There have been a lot of news stories in the international media about Thailand in recent months, most prominently the closing of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok for a week by protesters against the government, and it is understandable if the net effect of these stories has painted a negative image about the country in the international psyche. However, the overall situation here cannot be understood by people around the world based on a few negative news stories because of the huge differences in culture and social mores between Thailand and the western world.
Serving as a prime example is the closing of the airport in late November by a group protesting against the government that was being led by supporters of disgraced ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who is a convicted felon and is a fugitive awaiting even more criminal proceedings related to his time in office. What many people around the world don’t realize is that government authorities, including the police and army, knew that this takeover was going to happen in advance and stood back and let it happen.
This was not a spontaneous and violent undertaking by a wild mob of people. It was well planned and executed and was carried out without injuries, loss of life or any threat to travelers or airport personnel. Yes, in the long run it was probably completely unnecessary, it caused huge losses for the tourism and import/export industries here on a temporary basis, it inconvenienced several hundred thousand people and it could have been avoided. Was it irresponsible and not well thought out in regard to international perception? Absolutely. But was there violence and mayhem? Absolutely not.
In fact, there was almost zero damage done to any of the airport facilities and within two days of the protesters evacuating flights were running again. These are the real facts that were perhaps obscured behind the sensationalistic headlines that ran in news outlets all over the world.
Another story involved the protests that were ongoing for a few months at the government’s seat of power, Government House in Bangkok, where parliament convenes. There was some occasional violence and some injuries and even a death at one point. However deplorable this was, it affected such a small part of the city and was carried out by such a small group of people that if you didn’t read a newspaper you wouldn’t even know it was going on at all. International news reports made it seem as if the entire city was affected and that it was dangerous to travel to Thailand because of this.
Can you imagine not traveling to Disney World in Orlando, Florida because there were street protests in Detroit, Michigan? And yet foreign governments issued travel advisories to their citizens warning them not to travel to Thailand. Can you also imagine the same governments issuing warnings against traveling to the U.S. as a result of the hypothetical situation posited above? I think not.
Thailand may be a developing country with a struggling, fledgling democracy which puts it behind more developed countries in a number of ways. However, it also lacks some of the characteristics that other “developed” countries possess, particularly the leading democracies of the world. Thailand lags far behind the U.S., for example, in the number of indiscriminate murders committed every year on its streets and in its homes. There are some guns in Thailand but the number is miniscule compared to the U.S. The racial violence that you see in the U.K. is pretty much non-existent here. In 13 years here I have, in fact seen no violence at all here in Bangkok, even any between drunken tourists. That’s not to say there is no violence here; it’s just not indiscriminate and travelers rarely if ever are injured or killed here.
There hasn’t been one instance of mass murder or serial killing in that 13 year period either as contrasted with the 1999 Columbine murders in 1999 and the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech university which claimed 32 lives as well as other similar incidents to numerous to mention that have happened in the U.S during this time. Did foreign countries issue travel advisories about going to the U.S. after these incidents? What about all of the racial violence in U.K. cities directed towards Asians? Is that publicized in Asian countries and are their governments issuing travel advisories? We all know the answer to that question.
If you are a developed country like the U.S. or the U.K. there is one set of standards adopted by the media and government agencies and if you are an underdeveloped country like Thailand there is a different set of standards. No place is completely without danger but I’ll take my chances walking the streets of Bangkok at 2 AM above any other city I can think of in the “developed” world.