Paradise Lost?

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Mention Thailand, and instantly a stream of clichés bubble to the surface of a warm, azure sea of thought. Paradisiacal beaches, full moon parties, trekking, prostitutes, cocktails in buckets, lady-boys, the odd incarcerated tourist, luxury hotels, elephants, mushroom shakes, gap ‘yaaah’ tragedies, tsunamis, world-famous spas, and mopeds jostle together on the farang (foreigner’s) consciousness of a country that remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world, receiving over 14 million international visitors last year. This trend is bound to continue its increase with the advent of budget flights to Asia from airlines such as Air Asia X, who recently launched £99 promotional flights from London to Kuala Lumpur, from where Bangkok, Phuket and a whole raft of other holiday destinations are within a short £20 hop.

Even a few days there can establish that Thailand is a land of extreme contrasts, where a luxury villa can all too easily overlook a slum of immigrant construction workers, and a Holiday Inn can be within a stone’s throw of a multi-storey massage parlour providing happy endings for tourists in straining Hawaiian shirts.

A thorough understanding of the ever-evolving Thai justice system seems a near impossible task. It is a system subject to change on the slightest whim of the specific police officer or judge, the nationality of the perpetrator or victim of a situation, and the government in power.

What has hit the majority of Western minds throughout the past year as airport closures and civil unrest caused delays for hundreds of tourists flying through Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is actually allied to serious political issues that have affected Thailand for the past decade. A series of coups against democratically elected governments, accompanied by violent protests, has led to the deposition of several Prime Ministers, with military regimes ruling in the interim. In December 2008, British-born Abhisit Vejjajiva, educated at Eton and St John’s, Oxford (with a First in PPE, no less!), became Thailand’s third Prime Minister in the space of three months. His critics say he does not understand the rural majority and emphasise his consistent failure to win power through fair electoral means.

‘A luxury villa can all too easily overlook a slum of immigrant construction workers, and a Holiday Inn can be within a stone’s throw of a multi-storey massage parlour.’

Abhisit gave a speech at his alma mater in St John’s auditorium last year, trying to allay international concerns about the future of Thailand and promising that democracy will move forward, stating that he was “here to reaffirm that Thai democracy is alive and well.” He was overeager to defend his less-than-democratic rise to power by stating that: “Democratically-elected Parliamentarians decided to end the deadlock …and voted openly for my party to form a coalition government. The decision was subsequently vindicated by by-election results a month later, when we won 21 out of 27 seats.” No one threw a shoe at him, but the International Relations Society that invited Abhisit to Oxford came under fire from critics of the Prime Minister for endorsing a speech entitled “Taking on the Challenges of Democracy” from someone with, at best, dubious democratic credentials.

The political situation and rioting has caused massive losses to the country’s lucrative tourist industry and further damaged the national economy, which was facing a bleak year anyway due to the global crisis. The national carrier, Thai Airways International, announced that its bookings had dropped 20 per cent since the state of emergency was declared, while many foreign investors have put their investments in the country on hold. The number of tourists is expected to drop to 11 million from the projected 14 million by the end of 2009.

The constant political uncertainties and changes in government that have dogged the last few years mean that the justice system has been inconsistent and often unfair. Most people can recite an example of a foreigner unjustly imprisoned in a Thai prison, usually on drugs-related charges, even if it is the case of Bridget Jones. The Lonely Planet Guide even offers advice on visiting foreign prisoners in Bangkok jails, a trend encouraged by films like Brokedown Palace starring Kate Beckinsale and Claire Danes.

Examples of miscarriages of justice abound in the media, including some cases of prisoners successfully released. But whilst some prisoners have enjoyed high-profile happy endings, like our beloved Bridget, many innocent Thai and foreign visitors still remain detained, according to the Foreign Prisoners Support Service, which campaigns for the release and transfer of prisoners interned abroad. Prison terms are long and conditions harsh. In Samut Prakan Central Prison, up to 65 prisoners are crammed into cells originally built to house only 25 prisoners each. Numerous prisoners are not convicted, either awaiting trial or their appeal. Many are in prison because they couldn’t afford the bail or the fine, one example of the corrupt nature of the Thai justice system, from which the rich can often escape.

