Thailand - Responsibility, Accountability, Liability
It's 2017 and I am in the process of completely rewriting this section of my website about Thailand. I started writing it far too soon after arriving in the country and now a lot has had to be changed. However, my observations regarding Thai attitudes towards responsibility are the same now as they were in 2004. It was something that I became aware of very early on and nothing has changed.
In Thailand, in most situations, there is no - or very little - sense of responsibility. There is very little accountability and the legal situation is such that irresponsible people who cause problems will not be liable in any way.
Setting up a wobbly charcoal burner on the sidewalk
Whenever I walk outside I come across any number of health hazards. Street vendors claim sidewalk space as their own and erect metal poles that jut out at eye level. They set up glowing orange charcoal burners and large woks of boiling oil on the street that could easily be knocked over by a passing pedestrian. Thai children become victims quite regularly and I have seen some horrific stories on Thai news of people who have been burned by boiling oil.
Whatever your height, you will find plenty of these at eye level in Thailand
The sidewalks are broken, uneven, and have large holes. Workers working above do nothing to protect pedestrians below and employers of construction workers do nothing to protect their workers. It isn't unusual in Thailand to see construction workers working while wearing floppy hats and flip-flops.
The country has a terrible road fatality rate and many accidents are caused by drivers who carry passengers for a living. Drivers of passenger vehicles, including school vans and buses, drive like maniacs and have no sense of responsibility for their passengers, some of which are very young children. When they cause accidents they have no sense of accountability. In newspaper reports about road crashes in Thailand the phrase 'the driver fled the scene' appears almost every time. This also happens when passenger boat drivers overload their boats and go too fast, resulting in the boat capsizing. They think that by driving fast they are big men, but as soon as an accident occurs they run away like little children.
A big wok of boiling oil on the sidewalk
There are just as many problems with private cars and trucks. Thai men love driving at high speed, but this becomes extremely dangerous when people don't think and have no sense of responsibility for other people's safety.
Germany is well known for its autobahns that have no speed limits, but there are very few problems. On autobahns, other vehicles don't suddenly appear from side roads, there are no pedestrians, and German drivers observe sensible safe braking distances.
Many Thai men will drive at high speed in completely inappropriate places, such as the road that runs alongside my daughter's school. They drive at high speed where other cars will suddenly appear from side roads, where there are pedestrians, and they have a bad habit of tailgating at high speed. When accidents do occur drivers behind can never brake in time.
I have spoken to many Thai girls over the years who got pregnant at a young age and were left to bring up the child alone because the father ran away. Rather than taking responsibility for their actions, the Thai way is often to run away.
The Thai lust for money combined with no sense of responsibility or accountability and no respect for law can have devastating consequences.
A hotel on Phi Phi island had a bedbug problem and knew that this could affect its income if guests stayed away. Later on, two young, healthy Canadian sisters who stayed at the hotel died for no apparent reason.
A Canadian coroner said that what probably happened was the hotel used an illegal chemical called phosphine to kill the bedbugs. This chemical kills everything that breathes and leaves little trace in the environment or in the body. Didn't they feel any sense of responsibility for their guests?
Various aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, when combined, can cause serious problems. A few years ago a three year-old girl was killed at school when she was crushed by a heavy metal gate that had a problem. Apparently, the school knew that the gate had a problem but didn't take any action.
Why was no action taken? Was it because the easiest thing to do was to do nothing? And like the hotel in the example above, did the owners of the school not feel any sense of responsibility for their young students?
You would expect people to be more responsible concerning their own children, and although this is the case with more educated Thais, it is not always the case.
Where I used to rent a house in quite a lo-so area, I would often turn a corner in my car to see one year-old children sitting playing unattended in the road.
It is very unusual for Thai children on motorbikes to wear helmets and very rare for them to wear seatbelts or use children's car seats in cars.
A teacher at my daughter's school gave my daughter a lift and was extremely surprised when she put on her seat belt. I have always insisted that my kids are strapped in when we travel by car and she has now gotten into the habit. The teacher remarked that she has given many kids rides in her car, but none of them has ever put on a seat belt.
I know that if I lost an eye or broke a leg because of the actions of another person in Thailand, I wouldn't have any recourse. Any attempts to make the person accountable would be met by shoulder shrugs, blank expressions and silence.
This is one of the major causes of why things are the way they are in Thailand. If someone causes a problem, no matter how serious the problem, they are unlikely to be punished.
In many ways, Thailand is the opposite to the United States. In the United States all men are born equal, but this is an absurd notion in Thailand where no one is equal and everyone knows their position in the social hierarchy.
Litigation has gone to extreme levels in the United States and has spawned a whole industry of lazy people whose only goal in life is to try to blame others for various misfortunes so that they can try to sue people for vast amounts of money.
