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Disastrous trip abroad sparks interest in security studies


Disastrous trip abroad sparks interest in security studies

July 29, 2016Katherine Petyak and Jessica Rivinius

Marred by violent protests, food poisoning and a bus crash, an ill-fated tour of Southeast Asia didn’t dampen START Intern Mitchell Boyd’s enthusiasm for travel or international politics. If anything, it spurred the Eastern Carolina University senior to dive more deeply into security studies and political science with a new outlook on events abroad.

“Before I took this trip, I think I took for granted what I saw and read in reputable news sources was an accurate representation of what was happening on the ground,” Boyd said. “Now that I’ve spent time accidentally in the thick of things, I always try to look for eyewitness reports and accounts to help inform what I see in the news.”  

Just days before he arrived in Vietnam in May 2014, protests broke out across the country in response to the Chinese deployment of an oil rig in the South China Sea. While Boyd and his group were touring Ho Chi Minh City, a riot erupted near the Chinese Embassy. The tour group was pushed out of the Embassy District of the city by the police.

“Our tour guides were in the dark as much as we were,” Boyd said. “They were just told the district was being closed.  Later that night we found out there were riots throughout Vietnam that left many severely injured and some dead.”

The group traveled on to Cambodia, where similar protests and riots were taking place. Boyd’s group adopted a more cautious attitude.  – they never traveled in groups with less than five people and they abided by a curfew. Boyd said the group was wary of warnings they received about a corrupt police force that would give false citations to tourists to collect money.

But the caution didn’t spare Boyd from suffering from food poisoning.

“I was lucky to gain admittance to an international hospital there,” Boyd said. “Even though the doctors didn’t speak English very well, it was better than the alternative state run facilities that were so crowded they kept hospital beds outside.”

Once he received medical treatment, he traveled on with his group to a Thailand, which was in the midst of a political crisis. As they toured Bangkok, they got caught between two crowds of rioters, those who supported the government and those who supported the royal family and were against allowing the exile former Prime Minister Thaksin.  

“It was overwhelming – police in full riot gear had to escort us out through several buildings in the area that were closed to the public,” Boyd said.

The relief he felt having escaped was fleeting – the tour group unwittingly boarded a bus without brakes that had to travel through the mountainous Thai countryside. The bus crashed, sending a number of group members to the hospital along with Boyd, who checked back into a hospital for problems stemming from his earlier food poisoning.

“I was so anxious as I sat in the hospital,” Boyd said. “You could tell things were reaching a breaking point in Thailand and I was getting worried I wouldn’t be discharged in time to depart with my group.”

While he did safely make his departure, his fear was validated when a few days after he left, the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched a coup d’état, shutting down the airports.

From his TV and computer screens, Boyd watched the coup play out.

“Being on the streets told a very different story than what the Thai media was showing and what the United States news reports said online,” Boyd said. “That was a very important lesson for me. Not to take anything at face value.”

Boyd says he applies that lesson to his research at START, where he interns with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology division. Interested in radiological and nuclear security, Boyd works on a project building adversary profiles that evaluates the threat groups pose the United States for radiological or nuclear attack.