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EXP-THAILAND-ASSAULTS 03-25

THAILAND TRIES TO ALLAY TOURISTS’ FEARS AFTER KILLINGS

By SETH MYDANS

(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.)

c.2008 New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand — The Thai police say they will start handing out whistles to foreign women who visit this country after the latest in a long series of periodic sexual assaults and killings.

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"We will issue the whistles first in risky areas such as beaches, valleys, mountains, national parks, waterfalls and other risky spots," Choochart Suwannakom, commander of the national Tourist Police, said in an interview last week.

While Thailand is generally safe for foreigners, recent sexual assaults and killings of foreign tourists have prompted embassies to issue warnings and have led to fears among Thai officials that the country’s attractiveness as a tourist destination could suffer. Tourism is the biggest earner of foreign exchange for Thailand, bringing in more than $16 billion last year, accounting for as much as 6 percent of gross domestic product and generating the most jobs of any industry.

Last week, the police arrested a 31-year-old laborer accused in the March 15 fatal stabbing of a Swedish tourist, Hanna Backlund, 27, on a secluded beach in Phuket, one of the country’s leading resort areas. The laborer, Akaradech Tangae, told the police that he had tried to rape Backlund but that "she resisted, and I had to kill her," Reuters reported.

Choochart played down the recent killings, saying, "I believe security in Thailand is better than in many other countries." He also contended that some of the attacks were occasioned by the behavior of the women themselves. Under a front-page photograph of a Western woman lying on a beach, The Bangkok Post, an English-language daily newspaper, quoted Choochart as saying: "They tend to choose a quiet spot away from other people, take off the bikini and sunbathe. That’s when the attackers strike."

On Saturday, a 24-year-old Indian tourist was stabbed to death while trying to break up a fight during the popular full-moon party on the island of Koh Phangan. On Sunday, The Bangkok Post reported that the police had admitted failure in their investigation of the widely covered killing in 2000 of Kirsty Jones, 23, a British backpacker who was strangled in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai province, in the north.

"The murders come as a wake-up call for the authorities, who seem to show no concern about the shortage of investment in the tourism industry or the political will to improve the safety of tourists," the newspaper said.

More than 14 million tourists visited Thailand last year, by an official count, and the number of arrivals continues to climb. But Thai tourism is an industry built on image — beaches, temples, elephants, smiles — and anything that threatens that image is a serious offense.

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