Travel

Koh Phangan: Dream Come True or Nightmare?

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“There is nothing under the sun which the Thai police cannot do”.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

UNDERNEATH THE TRANQUIL SURFACE of Thailand’s holiday hot spots along the southern tip of the country large scale corruption remains a constant threat for unaware visitors. On the small island of Koh Phangan the infamous full moon parties have turned increasingly violent as the consumption of aggressive stimulants like alcohol and the methamphetamine “Yaa-Baa” continues to rise. Alcohol abuse is widely tolerated in Thailand, even though it’s sale is forbidden on Buddhist holidays such as full moon days (the locals often postpone the party to the next day), and has largely replaced soft drugs like cannabis in the party scene. Whilst pot smokers and cannabis suppliers are regularly persecuted, dealers of hard drugs such as amphetamine, cocaine and heroin still enjoy booming sales and are protected in part by the corrupt cooperation between the police and underworld gangs.

In the past 2 1/2 years the government increased it’s pressure on the drug trade in the country. In 2003 Prime Minister Thaksin (a former police officer turned billionaire with a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Texas) gave the law enforcement system unprecedented liberties in the “war against drugs”. Cash incentives turned police into bounty hunters. Officers now had the authority to kill on sight anyone under suspicion of being involved in drug trafficking. Needless to say, this freedom was abused by local authorities to get rid of unwanted political opponents or to settle resentments against personal enemies!

Over 100,000 people were arrested on drug charges in the first months of Thailand’s new drug-war.

On Nov. 25, 2003 The National Human Rights Commission stated in a letter to the Prime Minister, “Most names are drawn from results of community meetings, which offered an opportunity for officials with conflicts to enter the names of people unrelated to the drug trade”. The war on drugs in Thailand served as a welcome alibi to impose a lawless situation in which people lose their democratic and humanitarian rights. There is no other way to explain why, according to government figures, 1,200 citizens were “accidentally” killed in the extrajudicial executions by anti-drug units that rampaged like death squads on Thailand’s streets, whilst the local drug trade continues to flourish right under the supervision of the authorities.

Tourists who light up one joint can end up at the mercy of corrupt police officers who are more than willing to drop charges if the “bill” is paid. One such traveler who fell victim to Thailand’s “problematic” judicial system was Philip – an experienced insider of the trance scene. When I meet him he had just been released from jail after being locked up due to a misunderstanding. The charges were later dropped, but by then it was too late for anyone to prevent the numerous bribes that were required to let him leave the country.

 

Do you have the impression that the police on Koh Phangan undertake anything against major drug dealers?

Well, they hit out every once in a while and also catch a big fish – just to show that they have the power to do so if they want to. But, in actual fact, they regulate the drug business and other criminal activities on Koh Phangan. Larger actions are more a show of strength so that the locals pay the bribes in order to run their business in peace. The tourists who get caught with drugs are often betrayed by the dealers who sold it to them. Usually the police have their own spies at work whose job is to lure unsuspecting tourists into a trap. While I sat at the police station I saw a lot of informants and undercover police walking in and out. I was amazed at how many there were considering the small size of the island. The undercover guys are very well dressed after job hours. They come out of the dressing room carrying gold chains around their neck and wrists and wearing expensive watches. That’s difficult to afford with a monthly salary of 150$. Still, all kinds of drugs are available here, but there is an atmosphere of paranoia and a lot of stuff is mostly very low quality. Especially the grass is bad quality since trafficking with it has been forced underground.

 

In other words, the criminal energy of the Thai’s has only been redirected?

The police in Thailand is in itself a criminal organization! It’s a state Mafia. In return for being a policeman and upholding the present corrupt form of government, they are given the freedom to pursue their own “business”. And they do that just like the Mafia. It’ s the same everywhere in Thailand. That all these tourists come to the holiday resorts with money is a welcome opportunity. But, otherwise, the Thai’s themselves fall victim to this system. The government passes laws that practically invite police commissioners to help themselves to small peoples money. It’s like an exchange program for keeping the servants of the state satisfied despite minimum wages. The laws in a way serve to secure their raise in income, “you need some extra money – go ask the local bar keeper”. After all, you have stripes on your shoulders and a gun.

That’s really shocking the way you describe it. Are you saying that the police, the state prosecutor, and the judges, are all cooperating with each other in order to extort money from the local communities and tourists?

Yes. It’s a perfect system in which everything is exactly regulated who gets how much. The participating officials have a good level of communication to ensure that the money flows into the right channels. Lawyers are also involved in this system.

 

Then there is no one you can turn to for help?

