Photo: Angelo Giampiccolo/Shutterstock

6 Uncomfortable Truths About Thailand

by Casey O'Connell Aug 24, 2015

1. Thailand is a top destination for victims of human trafficking.

Thailand is a source, transit, and destination country for victims of sex and labor exploitation, and according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, it’s one of the top 10 destinations for victims of human trafficking. The Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that in 2014 at least tens of thousands of victims trafficked from Thailand’s neighboring countries were forced or defrauded into labor and exploited in the sex trade.

Many trafficked females are sold into Thailand’s thriving sex industry; they endure poor conditions and debt bondage in brothels along Thailand’s borders and in cities like Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket, which cater to meeting the demands of sex tourism. The World Health Organization estimates that Thailand now has as many as 2 million sex workers, and some are children. The trafficking report found that trafficked children were covertly exploited in places like bars, hotels, and private residences, and of the identified trafficking victims in 2014, more than half were children. Trafficking is big business, and because of widespread corruption, and involvement of high-profile individuals, trafficking often operates above the law.

2. Up to 50% of hill tribes members lack basic rights.

There are over 1 million members of different ethnic hill tribes living in Northern Thailand. However, the United Nations Human Rights Council estimates that there are 500,000 stateless people in the northern region, which means that almost half of the hill tribe members are not considered Thai citizens. Without citizenship, hill tribe members are not able receive hospital treatment, attend school, earn a fair wage, vote, or travel freely. Additionally, the government does not officially recognize many tribes, so they often face forced removal from their land and conservation policies have placed limits on traditional ways of life which have lowered sources of food and income.

These government policies have marginalized hill tribes and left them as the country’s most disadvantaged group with an income far below the average Thai citizen. Poverty and absence of basic civil rights leaves hill tribe members more vulnerable to trafficking. Lack of citizenship is the single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl to be trafficked.

3. Corruption is present in all levels of Thai society.

If you’ve traveled to Thailand, you’ve probably been told that you can get out of trouble by bribing police officers with a couple hundred baht. Unfortunately, police aren’t the only citizens guilty of perpetrating corruption. On a scale of 0-100, with 0 being highly corrupt, Thailand’s perceived level of corruption in the public sector is a low 35, and 46.6% of citizens who participated in Transparency International’s Global Corruption survey believe that the government is ineffective at fighting corruption.

Thailand’s Report on Human Rights Practices describes weak implementation of criminal penalties for official corruption and little progress in high profile cases, which are often purposely drawn out to encourage bribing. The Anti-Corruption Strategy echoed a weak judicial system influenced by the Thai mafia, politicians, and other influential figures.

Bribery and corruption were additionally found within police and tax departments, land development companies, customs and trade checkpoints, businesses, schools systems, and even water management projects.

4. In the past century, Thailand has had more coups than any other country.

Thailand suffers from chronic political instability; at least 18 coups have been attempted since 1932. The 12th successful coup happened in May of 2014. (Thailand is still currently under martial law, and it’s expected to last until late 2015 or beyond.)

Coups have been used by the military as a ‘necessary’ way of restoring stability after months of political demonstrations and protesting which have led to casualties in the past. Many attribute Thailand’s coup culture to extremely polarized political groups, the military’s large role in Thailand’s history, and the fact that democracy has not yet taken root. Power is seized by the military on grounds of corruption and abuse of power, and ideally, constitutional reform for a more free and fair Thai democracy will take place before power is handed back to politicians. But as Verapat Pariyawong asks, how can you be sure the Military Regime is less corrupt?

5. There has been a small-scale war in the southern provinces for over 10 years.

Though Thailand is stereotyped to be peaceful population of Buddhists who are always smiling, many are unaware that small-scale war has been raging in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat for over 10 years. The Malay-speaking Thai Muslims, who make up 80% of the population, reject the authority of the government and rebel against forced assimilation and alienation while seeking independence from Thailand.

In October 2004, the Thai military opened fire and killed 7 demonstrators in Tak Bai, Pattani, and another 80 died of suffocation while being transported to a military camp, which further radicalized Muslim insurgent groups in the south. Since 2004, insurgency has left more than 5,300 dead and over 9,000 injured. Southern Thailand has become one of the most dangerous places to teach; 157 of those killed have been teachers, and there have been over 300 incidences of schools being set on fire. The 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom for Thailand outlined continued violence and killings from both the Thai government and major Muslim insurgency groups, which has increased tension between Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims.

6. Thailand is an international hub for the illegal wildlife and ivory trade.

Thailand is very convenient for the illegal trading of animals; there are several land and water transit points in and out of the country and there’s poor enforcement at these spots. From 2011 to 2013, at least 46,000 animals were captured from traffickers, vendors, and trappers. In the same years, between 79 and 81 wild elephants were illegally captured for use in the tourist industry. More recently, World Animal Protection and the Thai army rescued 150 pangolins being smuggled to China, where their body parts are in demand for Chinese medicine. A mass illegal sale and distribution of wildlife also happens in Thailand’s Chatuchak Market, where endangered and rare animals such as pangolins, exotic birds, slow loris, and different species of reptiles — and sometimes even wild cats and primates — are available for purchase.

Chatuchak and other markets in Thailand sell ivory too. Currently Thailand has the world’s largest unregulated ivory market. Old Thai legislation allows for legal use of ivory from domesticated elephants, so Thai markets have created a huge loophole for laundering illegal ivory from Africa. Ironically, elephants remain one of Thailand’s national symbols. 

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