THE ART OF READING THAI CRIME NEWS
Every country with newspapers and magazines and television knows that crime attracts an audience. There is an insatiable hunger for the drama created by a bloody crime. Grief stricken relatives and neighbours. The inevitable questions arise as to motives, relationships, connections and history of the people involved. Thailand is no different. You learn a great deal about a culture by reading about their crime stories. We process the ideas and attitudes in a culture by understanding what they decide are crimes and what kinds of punishments befit those crimes.
What crimes make the front page, which ones make the back page and which ones are left inside a cone of silence. What is said about the crime: the scene, police investigators, evidence, leads, suspects, motives and victims is also influenced by cultural considerations. The entire idea of crime and its treatment is a window into the culture of a place. You get to see police, prosecutors, judges, politicians, powerful elites turning up as parts of the puzzle, depending on the nature of the crime.
In Thailand, there is very little crime reporting in the two major daily English newspapers. A tourist reading the Bangkok Post or The Nation for a week could be forgiven for thinking that Bangkok is one of the most crime-free cities in the world. Crime stories are rarely good for business in general, and the tourist business in particular. Crime frightens people. While the probability of being a victim of a crime as a tourist in Bangkok is less than you getting killed in an accident on your way to the airport. Our brain doesn’t process probability accurately so the lurid murder or robbery story creates an emotional reaction and avoidance is the built-in consequence from that reaction. Governments, media, the tourist operators all understand this problem.
It would seem, if your reading is confined to the English language press, that non-reporting or under-reporting is prevalent in Thailand. Not exactly, crimes are reported in a fistful of Thai language magazines, and newspapers, and for English reporting you only have to holiday in nearby seaside resort Pattaya to read a stream of stories about thieves, robbers, and killers lurking around every corner.
Examples of recent crimes reported in the English newspaper Pattaya People (along with video clips) include illegal gamblers, loan sharks, thieves, and drug dealers, mules, and users. There are pages devoted to each crime, pictures of the suspects and often the victims and usually in the presence of uniformed police.
Sometimes the suspects are videotaped reenacting the crime. That is part of Thai culture. There are usually many police witnessing the suspect show how he or she committed the crime (and appears to offer a good public relations moment for the police in general and for the police who are credited with ‘solving’ the crime). There are limits, though. They don’t give the suspect a load gun, a knife or the drugs. In a case involving a murder, the suspect uses his hands bridging his palms together not in a wai but in the shape of a gun pointed at some distant point representing where the victim was located at the time he fired the gun.
The Pattaya People recently reported:
“Oat” aged 20 was apprehended carrying a 45 mm automatic gun. The magazine was loaded with 11 rounds. Oat was stopped as he was driving a bronze Honda Civic along South Pattaya Road. In the car, was Oat’s teenage girlfriend. The suspect claimed that he bought the gun from a friend for protection.
A gunshot victim was found in undergrowth near Horse Shoe Point. The police investigation found evidence leading to the arrest of Mr. Maroot Kantongdee , aged 30 who was suspected to have shot the victim. They later recovered from Mr. Maroot’s house a mobile phone that belonged to the victim and a handgun. The suspect confessed that he was a member of a gang which had a run in with the police sometime earlier and one gang member had been killed by the Banglamung police. Along with another gang member, the suspect had lured the victim into the car with a promise of drugs. She was killed because the gang suspected that she acted as a spy for the police.
When a foreigner is involved, the reporting draws a crowd from resident expats. A case in point was a Finn, aged 28, named Kimmo who was stabbed in the chest by his ex-wife. When the police turned up, they determined that he was in stable condition (obviously medically trained these police must have been) and proceeded to take a full statement from the victim. It seems he’d been drinking at a bar and met his ex-wife in what the report described as a ‘coincidence’ meaning that apparently they hadn’t intended on running into each other. They got into an argument and pulled a knife, stabbing him. After the knife work, she packed up and took off. The article ended with a commitment to further question Kimmo after he recovers from the stabbing. No mention of arresting or questioning the ex-wife.
The trick is to invent a common thread and before you know it, the connections start to offer themselves up like loose women when the American fleet docks. But it is more difficult than it looks. There are those who think writing crime fiction is reading through the crimes in the daily press, find a juicy one, and bingo you turn it into a novel. Some may do that, or try to do write a book this way. The reality is most crime stories don’t translate into good crime fiction, just like most crime fiction doesn’t translate into a commercial film. The novel is a medium that exist only in strings of words (the internet threatens to change this dynamic some time in the future) and those words are as much about character as they are about the actual crime.
We never feel we know the people whose lives have become entangled in a reported crime story. We only know what happened to them. The consequences of the gun, the bullet, the knife. Reporters aren’t charged with getting into the head of the criminal, victim and the others who pool around the crime like water trickling down a mountain. There is a genre (and a popular one) called True Crime Fiction. The promise is that this is ‘real’ and that takes into the realm of what is real, an illusion, a fiction, the artifact of a writers experience or knowledge. That line always blur; whether in a newspaper, in the interrogation or courtroom. Where the idea of finding the truth is a noble aspiration and sometimes that happens but it isn’t necessary to the operation of the system. Fiction allows us to see that fault line between justice and injustice, and equality and inequality.
We all read fiction for different reasons: to be entertained, provoked, informed, or challenged. Reading a newspaper is mostly about being informed what is ‘new’ which we know is a fudge as by the time a newspaper is printed what is ‘new’ is already been around the block on the internet and is already old. Newspapers provide a snapshot. The story freezes time. Nothing before or happened is in the frame. That is one of the major problems facing newspapers; a readership that wants information about the ‘new’ is not going to newspapers for that ‘new’ moment the way prior generations automatically have done. They want breaking news. A constant 24/7 continuous feed. The old version of the snapshot of crime is now a non-stop movie. Not one movie, but hundreds, and thousands of movies playing out. Probably there is one playing in a venue near where you live.
Novels straddle a different set of expectations brought to it by readers; they want something new, but also that is universal, a context to understand, evaluate and deal with the new. With crime fiction this comes from an examination of the psychology of those interconnected by crime. How do such people feel about what has happened? What influence and impact has the crime had on their lives, and how do they find the mental resources to cope with loss, guilt, regret, honor, betrayal and shame? In this fashion, the crime sets up an environment, which tests our ability to understand the combination of cultural and psychological factors underlying such matters.
Of course, you can find loads of crime fiction that stays to the surface and entertains in the way of a television series. One explosion after another romps where the forces of good take on the forces of evil. No publisher loses money over publishing such novels, which reinforce the idea that armchair observation of crime can offer the thrill of a roller coaster ride. There is nothing wrong with wanting down time, an exciting journey that entertains and allows the sense of vicarious involvement. Like potato chips or dope, the experience of such pleasure is short lived. And it is basically bad for your health. But at the time it seemed the right way to indulge.
Make no mistake that reading is an indulgency exercised by a cultural class of people who have the necessities of life, well-fed, housed, and jobbed, and with the leisure time that is the dividend of a certain level of material well-being. But the class is diverse. Running from the McDonalds to 3-star Paris restaurant. In theory, both are food. But just as restaurants are for a class of people are experienced as being more than just about food, books are more than just about entertainment for a segment of the reading public. They want to come away from the experience with the feel they’ve seen a film and with the knowledge that by following the pattern of connections, they’ve understood something about the human condition that had previously been overlooked or discounted. That is the highest praise: I saw something, felt something, or understood something to be true for the first time. Shakespeare forewarned that only a fool is permitted to speak truth to power. His wisdom continues today.
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” William Shakespeare