Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Land Of Smiles

I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand over the past twenty-five years, and have always enjoyed my time there. But the country has started to change, and not for the better.

It’s no longer as good value as it used to be, and food and drink is now often as expensive as it is in London. The pollution is terrible, the food full of pesticides, and the roads are probably the most dangerous in the world, with a death rate four times that of the UK.

But it’s the crime rate that has really gone through the roof, with tourists being targeted for robbery, fraud and physical attacks on a scale unheard of before. I used to recommend Thailand as a holiday destination for all my friends, but now I’m reluctant to do so.

A recent scam is to falsely accuse people of shoplifting at Bangkok Airport. It has been widely reported in the local press but not so much overseas because the scam artists usually target South East Asians, especially Indians. But recently they entrapped a British couple, so the story has been reported by the Sunday Times of London.

I have to say, I no longer shop at the Duty Free stores at Bangkok Airport because I am worrioed about being caught in a simlar scam!What happens is that goods – sometimes as small as a packet of cigarettes – are planted on a tourist. The goods are magically discovered by a security guard and the cops are called. The tourist is then told that if he pays ‘bail’ of several thousand pounds he can leave the country. If he doesn’t pay, he goes to prison and it can take years for the case to come to trial. Almost everyone pays. Frankly you’d be stupid not to!

Anyway, the British couple have vowed to fight the case in the Thai courts, but previous experience suggests that they would be wasting their time!

Having said that, the company that runs the duty free shops in the airport has put its CCTV footage on line which does seem to show a wallet being pocketed! Have a look for yourself!

A recent survey found that more than fifty per cent of the Thai people regarded their institutions as corrupt, but that on balance corruption was a good thing because it helped society function! So long as that attitude persists, things will only get worse in the Land Of Smiles! My advice to anyone coming to Thailand is to do your shopping in the city - most goods are cheaper there anyway!

A British couple who were falsely accused of shoplifting in Bangkok airport and were forced to pay £8,000 in bribes to secure their release are to take legal action for compensation.

They were the victims of an extortion racket that has ensnared other foreign travellers at the airport, which handles most of the 800,000 British visitors to Thailand every year.

Stephen Ingram, 49, and Xi Lin, 45, both technology professionals from Cambridge, were detained by security guards as they went to board Qantas flight QF1 to London on the night of Saturday, April 25.

They were accused of taking a Givenchy wallet worth £121 from a King Power duty-free shop and were handed over to the police. An official release order from the local Thai prosecutor’s office subsequently conceded there was no evidence against them.
They were freed five days later after a frightening ordeal in which they said they were threatened and held against their will at a cheap motel on the airport perimeter until they had handed over the money.

The bribes were paid to an intermediary named Sunil “Tony” Rathnayaka, a Sri Lankan national in his fifties who works as a “volunteer” interpreter for Thailand’s tourist police (motto: “To serve and to protect”).

“Our main motivation is to protect other innocent British tourists from being caught up in this nightmare,” said Ingram last week. “We intend to take every legal means to recover our money and obtain justice.”

Last week Rathnayaka admitted in a telephone interview that he had received cash and money transfers amounting to more than £7,000 from the Britons. He said the money was for police bail and for a payment to a figure he called “Little Big Man” who could withdraw the case against them.

“In Thailand everyone knows it’s like that,” he said. “They can go to jail or they can just pay a fine and go home. It is corruption, you know?”

Rathnayaka also agreed that the “bail” — about £4,000 — was never returned to Ingram and Xi. Thai law says bail should be refunded.

In a detailed statement the couple said they were first detained at an airport office of the tourist police and later taken to cells at a police station in an isolated modern building on the fringes of the airport.

Rathnayaka confirmed that he met them in the cells on the morning of Sunday, April 26, and arranged the “bail”. The police kept the couple’s passports. Rathnayaka then escorted Ingram and Xi to the Valentine Resort, a lurid pink motel a few hundred yards from the runways. They were to remain there for four days.

During that time, Rathnayaka warned them not to tell anyone about their plight, especially the British embassy, lawyers, friends, family or the press.

However, on April 27 they sneaked out of the hotel and found their way to the embassy, where they met Kate Dufall, the pro-consul.

According to the couple, she told them the embassy could not interfere with the Thai legal system and put them in contact with Prachaya Vijitpokin, a lawyer.

Vijitpokin and a colleague, Kittamert Engchountada, of the Lawyers Association of Thailand, urged them to stay in the country to fight the case and have since assembled a dossier for potential prosecutions.

However, Ingram said the couple were so terrified by this stage that they decided to meet the demands for money, which they raised by bank transfers from Britain direct to Rathnayaka’s account. The Sunday Times has copies of the transactions.

Ingram and Xi were put on a British Airways flight to London early on Friday, May 1, having received their passports with official documents from prosecutors and police stating that no charges were to be brought against them.

They have said they are willing to return to Thailand and testify to try to stop the extortion if the government will guarantee their safety.

That could become a priority for Thailand, which has suffered a series of blows to its tourist industry through economic and political upheaval.

Inquiries last week established that Rathnayaka and his accomplices have continued preying on tourists who end up in police custody after being accused of theft from the airport duty-free shop. “I am just helping people,” he explained. “I don’t get paid to do this. All the embassies know me.”

Officials at the Danish embassy confirmed that a Danish woman fell into Rathnayaka’s hands about two weeks ago and was allowed to leave Thailand only after handing over more than £4,500.

When a Sunday Times journalist posing as a businessman in trouble contacted Rathnayaka last week, the first thing he said was: “If it’s a case, for example, of shoplifting at the airport duty-free then I can help. Bail is 100,000 baht (£1,800).” He later declined an interview, saying the Sri Lanka embassy — which employs him as an interpreter — had told him not to speak.

The Foreign Office said consular officials had offered to raise the case with the Thai authorities at the time but had been asked by the couple not to intervene.

A spokesman for King Power duty-free said the company had strict rules for evidence to be submitted to the police in shoplifting cases, but added: “We cannot control what happens after that.”


Jack Stonecipher said...

Steve, be careful! I hope no Thai authorities read this, or in all of your comings and goings, they will think to target you! You are right on about how the Thai people (businesses) tries to soak us for all they can get, all I can say is "glide" through the airport and get in and out as fast as possible.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Just finished "Live Fire" - terrific. I've enjoyed all your books.
A small detail,page 416 of the paperback: they leave the ferry and 'power down the outside lane of the A5' : not possible, the A5 is a single carriageway road. The A55 now crosses Anglesey and is dual carriageway. Powering down the outside lane at a moderate 60 m.p.h. it would take 20 minutes to cross the island to the bridge,in the book it says 'for the next hour'Next: 'Shepherd and Mickey reached London in the middle of rush hour': assuming rush hour to be between 5p.m. and 6p.m. and given that they left the ferry at 2.00 p.m. this would not be possible in a Ferrari, let alone a Land Rover.It's 300 miles and takes around 6 hours.
Looking forward to the next book!