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How Safe is Thailand for Tourists?

To restore confidence, the Prayuth government must find the culprits of the British tourists’ murder.

On September 17, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the self-appointed Thai prime minister, suggested during a speech to senior bureaucrats that female tourists in Thailand are not safe if they wear bikinis. “They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prayuth said, before adding, “[But] can they be safe in bikinis … unless they are not beautiful?” His comments came in response to the gruesome murder of two British tourists, David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, who were found dead on the southern resort island of Koh Tao.

As a joke, Prayuth’s statement left a bad taste in one’s mouth. If he was serious, it simply showed his insensitivity regarding both the murder and sexism toward female tourists visiting Thailand.

His comments infuriated both the families of the victims and the Thai public at large. Immediately, the British Embassy in Bangkok requested a clarification from Prayuth on whether he meant to imply that Witheridge’s appearance could provoke a crime against her.

Prayuth later contacted Mark Kent, the British ambassador to Bangkok, explaining his view of the issue. He apologized to the public and the families of Miller and Witheridge, claiming he had been under “extreme pressure.” Prayuth also said that Kent now understood what he meant to say.“I’m sorry that it hurt people,” Prayuth was quoted as saying. “I didn’t intend to insult or criticise anyone. I just warned that sometimes people have to be careful … Thailand is safe except there are some bad guys — like anywhere in the world.”

But many Thais doubt the sincerity of his apology. When Prayuth made his statement about “ugly girls,” one could hear some people in the conference room laughing. Shockingly, one reporter even wrote on her Facebook, “What Prayuth said was funny.”

An Uncouth General

The problem with Prayuth is that he is just an uncouth general. He was also not informed that, at the scene of the crime, Witheridge was not even wearing a bikini when she was brutally attacked. Moreover, the general was confused about whether the incident took place at Koh Chang or Koh Tao — the two islands are miles apart and separated by the Gulf of Thailand.

“They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prayuth said, before adding, “[But] can they be safe in bikinis … unless they are not beautiful?” His comments came in response to the gruesome murder of two British tourists, David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, who were found dead on the southern resort island of Koh Tao.

This is not the first time Prayuth has made outrageous and naïve comments. On September 16, he sarcastically told the southern rubber planters that if no one buys their products, they could send them to be sold on Mars. In tackling flooding issues, Prayuth advised Thais to elevate their houses or just go out and buy a boat. When discussing the elimination of the overgrowing water hyacinths in the Chao Phraya River, Prayuth said: “If every one of you would help pick 10-20 water hyacinths, they will go extinct.” These recommendations might be amusing, but they reveal the general’s dangerous incompetency.

The latest blow to Thailand’s economy comes after tourism has plummeted amid many months of relentless protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government from November 2013 to May 2014. The May 22 coup d’état, which was followed by the enforcement of martial law, has continued to impact Thai tourism, which accounted for an estimated 10% of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, or about $35 billion. Such incidents have already caused damage to the industry, with monthly visitors having fallen by about 400,000 since the end of 2013. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Thailand welcomes nearly 28 million arrivals every year.

The murder of Miller and Witheridge, and Prayuth’s careless statement, will only worsen the tourism industry in Thailand. A representative of the Tourism Authority of Thailand admitted: “This [murder] may have an impact on tourists’ travel plans so we suggest they contact their travel agent, tour operator or chosen hotel for further advice if they are currently on, or are due to travel, to the island in the next few days.”

British Tourists in Thailand

Based on British government statistics, since 2009, 11 Britons have been murdered in Thailand. In one of those cases, at a 2012 New Year’s Eve party, Stephen Ashton was killed on the Thai island of Koh Pha Ngan, where the world famous Full Moon Party is held every month. Ashton was attacked in a bar and killed instantly.

The situation has worried the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which has issued a warning to British travelers to beware of “vicious, unprovoked attacks by gangs.” The brutal assaults against tourists in Thailand are not confined within well-known spots like Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Pattaya. But there have been reports of assaults against British tourists and those of other nationalities in less traveled locations such as Krabi. In July 2013, an American was stabbed to death while his son was seriously injured in an attack there.

British tourists have also fallen victim to scams, pickpockets, bag-snatchers and credit card fraud. According to the FCO, the British Embassy in Bangkok has become the second busiest location where Britons have sought consular assistance, after its Manila office in the Philippines.

The slow investigation of the Miller and Witheridge case has already called into question the responsibility of Thai authorities. In their attempt to explain away the culpability, the junta blamed foreign workers from Myanmar who may have been involved in the murder, without providing any substantial evidence. However, the accusation of non-Thais will further expose a cheap tactic adopted by the Prayuth government to cover up the innate danger that any tourist can encounter.

But what is more important is the effect on the Thai economy, of which tourism has become the main profitable sector. Delays of the investigation could lead Britain to issue a full travel warning to all its citizens going to Thailand. If that occurs, thousands of people in the Thai tourist industry will bear the consequences. Following the murder, many tourists on the famous Koh Tao island have fled. Hotels, restaurants and entertainment spots have been affected; although it is too soon to indicate potential losses to the economy at present.

At a time where Thailand is faced with a fragile political situation, in which the country’s junta has relied upon maintaining its legitimacy through building a vibrant economy, the drop in tourist revenue will challenge the power and position of the military government. Confidence among tourists needs to be restored. The government must bring to justice the perpetrators of Miller and Witheridge’s deaths. This is not only to reaffirm the legitimacy of the government, but to prevent the Thai economy from further slipping into stagnation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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