THE BLOG

Avoiding Dictatorships on Vacation

15/03/2016 16:53 GMT | Updated 12/03/2017 09:12 GMT

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Koh Tao island, where Hannah Witheridge and David Miller were killed - via Flickr

Backpacking in Southeast Asia is a modern rite of passage for many young Brits: the elephant rides in the jungle, tropical beaches which become host to wild parties at night, and most famously, of course, the Full Moon parties of Koh Phangan. What could possibly go wrong? According to Prayuth Chan-o-Cha, Thailand's military ruler, nothing can go wrong... unless you're an attractive woman in a bikini. In a horribly off-colour remark, the Prime Minister sought to defend his country's safety record by saying: "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... but can they be safe in bikinis... unless they are not beautiful?" Indeed, that does clarify it - these are the words of an unabashed vulgarian made even worse when put into context, which is the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge and the murder of her companion David Miller on a beach on Koh Tao in September 2014. Far from an isolated incident, Thailand has seen a disturbing uptick in tourist deaths of more than 50% (in 2015 compared to 2014), a trend that shows no signs of abating.

Granted, Thailand receives somewhere in the region of 30 million tourists a year. With numbers like that, there are bound to be occasional incidents. That being said, one would at least expect a less flippant response from the authorities than that offered by Prayuth. One would also expect thorough investigations. Unfortunately, that has not been the case regarding the murders of the British backpackers, where with worrying speed, blame fell upon two Burmese immigrants who rescinded their initial confessions amid claims that they were extracted by torture. During the trial, human rights groups highlighted a number of serious flaws with the investigation, including the destruction of vital DNA evidence linking the alleged murderers to the victims.

While this does much to belie the "land of smiles" image Thailand presents to the world, it doesn't come as much of a surprise to political observers who have noted an increasingly authoritarian swing since the 2014 coup which brought the military junta to power. Indeed, perhaps the police's slapdash approach to investigating the backpacker's murders can be put down to their being kept busy with more pressing social problems, like protecting the King from reckless acts of free speech. Egregious offences of this kind include posting images on Facebook of the King's dog in a way that is deemed to mock the sovereign. One Thai man has found himself facing up to 15 years in prison for just such an act of treason. Others have been locked up for committing such outrages as criticising the monarchy to strangers in a taxi, depicting unflattering fictional representations of the king in university plays or novels and questioning the veracity of historical battles. Critics of the regime are oftentimes abducted in the dead of night, handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to isolated military camps to undergo so-called programmes of "attitude adjustment".

Nice to know the Thai police have got their priorities in order. After all, it's not as if the country faces any other challenges, apart of course from the deteriorating security situation for tourists and locals alike. Last August, a deadly blast at the Erawan Shrine, a popular tourist spot in Bangkok, left 20 dead and injured 125 more and is still shrouded in mystery. The bombing embarrassed the Thai police, completely caught off guard and stifled by sprawling corruption: the CCTV systems in the areas around the Shrine were not working and the investigations stalled because police officers lacked "CSI technology." The authorities toyed with multiple theories in the first days, turning the tragedy into a farce of police inefficiency and impotence. Even after the suspects were arrested, some ended up retracting their confessions, claiming they were tortured.

The overall sense of impunity and amateurish incompetence has only grown since the junta took power. The transition to democratic rule keeps being pushed back as a result of the military's apparent inability to draft a constitution, one of the preconditions required for elections to take place. The latest instalment of the document does little to address Thailand's cratering human rights record. Proposed measures include a junta-appointed senate that can block the executive branch and the provision for individuals outside of parliament to serve as Prime Minister (like a former military general, for example). The document was amply decried both by two former Prime Ministers and political rivals, the ousted Thaksin Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva.

So much for the land of smiles. Maybe it's time we considered an attitude adjustment of our own towards Thailand, or at least an alternative holiday destination. I hear Bristol is nice this time of year.