Common cases of drink-driving accidents offer a more visible comparison of the daily injustices affecting everyone in Thailand. On-the-spot fines paid partly to the victim, and mostly to the police, range hugely, with some paying under 5000 baht (£100) and some forced to cough up over 50,000 baht (£1000) or risk a court case. A huge majority of ex-pats and local Thais do continue to drive under the influence. This Songkran (Thai New Year, celebrated April 10-16th) alone, road fatalities rose 1.4% from 368 last year to 373 and 4,332 were reported injured in road incidents, according to the Don’t Drive Drunk foundation. The Centre for Alcohol Studies has highlighted that intoxication is the cause of a staggering 72.7% of road accidents in Thailand, killing 14,000 and injuring 900,000 people annually.

‘If you’re a foreigner, you must be guilty, whatever the circumstances.’

Police efforts to halt this worrying trend are inconsistent. Road checkpoints are sometimes established on major festival days, but those in the know are fully aware of this and alter their routes home accordingly. Even if caught most bank on paying a corrupt police officer an on-the-spot ‘fine’ or bribe. The Chief of the Thai police force, Pol. Gen. Patcharawat Wongsuwan, admitted in a speech marking the New Year that his agency was wanting, and promised improvements, but it is difficult to imagine any genuine change without a radical shift in attitude.

In the traveller’s hotspot of Koh Phangan, site of the full-moon, half-moon, black-moon, Shiva-moon and everything-in-between-moon parties, daily miscarriages of justice are par for the course. Motorbike accidents happen every few seconds, and the bike hire companies make more money by charging uninsured drivers exorbitant damages than they do on actual rental. The maxim: “If you’re a farang, you’re guilty,” is commonly accepted when it comes to road accidents, so there’s no point talking to a policeman even if you could find one. There is a police presence, but it is mainly preoccupied with attempting to prevent drugs entering Haad Rin beach during full-moon parties. Of course, they don’t succeed. Anyone who has been can tell you that as well as the normal weed-on-the-beach formula, there is any amount of cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy for the taking, as well as a questionable assortment of colourful pills in the pockets, shoes and God knows where else of the shiftily smiling vendors. A ‘mushroom’ bar on the cliff overlooking this popular party beach is a permanent fixture, and appears untroubled by police. But, despite this apparent lenience, nothing here is consistent, and if caught in possession of any amount of drugs, a foreigner can face anything from a hefty 50,000 baht fine to a prison sentence.

Drug-dealing is a major industry on the islands, and drug-taking is an all-consuming habit for some locals. Similarly, in the mountainous region up North, where tourists can go on three-day treks to see the hill tribes, a drug culture is still prevalent. Officially, the Thai part of the Golden Triangle (the junction between Thailand, Laos and Burma) has now been brought under the control of the government, and the opium crops that used to be the main source of income in this area have been destroyed. On visiting this area, however, it becomes apparent that opium-smoking is still a way of life in many of the hill-tribes. Opium is sold to visitors for about £1 per pipe as part of the ‘trekking experience’, and I met a few travellers who were there just for that reason.

‘Opium is sold to tourists for about £1 a pipe as part of the trekking experience’

Despite this drug culture throughout the country, few Thais can forget the 2003 massacre of an estimated 2500 drug dealers following orders alleged to be from the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had launched a high-profile ‘War on Drugs’. In yet another example of unauthorised and illegal street justice, Thaksin reputedly gave instructions and sent signals that led to the extra-judicial killings of a blacklist of people around the country. The National Human Rights Commission has lodged a petition with the justice ministry concerning some 40 cases that have been thoroughly examined and found to have been killings of innocent persons by police or their agents, and claim that many more people on the blacklist were not guilty.

Only time will tell whether the latest Prime Minister, Oxonian Abhisit, will be able to fulfil his promises to heal the country’s deep political divisions by establishing justice for all. It is certainly true that his country has gone from being one of the most stable to one of the most chaotic in Southeast Asia within the last few years, and it will be a hard job to turn the tables.
The justice system is certainly riddled with inconsistencies, but this should not detract from Thailand’s status as a prime travel destination. It offers so much for the visitor: beautiful islands, blue seas, buzzing metropolises, blazing sunshine, outdoor activities, wild parties and tranquil rural life (all on a student-friendly budget). So don’t be discouraged from planning the trip of a lifetime to the ‘land of smiles’. Just stay on the right side of the law while you’re there.

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