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In Carradine Death Thailand's Sex Caricature Endures

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When Kung Fu star David Carradine died last Thursday, I wasn't surprised. He was 72. When I read how he'd died -- hanging naked in a closet with a rope tied around his genitals, wrist and throat -- I was surprised only at the suspected cause of death: auto-erotic asphyxiation.

The location of death, however, no shocker. Bangkok. The Thai capital isn't exactly known for the missionary position. The city and the nation are (in)famous for things recreational, not conventional.

That's more or less what I told a New York City consulting firm hired by the Royal Thai Government. The firm had phoned to interview me two months before Carradine's death. A representative explained that Thailand's policymakers wanted an assessment of the country's global image. How is Thailand viewed by foreigners and how much polish is needed to make it shine world class? Having written a book on Bangkok's famous slum priest, a cursing, blunt American Catholic known as Khun Phaw Joe ("Mister Father Joe"), my opinion apparently warranted a phone call and a modest honorarium.

Political coups and pedophilia fugitives aside, I told the interviewer, if you judge Thailand only by its beaches, luxury hotels and shimmering new $3 billion Bangkok airport (makes Washington's Dulles International look almost third world), Thailand is a jewel of Asia. Outside looking in, it should be top drawer and first world. But even the farang (foreigner) who only sees Thailand dressed in its Sunday best knows the dirt that's underneath. Carradine may have died in a closet but Thailand has no skeletons. We all know.

When I first traveled to Thailand in 2000 as a wire correspondent, the State Department described Bangkok as a hub of sex trafficking; both importer and exporter of the flesh trade. The warehouse-sized massage parlors and strip clubs that tourists support are only a fraction of Thailand's overall sex industry. In alleyways, mom-and-pop salons and long-haul truck parking lots, the locals also contribute to the nation's economy. It's why Khun Phaw Joe has built two free AIDS hospices; one for the mothers, another for the children infected in utero.

Not much had changed when I returned in 2005 to begin research on my book about Khun Phaw Joe (the Rev. Joe Maier). Ditto for when the consulting firm phoned this spring.

Recalling Confucius' ancient advice ("To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right") I told the firm that Thailand needs to change itself before it can change its image. Anything less would be a shallow cut at infection. Policymakers must erase a caricature born of a decades-long, government-encouraged sex industry. Before the world can ever take Thailand seriously, it must first take itself seriously.

"Can you repeat that last part?" the interviewer asked. "I think that's important."

The suits of Wall Street and K Street may well get happy endings at massage parlors and brothels foreign and domestic (there are enough red lights in New York and Washington to string the White House Christmas tree), but sex workers and pimps don't chair the corporate boards. Those seats go to the johns. If Thailand wants invitations to closed-door U.N. meetings, like those for the Group of Eight (United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom), it needs to stop marketing its women and children. For the love of Siddhartha, stop already. Develop family attractions instead of sexual seductions.

Khun Phaw Joe, the aforementioned blunt-talking priest, told Thailand the same in 2005. Thailand had included him in a quartet of speakers sent to Washington to lobby corporate America for disaster relief. Five months earlier the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had washed away swaths of Thai coastline and, with it, a chunk of tourism. A persuasive team of diplomats -- plus Father Joe -- arrived at a summit in Washington's Reagan Building with Thailand's hat in hand. The ruling class of Boeing, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Chevron, Pfizer, Unocal, and Nike was present and feeling generous.

Father Joe Maier saw an opportunity to fix the tired caricature. After listening to three Thai officials deliver scripted pleas for the millions of dollars needed to repair tourism infrastructure for the visiting farangs, he took the mike. He looked irritated.

"I really think this whole idea of tourism is a pile of crap!" he snapped. "The last thing we need is more tourism! We have this unbelievable chance in Thailand to now make tourism what it should be, as tourism is in Europe, as tourism is in other parts of the world. Real tourism. . . . We don't want a tourism where people come and buy our children. Buy our women. Buy our boys!"

His voice softened.

"That seems to be left out a bit. I really think if we talk about tourism ... we must, must, must talk about real tourism and not cheap tourism. Not the tourism that doesn't cost very much economically. Because it doesn't cost much for the tourists, but it costs a tremendous amount for us and our children. So on tourism, we really have to think about that."

He paused before concluding.

"That is just (my) opinion."

Mine, too -- for what it's worth. (Not much evidently. The honorarium has never arrived.)