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Blog Archive September 2011

Fishing Inside the Brass Cow: Offshore Violence and Murder

In advance of publication, Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes has been getting stellar reviews. The Guardian’s David Runciman has weighed in with such a review. The premise of the new book is that until the Enlightenment, the world was an exceptionally violent place.

Murder was common. Violence was the usual result of strangers meeting. Torture was widely practiced. As David Runciman noted in his review of Pinker’s book, murder was often a spectator sport. A victim might be stuffed inside a ‘hollow brass cow’ and roasted alive over a raging fire. The brass cow had an open mouth to amplify the screams of the person cooking inside, providing entertainment to those in attendance: a primitive jukebox broadcasting the lyrics of a victim being roasted alive. Remember: these people, both victim and audience, were our ancestors (may be not the victims unless they had reproduced prior to entering the brass cow). We come from this heritage. Historically our species killed each other on an epic level. We watched and were entertained by the slow death of others. Next time someone tells you they wish to return to the glorious past, mention to them what they thought about the ‘brass cow.’

The obvious question by the person in the back of the classroom, “Professor Pinker, What about all the people killed in the two world wars in the 20th century?” He’s well-prepared for that one. Those wars and the slaughter only revealed what amateurs we are in the murder business. The killing was small change compared to the past. Also we tend to pay more attention to events closer to our own life times and invest that knowledge as having a privileged position.

What I’d like to find out when I finally have my copy of the new book is whether Pinker addresses killings that take place on the high seas. I’m prepared to accept that most of the slaughter racked up by our collective ancestors likely occurred on the ground, in forest, mountains, pastures, and the like. But I also have a hunch, and it is only that, the killing that happened offshore in many parts of the world remains locked in the old ‘brass cow’ cycle.

Thailand’s fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on use of Burmese and Cambodian immigrant workers for crew is a case in point. The BBC reported Thai fishing boat captains workplace consisted of drugs put into drinks, routine beatings and random acts of violence. Burmese crews worked under these conditions 20-hours a day for weeks and months, some even years. The BBC also reported an eyewitness who saw three of his fellow Burmese crewmembers killed on a Thai fishing boat.

The Bangkok Post quoted Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote the report, saying “marine police in one Thai coastal area told him they found up to 10 bodies a month washed up on the shore.” That leaves unanswered how many more crewmembers were killed and their bodies have been recovered.

It’s not only the Burmese who get a bullet in the head for displeasing the captain on a Thai fishing boat. The Cambodians who are impressed into working as crewmembers on Thai fishing boats report receive similar treatment. The Bangkok Post reported, “In a 2009 study, more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats surveyed by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) said they had seen their captains killing one of their colleagues.”

The eyewitness accounts are difficult if not impossible to independently verify. And that is a major part of the problem. A fishing boat offshore is an island into itself. What happens on the boat though seems to indicate a page out of Lord of the Flies. There are no authorities around. There are no bystanders who heard the shot. The bodies are found in the street or alley. This is starting to look like ancient life before civilization took root.

While Thai fishing industry spokesman have said it is ‘impossible’ to have forced labour on the fishing boats, and Burmese and Cambodian crewmembers who found their way onto boats through brokers have ‘volunteered’ for the job. NGOs dispute the Thai fishing industry position saying that thousands of people have been trafficked onto boats over the last decade. The reality of their employment conditions however they got onto a fishing boat it turns out wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. No one told them once they left dry land they had entered the domain of the ‘brass cow’ which roam the open seas. The US has placed Thailand on a ‘watch list’ for the past two years due to the problem of human trafficking.

The Thai government has acknowledged a problem. It has done what governments normally do when faced with a difficult problem: they set up a commission to study the problem.

If the land under our feet has generally become far less dangerous, the planks under the feet of immigrant workers on Thai fishing boats are a reversion to that dangerous world us land lovers no longer experience.

