Bid to stop body snatchers' fight for corpses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 1995, 12:00am

IN a month when 28 people drowned in Bangkok's Chao Phraya River, it has been something of a relief to learn that at least no one will be fighting over the bodies of the victims of Thailand's latest disaster.

The first people at the scene of the nation's numerous civic tragedies have, in the past, usually been what the local press dubs 'the rescue workers'.

They are nothing of the sort: the job of these cheerful youths is simply to retrieve as many bodies as possible for the Chinese charitable foundations that employ them.

The foundations pursue body counts with a verve that might put a Vietnam-era US army commander to shame.

More corpses elicit higher donations from the public and the bereaved.

Whenever a hotel collapses, a factory burns down, or there is a pile-up on one of Thailand's notorious superhighway-cum-farm lanes, teenagers can be seen tugging at any likely-looking piece of flesh or clothing.

The competition between 'rescue workers' is so fierce that macabre tugs-of-war have taken place when two teams have arrived at a disaster at the same time.

Now the police have carved up the country in an effort to give the competing charitable foundations the right to trawl for victims in their own, exclusive accident zones.

The police say the move is partly a ploy to try to cut down on the pilfering that appears to be one of the hidden perks of body snatching: foundation workers killed in highway crashes have often been found with jewellery and cash stuffed in their underpants and socks.

The news that the body snatchers are being reigned in will not be any comfort to the family and friends of the people who drowned in the Chao Phraya's filthy waters when an overcrowded ferry pier collapsed in rush hour.

Yet, despite the grief, there are already distinct signs that the Thais' remarkable capacity to seemingly forget feelings of revenge and anger has already come into play.

Anyone who has seen the mad scramble to jump on to a bobbing express boat on the capital's waterways must suspect that someone in authority has been turning a blind eye to a highly dangerous practice.

Yet, at the religious ceremony held on the river a few days ago, the only complaint from four sons who had lost their mother was that the official search had stopped without her body being found. Buddhist funeral rites cannot take place without the body.

For all that they live in a hierarchical society, Thais are individuals - the products of a family life that is liberal by comparison with the more rigid rules that govern Chinese and Japanese families.

But Buddhism also teaches that life is transitory and that pain and happiness can only concern the self - not others. The reverse side of Thai individualism is that people must fend for themselves.

Historically, the humble Thai villager thought of himself as a marginal person destined to play a passive role in the life of the country.

It is astonishing to think that strong echoes of this attitude still remain in the resigned acceptance of everyday death and mayhem by increasingly sophisticated, mobile phone-wielding Bangkokians.

For all the no-doubt justified criticism heaped on self-serving politicians and dubious bureaucrats, perhaps individual Thais should examine their habitual response to life's every turn for the worse: Mai pen rai - or 'Never mind!'