January reminds us of Ianus, the two-faced Roman god after whom the month is apocryphally named. (In fact, it’s more likely the month is named after the tutelary god of the month, Iuno.)
Anyway, it must be pretty tough having two faces to preserve. It’s probably just as well Ianus wasn’t born in Thailand, where saving face is a prominent preoccupation.
But first, to another aspect of the Thai character (if such sweeping generalisations can be made): patriotism, or nationalism, or xenophobia. Not quite sure how to label it, but it’s not a particularly pleasant trait. One sign sums it up for me: a few years ago I was visiting Wat Pho, a temple very popular with visiting tourists. There by the gate was a sign in English and Thai, “Beware: Foreign Pickpockets are Stealing Here”. The word “foreign” here is totally redundant. However, it was important to make clear that Thai thieves would never pickpocket in an area busy with tourists, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This character is also reflected in the refusal to take foreign advice. For example, since 1932 Thailand has had 20 different constitutions (and 18 military coups), and the current junta is in the process of drawing up a 21st. Despite all the evidence that Thailand isn’t very good at drawing up effective constitutions (and this is despite a lot of practice), when it was put to the head of the junta that foreign advisers be engaged to help write the current constitution, he snapped that it was not necessary. Despite the General’s confidence, from what I know of the new constitution, I’m not hopeful it will provide much needed political stability.
This character can also have unfortunate consequences for foreigners living here – particularly the Burmese, Lao and Cambodian migrant workers who are effectively powerless here. Let us consider the tragic case of the British couple murdered on Koh Tao in September 2014. The General first decided to blame the foreign victims saying:
“[Tourists] think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want. But I ask: will they survive in Thailand if they dress in bikinis? [Only if] they are not beautiful.”
He then decided to blame foreign migrant workers saying:
“We have to help take care of [our nation] and not let not-good people mingle with us, such as unregistered alien workers… It’s dangerous and it can cause damage to the country,”
Shortly after two Burmese labourers were arrested. The son of a prominent family on the island, who was (and by some still is) suspected of being the perpetrator, was quickly dismissed as not involved by the police. The police commander who supported these suspicions, was abruptly transferred off the case and all mention of the scion powerful clan ceased.
There are a lot of suspicions about the police’s handling of the case, including:
- failing to secure the murder site for days
- poor handling of evidence and conflicting timing information
- DNA results produced unbelievably quickly
- shoddy reporting of the DNA results – one page, part of it handwritten with lots of crossings out
- failure to DNA test either the female victim’s clothing or the murder weapon
- alleged torture of the labourers to secure confessions.
There’s more, but I think that’s enough for present purposes.
Particularly given the crucial role of DNA evidence in this case and its international profile, it is perhaps surprising that Thailand’s most prominent forensic scientist and household name, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, was not allowed to get involved in the investigation. During the trial she did testify for the defence criticising the police handling of the evidence and the analysis.
A renowned Australian forensic expert brought in by the defence was not allowed to testify. It’s not clear why, but one theory is that having a foreigner criticising Thais would work badly for the accused.
Anyway, despite all the question marks hanging over the case, the labourers were found guilty and sentenced to death. And one is left wondering whether things might have turned out differently were it not for Thai patriotism.
Anyway, needless to say the Royal Thai Police have taken a lot of flack in the media for their handling of the case. In response they have closed ranks, with police bigwigs past and present defending the police’s actions and the General also got involved, angrily saying:
“Critics should respect the verdict and that Thailand’s justice system would not bow to public pressure”.
“They have the right to appeal, right? Laws all over the world have this. Or should Thai law not have this? Is it the case that we should release all people when pressured?”
Yes, they have the right to an appeal, but will that change things? Will that make up for the mishandled evidence? For the questionable DNA analysis? Where do a couple of powerless labourers stand when they come up against Thailand’s patriotism and its need to save face?