Not saving Thailand’s face: the backlash of police corruption in tourist murders
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Not saving Thailand’s face: the backlash of police corruption in tourist murders

CONFUSION looms as to how much the British detectives soon to arrive in Thailand will be directly involved in the investigation of the Koh Tao murders.

At first it seemed to be quite a lot, according to reports in the British press, but shortly thereafter Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying that the British police would have “no direct role” in the investigation. Those following the investigation, including the family and friends of the victims, are perhaps rightly concerned about the nuances of passive/active detective work.

This is not the first time British police have come to Thailand to join what seems like a shady investigation. British detectives carried out an investigation twelve years after Kirsty Jones was brutally raped and murdered in Chiang Mai. The investigation, from the beginning, had been called “bizarre”, and included hackneyed Royal Thai Police tropes, such as scapegoats, tampered evidence, false statements, and a long line of unlikely suspects.

A few years after the Kirsty Jones murder in 2000 I interviewed a hilltribe man who had been used, unsuccessfully, as the scapegoat blamed for the murder of the Welsh girl. During the interview he told me the police, while torturing him, had said, “This is for Thailand”. It was his debt to the country, they told him, for being allowed to live here. His confession was for the greater good of the country.

While writing the same story, I also interviewed a Thai lawyer, Wirachai Wangkasemsuk, who had worked pro bono on the case of two Chinese Haw hilltribe men who had been tortured by police and confessed to the murder of an Australian man and attempted murder of his girlfriend while camping in Doi Angkhang, Northern Thailand, in 2000. The investigation, again, was bizarre, and astonishingly inhumane considering the plight of the accused. The two men were released years after their imprisonment, but no one was ever held accountable for the cover-up.

Wirachai told me in the interview, “I knew from the first time I saw the case that they were innocent. I also knew that at the time the police were under tremendous pressure to get an arrest. You must understand that it is not always the fault of the police, they are told from above that they must find the culprits as crimes like this look bad for Thailand and for tourism; so that is what they do, they find someone and get a confession.”

The case against the two men was diabolically flawed. There really wasn’t a case, just some very flimsy evidence, and a confession extracted after brutal torture, which of course in any ethical justice system would be entirely inadmissible. Although Thailand ratified the UN’s Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007, the country has been criticized for inadequacies in adhering to the convention.

Before social media became omnipresent, this darker side of the Land of Smiles did not pose much of a problem for the tourism industry. Most people I talked to back then about such concerning incidents in the justice system were surprised, or just digested the material as anomalous, something that would never encroach into their lives.

Such cases were not international news, nor were they shared much between ‘friends’, even in Thailand. While the police hid behind their justification that cover-ups were for the greater good of the country – mainly the economy fueled by tourist money – even the fall-out of busted cover-ups at the time didn’t do that much damage due to the fact that few followed the cases.

These cases, however, have come back to bite Thailand in the exterior. The crime in Koh Tao, and the ongoing investigation, has become intrinsically linked to these past misdemeanors. History, as it does, has fashioned a reputation, and Thailand, or the Thai justice system, is now suffering its reputation.   

During a trip back to UK two weeks ago — my first trip back in 7 years — just about anyone I talked to about Thailand mentioned the ‘grisly’ murders in Koh Tao, and just about everyone held the view – likely learned via social media – that the two Burmese men were part of a cover-up. Because, they suggested, that’s what the police do in Thailand. The actions of the police during those investigations were, we are led to believe, to save the country’s face, but they’ve actually left it bloodied and broken. There’s a widely held belief that the current investigation has been corrupted.

Saving the country’s face might have been delusional, an outdated reflex, or perhaps it was just an excuse proffered to save big men from criminal culpability; action not for the greater good, but to support a few bad men.

And those bad men may kill again.

This is what the parents of Leo Del Pinto understood after their son’s killer murdered another victim.

Del Pinto was a young Canadian man shot dead in Pai in 2008 by a local Thai policeman. The police had threatened witnesses and “whitewashed” the murder investigation, and the man accused of the murder was released. Two years later, he beat his pregnant, 19-year-old Thai girlfriend to death. With the help of Thailand’s Human Rights Commission, he was finally charged with Del Pinto’s murder in 2013. I was in court with the murderer — and Del Pinto’s parents — when the judge read, “This not only caused damage to the victim, but has damaged the nation.”

To even mention the nation in the same breath must have felt like an insult to the grieving parents. When the father of the victim was asked if he felt justice had been served, he replied, “It has been very challenging navigating the system. A court date would be set, then moved, then set again, we went through years of this before we got to today.” I don’t think many of us in court that day thought justice had been served; I think our feelings were more along the lines that justice was flawed, and had been forced into submission.

A lot rests on the outcome of the Koh Tao investigation. How much more face can Thailand lose before tourists lose the confidence to come here? In the unlikely event that the two Burmese men are proven to be innocent, or the even less likely event that someone makes themselves accountable for a cover-up, then Thailand’s reputation, and economy, will suffer. If the Burmese men are convicted without a thorough impartial investigation, then Thailand’s reputation, and economy, will suffer. This is a debt to past inequities.

It’s a tough place for Thailand to be: a developing nation under first world scrutiny, grafting modernity to its rugged past. If the current government, or a government that proceeds it, sincerely embraces reform, then one would think, in the interests of the greater good, it might start with how law and justice is served. If this is not a foremost concern, then the country is its own enemy. While recent poll results revealed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ‘lifted Thailand’s image’ in the eyes of the world, such spoon-fed findings will do little to shake off an image cast by events mentioned in this article.