How does one go about bringing the law of the land to the fleets of fishing boats? While Thailand has an acknowledged problem, it might be reasonable to assume in the competitive world of fishing, other countries may have fishing fleets that are floating ‘brass cows.’ Part of the problem is that the smaller fishing boats can stay at sea for months, delivering their catch and receiving supplies (and fresh crew) from a mother boat. Once someone is on such a boat, there is no telling when he will ever see land again. Workers on fishing boats outside of Thai waters are exempt from labor protection under Thai law. The brass hard cold reality is they are exempt from all laws.

Would an industry regulation requiring CCTV camera monitoring on fishing boats reduce the problem? Some would say it’s not practical, or too expensive, and unless a camera covers every angle and has night vision, the captain would find a way to dispatch a crewmember with a bullet in the head. If cameras don’t work, then why not use Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology? The workers have electronic tags that use radio waives to identify and track their movements. If we can use RIFD to track hotel linen or our pet dogs and cats, why not require fishing industry workers to have such a means of identification, for their protection? The problem is the chip needs an external GPS device to work. Such a device might be disguised as a key chain, watch, or bracelet. Those could be easily removed and thrown away by the captain, and even if undetected, the battery life on a ship that might be on the seas for months wouldn’t be sufficient. Sanctions or boycotts are unlikely to work either. Changes in government policy in places like Burma and Thailand extending protection to migrant workers is possible, but enforceability remains a real issue.

Until there is either a technological break through that allows offshore monitoring of fishing boat crews, or an incentive given to captains as a bounty not to kill members of his crew, it is likely that bodies of Burmese and Cambodian fishing crewmembers will continue to wash up on the shore and many other bodies will be lost and forgotten. Somalia pirates have shown the world a picture of how vulnerable others are on the high seas. Thai fishing boats have demonstrated the perils of cheap, bonded labour. I have a feeling this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reach of law to the high seas where kidnapping and murder is a profitable business model.

Pinker’s ‘long peace’ post-1945 might just need a footnote: onshore peace. Offshore the murdering seems to continue just like in the good old days on land, in that distant mist, the place where those who fear the future wish they could return. But as Pinker suggests going back in a time machine, we’d find ourselves in a place not unlike the deck of a Thai fishing boat.

Posted: 9/29/2011 9:06:47 PM 

 

Faking it in Bangkok: Dummy CCTV cameras

Most people are aware of the presence of CCTV cameras in major cities. Bangkok is no exception. There are apparently 10,000 of these eyes tracking your every move. CCTV cameras play the modern role of medieval gargoyles, staring down, watchful, vigilant as you go along your way. Looking to keep you safe, out of trouble, and like a good Nanny ever mindful of your welfare. CCTV cameras have become that Orwellian eye that will never let you out of sight once you step into the street.

Let’s put this way, some Nannies are better sighted than others.

The news of 500 fake CCTV cameras has local officials scrambling for an explanation. This is the tentative number. Like many round numbers it may well balloon as the investigation continues. And as one would expect, some of the explanations sound as real as the cameras. One official did what you would probably do: pass the buck to the Traffic and Transportation Department telling them to address the problem and explain to the public about the fake cameras.

Sure enough the department complied, saying that fake cameras were set up near hospitals, schools and areas where political rallies were normally held. Those are exactly the areas I’d choose to put fake cameras. If you can fool anyone, it’s got to be the ill, students and demonstrators. These people see a camera and believe it is watching them hobbling down the broken pavement on crutches, or clutching schoolbooks, or carrying banners and hand clappers.

As with many of these stories, the more they explain the more you wonder if the real cameras ought to be inside the office of the official explainers. We are told that those who had been a victim of a crime had asked for footage. Something that might be useful to identify the wrongdoer. The crime victims were told the cameras were ‘broken. The original story surfaced on Pantip website and the mass media seeing blood in the water dove in. Nothing better than a story about ‘fakes’ in Bangkok to start a feeding frenzy.

In a broad definition (remember Clinton’s definition of ‘sex’?) the CCTV cameras were indeed broken. But it is a bit like saying the life scale dummy of a police officer at a busy intersection can’t testify as a witness to a road accident because he’s lifeless.

Officials have said that many dummy cameras can be found on Ratchadamnoen road along with real CCTV cameras. Makes one wonder whether there are any casinos along that road? Just politely asking.

