Lawrence Osborne

Peaceful yet violent: the Thai paradox that still baffles the West

Peaceful yet violent: the Thai paradox that still baffles the West
Text settings

The scene of the recent bombing at the Erawan shrine has swiftly been remodelled to make it seem as though nothing happened. Upbeat slogans - 'Stronger Together' – and a forensically dubious ‘clean-up’ have gone hand in hand with a media campaign to reassure millions of tourists that they are safe in the Land of Smiles. The Chinese, however, have cancelled many of their vacations and the investigation rumbles on inconclusively, as is often the way with Thai investigations, which usually peter out in a vague inconclusiveness.

An image is starting to form of Thailand as a uniquely dangerous tourist destination, riven by political violence and unprovoked attacks on hapless tourists. The film industry often tells a similar story: ‘No Escape’, which stars Owen Wilson, and is released next week, capitalises on this same emotion. It features western tourists being mown down from helicopters by vaguely composite Thai-Burmese thugs armed with machine guns. Primal fears, and evergreen hysterias.

[caption id="attachment_9227322" align="alignright" width="300"]A digital billboard showing the sketch of a man suspected to be the Bangkok bomber (Photo: Jerome Taylor/Getty) A digital billboard showing the sketch of a man suspected to be the Bangkok bomber (Photo: Jerome Taylor/Getty)[/caption]

Yet virtually no tourists have ever been expressly targeted or killed in this region’s upheavals over the last 40 years. The recent tragic murders of a young British couple in Koh Tao and now the Erawan bombing seem nevertheless to have cemented an image in place. The virtual certainty that the investigations will soon become bogged down in a surreal procedural cul-de sac does not help. Just over a week after the bombing, the Thai police finally gave a press conference in front of a girly bar in Nana to declare that the suspect had ‘probably' fled abroad. They stood underneath the bar’s sign, which read, with wonderful insouciance, ‘Suckers'.

But is Thailand violent? British tabloids in particular have made much of the fact that some 290 British tourists have died here in recent years. The small print admits that the vast majority are suicides, drug overdoses and 'natural causes' and that a million Britons visit the Kingdom every year. But it makes for thrilling, blood-curdling copy. The murder rate in Thailand is actually quite high by Asian standards at around 4 per 100,000, but it’s also about the same as the United States, and little different from equivalent rates in Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia. It’s the same for terrorism deaths.

In the southern provinces, where there is a simmering Muslim insurgency, the victims of any violence are nearly all Buddhists or Muslims. Given its Buddhist ethos, however, Thailand does have a paradoxical and curious relationship with violence itself. Buddhism is the pacifist religion par excellence, and Thais value the quality of jai yen, or cool, anger-less composure and the avoidance of confrontation. But in the country's politics, Thailand's jai yen is rarely to the fore and these instinctual Buddhist reflexes get sidelined by passions that the political system cannot assuage or contain. To an outsider, these passions are baffling because they do not conform to Western ideological traditions. Here, the Yellows and the Reds - as the two main combatant parties are known - are more like antagonistic fractions of the Hippodrome in ancient Constantinople, and have little to do with Left and Right. It's more a conflict between capital and hinterland, royalism and new money, military entitlement and incomplete democracy, and a thousand other layers of class and regional tensions.

In 2010, ninety people were shot dead during intense political clashes a few yards from the same Erawan shrine. The victims were mainly Reds. Then during the protests leading up to the military coup last year, which ousted the 'Red' government of Yingluck Shinawatra, there were shootings and fire-bombings by mysterious groups who were never identified, let along brought to justice. They were most likely carried out by the ever-present mue tii sam or ‘third hand’, which always seems to appear from the shadows whenever the country’s rival factions take to the streets to contest the direction of the state. Within this group are snipers armed with state of the art weaponry, and they shoot to kill.

Yet the 2014 protests themselves were also strange in a different way. Near my house, a stage was set up at the huge Asoke intersection and there were nightly speeches, concerts and sit–ins. I took a journalist friend from Istanbul to see it, and he was astonished, if not slightly disgusted, by the lack of violence and police brutality. ‘Call this a protest?’ he sniffed, pointing out the damning absence of tear gas and the hordes of bobbing girls in flashing devil horns. ‘In Istanbul this would just be a party. It’s a joke, not a protest.’

Of course it eventually brought down Yingluck's government and ushered in a military takeover. But the tanks that rolled down a few streets for an afternoon were never used. By contrast, the bomb that killed two dozen people at the Erawan shrine on 17 August marks the beginning of a different kind of violence, and one which which probably has little to do with the country's internal strife, not even with the insurgency in the Deep South. It feels different in nature and scale. It seems, for one thing, extremely unlikely that any Buddhist faction, however militant, would ever bomb such a revered shrine - and indeed there is hardly any precedent for such a thing. If nothing else, superstition and a fear of bad karma would deter.

[caption id="attachment_9227312" align="alignright" width="300"]sus A photo showing an unidentified suspect, in Bangkok, on Saturday. Police say the man is being held for being allegedly involved with the bomb attack, at the Hindu Erawan Shrine on 17 August. Photograph: Thai Royal Police/EPA[/caption]

A suspect was finally arrested yesterday in an apartment complex in the largely Muslim neighbourhood of Nong Chok in Bangkok. Police found ball-bearings and several fake or stolen passports, including Turkish ones. A photo of the man arrested, who apparently was not the one who planted the bomb, shows a non-Asian, possibly Turkish man, but his nationality has not been officially confirmed. Predictably, authorities then suggested that the attack had nothing to do with 'international terrorism' and might even be a 'private feud'.  That, then, would explain the fake passports. Perhaps now the question of Buddhist paradoxes is no longer of much use – but no-one will likely admit it.

Lawrence Osborne is a British writer and novelist currently residing in Bangkok.