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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.

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Posted: 9/8/2011 8:49:48 PM 

 

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.”

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Posted: 9/1/2011 9:03:25 PM 

 

Red light means stop; green light means go; and yellow light is proceed with caution. Except Thai drivers have a way of blurring the meaning of traffic lights. Signaling what is expected, what is wanted, or what one can get away with are mentally built from the cultural bricks of education, family, friends and neighbors. Simple signals such as yes, and no, like traffic signals aren’t always to be relied upon.

In Thai culture, it is a well-established tradition that before you enter the house of a Thai, you first remove your shoes. The feet, according to local custom, are the lowest part of the body. Walking on streets and pavements makes for dirty shoes. There are a couple of levels at work. First, your feet (and everybody else’s) occupy the lowest realm (pointing with your foot at someone is a major cultural gaff). Second, there are some practical health issues packaged with living in the tropics. Dog shit is one. Along with various parasites and bacteria which have been known to hitch a ride on people’s shoes and into their houses.

Even though this ‘shoe’ feature of Thai culture (it’s more like a fetish) can be found in every travel guide ever written about Thailand, it is not uncommon to find a foreigner walking straight into a Thai house as the horrified Thai hosts watch the clump, clump of shoes leaving the equivalent of CSI chalk lines outlining a dead body.

I have a good Thai friend who tells the story of his mother, one of those well-educated, well-read, articulate women I’ve met. A couple of foreigners were taken by my Thai friend to visit his mother. At the door, the foreigners (obviously having read a guidebook) had begun to remove their shoes. The mother insisted that wasn’t necessary. They looked at each other, they looked at the mother, and she repeated that they were welcome to keep on their shoes. So inside the house they went wearing their shoes.

An hour later the foreigners left, and mother and son closed the door. The mother sighed, shaking her head.

“What’s wrong, mother?” my Thai friend asked.

“You know what’s wrong,” she said.

He had an idea what she was getting at but at the same time didn’t want to guess.

“I don’t understand, mother.”

“Your friends walked through my house in their shoes. Why are foreigners so rude? Don’t they understand the most simple thing about Thai culture?”

“But you told them not to remove their shoes. I heard you, mother.”

She looked at him, slowly shaking her head, as if the foreigners had infected his mind.

“Aren’t they aware in Thai culture, that you always remove your shoes? I thought you said these foreigners knew Thailand.”

“They thought you’d made an exception,” he said.

“There are no exceptions. Shoes off. Always.”

He had to admit that she was right. His mother had, as an act of graciousness and courtesy had made a concession to their foreign ways, which she understood to be different. Westerners had no problem trampling over the floors of others with their shoes on leaving a trail of dirt and disease. But they, if they knew Thailand, then these foreigners would also understand that his mother’s concession was not to be acted upon. In her mind, the situation was perfectly clear. The foreigners should have known that in reality her “yes, please keep your shoes on,” should have been translated by the foreigners as, “yes, let me remove my shoes.”

As the son later told me, his mother had assumed the foreigners could “read her mind” and instead they merely heard her words and took them at face value. In a culture where face does have a high value, a mind reading an essential element in social relationships, a foreigner should understand that it is often necessary to go behind the words and into the interior desire and real intention of the person. No one should expect a Thai to spell out her true wish when the rules are plainly, obviously clear and without ambiguity.

This story isn’t just about shoes. It is about the intentions of people communicating in a public space where political and social relationships demand everyone is working from the same cultural rulebook. Paying a restaurant bill is another variation on this theme. Mind reading is a definite plus in Thailand (and most places) but foreigners can rest assured that often Thais are no better than reading each others minds than someone from Kansas fresh from the airport racing into Bangkok to find the real Thailand.

Orginally published 30 July 2010 as Christopher is traveling abroad.

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Posted: 8/25/2011 9:09:34 PM 

 

I am trying to wrap my mind around the almost hysterical, obsessive need for people to become a published author. Mostly, I suspect, it is like one of those twist off caps on a cheap bottle of wine where the threads don’t quite catch right. There is a concentrated effort to get the cap off. More simply, getting into the publishing racket is another example of our need for acceptance in the crowd of strangers. We live in age where many people wish to stand out apart from the crowd as an accomplished worthy, special word genius. The problem is the number of people who want to stand out by writing books has become larger than the crowd that read and buy books.

Like most people I admired perseverance as a noble attribute. People who don’t easily give and roll over with the first wall in life they hit. People who pick themselves up and keep on going. That’s my kind of people. Pull up a chair, I raise a glass of OJ to your grit.

But there is a limit. I think I may have found where that fence is. There is a writer who blogs at Literary Rejection Display and he’s blogged about his 11,000 rejections on the way to getting 82 stories published. One publishing industry insider called this record of rejection “inspirational.”

Remember we are talking about rejection. That haunting word that has shadowed every kid from 11 years on. Who in defeat, looks back at the bully and says, “Yeah, I’ll show you.”

Let’s test this theory of what is inspirational inside the world of rejection. Forget about writing stories for a moment. Let’s say the person wishes more than anything to be a world-class marksman and reap the honor of that status with the larger world. He goes to the shooting range. Pulls out his rifle and goes through 11,000 rounds of ammo. He hits the target 82 times. Not a candidate for sniper’s school. But he doesn’t give up. He slaps in another clip and blasts away.

Or assume he’s a trainee pilot and manages to crash land a plane (let’s make that a different plane) 11,000 times but has 82 confirmed landings where the plane safely landed. The air force would likely not give him a set of wings. United Airlines might hire him. But do you seriously want him flying the plane you are in?

Or assume he builds custom cars on spec. His brochure says he personally built spec cars, which were rejected by 11,000 buyers but 82 cars he managed to sell. Do you want to buy or ride in one of his cars?

Or he bakes cakes which are rejected by the 11,000 cake tasters, who spit them out, drink water to wash away the bad taste and ultimately shopped for cakes elsewhere. Still 82 other cake buyers are bought one of his cakes, saying they were yummy. Would you eat the cake?

Would we find the marksman, trainee pilot, car builder and cake maker inspirational in light of their rejections? Or would we wonder how a person can take that kind of beating, wake up the next morning and knowing he had a .007 percent chance of success but still manages to pull out the rifle, get into the cockpit of the plane, go to the garage and assemble another spec car, or to kitchen to bake a cake, firing up the process of almost near certain rejection all over again?

It seems writing stories and books is a special areas of human activity that attracts so many people who willingly continue to persist despite the clear message that rejection delivers: you should devote your talents and energies to something with at least lottery type odds of success. I don’t have the answer to the question of why the continued effort to write when such a clear signal of rejection of a writer’s work indicates that he shouldn’t bother is inspirational? Other than one: It is difficult to let go of a dream. Especially if you believe that in time, with enough effort, the dream can come true.

