A recent historical study on the rise of violent crime in mid-20th century rural Thailand provides an interesting balance to the analysis of their non-confrontational Buddhist peacefulness by Phillips (1965).
Chalong Soontravanich, who is on the history faculty of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, describes the lack of weapons available to villagers 100 years ago. A commission that studied 76 cases of weapons violence in 1896-97 found that most of the weapons were probably old muskets and home-made hand guns. During peasant rebellions in the first few years of the last century, most of the rebels carried swords, spears, and flintlocks. The author attributes the lack of weapons to their limited availability and high cost.
Soontravanich argues that a sudden increase in the availability of small arms at the end of World War I was caused by the oversupply of guns available worldwide. Many must have been smuggled into Thailand from French Indochina, he speculates. During the inter-war period, increasing numbers became available in the countryside. Thai authorities at the time believed that the availability of these illegal, unauthorized small arms in private hands contributed to a rise in criminal violence.
The spread of small arms exploded during and right after World War II. “In addition to other less lethal small arms, thousands of automatic pistols, submachine guns, hand grenades, grenade launchers, and all kinds of explosives, were almost freely circulating around the country during those years,” he writes (p. 31). The supply of arms came from the weapons sent by the Allied forces to the Thai resistance, from the supplies brought in by the occupying Japanese forces, and from the world market after the war. In addition, the Seri Thai resistance fighters received intensive combat training by British or American instructors. In short, Thailand was awash in guns and fighters who knew how to use them.
In 1946 and 1947 the Thai parliament became concerned about the rapid spread of small arms, and the lawmakers believed that the guns fostered an increase in crime. The legislators agreed that gun ownership needed to be controlled in order to prevent crime. They also believed that honest citizens needed to have access to arms in order to protect their lives and properties. In many cases, in fact, the bandits had better arms than the police authorities.
Almost surprisingly, Soontravanich devotes the second part of his article to an interesting analysis of popular serialized Thai fiction of the 1950s that romanticized bandit heroes. A couple of the heroes “accurately reflect the turmoil and failure of law and order during the postwar years when Thai society, urban as well as rural, experienced the surge of crimes, widespread corruption, and black market activities.” (p. 41) He describes one as a “Robin Hood” figure with a very strong moral stripe who only took from cruel landlords, corrupt officials, and such to give to the poor.
The novels reflected both the failure of the government to maintain law and order and the structural changes that were taking place in the country. They showed how people could challenge the corruption of the state.
Soontravanich closes by describing a powerful bandit community that developed in Chonburi, a province south of Bangkok on the coast that had been a major training base for the Seri Thai rebel forces. A wave of local economic developments did not halt the area’s slide into a center for violent bandit activity. Mafia-style bosses and hired killers violently persecuted the local peasants, forcing them to work under slave conditions.
A new government that came to power due to a coup in 1958 decided to cope with the violence in the province by launching a major military strike in July 1959. Sealing off roads, thousands of military people seized vast arsenals of armaments in their attempt to close down the criminal rings. The effort was only partially successful. The criminal bosses and violence soon returned to the province.
The author blames the rapid rise of violence in the Thai countryside on the sudden, massive availability of small arms as a result of the war. As an historian, he does not describe the extent of crime in Rural Thailand today, and he does not relate these issues to the village peacefulness analyzed by social scientists such as Phillips. But his historical analysis may be useful for people interested in the peacefulness of the Rural Thai people.
Soontravanich, Chalong. 2005. “Small Arms, Romance, and Crime and Violence in Post WW II Thai Society.” Southeast Asian Studies 43(1): 26-46