Friendly Thailand stares down the barrel of rising gun crime

Sun Oct 21, 2012 6:58pm EDT
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By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Twenty schoolchildren surround a city bus in central Bangkok. Some get on to confront a 16-year-old from a rival school and, within moments, he is shot dead.

Similar altercations have become a focus of public attention, with shootings affecting seemingly ordinary folk.

In one incident at a busy intersection, a computer repairman shot dead two people and took a third hostage. Witnesses said it resembled a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster.

A tourist haven and regional base for multinational companies, 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.

Some blame the rise in gun crime on political instability that has gripped Thailand since a 2006 coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Unrest culminated in a two-month stand-off in 2010 between government troops and "red shirt" protesters backing Thaksin and clashes that killed 91 people.

Others say that the seeming impunity enjoyed by the wealthy has prompted some to take the law into their own hands.

"Thailand has become a Wild West movie," says politician Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage-parlor tycoon who says he used to pay off local police to run his seedy businesses. "People pull out their guns at a moment's notice."

Chuwit never owned a gun before this year. He now has three.   Continued...

A man looks at a window display at a gun shop in Bangkok in this October 12, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang