food / travel

The Limits Of Modern Privacy, Lessons From Mongolia

Mongolian family inside a traditional ger (yurt) in the Gobi desert
Mongolian family inside a traditional ger (yurt) in the Gobi desert
Martin de Bourmont*

Each night I return home to one of the greatest luxuries available to human beings: an empty room. There is no one to speak to if I do not wish to make conversation, and no one to make demands of me as I sit idly in front of my window.

I only became conscious of this privilege when I moved to Mongolia two years ago. Most of my friends there, including those living in apartments and houses, shared one room with the rest of their immediate family. To be alone, they had to leave home.

In a typical Mongolian household, washing, changing, cooking and relaxation all take place in the company of others. There is literally no room for private thoughts.

Perhaps the flipside of this lack of privacy is an apparent fear of solitude. Seeing someone walking alone will strike most as bizarre, or at least not something one would freely choose.

This understanding of solitude as a form of suffering extends even to the most marginalized members of the population. In Khovd, the rural Mongolian town where I lived, there was a mentally disabled man who would spend most of his time at the local airport. He'd approach travelers with a smile, extending his hand, and they'd greet him in return as they would any acquaintance. He'd get paid to carry suitcases and the security guards would shake his hand and give him a friendly on the back every morning. When not at the airport, the man could be seen wandering around the town market. The restaurants let him eat for free and at night a generous relative offers him shelter.

While part of the reason for this munificence stems from sympathy for the man's condition, it is also a symptom of that fear of loneliness. To see a man wandering the streets alone is to bear witness to the worst kind of destitution. Forget cash or real estate: True wealth in rural Mongolia is social.

Historical factors can help explain this state of affairs. In times of great crisis, Mongolians have seen entire societies implode. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, both urban and rural Mongolians depended on the country's status as a Soviet satellite state for bureaucratic employment. These jobs vanished with the end of the Cold War. Deprived of employment prospects, many urban Mongolians flocked back to the countryside in hopes of returning to the nomadic herding lifestyle of their parents and grandparents; and yet many quickly discovered that the collectivist systems that once supported generations of nomadic herders had ceased to exist.

More recently, Mongolian herders have found themselves struggling with an exceptionally harsh and fickle climate. In 2002 and 2010, severe winters known as zud killed millions of livestock.

Unable to survive as herders, those afflicted by the zud and intensifying desertification have begun migrating to the capital Ulaanbaatar in search of employment. The city the former herders discover is expensive, polluted, and — by Mongolian standards — cramped. Finding their footing in such an alien place requires new arrivals to request the assistance of family members and friends already present in the city.

Periods of crisis aside, Mongolian life is inherently collaborative. Those who live in gers, the Mongolian term for yurts, spend a substantial portion of each day maintaining their homes. One must feed the stove coal, wood or dung to keep warm, fetch water to wash and cook with, and regularly sweep the floors in order to keep dust and dirt at bay. Since those who live in gers have work that keeps them away from home for hours at a time — whether as herders, builders, or even university professors — it is important that someone stays at home or at least returns periodically to complete the tasks necessary to keep the ger clean and livable.

Though living in central Ulaanbaatar may now resemble life in Seoul or Beijing, many urban Mongolians living in provincial cities or on the capital's urban periphery continue to live a profoundly communal life. It is not uncommon for Mongolian families to live in one-room apartments composed of a kitchen and a living room. Grandparents living in close proximity will stop by to take care of the family's children during the day and large meals will be taken with friends and family throughout the week.

All this is likely the product of centuries spent living in gers, where one had no choice but to live and work with others every hour of every day merely to survive. Combating subzero temperatures for months, raising large herds, and securing food and water for one's family are not tasks that can be accomplished alone.

In developed Western countries, on the other hand, cooperation and constant devotion to a collective no longer holds much appeal. Instead we see ourselves as unique individuals, whose personal ambitions and experiences merit as much consideration as the aspirations and needs of our communities.

While I, like many of my contemporaries, often deplore what we perceive as the rampant selfishness and narcissism apparent in 21st century Western life, I remain a product of my time and place. I resent being told to think or act in certain ways, even — and sometimes especially — if these injunctions are intended for my benefit.

Like most of my liberal-minded American and European friends, I assign great value to my privacy. Protecting one's privacy and finding space for solitude, we believe, are indispensable components of a life worth living.

Mongolian "gers' in Khovd — Photo: Bernd Thaller

It is, of course, up for debate how much we truly value solitude, privacy, and independent thought. Each day, we silently acquiesce to government and corporate surveillance as we navigate the Internet. We spend most of our days online not only because we appreciate the vast quantities of human knowledge it stores but because we cannot bear to be disconnected from friends, family, acquaintances, potential romantic partners, the consolations of pornography, and the panoply of corporations that satisfy our endless consumer desires.

We may also wonder if solitude and independence, once achieved, do us much good. In affluent, developed countries, loneliness has become so common that some have begun labeling our time as an "age of loneliness."

Loneliness can damage more than just one's mental health. According to a March 2015 paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “substantial evidence now indicates that individuals lacking social connections (both objective and subjective social isolation) are at risk for premature mortality.” The risks to human health associated with social isolation, the study claims, are comparable to those posed by obesity.

Combating loneliness requires not more social interactions, but better social interactions, or what we sometimes refer to as intimacy. Knowing we can depend on others for company, conversation, and aid in times of crisis makes us feel less alienated. We become part of a community, an island of solidarity and affection in a great ocean of human activity.

Mongolians may not have much privacy, but that doesn't mean they lack intimacy. It may well be that the Mongolian understanding of intimacy and affection are best placed in the context of constant, intense social interactions with a wide array of family members, friends, and acquaintances.

An American or European may envy the sense of community shared by Mongolians even as it challenges our modern thirst for privacy. Still, this encounter can be instructive. It can teach us what we actually desire in human interactions: building strong emotional bonds with a group of people while retaining opportunities for solitary contemplation.

Our empty rooms and solitary hours are dubious gifts. While they afford us the time and space to think, the question remains: think about what? When we are shut off from others with whom to share our experiences, our thoughts and impressions may wind up being little more than the reflections of our own eyes.


*Martin de Bourmont is a freelance writer based in Paris. Previously, he spent a year living in Mongolia as a Fulbright grant recipient.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