On June 5, the area around Mount Kinabalu, located in the Malaysian state Sabah, was struck by a 5.9 earthquake. As of the date of this publication, 18 people have been confirmed dead, including seven students.
Local people, such as Deputy Chief Minister Sri Tan Joseph Pairin Kitingan, blamed the earthquake on 10 Western tourists, pictures of whom had surfaced in which they appear naked near the mountain’s summit. The tourists reportedly angered the spirits with their behaviour, and on June 12, four of the tourists that Malaysian officials could find were fined 5,000 ringgits (CAN $1,650) after spending a few days in jail. Certain events were beyond the tourists’ control, but this unusual incident shows a number of preventable foreign relations failures.
Mount Kinabalu is rich in folklore from the KadazanDusun people who inhabit the region. The mountain is considered the centre of the world and the revered place of the dead. Kinabalu, some say, means “Chinese widow,” and legend has it that long ago, a dragon that possessed a magic jewel lived on the mountain. Many Chinese soldiers attempted to steal the jewel but many died in the process, leaving their Chinese wives widowed.
Obviously, the tourists were deeply disrespectful toward local people, and not solely out of ignorance. According to The Straits Times, the tourists defied and swore at the tour guide when he repeatedly told them to not desecrate the mountain.
But the most damaging behaviour has been from Canadian national Emil Kaminski, who runs a trekking organization called Monkeetime. On its Facebook page, Kaminski posted numerous naked photos of himself in front of a mountainous landscape (in addition to those already released) beside an article featuring Sabah’s tourism minister Masidi Manjun. Kaminski then posted a video on Monkeetime’s YouTube account saying that Manjun should “lobotomize himself” for claiming that tourists upsetting the spirits was the cause of the earthquake.
Kaminski’s actions have provoked an uproar among Malaysian people, who have sent Kaminski a number of death threats. Some comments express anger at Kaminski for upsetting the spirits, but many condemn him solely for disrespecting local custom. For one, Kaminski doesn’t have his facts straight, as Sri Tan Joseph Pairin Kitingan and not Manjun blamed the tourists for causing the earthquake. Also, Kaminski’s video is equally a disparagement of Malaysian beliefs (“Jesus Christ people… it’s just a fucking mountain”) as it is an immature attempt at self-validation. He systematically mocks the comments that attack him and champions those that defend him. The latter are few and far between.
Kaminski’s June 10 tweets seemed to indicate that he had been detained along with the four other tourists. But on June 11, he released a video saying he hadn’t been in Malaysia since May 2 (even though the description in a June 8 video said he was recording from a hotel room in Tawau, Malaysia). The four tourists were facing sentences up to three months in jail as Kaminski, while he was in a different country, worked to turn Malaysian opinion against them. Some such as Tim Hawkings, father of detained tourist Eleanor Hawkings, hoped that Malaysian officials wouldn’t make an example of the tourists and luckily for them, the punishment for disrespecting Malaysian culture wasn’t unnecessarily harsh.
Tim Hawkings called Kaminski a “halfwit.” Kaminski calls himself a troll. He’s only an ass. His outright disrespect and his childish tirade are prime examples of what not to do after making a mistake in a foreign country. One hopes Kaminski won’t be going back to Malaysia any time soon.