BANGKOK – According to data provided by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health and Metric Evaluation, Thailand has the highest reported rate of gun-related deaths in Southeast Asia.
This is almost 50 percent more gun homicides than the Philippines, and with 7.48 registered violent gun deaths per 100,000 people, the figure is also twice as high as that of the US, which had 3.55 deaths per 100,000 people in the same year.
As the US State Department’s Bureau for Diplomatic Security wrote in its 2013 safety report for overseas staff: “Thailand has a fervent gun culture on par with the United States and has become a world leader in firearms-related homicides.”
But that’s not all. The Southeast Asian nation also has a high gun-ownership ratio. According to Thailand’s Interior Ministry, there are currently more than six million registered guns in a country with a population of 66.7 million – meaning that about one in ten people in Thailand legally own a gun.
A ‘Thriving’ Black Market
In fact, the total number of firearms in circulation is believed to be much higher once you include the many weapons that are sold illegally in the country’s black market, Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, told DW.
In light of this, Gunpolicy.org, a website run by the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, estimates that the actual number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by Thai civilians is around 10 million.
One important reason for the discrepancy is that Thailand’s Interior Ministry has no records of weapons held by insurgents in the country’s deep south. At the root of the conflict are decades-old separatist demands, with many residents of the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – home to a Muslim, Malay majority in the predominantly Buddhist nation – calling on Bangkok to grant them at least local autonomy.
But that’s not the only reason. As counter-terrorism expert Tomas Olivier points out, the Thai government has also played its part in exacerbating the gun problem. “For decades, Bangkok has contributed to the growth of the actual amount of firearms by covertly supplying civilians in these southern provinces with weapons in order to strengthen their strategic counter-insurgency campaign,” he told DW.
Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, agrees, indicating that in many cases firearms are supplied by the government or military to “defense volunteers” in order to defend themselves from insurgent attacks. As a result, this has led to the creation of what experts describe as a “flourishing illegal arms market.”
Owning a firearm in the Southeast Asian country has been legal since 1947. However, only licensed gun owners may lawfully acquire, possess or transfer a firearm or ammunition. And the Act Controlling Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, Fireworks and Imitation of Firearms only allows for people to obtain licenses to own guns for purposes of self-defense, protection of property, sports or hunting. Applicants must be at least 20 years old and pass a background check which considers personal conduct, living condition, income and criminal records.
Licenses are also needed for owning firearms as keepsakes. Such licenses cost 1,000 Baht ($28) per person. As for the actual price of a gun, experts say that it costs about $600 to purchase a firearm. “That’s a hefty, but not an insurmountable sum for the average Thai,” John J. Brandon, the senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Regional Cooperation programs, told DW.
Easily Available Guns
However, not all Thais go through the legal channels to get their hands on a gun. “Despite these rules, it is fairly easy to acquire a gun in Thailand. Especially in shops along the Thai-Myanmar and Thai-Cambodian border, they can easily be found,” said Chambers.
Siegfried Herzog, head of the regional office of the German foundation Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung in Bangkok, has a similar view. “Guns are easily available in Thailand, and a huge number of people possess deadly weapons illegally.
“Some of these firearms were smuggled across the border. Others were imported for the police or military but then somehow found their way into private hands,” he told DW. In fact, experts claim that military, police and paramilitary officials not only have easy access to such weapons, but have also been known to sell these to non-state officials.
Armed Robbery and Vendettas
But who is responsible for the high homicide rate? The Thai government does not provide a specific breakdown of gun-related murders and acts of violence. But some experts point to the Malay-Muslim insurgents in the deep south as well as the mafia syndicates across the country as significant arms-bearing groups.
However, other analysts such as Herzog say they believe that a lot of the violence is perpetrated by individuals, given that business disputes, robberies, fits of passion, personal vendettas and loss of face are often named as the main reasons for gun-related deaths.
And then there is the issue of contract killings. “In Thailand the number of hitmen is relatively high compared to other countries, although no estimates are available. The starting price for a ‘hit’ is about 50,000 baht (around $1,400). Hitmen are accessible and fairly cheap,” explained Chambers.
‘No one has taken Responsibility’
As for the state’s handling of the situation, experts point out that it has “occasionally” ordered the surrender of handguns and rifles, threatening legal action, but stress that such orders have not been consistently implemented all over the country.
Moreover, gun-related deaths are usually examined on a case by case basis and not as a larger social issue, say analysts. “There seems to be apathy among state officials about changing gun policy,” said analyst Chambers, who believes that the solution would be to bar civilians from owning guns.
“No one has taken responsibility, no one has really taken up the issue,” lamented Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister. The minister was quoted by AFP news agency as calling for tighter gun controls, as well as an amnesty for illegal weapons.
Security analyst Olivier, who is also CEO of security consultancy Lowlands Solutions Netherlands (LSN), says that the general opinion, also within the Thai government, is that parallel to a more comprehensive debate on gun control, Thailand is in urgent need of immediate “quick impact” measures to tackle traditional Thai gun culture.
For instance, Olivier argues that enhancing the national gun registration laws, introducing so-called ballistic gun data and a more thorough system to fight the organized crime syndicates, especially in the central province of Uthai Thani, are viewed as essential measures to effectively tackle the issue.
But it seems that this is easier said than done. As analyst Herzog points out, the main obstacles to achieving this are continuing difficulties to seriously crack down on illegal firearms. “Strengthening the capacity of the respective authorities together with further steps towards more transparency and proceeding with the development of a strong rule of law would therefore be crucial to address the issue,” he stated.
By Gabriel DomÃnguez