“I’m sorry for the people who asked police for footage and images from security cameras for evidence against suspects but the BMA told them that the cameras were broken when the in fact they were dummy cameras.”

Dummy cameras they are admitted to be, but “don’t call them fakes,” says the Bangkok Governor MR. Sukhumbhand Baribatra.

Resisting the word ‘fake’ in favor of the word ‘dummy’ is a slippery slope. If it were a story about a ‘fake’ cop would the good Governor counsel that the press should refer to the person as a ‘dummy’ cop? Given this is Bangkok, it is understandable the desire to avoid the word ‘fake’ as that does draw a lot of international attention that authorities would wish to avoid.

A great cartoon appeared in the Thai-language popular daily ThaiRath :

The poster (with the image of MR. Sukhumbhand on the lower left) reads: “Prepared to take care of Bangkokians for life”

The caption (on the upper right corner) reads: “Taking Care… In Fake Style”

But Bangkok citizens have been assured by the city authorities of their commitment to replace the fake cameras with the real ones. We don’t exactly have a timetable when this will happen but I am certain in six months someone will pop the question as to whatever happened to those ‘fake’ I mean ‘dummy’ CCTV cameras, and I will yet have more material for another blog.

The Bangkok Post reports:

“Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it installed real ones.” The Governor has watched over the installation of 10,000 CCTV cameras, and promises another 10,000 will be installed on his watch.

What remains to be released by authorities is the cost of the fake cameras. Did they get a discount from the price of the real cameras? And how did the workers installing them know whether a camera was a fake or not? Were they told? Could the workers have mixed them up? Is there someone assigned to go around and test the camera? Will that test distinguish the real and fake cameras? Would some owners pay to keep the fake cameras in place? What will they do with the fake cameras? Auction them? Burn them? This could get quite interesting.

Fake CCTV camera need to be placed in context. There is a bit of a history to recall. Bangkok watchers will remember the GT200 devices (from the UK) purchased in large quantity and at major expense for soldiers to use in detecting and clearing roadside bombs in the South. The company making the GT200 got into hot water in England after it was disclosed the devices couldn’t distinguish a frog or banana from a bomb.

What was the reaction in Thailand when it was discovered there was no science at work inside the GT200? Denial. First thing to remember is all of GT200s were ‘fake’ in the sense that they didn’t work. Only they weren’t bought as ‘fake’ devices but as the real thing. But apparently the fakes did give ‘comfort’ much like an amulet gives comfort. Officials at the time said they many soldiers had ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in GT200 devices as assisting them in finding unexploded roadside bombs. That seemed to close the debate down.

So far no Thai official has come out and said they had ‘faith’ that the CCTV fake cameras worked, but apparently officials had ‘faith’ the fakes would fool the public. Indeed Apriak the prior Governor, and M.R. Sukhumband, the current Governor, have taken the position that the dummies who live in Bangkok were deterred by the fake, I mean dummy, CCTV cameras.

Now that it is disclosed there is (at least) a one in twenty chance that the CCTV camera watching over your illegal casino is fake, you can play the odds. Take a flutter. Big Brother might just be faking it. He’s not really watching you. But there is a nice symmetry at work: Fake cameras watching over roadside vendors selling fake Rolex watches, fake Viagra, and fake perfume to a number of fake tourists who are really ‘brand’ agents seeking evidence for a bust.

What do we hear from City Hall about the fate of the fake cameras?

The Bangkok Post,   “We’ll replace the dummy cameras with actual CCTV cameras as soon as possible,” said Mr Suthon.

He added that 10,000 CCTV cameras under the Pracha Wiwat scheme were operational and 20,000 more cameras will be installed in the capital within next year.

“Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it installed real ones.”

If it turns out that one out of twenty of those beautiful Thai smiles are also fake, that’s probably a better ratio than in most other countries. Still it is a worry for the Tourist Authority of Thailand, which may have to go back to the drawing boards for a new campaign to bring travelers to the Land of Smiles. “Thailand Mostly Real” or “Enjoy! You’re Safe with Our Dummies.”

