Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Any decent person must sympathise with the anger expressed by Laura Witheridge about how the Thai authorities handled the investigation of the murder and rape of her sister Hannah on Ko Tao. Hannah’s boyfriend David Miller was also brutally murdered there.
Laura Witheridge cuts through the myth about Thailand being “The Land of Smiles” and the image of beach paradises which attract holiday makers from abroad. Thailand is not a country of only warm gentle people who are constantly smiling. The murder rate is shockingly high and many political activists are gunned down in cold blood in the streets. The murderers, often state officials or people with powerful connections, go unpunished. The so-called “beach paradises” are often controlled by money-grabbing mafia types who viciously exploit migrant workers from neighbouring countries in order to provide services to holiday makers.
For many years now I have felt a mixture of sadness and disgust at the way holiday makers from Europe and other countries come to Thailand and stay in a complete bubble, showing little interest in what is happening in Thailand. The idea that I would go on holiday to a place without taking an interest in its politics and society is perplexing to me.
Ms Witheridge is 100% correct when she lambasts the Thai police for being both corrupt and incompetent. Most ordinary Thais, including myself, have experienced this first hand for all of their lives and are genuinely fed-up with the situation. Many people are angry and fed-up with the arrogance and callousness of government officials when communicating with the public. This is also something mentioned by Ms Witheridge and it all sounds convincing.
The reaction of the police to the Ko Tao murders reminds me of the words of the Chief of Police in the film “Casablanca”. “Round up the usual suspects!” he barks at his underlings. In Thailand the “usual suspects” are Burmese migrant workers.
Ms Witheridge also makes an important point about the racism of many Thais and how they despise foreigners including Western tourists. In previous posts on this site I have criticised the racism in Thai society. See http://bit.ly/1JaeTJY and http://bit.ly/1ZEwTnj
I can easily forgive Laura Witheridge for making angry sweeping statements about Thais and the society in which we live. What happened to her sister is appalling and the pictures of her sister which I witnessed being posted on Facebook showed an unbelievable callousness. (http://bit.ly/1n4bged)
But we must never forget that most Thai people, like most Britons or most ordinary French people, Syrians or Iraqis, are not vicious nor callous.
There are many Thais who show warmth, compassion and solidarity. There are many who are upset by rape and vicious murders and many who wish to see the police and the criminal justice system subjected to root and branch reforms. While some Thais are conservative and supportive of authoritarianism, others fight for freedom, justice and democracy. Thai society has two faces.
That Thai society has two faces is hardly surprising. It is after all a class society. This helps to explain much of what Ms Witheridge is criticising.
At the best of times, Thailand has been ruled by a hierarchical ruling class which is selfish and brutal. That is why wages for ordinary working people are pitifully low. That is why most working Thais and migrant workers are viewed with contempt. There is not justice for most citizens. Vicious laws, like the lèse-majesté law, are there to try to enforce loyalty to the monarchy, the elites and the military. On top of this steaming heap of dung, we now have a military dictatorship which acts with impunity.
The Thai ruling class uses the extreme ideologies of Monarchy and Nationalism to support their brutal rule and these things are socialised so that they are instilled in most people from an early age. Apart from this being an explanation for the outward and false appearance that everyone loves the monarchy and is proud of being Thai, it explains the racism in society.
Viewed in this wider manner, what Ms Witheridge describes about Thailand is what most Thais experience. It is a symptom of authoritarian rule in all its complex forms. Apart from the urgent business of overthrowing the dictatorship and building a more just and socialist society, there is a very urgent task concerning the Ko Tao murders. We must fight to save the lives of two innocent Burmese men who have become the junta’s scapegoats. These men must be regarded as “innocent” until proven guilty and the so-called evidence concocted against them by the Thai police is contradictory and highly suspect. The police have also used torture to obtain so-called confessions, a practice widely used by both the police and military.
Tragically nothing is going to bring back the lives of Hannah Witheridge or David Miller. But the lives of two other people can still be saved. We must do all we can for Zaw Lin and Win Htun.