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Crime, No Punishment

When I set out to write A Good Death, it didn't take me long to settle on Thailand as the setting of much of the book. On the surface, Thailand boasts all the hallmarks of an exotic tropical destination: white-sand beaches; dramatic limestone mountains; a languid, Buddhist lifestyle. Delve a little deeper and you'll encounter a murkier reality, especially in Bangkok, its chaotic capital: abominable traffic, epic pollution and, for my purposes, a culture of impunity among the phu yai (literally, "big people") who are used to having their way, often aided and abetted by corrupt elements of the local police.

These bad actors bear more than a little responsibility for Thailand's low ranking (88th in Transparency International's most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, the same as Zambia and Swaziland), a disappointing score for a developing country with a democratically elected government.

The most recent high-profile case involves Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya, 27, the grandson of the late Red Bull energy-drink tycoon Chaleo Yoovidhya. The scion of one of Thailand's richest families, Boss was arrested in September for the fatal hit-and-run death of a Bangkok policeman. The Boss reportedly took his $1-million grey Ferrari from the family mansion out for a pre-dawn spin on Sukhumvit Road, rear-ended the motorcycle policeman, and dragged the body about 200 meters along the road before fleeing to his nearby home. The veteran policeman died at the scene.

The police followed an oil trail from the leaking sports car to the Yoovidhya compound, but Boss wasn't arrested. Instead, the superintendent of Thonglor police station, which had jurisdiction of the investigation, tried to pin the accident on the Yoovidhya family's driver. (Coincidentally, the corrupt Inspector in A Good Death, Colonel Nagaphit, also works out of Thonglor, which controls the rackets of the Soi Cowboy entertainment district.)

It was only several hours later, after Bangkok's Metropolitan Police chief went to the mansion, that Boss was finally taken into custody. His blood-alcohol was above the legal limit, but he claims he drank after the accident to calm down. After skipping several official summonses, Vorayuth finally showed at Thonglor station for police questioning in late October. His family has already paid the late policeman's relatives nearly $100,000 – or about 10 percent of the value of the Ferrari -- to avoid a civil lawsuit. No date has been set for a criminal trial.

Few ordinary Thais expect that Boss will do any hard time.

Why the cynicism? Look no further than the horrific fire at Santika nightclub in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, an inferno that killed 66 people. The popular club operated in a residential area for five years without a license, despite numerous complaints by neighbors. One of Santika's major shareholders was a ranking police officer in Bangkok's Crime Suppression Division. While Thailand can claim elite, professional law-enforcement units – the Tourist Police come to mind – too many local cops view themselves as businessmen first. It would be impossible for prostitution and gambling (both illegal in the kingdom) to flourish, or for the Russian mafia to make inroads into the tatty beach resort of Pattaya, without police collusion.

Ah, Pattaya. Somchai Khunpleum, the so-called "Godfather of Chon Buri" (the province that includes Pattaya), jumped bail in 2005 after an appeals court confirmed his conviction for hiring hitmen to kill a political rival. He apparently then enjoyed a quiet, semi-public life in Chon Buri, where three of his sons, including a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Pattaya, wield an enormous amount of power. It finally came to an end in January, when he was arrested at a highway toll booth while returning from a medical appointment at a Bangkok hospital. Somchai, 75, who suffers from nose cancer and high blood pressure, was soon transferred from a Bangkok prison to a VIP suite at Chon Buri Hospital. That's justice, phu yai style.

But I digress. After the Santika blaze, a Ministry of Justice investigation determined the club, which had only one working exit, was licensed as a private residence and never had a fire-safety inspection. The city architect's approval of the building's design had also been forged. But the MoJ inquiry was soon shut down and the investigation delegated to the police – the very folks who looked the other way for years. More than 2-1/2 years later, the club owner and the owner of a light-and-sound company accused of starting the blaze were found guilty of negligence. They each received 3-year prison sentences.

But these cases pale in comparison to that of Duang Yubamrung, the youngest son of powerful politician Chalerm Yubamrung, now a deputy prime minister in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. In 2001, Duang and his two brothers got into a booze-fueled confrontation with another group of nightclub patrons in Thonglor district. According to witnesses, Duang had several members of his posse restrain one man, while he executed him with a pistol shot to the head. The dead man happened to be a decorated plainclothes police officer.

