Thailand: Murder in the Land of Smiles

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Thailand: Murder in the Land of Smiles

The country’s tourism sector is taking a hit following a high-profile murder case and a bungled police response.

Thailand: Murder in the Land of Smiles
Credit: Reuters

The recent high profile murders of two young British travelers on Koh Tao, a popular tourist destination in the Gulf of Thailand known for its scuba diving industry and pristine beaches, and the subsequent controversial police investigation, have provoked a great deal of discussion in international media and on social networks. Tourist operators worry that Thailand’s ongoing political problems, the recent military coup, a perceived rise of violence against foreigners and the alleged unwillingness of authorities to conduct transparent investigations will affect tourism in Thailand, one of the economic cornerstones of the kingdom that accounts for more than 10 percent of the GDP.

“We got the first cancellations in March, because of anti-governments protests and the travel warnings by European governments. Then the coup in May reduced visitor numbers again. I closed in May and June for the first time in six years. And then in September two kids were murdered in Koh Tao and that’s really taken the wind out of the sails for the Gulf of Thailand destinations.“

The owner of a resort on the Thai holiday island on Koh Samui, the most popular tourist destination off Thailand’s east coast, tells a familiar tale, one repeated by many other business owners, both foreign and local, on condition of anonymity. On Thailand’s world famous Gulf islands, the mood is tense and hopes for the coming high season are muted.

But Thailand’s tourism woes do not appear to be that straightforward. One of the main justifications for the military coup was the need to curtail corruption perpetrated by the last democratically elected government of the populist Yingluck Shinawatra, sister former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in self imposed exile following a conviction for fraud. No doubt, underhand dealings were endemic in Thaksin’s Thailand, but the vote is out on whether the new regime will be able to build a more just society.

In a recent Bangkok Post interview, even Sugree Sithivanich, the deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, seemed to express some serious doubts. “A number of tourism operators take advantage of tourists, noticeable from the increase in tourism frauds. Thainess in terms of food and culture has not really changed, but Thais’ morality and integrity have changed for the worse.”

The generals now in charge of the country emphasize a return to morality but there’s been little evidence since their take-over that the apparent decline in ethics has been arrested. In fact, lawlessness remains rife, not least in the tourism sector. And as soon as the police get involved in addressing crimes committed against foreigners, rights groups and social media users join in a cacophonous chorus of complaints.

The high-profile case of the murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller appears to illustrate these problems. Local police immediately ruled out the possibility that Thais might have been the culprits because Thai people were simply not capable of committing such heinous acts of violence, although open any local newspaper and an endless number of attacks, killings and sexual assaults tell a different story. Instead, authorities immediately blamed, without evidence, other backpackers and the community of illegal Burmese guest workers who do all the heavy lifting in Thailand’s most popular tourist centers and are often ill treated.

Then coup leader and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha blamed the female victim for wearing a bikini, suggesting that only ugly tourists in beach wear were safe, a remark that smacked of sexism and xenophobia. These attitudes are by no means unique. Rape is a common plot feature on Thai TV soaps and only a fraction of sexual assaults in Thailand are reported to police, though authorities recorded at least 31,866 cases of sexual violence throughout 2013. Few of these cases lead to prosecution.

British media had a field day deriding the police’s investigative methods – reports described how the crime scene was contaminated, how the police failed to cordon off the island, how different suspects were announced on a daily basis and then dismissed, and how different rules appeared to apply to Thai and non-Thai suspects. Eventually two young Burmese workers were named as the culprits, even before DNA evidence had been released. Rights groups claim that some Burmese workers on the island were tortured by police in order to force them to implicate their compatriots. The alleged culprits also claim they confessed following mistreatment. Amnesty International has called for a thorough investigation into methods used to obtain the confessions. A recent op-ed in the Bangkok Post suggested that “society cannot be safe if people feel the police force is not only inefficient, but untrustworthy.” An online petition to independently investigate the murders has gathered almost 50.000 signatures.

