Page last updated at 01:42 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 02:42 UK

Thailand's wealthy untouchables

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Sometimes a single incident manages to shine a spotlight deep into the soul of a society.

Skyscrapers in Bangkok
Soaring skyscrapers are testament to Thailand's economic growth

There was just such an incident in Thailand last year, which has just gone to court, and which speaks volumes about the dislocating impact of more than four decades of break-neck economic growth.

It was a seemingly routine accident along Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok's busiest and most traffic-clogged thoroughfares.

A Mercedes-Benz was pulled up alongside a city bus, and a young man was having an angry exchange with the bus driver, whom he accused of scraping against his car.

The passengers started shouting at the man, who got back into his car and appeared to be about to leave.

But instead he accelerated forwards onto the pavement and into the crowd of passengers, crushing several of them under his vehicle.

One woman later died, and several other passengers were seriously injured.

A fit of road rage perhaps? The police charged the young man, Kanpitak Pachimsawas, with murder.

But the case very quickly turned into one about class differences, about the perceived arrogance of Thailand's rich, towards the poor.

'Bad attitude'

Kanpitak, it turned out, was the 20-year-old son of a former Miss Thailand beauty queen and a wealthy businessman.

Many parts of the Thai bureaucratic system favour rich people - if you are not one of them, you will always be left at the back of the queue
Suchira Insawan

He was also the nephew of a powerful police officer.

The bus driver reported that his father had arrived at the scene and threatened to use his police connections against the passengers.

"He thinks he has money and a big family name, so he can do things like this to poor people," the bus conductor told reporters at the scene.

Kanpitak's father was unrepentant. Speaking on a TV chat show two days later, he showed more concern for his son than his victims.

Responding to the bus conductor's comments he said: "They are uneducated. That's how they are.

"They think they are abused, that rich people are bad, that the police are bad. Lower class people have a bad attitude towards police officers and rich people. They hate us and curse us."

Suddenly we were witnessing something you do not see much in Thailand - open class conflict.


Thailand has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth anywhere on the planet, despite some recent improvements.

And that yawning gap between rich and poor is most openly on view in Bangkok, where ostentatious displays of wealth are commonplace alongside the grinding poverty experienced by millions of migrant workers who have come from the countryside.

A man walks past a Louis Vuitton shop in central Bangkok
High-end shops cater to the wealthy in central Bangkok

Luxury cars costing more than the entire annual income of a village rub up against the battered carts of street vendors.

New shopping centres and apartment blocks are crowding out what little open space remains in the city, projects that help the rich get even richer.

It should come as no surprise that it is in Bangkok that a five-star hotel is offering its 50 highest-spending guests what it calls the meal of a lifetime, prepared by a team of Michelin-starred chefs and preceded by the guests being flown by executive jet to a village in eastern Thailand to witness a little poverty before tucking into their 10-course feast.

Total cost: around US$300,000 (150,000). The event has barely raised an eyebrow in Thailand, but caused such an uproar elsewhere over its questionable taste that many top chefs in France have decided to boycott it.

Clothes hang outside a ramshackle house surrounded by skyscrapers
Bangkok's architecture showcases the uneasy coexistence of rich and poor

What is so striking about Thailand's inequality is how little visible social tension there is.

For the most part people appear to accept their lot without resentment. Some put this down to Buddhist concepts of fate and karma, others, to Thailand's deep-rooted sense of hierarchy, with the king at its apex.

Social activist and former Senator Jon Ungpakorn sees more prosaic causes.

"Because of the high growth rates in Thailand there is a sort of buffer," he says.

"Even the poor feel they are doing better than they would have done many years ago. They still see that they have opportunities ahead."

'Damage is done'

The case of Kanpitak Pachimsawas has struck a raw nerve.

Websites in Thailand are filled with comments demanding that the young man face the full force of the law, regardless of his family connections.

Some poke fun at his father's claim that it was mental stress that caused him to drive his car into the crowd.

But there is little of the blistering anger that erupted in China after a similar case four years ago, when a woman who drove her BMW at a farmer she had been arguing with, killing his wife, was given only a suspended jail sentence.

It forced the Chinese authorities to reopen the case, and to close down websites carrying the online debate over the case.

In Thailand, Kanpitak Pachimsawas was released on bail and, amazingly, even allowed to continue driving.

On his first day in court he was apparently overcome by nerves and said he was unable to answer any questions. The judge adjourned the case until November. He may never go to prison.

Suchira Insawan, the daughter of the woman he killed, says she feels no anger towards him.

She has yet to receive any compensation from the Pachimsawas family - she has asked for 7m baht ($222,000; 111,000) but is likely to get less, perhaps even less than the list price of the Mercedes-Benz that crushed her mother.

"The damage is done," she told me. "I forgive him. I don't want to destroy his future, I don't want him to be jailed. I don't want bad karma."

She also had little faith that the courts would find against such a privileged young man.

"Many parts of the Thai bureaucratic system favour rich people. If you are not one of them, you will always be left at the back of the queue."

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