Posted: 9/22/2011 8:57:26 PM 

 

Novelists Twittering Across the Multiverse : Skinny tails and Fat tails

I have a Twitter account under the name “Bangkok007.” Exhibit A in a future trial to prove my maturity stalled like a glider in a sudden updraft. Every so often I find a notice in my email inbox that someone has decided to ‘follow’ me. As I rarely tweet anything, I wonder why anyone would bother. I suspect there are lists that people choose names from like one of those Sukhumvit Road buffets: olives, imported cheese, bread sticks, mashed carrots, lamb—you get the idea. There’s always room on the plate for a tab of @Bangkok007 as he’s pretty quiet and the name and number looks rather nice between the salad and meat dishes.

Yesterday I received a notice of a new follower David Harry who has written two novels set on S. Padre island which I gather is somewhere in the hurricane path off Texas. One of his titles, The Padre Puzzle, is the top selling book on the island. If every man is an island, then every island needs a writer to record the toiling of the bell. I can’t promise David Harry much by way of “twitter wisdom.” A term that sounds vaguely as if belongs in the same category as military intelligence. Today I received yet another follower who describes herself as an “eBook novelists of historical thrillers & foreign intrigue.” These two new Twitter followers may be the beginning of a trend for Bangkok007, and trend or not are a good enough reason to fulfill my Friday blog commitment.

When a writer decides to set a series of crime fiction on an island (Britain and Australia being exceptions) there is a risk of a local bestseller but one that doesn’t bring in droves off non-islanders to queue at the local bookstore (if one still exists in the readers’ neighborhood). The same kind of problem I faced when determined against all market research to set my fiction in exotic foreign locales such as Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia (you start to see an emerging pattern: Bangkok007, exotic locations, no long queues at the bookstore, and not enough imagination to pick an island).

The hardcore reality is that while people love to dream about a holiday on an island with one of those funny red drinks with a tiny bamboo umbrella and staring at the sea, or in visiting different countries with unusual languages, customs, food and elephant polo matches, their armchair interest isn’t necessarily matched with their armchair reading interest in crime fiction.

Crime fiction really has no middle. The body is absent. But it has two long tails. Crime fiction is basically the skinny tail and the fat tail. That makes for a funny looking snake. But there it is. What biology can’t contemplate, capitalism creates out of pure imagination. One end of that tail (the under-nourished, shivered-up end) sells loads of books to the locals who can’t wait to read about each other, places they know, and crimes and lapses of morality that have happened in spitting distance from their old high school. The problem is there are only a handful of locals and most of them borrow books or buy them secondhand. The other end of the tail (where the champagne and Cuban cigars wait) is the bestselling crime fiction authors who continue to mine ore from the old coalfaces in London, Edinburgh, New York, and Los Angeles. Lesser cities trail like vapor from these fast moving city super jets. You almost never find them writing about islands.

There is, however, a wild card. Like a lottery winner who is your neighbor and know longer talks to you. This happens in fiction, too. That parochial crime novel with its local setting and local story ignites an international imagination. It rattles like a freight train with the brakeman dead and the dead man’s throttle malfunctioning. Everything in its path—reviewers, readers, postman, and booksellers—become a series of railway ties on the way to the bank. Read the press and you find how these elements of the book trade spread themselves out on the tracks. They celebrate in a unified voice how glad that this postage stamp of a place has become an irreplaceable part of their literary lives.

Then Alexander McCall Smith comes along with a series set in remote dusty village in southern African village and sells millions of copies. Or Stieg Larsson is buried just as his Swedish crime fiction set in a remote town in Sweden hits like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking millions of dollars from the pockets of readers around the world. How these writers mutated from skinny tail to fat and rich cat tail remains an evolutionary mystery. They are examples of how the long tail at the extremely profitable end of crime fiction is a creature sprung from the jaws of the quantum uncertainty principle.