The harsh reality is that not everyone can play the violin, swim, run, shoot, cook, sing, dance or tell jokes at a professional level. There is a certain level that defines success. It is where a commercial enterprise that depends on turning a profit will pay money in order to support the talent. A big talent brings in a lot of money. Sponsors will pay money to be associated with the skill and talent. Perhaps in sports it is easier to know who has won and who has lost. It is objective. There are cameras at the finish line. Sensors at the end of the pool pick up the first touch. There is no arguing the toss. No bellyaching that a winner is made a loser because the gatekeepers don’t recognize talent. Losing 11,000 times isn’t professional talent. It is by definition not professional. The pitcher who throws 82 strikes is a hero, and can play for the Yankees. But if he throws 11,000 balls into the dirt in order to get 82 strikes, no one is going to write an inspirational movie about that player’s devotion to the game and how the Yankees were damn fools to overlook him.

In writing, the general feeling is that, well, it is all feeling, subjective, and if you tunnel away long enough, you can burrow under the gatekeepers wall and moat, breach the inner walls, and do a victory dance, holding up the published story or book, showing the world you are a winner after all.

No one likes rejection. The reality of the world is that truly talented people with unique abilities and rare talents and skills are a small percentage of the total population. The rest of us admire such people. We watch them perform. We benefit from such performances in many different ways. The problem emerges when we delude ourselves into telling ourselves, “Hey, I can write cozy novels just like Cakes Copeland.” Or “I can tell jokes better than David Letterman.” Or “I can write a novel better than Dan Brown.”

I know. The first and last example is what gives all that false hope. No one truly believes the network should dump Letterman and hire him as the replacement. Being funny is more than just hard work. Like writing a story or book.

I don’t know what the magic number is before a writer should move on. But I’d say it isn’t the 11,000 elevation, the K2 of rejection. A heavy weight boxer that takes 11,000 body punches while throwing 82 deserves a place in Guinness Book of World Records for continuing to stand in the ring. But inspiration isn’t the word that comes to mind when you look at the boxer who has taken that beating. Sadness is closer to the mark, a sadness that comes from understanding that we occupy a world where no one has the balls to tell the boxer that the fight is over. We tell him that because he’s still standing on his feet after such punishment that he is inspirational. Instead we should be telling him throw in the towel, take a shower, go home, devote what precious time he has left on this earth for and with family, friends, and community. Inside that place, he is more likely to make a difference, have more impact and a life with more meaning. There are things in life other than writing stories, books and films from which self-worth and accomplishment can be achieved. And just maybe those are things that, in the long run, should be valued more, seen as more significant than a published book with one’s name on the spine and front cover.

But wait one moment. Rejection has a certain meaning in the old world of publishing. Will that change as publishing migrates online and ebooks multiply like fireflies around the porch light? No question about it, change is already here. We are entering an new digital age where the old notion of rejection of book will radically alter. No one will have the patience to accumulate 11,000 rejections. They won’t need to wait for one rejection from a traditional publisher. Here’s why. Everyone now has access to make their books available to the whole world by simply uploading it. Others will be invited to read, download, buy or share it. In this new age of publishing, rejection will gather a new meaning. But it won’t be rejection at the gateway to readers.

It will be inside the beltway of readers that rejection will bite like a pit bull.

In this new world where everyone can claim to be an author, rejection will come as “authors” realize that only 82 of every 11,000 online authors are worth reading and indeed are read. The book with a few hits will become the new measurement of rejection. There will be sly ways sold to online authors to pump up their number of readers. That will soon be exposed as fraud. Rejection will be coded in new ways. Don’t think technology will abolish it. That won’t happen. People will still complain and wail of the unfairness of it all. In the end, old age, new age publishing, the bottom line is pretty much the same. There are only a small number of authors worth reading. Making it easier to be “published” doesn’t make it any easier to attract an audience.

Great or even good writing is rare. If you are an avid reader, finding an author you want to read has always been like panning for gold. In the future, readers will miss the old publishing system, imperfect as it was, when editors and agents waded into the murky waters, panning for gold. They published stuff that wasn’t gold. But that is only human. Readers have great expectations when they read a story or book or poem and most of them hate going through tons of gravel looking for a few specs of gold. Instead of those polite, meaningless form letters from traditional publishers, readers may not be so kind when their anger and disappointment of reading an inferior work causes them to shout insults. If I had to make a prediction, rejection is set to become much nastier, personal, and demoralizing. The new crop of authors will look back with longing at how civilized the old world of rejection really was.

Orginally published 26 February 2010 as Christopher is traveling abroad.

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Posted: 8/19/2011 9:00:00 AM 

 

Like most writers, I receive emails from readers. Often they are comments about a particular book. Others write with suggestions and ideas for books. Still a few are people who seek advice about writing crime fiction.

I received an email from a reader who wrote:

“I’m working on a crime novel and recently completed my first draft. My dilemma is that I have no idea which city to set it in. The story’s current setting in Los Angeles, but I’m thinking of changing and starting over. Conventional wisdom and research into past bestseller lists suggests setting the story in either the U.S. or a European capital city and have it involve western characters and values. But the recent shift of power and money to Asia, particularly China, and the fast-growing sales of novels in countries like China and India, is changing everything. Not to mention the huge tourism numbers in places like Thailand and Malaysia nowadays.

So I’m thinking of doing the opposite of most and setting my novels in Asia and finding a niche market there like you do, Christopher. ‘The fishing is best where the fewest go’, as my grandfather used to say. For example, I’m thinking of the capitals of Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia as a setting as no other western author is writing crime fiction there, to the best of my knowledge.

What do you think? Does the rise of China and Asia mean that it’s better for new authors to write stories set in Asia? And which city in S.E Asia do you think would be a good place to write crime fiction?”

I have been thinking over the best way to reply. In the past, when I’ve spoken before various groups about the Vincent Calvino series, I tell the story of how almost twenty years ago when after Spirit House had been published that my literary agent at the time wrote (we didn’t have email then) about a US publisher who liked the novel and wondered if I could change the setting from Bangkok to Boston. I wrote her back, “Is it okay if I leave everything else the same?” Apparently the answer was ‘no’ as the publisher failed to press ahead.

If you examine the authors who write on this blog, you’ll find a common thread. We all have lived for many years or spent many years in the culture and place where we set our fiction. I think of Matt Rees’s Omar Yussef mysteries, Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri’s mysteries, Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikman’s mysteries, Quentin Bate’s Iceland mysteries, Margie Orford’s South African mysteries, and Conor Fitzgerald’s Commissioner Alec Blume series set in Italy—the common thread is each of these writers has been immersed in the culture, the history, the language and the psychology of the place where they’ve set their fiction.

