A Face Saving Side of Thailand
Image Credit: Flickr (wahyubumi)

A Face Saving Side of Thailand

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Earlier this year I travelled across the Muslim dominated provinces of southern Thailand and northwest to Krabi, meeting up with the British photographer and author Dan White. We rode on to the picturesque beachside town of Ao Nang, bought our tickets and boarded a boat to the popular tourist beach, Railay.

Along the way we happened upon a simple scam. A return boat ticket was purchased but when we decided to head home the captain refused to recognize the return leg saying it was a fake. All the tourists were told to buy new tickets and urged to complain to the vendor in Ao Nang.

Problem: The vendor, working in cahoots with the boat captains, had gone home.  Several hundred tourists a day times a few dollars adds up quickly.  White was angry, and called the police who were well abreast of the scam but had done little to shut it down. They also asked White not to write about it because they would lose face, alongside lucrative tourist dollars through negative stereotyping.

Several months later a 19-year-old Dutch girl is raped near the same town and the authorities are accused of declining to act in a manner befitting of the crime. Her angry father, a musician, writes and records a song in protest, posts it on YouTube and has a most unexpected hit on his hands.  

Predictably, Thailand then went on the offensive with the Tourism Minister Chumphol Silpa-archa saying it couldn't be rape because the victim dined with the suspect. The backlash was palpable and made even worse by an eight minute video by a Krabi police officer who shared such gems as “someone doesn't just rape out of the blue” and another four-and-half minute video, also posted on YouTube, in Thai claiming the father did not understand this country’s legal processes.

The videos backfired badly and have since been removed but such face saving efforts by the authorities are often as legendary as the crimes. Among the most memorable was the downing of a Cathay Pacific flight over Vietnam in 1972, killing all 81 people on board.

Recounted in Reporter by legendary journalist John McBeth, he pieces together evidence that persistently points to one man, Thai police lieutenant, Somchai Chaiyasut. Forensic evidence supported the theory that the blast came from a seat occupied by a pretty coffee shop hostess Somwang Prompin who was travelling with the Chaiyasut’s seven-year-old daughter to Hong Kong for a shopping trip.

Chaiyasut denied allegations he packed C4 explosives into Somwang's cosmetic case and argued: "How could I kill my own daughter?" He had taken out two insurance policies shortly before take off.

The judge found a bomb was placed on board but stunned the prosecution by finding Chaiyasut not guilty. McBeth believes this was because a Thai judge refused to believe a Thai would do that to his own daughter. The insurance company paid out and Somchai moved to the U.S., returning two years later with terminal cancer.

In January 2008 Canadian John Leo Del Pinto, 23, was murdered and Carly Reisig injured in Pai. A police officer, Uthai Dechawiwat, was charged but granted bail. He subsequently beat his 18-year-old pregnant wife to death and was then jailed for 25-years.

Whether the crimes are unfathomable – like rape and murder – or a simple tourist scam, Thai authorities too often look to excuse their own, especially when a crime involves a foreigner, in order to save face and prevent any further embarrassment. But in the modern era of social media, the court of public opinion has become emboldened and impossible to shut down and thankfully such face-saving antics are becoming harder to carry off.

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