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Blog Archive June 2011

A Thai Ghost Story

I intended to write about crime this week. I promise that is true. This past week, Asia as is usually the case, was chock a block with crime stories. Sometimes the amount of crime, the scope and depth of the criminal classes overwhelms a blogger. Choosing one crime story over another becomes next to impossible.

In such dire straits, I have fallen back on the alternative to a crime story, and that is, of course, telling a good ghost story. You might well say, that ghost stories, at least in Thailand, are also a dime a dozen. I wouldn’t say that you’d be entirely wrong. But there is a ghost story that needs to be told this Friday 1st July (which just happens to be Canada Day).

Ghosts and crime stories aren’t usually lumped together as there is one big difference between the two. In Thailand, ghost stories are infinitely more believable, receive more balanced media coverage, and have far more consensus amongst the Thais than most of the crime or political stories. Those stories made them foot stomping mad. I am sticking with ghosts. This is the little known place where all Thais appear to be united. Few political differences exist between the Thais when it comes to ghosts.

Let me prove my point with a ghost story that has a political spin, and by nature, hints at crime. In many countries, the political leader lives in an official residence while in office. It is a wonderful perk that goes with the job. Taxpayers foot the bill for cleaning the drapes, repairing the air conditioners, cutting the grass, shoveling the snow (where applicable) and polishing the silver. The White House and Number 10 Downing Street are among the best known official residential addresses. But there are dozens of palaces, houses, mansions that dot the planet that also function as official residence for elected leaders. Indeed in Canada, the leader of the opposition has an official residence. But even our provincial leaders have official residences. This is far better than the proceeds of crime. Free mansions, staff, grub, car, driver, and security detail means they get to live like investment bankers.

Thailand also has an official residence for the prime minister called Baan Phitsanulok (ºéÒ¹¾ÔɳØâÅ¡). The house was built during the reign of King Vajiravudh. In 1979 it became the official residence of the Thai Prime Minister. But it has been rarely used in the same way that the White House or Number 10 Downing Street is used. While a prime minister might schedule a meeting at Baan Phitsanulok, they don’t normally spend much time there or sleep there. Or keep their families there. Baan Phitsanulok isn’t a place where prime ministers want to spend the night. Let me make it abundantly clear: the Thai Prime Minister has an official residence but they apparently refuse to move in and live there.

I was thinking of the official residence recently as I drove passed the family compound of the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Soi 31, Sukhumvit Road. For many years, I lived around the corner from Abhisit’s family compound. In those days, there was nothing distinguished about the compound from the outside. You’d drive past and never think twice what was behind the walls.

Recently I drove passed Khun Abhisit’s Soi 31 family compound and this was a different experience. Soldiers with M16s patrolled the perimeter. Barbwire is strung around the top of the wall making it look like a maximum-security prison in the interior of Columbia. At the intersection just before the Prime Minister Abhisit’s family compound are police booths, military positions, and many men in uniform.

Not only does the presence of all these heavily armed, uniformed men cause traffic jams, the overall impression is to convert this little oasis on Sukhumvit into an unofficial Green Zone like a compound in Baghdad. This part of Soi 31 doesn’t feel like Bangkok. Obviously the compound was never intended to be an official residence for a prime minister. This raises the question as to why the Prime Minister doesn’t live in the official residence? Why isn’t he sleeping at Baan Phistanulok?

The answer is ghosts. Baan Phistanulok is said to be haunted.

Yes, that’s right, as Thailand prepares for a highly contested, bitter election on Sunday 3rd July, no candidate for prime minister has promised the voters that, if elected, he will exorcise the Baan Phisasnulok ghost (or ghosts as the head count is open to question) and take up residence. And not only that, once in office, he (or more likely it will be a ‘she’) will make an all-out effort in the first ninety days in office to rid the Kingdom of all other evil spirits, ghosts and demons.

While the social and politically classes are divided over many political and social issues, including about who should govern and how they should govern the country, the Thai people seem to be united in their belief that nothing can be done to deal with the ghost problem at the official residence of the prime minister.

I have interviewed Thais in preparing this essay and none have said the ghost issue at Baan Phitsaulok will influence how they intend to vote on Sunday. Nonetheless, I have collected invaluable information.

Those supporting the re-election of the current government led by Prime Minister Abhisit, contend that the ghost at Baan Phitsanulok is on the payroll of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that they have considerable evidence to support offshore, illegal payments by bad people have been funneled into the ghosts account. This evidence will be divulged soon.

