General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo from Wikimedia.

Thailand’s economy increasingly depends on tourism, but the junta’s reaction to crimes against tourists leaves a lot to be desired, writes Paul Sanderson.

The Thai junta has been putting the well-worn maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity to the test. They have responded to a series of crimes against foreigners with almost uniformly callous and blunt statements, yet visitors are coming in greater numbers than ever: Thailand fell just short of 30 million tourist arrivals last year.

Yet, for all the negative headlines, tourism has been one of the few bright points in an otherwise faltering economy. The year 2015 brought a 20 per cent growth in tourist arrivals and a 22 per cent growth in tourism revenue, putting the sector firmly back on track after a slump during the 2013-14 street protests. The sector now accounts for about 10 per cent of the country’s GDP, as exports have weakened and foreign investment has plummeted.

Since taking control in May 2014, Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta has been confronted with a series of high-profile crimes in famous tourist destinations. The most notorious among them have been the murders of two British backpackers on Koh Tao, and bombs in Koh Samui and central Bangkok – the former injuring seven, and the latter killing 20 and injuring upwards of 120. Late last month four French tourists were attacked, with two women raped at knifepoint, on Koh Kut off the country’s eastern coast.

The junta cannot be blamed for murders, bombings or rapes, of course, but their handling of the cases has been appalling, both in terms of public relations and public policy. The responses to the crimes have followed an all-too-familiar pattern: a promise to “beef up” security and bring someone to justice, the parading of suspects in front of media scrums in highly prejudicial re-enactments, claims the police or army resorted to torture to extract a confession, and a sense of disbelief in the criminal justice system generally and the police in particular.

The killings of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on Koh Tao in September 2014 were particularly savage, attracting enormous attention nationally and internationally, especially from the British press.

The double murders were the first international scandal General Prayuth’s administration faced after seizing power, and it came as the junta’s handpicked national police chief took over from an incumbent with links to the ousted government.

Pol Gen Somyot Poompunmuang travelled to the island to oversee the investigation and was later on hand for the photo opportunity when two Myanmar migrant workers were led around the beach in bulletproof vests. His presence did nothing to quell allegations the crime scene was trampled on, suspicions DNA had been interfered with, or the rumours that spread online after the son of an influential figure was declared innocent in an oddly public manner. All of this led the Bangkok Post Sunday to call the investigation “rushed, rash, incompetent and speculative”.

General Prayuth, a notoriously short-tempered former army chief not above joking about executing journalists, did the country no favours on the PR front when he said women in bikinis only had to worry about being raped and murdered if they were attractive.

Claims of torture were highly publicised during the Koh Tao trial; less well known are the allegations the chief suspect in the August 2015 Erawan Shrine bombings made against Pol Gen Somyot and two of his deputies. The suspect, a Uighur Muslim, alleged he was punched and intimidated into confessing to the bombing, which killed 14 tourists of Chinese descent and six Thais. He also alleged Pol Gen Somyot was among those present when his life was threatened. Police were quick to dismiss the allegations.

There is a pattern of suspects claiming they have been coerced into confessing, although this is not exclusive to cases involving tourists, as reports of torture that emerged in Ranong after a 17-year-old girl was murdered show.

There is evidence to suggest some allegations are false, and torture claims are sometimes used by defence lawyers in the hopes of winning freedom for their clients. Even this is disturbing, because the strategy presumes coercion is an innate part of the system. It is essentially left to judges to decide how true the claims are, as there have been no serious attempts to independently investigate either specific allegations or systemic problems.

A more transparent Thai justice system and more trustworthy police force would go a long way towards allaying tourists’ fears, but this would require the kind of root-and-branch reform that has long been talked about but never acted on – reform that seems less likely than ever under the current regime.

One positive change the government could easily make would be to do away with the outrageous crime scene re-enactments that have followed every high-profile crime in Thailand. The Koh Tao murders, Erawan bombing and Koh Kut assaults were all the subject of highly prejudicial media stunts organised by the police: in the case of the Koh Kut attacks, the accused men were themselves set upon.

Banning the re-enactments would help shift the onus from the defence to prove their innocence back to the prosecutors, who would need to produce evidence that could be substantiated. Many legal experts have spoken out against the practice, and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission has fought a losing battle to have them banned.

Government policy, however, has been to blithely continue in the face of public opprobrium; given bad publicity does not seem to have hurt the bottom line the junta is only paying lip service to tourist safety. The tourists, for now, continue to come; given the horror headlines in the past two years, it’s a wonder whether anything will keep them away.

Paul Sanderson is a pen name. The author is an independent writer and consultant based in Southeast Asia.

This article is published as a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for analysis and discussion on public policy.