Once you are in police custody you are lost. You have to try to never get in their way. If you do fall into their hands you should do everything in order to settle the matter immediately – right there at the scene. The moment you go somewhere with them, they take you to a place where they can exercise total control, and that’s usually a jail cell. When they actually file charges at the police station it gets really expensive because several levels of officials need to be bribed. The problem is that most tourists are just shocked when something happens. They don’t know what to do and how to behave. You don’t have a manual lying in your hotel room: “What to say when the police turns up”. Once the police get their hands on you only money talks. But most of the time you are running around half naked – just wearing a pair of shorts and flip-flops. You don’t carry a couple of hundred dollars in your pocket on the beach. When it happened to me I was in an even more unfortunate position because I had all my valuables with me: passport, flight ticket, cash, room key… It gave them total power by taking it all away.

 

So, what was your impression of the last two full-moon parties? I had the feeling that there were a lot of busy criminals mingling in the crowds and the police were just standing around doing nothing.

I have to say that the parties are 95% about booze – or drink till you drop. The Thai’s came up with this idea of selling buckets that they fill with dirt cheap rum and vodka. Everybody is running around drinking this stuff through straws till they lose consciousness. Only a tiny fraction of visitors are part of the psychedelic scene. It used to be just the other way around! At the end of Haad-Rin beach we all got together – basically a small crowd of 200. Farther down about 6000 party goers were drinking their brains out. Along this stretch of beach, you know, with the worst alcoholic excesses, several people had been knifed or battered to death by local criminals since I have been here. Mostly foreigners but also some Thai’s belonged to the victims. At the hang-outs between Paradise Bungalow and Cactus Bar you can witness the full works: prostitution, rape, drug trafficking, robbery… In the murder cases I know of the police didn’t undertake anything at all – there wasn’t even an investigation! The newspapers didn’t report on it either. A lot of party goers knew about it – a friend of mine even found the dead body of one guy the next morning on the beach – and others stumbled on corpses as well. But the locals just got rid of them quickly and nobody talked about it anymore. So the people who discovered the dead, their small circle of friends, and the local bar owners knew about it at first and then it spread by word of mouth.

 

That’s pretty bad for tourism and the image of the friendly smiling Thai people.

Yeah, it’s bad for business. Ferry loads of new visitors arrive on the island daily. The locals don’t want them to hear about dead bodies lying on the beach and women who get drugged and raped. So anyway it came out that the police in Thongsala (island city) didn’t raise a finger. But then three foreigners got murdered within a very short time. The news continued to spread so quickly that a lot of tourists heard about it. Suddenly the police turned up one day with two dozen armed marines and combed Haad-Rin beach. They looked into all the bars as if there was a big investigation going on. It looked like an invasion. Then they disappeared as mysteriously as they turned up and nothing else happened. Obviously they weren’t interested in arresting the murderers – who happened to be locals from the island. I think that shows how they all stick together. Now, during my last days here before I fly back home, a Thai friend disclosed to me how the relationship among the police and local residents functions.

 

And how does it function?

The police work with informants in the villages and towns, and they in turn have their contacts who have to take care of small errands. For example, the police tell their informant that a particular person has to be secretly observed. This informant then looks around in his circle of friends and picks out someone to do the job.

 

They use the villagers as spies?

That’s right. It’s friends or relatives who get involved in the “errands”. The informant says to someone, “look out for such and such person and tell me when they turn up”. The person who gets the assignment, a taxi driver or shop keeper, has no idea what’s behind it. His or her job is just to keep working normally and report what they see. The police stay completely behind the scenes and just wait for their informants to report to them.

 

And how else do the informants cooperate with the police?

A lot of them work as dealers and are at the same time police informants. They mainly turn up at the parties. Then there are hard core criminals, like pimps, who are involved in this system. The best thing is too stay away from all these people and not to buy any drugs from the locals. The police always pretend as if they are doing everything absolutely correctly. When they arrest a tourist there is a lot of bureaucracy and filling out of forms – you even get fingerprinted. But the police, the state prosecutor, the lawyers, and state officials who sit at key positions, are all part of the bribery cartel.

 

The government claims that it has 100% success with its anti-drug war and that Thailand is drug free. Do you have the impression that this is true?

The flow of drugs has partly slowed down. Mainly the quality has gotten worse… really shitty grass. The government is very concerned about reducing the supply of Yaa-Baa ( methamphetamine/ literally “crazy medicine”). These pills trigger really fierce aggressive outbursts in people and they don’t want to tolerate that any longer.

 

Then why are they still pushing so much alcohol consumption if they want to reduce aggression in general?

Believe it or not, but in comparison alcohol is much weaker in it’s aggressive potential. These pills are the absolute antidote to the E that everyone used to take at raves. On E you are so positive and want to hug everyone. With Yaa Baa you want to smash their faces. Under its influence guys are battering people to death because they drink and swallow speed. Drunk fights end up in hospital but everyone’s still alive.

 

So alcohol isn’t making anything better in the increasing violence. But who takes a dangerous cocktail of speed and alcohol anyway? That’s quite suicidal in itself.