The opposition political party led by Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, former Prime Minister Thaksin’s sister, says that her party has several policies that deal with the ghosts, including an amnesty and a newly created Ministry of Ghost Amnesty. Her amnesty would cover all ghosts going back two hundred years. All criminal charges and allegations will be dropped. All ghosts’ old rank, status and privileges will be restored.

She also denies any payments have been made to the Baan Phitsanulok ghost or to any other ghosts. That it has all been a misunderstanding as the ghost had always been willing to negotiate but no prime minister ever stuck around long enough to talk and get to know her (yes, the ghost is a she) Apparently the opposition’s fortuneteller has confirmed not only the gender of the Baan Phitsaulok ghost, but has received assurances that as of 4th July the ghost will decamp and take up residence at Soi 31, Sukhumvit Road until her pardon comes through.

The Prime Minister’s office did not return phone calls about his policies on appeasing the ghost.

Much is riding on the 3rd July election in Thailand. Even the ghosts, who may or may not be voting, have an apparent stake in the outcome.

With much thanks to Tito Haggardt for sending me this video.

Posted: 6/30/2011 10:07:15 PM 


Hit and Run But You Can No Longer Hide: Violent Crime in the Age of the Internet

I sometimes wonder if the emotionality of crime has changed over time. Do we feel the same about crime as our fathers, grandfather, or ten, twenty generations back, felt about crime, punishment, judges, police, hangings, prisons, or torture? In other words, have our modern sensibilities given us a different perspective when we think about crime? How often do we come across something that evokes thoughts about conduct and relationships within the world of crime?

Another question that sprang to mind is whether the way we perceive criminal justice system is changed by our cultural experience and how connected we are to technology, which allows us to share the experience of other cultures.

Is there more aggression, violence and moral indifference than in the past? I am not sure how we can answer that question. We can look at the violence in films, TV, and YouTube and it looks as if we glorify aggression. That may be a justifiable conclusion but it still doesn’t answer the question: are we wearing different moral lens than the ones our ancestors wore?

I think that twenty generations ago my ancestors (and yours) would have had a much harder life. The idea of safety net, social justice, protection and security wouldn’t have meant much to them. We have become softer, more fearful, and more insecure even though on any objective scale we are far more secure and safe than our ancestors.

I have a theory—it is nothing more than that—for the reason we feel less secure when we should feel the opposite. There is a sense in many places in the world that the elite classes have turned their backs on ordinary people, and not only that, they have rubbed ordinary people’s noses in the fact they can commit acts of violence and escape punishment. So long as there is a class that is cloaked inside an institution and that institution is semi-autonomous, not under the rule of law or the main democratic infrastructure, those outside that institution are vulnerable to violence that has no legal recourse.

In other words, we accept the idea of violence might hit anyone at any time. What is difficult to accept is the fact that certain agents of violence are above the law. A recent example occurred in Thailand. According to The Bangkok Post,  a 34-year old Major, a doctor in the military, was the victim of what appeared to be an intentional hit and run.

The driver is thought to be an influential military officer and may also have an influential father who is also a high-ranking officer. The facts according to news reports are: a young female major arrived at her house to find her driveway blocked. She thought it might be a patron at the restaurant next door. The doctor wrote a note with the registration number of the car and gave it to an employee of the restaurant to ask the owner to move his car from her driveway.

Later, she came out of her house, saw a car parked across the way, it honked its horn at her, drove straight at her, dragging her thirty meters. She’s in a hospital in coma. There are indications in the press report that the police are very slow to proceed in this case, and that the military was slow to return the car involved in the hit and run. And, indeed, there are circumstances to indicate a different car was returned.

The colonel allegedly involved in the incident “surrendered” to the police, claiming that the woman was at fault and injured herself when she “ran into” his car. Something along the same lines was circulated not long ago in Thailand in connection with assigning responsibility for the April/May 2010 gunshot deaths of protestors in Bangkok streets: they were said not to have been shot by the military, but had “run into bullets.”

The Bangkok Post also said the colonel had tried to ring the emergency phone number 191 to request that they intervene in the quarrel between him and the woman but couldn’t get a connection. It is difficult to get the doctor’s side of the story as she’s in coma.

Here is the YouTube video of the car striking the doctor taken from a CCTV camera at the scene:

This incident occurred at a time when Thailand is going through a bitter election campaign and questions of social justice, equality and fairness are at the forefront. In the distant past, powerful elites no doubt did this kind of thing to our ancestors. What is different now? The way and means of communications have fundamentally changed. You can read this report and watch the YouTube video anywhere in the world. You can judge yourself by watching the video as to whether the doctor ran into the officer’s car.

