Surveys show that for foreigners visiting and living Thailand, life is very good. One recent giant sized expat survey revealed that nearly 75% of expats were very happy with life in Thailand while 15% even described life in Thailand as ‘blissful’. It is also true that for most Thai people in Thailand, life is good and getting better. But for some less fortunate Thai citizens, life in Thailand is not like this at all.
Although there are no conclusive statistics, it is believed that Thailand has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Behind the daily press reports on popular Thai newspapers of murder and mayhem, it is obvious that there a darker side to life in Thailand not understood by many foreigners.
Last month in Thailand a Thai man murdered his four children after efforts to reunite with his estranged wife failed. In June 2015, a similar story was reported. Another Thai father, suffering from depression, committed suicide at his home in Nakhon Si Thammarat province not before murdering his two daughters and son. His wife had deserted the family. The Thai man, named as Phaisarl Yossuk, was only forty years of age but could not accept his fate two days after his wife walked out of the family home. Such stories are quite common in Thailand and occur almost on a daily basis in one form or another.
A high murder rate but difficult to record accurately
Thailand has a murder rate which is equal to that of the United States on the face of statistics. It is estimated that there are up to ten million firearms in the country including those registered by the authorities as well as guns bought on the black market.
The liberal availability of guns and the unique nature of Thai culture and the Thai psyche are thought to be key reasons for the high murder rate in the country. Some alarming figures suggest that Thailand is the world capital when it comes to murder but this has to be taken in the context of the insurgency among the Muslim population in the south of Thailand.
This anamoly accounted for over 6,000 gun deaths in the last ten years. A respected database operated by the University of Sydney School of Public Health suggests that Thailand certainly has one of the highest rates of murder attributed to firearms in Asia.
However, as our two stories illustrate, the issue of gun ownership is not the key driver of the problem in Thailand as it is thought to be in the United States.
Darker side to life in Thailand
The exotic surroundings, sunshine and laid back image of Thailand is loved by foreigners and is essentially true for foreigners visiting and living in the country.
Unfortunately, the lifestyle of happy expats living in Thailand belies a darker existence suffered by millions of Thai people who live in a state of depression and anxiety often as a result of debt, personal emotional struggles and lack of economic opportunity.
Man kills his children in Trang province
In February 2016, Royal Thai police negotiators were called to a home in the south of Thailand after receiving reports that a Thai man had shot and killed four of his children. It followed an emotional dispute with his estranged wife.
Pornpichit Yongstar had returned from working in another province on the day before the murder and attempted to reconcile with his Thai wife, 38-year-old Supattra Kemkhao.
Mrs Supattra had moved out and was living with a new partner in the same district. Neighbours reported a heated exchange between the two on the night before the murders.
When Royal Thai police officers arrived at the home in Trang province following a tip-off from neighbours, they were informed that the man had murdered two of his sons and two daughters earlier in the morning. Using a ladder, police were able to reach a bedroom on the first floor of the building and successfully retrieved the bodies. Locals were shocked to see the bodies of the children carried from the home by emergency service personnel.
Initially, police rushed to the home in an effort to try to negotiate with the man and talk him into surrendering his firearm.
However, following the retrieval of the bodies, the deranged Thai man shot himself when police commandos forced their way into the property. He shot himself in the right temple with his .22 calibre gun and subsequently died en route to hospital.
Man flips after estranged wife refused to reunite
A local kamnan or headman for the tambon in which the incident occurred, Somchai Thaihuan, informed the police at the scene that the Thai man, Pornpichit Yongstar, had been separated from his wife.
The two had an ongoing difficult and acrimonious relationship. Reports indicate that the Thai man arrived home on the day preceding the murders in an effort to reunite with his wife. When his reconciliation efforts were spurned, the man lost all control.
In a frenzied fit the following morning, Pornpichit shot his two sons and two daughters. His two daughters were fourteen years of age and seven years respectively while his two sons were twelve years and three.
Neighbours living near the home reported to police that they heard gunshots at 2 am in the morning and awoke later to find that the man had murdered his children.
A local police captain, Wittawat Paiboon told news agencies that police believed that the children were ‘deliberately killed’ and also reported that in their negotiations prior to storming the home, they had found Mr Pornpichit Yongstar coherent in his communications.
Father poisons children before hanging himself
In a similar incident in June 2015, another Thai man and father, Phaisarl Yossuk, hung himself from a beam in his home after poisoning his two daughters and a son.
Local reports indicated that the man suffered from severe depression and could not undertake the responsibility of providing care for his three children after his wife had walked out. It was also reported that the man was heavily in debt.
‘I think in some respects Thailand is a source of contradiction for foreigners, certainly, you will see many Thai people smiling and the lifestyle in the country is very laid back while on the other hand Thailand was voted in 2015 to be the second-best in the world for entrepreneurs, I can understand both of these conditions existing side by side since Thailand is a country with very low levels of economic intervention by the government.
There is zero unemployment in Thailand and the cost of labour is relatively cheap,’ says James Morris, an internet commentator in Bangkok.
‘However Thailand, like some other countries in Asia, is very dependent on commodity prices which have taken a nosedive in recent years as well as a somewhat stagnant economy, I think economic conditions alone do not fully explain the problem, I think the problem has a lot to do with the culture in Thailand which gives rise to the high levels of household debt and emotional problems associated with relationship breakdowns. It really is a whole cocktail of conditions. Not least the Thai psyche and the fear of losing face.’
Daily press reports stories of dramatic murder
Morris comments can be illustrated by any number of stories seen in the popular press in Thailand on any given day. And it is not always crimes of passion involving relationship partners.
In one incident, a jolly party goer waved down an approaching car on a street in Pattaya to helpfully advise the car driver where to park his vehicle. It transpired that the man, whose car was stopped, was not heading to the party. The driver became so incensed at being flagged down on the road that he went to his apartment, retrieved a firearm and returned to the location of the party.
He killed the would-be glad handler on the spot.
‘I think the whole loss of face syndrome or the humiliation that Thai men and indeed Thai women seem to suffer when confronted, embarrassed or facing a dispute is something peculiar to the Thai mentality. There are so many reports of spurned boyfriends using guns and other weapons to settle scores that it has now become rather mundane in Thailand,’ says James Morris. Morris also believes that a contributing reason for such outbursts is the economic pressure that Thai people are experiencing at all levels living in a society without meaningful state support or social welfare. In some respects, it is similar to the United States but with more chronic levels of debt and lower economic prospects.
High levels of personal debt a huge issue
Many commentators have been alerted and are paying close attention to the high level of consumer debt in Thailand. The official figures show that between 2008 and 2014 debt in the country reached 80% of GDP.
This is largely attributed to strong levels of borrowing to purchase cars and pickup trucks but also a sharp increase in unsecured bank loans.
‘It’s still true today to some extent but it became quite common up to recent years to see Thais from a lower or middle-class background taking loans to go on holidays to foreign countries and to purchase new and indeed more expensive cars. I remember in 2013 travelling around Bangkok and noticing the large number of advertisements and poster sites inviting the public to take out loans for what appeared to be lifestyle items,’ says James Morris.
‘Sure there is also a very positive aspect to this story, many younger Thais are earning more money and aspiring to an affluent lifestyle but there is also the downside and what happens when the debt level becomes unbearable. We have seen this also in western countries in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.’
Personal debt under-reported in Thailand
In 2015 Thai authorities changed that way debt was calculated as a percentage of GDP so that the percentage of loans fell from 86% to 80%.
However, most analysts believe that the official level of borrowing is only part of the problem. Thailand has a very large debt and financing system which operates off the radar from most economic analysis, some of which is technically legal but a large proportion is effectively a black market for financing.
Most towns and cities in Thailand have many gold shops and pawnshops where loans can be taken out at different interest rates while many Thai people personally act as informal lenders as well as the usual range of loan sharks and unsavoury operators.
Some informal research estimates that the average Thai worker has racked up a combination of such debts which usually account to between 6 to 12 months of annual salary.
