Thailand's Prime Minister has apologized for suggesting that tourists visiting his country might not be safe if they wear bikinis. When he made the “bikini gaffe,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was speaking to television reporters about the brutal murder of two British tourists at a popular beach destination south of Thailand. Prayuth later clarified that he didn’t mean to offend anyone and only wished to express his concern about the safety of tourists.
Earlier this week, the dead bodies of Hannah Witheridge (age 23) and David Miller (age 24) were found on the beach resort island of Koh Tao, just south of Thailand. Initial reports indicate that the young Britons were probably murdered. A police investigation is now underway.
Thai authorities were busy working the murder case when Prayuth delivered his now infamous remark:
There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere…Can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?
Thailand's mass media did not widely report Prayuth's statement, but it triggered strong and angry reactions in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom. Many have accused the Thai leader of “blaming the victim” instead of solving the crime. Prayuth was quick to apologize:
I am sorry that my statement caused uneasiness. I affirm that I did not look down on or criticize anyone. I simply wanted to warn them to be careful at certain places and certain times.
He added that he was under intense pressure during the interview:
I admit that sometimes I speak too strongly. It was because I felt pressured and sad for the victims. I feel sorry for them, no matter if they are Thais or foreigners. I don't want this kind of loss to ever happen again.
Careful not to bear too much responsibility for the tragedy, Prayuth then shifted to blaming migrant workers for violent crimes and warned both the public and tourists to be vigilant against illegal aliens:
I insist that Thailand is safe, although there are some not-good people here. Therefore, they have to be careful. Their country and our country do not have equal safety. I admit I am worried for them.
We have to help take care of [our nation] and not let not-good people mingle with us, such as unregistered alien workers. We can't let them work like that. It's dangerous and it can cause damage to the country.
The scene of the murders is one of Thailand's most famous island resorts. Many online have shared photographs from the picturesque location, when remembering the two victims.
It's now 3 days since 2 British tourists found dead at end of this Thai beach. Total confusion over police inquiry pic.twitter.com/pJ2JK3ZxXM
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) September 18, 2014
— IBTimes UK (@IBTimesUK) September 16, 2014
Prayuth is the army chief who launched a coup last May in a bid to stop the violent clashes between the country’s major political parties. After drafting an interim constitution, the army appointed members of the legislative assembly, who subsequently installed Prayuth as prime minister.
In an editorial, the Bangkok Post lamented the absence of public outcry in Thailand against Prayuth’s statement, saying the local media's silence gives the country “little chance to fight rape culture.”
Blogging for the Asian Correspondent, Saksith Saiyasombut noted that the “half-baked joke is inappropriate,” calling on Prayuth to be more careful with his public statements in the future:
…this is a lesson for the outgoing army chief, junta leader and prime minister that he is now under much, much more public scrutiny now that he has took (over) this position and that he has to choose his words more carefully.
Prayuth promises a quick investigation, assuring tourists that Thailand remains safe for tourists.
That the prime minister actually apologized suggests the enormity of international backlash to his gaffe. Of course, inadequate reporting about Prayuth's comments by the local press reflects the sorry state of media freedom in Thailand today. Unfortunately, many Internet users it seems are still unable to criticize openly the policies and actions of army officials. Or perhaps civic forces inside Thailand compelled Prayuth to apologize for his blunder, after all. If the latter is true, maybe this incident will inspire more citizens to challenge the other controversial policies of the country's military-backed regime.