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Sometimes one has to really admire the Thai way of doing things. What went on down in Phuket this week was quite superb by Thai standards and my hat comes off for Amuporn Siripong one of the prosecutors in the local court.
I am talking about the case of Simon Burrowes. He is the Brit, who, after being wrongly arrested at Phuket airport on a false passport charge, let forth with a flurry of expletives at Immigration officials, who were treating him like a West African drugs dealer.
His case has been all over this website this year. But if you have not heard about him, Simon is a black Brit, something of a novelty to Immigration officials, who believe, not without some previous history in Thailand, that black people, usually have drugs down their underpants. He is something of a martial arts expert and had been in Thailand as trainer for British former kick-boxing champion Matthew Nagle.
Simon’s problems were compounded, or possibly initiated, by the fact the on a Friday morning in January a British Embassy official told Thai police that they could find no record of his passport, so off went tourist Simon to the squalid Phuket jail, where he remained for three weeks, while Embassy officials established the truth, and his bail money arrived.
Thai police dropped the false passport charge, but proceeded with the’ insulting immigration officers ‘charge. There was a matter of ‘saving face’.
After my story hit the mainstream British press, after first appearing in the black people’s newspaper ‘The Voice’ and ‘Phuketwan’, a progressive Phuket internet news site, Simon began receiving a lot of support.
He had lost his ticket home, his apartment and job in London, as a result of Immigration Police action. The matter has been taken up by his M.P. in England Dawn Butler, who had written to Lord Malloch-Brown, a Cabinet member and former Deputy Secretary General at the U.N.
Of course there were the usual ‘Hang the nigger’ type comments on Thaivisa.com, Thailand’s bastion forum for red-necked foreigners , but some pretty good people stepped forward. A businessman gave him 20,000 baht (about Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£400). A Thai girl back home in London rang her parents and they put him up in a hotel in Bangkok for a month. And previously in Phuket he had been given free accommodation and gym membership by local Thais, and a ‘British’ couple whom he had met on holiday.
Simon came to visit me at home and we laid on a Sunday lunch and invited around some very good Thais with the right connections. Calls were made, when it came to the court case, everybody involved knew Simon’s predicament, and a Thai solution was found quickly.
Simon was told admit the insults, explain the reasons for his anger, and he would be out of the court the same day with a nominal fine. (I was thinking between 1,000 and 5,000 Thai baht Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£20-Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£100).
He had a good reason to be angry but no defence to abusing the police, except for a strong plea of mitigating circumstances.
The day before the court case, of course, things began to go wrong.
I flew on ahead to Phuket and from my hotel rang Simon’s lawyer at Simon’s request. For the first time in a month he answered his mobile phone to me (on Embassy instructions according to his assistant, but probably not)
I asked the lawyer to come and see me and Simon in the hotel. Not possible, he said, he was busy.
I told him it was quite important as Simon was due in the court in the morning and had a pre-arranged meeting with the prosecutor.
I’m going to paraphrase the next bit but it went something like this.
Lawyer: ‘What do you mean he’s meeting the prosecutor?’
AD:’Simon says he is pleading guilty. He would rather go home than wait for a year or two for a result.’
Lawyer:’What do you mean? I am his lawyer. Why is he pleading guilty? What did he do wrong? He’s pleading not guilty.’
AD: ‘Well he has sworn at immigration officials, and they have four officers who are going to testify to that. What defence are you putting in for him then because he does not know!’
Lawyer:’Don’t tell me the law, I have been practising law for XX years’
‘And I am a journalist who has seen foreigners being screwed by Thai lawyers for 20 years!’
(click) The lawyer put down the phone.
Suddenly, as any expatriate living in Thailand will know, I had put myself in quite a dangerous situation, separating a Thai lawyer from his money! If the case goes as the lawyer wishes, it could run, and run and run. On the other hand my card may have been marked…not for the first time.
Even in the implausible situation that Simon could win, all the prosecution needed to do was appeal, another four years, and then another four if it were go to the Supreme Court, and all with Simon stuck in Thailand without any ability to earn any money.
I met up with Simon, got him a room at my hotel, and later we went off to dine with a lovely young couple called Luke and Saskia ( I love that name), who live in Andorra, that glorious tax haven in the Pyrenees.
They had paid for Simon’s gym for a month. Saskia and Luke eat healthy foods, don’t smoke or drink, study yoga etc. I rather think I was fulfilling the role of typical Fleet St hack with my beer and Bensons.
Before we left Saksia said to Simon words to the affect ‘Keep cool. Eat a little humble pie. Understand the culture!’.
‘Sure’, said Simon.
Phuket Provincial Court Monday
With some enlisted help from Oi (Chutima) at ‘Phuketwan’ we finally get to see prosecutor Umaporn Siripong. We don’t need to tell her the story.
She knows it in every detail. She has had calls from Bangkok. She totally understands why Simon got angry and so does the court. It’s no big deal. Simon could enter his plea of guilty and everything would be over by lunch time.
In steps indignant Simon. He questions the evidence presented by the Immigration officials, bit by bit. ‘I did not say ‘F..ck you’. I said ‘f*cking idiot’ etc. etc. etc.
Simon does not get it. He has been advised by lots of people and they are all telling him the same.
‘Bend like a straw and they will not break you! ‘
Meanwhile his lawyer is trying to break in. He was expecting a quick adjournment for trial.
Simon refuses to sign a form pleading guilty. We go outside. Now it’s my turn to use the four letter words. I tell him if he contests the evidence, even though its embellished, then the prosecution have no choice but to call the Immigration police witnesses one by one. ‘When that happens Simon ‘You’re f..cked’. I said raising my voice and look around to see more than a few eyes on me. Yep that word is fairly international.