To some extent, this is understandable as many Thai people do not qualify for financial products in main street banks. In fact, when the amount of household debt is compared to western countries, it does not appear to be so different.
However, the circumstances are very different. Many Thai workers earn little more than ten dollars a day and this includes workers in the state sector as well as those working in factories and private enterprise.
The situation is even more chronic for farmers and land workers where the price of rice in Thailand has fallen and was in fact exacerbated in recent years by a badly organised government scheme to buy rice from farmers which saw many farmers borrow money when the government failed to pay for the product delivered.
Similarly, Thailand’s rubber farmers have experienced severe with a plunging price for rubber in a market that is far from certain.
Expensive personal debt hampers the economy
Many commentators have hailed the apparent stability of Thailand under the military junta installed following the political turmoil of 2014.
The present government can be credited with achieving a level of price stability there has, in fact, been deflation in Thailand while the level of loans has not decreased.
The rate of interest on loans even those from legal sources is astronomical when compared to western levels. Many less well off Thai people would consider 3% interest per month as a low rate of interest offered by gold dealers and pawn shops secured against valuables while rates of interest on illegal loans can be as high as 1-2 % per day. In other arrangements, unsecured loans on a person to person basis often attack rates of ten to twenty per cent per month.
To cite an example, Natcha Wongsan is a 45 year old Thai woman with a young son who wants to attend university at an expensive institution. In order to pay fees and expenses of 100,000 baht or $3,000, she offers the title documents to a large tract of land in Nong Khai province to a relative and agrees to pay 10% per month. Natcha’s basic income 10,000 baht per month working in a shop plus commission.
Her average monthly salary is sixteen thousand baht per month but she finds that half her income is taken up just to pay the interest on the loan and she must find the funds for next year’s fees and expenses.
Past governments tried to tackle unofficial lending
In 2009 the Thai government, headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, suggested that 1 million Thais were involved in the money market outside official sources.
However, some commentators estimate that there could be as many as 3 million resorting to such means of funding.
Gambling in Thailand, another hidden factor
TV and media audiences around the world last month were also shocked when Thai police raided the regular activities of a bridge club in Pattaya attended by foreigners. The raid was seen by some as an embarrassment to the Thai authorities.
The raid was the result of a tip-off by a local Thai person responding to a government campaign designed to root out corruption and gambling. The Bridge Club were not engaged in gambling but the raid highlighted the ongoing campaign by the present Thai authorities to tackle gambling.
Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, there is something inherent in the Thai character that is attracted to the activity with devastating consequences.
‘I know a young Thai woman who has given up one job after another once she has enough money to go away for a month’s gambling. I have seen her build up a little business only to throw it all away just to go on a holiday to a casino in Cambodia,’ says James Morris. There is no doubt that the Thai problem with gambling contributes to many of the problems for those on the edge economically.’
The addiction that some Thai people have to gambling can be seen in the wild success of two lotteries in Thailand one of which is a government-operated lottery and the other, which is an underground operation.
The underground lottery is more popular.
The extent of the activities can be seen in the reach they have built up among the Thai population.
An extensive survey with over 5000 respondents aged over 15 in sixteen Thai provinces found that nearly twenty million people had used the underground Thai lottery while 19.2 million used the government lottery.
In addition to the lottery, which is the main topic of conversation for many ordinary Thai people there are many illegal gambling dens scattered throughout Thailand and it is reported that over three million people use these establishments on a regular basis. In the surveys, nearly 65% of Thai people interviewed described themselves as gamblers within the last year.
In addition to gambling dens, it was also reported that over 1 million Thai people were involved in betting on football matches while nearly 900,000 gambled on local sports.
Experts undecided on how to tackle Thailand’s gambling problem
The Thai junta and the Thai government have made it a priority to root out illegal gambling but even in 2013, the Royal Thai Police reported nearly 4,000 arrests in relation to the activity and many observers at that time believed that the gambling laws in Thailand were either out of date or ineffective.
The Thai government proposed new gambling legislation in 2011 but many expert commentators believe that what is needed is a range of measures to tackle gambling in the modern world and increasingly on the internet.