It would be difficult to imagine substituting another city or country in books written by my colleagues on this blog. The reality is that their finely developed characters and actions of the police, courts and other parts of the criminal justice system wouldn’t connect with the underlying values, morals, sentiments, or experience of the people who live, work, and are the victims of crimes in another place.

My advice is not to write the novel first and then decide which city is ‘hot’ or ‘trendy’ and rewrite the book, setting it in that place. The book I’d recommend you read is David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. No, it’s not a crime novel. No, it’s not on The New York Times bestseller’s list. It is out of copyright. You can download it free from the Internet. I urge you to do so. What Hume teaches is the way to understanding is in experience and observation. The testimony of men and women, the reports of witnesses and spectators, and we apply our observations to the veracity of human testimony. It is one of the best guides to interpreting your world, and any new world you wish to move to.

After you finish with Hume, go to Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders and work your way through the excellent archives, and discover first hand the crime writers who are setting novels in foreign cities. You will learn a lot about how these authors have successfully used a foreign country in a crime novel.

There are no shortcuts. No writing course, no how-to book, no mystery or crime convention that can deliver the material that you will require to set the second draft of your crime novel in a foreign culture.

There are a couple of things that may be helpful and that you might want to keep in mind. Without the experience of ‘place’ no matter how much you try to evolve the character and the crime, your efforts will likely fail. You will have wasted your time and your creative effort will have hit a brick wall. It’s not because you don’t have talent or can’t write; it will be because you aren’t able to deliver a meaningful sense of what it is to experience the place where your novel is set.

Our blog is written by crime writers who have done a reality check on their own work and the books written by others. Each of us (I am presuming to speak for the others and welcome them to jump in on the comments) writes from our personal experience of the place where we’ve placed our series. In my view, a writer who hasn’t spent a significant time in a place won’t be able to hide the ignorance and no amount of time on Google, YouTube, or GoogleMaps will substitute for your actual experience in the place where your book is set.

Our readers buy our books because they have faith that we can deliver a sense of ‘place’ that can’t be found elsewhere. Not in magazines, newspapers, blogs, articles by the bushel basket on the Internet. If there is a secret to why our books have a following, it is a combination of our experience of place, our passion for the culture, language and people, and our attention to the telling details that deliver a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are in a foreign city.

The authors of this blog aren’t tourists who’ve visited a place for a couple of weeks, made some notes, returned “home” and worked them into a second draft of a book that was written before we left. We speak the language of our respective cities. We dream in that language. That’s not to say, everyone who picks up a novel cares about whether the novel has any connection with the reality of a city, and peppering the story with second-hand information wouldn’t be enough to satisfy many readers. In that case, I’d ask if you’d be proud to have your name on the cover of such a passing off?

You might say, “I am not writing for people who know these cities well. I writing a great story and exotic locations will add an element to the atmosphere. And Asia is hot, and people like exotic cities.”

My reply would be, “There’s a place for all kinds of stories and ways of telling a story. One factor to keep in mind: an author’s credibility as a storyteller depends on whether the world he or she is creating is solely a product of imagination, or whether he or she is asking the reader to believe the ‘place’ is a real, authentic place. If it is the former, then write that second draft as science fiction or fantasy. If it is the latter, find a city where you have the passion for the food, people, weather, culture and history. Move there. Live there for a year or two. Learn the language. Experience the culture. Then take out that first draft and see how much of it makes sense when set in this new place that you live.”

By the way, best of luck on that “fishing trip.” You have a chance to catch a trophy fish once you learn from the locals who live in that Asian city the art of baiting the hook.

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Posted: 8/11/2011 7:15:12 PM 

 

Murders happen everywhere people live. No country is spared. For those left behind, a murder is a tragedy and one that remains in their memories for a lifetime. The reality is most murders are domestic affairs. They often occur in the country where the killer and victim were born, educated, worked, and played. The killer and victim often shared in a common culture and language. They likely watched the same TV shows and movies. They recognized the same celebrities who outside that culture moved anonymously among others who did not recognize them. In other words, they consider themselves as belonging to the same ‘tribe.’

When the murder victim dies violently in a foreign place and the killer or killers are natives to that foreign land, the killing ignites the interest of the media. Ever since Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice we have the suspicion that someone murdered in a foreign country is something we ought to pay special attention to the tribal affiliations of the victim and killer. Though, in Death in Venice the killer was cholera, and not someone with a knife or gun. The point is death on holiday attracts attention.

First, we all take or dream of taking holidays to foreign lands. The attraction of such a holiday is to sit on a pristine white sand beach with tall drink with one of those little umbrellas. This is a time to sit back and relax, enjoy the breeze off the sea. If someone just like you—a respectable, hardworking middle-class person—opens a newspaper and reads about someone who resembles the details of your own life who was found with a knife in his back, you take that death more personally. That could have been you on the beach in France, Italy, Greece, Thailand or India. The kind of places you may have been to or intend to visit.

Second, like Mann’s Death in Venice foretells, the police and government officials in countries, which promote the ‘tourist dream holiday’ may be less than forthcoming when a foreigner is violently assaulted or killed. Such governments have a conflict of interest. They wish to be seen as a country that administers a system of criminal justice that is worthy of respect internationally. No country’s police force or judicial system is happy to suddenly have an international spotlight placed on an investigation into the death or severe beating of a foreigner. The relevant embassy makes phone calls to important officials, the victim’s relatives and local MPs to make certain that the embassy follows up on request for information and evidence. Journalists from the victim’s country show up and ask questions. Internet social sites buzz with fear and loathing.

In May, tourists arrivals were up 66% compared with a year ago, and Thailand has the greatest gain in tourists of any country in Southeast Asia. John Koldowski, PATA’s managing director of strategic intelligence said, “In May, more than 1.3 million foreign tourists visited the kingdom, compared with 826,000 a year ago.”

It all threatens to go slightly out of control. Not to mention that the government of the place where the murder takes place has other worries. Their officials (like in Death in Venice) worry about a dip in the tourist numbers and the impact that would have on jobs, hotel vacancies, along with the general knock on effect as less revenue circulates in the holiday centers. Tourist centers are full of voters. The heat from abroad is hot but never so hot as the blast of heat that comes from disgruntled voters.

I raise the issue as resort centers such as Pattaya and Phuket have recently been in the news for locales where foreigners have been mugged, raped, assaulted or murdered. The foreign press doesn’t always distinguish between the case of the tourists and expats.  Perhaps they shouldn’t. Though a case can be made that an expat who lives in another country (as opposed to someone visiting on a short holiday) ought to have better information and more experience with local people, customs, and culture and are able to steer clear of trouble with greater ease. Anyone who has known a cross-section of expats will find a number who go out of their way to expose themselves to risk of assault or murder because of their own involvement in criminal activity. In such a case, the heat dies down as the murder victim tumbles from the innocent mirror image of you going on that holiday to Thailand to someone likely involved in criminal activity. Of course tourists get themselves into trouble, too.