Agreement is reached whereby he does not have to sign the form, but can admit the matter in court and then explain the circumstances. At last!
Outside Simon continuously writes copious notes. He has written his defence but been unable to print it out from his computer for the translator. He wants to make his speech.
Back into court. With Oi by his side as translator he is asked did he wish to plead guilty or not guilty.
I am about five ft behind him. Silence. ………………..
The question is repeated. Simon is alternatively looking at the ceiling and the ground. Simon mumbles.
Clearly after his experience in Phuket jail and his treatment at the hands of Immigration, a guilty plea is a bitter pill to swallow.
The judge calls for a temporary adjournment.
A message comes through from the prosecutor. ‘Ask Simon to keep calm. There is no reason to worry. He is only going to be fined and not much either’. Oi has to interrupt Simon and his lawyer, now huddled in a corner of the court, to pass the message on.
Outside the court room Simon’s lawyer grabs him and starts talking about three year prison sentences and how he can get the sentences suspended. I interrupt angrily. ‘Stop talking rubbish to your client. There is no thought of a prison sentence here!’
Finally Simon signs his guilty plea. The judges come back. ‘Fined 500 baht. Case dismissed’. It was over in seconds.
Afterwards I look at Simon’s notes. Thank God. The prosecutor Umaporn has saved Simon from himself. He has written a long winded diatribe essentially lecturing police on their professionalism.
As soon as the judge had heard that he would have had no choice but to order a trial!
Afterwards Oi and I have a laugh. Being a foreigner I can understand Simon’s paranoia with the Thai court system. But he did not realise how close he was to a long exile in Thailand!
Meanwhile his lawyer has applied for the return of the bail of 100,000 Thai baht baht (Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£2000) and tells Simon he will send the change to the British Embassy.
We teach Simon the Thai expression ‘The sugar cane has already entered the elephant’s mouth’. And I’m thinking, as any self respecting journalist would, here’s one guy who is going to get away with unreceipted expenses.
Simon, asks for his papers in the case. The lawyer says they will be sent to the British Embassy too.
The British Embassy is the last place Simon wants to go to.
I leave Simon later in the afternoon. He has an appointment with Immigration the following morning to sort out his visa. He wants to celebrate. I’m knackered. As I leave I recall Simon quoting a British Embassy official telling him: ‘We empathise with your self-righteousness’. The British Embassy spokesman said later that the Embassy could not recall such a quote. I cannot help laughing. The Embassy guy had it spot on (that is if he can recall it).
I settle into a hotel in Kalim Bay, switch on the box and pick up a guest copy of The Phuket Magazine, the glossy mag aimed at people with far too much money who want to spend $US2-4 million on a property in Phuket they can never own. This issue also has an obsequious feature on a former British Honorary Consul’s furniture business.
I put the magazine down. Once you have read the expression ‘Heaven on Earth’ three times in the same magazine, you know ‘Heaven on earth’ it is not!
The owner of this magazine complained to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand after the Tsunami in 2004 about all the adverse publicity the island was getting. His message essentially was why don’t the press all sod off to Indonesia where the problems were much worse.
Actually Thailand was the story for the foreign press because that’s where all our foreign nationals were. But for Phuket businessman it was all, cash, cash, cash.
Anyway the following morning I am sitting by the horizon pool at my ‘paradise cliff-side’ hotel, thinking sod this I’d rather be in Bangkok with my daughter who had let out a huge: ‘Waaaaaaaaaaaa!’ when I told her on Sunday I was off on a plane.
I check out and get the next plane home. Besides the problem about staying at a cliff side paradise means you have to climb the bloody cliff to get to it.
At the airport my phone is buzzing with sms’s from Simon. Turned out he had hired a motorcycle and gone celebrating. He had missed his appointment at immigration due to the fact that the ‘c..t’ who rented him his bike did not tell him the fuel gauge was faulty.
By the time I’m back with daughter Annie
in Bangkok Simon has been to immigration, where they are demanding 20,000 baht, to give him a visa. His ‘overstay’, they explain, was his own fault! Oh well, another time, another day. Seems Immigration had wanted their day in court!
Simon’s case could so easily have been lost in the system. I have a feeling he still has issues. And I understand why.
So here’s a few lessons for Brits from Simon’s experience
1. When you rent a motorcycle in Thailand open the tank and check the fuel. Normally there is only enough to get you to pump. Sometimes not even that.
2. The British Embassy place a ‘disclaimer’ at the end of their list of English speaking lawyers. This means, if you are diddled, you’re on your ownsome chum!
3. Do not take on Thai police, particularly Immigration Police, without backing at the highest level, preferably Prime Ministerial, and even then probably not. Nobody wins, especially not foreigners.
4. The word ‘f*cking’ is offensive and is well known by the Thais. Normal people find this word offensive, even when used purely to emphasis a point, even where I come from. Do not use it in conjunction with the term ‘bitch’ to describe a female immigration officer, or ‘country’ to describe ‘Thailand’. You could be charged in your home country if you said the same. If you wish to swear, Welsh or Gaelic are still options but smile when you do.
5. When a Thai lawyer says you have nothing to worry and you can sue the pants off everyone, estimate your sentence at something between 40 years and life.
6. Get Simon to tell you his prison story. I almost cried with laughter. You’ll have to buy him a beer first though.
Postscript: I have been asked if Simon’s case was so simple why could not the matter have been dealt with back in February. On investigation the answer is: ‘April 27th was the first date Simon’s lawyer said he was available’.
Edited 30 April: Reason: Outrageous spelling gaffe, obsequiousness, and not enough laughs