Yaa-Baa is mainly consumed by Thais and they tend to mix it with alcohol. But again, the police don’t undertake much because it’s the people they work with who go crazy on this stuff. Especially in the Thai underworld of dealers, prostitutes and pimps you find high abuse. Yaa-Baa is a very strong stimulant. Even without alcohol it makes people very edgy and aggressive. In combination with alcohol it invariably leads to a bloody mess and murder. I spoke with one eyewitness who was at a scene that escalated like this. There was a dispute at one full moon party between a Thai, on Yaa-Baa and alcohol, and a foreigner. As a third guy wanted to intervene and keep them from fighting, the Thai suddenly lunged at him with wild, staring eyes and beat him to death with a chair. Now this happened right in the middle of the dancing crowds.

 

Why then is there such a repression of a “peaceful” natural drug like cannabis?

I assume it’s because it’s so easy for the police to find it. You can smell grass. Very often they use kids to spy on people at the beaches or near the bungalows to smell if someone is lighting up a joint. Pills and cocaine are easier to hide and you can also ingest them incognito. That’s more difficult for the police and their informants to detect. Grass fills the money machine of the police. With grass and hash they always have enough tourists to “rob”. And, anyway, there are still more pot smokers than other regular drug users. Last week we were all searching for a young woman who didn’t turn up at her bungalow. When someone disappears without a trace it’s always bad news. As it turned out, a neighbor had seen undercover cops around sundown checking out the space underneath the porch. They found old stumps from burnt-out joints previous tenants had dropped and used that to arrest her on drug charges. She was sitting in Thongsala jail when we found her. Usually they make sure that someone sees or notices how the arrest is made. Then they take the people into custody and don’t allow them to contact anyone to scare the shit out of them. You sit in jail – without food if you don’t have money on you – until somebody hears about your fate and turns up. Tourists often get arrested on totally irrelevant accusations or minor delicts. They locked me up with a 22 year old Norwegian guy who told me his story. He had been on a deserted stretch of beach with some friends. They were passing around a joint. Suddenly two Thais jumped out of the dark and pointed their flashlights in his face as he was just taking a puff. That was enough to drag him off to jail. After four “interrogations” his nerves were wrecked. They told him that he was going to be sentenced for 5 years. One of the police men stole his sneakers and was strutting around in his new shoes. The Norwegian missed his flight, like I did, but he also had to wait 3 days till enough money was collected for bail.

 

How much did you have to pay to get the case dismissed?

In the end it cost me 75,000,- Baht ($1.900) to pay off everyone: the island police, district officials and state prosecutor at Suratthani. The officer who “handled” my case called me in on a Sunday when no one was at the precinct. The day before, I saw him call the state prosecutor and arrange how the money was to be split. I had to wait in a room while a Thai friend gave him the money behind closed doors. Then he came out and gave me my passport and told me that my name was erased from the central computer so that I could fly out of the country. It was an expensive affair and the embassy had no power whatsoever. They told me to settle the matter “Thai style”. It usually depends on what type of bungalow you live how much they extort from you. If you live in a $4 hut the bill is lower than if it’s a $20 bungalow. The police on Koh Phangan are that sly. About once or twice a year they hang a foreigner in Thailand on drug charges – mostly heroin trafficking – to make their point.

 

In a certain sense it seems that tourism has also contributed to this development. Without the masses of cash carrying visitors arriving every year this system couldn’t exist.

That definitely plays a role. It was the Goa scene that first attracted visitors to this island. Most run-of-the-mill tourists never left Koh Samui. The trance scene made Koh Pha Ngan to a psychedelic wonderland with colorful and funky parties that went non-stop for three days. But in the late 90’s a crackdown on psychedelic drug users by the Thai police led to an exodus of the trance scene from Koh Phangan. Parties and visitors shrank in numbers and a lot of money got lost for the locals who are just poor fisherfolk if nothing else comes along. It all changed with the millennium party. While the trance scene left the island other visitors discovered it – mainly because the Thais tried to attract them to fill the empty party bars. The mainstream tourists are interested in sex, sun, and spirits. So the locals here figured out a way to lure new crowds with dumping prices on alcohol and cheap accommodation. Instead of mushroom omelets and hash cookies you get chong sam buckets (local rum). The Scandinavians love it. I think a bottle of beer costs $4 in Norway.

 

After all what you experienced here – are you thinking of ever coming back to Koh Phangan?

I have to honestly say, if I could evacuate the people on this island, then “yes” (laughing)! But because it comes in one package deal with corruption and the Mafia it just disgusts me. This island is a wonderful tropical paradise – but unfortunately it got into the wrong hands.

 

Philip, many thanks for this illuminating and honest interview, and I wish you a more relaxing holiday next year!

 

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