A local newspaper in Phuket reported the death of a Russian with Swedish nationality whose throat had been cut in front of his luxury condo, provides a roundup of recent murders of foreigners:

“On March 15, Phuket and Phi Phi resident Italian Luciano Butti was allegedly murdered by Thais at the behest of his partner, Denis Cavatassi, who is now in Phuket Prison awaiting trial.

”On August 14 last year, Englishman Lee Aldhouse allegedly knifed to death American Dashawn Longfellow in southern Phuket. Aldhouse is currently being held in Britain, awaiting the outcome of an extradition hearing.

”A Thai man who killed German expat resident Wolf-Dieter Kesselheim outside a 7-Eleven store on January 27 last year was caught and tried and sentenced to 13 years and four months jail on December 16.

”The previous year, a Canadian property developer was shot dead outside his Phuket house and a Scotsman was battered to death in his Phuket City apartment in the same week.”

The pressure of bad publicity is deflected when the suspected killers are themselves foreigners.  There’s evidence that Swedish man killed in Phuket on Monday was murdered by two Swedish nationals who have been arrested by the authorities in connection with the killing, according to news accounts.

In other words, if someone is killed in an exotic land by someone from their own country, it has a different emotional impact on potential tourists considering their holiday plans It seems that the real fear isn’t just being murdered by being killed by a foreigner in a distant land. Being killed by your own citizen seems business as usual. Being killed by someone else’s nationals, well, that is bad for business. Especially if they are locals as these are the happy people in the travel brochure who convinced you that this holiday location was an ideal place to relax (as opposed to getting yourself killed). Why we mentally categories the killings on whether they are within the tribe or by someone outside the tribe is one of those evolutionary questions scientist may figure out one day. Until then, tourists continue to have a greater reaction and feel more fear when the killing of a foreigner, especially a tourist, in a foreign land by a local.

The tragedies that governments are more likely to avoid calling attention to often involve issues of lack of training, inattentiveness, shoddy maintenance, lax health standards, lack of control on how food or domestic animals are brought to market, and generally reckless behavior. These categories cover the ferryboats that sink, the planes that crash, the trains that derail, car crashes, epidemics, virus infections, extreme weather and pollution related diseases.

Unlike a murder, death from these non-murder type causes also make the headlines around the world and, if the scale is sufficient, will also disturb the tourism business. When the tsunami struck Thailand in 2005 thousands of people were killed. Thousands of foreign tourists were killed by that tsunami but the tourism business did not spend years in decline as a consequence.

The reason the tsunami, far more powerful and damaging, than an isolated murder, is less disruptive is simple. Foreigners don’t blame the locals for the death of their loved ones, especially if as a result of natural disasters. If anything, the foreigners felt admiration for the efforts launched by the Thai government to recover bodies, inform loved ones, and provide information and comfort to the survivors. But one murder is enough to cause a potential tourist to sit back and have that moment of doubt.

Should I change that trip to Thailand or Mexico or Sri Lanka because I read a tourist was shot and the police and government don’t seem all that keen on doing anything about it? What hardly matters is whether the police or local officials are working around the clock on the case, it is the perception that someone from their country has been murdered and the police haven’t arrested anyone.

Putting international pressure on local police in exotic location can also backfire. They pick out a scapegoat and pin the murder on him or her. The suspect is videoed re-enacting the crime. It all looks so real. But real or not, it will have the desired effect—it reassures the foreigners about the efficiency and diligence of the authorities to deal with such cases. That gives a feeling of deterrence, and that is enough to erase that tiny bit of doubt about your holiday plans. What is good for your psyche isn’t necessarily good for the poor cut out who is frog marched off to prison.

Next time you read about a tourist murdered in a remote, exotic place, ask yourself not whether I should cancel my holiday to that place but whether, on balance, I am genuinely at any greater risk of being murdered on holiday than I am in being killed in a car crash on the way to the airport. If you do the math, in most places the most dangerous part of your holiday will be on the road to and from your airport. Also, if you run the math on the relationship between murder victim and killer, in the majority of cases they know each other. They are members of the same tribe. On that next holiday, it would be wise to watch the road to the airport carefully, and when you check into that hotel in an exotic land, keep an eye on members of your fellow tribe. Because statistically that’s where your greatest danger of being murdered lies.

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Posted: 8/4/2011 10:21:29 PM 

 

According to the BBC,  a bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem was bought for 75,000 pounds sterling by French collector Christian Vanneque. Depending on your point of view that kind of expenditure is either highly disturbing or makes you secretly envious, wishing you had that kind of money.

A few years ago, the Boston Globe ran a story about the average worldwide income which was pegged at $7,000 a year. It would take the average worker 17.6 years if he or she saved every last cent to buy that bottle.

This isn’t a rant against the rich and how they spend their money. It is an essay about how deep desire for status, recognition and approval. And how these desires are partly responsible for the economic reality of our time—1% of Americans own 40% of the wealth and 20% of the income. It also an essay about the efforts people go about in using money to gain status and recognition in the global community. Pay that kind of money for a bottle of wine and people around the world will read about you, they will know your name, the name of your restaurant. As a marketing ploy, it is quite brilliant. That bottle of wine also highlights how all that wealth which is supposed to go into creating new jobs, is just as likely to find new and novel ways to display status.

Criminals are a diverse lot with manifest motives and intentions. The criminal class includes the eleven year old who steals a loaf of bread because he’s hungry. Hunger doesn’t exclude him from being a criminal. In the 18th century, he might be transported to Australia. We tend to have sympathy for criminals driven by necessity.

The man driving his mother whose has had a stroke at high speed to a hospital, runs red lights, hits a couple of parked cars, but manages to get her to the hospital before she dies is also a law-breaker but we have a different feeling about the ‘culpability’ issue than say a teenager who gets drunk and does all the same things as the man going to the hospital. Yet we have no problem thinking the teenager should be punished and taught a lesson.

Necessity drives certain impulses that lead to criminal behavior. In an emotional rage, someone gets out of their car and stabs another motorist to death. Or someone kills their spouse, neighbor, friend over a remark, insult, or slight. That is, someone has questioned their ‘status’ and that activity is always dangerous. In a face culture like Thailand, where status is of paramount importance, slights to status invite retaliation.

We want status. Perhaps it is a need like food, water, shelter and sex. Status motives people. Give them a ribbon, decoration, trophy, or gold star and they will fight and die for you. Competition for status makes short cuts tempting. And short cuts are the slippery slope to criminal activity. When thinking what drives someone to commit a crime, examine the underlying impulse that was the motive for crime. Was the conduct done because the criminal is starving or his mother is dying, or will the result of the crime evaluate his or her status?

