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Growing gun crime risk could turn Thailand into 'Bangkok Dangerous'

Until recently, “Bangkok Dangerous” was merely a popular action film. But Thailand may soon be known less as the “Land of Smiles” than as one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.

A recent Reuters report headlined “Friendly Thailand stares down the barrel of rising gun crime” offers a stark picture. Reuters reports that Thailand has the highest number of guns in civilian hands in Southeast Asia — almost four times more than the Philippines, a country notorious for violent gun crime.

In fact, the report hardly comes as a surprise. Open any newspaper any day and you'll find many reports of murder, rape, sexual assault and human trafficking, many of which involve illegal possession of guns.

Gun crime in Thailand has made international headlines because several foreign tourists have become victims. Perceived lax policing of violent crime makes many tourists think twice before choosing this country as a destination.

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.

Hardened criminals, however, are not the only perpetrators of Thai gun crime. Student gangs use guns to settle scores with each other in long-running feuds. Law-enforcement agencies are feeling the strain and don't seem to be effectively combating the problem.

The law prohibits anyone under the age of 20 from owning a gun. In addition, certain requirements must be met before a gun license is issued. But, in reality, guns are easy to find here.

Every Thai is a stakeholder in this issue. The violence not only affects innocent victims — bystanders caught in the crossfire — but also erodes people's perception of how safe Thailand is, and saps public morale.

Thais are known as a generous and welcoming people, but this reputation could soon be a thing of the past. The flow of money in our growing economy has made some people greedy, with the more unscrupulous tempted to think they can get things easily without having to work hard. As a result criminals sometimes target tourists for their cash and other valuables.

Reuters reported that Thailand has the highest rate of murder by gun in Asia, citing figures at www.GunPolicy.org, which is hosted by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health in Australia. Thailand saw an average of 5.3 gun murders per 100,000 people in 2011, compared to 0.2 in the Philippines, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported.

Widespread illegal possession of guns can be attributed to increasing criminal activity in Thailand, from the drugs trade and burglary to human trafficking and gambling. But attempts by police to enforce the law have been hampered by links between criminals and those in power.

The result is a loss of confidence in law enforcement that has led an increasing number of ordinary citizens to seek out guns to protect themselves, further fueling the demand for firearms. This trend only increases the number of weapons that could potentially fall into the wrong hands.

If our law-enforcement agencies fail to address this issue effectively, it is not just tourist dollars — a mainstay of the Thai economy — that will decline. The wellbeing and security of all who live in Thailand will also suffer.

It would be unfortunate if the “Land of Smiles” one day became just an ironic label for a Thailand grimacing under gun crime.

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