A couple of weeks ago I commented on Thailand’s impressive performance on the Millennium Development Goals. I suggested that the Thai state – in its various democratic and less than democratic forms – has achieved a lot in terms of basic service provision to its population. As some readers commented in response to my post, civil society, NGOs and individual enterprise have also played a role. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that much of Thailand’s basic health, welfare and education infrastructure has been provided by the state.
But there is one human indicator against which Thailand does not perform very well at all.
I am no expert on crime statistics but there are indications that Thailand rates high on the international league table for murder. One source (albeit with not particularly up-to-date data) rates Thailand 14th in the world with a murder rate of 8 per 100,000 of population per year. I won’t go into a full comparison, but here are just a few figures to put this in context: at the top of the list is Colombia, with an astonishing 61 murders per 100,000; Malaysia rates 34th with 2.3 murders per 100,000; and Australia rates 43rd with 1.5.
When it comes to murder, there are countries much worse than Thailand, but it is clearly not performing as well on this basic measure of human security as it is on many other human development indicators.
In recent years, commentators have placed a lot of attention on the murderous activities of the Thai state itself. Most notorious, of course, is Thaksin’s “war on drugs” in which it is widely reported that there were 2,257 extra-judicial killings. While there is room for debate about the number of killings actually attributable to the “war on drugs” (see Bangkok Pundit for a detailed discussion of the various sources) it certainly represents an appalling low point in the Thai state’s recent dealings with its citizenry.
But a focus on the directly murderous action of the Thai state, however urgent, is not sufficient. If the murder rate is indeed 8 per 100,000, Thailand now experiences around 5000 reported murders per year. Thaksin increased this murder rate alarmingly, but he did not create it. Nor did he create the longstanding “state of impunity” whereby murders, massacres, disappearances and political assassinations are all too often unreported, uninvestigated and undiscussed (see Tyrell Haberkorn’s very useful discussion). As a number of regular commentators on New Mandala have noted this is a state of impunity that extends well beyond the government of the day to justify criminal acts – or silence discussion of them – at all levels of Thai society. And the state of impunity is not just enjoyed by those in Thailand’s elite. I have, on occasions, been shocked by the seeming nonchalance with which some people in the rural district where I work describe the settlement of disputes or the resolution of persistent criminal activity with murder.
In relation to murder, the failings of the Thai state are go well beyond its own violent acts. The Thai state, despite sustained progress on many fundamental aspects of human security, has seemingly failed to create a legal culture that consistently reports, documents, investigates, and prosecutes violent criminal action (see Rule of Lords for one recent case).
Anthropologists have often commented on Thailand’s seemingly “loose structure.” They have documented a persistent flexibility when it comes to rules, roles and institutions. For many external observers this mai pen rai flexibility is one of the country’s stereotypically endearing features.
But flexibility and nonchalance are also key ingredients in a murderous mix of impunity. And it is a mix that the Thai state seems both unwilling and unable to seriously challenge.