Thailand, for many, is not a "land of smiles"

Friday, 7 June 2013 16:17 GMT

A woman holds her head as she travels on a train through flooded area in Bangkok November 3, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Bangkok is set to be the most visited city on earth in 2013, but behind the glitzy malls and the sparkling temples lies a dark, dismissive attitude towards crime and violence against women

Last week, MasterCard’s Global Destination Cities Index declared that Bangkok - the capital of Thailand and portal to some of the country’s renowned beaches - would be the most visited city on earth in 2013.

The Southeast Asian megacity beat London, Paris and New York for the title, with 15.98 million visitors expected this year. London was a close second, with 15.96 million people expected.

This is the first time an Asian city has grabbed the top spot on the index, which, since its launch in 2010, has predicted visitor numbers based on scheduled flights and expected tourist spending for 132 destinations around the world.

Having lived in Bangkok for most of the past decade, I get the lure. As one of Asia’s main travel hubs, it is an easy hop to Thailand’s mountains, beaches and ancient temples, or onward to other countries.

Some visitors to the “land of smiles” - as the country’s tourism machine has dubbed the kingdom - come for high-end shopping and luxurious spas, while others meander through the myriad temples or revel in a bacchanalian night of clubbing. Yet others - and this comes as no surprise - are seduced by the city’s numerous red light districts.

However, lurking beneath the smiles in this country is a dark, dismissive attitude toward crime - with the rich and famous getting away with murder, and foreign tourists suffering mysterious deaths - as well as crimes against women.


My tireless colleague Thin Lei Win has written extensively about violence against women - including Thai women, foreign tourists and migrant labourers - and their futile struggles for justice in a country that only extended the definition of rape to cover all sexes and all types of sexual penetration in 2007.

Thin met a 17-year-old Thai woman who had been raped repeatedly for four months by her employer’s brother. When she mustered the courage to press charges, his family threatened to kill hers and she had to go into hiding in a women’s shelter. She writes of another rape victim who, after speaking out about the incident a decade ago, lost her job, her boyfriend and even her surname because relatives accused her of sullying the family name.

In marriage, Thai women fared no better. Former beauty queen Areewan Jathuthong described how her husband - the son of a retired army general - hit her, poured hot candle wax on her body and once forced her at gunpoint to walk naked down the street.

“Thai culture says if you get married, you stay married, and I was taught that as a wife you bear with it,” Areewan told Thin. Areewan later became a lawyer and an advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Last year, after a Dutch woman was beaten and raped by a Thai man, a senior police officer said that it wasn’t really rape because she had dinner with the guy - an outmoded, insensitive sexist claim that the tourism minister had the gall to repeat.

Worst off in the socio-economic hierarchy are Burmese migrant workers, who have little choice other than to endure daily abuses. More or less impotent in a country that considers them lucky to have a job - no matter how dirty, dangerous, demeaning and underpaid - the Burmese find it virtually impossible to complain to police who often wring them for bribes or who may even be attackers themselves.


I don’t mean to scare you away though - Bangkok and Thailand are well worth the trip, and you will have a grand time. Just don’t be fooled by the “land of smiles” tag line and come visit with your eyes wide open.


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