I steal a loaf of bread because I am hungry isn’t the same as I steal a Rolex not because I want to tell the time but because I want to impress my friends. Or I invite a government official to dinner and pop open a bottle of wine that cost 75,000 pounds sterling before asking them to grant me a telecom, mining, or shipping concession.

Criminal law fences off status acquiring activity as well as actions to acquire goods owned by others without paying for them. Prisons are filled with criminals who failed in their quest to gain status through illegal means. And they bunk with those whose illegally acquired goods, also mainly to achieve status, failed.

The large crimes needed to pull off big time; international status takes us into the realm of banking, finance and journalism. If you can elevate your status sufficiently high, you can influence the police, courts and government that your activity is socially useful and not criminal. You can support changes to laws and regulations that would block your ambitions to increase your status even more. Hedge fund managers, CEOs, bankers have leveraged their status by organizing politically and reducing any attempts to control their behavior or to tax their gains.

Of course, these status seekers know that others are unhappy with the lopsided way that status is assigned to them. They also know that by cooking the books, they can stay ‘legal’ while the vast majority of the population struggle for the scraps of status and may find their activity ‘criminalized’. The protected class, which has most of the status horde, is quite happy to imprison the status seekers below. It teaches them a lesson about life. Status seeking as a goal is limited to a tiny number of winners. Once they enter the winner’s circle, they are content to lock the door.

Criminal law is what we use to control the losers in the status race. The winners pay governments to write that laws to constrain the activities of the also-rans. The fundamental problem, as the current budget crisis in the United States suggests, is that unless governments control status seekers in the top 1% of the population, that class will own them, control them, and ensure that the prisons are filled by those who fail to play by the rules as defined by them.

We want our star football players, singers, actors and Nobel Prize winners. The problem are these winners are used as a beard by those with predator business talents that enrich without corresponding benefits to the larger community. Hedge fund managers, finance moguls and CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies (who make up the bulk of the .01%) of top income earners aren’t rock stars nor are they coming up with a cure for cancer. But they have the skill to skate close to the boundaries of the laws, rules and regulations that govern their activities, sometimes skating over the line; and if they can, fund a politician to extend the line.

This group redefines what is a crime in order to better pursue their personal interest.
When those outside of government achieve status above those elected to government, and those in government owe their position to the wealthiest citizens, the laws no longer reflect the majority of citizens. And the majority of citizens no longer understand that their view and opinions have been shaped and distributed by those who wish to use them for their own ends.

Redistribution of wealth is one way to combat status hoarding. But redistribution is a loaded, nasty taboo word. So let’s think of this concentration of wealth like the pollution that poisons the atmosphere and contributes to climate change; let’s not redistribute wealth or income. Let’s talk about “cap”. This is something we are familiar with. There’s a cap on the speed limit. You can’t go as fast as you want. There’s a cap on the chemical and toxics you can dump into rivers, lakes, canals and the ocean. There are caps on carbon emissions. The one common feature that caps have: is they don’t redistribute speed, chemicals or carbon, but they do place a limit on making a profit from driving at high speeds (truck drivers) or from polluting the air, rivers, forests and oceans. We have no problem saying the community-interest overrides the self-interest. Society already agrees to criminalize certain selfish behavior committed by individuals even though it may deprive them of more income or wealth.

Why not put a ‘cap’ on income and wealth? And for the same basic reason, that a concentration of a large percentage of the wealth in the upper one percent is detrimental to the rest of the community and damages them. Anyone who doesn’t believe that such damage doesn’t spread across a large range of other people’s interest haven’t been watching the James and Rupert Murdock show on the BBC. Or have already forgot about the financial crash of 2008. Say cap income at the current rates the rich pay on the first $12 million dollars a year. Most people could scrap past on a million a month. Then start progressive taxing the additional income until it hits $24 million a year and then let the tax be 90%. On wealth, the first $250 million, old rules apply, after that it goes back to the community. Even if the community doesn’t need it; the money should go back. There is a good policy reason: income and wealth concentrations at the current levels in the United States threat the fabric of representative democracy, and the policing and judicial system.

If we are honest, the arguments for unlimited wealth and income concentration are about keeping people moving ahead with incentives. The reality is what moves people to continue to excel and push the boundaries is they want recognition. More than want it; they crave recognition and to show a higher status. Our problem is “globalization is big money” has become universal status measuring stick. The consensus we once had that allowed for share meaning and structure has fractured into cult-like enclaves where debate, reason and dialogue no longer are welcome.

The Forbes list of the richest people is translated, read, studied and talked about in every language on the planet. If we could find new status measuring sticks then money would matter less. Those who hunger for our community (and more importantly their peer’s) recognition can have airports, squares, and parks named after them; give them awards, medals, citations, knighthoods, and gold bars to wear on their lapels. Revise the Forbes annual list to include the number of gold stars, red ribbons, or public declarations by MPs as to their worthy contributions.

We are at a crossroads politically, socially and economically in finding the political will to win this battle. Unless we dismantle the unregulated status consolidation at the top, the democratic system will collapse into warring cults and when that happens the scramble to maintain order will overwhelm even the best of legal systems. Let people strive for status. But let it be known that there are limits as to how much status any society can reasonably allow to fall into a few hands.

And let’s recognize that without caps on pollution and income the whole ecosystem is threatened. The rebalancing of community interest with self-interest has never been easy; and it is a kind of work that never is finished. All we can say looking around us is that self-interested income generation and wealth is no longer remotely in equilibrium with the larger community interest.

As for those who open that bottle 1811 Chateau d’Yquem and pass it around, they might want to think about how far we’ve come in the last 200 years. And ask themselves who will be buying a bottle of 2011 Chateau d’Yquem in 2211. And at what price and what will their world look like?

Give some thought to that nice gold star. Say one star for every $15 million in tax paid. Wouldn’t that invite envy from friends and colleagues, the attention of beautiful women, the admiration of civil society? I know what you are thinking. I can get one of those gold stars for a 100 baht on Khao San Road. Maybe. But it will still be difficult to pull off the counterfeit billionaire trick at the guesthouse.

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Posted: 7/28/2011 10:02:36 PM 

 

It is hard to defend a number of law enforcement practices in Thailand. I write a crime series. In the process of writing, I’ve researched the Thai police realm from investigation to laying charges. The feature of Thai policing largely—for better and worse—in each of the 12 Vincent Calvino novels. I also was a law professor for ten years.

My background gives me a perspective on Thomas Fuller’s NYT article titled Thailand’s Irresistible Attraction to Fugitives that leads with deadline Bangkok:

Bangkok: Give me your drug dealers, your money launderers, your felons on the lam yearning to breathe free. …

Thailand has never advertised itself as a beacon for fugitives, but the world’s wretched refuse—to tweak the noble words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—seem to show up here in droves.

