Thailand van accident: Fear and loathing in the ‘Land of Smiles’
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Thailand van accident: Fear and loathing in the ‘Land of Smiles’

By Thaweeporn Kummetha

On the evening of December 27 of last year, there was a horror car accident on a Don Muang elevated motorway in Bangkok. Nine lives were lost, after a passenger van was hit by a sedan. Many of the passengers were thrown out of the van onto the road below, leading to deaths and injuries. The underage female sedan driver, however, had minor injuries.

So far, the police have not concluded the cause of the accident, but have charged her for reckless driving which caused the deaths and injuries of others and driving without a license. She was freed after acknowledging the charge. The authorities said they had no ground to detain her since she had contacted police to turn herself in. You can find more detail here.

Thai van drivers and private bus drivers are notorious for their reckless driving as Veera Prateepchaikul pointed out in his opinion piece, “An Accident waiting to happen” in the Bangkok Post. Moreover, this was the second van accident happened on the motorway within two months. On October 31 eight van passengers were killed when a van inwhich they were traveling fell from another elevated expressway. Thailand also had almost 3,500 accidents during seven days of the New Year holiday. I believe it is fair enough to say that there are many of reckless drivers in this country.


Stephff’s view in The Nation on the van accident

Stephff’s view in The Nation on the van accident

So, it seems this accident looks like a normal one – whether it was caused by the recklessness of the young driver or the carelessness of the van driver – it was an accident that nobody wanted it to happen. The family members of the dead passengers deserve a moment of grievance and it is common for the media to pay attention to them. Also, it may be understandable if the underage driver was condemned by the society for her carelessness in a reasonable degree and manner.

However, what is going on now in the ‘Land of Smiles’ is that this 16-year-old girl has received many death threats from phone calls and from the internet. Her mother said that she had to change her daughter’s hospital for three times after someone tried to break into her room. She has been called “the killer of nine deaths” by people who join the Facebook page “More than one million Thais are not happy with (her name),” which now has more than 300,000 fans. Her photos, phone number, and email address, as well as those of her family members, have been disseminated widely on the Internet through this page and via forward emails.

So far, nine new Facebook pages have been created to condemn her. This page has been specifically created to condemn the media for not presenting “harsh enough reports” on the underage driver. Another page has been created for expressing hatred toward a person who tried to show sympathy for the young driver on page “More than one million Thais are not happy with (her name)”. Most of the comments are considerably rude and aggressive. Many of them called for the girl to be executed, lynched, and raped.

Examples of hate speech to her:

Although I feel sad for the affected students and lecturers at Thammasat University, I tried to be impartial and think positively. But [my emotion changes] when I see Miss A’s photo of Facebook. You damn bitch! I want to gang rape you and f** you damn very hard until you screamed damn loudly and forget your boyfriend.

I want to curse the [her family name] family to run into a serious accident and have sticks pierce through their buttocks and die slowly. Those who are sympathetic to their family should die from starving and that all they can eat are dirt and shit!

The question simply is why this could happen? The readers may want to read, Social networks get ugly in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, by fellow AC blogger Jon Russell, which provides a concise but good summary of the phenomena Thai social networking. But I will try to explain more deeply.

I will explain this phenomenon in three main sections: How the hatred began? How can we make sense of the collective outrage? and my take on the issue.

NOTE: According to the Child Protection Act 2006 of Thailand, the young driver, who claimed to be 16 years old, is entitled to rights as a ‘child’ under Thai law. A child in Thailand is 18 years old or under. Therefore, publishing her name in the news and on websites saying she was the cause of the accident is forbidden by law would violate Section 27 of the Act.

Section 27 It is forbidden for anyone to advertise or disseminate by means of the media or any other kind of information technology any information on a child or the child’s guardian, with the intention of causing damage to the mind, reputation, prestige or and other interests of the child or seeking benefit for oneself or others in an unlawful manner.

However, most Thai media did not abide by the law and seem to ignore the need to protect her rights. They publicized her name as the driver of the sedan who is primarily believed to be the cause of the accident.

As she is entitled to be protection, in this article, “Miss A” will be used when referring to her.

