Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, has long been a popular destination for foreigners. In the seventeenth century, it was courted by the British, French and Dutch empires for its precious tin. Today Mafia-like organisations are competing for a larger slice of its ever increasing tourism treasure. Unfortunately, they are doing so in a way that puts the island’s reputation at severe risk. Last month, 18 European Union Ambassadors met with local authorities to discuss their concerns and issued a statement commencing:
Citizens from the European Union make up a large proportion of foreign tourists visiting Phuket. Their per capita spend is high, making an important contribution to the local economy. Tourists need to feel safe and that they are being treated fairly.
Their proposals included the development of public transport for tourists and locals alike and an end to exorbitant charges by taxi and tuk tuk drivers, who frequently intimidated and attacked their clients. Marine and road safety were highlighted, along with scams involving the hire of jet skis and motorcycles. Environmental concerns were also mentioned, but the most critical request alluded to systemic corruption within the administration of the province:
Strict enforcement of standards of behaviour for public officials, including police and immigration, to ensure that foreign visitors and residents feel protected, treated in a fair way and never at risk of extortion.
With even the police failing to respect the rule of law, Phuket risks deteriorating into a wild west where might is right. An anonymous letter to the Bangkok Post exemplifies the situation:
Myself and other Phuket hotel owners have complained to Phuket police of the threat of the ‘‘Taxi Mafia’’, yet no action has been taken. Some have guns, block hotel transportation and threaten our drivers. They use foul language when guests hire a car from a rival or check prices of other taxi services. This terrifies guests and hotel staff.
The following “story” provides dramatic illustration.
Buy or else…
Do you remember what it is like to wake up from a bad dream? Some level of awareness in your consciousness intervenes and says “Wake up! This isn’t real. Escape this self-invented nightmare!” Now imagine going through a very similar experience, the difference being that you are slowly waking up into a nightmare that you dearly wish was not real. In utter confusion, you begin to regain consciousness. Your head is throbbing. Your instincts are in panic-mode, in fear of imminent death. “What happened?” you slur, blood dripping from your mouth. “I don’t know” comes a startled reply from somewhere above you. “Bullshit!” screams a voice in your head, “Get out of the car!” It’s the same voice that warned you not to get into the car in the first place. Why didn’t you listen?…
The day started innocuously enough. Your freelance investigation into Phuket property scams is coming to an end. You have to go to the Laguna Resort in Bang Tao to pay the balance of your timeshare membership and the person who introduced you to Laguna, Matthew Andrews, has offered to take you. He has since left Laguna and is working as an agent for Harvest Winrich. It seems his contacts have informed him that you are getting a refund on the deposits you paid for two condos in Twin Sands, a property being marketed by Laguna’s main rival timeshare company, Absolute World. He has two developments to show you and has convinced himself that you will buy in one and maybe both. The second property is a new development at Laguna. Perfect.
Matthew picks you up from your hotel in Patong and you are soon at Kamala Falls. While a nicely executed development, it is far from the sea and not what you are looking for. Matthew is more confident of Laguna and as he drives you there, you switch on the voice recorder on your mobile phone and commence an ad hoc interview with him. You brief him on what you have learned so far and hope that he will go into more depth about the bad practices he has already described at Absolute but, knowing that he is being recorded, he is reticent and you end up doing most of the talking.
On arrival at Laguna, the staff greet Matthew. He is obviously well known. He introduces you to Nat, a Thai salesman for Laguna Shores, a condominium located within the mega-complex of some seven hotels, that is being sold off-plan. Unfortunately, Nat’s English appears not up to grade and it takes a great deal of effort to elicit the responses you require. For example, when you ask what is the current occupancy rate for the whole resort (ie in low season) to check the estimates he has given you of projected rental income, he first of all gives you the expected annual value (70%) and when told that was not what you meant, he gives you the average value for last year (69%). Only on the third attempt to explain what you want does he understand and calls the office to find out it was around 40%. Not very impressive. Equally he does not seem to understand your need to know the monthly maintenance fee for the property in the event that you chose to live there and refuses to disclose it.