If David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, which is not a crime fiction novel) is right, then somewhere in the infinite multiverse you are selling crime fiction as if you were Alexander McCall Smith or Stieg Larsson, and they are selling fiction to audiences like that of David Harry, myself, and a thousand other skinny tailed crime authors. The beautiful thing about David Deutsch’s theory of the multiverse is you don’t have to do the hard work of actually writing that crime fiction novel, you only have to think about writing it and imagine yourself a bestseller, with complimentary fruit baskets and flowers in your hotel suite, groupies hounding you for autographs, and a waiting limo to take you for a guest appearance on the Daily Show. That is already happening to one of your “you’s” in one of the infinite multiverses. The Padre Puzzle has been Number 1 on The New York Times Bestseller list for 638 weeks in one of those places, and so is yours.

Now we’ve established that crime fiction publishing is really about monsters that suddenly appear out of the shoals without warning, raise their heads and sink their teeth into your wallet. Don’t resist. Fork out the fee for being bitten. Read the book. Or at least the 50 first pages. We can relax as writers, readers, reviewers, publishers and the rest of those interested in crime fiction because somewhere in one of the universes, your monster has just washed up on a big shore and is devouring readers like killer whales feeding on shrill.

As a novelist you’ll find your choices are limited to one of two classes: the killer whale or a shrill, depending on which universe you find yourself. Get use to the fact that because you’re a shrill in a huge cloud of fellow shrills fleeing the mouth of a killer whale, and in that other universe invisible at the end of your fingertips you are that killer whale. Take that piece of wisdom and reduce it to 140 characters. And remember Bangkok007 doesn’t ever tweet much about anything and that’s why he continues to attract legions of new followers who are bestsellers somewhere in the multiverse.

Posted: 9/15/2011 9:04:03 PM 

 

Khmer Rouge Noir

There is an awful redundancy in the linkage to Khmer Rouge and Noir. Paired with a city whether Bangkok, New York, Moscow or Berlin, noir defines a mood, a texture of menace, despair, loss and doom. How does any artist, writer or painter capture on a page or canvas the vast abyss of darkness that represented the crimes of the Khmer Rouge against their own people? How can any number of words or images express the amount of suffering, pain and terror of those caught in the ideological madness of the Khmer Rouge?

Question, so many questions float to the surface when the stone of Khmer Rouge is thrown into the lake of our common humanity.

The death of Cambodian artist Vann Nath, aged 65, on 5th September 2011 is the right occasion to ask these questions. Vann Nath was a painter. He was born into a poor family and was raised amongst the rice fields of Battambang province. The family lacked resources to provide schooling for him. After four years in the monkhood he enrolled in a painting school. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power he painted landscapes and cinema posters. If history had been different, no one would likely have heard of Vann Nath or his paintings.

In 1978 he was arrested by the Khmer Rouge and sent to S21 (since 1980 it has been preserved as the Tuol Sleng Memorial and Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. Of the 15,000 prisoners who entered S21 only a handful survived. Vann Nath was one of them. The head of the prison Duch spared the painter in order that he could paint Pol Pot. In other words, Vann Nath lived because Duch sought to appease the vanity of his boss.

After the Khmer Rouge fell, Vann Nath painted many canvases depicting the scenes of torture and brutality that he had witnessed while an inmate. Many of them are on display at Tuol Sleng as graphic reminders of what had gone on inside the prison during the time of the Khmer Rouge. In later years, Vann Nath had the chance to examine on film the S21 guards for a documentary film The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). He also testified in the historic trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh where he was able to confront in the courtroom, Duch, the man who ran S21 and who had also spared his life. The Guardian’s Tom Fawthrop quoted him as saying in the courtroom that “I hope by the end that justice can be tangible, can be seen by everybody.”

If there ever was a noir artist, it was Vann Nath. Witness to the very worst treatment that man is capable of inflicting on others. His canvases record a long nightmare. A dark interior filled with fear, hatred, mistrust, suffering and death. A place where every heart beat of the men, women and children jailed at S21 counted the brief moments before their turn came. Van Nath’s art captures that heartbeat, their relentless dread and foreboding of the victims.

It is unimaginable to us who look at Vann Nath’s images that these images seared into his consciousness had realized themselves through his art, one that could be shared with millions around the world. Vann Nath’s noir shapes our way of seeing what the Khmer Rouge did. They are the guides into a world that is quickly fading into history. Vann Nath made certain that this descend into evil, into the heart of hopeless, that neither he nor we would ever forget.