Foreign fugitives “in droves?” It makes Bangkok sound like there’s a foreign gangster on every corner. If that’s the case, they are well hidden. As far as I know there is no Index that ranks countries according to bolt-hole attractiveness for those on the lam. Fuller’s speculation is that Thailand would top that list. I doubt it. I seriously doubt that Thailand would make the top twenty in such an Index.  And I’d wager that the USA would have a higher ranking (more about that later). What’s the evidence for this influx of foreign fugitives? A WikiLeaks cable that came out of the US embassy in Bangkok. And some news reports of foreign murderers and child molesters arrested over the past couple of years.

A popular fall back rationale for all of these fugitives in Thailand is that the police and immigration officials are corrupt. No one could say with a straight face that that corruption doesn’t exist in the police force in Thailand. That’s separate issue. The question is whether corruption is a credible explanation for all of these fugitive criminals hiding out in Thailand? Even as a fiction crime writer, I would find it hard work to show how the cops would find where these criminals were hiding. Of course they could stop every dodgy looking farang on the street and run them through a series of questions about crimes they might have committed. Obviously that might be fun to contemplate, in reality it is a non-starter.

You might ask, why not catch these criminals as they try to sneak into the airport in Bangkok? The tourist presents her/his passport as an immigration officer examines the passport, then the tourist, before asking:

IM: Mr. Tourist, do you have any outstanding conviction against you?

Tourist: No.

IM: Do you have any suspicion of anyone about to lay charges against you?

Tourist: No.

IM: Sure?

Tourist: Well, come to think of it there was that murder in Chicago.

There’s a perfectly good reason this line of questioning—and with that ending—just won’t happen. First criminals would lie through their teeth. Second, about 20 million tourists are expected to visit Thailand this year. It would take a countless hours, and the additional recruitment of thousands of personnel, not to mention new software to process a due diligence investigation on each person. After six months of queuing at the airport, the annual holiday would be over for most people only to be told when it was their turn, they’d already overstayed their visa and were subject to deportation.

Let’s say that we profile people who look shady. Twenty million Tourists is still a pretty large number. What is the pay off for looking for people who have broken a law outside of Thailand?

Some facts. That Wikileak US Embassy cable indicated that over the period of 30 years, 135 people were extradited from Thailand to the States. That works out to 4.5 criminals a year who were returned to the States. This isn’t my definition of ‘droves’ foreign criminals or any other species. Try finding 4.5 of something in a vat of 20 million something and see how easy that is. When I lived in New York City in the mid-80s, 4.5 criminal acts per hour would have been closer to the mark. And most of them looked pretty foreigner, and I suspect they were all wanted back in their home countries for some felony or other. So now 4.5 American fugitives hiding in Thailand per year is new threshold for news from Thailand to get reported in The New York Times.

And talking about the American system, of course a foreigner getting a visa can be a problem, but the daily traffic of people sneaking in from Mexico and Canada into the States no doubt includes people running from the law. And I suspect those numbers are substantially in excess of 135 people over a 30-year period—people who have committed crimes, who have been convicted of crimes, and who are on the run. Of course we have no way of knowing for sure.

Mexico isn’t likely firing up a room of lawyers to request return of their bad guys. They’re probably glad to get rid of them. Let the Americans deal with them. That wouldn’t be a bad policy. Saves the cost of prison, courts, and prosecutors. There are laws against dumping of goods, but as far as I know there’s no law to prevent one country dumping their criminals into another one. Over 30 years, I suspect more than 135 Thai nationals have elected to hide out in the USA rather than return to Thailand.

Stories like the NYT article circulate for a while and die. A couple of years ago according to the BBC,  Brazil was the international haven for criminals on the lam. Some websites feature top ten lists of criminal hiding places. Anyone can play the game. Some seem to have a better grasp of how the world is organized than others. Here’s one with Canada in the number one slot and Wisconsin at number 10. Someone at the website must think that Canada is a state like Wisconsin is a state. And suspicious countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Cuba find their places somewhere on the list.

No doubt about it. The world is a shrinking place for international fugitives. Modern technology will wipe out the usual hiding places. Fugitives will have to disappear deep in to whatever jungle remains and live in caves. Where we can reach consensus (at least among our friends) are the people we’d personally like to put on a fugitive wanted list and who is hiding out and scratching mosquito bites and heat rash.

Make your list. Sleep on it. Then tomorrow send it to The New York Times. I am certain they’d be happy to print it.

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Posted: 7/21/2011 10:18:41 PM 

 

We had a power shortage at Eel Swamp. When that happens everything seems to shut down from computers to water pumps. People tumble out of their houses with a vaguely confused look, standing in the street, looking around as if the Power Gods might roll up in a van and reconnect them to their lives.

While the power was out, crime continued. A local man was shot in the field, on his motorbike, as he was on his way to tend to his horses. His sister reported hearing seven shots. In another news, a Pattaya police sting operation went sideways and two people were killed in the ensuing gunfight.

Daily life has this riptide of uncertainty and evil that pulls you out of your depth, disturbing you life and threatening to harm you. Sometimes these forces blow out your lights. Other times they extinguish, like blowing out a candle, a couple of human lives. Crime is one of those things that even a power shortage can’t stop. But the crimes that happened this Friday will never be reported outside of Thailand, and likely won’t receive much coverage here. The rough and tumble of life isn’t all that newsworthy.

What captures the attention of the press are crimes and big time crime bosses. Marlon Brando in the Godfather comes to mind. Al Capone with his trademark cigar. Big John Gotti in his expensively tailored suits.  Every culture has an equivalent set of figures who cross the stage of life and then fade into the past as memories of them, no longer fed by the press, dim and their replacements take center stage.

This has been the natural cycle of crime and the bosses who head the organized criminal activities. It has also cycled through countless books, movies and TV series. My feeling is that times have changed and along with that change has come a revision of who are the crime bosses. We have moved beyond the iconic Godfather. The public reconfiguration of the identity of crime bosses is one plausible explanation for the popularity of crime fiction around the world. Who are they? What role do the new digital media play in exposing them and their activities?

The new crime bosses are investment bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and politicians of one type or another. They have advanced university degrees. These men and women know how to rob a bank without a gun. They appear in posh magazines, at film openings, and support the arts. But unlike the old days, not everyone is fooled. The International Criminal Court has been busy trying some of these big time criminals. And in the future they will likely get a shot at a new crop of political leaders.

The public, if not the courts and prosecutors, have been criminalizing economic and social conduct for as long as we’ve lived in villages and cities. The major change is that with the Internet we have internationalized criminal bosses. They are no longer just locally recognized faces; the modern new crop of criminal bosses are on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are known to billions.