Unconvinced by the rental income, you then explore capital appreciation. According to Nat, the studios were sold last December at about 88k per sqm, whereas the current price for the 1-2 beds he is offering is around 120k per sqm, an increase of about 27% in six months. Pretty impressive, who, you wonder, were the lucky few who benefited and why did Laguna need to make the initial price so low when surely they aren’t short of capital? You ask the date of the most recent price rise and are disappointed to learn that it was in March, ie after you had first visited Laguna, You wonder why you weren’t offered the chance to buy then or when you had stayed at Laguna in April. You ask to speak to Nat’s manager, hoping that you will be offered the previous price, but Nat refuses to call him.
At this point Matthew interrupts and begins speaking with Nat in Thai. After a short conversation, he announces to you that you are not going to buy anything today and that it is time to leave. A little surprised by the abrupt end to the sales meeting, you, nonetheless remind Matthew that you need to pay the balance of your Laguna timeshare membership. He agrees but his manner makes you feel uneasy and a small voice in the back of your head warns you not to get into the car with him. But you fail to heed its advice.
Once in the car Matthew becomes extremely agitated asking for money for the petrol he claims you have wasted. You know that he used to be a professional Muay Thai fighter and you don’t want to antagonise him further. You give him all that you have on you – 1000 Baht – and apologise profusely. However, rather than being appeased, he tells you he is going to teach you a lesson about how to speak to Thai people and suddenly starts punching you repeatedly in the head. The ferocity of speed and power combined with the shock is overwhelming. You are soon bleeding profusely, concussed and your vision becomes blurred. In fear of your life, you open the door and try to get out of the car but he grabs you from behind and starts strangling you…
The great escape
…What do you mean you don’t know what happened? The question remains unasked in your mind. The last thing you want to do is anger someone who appears psychotic. You feel that it is imperative to get out of the car. It is moving, and your leg is protruding from the open door. Your sandal must have fallen onto the road. He asks you to shut the door. You sit up, pull in your leg and comply. You ask him to stop the car and let you out. He asks you for your two mobile phones. You give them to him and immediately regret it when he tells you he is not going to stop. Where is he taking you? What will he do to you next? You pretend to passive while your instincts are screaming at you to escape.
A bus is approaching with a Laguna logo. It passes and Matt slows the car to take a bend. Without thinking you fling open the door and throw yourself onto the road, jumping up and shouting after the bus, oblivious to the damage you have done to your left leg. The bus driver either hasn’t seen you or ignores you and fails to even slow down. Damn. Fearing that Matthew will return and run you over, you move to hide in the bushes in the side of the road. The pain in your legs hits you. The impact of your left hip on the road and the scraped skin from your left knee and both feet makes it excruciatingly painful to walk, but you force yourself out of sight.
After some minutes, you realise that Matthew isn’t coming straight back. Your head is throbbing, you are dizzy and you know that you need to get to hospital. How much worse would your injuries have been if you weren’t wearing protective sports sunglasses? A scooter approaches, you emerge from the bushes and desperately signal for it to stop. Whatever you look like, the girl riding is sufficiently shocked to allow you to climb on the back and like an angel to the rescue, she carries you away. However, she will not take you to the hospital and once in a built up area, she stops to let you off. You look around and see a familiar sign – Sotheby’s Real Estate and walk towards the offices.
Once inside Andrew Hunter, the Manager, shows immediate concern and offers to take you to the Bangkok Hospital in Phuket town – a true English gentleman. Once you arrive you are whisked in a wheel chair to the emergency department. A CT Scan reveals that you are fortunate – there are no fractures to your skull and no internal bleeding to your brain. The cuts to your legs and feet are cleaned and dressed. Meanwhile, Andrew, phones his friend, Jerry, Head of Laguna Property Sales, and is disappointed to learn that Laguna are washing their hands of the assault, even though it took place on their property and involved their staff.
You are discharged from the hospital but when you come to pay the bill, you are surprised to find that your credit card has been blocked. Without seeking authorisation, Laguna has charged you for the balance of your membership. Were they afraid that you would be unwilling to pay after the way they had treated you? You still have your wallet with the business card and phone number of Billy Duif, apparently a volunteer with the Phuket Police Force. The hospital call him and he assures them that you will pay the bill the next day.
Barefoot, you leave the hospital and take a taxi to your hotel where you have access to emergency funds. You pay the driver and then reflect on what has happened. You want justice and you are sure that Matthew knows that too. He also knows where you are staying. In a previous conversation, he told you that he is helping set up a night club for a Thai-Mafia boss on Bangla Road where he will DJ. From chats with bar owners you learned that many pay “taxes” to the local police in order to operate. So do you go the the police or not? The idea of sending an email to Laguna about the assault and copying it to friends offers some comfort. As you finish and are about to send it the power goes out plunging the room into darkness. You panic. Has Matthew come with the Mafia? You decide that you must go to the police.