There are many lessons to learn from Vann Nath’s life as a Cambodia’s most famous noir artist. The one that I like to think applies to segment of other noir artists and writers around the world. There are writers and artists who write or paint for the money. There is nothing wrong with earning a living. Indeed that is normal. That is easier done, though, in the developed world; it is easy to avoid the pockets of noir. One can just drive around them or fly over them. Or dart in and out for the images and story, and sleep at home in safety. But there are parts of the world where that isn’t possible. In these places, there is no place to hide, no safe place to sleep. In this world noir envelopes all time and space.

Vann Nath lived in one of those places at the wrong time in history. Then there are those like Vann Nath, whom fate had selected to be a witness, chose him and his talent of expression as a vehicle so the rest of us would remember, understand, and learn the lessons from those periods when madness haunts the land, brutality and murder are the rule, and ideological purity demands absolute conformity or death. Through these images and writings, we stand a chance of instructing a new generation exactly what means we are capable of employing to reach a political utopia and the clear and present danger of those who preach that all life must be organized around principles of purity torn from the absolutist handbook.

Vann Nath, noir artist extraordinaire, RIP.

_____________________________________________________________________
In 1993 as a journalist I covered the UNTAC period of administration in Cambodia, and was embedded with UNTAC civilian police. Along with them, I entered the old prison system. Zero Hour in Phnom Penh drew upon my experiences during this period of transition. Some years later I spent a week in the field with Cambodian mine officials in Vann Nath’s home province: Battambang.

I also recently edited the first anthology of noir tales of Bangkok: Bangkok Noir.

Posted: 9/8/2011 8:49:48 PM 

 

Bangkok’s Illegal Gambling Casinos : Throwing the Dice and Not Going to Jail

Law enforcement works on the implicit premise that the officials it employs are obligated to prevent crime, and when a crime does occur, they are detailed to solve the crime, arrest the criminals, process them through the courts and finally, upon conviction, off the wrongdoer goes in leg irons (in Thailand anyway) to prison and a steady diet of red rice.

That is the theory. But isn’t this a grand social illusion that most people are guilty of participating in? How is the way illegal gambling addressed in law enforcement substantively different from your average conjurer’s sleight of hand, the skilled the magician appears to make a ball under a cup ‘disappear’? We like illusionists because although we know it isn’t real magic, we can’t help being fooled because the ‘trick’ of fooling us is so believable, so well hidden.

I want to talk about the hidden ‘trick’ that makes the illusion of illegal gambling disappear.

Hypocrisy is part of the equation used by our police and politicians. This involves saying one thing while doing something that isn’t only different; it is the opposite. All human beings sooner or later revert to hypocrisy. The compliment paid to a friend or relative or colleague about his or her dress, hair, car, promotion at work—name your poison—may be false but your phony approval smoothes the social relationship. Magicians, illusionists, and hypocrites master the art of making us believe what we know isn’t really true. They let us believe what they wish us to believe is real, even though we know there is a reality hidden from view.

When the cops enter this game, it can become entertaining and provide an interesting look at the role of policing and the political process, which ultimately has responsibility for keeping the police on the straight and narrow. We witnessed recently how the UK phone hacking scandal dragged both the police and politicians through the muddy banks of awkward questions as to how and why News of the World could have carried on a course of action for so long without anyone in charge of law enforcement knowing. Or how that management of Murdoch’s empire had no idea what had happened, when it happened, who was involved and certainly would have blown the whistle had they received knowledge of the hacking.

Closer to home, Thailand’s English language daily newspapers have been devoting considerable ink to stories of illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok. At the beginning the scandal, the police brass in a very Murdock-like posture insisted there were no illegal casinos in Bangkok. Then a newly elected politician, who had firsthand knowledge of local policing from his massage parlor days, produced video footage of such an illegal casino. He caught the illegal operation on film! Technology lifted the veil and there it was for the whole world to see.