It is this reason, and this reason only, why cups containing hot beverages have notices stating that the contents is hot, and why bags of peanuts must state that the product contains nuts.
This is one extreme, but Thailand is at the other extreme. Shortly after arriving in Thailand I read about a young girl who was attacked by a Rottweiler dog. The owner of the dog gave her family Bt500.
Thais might think a little bit more about the consequences of their actions if they were hit with huge law suits or prison sentences, but that doesn't happen either. I don't necessarily agree with overly-litigious societies like the United States, but the threat of a huge law suit at least makes people think about the possible consequences of their actions.
As a foreigner in Thailand, you can't change cultural behaviour and even if you could there would be some ethical issues as to whether you should be changing other people's cultural behaviour.
All you can do is try to understand the behaviour and there are good reasons for trying to do this. Firstly, it can ease a lot of the frustration. When I first arrived in Thailand I encountered lots of behaviour that I found inexplicable and extremely frustrating. I just couldn't figure out why Thais behaved the way they did. Nowadays, I still don't find a lot of Thai behaviour to be acceptable, but at least I understand what's behind it.
The second reason is more important. Understanding Thai cultural behaviour can keep you out of a lot of trouble. Not understanding it - in extreme circumstances - can be very dangerous. Elsewhere, I have discussed Thai driving and the issues of face, ego and self-esteem. If you drive in Thailand without understanding these things and get upset with the driving standards of Thai drivers, which is perfectly reasonable, the consequences can be lethal.
Knowing what I do about Thai attitudes towards responsibility and accountability I am always very aware that I, alone, am responsible for my own safety and that of my family. In other countries I may give my trust other people because I know they will act responsibly. That isn't the case in Thailand.
It isn't convenient doing school runs for my children every day, but even though there are minivan services available for school children there is no way I would put my children on one of these vans having seen how they are driven.
There is no way I would engage in activities such as bungee jumping, in which you have to be 100% certain that the operator is fully responsible for the safety of customers.
I don't enjoy driving in Thailand, but at least I drive my own vehicle responsibly even if I can do nothing about other drivers. This is safer than being in a vehicle driven by someone who has no sense of responsibility for his passengers.
Depending on your level of interest in the subject, once you understand Thai behaviour you can go one step further and try to figure out why, but this is never easy. If you ask Thais, you will never get answers to 'why' questions. They either don't know or they aren't willing to say. You can theorise, but you end up with lots of theories and there is never a definitive answer.
Naturally, I have some theories of my own.
None of these attributes are compatible with responsibility. If you find yourself in a situation that calls for responsibility you either have to change your lifestyle and deal with the responsibility, or continue with your lifestyle and ignore the responsibility. I think that many Thais do the latter.
The young Thai man who enjoys racing irresponsibly around the streets on his motorbike or in his pickup truck may find work as a bus or minivan driver, but he won't change his ways and be responsible for the safety of his passengers.
Could it be because there is no accountability or liability? In America people are terrified of doing something that may cause harm to others because they know that they will be presented with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Doctors and dentists in the States are forced to take out massive insurance policies, just in case something goes wrong.
In a society where you won't be made accountable for your actions and will not be threatened with huge lawsuits, why would there be a need to be responsible?
Could it have something to do with the strict hierarchical structure of Thai society? Those who are low down in the hierarchy have no power or authority and aren't empowered to take action themselves. This can only be done by people higher up.
By the same token, does this also mean that those lower down are absolved of responsibility? When something happens, does it mean that instead of someone having to take responsibility they simply point to someone above them?
Could it have something to do with the powerful notions of greng jai? A powerful element of the Thai psyche is not interfering in other people's business and expecting others not to interfere in your business. Thais like to do whatever they want to do, so does being responsible interfere with this?
Or could it be something to do with Buddhism? In Buddhism the outcome of your own life depends on your actions, not those of other people. Other people's actions aren't responsible for what happens in your life, and your actions aren't responsible for what happens in other people's lives.
Obviously, Buddhism doesn't advocate not being responsible for anything you do, but the Thai version of Buddhism has been adapted to fit in with the original Thai belief systems. Many Thai beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhism.
Also related to Buddhist thinking is the emphasis on the present. We can only ever experience life in the present, not the past, which has gone, or the present, which has yet to come?
Thais give very little thought to the future - not even thinking what might happen in the very near future - and being responsible is all about taking actions now that will prevent problems in the future.
As I said above, I have lots of theories.
To summarise, the question 'why' doesn't really matter because there are no clear answers and there is nothing you can do, anyway. All you can do is to be aware of the different aspects of Thai cultural behaviour and try to keep yourself out of trouble.
Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand