Crisis of tourist safety
The string of bad PR incidents that have left behind an alarming number of dead and seriously injured visitors to the Kingdom are greatly compounded by inaction or worse on the part of police and can only be countered by strict reform of local law enforcement agencies
On Tuesday in Australia, Channel Nine's A Current Affair programme called the actions of Koh Samui police "callous, calculated and evil" as they attempted to extort money last month from a man after his fiancee, 24-year-old dancer and sportscaster Nicole Fitzsimons, died in a motorcycle accident.
On Thursday in The Sun, a British tabloid, a prominent story about a violent attack in October by a machete-wielding "rape gang" of Thai youths on a young British couple in Ao Nang, Krabi, included many details of other such cases, scams and safety issues around the Kingdom.
The Evil Man of Krabi YouTube video, made by the father of an alleged rape victim also in Ao Nang, Krabi, in July, has garnered more than 500,000 views since Oct 23.
While these could easily be seen as isolated incidents in a country where millions of tourists have had wonderful experiences, they are backed by a multitude of reports in foreign and local media that seem to indicate a general malaise in law enforcement, an unwillingness to address the heart of issues and a tendency to blame victims of crimes, as the Kingdom lurches from one PR calamity to another.
The reports on A Current Affair and in The Sun are somewhat vague on details such as dates and times _ and could easily have been embellished for viewerships and readerships used to a regular diet of sensationalised news. One problem is that such stories are so easy to take at face value.
Jamie Keith, the survivor of the motorbike crash that killed Fitzsimons on Koh Samui, said on the programme that local police took him to the station after the accident and asked him to sign a statement that the crash was his fault.
"I was vulnerable and they were obviously after one thing and one thing only; it was my money," he said. "They threw that report in front of me asking me to sign, otherwise they would take my passport."
The bribe money requested, the report alleges, ranges from A$15,000-30,000 (480,000 to 960,000 baht). He refused to pay, but six days later Koh Samui police agreed to return Mr Keith's passport only on the condition that no one would be charged over the crash.
"Only accident, no one's fault, no video," he was told by police. CCTV footage aired on the programme, however, shows a motorbike with two helmetless passengers slow to a halt and wait for traffic to pass before making a right turn. A speeding, out-of-control motorcyclist hits them from behind.
"The suspect paid his way out," said the deceased's father.
In the two Krabi incidents, police ostensibly did their jobs; in the rape case, the main suspect was eventually arrested, and it was the provincial court that released him on bail. After last month's gang attack on 21-year-old Britons Jack Cole and April Clifton _ apparently a rape attempt on Ms Clifton that left Mr Cole with over 30 stitches, deep blade wounds, nerve damage and a fractured skull _ an 18 year old and a 19 year old were arrested and handed three and 10-year sentences. Three others have been arrested but not yet convicted.
Visitors often remark how safe they feel in Thailand compared to other large cities in the West, and the violent crime rate is lower than in the US. Nevertheless, despite its economic growth, the Kingdom is increasingly seen as a wild and dangerous place to visit.
New Zealander Sarah Carter, 23, died in Chiang Mai in February last year in a hotel where at least three others died mysteriously within a short period. For months the hotel wasn't inspected properly, and Chiang Mai Governor Pannada Disakul defended the hotel and the city, dismissing the deaths as coincidences caused by food poisoning or pre-existing ailments _ despite similarities in symptoms resembling that of poisoning by chemical toxin.
Tourism Minister Chumpol Silpa-archa quoted Krabi's tourism police chief's assertion that the Evil Man of Krabi case couldn't be considered rape because the victim had dined with the suspect that night.
The reactions to murders and rapes of foreigners as well as accidents too often seem to indicate, at best, a lack of sympathy, and at worst a disinclination to bring perpetrators to justice. Where foreigners are concerned, officials too often seem to assign partial blame to the victim.
The problems are less of "cover-ups" and conspiracies, as many foreign news reports have alleged, as of the bungling of such cases from the beginning, then a compounding of the situation through ignorant and ill-advised statements and counter-accusations.
As the Evil Man of Krabi father told the Bangkok Post Sunday, just a statement from the authorities along the lines of "We get the point, don't worry, we'll handle this and protect our tourists", would be reassuring to victims and their families and do much to staunch criticism. Instead, police and politicians have too often seemed terrified to say anything that might damage tourist revenue _ when the reality is that doing nothing in the hope that the focus will go away or shifting blame are far more damaging.
Sarah Carter's father founded thailandtraveltragedies.com _ since taken offline _ to warn other backpackers of dangers they might face in the Kingdom. The Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation (www.nicolefitzsimons.com) was also launched in memory of the talented young sportscaster.
The problem for Thailand is that these forums to preserve the loving memories of the tragically deceased quickly become, as one poster described it, "Thailand hate sites". Numbering initially in the dozens, soon thousands of posters have added their own tales of woe and extortion at the hands of the Royal Thai police _ from Krabi and Phuket to Koh Samui to Bangkok and the far North _ or the lack of justice in cases where crimes were committed against them. These aren't people deliberately aiming to hurt the Kingdom's reputation but those who feel they haven't received justice. If only one out of 10 of the tales is true, collectively they point to something very rotten at the heart of Thai law enforcement.
Thailand in economic terms is an upper middle income country, not the third world country many foreign news outlets claim _ but the reports are unfortunately quite accurate in describing law enforcement as slow, ponderous, underfunded and pervaded with self-interest and corruption. There are many officers who do their jobs with diligence, distinction and bravery, but these are too easily overshadowed by a minority who prey on victims at their most vulnerable, who see foreign targets as especially wealthy and defenceless, and who are respected by peers more through their ability to accumulate wealth and rank than their skills at bringing the guilty to justice.
With more regional alternatives for tourism such as Myanmar opening up, the Kingdom needs to take steps to halt the PR collapse. If the tourism minister can't make the necessary assurances, a body with more media awareness and competence should be appointed. There needs to be more oversight of action and non-action taken by individual police districts. Tourist police should be given more training and enforcement powers; at the moment they are little more than a translation service in uniform. While the political will for police reform is negligible at the moment, promoting the rule of law rather than favour is crucial for Thailand's long-term stability and prosperity.
Ezra Kyrill Erker