Duang, who was an Army officer, went AWOL and fled to neighboring Malaysia. He surrendered the following year and was acquitted of murder on the grounds of conflicting witness accounts and insufficient evidence. He was discharged from the army for desertion.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Samak Sunrajev reinstated Duang into the military. Last summer, he was promoted to a new position in the Metropolitan Police Bureau. Police Lieutenant Duang is now the deputy inspector of the Bureau's training center.

"Duang shoots very well," said his proud father, Chalerm, without a trace of irony. "His shooting accuracy is 100 percent…there aren't many people in Thailand who have perfect shooting accuracy."

A Bad Scam Inspires "A Good Death"

The roots of A Good Death stretch back more than 20 years. In the summer of 1991, I was minding my own business as a feature reporter for The Boston Herald when the newspaper's editor-in-chief sauntered over to my desk with a plum assignment: How about accompanying a Boston-area businessman, Jay Sullivan, who was heading to northern Thailand to smoke out a head-spinning deal? What had swayed my editor were two photographs in Sullivan's possession. The first was a wedding-day snapshot of Army Special Forces Capt. Donald Carr, who'd been shot down over Laos in 1971 and listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. The second image, purportedly taken in 1991 at a prison camp in Laos, was of a smiling, jug-eared middle-aged Caucasian man who bore a startling similarity to Carr.

The "Carr photo" had surfaced a few months earlier, courtesy of a controversial POW hunter, Jack Bailey, and topped the Pentagon's investigative list. At the time, the military listed more than 2,200 American servicemen unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, a tragic, troublesome legacy of the Vietnam War. Soon after the Carr photos hit the press, Congress established a special Senate committee, co-chaired by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), to investigate the POW/MIA issue.

If the photos were legit and Sullivan could get to Carr, the Herald had an incredible scoop. At the very least, the paper had a "curtain-raiser" series to run when the Senate committee opened its hearings, which would feature a Who's Who of American foreign-policy and Pentagon luminaries of the last quarter-century.

How was it possible that Sullivan had same pictures as Bailey, who was briefing the Pentagon? For both men, the conduit to the murky world of private, covert POW/MIA operations was a corrupt Lao expatriate with ties to the CIA. A week later, I flew with Sullivan to Bangkok, where we met his sketchy Lao source and drove overnight to Chiang Khong, a small Thai town along the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle, once the hub of global heroin production. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Buddhist monks in saffron-colored robes making their morning alms walk in the rain. The mist hanging over the jungle-clad mountains of Laos, just across the grand river. Nothing came of the clandestine meetings with several Lao men who claimed to have access to "Carr," however. And within a few months, the photo was revealed to be an elaborate scam. The picture hadn't been taken in a remote Lao prison, but rather on the grounds of a Bangkok wildlife dealer. The subject wasn't an American soldier MIA for 20 years but rather a sleazy German expat, who'd been arrested for smuggling exotic birds.

I would keep reporting on the POW/MIA issue for the life of the Senate committee, including a hair-raising flight in an old Soviet-made Lao Aviation helicopter to remote Sam Neua province, a place so far off the grid we had to carry several 55-gallon drums of fuel in the hold with us to make the return flight. The Communist Pathet Lao had operated from enormous cave complexes in Sam Neua's limestone mountains, which withstood repeated U.S. bombings during the war, and there were live-sighting reports of American POWs in the area.Later, I would also make several trips with Sullivan into the distant reaches of southern Laos. We never found Donald Carr, or any other POW, for that matter. We did traverse an endless series of extraordinary landscapes, however, and met more than a few unsavory characters and colorful hill tribesmen. Somewhere along the line – it could have been while slogging the muddy Ho Chi Minh Trail or walking through the frangipani-scented Angkor Empire ruins of Wat Phu -- I knew I had better keep damn good notes. There would be a hell of a story to tell.


An Old Asia Hand

  • I first traveled to Southeast Asia in 1991 on assignment for my newspaper, The Boston Herald. I've since returned nearly 40 times to the region, everywhere from glittering Singapore to war-ravaged East Timor. I've trekked through the mountains of northern Vietnam, driven over a land mine en route to Pol Pot's last bastion, kayaked the River Kwai, run with the Hash House Harriers in Vientiane, bodyboarded Occy's Left on the island of Sumba (the sweetest wave in Indonesia), and spent a week in off-limits Shan State, Burma, inside the fortified camp of the world's most powerful opium warlord. It beats an office job.