The murder of two British tourists on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao has raised questions about tourist safety in Thailand. Hannah Witheridge (23) and David Miller (24) were found dead on Monday morning half-naked and with severe wounds to their heads. Local police initially (without any substantial evidence) suspected migrant workers on the island of the crime, before turning their attention to a British backpacker, who was a roommate of one of the victims and another British man, who has been asked not to leave Thailand before the investigation is complete.
The murder case is another setback for Thailand’s struggling tourism industry, which is facing declining numbers this year due to prolonged political protests that set the stage for Thailand’s military to launch a coup in May 22. One of the military junta’s initial goals is to kickstart Thailand’s tourism industry again and make the country attractive for visitors again.
Thus, it was critical that the Thai military government’s of outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reacted to this murder case with the appropriate sensitivity in order to show the world how serious his administration taking this bloody crime.
Unfortunately though, it didn’t quite turn out that way…
“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.
“Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014
For those unfamiliar with Gen. Prayuth, he has a long record of running his mouth before the coup (see one example here) and even more so since the hostile takeover of power a couple of months ago (another example here) and spearheading nearly everything politically for the foreseeable future. His remarks often range somewhere between “father-knows-all” during his weekly TV addresses and deeply annoyed and sardonic during press briefings.
Thus the latest flippant remarks about tourists’ safety correlating to beach attire appears to be brash, and for many even misogynistic that’s hinting at victim blaming. According to a tweet by Bangkok Post military correspondent Wassana Nanuam, it appears that Prayuth’s rhetorical question was half-baked at best before steering away and saying: “Everyone in this room is beautiful!”
นายกฯห่วงนักท่องเที่ยว สั่งดูแล เปรยเมืองไทย ใส่บิกินี่ ได้เหรอ ยกเว้นไม่สวย” ทำตาหวาน ก่อนแซวว่า ในห้องนี้สวยทุกคน
— Deep Blue Sea (@WassanaNanuam) September 17, 2014
Translation: PM worries about tourists, orders them to be looked after. “In Thailand, can they wear their bikinis? Unless they’re not beautiful,” making sweet eyes before teasing [the crowd], “Everyone in this room is beautiful!”
A day earlier in his initial reaction to the Koh Tao murders, Gen. Prayuth said this, again unwittingly suggesting bit of victim blaming:
“I have been following this matter very closely,” Gen. Prayuth told reporters as he arrived at Government House this morning. “We also have to look into the behavior of the other side [the tourists]. (…) This case should not have happened in Thailand at all. I think it will affect foreign opinion of our country.”
“PM Tells Police To Hasten Investigation of Koh Tao Murder“, Khaosod English, September 16, 2014
Indeed it will affect the foreign perception of Thailand as a tourist destination and its safety during a visit. But what also affects this is how sensitively locals and officials are handling this murder case. A half-thought flippant remark by the junta leader and prime minister – who by the way hasn’t expressed his condolences to the victims’ relatives either – doesn’t help to improve Thailand’s image.
UPDATE: The British UK tabloid The Mirror reports:
Hannah Witheridge’s local MP has responded to comments made by Thailand’s prime minister in which he appeared to criticise the behaviour of the two tourists.
MP Brandon Lewis told the Daily Express: “I have not seen anything indicating any blame on the victims. I hope the focus will be on bringing whoever committed this barbaric crime to justice.”
Mr Lewis’s comments come after Thailand’s prime minister said: “We have to look into the behaviour of the other party (Miss Witheridge and Mr Miller) too”.
“British backpackers murdered in Thailand: Updates as police hunt for killer“, The Mirror, September 17, 2014
UPDATE 2: Unsurprisingly, the UK press has jumped onto Prayuth’s ill-advised quipped as it’s being reported and criticized by several outlets, including Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Guardian, The Independent and the Huffington Post UK.
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.