Police, police, everywhere…
There is a police outpost at the beach end of Bangla Road and you head there. En route you meet with a police contingent wearing military style uniforms. You find their leader who explains that they are on special patrol because a US Navy warship is in port. He advises you to make a report at the outpost. When you arrive, you are pleasantly surprised to find a familiar face, Billy Duif, and you explain what happened. He listens attentively and then offers to call Matthew about your mobile phones. Billy moves outside so that you cannot overhear the conversation. He soon returns to informs you that Matthew denies stealing the phones and has already made a complaint against you to the police in Bang Tao.
You discuss the options with Billy. He explains that the police and local Mafia in Phuket are sometimes indistinguishable and agrees that there is a risk involved in making a statement to the police given Matthew’s close relationship with the latter. You explain that your investigations of various Phuket property scammers are ruffling a few feathers and there is a risk that they may have alerted their contacts in the police. He agrees. Based on this, you elect to not make a statement to the normal police in Phuket. Billy suggests that you make a report to the Tourism Police in Phuket town the next day. You accompany him along the Bangla Road where you meet his superior, Wal Brown. On learning of the situation, Wal confirms Billy’s advice and you part company. Back in the hotel, you go straight to your room and fall asleep exhausted on your bed.
You awake early in the morning feeling uncomfortable that the police hadn’t been more helpful and certainly hadn’t reassured you about your safety in Phuket. You decide that the prudent thing is to leave the island for Bangkok and you book a flight for later that morning. You know you will recover from your injuries, but the loss of your one phone containing all your research in India for a planned publication on the Mother Goddess is galling. As a long shot, you send an email to Matthew’s employer asking him to deliver your mobile phones to Billy. You pack, check out of the hotel and take a taxi to the hospital to pay the bill and obtain the medical report. The taxi driver does not know the location of the Tourist Police and refuses to let you use his phone to call Billy. He is obviously keen to drop you at the airport and you decide it is best to ensure you get on your flight.
After checking in to your the hotel in Bangkok you call the Tourism Police and are instructed to visit the office near the National Stadium. When you arrive there, you explain the situation and show them Billy’s business card. The officers laugh at the idea of a volunteer policeman, leaving you to wonder about Billy’s legitimacy. They suggest that the best course of action is to contact the British Embassy, but that it is already closed. The next day you duly call the Embassy and explain what has happened to one Andrew Murray. He advises you to seek legal representation and emails you a list of English-speaking lawyers. You identify five that are conveniently located, send them a request for services and then wait for them to reply, with weekend approaching you realise you will need to be patient.
Some five days later, with no response from the lawyers, you are walking down the Sukhumvit Road near Soi 19 when the unthinkable happens. You see Matthew walking towards you hand-in-hand with what looks like a bar girl. What are the odds? Horrified, you avert your gaze and move to the side of the pavement, hoping he will walk straight past. No such luck. In a haughty voice, he accosts you and grabs your hand, squeezing it with the force of a bully. Up close you can see that his pupils are fully dilated. What drugs is he on? He proceeds to boast about his standing with the Mafia in Phuket and reminds you sarcastically how “things didn’t quite work out for you”. He warns you to stay away from the island and threatens your life if you take any further action against him. Stunned, you listen, thanking God that there is a girl with him who is obviously a higher priority at that moment than you. His speech over, he bounds away with her and you snap a photograph of him on your new mobile phone.
You slip into the nearest shop, trying to slow your racing heart and recover your composure. This situation is unbelievable. You call the British Embassy but there is no response, so you head back to the relative safety of your hotel. Once there you book yourself on another flight – this time out of Thailand completely. You eat in the hotel, too scared to venture out at night and return to your room and slip into an uneasy sleep.
The next morning you obtain the address of the nearest police station from the hotel reception, Thong Lor, and take a taxi there. However, they explain that you encountered Matthew outside their jurisdiction and send you to Lumpini Police Station. Luck seems to be with you as there you meet an Englishman called Peter Fretten who works as a translator for the police. He sympathises with your concerns about the connections between the Mafia and the police in Phuket and assures you that the Bangkok police are not in the same situation and that he knows some trustworthy senior officers in Phuket town who will ensure your safety. Helps an officer write your statement in Thai and assures you that he will phone Matthew after you have left the country and warn him that a criminal complaint has been made against him and that if anything happens to you he will be a primary suspect. Satisfied that you are at last making progress, you return to your hotel, check out and then head for the airport, Peter’s words repeating in your mind: “Investing in property in Phuket is damn dangerous.”
