ON the morning of March 13, a black Mercedes CSL broke through a highway toll gate in Bangkok. Two hours later, at an estimated speed over 250km/h, it crashed into the rear of a Ford Fiesta.
The crash forced the smaller vehicle to tumble about 200 meters away, where it then caught on fire. The incident took the lives of the two graduate students seated inside the Ford vehicle, who were reportedly on their way to submit their graduate theses.
The driver of the Mercedes, car importer heir Jenphop Weeraporn, 37, came away with minor injuries, claiming he had been on his way to see a friend when the accident occurred.
As footage of the crash, captured on a dashboard camera, was shared across social media, the Thai public quickly turned on Jenphop in anger.
The tragedy has caused outrage not only because it unfairly took the lives of two innocent souls, but also because people are concerned that it would be yet another case of double standards being applied in the Thai justice system. Many suspect Jenphop will walk away scot-free like many rich-kid culprits have over the past several years.
The week following the incident brought another slap in the face of Thai justice. The media reported that another heiress of a famous family, Orachorn “Praewa” Thephasadin Na Ayudhya, was neglecting her assigned community service duty.
In 2010, the then-16-year-old Praewa was driving without a license and caused a highway accident with a commuter van that killed 9 people. She was given 48 hours of public service and a suspended jail sentence. Praewa’s case was among the notorious rich-kid negligence cases of recent years.
The internet took no time to take up Jenphop’s case. Online detectives came up with footage analysis and theories behind the crash. Some dug into his personal life, many called for a fair investigation, and most demanded strong punishment. “Will the rich kid get special treatment again?” was the common theme on social media.
But poor people seem to get “special treatment”, too. The stories of Jenphop and Praewa were reported against the backdrop of a contrasting punishment of an old couple from Kalasin Province. The couple has so far served 20 months of their 15-year jail sentence for illegal logging after allegedly picking mushrooms. Such a harsh comparison brought up the saying that “prison is reserved for the poor.”
One morning in May 2015, an anarchy sign appeared on the Bangkok Criminal Court signage. It was Nattapol Kemngen, a punk faithful, who sprayed it in protest of justice inequality.
He was later caught by the police and during a press conference, the young man said he was angry that there was no progress about a case in which his friend was shot to death by a soldier.
“There’s no equality in society. Rich people get to return home when they do something wrong, while poor people go to jail because they have no money to fight their case. You media have seen it all, I don’t have to say anything,” Nattapol said.
While justice should ideally not be concerned with wealth and class, it can feel too cheap for the rich and too expensive for the poor in Thailand. There were recent cases of well-known politicians going to prison for their crimes, but their lawsuits also took years and an excessive amount of money. Meanwhile, the poor are sent to jail for petty crimes, like selling pirated CDs and stealing milk powder, all because they cannot afford to pay fines.
The government is said to be working to provide equal access to justice, such as setting up a fund to help the poor with legal expenses, according to the Thai Post. This is, however, the same government that prohibits villagers from protesting against coal mining.
In 2012, Somkiat Tangkitvanich, the chief of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), warned that the country’s regressing education system will make it hard for children from poor backgrounds to rise to the middle-class level, and that socio-economic immobility will over time increase and sustain social tensions between classes.
All the public outcry for justice and the rage against Jenphop could well be a symptom of our increasingly divided society. It could be a matter of months or years before we know what will happen to Jenphop’s case. A fair sentence will surely please the crowd, and it may also help us forget the tension between the rich and the poor for a while.