1. How did the hatred begin?

As Fellow AC blogger Jon Russell pointed out:

The girl, who is (1) from a well connected and ‘high society’ family, is legally not old enough to drive and much of the attention is focused on whether her family connections will see her escape severe punishment for the accident, while (2) photos of her using her BlackBerry immediately after the crash have been seized upon as evidence for an assumption that she was chatting with friends and showed no remorse for her actions. In fact, this has gone a step further with allegedly (3) fake screenshots of her BlackBerry circulated across social networks and web forums as further ‘proof’ of her lack of sincerity, while her phone number has also been published on Facebook (highlight and numbering by me).

The hatred phenomenon against her began because of two main conditions:

1. In Thailand, there were many notorious cases that youngsters from rich, influential, and elite families could escape from severe punishment of criminal offenses. Her family name, which is one of the well-known elite families, makes many Thais speculate that eventually her family would bribe the authority to help her.

2. The rumors that she chatted on Blackberry right after the accident

Let me explain a bit how this false information began. This may sound silly, but it really reflects how people are so prone to believe dramatic rumor.

On December 27, Daily News online, news website of the second-largest circulated Thai-language daily newspaper, published a series of photo from the night of accident. One of the photo featured Miss A here.

As you can see, it looks like she is chatting on Blackberry phone, but I am sure that you can hold the Blackberry that way for doing something else. And it is normal isn’t it? If you just encountered an accident, you would use the phone to call someone immediately – not chatting with friend.

However, when the picture was circulated on Twitter many Thai Twitter users not only rushed to judge that she was entirely responsible for the accident, but also believed that she was chatting on her BlackBerry right after the accident and angrily slammed her with rude words.

Here we go. A twitter user, @Boatz_, tweeted making a comment on the photo:

What !! Miss A says my car just hit with a van. A few people may have died ha ha ha. Damn excited! Will upload a photo [of the accident] to Facebook to show you in a moment.

(@Boatz_ comment is on the last comment page.)

Unbelievably, this tweet received more than 600 retweets. (The number does not include the modiified retweets.) Later someone filled up the bogus conversation of Miss A and her friend as:

Ms A: So annoying. My car crashed with a van.

A’s friend: Why don’t upload the photo to Facebook?

Ms A: I already did. [The accident] is just like a movie!

A’s friend: Are you done with the accident? Hurry up. Come to see me.

Ms A: In a few minutes. My dad is negotiating with the media.

And as Jon Russell said, there was also a fake screenshot of Ms A’s BB. What is it really?

The screenshot is here and it was actually the screenshot of @PureloveNut who retweeted the first fake BB message of @Boatz_. However, many Thai Twitter users tweeted and retweeted this screenshot suggesting the screenshot of Ms A’s Blackberry and that they mistook @PureloveNut as Ms A.

Russell said:

The incident and assumption of the hate-mob led to @PUREloveNUT receiving the most mentions of anyone using Twitter in Thailand, almost double that of the number two most mentioned user, propelling her from a little known user to one with more mentions than most Thai celebrities combined.

Also on the Thai trending topic that day, the tag #WeHateMissA, used to spread hatred to Miss A, was ranked as the most popular topic among Thai twitter users.

And unsurprisingly, the fake Facebook status of Ms A was also created. Later on, also on twitter, a Blackberry pin number claimed to be of Miss A was tweeted. Someone tweeted:

Found it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 21694EXX Ms A’s Blackberry pin. Let’s add the pin to scold her. Please forward. She is now online in America! #ihateMissA

Yes, there were also rumors that she has fled to America.

As you can see the rumors about Miss A spread very fast within two day after the accident. As for the Blackberry thing, @Boatz_ later tweeted that it was just “sarcasm”.

Also, I could not find any screenshots of Miss A’s facebook page or Blackberry having the message about the accident.

Interestingly, ASTV-Manager online, the most popular news website in Thailand, has a false report, saying that Miss A has updated her Facebook status and chat on Blackberry.

2. How to make sense of the collective outrage?

In Thailand, most of the people who have Internet access are middle-class because Internet access is still limited to people in Bangkok and in a big city and the cost of Internet access is not cheap. Those who join the pages expressing vile hatred on Miss A on Facebook, presumably, are middle-class people.

Observing the extreme collective outrage of the middle class, some anti-coup red-shirts and/or red-shirt sympathizerswe  ask: are these middle class really sad for the loss of lives? If so, why have not they shown any sympathy for the 91 lives of the red shirt protesters that were killed during the military crackdown in April-May 2010? How different were the lives of red shirts and the lives of those in the van? Why did not they receive the same kind of sympathy from the middle class?