The editor of the Bangkok Post wrote an op-ed piece pointing out the location of illegal casinos by various streets and districts in Bangkok. And that was likely the tip of an iceberg that is apparently immune to the political equivalent of global warming. No actual addresses, mind you, were supplied but most people could figure out how to find them. Sangsit Piriyarangsan,  chairman of the doctorate degree course of study on governance development at Chandarakasem Rajabhat University, has done research to show there are more than 170 gambling dens in Bangkok, and around 700,000 to one million gambling dens operating elsewhere in Thailand. I am not certain how a den is defined, but apparently mobile ones appear at funerals so mourners don’t miss out on the chance to place a bet. If you add the casinos and dens up the sum comes to more than total number of the Starbucks, 7-Eleven stores, KFCs, McDonalds along with other fast food chains together.

It’s hard to keep that level of business illegal activity a secret. Someone’s gonna talk. And a lot of people in Thailand are now talking and pointing fingers, wagging fingers, frowning and otherwise expressing their official disapproval.

It seems about every neighborhood has some illegal gambling operation and is permitted to operate by paying off the police and/or maintaining good relations with the right politicians. It is prevalent as the 30 baht health care. Like Bogart in Casablanca, the head cop shows up at Rick’s, takes the white envelope and orders his men to round up the usual suspects. In essence, illegal gambling is a joint venture operation. Society knows it is there. Hypocrisy ensures that illegal casinos are officially condemned as against the law.

There are periodic ‘busts’ and someone gets nominated to take the fall. He (or sometimes she) is hauled for a slap on the wrist and is back dealing blackjack before nightfall. Wink and nod, but the real business of gambling continues without interruption. People who gamble had no problem finding a place to place their bets. Those who run the casinos and the authorities make a tidy, tax-free profit. Illegal gambling in other words is all unregulated gravy, and everyone likes being on a gravy train.

And what a gravy train it is as Mr. Sangsit estimates 2 to 8 billion baht is kicked back to the police. This represents the annual amount the police are estimated to receive according to Mr. Sangsit. Forget about trains. This is a tsunami of cash that roars through the police department every year. It would take a Guinness Book-sized white envelope to stuff that much cash into. It doesn’t stop there. The casino operators rake off a cool 38 to 40 billion baht of profit each year. If this was a company listed on the SET it would have one of the largest capitalization of all companies with shares publicly sold. But this is a private affair. You can’t buy shares in illegal casinos or dens. But you might want to consider buying the Thai rights to Casino Gambling for Dummies.

This takes me to my next point. Why not legalize gambling, bring into the open, regulate it, tax it, make it part of an entertainment complex open to the general public? Singapore and Malaysia have done this—shutting down the gravy train, and turning it into public transport. That decision takes an enormous act of political will.

The advocates of legalization will run head long into those who for moral or religious reasons will take to the streets to protest that the government is about to doom its youth, its workers, its mothers and fathers to a degraded life. And the government would be directly responsible for feeding their addiction, these impulses that should be controlled. What politician wants to be labeled as an enabler to increase the number of dysfunctional families? Besides, politicians also ride the illegal casino gravy train so it isn’t that difficult for them to agree that legalizing gambling would mark the end of civilization, the disbandment of families, loose morals, and the destruction of the work ethic.

Or a conflict of interest under another name.

Hypocrisy is a wonderful common ground that the politicians and those against reform share to their mutual interest. Gambling continues. Those enriched by the underground system, grow richer, and nothing changes because no one has a better explanation than that gambling is immoral, bad or sinful. In reality, such moralizing never offers a good explanation as to the nature of change in human behavior that includes risk taking. If instead of looking at the problem of gambling as solvable through moral lectures and training—a time-honoured technique with an unbroken multi-century record of failure—why not try something else. Illegal gambling is the hallmark of a static system supported by moral guardians.

With a million illegal gambling casinos in Thailand one could conclude that deterrence of the existing laws have failed. The threat of punishment has failed. The law is dysfunctional. Those in charge of making and enforcing the law are complicit in maintaining a system that clearly privatizes illegal gambling for the benefit of the operators, the police and politicians.

Gamblers are risk takers and will find a way to place their bets. Finite resources are wagered in the hope of increasing them. People who gamble want to become richer. Gambling promises them wealth. Gamblers think of themselves as possible winners even when they lose, they feel that their bad luck with turn. This is the same irrational place where religion and most of morality serves up sermons. Sermons, however, are not good explanations. Gamblers, as history demonstrates, are willing to bet against afterlife punishment and guilt is no barrier.