It’s not just public record; it’s part of universal public record. People can read, discuss and debate such a case from Berlin to Toronto to New York and beyond. They can write about it. Tell their friends about it. What would have been whispered about in candlelit coffee houses and homes now is caught in a spotlight.

Add that to the aspirations of people for a more accountable government. By that I mean, a government that removes the autonomy from autonomous institutions, places which traditionally have shield their members against legal recourse even though they’ve committed acts of violence.

Institutions are incredibly slow to change. They rarely change voluntarily. Their members feel entitled to their privileges, benefits and immunities. The struggle of democracy is to bring all citizens under the same set of laws. That struggle will be a long one. Our ancestors wouldn’t have thought it worth the fight. They had a point as they could be easily isolated and picked off, one by one, until that deafening silence would have sent a powerful message to leave the powerful alone. Social networks have changed that. WikiLeaks created the possibility for accountability for official misconduct. It is a start. People don’t feel so alone in the face of social injustice. Our expectations about this sort of thing are evolving beyond anything our ancestors thought possible.

The ordinary person on an iPhone or computer is equipped to fight back with the most powerful weapon in the modern arsenal—an Internet connection to the world, a pipeline that ensures the worst incidents of criminal violence committed by members of the elite are photographed, documented, reported to a larger audience. Once that image circulates, it sears deep into the memory, and become one more piece of evidence that the privileged institutions of the past are in for a bumpy ride as they try to justify their immunities to a world tired, worried and insecure about a world where such things can happen. To anyone.

Posted: 6/23/2011 10:09:44 PM 


Psychic Justice and the Predatory Class

Three cases stand out this week in the world’s criminal justice system. One was a police raid, helicopters, cars, reporters all descending on a rural farmhouse outside Houston, Texas on a psychic’s claim of having a vision of a mass grave on the premises. The second and third cases arose in China. In one, a music student from a wealthy family was executed for stabbing a cyclist 8 times after slightly injuring her in a driving accident. In the second Chinese case, a truck driver ran over an ethnic Mongol herder, dragging him under his truck. The driver given the death sentence; his passenger life imprisonment.

We tend to think of the West as having a criminal justice system that is rational, logical and based on tangible evidence; and that the supernatural is not part of the Western system. In the East, we have the image of soothsayers, psychics, shamans and other mystics as embedded in all levels of society, including the justice system.

How did the Houston police find themselves, based on a psychic’s prediction, digging holes around someone’s house, searching for a mass grave? It seems there were traces of blood and the smell of rotting meat. Only it turned out the reality was far less exciting. The blood came from a drunk session where someone cut their wrist, and the rotting meat from a broken down freezer.

Has any psychic ever having solved a single crime—using their psychic powers? The answer is zero. The police have little choice but to follow up all reports even though they may suspect the informant is a liar, stupid, mentally ill, or delusional.

The upside after the Houston case is police departments in Texas and elsewhere—the Internet has spread the image of ‘egg-faced’ Houston cops across the web—will likely mean that the next psychic who phones with reports of dead bodies will have a hard time convincing the police to fire up the helicopters and swoop in on the crime site.

It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that the rich and connected are dealt with differently than members of the working class when they have a run in with the law. A basic premise of criminal justice in any society is a central state must contain the predatory class. A state that fails or refuses to do so quickly loses legitimacy, citizens take to the streets, and unrest and violence rolls out faster than tanks from third world barracks.

The problem is a conflict of interest. This occurs due to the fair amount of overlap between the predatory class and the elites who are the politicians who exert pressure on other institutions including the police and courts. No doubt we all know individuals who are not predators by inclination but find that their success aligns their interest with the predator class. Predators, as a class, are rich, connected, powerful and influential. Predators are among the most successful rent-seekers, monopolists, cartel members, and politicians orbit around them like the earth revolves around the sun. And for much the same reason: the pull of gravity. In the case of predators, the gravity is money.

Predators, as a class, wish to live above the law secluded in their private Valhalla secure in the knowledge their wealth protects them and grants them virtual immunity. When a son or daughter of a member of the predatory class breaks the law, the central question is whether the state authorities will dish out punishment or protect such a person.

