Happy little people, stunning white beaches, sunshine, good vibes; with such delights it’s no wonder Thailand is known around the world as the Land of a Thousand Smiles.
Thailand is on almost every backpacker’s bucket list and it attracts over 30 million foreign tourists every year. Cheap booze and a heady nightlife beckon the arrival of hedonistic travelers from all over the world. The colourful pulse of Bangkok throbs with excitement. Beautiful wildlife luxuriates in Chiang Mai, and breathtaking seascapes delineate the southern boundaries. Yet within this globetrotter’s suntrap lies a terrifying mechanism that has pulverized the jaunt of innumerable foreign visitors. Beneath a seedy layer of brothels, scams, and debauchery, there is a disturbing justice system in want of reform.
Over the last 40 years or so there has been an abundance of horror stories regarding foreigners incarcerated in Thailand. It’s a tragedy that has featured in many books, movies, TV shows, and news reports. Most foreign prisoners (past and present) in Thailand are there for drug offenses. Of course many people believe that drug smugglers in Thailand deserve to be brutally punished, some may even say they deserve the death penalty. One must wonder why anybody would take the risk of committing such an offense, especially when the penalties are so severe (maximum penalties include life imprisonment and the death penalty) and the public opprobrium so passionate. Nevertheless human error knows no limits and so every once in a while somebody does take the risk. In spite of the widespread belief that criminal offenders deserve to be condemned however, there is also widespread belief that many wrongdoers deserve human rights, forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, and other opportunities that are contravened by the hardline punishments meted out by Thai authorities.
Perhaps the most famous account of a foreign person going to jail in Thailand is that of Australian Warren Fellows. Fellows recalled his experience of Thai prison in an autobiography titled The Damage Done: 12 Years Of Hell In A Bangkok Prison. The Damage Done showcases a system of gruesome murderous hellholes in which the author served 12 years of a life sentence (foreign prisoners can be released after serving 8+ years in Thailand if they are granted a king’s pardon, depending on what country they are from). The conditions outlined by Fellows seem unimaginable. He claims to have subsided on a diet of rats and fish heads. Each cramped cell occupied 40+ prisoners. He nearly died more than once. Though the worst thing he describes in his autobiography is the sadistic prison guards and corrupt cops, and he is not the only individual ever to make such a complaint.
According to Warren Fellows he was beaten and tortured by cops following his arrest in Bangkok, in 1978. At the hands of the prison guards himself and his fellow prisoners were regularly beaten and tortured. On one occasion he was forced to bathe in a pool of excrement, urine and sewage waste.
Within The Damage Done Warren Fellows says that most people didn’t survive such lengthy terms of imprisonment back then (70’s and 80’s), and he claims privilege to being the only prisoner that ever survived more than one bout of hellish khun deo (Thai style solitary confinement).
The veracity of Fellows’ experience in Thai prisons has been challenged. Some sources assert that parts of his autobiography are exaggerated, and this assertion certainly seems credible if one is to view any of the plentiful footage featuring Thai prisons online (there is a lot of material available on YouTube). Yet with that said there are many aspects of his frightening account that corroborate with descriptions provided by other individuals who have found themselves in a similar predicament.
https://youtu.be/dGoimOaGAAk (Video interview of ex-prisoner from America).
Upon researching a variety of different sources containing information about Thai justice one could justifiably opine that there are (or have been) many flagrant violations of human rights within the Thai justice organization. Reports of the following criteria are somewhat common; overcrowding in prisons, savage acts of violence and cruelty, poor medical intervention, malnourishment, disease propagation, unmerciful sentences, inadequate sanitation, corrupt cops and a corrupt court system. These frightful elements are all the more spine-chilling (especially from a tourist’s perspective) when one is cognizant of allegations suggesting that many innocent people have been framed for crimes that they didn’t commit. People who have proclaimed their innocence have been sentenced to death, others to ravaging terms of durance.
Even naïve backpackers are not free from the risk of encountering a nightmare.
In 2000 a British backpacker underwent a traumatic experience while traveling in Bangkok. Judith Payne was 21 when she was remanded in custody for simply being in close proximity to an individual that was found in possession of cannabis. In hysterics she was handcuffed at gunpoint and transported to a holding cell where she was attacked by other prisoners. When she was taken to court nobody could explain to her what was happening because nobody spoke any English. Eventually she was stripped and searched in front of 30 people before being issued a sarong and introduced to a prison cell housing 74 inmates. The heat and the stench of the communal latrine was ferocious. The beatings were brutal and the hygiene standards deplorable. She even watched an inmate die in the three weeks that she spent imprisoned in Bangkok.
Judith Payne and her co-accused – James Gilligan – were released on bail of £5,000 which was transferred by their parents. Gilligan had been found in possession of £50 worth of cannabis. They were both facing 10 years imprisonment. In a remarkable maneuver they fled Thailand together as fugitives and they crossed the border into Malaysia via a dangerous journey through the jungle. The British Embassy in Kuala Lumper repatriated them home to safety ( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/apr/16/tracymcveigh.theobserver?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other ).
For many unfortunate foreigners that find themselves detained in Thailand the despair is amplified by the fact that a lot of foreign embassies don’t, or can’t, do much to help their troubled expats. This has been the subject of complaint for prisoners from places such as Ireland, England, and South Africa.
For foreign inmates from places such as Africa there is little to no hope of receiving support from a foreign embassy because some countries don’t have any foreign representatives in Thailand. This limits the possibility of early release or a king’s pardon, meaning that a lot of African inmates really are condemned to die in Thai prisons.
It’s hard to believe that within the Land of a Thousand Smiles there could be so many sad faces. Tortured souls condemned to die in hell, innocent people on death row, festering hellholes of despair and misery. For so many foreign visitors these stark realities are unknown. Yet perhaps the dangers should be reverberated more voluminously and perhaps more light ought to be shed on the dark side of this smiling happy holiday destination. Many people don’t even realize that blaspheming against the king can carry a prison sentence. In order to stay safe in Thailand it is important for people to know of such dangers.