Baffling statistics fail to hide Thailand’s worrying gun crime problem
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Baffling statistics fail to hide Thailand’s worrying gun crime problem

IN January three people were shot and killed in Bangkok over what the Bangkok Post said was a, “long-standing dispute over parking.” Two women and a male neighbor who had intervened in the argument were killed by Thossaporn Pitakwattananon. In another long-standing feud, according to the Bangkok Post, a gardener shot and killed a colleague at Thammasat University later in February.

Just this last weekend a reportedly “jealous lover” shot and killed his girlfriend in a Bangkok shopping mall, and immediately after the man shot himself in the head. A nine-year-old girl was hit in the face by a stray bullet.

These incidents happened just a few months following reports of Thailand’s high per capita gun murder rate, reportedly higher than that of the U.S. and three times higher than Cambodia’s murder rate.

However, reading the statistics about Thailand’s gun crime rate can be confusing. Both the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODCO) and GunPolicy.org’s statistics seem inconsistent, and appear to be working from very old or limited data. For example, GunPolicy is relying on information from 1994 for its statistics on per capita gun-related death.

The high numbers of homicides in Thailand, it was reported, was often due to “loss of face and businesses disputes”, which recent deaths would appear to confirm. The widespread availability of guns also appears to be a major issue – there are 6.1 million registered firearms in Thailand, according to UNODCO. GunPolicy says the number is closer to 10 million as many firearms are sold on the black market.

Baffling Statistics

With no official gun crime statistics released by Thailand’s authorities it seems almost impossible to gauge the real figures, and those that exist can be baffling. The UNODCO reports that in 1998, 1999, and 2000 there were 23,631, 21,635, and 20,032 “total recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm.” This comes under the section of “Crimes recorded in criminal (police) statistics, by type of crime including attempts to commit crimes.”

The number of total homicides is far lower, at around the 5,000 mark for each of those years. If the 20,000+ figure is true, then that would give Thailand an extremely high murder rate, although it is also likely that an error has been made concerning these statistics. Looking at other countries in the report it’s hard to find similar discrepancies.

In the same report it states that the total number of prosecutions for homicide with a firearm is 3,654 3,516 and 3,417, a number quite close to the statistics we presently see in the press today. The number for those actually convicted is 2,508 and 2,598, with no figure reported for the year 2000.

I contacted UNODCO’s Bangkok office last week so they might explain these numbers, but as yet they have not responded.

Regardless of statistics it is evident, and has been widely reported, that Thailand has a gun problem. What may make Thailand stand-out however is that so many murders we hear about – often murders are not reported in the English language media – happen over what most people would consider trivial matters, mostly concerning ‘loss of face’.

A Trifling Matter

In Chiang Mai earlier this month it was reported that police are going to crackdown on illegal weapons following a gunfight between police and a local, after which police discovered the man they had shot in the stomach had, “an array of illegal weapons including and M-16 and shotgun”.

During my time as a local news editor in Chiang Mai it was not uncommon to arrive at the office and on opening emails from Thai stringers be the recipient of photographs in which someone had been shot dead, often for what one might consider a small matter: a disgruntled boyfriend killing his girlfriend (this month a second year female Chiang Mai University student was brutally murdered by her 20 year old boyfriend because she allegedly complained he played videos games too often) and in some cases turning the gun on himself; an argument between drunken friends; a foreigner shot at a traffic light for apparently giving someone the finger. Following this last incident I had my Thai editor translate the reactions of people on a popular Thai web forum, only to see that the many posters said that such behavior did not adhere to Thai propriety and the man deserved what he got. Other posters disagreed.

Almost a decade before readers were shocked into disbelief, perhaps validly, that Thailand’s gun murder rate was as high as the U.S., I had written a story on Thailand’s gun, and consequently, murder problem. I interviewed Police Colonel Saravoot Chandrappraser, who was then working as the investigation center superintendent of Chiang Mai and the north. His explanation as to why Thailand has quite a high murder rate was as follows:

“Firstly, it’s not so difficult to get a gun. Guns are smuggled in from neighboring countries and it is very difficult to stop this. Also, there have been many wars in the past and guns still remain in the area.”

He went on to talk about ‘face’, and how loss of it, accompanied with drunkenness, can often be deadly.

“You see in Thailand there’s no 1, 2, 3,” he said. “There’s only a 3. In some countries you have a shouting match, then you have a fight and sometimes it goes to murder. Here, you can get into an argument and the next thing you know you have been shot.” People don’t like losing face, he said, and on top of that it’s easy to acquire a firearm.

Getting Away With Murder

I had earlier asked British investigative journalist Andrew Drummond – who has since left Thailand because he and his children’s lives were threatened – what he thought the reason behind Thailand’s high murder rate was. He seemed to believe part of the reason was because getting away with was not so difficult. Drummond said he lacked confidence in the police and forensics departments, adding, “It has a dramatic effect because the police can do anything with a DNA sample. Thailand was also going to introduce the DSI, which would have been similar to the American FBI, but it never happened.”

The DSI was introduced, apparently prior to Drummond’s comment, but has since been tainted by corruption scandals, weakened by constant reshuffles, and been ineffective in high profile murders. Thailand has become synonymous with a country that you can get away with murder. It has been called one of the most dangerous tourist destinations in the world, and while murders of foreign tourists are only a small part of why Thailand can be a dangerous place to visit, when murders do happen so often the police and the justice system seem to lack the ability to perform the tasks society has trusted them to do.

Losing Face

As has been reported, losing face seems to bear much of the responsibility for murders in Thailand, perhaps more so than in other countries where ‘face’ is not deemed quite as important.

While there are obvious positive elements to not submitting a person to social ignominy, where loss of life is concerned due to someone’s ego being temporarily deflated, being so volatile in the event loss of face is obviously something that needs to be examined and discussed. Should it therefore be a commitment of parents, teachers, the government to inculcate in citizens the appropriate responsible and ethical response to a loss of face (nar dtaek), rather than submitting to the fact that this is a culturally normative behavior?

On the other hand Thailand is rightly renowned as being one of the friendliest places on Earth, and day to day life is for most people undisturbed by pugnacity from strangers or aggressive behavior seen in public. It is very unusual in Thailand to be the victim of someone else’s ire just because they want to let off steam. But if negative emotions or ill-feelings towards another are repressed and not overcome with social interaction then the result could be an explosion of pent-up negative emotions. Loss of face should not lead to loss of life, but we can see that it regularly does. Taking weapons off the streets will be a difficult task given that statistically one in six people owns a gun. Finding a solution to Thailand’s high murder rate will be difficult.