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Westerners in Thailand jittery over coronavirus xenophobia

As the outbreak takes a hold, some Thais have taken to blaming Caucasians for their dire circumstances

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: April 09, 2020 03:25 AM GMT
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Westerners in Thailand jittery over coronavirus xenophobia

The Thai couple’s Facebook post went viral and alarmed foreigners in a country whose nerves are already frayed by other recent manifestations of anti-Western sentiments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The photo was posted a few days ago on Spotlight Thailand, a popular Facebook group with more than 425,000 followers, and it may seem innocuous enough.

It shows a Thai man and a woman who appear to be at home aiming slingshots playfully at the camera.

It is the enclosed caption, written in English and Thai, that has caused a flurry of concern among expatriates in Thailand. “Get out from my country if you cannot stay at home. Sh*t tourist#,” it says.

The post was uploaded from the resort island of Phuket where dozens of people have tested positive for the deadly new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, late last year. The island’s tourism sector has been devastated by the sweeping lockdown that has been ordered in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. 

The Thai couple’s Facebook post has instantly gone viral and has alarmed foreigners in a country whose nerves are already frazzled by other recent manifestations of anti-Western sentiments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In the West [this post] of course would be viewed as a hate crime and an incitement to violence,” an expatriate from New York who lives in the northern city of Chiang Mai observed in a comment on Facebook. “Here, not so much,” he added.

As the Covid-19 outbreak has taken a hold in Thailand, leading to an economically ruinous lockdown across the country, some Thais have taken to blaming Caucasians for their dire circumstances.

Even senior government officials have been engaging in the unseemly blame game.

In mid-March the country’s volatile health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, a construction magnate by trade with no expertise in medical matters, lashed out at “dirty” white people.

In two posts on his official Twitter account, Anutin posited that “90 percent of Thais are wearing masks. However, none of the farang are wearing masks.”

The minister, who referred to white people by their commonly used designation in Thailand, stressed that “this is the reason our country is being infected all around. We should be more careful of the farang than Asians.” 

He urged his fellow Thais avoid white people because “many farang dress dirty and don’t shower.”

In the ensuing outrage. the posts were deleted and his account on Twitter was deactivated.

At the same time, several Thai media outlets, including the prominent Nation media group in Bangkok, have started echoing Chinese government propaganda by insinuating that it was the US military that clandestinely launched the outbreak of the deadly virus in China. 

“From the accusations that the US military hid vases of the virus in Wuhan to speculation that the US unleashed the coronavirus in Italy to stop them from using Huawei's 5G network and an article written by a Holocaust denier — all of these outlandish claims were carried by some of Thailand’s most popular TV and news sites,” a Bangkok-based online English-language newspaper observed, citing its own survey.

“They were often lifted or translated directly from Chinese state media agencies or suggested by news sites who challenge the audience to connect the dots and build dubious links between different events.” 

The stoking of fear and resentment against white foreigners has proved an unsettling experience for many residents from Western countries.

“I do have a palpable sense that I am being eyed suspiciously whenever I go out in my neighborhood [in an outlying part of Bangkok],” an expatriate from Wales who works as an English teacher at a government-run school in the Thai capital told UCA News on condition of anonymity.

“I am sure I’m being seen as a ‘dirty foreigner’ by some Thais. That’s no surprise if you look at all the misinformation, xenophobia and hysteria [in some local media].”

However, other Western expatriates cautioned against painting Thais with a broad brush.

“Thais are very friendly and welcoming people,” stressed a Bangkok-based media professional who has lived in Thailand for more than a decade.

“They don’t buy into all the nonsense about blaming us for this pandemic. But there are the bad apples. In times like this, it’s easy to start pointing the finger at strangers and outsiders if you want to blame someone.”   

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