So, yet another group of Western tourists have gone and got themselves naked at a sacred site in a south east Asian country. Not only that, they allowed themselves to be photographed doing so.
I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of ‘wow, you people are stupid’, here. They may have done a stupid thing but they are, as far as I know, all well-educated, rational, sane people. I’m more interested in what the actions of these few say about the attitudes of the many and what the Malaysian government’s reaction says about the intersection of local custom and law in modern-day Malaysia.
Mount Kinabalu located in Sabah state on the island of Borneo is south-east Asia’s highest peak and deeply sacred to the indigenous people who believe that the spirits of the ancestors reside on the mountain.
Even if the culprits didn’t have this specific cultural insight they were in Malaysia, a majority Muslim country where they couldn’t have failed to notice the conservative behaviour of the Malaysian people, the way most women wore headscarves, the significance of the constant and regular call to prayer. Ignorance doesn’t really cut it here.
These travellers are afflicted with the idea that the rules of the country they are visiting do not apply to them. It’s an easy mind set to slip into and I’ve done it myself. When I first heard that women should never have physical contact of any sort with a Buddhist monk I was incredulous. Surely that didn’t apply to me. Similarly in Burma, when I learned that women did not drink alcohol in public, I shrugged it off because I’m not Burmese. I didn’t go around trying to shake hands with monks in Thailand nor did I start chugging bottles of wine in the streets of Burma but I did feel sort of exempt.
What the Mount Kinabalu travellers have learned is that the bubble of their privilege does not extend to foreign countries where belief systems and laws are very different to their own. We Western travellers go out into the world with our passports and our healthy bank balances and think we can do whatever we like and in many ways we can but every now and then lines are crossed, people are arrested and somehow we’re all surprised. Immersing yourself in a different culture you will always be confronted with things you don’t like or don’t agree with. I find attitudes towards women in many Asian countries particularly hard to swallow but tourists offending locals with their bare arses is not known for bringing about positive social change. Really.
The thing that’s turned this small misdemeanour into a full-scale witch hunt is the fact that travellers have been accused of angering the spirit of the mountain which in turn caused a 5.9 magnitude earthquake to hit days later during which 18 people were killed. Now the tribal elders are involved and want recompense and, reportedly, for the travellers to take part in a sacrificial ceremony to appease the Gods.
They didn’t break any laws, said their lawyer, and their claim that the nudity led to the earthquake is ‘ridiculous’. This sentiment is shared by a BBC news reporter who noted that we British may find the notion of mountain gods ‘ridiculous’ and ‘amusing’. What is clear is that the Malaysian people, specifically the Sabahan people, do not find it amusing at all. Whether or not the travellers can be proven to have broken the law depends on the extent to which Malaysian law protects the interests of the local tribes and their unique belief systems.
I doubt that the law will stand behind the assertion that these nude travellers are responsible for the earthquake but that they caused offense, behaved indecently, were a public nuisance, yeah probably. The place where religious or cultural beliefs intersect with the law is a precarious place in all parts of the world but in a country such as Malaysia with such a complex history and mixed ethnic and religious demographic it’s just not worth testing it.
So, what will be done with them? A fine and a ban from ever visiting Borneo again seems likely, not that I imagine any of them will want to set foot there ever again.