Tue, Oct 23, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Friendly Thailand stares down barrel of rising gun crime

Reuters, BANGKOK

Twenty schoolchildren surround a city bus in central Bangkok. Some get on to confront a 16-year-old from a rival school and, within moments, he is shot dead.

Similar altercations have become a focus of public attention, with shootings affecting seemingly ordinary folk.

In one incident a computer repairman shot dead two people and took a third hostage. Witnesses said it resembled a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster.

A tourist haven and regional base for multinational companies, Thailand has the highest number of guns in civilian hands in Southeast Asia — almost four times more than the Philippines, a country notorious for violent gun crime.

Some blame the rise in gun crime on the political instability that has gripped Thailand since a 2006 coup that removed former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Unrest culminated in a two-month stand-off in 2010 between government troops and “red shirt” protesters backing Thaksin and clashes that killed 91 people.

Others say that the seeming impunity enjoyed by the wealthy has prompted some to take the law into their own hands.

“Thailand has become a Wild West movie,” says politician Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage-parlor tycoon who says he used to pay off local police to run his seedy businesses. “People pull out their guns at a moment’s notice.”

Chuwit never owned a gun before this year. He now has three.

Escalating gun crime could put off companies looking to set up in a country that prides itself on its friendly image as the “Land of Smiles.” It could also further dent the idyllic reputation, already hit by crime directed against foreign visitors, that will draw some 20 million tourists this year.

Recent incidents include a senator who fatally shot his ex-wife over Sunday dinner, a nightclub shooting spree that left five dead, a Gangnam Style dance-off between rival gangs that degenerated into a shootout and 10,000 bullets found at an apartment owned by a former deputy provincial governor.

All this underscores a growing sense of lawlessness since the 2006 coup. Gun crime in Bangkok has more than doubled and the new police chief, described by a deputy prime minister as a “thug-catching type,” has vowed to take weapons off the streets.

Six years of confrontation pitted the yellow-clad, royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy against the “red shirts,” the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, broadly loyal to Thaksin and his sister, current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

“Years of political upheaval have encouraged criminal activity because dirty dealings are easier to hide when the focus is on politics and not crime,” says Chankhanit Suriyamanee of Bangkok’s Mahidol University.

Carrying guns in public can land offenders with a 10-year prison sentence, but police say punishments are rarely enforced.

Chuwit blamed an ingrained culture of taking the law into your own hands.

“If a man can’t wear a uniform, having a gun is the next best thing,” he said.

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