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16 Aug, 2016

Attacks In Thailand: Much More To It Than Meets The Eye

Bangkok – The explosions and suspected arson attacks in many popular Thai tourism destinations reflect five systemic and universal failures. Partially the result of living in denial and refusing to heed the lessons of history, they may hopefully lead to renewed policy approach and a more hard-nosed discourse about the inter-linkages between politically-motivated violence, safety & security challenges and tourism. Here are the five:

1) Attackers themselves: Whatever their purpose, the attackers failed. Nothing will change. The deaths, injuries and damage they caused are all futile. What goes on inside these people’s minds? What good do they think will come from killing innocent people in public places?

2) Security agencies: In spite of the “tight security”, the military government, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, could not prevent these attacks. Millions of dollars spent annually on surveillance, monitoring, arrests, questioning, all down the chute.

3) Governance: All such attacks can be traced back to some deep-rooted grievances and/or a failure of governance in some shape or form. Tackling these core issues is the job of leaders, elected, appointed or otherwise.

4) Tourism industry: In the last 15 years, such attacks have occurred with increasing frequency worldwide. The global travel & tourism industry has no solution to offer beyond toothless condemnations and calls for more good money to be thrown after bad.

5) Thailand at large: How could a country that kept both communism and colonialism at bay, and is endowed with such a rich history and heritage, geographical and natural competitive advantages come to this? A failure well-deserving of some long overdue soul-searching, especially as it is widely known that the worst is still to come.

After years of sweeping issues under the carpet, at which travel & tourism excels globally, the debate between tourism and terrorism has gone mainstream. For years, the cycle has merely repeated itself. Each attack is followed by the same routine: Condemnations, “tighter security”, crisis management programmes and bounce-back campaigns. Visitors initially go elsewhere. Then, after another crisis erupts somewhere else, memories fade. And everything goes back to normal.

Until the next attack.

The travel and tourism industry pointedly avoids probing deeper for ways to break this ceaseless cycle of complacency. As I have written on numerous occasions, in medical parlance, it’s the same as living in denial about the underlying causes of a nagging headache. Sooner or later, taking two aspirin and calling the doctor in the morning ceases to work. More thorough tests are required. Such a time is now nigh.

First, a look at the who, why, when, what, where and how of these attacks:

Who: As no-one claimed responsibility, the speculative blame game that followed was diverse. The “usual gang of suspects” includes anti-royalists, to the various colour shirts, to the southern separatists, to those generally opposing military’s involvement in any form of national governance. Thailand’s military junta says it is only there to do the job that the politicians have long failed to do. It insists it is trying to lay the foundations of what it describes as a stable, sustainable, just and democratic future. But opposition is high. Even Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha admits that maintaining a balancing act while tackling all the ills within the restricted time-frame is a gargantuan task.

Why: Take your pick of the list of suspected “Who’s” and there is no shortage of “Why’s”. Every group has got some grievance or the other.

When: The attacks occurred right after the Prime Minister gave a high profile speech praising the peace and stability in the country; right after a referendum on a new Constitution which was largely devoid of democratic debate and public scrutiny; right on the eve of the auspicious 84th birthday of Queen Sirikit. The choice of date was no random coincidence.

What: The target was clearly the Thai tourism industry whose bigness has now become both an economic asset and a geopolitical liability. It has enjoyed the most successful first half in history, with record arrivals of 16.5 million, up 12% over the first half of 2015. That makes it a high-profile target. The attackers know they will get massive publicity and hit the economy where it hurts.

Where: All the attacks took place in the southern peninsula of Thailand. None in Bangkok nor North and Northeast Thailand. Another message?

How: Bombs and suspected arson attacks. Security authorities in a military government, in spite of repeated assurances about public safety, failed to pre-empt or prevent these attacks. The attackers would have spent several months planning, communicating and coordinating what would have been a clearly complex and expensive operation. That they were able to remain “under the radar” of the surveillance authorities is what is really scary.

But pause here for just a moment. Was this really a “failure” on the part of the Thai security apparatus? Indeed, security and intelligence authorities worldwide seem to be chalking up a remarkable record of such “failures,” dating back to the 9/11 attacks and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Well worth a investigation in its own right. There is more to this than meets the eye, much, much more.

So, what next?

For the Thai tourism industry, it’s the usual drill. Cancellations came in thick and fast. Travel advisories made it worse. The response followed the textbook prescription: Assurances of normalcy, “tightened” safety and security measures, plus calls for unity and cooperation, and campaigns to restore tourism confidence. All are a repeat of the responses that followed the last bomb blast at the Erawan shrine in August 2015.

But two weaknesses have become apparent: 1) The Thai tourism industry faces a challenge of credibility. The current marketing slogan is “Quality Tourism Destination Through Thainess.” The latest attacks have taken some shine off that. 2) The Ministry of Tourism and Sports’ communications strategies are missing the mark. Its public statements are being directed only at the Thai audiences via the Thai media. No media conferences are being held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The Ministry’s website www.mots.go.th contains no foreign-language comment on the attacks.

For the global tourism industry, too, questions loom. Tourism is often claimed to be an industry of peace. If that is true, a country that welcomed 30 million visitors in 2015 should be having near-perfect levels of peace. As that is clearly not the case, is it not time to revisit the veracity of that claim and/or debate alternate ways of really advancing it? Failing that, is it about time to abandon it?

Whatever the outcome, the safety and security vendors and consultants are the big winners. They make a fortune either way. But the attacks prove that security measures can only treat the symptoms, not the cause. Hotels, airports, convention centres, department stores, etc., will be forking out billions of dollars for “security and safety” for decades ahead. They can install any number of CCTV cameras and X-ray machines they wish. Attackers will simply find another “soft target”. And the cycle will turn again. This, too, is worthy of investigation in its own right.

Put the entire package of “failures,” gainers and losers together and it becomes obvious that there is more to this than meets the eye, much, much more. Unless the travel & tourism industry in Thailand and worldwide musters the courage to start asking some hard-nosed questions, it is set to remain a victim both of its own success as well as its own apathy and complacency.