I am writing in response to the letter from the Thai Consulate-General (South China Morning Post, November 11) about the call by an animal rights group for tourists to boycott Thailand, because of cruelty to elephants.
I commend Thailand for taking action to protect and conserve Thai elephants, and urge the government to move quickly and pass the Elephant Protection Act. However, Thailand cannot deny the existence of phaajan (where young elephants are caged and trained to be submissive to humans through torture), or that elephants are trained and domesticated by the use of pain and fear.
In his letter Consul-General Sihasak Phuangketkeow states that ' . . . given the language spoken, it is very unlikely that the individuals who were shown were Thai nationals. Given that one can only make a guess regarding their nationality or identity, it would be wrong and unfair to make any unsubstantiated claims.'
While it is true, historically, that elephants were trained, domesticated, and used mainly by the hill tribes, Thailand cannot shirk responsibility for acts such as these that go on in its country by saying the perpetrators are not ethnically Thai. Though tribal, these people live in the hills of Thailand and thus are Thai.
Further, even if one was to grant such an argument that the perpetrators are not Thai, the elephant camps and shows that use these elephants domesticated through phaajan are owned and operated by Thai nationals.
Though I was not present at the making of the now infamous video documenting the cruelties of phaajan, I have worked closely with those who were there, before and after the documentation, and have seen the photos, videos, and the end results of elephants in pain. Phaajan is similarly used under different names in most of the Asian countries that rely, or have relied, on domesticated elephants. As such, Thailand must not be offended by the accusation that phaajan goes on in its lands. It should take responsibility and seek to be the leader in stopping this practice and other abuses of Asian elephants.
But the responsibility cannot be shouldered by Thailand and Asian governments alone. All of those who have seen, or participated in, elephant shows must also take responsibility. Standing on their heads or balancing a ball are not natural acts for elephants, but acts that have been ingrained into them through the use of incredible pain, torture, and fear. Any act that is not behaviour that would occur naturally in the wild was somehow taught, and the more it vacillates from natural behaviour, the more painful it is for the elephant to learn.
I agree that boycotting Thailand is not the answer to this problem.
Rather, go to the country and see for yourself the beauty and gentleness of its people and lands, but do not patronise the elephant shows, or camps, do not feed the elephants on Bangkok's streets and demand a better future for the Asian elephant.
Fauna of Asia