After the accident, the media have been sensationalized about the loss of eight lives (eight at that time). For example, this report in The Nation has details about how one of the deaths, Sastra Chaothiang, a doctorate degree holder, struggled during childhood.

Dr Sastra Chaothiang, who was among the eight fatalities in Monday night’s deadly accident on the Vibhavadi Rangsit tollway, was wellloved at his alma mater, the Benjamarachutit School in Ratchaburi.

Most of his teachers shed tears at the death of the doctorate holder.

“He rode a bicycle to the school with books and flower garlands every day,” Boonma Wattanawalan, 50, a high school teacher recalled yesterday.

She described Sattra as a polite, diligent and dutiful boy.

“All the teachers appreciated his qualities,” Boonma said.

Sastra lived a difficult life but was determined to better his circumstances through education. He got his PhD in England at the young age of 27, five years ago, they said.

Sastra’s biological mother was so poor she had to give up the baby soon after his birth, said his adoptive mother Thawin Chaotheing.

Thawin said she had a stall selling garlands in Ratchaburi Market. The family was poor and Sastra had to help deliver garlands using a bicycle until he reached Mathayom 3 at Benchamarachuthit Ratchaburi School. “We were poor and couldn’t afford cram schooling for him but he was a good student and would take textbooks to go and ask teachers right away.

He passed the entrance exam to study Mathayom 4 [grade10] at Bangkok’s Triam Udom School and managed to pass the university entrance exam at Mathayom 5 level to study medicine at Siriraj Hospital. But Sastra said he wanted to study abroad, so he asked me for Bt3,000 to get tutoring for 10 hours per month,” she said.

Sastra understood that it was difficult for the family to make money and he never created any problems or became wayward, she added.

“I was so proud that he got the Civil Service Commission [CSC] scholarship to study in England because he faced adversities all his life and everything he got was because he tried and worked hard,” she said.

Sastra had a life that seems to be the role model of the Thai middle class: work hard in school, do well in the entrance examination, go to a good university and have a good career.

The other deaths did not have much different backgrounds. They were an engineer, a researcher, a political science graduate, a law undergrad student and an economic undergrad student. Most of them studied or worked at Thammasat University, one of the two most prestigious universities in Thailand. And as all of them chose to use a commuter van, they are believed to be [well-educated, humble and economical] middle-class.

On the contrary, Miss A seems to have everything in life without struggle. She comes from a well-to-do family andwas sent to study abroad since she was young. Also, her family bought her a brand new car when she was a teenager. (Some of this may not true, but this is what many Thais perceived.)

It is undeniable that social class plays a major role in this story. The news about the van has enraged the middle-class on Facebook because those in the van share the same class with them. They extremely ‘regret’ the deaths the PhD and researchers lost by the spoiled reckless rich girl.

They fear that their ‘middle-class friends’ will not receive justice as the elite will escape from a punishment because of their influence and money.

Interestingly, this may be the first time that the middle-class have realized that they are also affected by the so-called “double standard” of the Thai judicial system that the red shirts have campaigned against.

Also, not surprisingly, the life of female van driver received no attention from the hate mob and the media.

3. My take on the issue.

Somehow, the outrage is partly justifiable because the double-standard does exist and if there is no such outrage; the police might have not done anything with Miss A at all.

The unjustifiable part is that every suspect is innocent until the court rules that they are guilty and it should be more careful when dealing with underage suspects. However, Thai people, as well as the Thai media, seem to never be aware of this – the rights of suspects and the rights of children. Many people in the hate mob who are promoting hatred and anger against her on Facebook are calling for the police to put Miss A into jail or detain in the juvenile detention center right away as happened to so-called “dek wen” in Thai – those young motorcyclists that transform public roads into motorcycle racing circuit after midnight.

Yes. The police treated Miss A and ‘dek wens’ differently. But do we really want everyone to be treated badly as Dek Wen? What we want is that, regardless of social class, everyone is treated fairly and equally, as fair as possible.

Thaweeporn Kummetha is a young journalist based in Bangkok. This is her second article for Siam Voices after the first one “The manipulation of #weloveking on Twitter on Dec 5 and the reflection of reality” You can follow her on twitter @isAMare