make money 🤔 so no point rushing ✌

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