What can be learnt from the Koh Tao murders?

Originally published at Ajarn.com on 9th October 2014.

The tragic deaths of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on Koh Tao last month made headlines across the world. It led newspapers and tourists to wonder – ‘How could these brutal murders take place on an idyllic island in the Land of Smiles?’The answer to this question requires consideration of Thailand’s less pleasant realties.

last koh lanta 2 (2)

Thailand is dangerous
The reality of life in Thailand is far removed from the idyllic picture-perfect images the TAT promote across the world. Yes, Thai people are friendly and good-natured but Thai society does have a dark, sinister side. This can be seen in rival college violence, motorcycle gang culture, road rage confrontations, tourist scams, drunken assaults and the acts of jilted lovers. Watch the morning news on Thai TV and you’ll see enough to shatter the TAT’s marketing images.

Guns are another big issue in Thailand. Gun ownerships in Thailand is the highest in Asia with only Pakistan even close to competing for top spot. Not only are there a lot of guns in the country, they are also regularly used for crime and violence. According to a UN report in 2011, gun crime in Thailand is on par with that in South Africa and Colombia !

And it’s not just violence and guns – Thailand’s roads are perilously dangerous, the Kingdom’s danger rating recently overtook Iran and now only Namibia stands in the way of Thailand’s roads being crowned the most dangerous in the world !

Thailand’s police do things their way
Any westerner following the Thai Police’s handling of this high profile murder case will be shocked about the procedures employed by the boys in brown.

Think ‘Bones’, ‘CSI’, ‘NCIS’ and then turn everything on its head – open crime scene for tourists and the media to wander through, leaked evidence, conflicting information, witness bribes and safe-house integrations.

For an high profile example of how the Thai Police do things ‘their way’, just take a look at the murder case of Shelly Ann Duncan, a young Thai-American who was brutually murdered in the late eighties.

The Thai police do things their way, it’s as simple as that. Furthermore, they don’t show any signs of changing and why should they when they actually get praised for working in this manner. The Prime Minister was quick to congratulate the Boys in Brown for an outstanding job and said the officers involved would be rewarded.

Business done Kamnan style
Not a reference to Korean pop culture but rather the Thai term for the Village Headmen or Subdistrict Headman. Central government appointed Village Headmen towards the end of the 19th Century with the aim of these individuals implementing central government policies. However, these positions have more in common with feudalism than modern democracy. In recent times central government has tried to diminish the power of these headmen but with little success. Village Heads still very much run things, on their terms, in local communities.

The Kamnan’s family in Koh Tao was in the media on various occasions during the murder investigation; Hannah and David were last seen in a bar owned by the headman’s family, the Burmese ‘suspects’ both worked in businesses owned by the family and a friend of the victims, Sean McAnna, accused ‘Island Mafia’ of threatening to kill him.

Migrant workers in Thailand
Burmese migrant workers in Thailand get a really rough ride. The sooner the political and economic situation in their home country improves the better, so they no longer need to endure such demeaning treatment.
It’s estimated 5,000 Burmese nationals work on Koh Tao, with up to 2,000 of these working illegally but paying monthly protection money. An NGO based in Thailand, the Myanmar Migrant Labour Association, reported that some of these workers were beaten during police integrations.

A couple of days ago the Thai police confirmed that two slightly-built Burmese workers had confessed to murdering Hannah and David. Their confessions were taken in the absence of them having any legal representatives because, according to police, they didn’t want any.

Thaivisa a forum for justice and civil rights !?!
Social media over the past week has been busy with heated discussion about these tragic murders and the apprehension of the ‘perpetrators’. Nowhere has this debate been more fervent than on Thaivisa.com. I usually find Thaivisa rather depressing with all its bickering and negativity but over the past few days it has been buzzing with debates on justice, transparency and civil rights. Keep it up !

A Modern Reality
Thailand is an amazing country to live and work in but it is far removed from the TAT’s postcard images. The reality is that Thailand is a rapidly growing nation undergoing dramatic social, political and economic change. It’s important that visitors to Thailand have a realistic understanding of this and not just the one dimensional image the TAT promotes in its endless pursuit of foreign currency.

Teacher Daniel

Koh Tao Murders




Thailand’s Roads

Gun Ownership in Thailand


Shelly Ann Duncan

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