Once safely out of the country, you send an email to Matthew’s employer reminding him to deliver your mobile phones to Billy. With that you do your best to put the events of the past few days behind you and immerse yourself for two weeks in the wonders of and woes of your new destination – Cambodia. The grandiosity of Angkor Wat and the tragedy of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge are deeply engaging and the distraction provides significant therapeutic benefit. However, this is interrupted by a facebook message sent to your company from Matthew, warning you to stop sending harassing messages to his employer and threatening you with prosecution. Is he serious? You write to Peter and Billy and include a copy of the message, asking them to advise you on your personal safety when you return to Thailand. They do not reply.
The truth is out
As soon as you return to Bangkok, the sense of uneasiness returns. Having heard nothing from any of the lawyers, you chose to call one directly. Siam Legal have offices in Phuket and you are directed to their litigation specialist called Chai. His advice is to privately prosecute Matthew but it will cost at least Bhat 200,000 plus per diem expenses for him to travel to Phuket. He advises that after a successful prosecution, it will be possible to sue for compensation. Next you revisit Lumpini police station in search of Peter Fretten.
Peter is easy to find but the news he has for you is anything but positive. To your great disappointment, he declares that he never called Matthew and when you ask why he is initially reticent to explain. You persist and he reveals that he conducted his own investigation and discovered that Matthew has a very strong support base within the Thai Mafia in Phuket and that they will most likely protect him. He warns you that if you press charges against Matthew and Laguna they will likely file defamation charges against you. He explains that defamation is a criminal offence in Thailand which is often abused by unscrupulous people to intimidate their critics. He explains that they are more likely to pay for you to disappear than pay you compensation.
You cannot believe what you are hearing. Is justice so difficult to obtain? If you pursue this matter are you going to suffer even more? Peter then shows you a video of a Russian tourist in Phuket being assaulted and threatened by a Thai man brandishing a gun. “This is what you are up against in Phuket. Are you ready for some sh*t like that?… Do you want someone coming and doing this to you?” You repeat Matthew’s offences against you: he assaulted you, strangled you until you lost consciousness, God knows where he was driving you and what he would have done to you if you had not jumped out of his car – quite probably killed you. Peter replies: “the bottom line is this [Matthew Andrews] is connected to all sorts of bad sh*t people down there and if they want they are going to really screw with you man.”
You leave the police station feeling utterly dejected. Is Peter, clearly a good man and concerned for your safety, himself intimidated by Matthew’s connections? What about those senior officers in Phuket who were supposed to ensure your safety? It seems evident that you will neither regain your telephones nor obtain justice. A few days later, you meet with the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand at a networking event and ask him what is being done to address the concerns of the EU Ambassadors. He replies that the new Minister of Tourism has taken personal responsibility for the matter and that the satisfaction and safety of tourists is of paramount importance. Really? How is this possible when the Mafia and their associates in Phuket know that they can assault and perhaps even kill tourists with impunity?
Disclaimer. The above account is written in the second person in an attempt to avoid prosecution under Thailand’s easily abused defamation laws. It is not intended as a statement of fact but an expression of perspective. There are two sides to every story and interested readers are invited to contact the other parties and make up their own minds as to whether the events really occurred as described. However, here are the documents supporting the above version of events:
For a detailed description of the complexity and diversity of the local and international Mafia organisations operating in Thailand, please read this article on the Thai Law Forum: http://www.thailawforum.com/the-darker-side-of-tropical-bliss-foreign-mafia-in-thailand/
For a detailed description of institutional corruption within Thailand, please read this article written by the Professor and Dean of Political Science at the Chulalongkom University, Bangkok: http://www.humanrights.asia/resources/journals-magazines/article2/0901/07fighting-corruption-from-the-bottom-the-case-of-thailand
Here is an article of the armed assault on the Russian tourist (unfortunately the video is no longer available): http://www.thephuketnews.com/thai-man-points-pistol-at-russian-visitor-in-phuket-video-40246.php