Opinion: Life Is Cheap in Thailand and Even Cheaper on Thai Roads

Pedestrians use a crosswalk in front of the Bhumirajanagarindra Kidney Institute Hospital in Bangkok, where ophthalmologist Waraluck Supwatjariyakul was fatally hit by a motorcycle, on Jan. 25, 2022.
Pedestrians use a crosswalk in front of the Bhumirajanagarindra Kidney Institute Hospital in Bangkok, where ophthalmologist Waraluck Supwatjariyakul was fatally hit by a motorcycle, on Jan. 25, 2022.

Given that an average of two persons are killed every hour on Thai roads, according to the Thai Road Safety Center, some wonder why the recent tragic accident of Waraluck Supwatjariyakul struck so many chords.

Her death resonated with many and landed as front-page headline news for days as it exploded into collective anger and frustration among many Thais, particularly those in the urban areas.

Here are a few factors contributing to the collective angst which say a bit about the state of Thailand today. And what needs to be done about no many needless daily deaths on the roads.

First, Waraluck is highly relatable to the educated urban middle class as she was one of them – a class that is very active on social media and where many journalists hail from. She was a pleasant looking woman, a medical doctor and an ophthalmologist which, at 33, should have had a long and useful life ahead of her.

As a physician, her life should be useful to the public for decades to come. After all, Thailand has around fifty or so ophthalmologists. So basically she was one of them, easily identified by the middle class, particularly Bangkok urban middle class. They feel that it could have happened to them or their loved ones instead.

Some foreigners observe whether the media and the public would care much if Waraluck was a poor Isaan girl from the northeast, not highly educated or a Burmese migrant worker. Would it even have been on the news at all? There is some truth to that observation but other factors were at play as well.

Second, the fatal accident took place in the middle of Bangkok in broad daylight and on a crosswalk. Graphic video clips, which eventually emerged, showed Waraluck being thrown many meters into the air to her death.

Life in Thailand may be cheap and unequal, but most Thais are more equal on Bangkok roads and crosswalks – anyone could just have been struck. It is a sobering reminder that even a crosswalk is not safe.

Actually pedestrians could become more vulnerable if they assume that one shall be safe and proceed on a crosswalk in a carefree manner. This is because some motorists could not care less – as made all too apparent in the case of Waraluck.

Third, a police officer was the violator, killer, and suspicious as well as outrageous circumstances surrounding the case.

For the first 40 hours or so, no major news organization reported about the accident. Was there an attempt to cover up or buy time to remove some evidence?

In the first 40 hours or so after the accident that Friday afternoon, Waraluck’s parents and friends had to plead to the public for anyone who has a video clip of the accident to come forward. The cop, Pol. Lance Cpl. Narawit Buadok, rode a Ducati motorcycle without a license plate, without a rear mirror, and he did not pay vehicle tax. No report about the test on his blood alcohol content was ever released.

Was it ever conducted right after the accident at all? By Friday, police investigators revealed that Narawit drove at a speed up to 128 kilometers per hour when he approached the fateful crosswalk – way above the speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour.

On television earlier this week, a well-known TV host at Channel 3 asked a senior officer on air whether Narawit who violated over half a dozen laws was indeed a police officer.

“Yes, he definitely is,” the senior police officer replied with a very uncomfortable look on his face.

Police are supposed to be law enforcers, but at times and again, some of them – too many of them actually – end up not just not respecting laws but abusing it. It is a variation on the same theme over and over again and people are sickened to death by it.

No wonder Thai-language Twitter was on fire. Thai hashtags critical of police such as “#WhatPoliceAreFor” trended a few days ago.

Also on Twitter, I tweeted a comment by a Facebook friend, who stated that having a short haircut has nothing to do with discipline as Thai school children are being told because the cop that killed Waraluck has such a short haircut (like other officers). It was retweeted over 21,000 times by Friday.

These three factors combined means many in Bangkok and beyond have become fed up, outraged, and feeling helpless. They want change. No pun intended, but friends of Waraluck put up a petition on change.org on Friday, calling for road safety to become a national agenda in hope that Waraluck to be the last fatality on a crosswalk.

On the same day, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha urged people to respect traffic regulations, while the Bangkok City Hall applied more red traffic signal paints at crosswalks and said it will put up some traffic lights at some crosswalks as well.

A real change in the safety of pedestrians and motorists will only drastically improve with sustained efforts by the state and the public pressuring the authorities, teaching both motorists and pedestrians to be more responsible and law abiding.

Setting up a new separate command structure that can demand cooperation from various state agencies to assist in reducing the number of daily deaths, with daily reports and press conferences aired on social media, daily analysis, comparing with good and bad practices of other nations and recommendations, might not be a bad idea.

The structure under the current Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) could be an example to be adjusted and applied. The fact that 1,239 people have been killed in the first 28 days of January alone and that Thailand is among the worst places on Earth when it comes to road safety should make the issue a national agenda.

It may take another generation or so as two more people, on an average, died on the roads within every hour – and the hour that I spent typing these words.