Meanwhile, deputy national police chief Jaktip Chaijinda told Reuters that “in this sort of case we usually do not take risks and have never thought of bringing in a scapegoat because this is a case with interest worldwide,” practically an admission that the Thai police will indeed smear innocents when the outside world is not watching.

With the media’s spotlight on the country, several other violent incidents have come to light in recent weeks – a Danish young woman was allegedly raped in Thailand’s notorious sex industry capital Pattaya, another woman was assaulted on the island of Phuket, while police on the tourist island of Koh Samet are trying to identify the corpse of a foreigner who was washed up on the beach in recent days. In another murky incident, police on Phuket suggested that a Russian man who was stabbed seven times in a Patong beach hotel room had committed suicide.

No doubt, killings and sexual assaults are bound to happen in a country with a huge under-represented and semi-impoverished population that welcomes more than 25 million foreign visitors a year. In the wake of the killing of a British tourist on at the Full Moon Party in Koh Panghan last year, the British Foreign office warned of “vicious, unprovoked attacks by gangs.” Yet official murder rates of foreigners are not especially high in the kingdom. It is rather the lax attitude of investigating authorities and the perception that well connected Thais can get away with murder which creates an unsavory image that may damage Thailand’s reputation to a greater extent than the crimes themselves.

For the most rapacious tourist operators, there’s a silver lining. While European tourists might get turned off by stories of murder, extortion and repressive politics, a new wave of visitors from China, Russia and Arab countries appears to care a lot less about the kingdom’s alleged culture of impunity.

An employee at the Koh Samui TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) office, who declined to give her name, stated that the perceived downturn in tourism had nothing to do with security issues. The Europeans, she said, stayed away because of the ongoing recession back home. Perhaps there’s something to this, as Samui enjoyed 1.8 million visitors last year, more than ever before, precisely because of the rapidly changing demographics. Travelers from several nations whose citizens have become increasingly mobile in recent years appear to buoy up the sagging visitor numbers from Europe. Still, overall tourist arrivals in the kingdom fell 10.9 percent in July, and 11.9 percent in August, compared to numbers last year.

But official unease over the bad publicity, if not the crimes, remains. Asked about the impact of the murders on Koh Tao and a plan, floated by tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, to issue tourists with ID armbands, and perhaps even tag arrivals electronically, both the head of the Samui TAT office and the regional TAT head office on the mainland in Surat Thani declined to comment.

An entrance fee for all visitors to the island – the resulting funds could be used to increase security – is also being discussed.  In recent days, authorities also suggested that party times on the Gulf islands might be limited in future, an idea that is unlikely to be popular amongst the millions of twenty something backpackers who visit southern Thailand, most notably the famous Full Moon Party at Haad Rin on Koh Panghan, to lie on the beach, get drunk, take drugs, have sex and party till dawn.

Jare Pinyosirikul, a chairman of the Haad Rin Business Association thinks otherwise. “Charging entrance fees to the islands and curtailing party times is counterproductive. We need to do something about security. In the last two years we have installed more than a 100 CCTV cameras in Haad Rin and this has led to a reduction in crime. Local people are trained by the government to provide security. But this is not enough. We face stiff competition from new markets like Myanmar and Cambodia. So we need new elections and an end to martial law to bring back the tourists from Europe.”

Away from the politics and the spin, small tourism operators remain worried. Jak, a boat captain on Bangrak Beach in the north of Koh Samui suggested that it was not enough to conduct investigations in a manner that suggested the use of scapegoats for crimes committed against foreigners: “We need to solve the crime in a transparent way to respect the victims’ families and to reassure the tourists. I have no work on my boat at the moment. And high season starts in two months.”

Ironically, the reform of the Thai police was one of the central tenets of the middle-class protest movement that brought Bangkok to a standstill earlier this year and eventually created an atmosphere conducive to the coup that followed. Since the military take-over all talk of police reform has disappeared and the recent investigations, fully supported by Thailand’s unelected government, give little hope that the country is able to tackle its culture of lawlessness.