February 2, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Carnage and karma on Thai roads

Culture can explain locals' apparent calm over soaring death tolls

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR

In September 2011, I sat in the witness box of a Bangkok court to be cross-examined about the habits of my late friend Torgeir Norling. Tor, a Norwegian journalist, had been killed by a Bangkok bus -- part of a green fleet that raced through the streets of the Thai capital and had gained notoriety as "green monsters."

Yet, such a record did not prevent the lawyer for the bus company from suggesting that Tor was in some way at fault for stepping into the road. Jum, his Thai wife, was determined to get justice. She pursued criminal and civil cases, with the civil case ruling in her favor in 2015. But I realized later that her quest for accountability was more the exception than the rule for road-related deaths in Thailand.

That realization resurfaces whenever annual holiday seasons end. As with the recent New Year's break, heavy drinking and festive holiday bonhomie leave corpses almost literally scattered across the country's roads. The sobering fact is there are over 24,000 road deaths annually in Thailand, among the worst levels in the world after war-torn Libya, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, admit lawyers, few Thais go to court after a relative is killed in an accident.

Nor do Thais rage in the streets like people in some other Asian countries in the wake of such deaths. There are no public outbursts of anger at the wanton waste of life. Thais, on the contrary, settle for something more orderly and less confrontational on the surface. While officials promise tighter road-safety laws, civil society activists campaign for stricter law enforcement, and commentators in the media and cyberspace express concern. In response to the recent New Year's carnage, Ratanawadee Winther, a Thai road-safety campaigner, noted that part of the problem is that Thais tend to "accept road deaths as a 'normal' part of life."

At times black humor emerges, often conveyed by local media. After the latest holiday stretch from Dec. 29 to Jan. 4, during which 478 people died on the road -- the worst death toll in a decade -- one Thai daily ran the headline: "Tragic! New Year's death toll almost 500; Chonburi is champ!" The latter blithely referred to the 25 people who died when a passenger van collided with a pickup truck in Chonburi, a province southeast of Bangkok.

Faith in the supernatural

Such responses raise obvious questions: Are Thai people indifferent to such carnage, or do their attitudes offer a window to understanding more concealed feelings about life and death? The latter seems more likely, suggesting that other factors are at work, rooted in the country's culture and religious beliefs.

Bert van Walbeek, a 30-year veteran of the Thai tourism industry who specializes in risk management, puts it down to an "it won't happen to me attitude" and "risk-ignorance behavior." The rising carnage -- which, according to his estimates results in one death every 20 minutes on Thai roads -- has not shaken such mental barriers.

Motorcycles play the largest role in accidents, accounting for over 80% of all incidents, often because of drivers recklessly speeding and drinking alcohol. The Bangkok motorcycle taxi drivers that I occasionally use would agree with van Walbeek's assessment. They stake their fate on the amulet necklaces they wear for protection, rather than following road rules.

Thai responses therefore expose deeply held beliefs in bad luck, karma and rebirth cycles as a route to closure over a sudden loss. In one anecdote about a Thai man who was hit by a vehicle while standing at the side of a road, a supernatural cause was floated: He had upset the spirit that inhabited a nearby tree. I have also been told that if an accident victim is in their 25th year, the incident could be put down to benjapase -- a belief that one's 25th year can bring bad -- or good -- luck.

Academics have shed some light on how far this faith in the supernatural goes in explaining the aftermath of accidents. A book published in 2010 advanced the view that karma and custom are deeply embedded in the culture and shape the everyday responses of Thai people to trauma in everyday life.

So, in a Thai sort of way, it all makes sense, easily matching that other trait that fills the pages of local newspapers: blaming ghosts for personal misfortunes. Yet it is also a stark admission that Thai courts cannot deliver what karma can.

Marwaan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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