When Chinese university music student Yao Jiaxin drove into Zhang Miao, who was riding a bicycle, was slightly injured. Yao, described as the offspring from “second-generation wealth,” believed that Zhang cause trouble over the issue of compensation. Rather than facing the prospect of such a negotiation, he stabbed her eight times. Even though he turned himself into the authorities, admitted the crime, and his motive for killing the young woman, the People’s Court sentenced him to death. The judge called Yao Jiaxin’s motive for the murder despicable.

This is a variation of the Thai proverb to kill the chicken to scare the monkey. Rather than allow a child from the elite to murder a poor cyclist because she might cause him trouble over compensation sends a loud and clear message to the elites: Don’t think that your status, wealth and privilege grants you an automatic entitlement to immunity. There are limits. Yao Jiaxin just crossed on such limit. The vast bulk of the population in China will be reassured with the execution of Yao Jiaxin, that the central state will not tolerate law breaking by the elites.

Whether this is a precedent, a one-shot (no pun intended) warning, or larger political statement with ramifications in other spheres, remains to be seen. As Francis Fukuyama’s The Origin of the Political Order suggests, the Chinese have an underdeveloped rule of law based system. The execution of Yao Jiaxin may be an indication the Chinese authorities wish to strength the rule of law.

The elites might also belong to the ethnic group with the power to oppress a smaller ethnic group. A good example of the use of the rule of law to diffuse bad feelings running hot between the dominant Han and Mongol minority also occurred in China. Li Lindong was given the death sentence after a six-hour trial at the Intermediate People’s Court in the region’s Xilingol League. His passenger (another driver) Lu Xiangdong, who rode in the cab of Li’s truck when he drove over the herder, found himself convicted of homicide and received a life sentence.

The political circumstances surrounding the Mongol herder’s death seem to have been a significant factor. The dead man had been involved in a protest at the time he was hit and dragged 145 meters. His death along with another Mongol killed in a confrontation between locals and Chinese coal miners resulted in demonstrations in northern Mongol pastureland. Herders and students went into the streets with demands for justice and cultural protection for their traditions and lifestyle.

Neither the circumstances nor the severity of the sentences handed out to the truck driver and his passenger are found in a normal criminal case. The political dimension—ethnic conflict, cultural oppression, and demonstrations—is significant, making it difficult to treat the prosecution and sentence handed out in isolation. And here’s where the rule of law should come into play. This looks like an outcome in a system where the rule of law yields to political considerations. In such a politicized system, even the Predatory Class may not receive protection, and arguably would be better off under a rule of law system separate from the political decision-making. Using the criminal justice system to advance a political agenda is incompatible with the Western notion of rule of law. It is one thing to rein in the elites and their children as in the case of university music student Yao Jiaxin. But it violates the rule of law to prosecute and sentence individuals from the dominant ethnic group to relieve the political pressure created by another competing minority ethnic group.

From Texas to China we can confirm our bias that criminal justice systems are flawed. That is of course a given. All institutions have weaknesses, gaps, and inconsistencies because they are made and run by us. When the wheels come off the wagon is when officials in charge of the criminal justice look to the supernatural or the prevailing political winds before making a judgment. Justice without an underpinning of fairness, equality, impartiality, independence and reliability becomes a punch line on Jon Steward’s Daily Show or a cause to take to the streets in protest. The elites must be fenced in or they will eat everything including what is on your plate. It is here the predators lurk.

At the same time, the political class must leave the criminal justice system to work through the evidence without interference or favor. This is a tall order. Many countries have a culture of political interference. We live in an ideologically divided world, one where everyone wants justice, and many states fail or refuse to administer justice in a manner that is judged as equal and fair by a large segment of the population. Around the world the TV news brings you eyewitness accounts of the consequences in places the justice system has broken down. These accounts demonstrate that the predators understand the collapse of a legitimate state means there is no longer anyone to stop them.

Posted: 6/9/2011 10:01:16 PM 



Part of the popularity of crime fiction is the reader is invited to follow the clues to identify the crime, criminal and the cat and mouse chase between the criminal and authorities. There are many crime novels where the perpetrator of the crime is clear from the start. In other books, the attraction is solving the mystery of who committed the crime.

The premise of crime fiction has changed little over time—a crime creates a sense of mystery and tension because there are gaps, flaws, and deficiencies in our information. We may be the last to live in an age where unreliability of information is a major wedge issue for criminals. The essence of this incompleteness of information is the reason that criminals have used to their advantage to avoid detection and to game the criminal justice system.

Read more:

Posted: 6/2/2011 10:27:28 PM 



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