Headache Stencil — sometimes referred to as Thailand’s Banksy — has long garnered attention for his politically charged street art taking aim at the powers that be.
However, his comments made in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak raised head for their utter lack of artfulness.
“Hey Chink! Please go back to ur s***-eating country. Our government need ur money to keep their power but you all not welcome for us now. #notwelcometothailand #backtourchinklandpls,” he wrote on Jan. 26 in a since deleted message on Twitter.
And while his overt racism was generally condemned, his sentiment trucked with popular perceptions.
On the same day, the hashtag #crapgovernment was trending on Thai-language Twitter, generating over 400,000 tweets. The tweet was in direct response to the government’s perceived inadequacy in managing the viral outbreak, or otherwise putting economic interests above human lives.
Earlier this month, Thailand went over a week without reporting a new coronavirus case. Recently, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.
On Feb. 25, two new cases were reported in the country — both Thai nationals. The following day, three more cases were registered. On Feb. 28 another case was found, bringing the national total to 41 and prompting promises by authorities to ramp up efforts to stop the spread of the disease
Whether this incites a renewed ramp up in racial enmity remains to be seen.
Earlier this month, when the popular travel blogger Richard Barrow tweeted an online poll to his 147,000 plus followers asking — “Now that three Thai drivers have been infected with the #coronavirus from their Chinese passengers, what should the Thai government do now?” — the result was less than encouraging.
Although not scientific, 63 percent of the 1,338 respondents — who are a mixture of nationalities, not only Thais — called for a travel ban from China, while 10 percent asked that Chinese tourists be deported.
And while netizens are far less reserved in sharing indelicate opinions, the sentiment has also made its way to the streets.
For example, a business owner in the northern city of Chiang Mai went viral for putting up a sign denying Chinese visitors service. Ironically, while she was convinced to take the sign down, police Lt. Gen. Chettha Komolwantana told Khaosad English business owners could refuse customers on the basis of race.
“It’s not illegal. It’s their right to do so,” he said.
A similar sign was posted in the tourist hotspot of Phuket.
Kitti Tissakul, chief advisor to the president of the Association of Northern Tourism Federation, said that businesses should not discriminate against the Chinese, but added if they insisted on it “there are better ways than putting [up] signs that hurt their feelings.”
That attitude, incidentally, is very much within the Thai way.
It should be noted that acts of discrimination against the Chinese regarding the coronavirus are anything but a strictly Thai affair.
In Moscow, police raids have been organized against hotels, apartments, and businesses frequented by Chinese. In New York, a man assaulted a woman wearing a face mask, calling her a “diseased b****.” European media outlets have published racially-charged content regarding the viral outbreak. A Thai in London got his nose broken during an assault after being mistaken for Chinese. In Ukraine, a mob attacked a bus carrying coronavirus evacuees.
Thailand’s missteps, by contrast, have been quite minor.
Perhaps that is even more surprising, given that anti-Chinese sentiment far pre-dates the new coronavirus outbreak.
In 2015, when China was declared a “rising star” in Thai tourism, Thais regularly took to social media to bemoan the country’s most lucrative tourist segment. Viral videos of faux pas and broken taboos regularly made the social media rounds.
Sometimes the problems are related to perceived in-courteousness, like washing ones feet in public hand basins, leaving hotel rooms in a state of disrepair, leaving a mess at restaurants, or not obeying queuing etiquette.
But it gets worse.
In one famous instance, a Chinese woman opened the emergency exit on a plane for “fresh air.”
Some have chalked the Thai response up to racism and resentment. One online commentator cited by Asian Correspondent noted that in China where hundreds of millions of people have recently been pulled out of poverty, being forced to live absolutely hardscrabble lives just to survive has led to a “a smash-and-grab mentality.”
That approach, however justified, will inevitably cause friction in a country like Thailand where “Kreng Jai” or awe of heart — the practice of avoiding conflict or inconveniencing others at all costs — is so integral to the social fabric.
And now the new coronavirus has pushed segments of the public to view the Chinese tourism question not in terms of etiquette, but life and death.
China itself has attempted to leverage racial sensitivities to mask Beijing from criticism of its handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
On Feb. 19, three journalists from the Wall Street Journal were ordered to leave China after the paper published an editorial entitled: “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The opinion piece claimed, “China’s initial response to the crisis was less than impressive,” adding the government in Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, had been “secretive and self-serving.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang decried the piece as “racially discriminatory,” claiming it “slandered the efforts of the Chinese government and the Chinese people to fight the epidemic.”
Westerns commentators noted it was yet the latest example of Beijing feigning outrage to deflect attention from its policies and stifle free speech.
But just as Chinese authorities have something to gain from conflating criticism of their policies with “sinophobia,” those who trade in racial hate likewise are seizing on the coronavirus epidemic as a cover for hate speech.
Attempts to either scapegoat individuals in the wake of a public health crisis, or efforts to deflect government accountability using those same people as a shield, should be rejected.
Perhaps a message that keeps governments on the hook, while extending empathy to all races, colors, and creeds in these trying times, is one they can get behind.
William Echols has a decade of experience as an international journalist, having worked for a number of outlets, including Voice of America and the Bangkok Post. He currently works as a writer and editor at LiCAS.news. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.