They represent a different breed of crime boss, and belong to a different category of criminal conduct. In the past we have been content to allow the authorities the power to define crime and the criminals who commit them. Now people are waking up and talking about how this game ‘we define the crime’ has been largely rigged from the start in favor of the elites.

The idea is spreading that around the world we’ve all been sleep walking. That self-delusion about modern economic and political criminal networks has allowed masses of people to become victims without a remedy. The people who died in my neighborhood today will sadly leave behind grieving relatives and friends. But beyond that circle of sadness and despair, the ripples won’t wash to your shore. Government officials who use torture, disappearance, extra-judicial killings create the kind of ripples that wash over your head. Sooner or later, as the sanction of the State launders the crime, exonerates the actors, and is sold as protecting the public.

Crime fiction authors have moved into this field of gray. A place haunted by forces larger than any old-fashioned crime boss. The best crime novels reveal a noir-like world where even the most law-abiding citizen may find himself mugged not by a drug addict but by a hedge fund manager that invested his life savings in mortgages. Everywhere I go on the Internet, I find a growing anger and resentment, as people are no longer willing to adjust to spending their lives inside extended crime families that would have made Capone and Gotti green with envy. The Arab Spring as an example of people seeking to replace the old crime syndicates that pretended to be governments.

The future holds a rich store of experience for the crime author. And the best ones are coming around to the view that readers are interested in novels where the conflict in crime reflects this new breed of criminals who don’t look like criminals and are treated like celebrities. It doesn’t take much digging to find examples of public indignation when one of the new bosses is trapped, cornered and exposed.

It’s a time for self-examination and reflection. As the passions run high, we’d do well to consider this quote from Noam Chomsky:

“I’ve reviewed a lot of the literature on this, and it’s close to universal. We just cannot adopt toward ourselves the same attitudes that we adopt easily and in fact, reflexively, when others commit crimes. No matter how strong the evidence.”

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Posted: 7/14/2011 8:22:55 PM 

 

Last week rather than criminal activity I wrote about metaphysical disturbances. This week I return to crime. Criminal behavior is conduct or activity that a consensus of people within a culture chooses to sanction. Murder is universally criminalized. No society that we have evidence of has allowed members of the community to freely murder each other. The state always intervenes. We also use the criminal law to rope off the perimeter of what is an acceptable family unit. Bigamy is the legal hammer.

Most countries forbid a man to have more than one wife, or a woman from having more than one husband (which is technically called polyandry). That is two plus one, at the same time is a big no, no. You might argue that in the West, with easy divorce, sequential marrying has become an overpriced, but degraded form of bigamy. But in places like Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria (west Africa) and most Muslim countries, in practice, there is no law against bigamy. The numbers (there is a limit) don’t bother them the way it bothers a lot of people.

Thailand is an example of a country where officially a man can have only one ‘legal’ (meaning registered) wife. But in practice a large number of Thai men have unofficial ‘minor wives’. Polygyny is another concept. It is usually defined as a family unit with one man and multiple wives. It is another one of those impossible-to-remember-how- to spell terms best left to dusty sociology books.

If you live in California, here are the steps to report bigamists There isn’t information whether there is a reward in California for dropping the dime on a bigamists.

General (Ret.) Sonthi Boonyaratglin, former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army and former head of the Council for National Security, the military junta that ruled the kingdom, according to Wikipedia has two wives. He is also a Muslim and has made no attempt to conceal his matrimonial status. And as far as can be known, no one has sought to arrest him on charges of bigamy. Indeed there appears to be an unofficial policy of allowing Muslims to have more than one wife. Indeed, it seems the unofficial practice is not to prosecute bigamists in Thailand.

In India, with both Hindu and Muslim populations, the former prohibiting bigamy and the latter allowing it, there has been the occasional conversion to Islam in order to marry a second wife without divorcing the first. It didn’t work well for a politician who tried it.

It might be useful to seek out legal advice before taking on that second, third or fourth wife. Though, as a former lawyer, I can tell you the advice will be that marrying a second woman without divorcing the first is a breach of Thai law. But will you go to prison? Bigamy isn’t exactly murder. The answer a lawyer would give is: it depends on a number of factors, including: your religion, nationality, social status, and attitude of the family of those involved. Or he/she might say—your chances of getting away with the crime are pretty good. Just get on with it and see what happens. Then stick the client with a bill for a grand. Anyone thinking about bigamy usually has got a high pain threshold and an apparently high capacity for spending money on a whim. The potential bigamist is one of the best clients a lawyer could have.

Now, after the lawyer rant, back to Thai law. Marriage registration in Thailand is done on a provincial basis. Given there are seventy-seven provinces, and the lack of computerized systems in some of the more remote provinces has opened up possibilities for the man wishing to register more than one wife.

In 2005, a Bangkok Senator named Wallop was quoted by The Nation as saying, “officials at the Provincial Administration Department of the Interior Ministry had confirmed that married men often registered double or even triple marriages by taking new brides at remote locations where official computer systems were not available to check their marital status. A few polygamous souls married even four times without a single divorce, Wallop added.”

Thai wives had complained to the government and they ‘looked into it’ and with most things the government looks into, they just looked.

Thai law is clear on this status issue, providing, “Applicants must not be currently married.” Conditions of Eligibility for Marriage, Thai Civil Law, B.E. 2529. But Thai law is clear on a large number of matters and that doesn’t necessarily mean the implementation and enforcement of the law is consistent or reliable.

Thailand isn’t unique in the non-enforcement of the bigamy law. Canada also prohibits polygyny by law although there hasn’t been a prosecution for violating that law for sixty years.

The media loves a good bigamy story (as obviously do bloggers). A twenty-four year old Thai man called Mr. Wichai, a native of Samut Songkram province, who by all accounts was a pretty ordinary fellow. He earned his livelihood hawking second-hand goods. But he must have had something quite special going for him as he married, (according to Thai Rath) gorgeous twins named Ms. Sirintara and Ms. Thipawan, aged twenty-two. The bridegroom professed “his sincerest ‘equal love’ for both of them.” Apparently both sets of parents were very happy for the newly wedded threesome. Mr. Wichai sweetened the pie by contributing a dowry of “eight baht of gold and 80,000 baht” for each of his new brides. There was no mention of how a second-handed goods sales guy got his hands on that kind of wealth. In fairness, that is an omission from many local stories involving politicians, police, soldiers, or ordinary second-hand merchandise vendors.

