Thailand is circling the wagons after a recent terrorist bomb scare in the heart of Bangkok—and some Thais are questioning if their nation’s relatively laissez-faire approach towards international visitors is the right one.
The swift police response hasn’t been mirrored by the Thai government, however, which appears to be focusing much more on damage-control than it is on solving the problem, or acknowledging serious gaps in Thailand’s security network exist. Many have piled on Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who said in a Feb 14 press statement that the attacks “were not acts of terrorism” and the bombers were merely assembling weapons for use in other countries – although he proceeded to request terrorists refrain from using Bangkok as a staging ground for any future violence.
Thailand’s leaders have correctly figured out that they are facing a serious image problem, and its economic race-to-the-top may be on the line. Thailand is well-known as a convenient place for international criminals—from gun-runners to pedophiles—to hide from authorities, thanks to relatively porous borders and a long-standing tolerance for international visitors in the mood for a holiday, X-rated or otherwise. This lawlessness is an unwelcome side-note to Thailand’s dedicated efforts to market itself as a family-friendly and safe destination for international travelers and businesspeople—and this latest bombing could blow a hole in what has been a pretty successful PR campaign.
The past two years have proved difficult for Thailand’s international reputation, in the wake of violent 2010 Red Shirt protests and catastrophic flooding last year. The last thing Thailand wants or needs is a growing international sense that Bangkok is a possible terrorist proxy war zone. Further, the attacks are going to be bad for business—and Thailand’s multi-million dollar trade in both rice and sun-drenched holidays with Iran will take a serious hit if the two nations sever ties over this incident. Thailand’s decision to proceed slowly and avoid condemning Iran’s government along with three of its less illustrious nationals is a wise one.
But foremost in the minds of business-minded Thais is the attack’s possible effect on tourism, an industry which has played a major role in sending this developing nation on the fast-track to wealth, and accounts for 6 percent of Thailand’s annual GDP. Travel alerts have been issued by 10 nations, including the US and Britain, and the attacks have made international headlines. Embarrassingly, the Iranians partook in Thailand’s tourism scene themselves, allegedly partying on the beach in Pattaya with sex workers before coming to Bangkok to assemble their weapons.
The fact that these three Iranians decided to take their grievances—whatever they were—to the streets of Bangkok seems proof positive that Thailand needs to take steps to make its borders less porous and its reputation less amiable to illegal behavior.
Although the Economic and Business Forecasting Centre of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce claimed the bombs would affect tourism for “no more than two months,” Thailand would do well to question if their nation’s reputation as a relatively family-friendly (sex trade aside) and low-stress tourist and business destination is becoming compromised. Hard immigration measures and a serious re-evaluation of the nation’s intelligence agencies may be in order.