Gambling is a human problem in want of a solution. Making it illegal is obviously not a solution that works. As the scandal of the illegal gambling casinos spread, heads have rolled in the Thai police force, including the Chief of Police and a police van full of generals will likely find themselves in inactivity position. But if history is any guide, new heads will replace the old ones and business will continue as usual. That tsunami of cash is far too tempting. Changing faces will not stem the temptation and corruption. The prospects for the next lot of senior police no better than those they replaced.

If a country was serious about reducing the desire for gambling and the number of people who gamble, they could do that with basic education in schools starting from a very young age. Probability and game theory through a series of games and exercises would soon instruct children that the odds of winning have nothing to do with lucky charms, magical potions or chants, or appeals to the gods. The odds can be calculated in advance whether you will win rolling dice, playing blackjack, a slot machine or any other game of chance. Probability will teach children that there is no luck, no belief system or supernatural force that will intervene on your behalf in gambling.

We don’t teach children that predicting outcomes is a risky business. We withhold from them the brutal truth—which all predictions about an outcome, call it a bet, should be discounted as they contain false starts, misconceptions, bad information, biases, rumors, and wishful thinking. Politicians exploit this flaw to their own benefit by promising to predict events in the future. It isn’t just the Thais or politicians who get this wrong. The great hedge fund crash is another example of moving the illegal casinos into Wall Street, putting lipstick on that pig, and calling it an investment rather than a gamble. And many people put up their house on that premise.

There is an equation. That equation always favors the house. Predictions are uncertain and likely wrong. It is like predicting the weather tomorrow or next week. Gambling makes a few very wealthy because of the vast number of losers who believe they will be winners. And although someone may win a number of games, the sad, cruel reality is that they will always turn up losers.

You start to understand why the moral guardians would like that even less than gambling as it strikes at the heart of their way of looking at the world. A solution that shifts the worldview by showing a scientific way of looking at risk taking might be useful to examine in the role of religion and morality in this class of crimes.

For corrupt politicians, police and the illegal gambling operators, they are far more comfortable dealing with the moral keepers of society. This becomes a pact of those who put stock in the irrational belief that continuation of the existing system, so long as the current crop of corrupt generals are disgraced and punished, is the best approach. With those fresh new police officers, the problem of illegal casinos will vanish. One shouldn’t look over the political opportunity when a new government comes in and looks for a reason to cull the existing police brass appointed by the previous government. It’s apparently not that difficult to implicate them in the gambling business. And what can the opposition do in such circumstances? Say they are going to the streets to support corrupt police generals? It is a perfect, almost free way to slay your opponents and come out looking like a moral hero.

Between calculated political advantage any government can have over the police, combined with magical, primitive thinking about the horrors of gambling, it is guaranteed the unbroken run of good luck of illegal casino and den owners will continue. Morality and amoral politicians are a powerful force and they somehow always ends indirectly supporting the side of the illegal operators. And perhaps that is one of the inherent flaws of morality in the realm of gambling; it proceeds without any sense of irony, any acknowledgment of the contradictions that the devil’s best friend is the most pious among us.

The worse aspect of widespread disrespect for the law, which is what illegal gambling on this scale represents, is it spreads alienation, cynicism, and pessimism. But the true damage is at a deeper layer. The police and politicians are compromised, their duty to the public in conflict with their private interest. Reform is to harness that huge wall of cash and channel it into public reservoirs for public use. It is our drinking water in other words.

Despite the latest crackdown in Bangkok, if you want to place a bet, I’d say the odds are in your favourite if you bet, that like Rick’s Café in Casablanca, the show will go on. Just don’t ask the piano player to play that song. To the melody of “You Must Remember This,” I leave you with a parting thought as you stand on that tarmac a smiling cop at your side as you watch the plane with your sweetheart take off, “No one gets hurt, no one dies, and everyone gets the same chance to lose.”

Posted: 9/1/2011 9:03:25 PM 

 

 

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