Every man would like to have had Mr. Wichai’s mother as their own. Somehow I can’t imagine my mother preparing two rooms in the family house for her son and his two brides. But Mr. Wichai’s mother did. The question lurking in the back of everyone’s lurid mind was what were the sleeping arrangements? Mr. Wichai was prepared, and quoted as saying, “’Absolutely no problems! For the first three nights of the week, I will sleep with Ms. Thipawan and the next three will be spent with Ms Sirintara. As for every Saturday, the three of us will sleep together’.” Right out of the Ten Minute Manager for Bigamists: Guide of How to Manage Your Time Effectively.

From time to time, it would be good if the press filed follow up reports to see how the schedule has worked out, whether any police have been around with warrants, and whether he claims tax deduction for both wives. At the end of the day, in the case of the crime of bigamy, at least in Thailand and Canada, there’s no ground swell to charge and imprisonment the miscreants.

There is a downside (isn’t there always?) in turning a blind eye to the Mr. Wichais of the Asian world. Given a preference for male babies there is a fairly significant imbalance between males and females. Allowing the alpha males with tough and status to take two or three or more women out of the marriage market leaves that many more males without the hope of finding a woman to marry. History has a lesson that when too many young men fighting over too few women often leads to violence and war. While Mr. Wichai has a rather tight schedule. The idle, single young men who won’t be finding a wife, have time on their hands and anger in their hearts. There are other more serious crimes that such men ultimately commit without the presence of a good woman to keep their impulses in check. The tragedy of life is there is no free lunch.

My feeling is that over time Mr. Wichai case might provide evidence of a theory I have as to why neither Thailand nor Canada actively goes after bigamists. It is this. Bigamy is one of the few crimes where the perpetrator is most likely to become the victim. If he is indeed married to several women at the same time, with until death do us part, that sound pretty similar to a series of consecutive life sentence without the possibility of parole. He’s joined the serial killer who also fall into the throw away the key sentencing category.

If after the romantic interlude, things don’t turn out—those extra partners increase the probability of conflict—well, you get the picture. He’s gonna suffer big time. That lawyer’s fee cited above, there was a reason for talking about a grand fee to warn the guy to have second thoughts before those additional weddings. Because when he comes back through the door after one of the wives goes after him legally, that one grand is just a nice warm up to the total damage lawyers and courts will be inflicted on him. And rather than going back to a lonely apartment to drink a nice whiskey, he goes back to a couple of other women waiting for him. I don’t think they’re gonna be in a great mood. He’s gonna wish for solitary confinement in a maximum security prison is my guess.

As that Asian philosopher Vincent Calvino once said: “One wife is never enough, and two are one too many.”

Having been married for ten years to one intelligent, caring, insightful and kind wife, I can say that Calvino is wrong on this one. With the right woman, one wife can indeed be just right. May be its time for Vincent Calvino to get married. And as a writer, I have to stop blowing up, stabbing and shooting all the potential women he falls in love with.

Note to self: Find Vinny a wife pretty much like your own.

Note from agent: Are you f***king crazy? Happiness would kill any noir crime series.

Note to Calvino: Nothing personal. Just remember once you get too involved, it is inevitable. She’s gonna get whacked. Sorry, but it’s the nature of the writing game.

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Posted: 7/7/2011 10:02:18 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 6/30/2011 10:07:15 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 6/23/2011 10:09:44 PM 

 

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.

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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.

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Posted: 6/2/2011 10:27:28 PM 

 

I ran across this quote by Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree of the Centre for Human Rights Studies at Mahidol University who is quoted as having said, “We are stuck in a system of impunity. We can’t break it without accountability.” I want to come back to this idea that links impunity with accountability. It is indeed a truism and while necessary, it is not sufficient.

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Posted: 5/26/2011 11:30:37 PM 

 

The Monty Hall problem involves choosing a door with a prize as opposed to a lion that will leap out and eat you. When a crime has been committed, The Monty Hall problem provides two doors to choose from: one gives the victim revenge against the perpetrator, the other door requires the victim and perpetrator to reconcile.

What’s it going to be? Will it be a knife or a wai (or handshake)?

One of the pre-election promises of the opposition Thai political party is to grant amnesty for those charged with crimes after the coup in September 2006. The premise is, if elected, those on both sides of the political divide and their supporters who face criminal charges will be granted a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Though the details as to what conduct and what individuals is vague. Wiggle room is a Siam twin with most amnesty proposals. Finding the Goldilocks just right spot is not an easy task.

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Posted: 5/19/2011 11:04:28 PM 

 

Adventures in Wonderland Thai Style

It is the election season in Thailand and a former MP for Samut Prakan. (the Parliament was dissolved two days ago) who is from the opposition party has been shot. The Bangkok Post has run the story as No. 1 lead two days running. Everyone has a say about the botched hit. The police are quoted as having increased “security and surveillance for cash, contract gunmen, and firearms.”

That raises an interesting question as to why the police don’t look for hitmen and firearms in the non-election season. The more you read from police, military, political officials, the more that catches your eye and imagination. There can be no other place where fiction authors face such fierce competition from those employed by the state.

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Posted: 5/12/2011 10:03:18 PM 

 

Authors who write crime novels keep an eye peeled on the crime news. Living in Thailand the best crime reports are found in the Thai language press often accompanied by gruesome photographs and more often by smiling uniformed police officers standing behind suspects with that defeated, I am on my way to jail look.

Neither The Nation nor the Bangkok Post cover the local crime beat. Unless there is a high-profile foreign connection, the local crime news flows down the canal through Thai consciousness without ever causing a ripple on tranquil lives of foreigners.

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Posted: 5/5/2011 11:29:55 PM 

 

In Search of Demons

In the Vincent Calvino series the private eye has a number of people watching his back: a Royal Thai police colonel, his secretary and a friend or two. The idea of watching each other’s back isn’t confined to crime fiction. It is the staple of most novels everywhere. And there is a reason for the pervasiveness of protecting each other, providing security and support to others. We can tell a great deal about a man or woman by knowing something about the people who watch their back.

We can also tell a lot about a novelist in the way he or she writes about human collaboration. Other species collaborate but no species other than ours has refined collaboration and scaled it beyond a handful of others. It is likely that the reason there are nearly 7 billions of us is a testament to our skill at collaboration on an epic scale.

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Posted: 4/28/2011 10:42:23 PM 

 

I grew up in a world where it was expected that judges and juries would be neutral. That neutrality was an essential mechanism to resolve conflicts. Countries were also neutral. Places like Sweden and Switzerland had a long history of not taking sides, by staying on the sidelines, as other European countries took off their gloves and brawled in the streets.

I don’t recognize neutrality in the modern world. I’ve been searching everywhere for the retreating remnants of that defeated army called neutrality. People are not just expected but required to take sides. “Either you’re with us or against us,” said that great American philosopher George W. Bush. If there was ever a phrase that marked the end of an era, it came the date that phrase was uttered.

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Posted: 4/21/2011 10:10:48 PM 

 

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