Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciling Buddhism and Trafficking

Let me start by saying I am an expert on neither buddhism nor trafficking, this is an entirely superficial perspective. (It saddens me a bit to say) I have spent significantly more time reading about, talking about, researching, and pondering trafficking than I have Buddhism. Most of my knowledge comes from people I know who have dabbled in Buddhism, whether with conviction or curiosity, and from the answers to all the questions I ask of my Thai co-workers here.

So how can these two concepts appear so juxtaposed, yet co-exist? Let's start with definitions, as a wise person once told me, at the core of all arguments and disagreements is a difference of opinion about the definition of something.

What is trafficking? According to the definition used by the international community "Trafficking in Person is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs." (Protocol to Prevent and Suppress the Trafficking in Persons, UNODC).

OK that was long. I know. So the short version is "Moving someone using threats, force, or fraud, with the end goal of exploiting them." The exception here is that if the person is under 18 you don't need to use threats, force or fraud, because of the power imbalance, if you move a child and it results in exploitation, you are guilty of trafficking. Yes there are nuances that we can debate in future blogs or in comments, but remember, we're being a bit superficial on purpose.

So then, if we've simplified trafficking into a sentence or two, where does Buddhism stand? (forgive me, Wikipedia was succinct) "Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddharta Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened or enlighted teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering, achieve nirvana, and escape what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth." 

So how is it that these two, apparently disparate, practices can co-exist so closely. Why is it that SouthEast Asia and the Mekong region have some of the highest recorded instances of human trafficking in the world, and this exists, in Thailand at least, in a place where Buddhism is not only the dominant religion, but an ingrained part of the culture. How can something that causes so much pain exist in a place steeped in a religion that aims to end suffering? But, I think this is where it's important to remind myself of two things: people who are religious are not necessarily more ethical or moral than those who are not, and the existence of criminality and wrongdoing in conjunction with the presence of piety and good intentions is not unusual. The existence of a of moral code, even one that is wide reaching and part of the national culture, doesn't necessarily translate to adherence.

Yesterday I took part in a beautiful religious and cultural celebration here, where you make little boats from banana leaves, put incense and candles in them, and float them down the river under the full moon. Before you let your boat go, you pray. Traditionally, you pray about letting go of anger and spite and disappointment, and you ask for success and luck in the coming year.

Yesterday I heard the story of a girl who worked on a mushroom farm nearby and for almost a year was assaulted by her boss daily as he took her from where she stayed to where she worked. Someone finally helped her escape and took her to the police. The police shrugged off the accusations because she was Lao.

In the simplest terms, good and bad exist everywhere, whether or not we choose to see them. One does not preclude the existence of the other, whether things seem idyllic or hope seems lost.

Perhaps we should not try to reconcile Buddhism and human trafficking, for fear of diluting the depth of understanding necessary to grasp either one. But rather, remember that they coexist, in the same culture, the same place, and sometimes even the same people.

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