The myth of the “Land of Smiles”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The recent video footage of a British family being brutally attacked by drunken thugs in the Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin should be enough to dispel the myth that Thailand is a “Land of Smiles”.

Associated with this myth is the idea that somehow the Buddhist religion ensures tolerance and a peaceful way of life. The truth is the absolute opposite. The violent behaviour of fascist monks in Burma and Thailand are confirmation of this. See and

Thailand is a violent society in many ways. Politically the ruling class have always resorted to violence to suppress opposition. We have seen this on the streets of Bangkok many times in the last five decades. We have also seen this in Patani. The murder rate in Thailand is higher than the United States and approximately five times higher than Western Europe. People also die violent deaths on the roads due to poor public transport, poor roads and bad driving. This is a form of violence caused by the state of society.

Violence by drunken thugs also happens regularly in Western Europe, but the main targets of young thugs are other young men. This makes the repeated attack on the British woman who is in her sixties particularly horrifying. Thai culture is supposed to teach people to respect elderly people. How did this happen? She was punched and then kicked in the head when on the ground. Of course racists are known to attack black people or Muslims in Europe, including elderly people and racism plays an important role in promoting violence.

However, to be fair, the video does seem to show her slapping the face of a Thai man earlier during the incident. But that does not excuse the brutal attack upon her later.

It is not enough of an explanation to say that the attack at Hua Hin was just local youth copying the behaviour of the Thai ruling class, especially the military junta. However, junta strong man Prayut  did threaten those sharing the above video with jail sentences because it “gives Thailand a bad name”!

Many Thais may appear to smile or laugh easily, but this is often a cultural way in which to cover embarrassment. In reality, in public settings, people in Thailand are less polite than the citizens of Britain. Some may question my assertion that British people are more polite to each other in public settings. But consider the way British people tend to hold open doors for each other, how many drivers thank other drivers for giving way to them, how flashing your car lights in Britain means “you go first”, while it means the opposite in Thailand. Consider how people getting off buses in Oxford thank the driver or how there is a serious attempt to show general respect for the privacy and dignity of others, especially in hospitals and schools. It comes from past collective struggles, especially by the labour movement, to promote equality and dignity. There is nothing specifically “British” about this. It is a result of class struggle.

Thais are warm and generous people and are open minded about children in a way that is not present in British society and they are more spontaneous in sharing meals with people. So it isn’t really a case of who is a “nicer” nation. After all, the British Empire has a long and bloody history of oppression, slavery and violence.

Biologically Thais are no more prone to any particular behaviour than any Europeans. But there are important social factors which lead to violence in society and a lack of politeness in public settings.  The most important factor is that Thai society is extremely hierarchical. The ruling class continues to do whatever it can to ensure that a “culture of citizenship and equality” is not allowed to grow. The idea that people should respect the elderly is often closely associated with more powerful elders like teachers, parents or people of higher rank, than poor elderly folk. There is as yet no welfare state in Thailand and the trade union movement is weaker than in Western Europe. Collective class struggle has not been strong enough so far. These are all factors which lead to a lack of mutual respect and a lack of collective consciousness among many ordinary people. Everyone is often too busy trying to make sure they can defend their individual way of life or the interests of their close family because there is no collective guarantee of security that one gets from a welfare state. That also explains why most Thais are so bad at queuing.

Those at the lower end of the pile, like the thugs at Hua Hin, can only seem to gain some false dignity by getting drunk and acting tough. Violence against women and children, worldwide, is often because oppressed men pathetically try to make up for their lack of power in the outside world by using violence against weaker people in their own family.

The racism, which is prevalent in Thai society, especially to people from other Asian countries, but also against Westerners, is encouraged by the extreme nationalism of the ruling class. This is part of the explanation of why Western tourists are sometimes attacked. They are seen as a privileged group of people and Western women are seen as lacking in morals. See

All in all Thai society is sick because it is ruled by a brutal sick ruling class. Yet, millions of Thais try to lead decent and caring lives where they attempt to respect others. That is the glimmer of hope for the future. But to encourage the good and collective side of Thais, we need to end the dictatorship, destroy hierarchy, promote the idea of equality and citizenship, and build a welfare state to reduce inequality.