Behind the News
03:31 PM - September 2, 2011
Escape From Thailand
A simple story about plagiarism forced me to flee a country I love
Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. In 2009, I spent a hot December day in the Land of Smiles, in jail. Initially, this seemed mildly amusing and novel—Thai jail, the brown jumpsuits, the rattle of shackles. I assumed I’d be there five minutes.
I passed the rest of the day (not smiling!) in alternating states of resignation, panic, and fury, slouched against the wall with a ration of pork skin on rice, or at peak agitation, with my face pressed between the cell bars for fresh air and a glimpse of my lawyer, Ronnachai, who was supposed to be bailing me out.
I was charged with criminal defamation, a consequence of reporting in the Bangkok Post that a Thai official had been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation on organic asparagus. He also had allegedly stolen intellectual property and misused his agency’s funds to hire the organic asparagus researchers—mild but embarrassing treachery made relevant given his position as director of the National Innovation Agency (NIA), a Thai state enterprise that manages intellectual property. He had done more elaborate things—absurd but largely documented—to cover it all up, like manipulating immigration documents and work permits and making threats against his accuser, a British agricultural consultant named Wyn Ellis.
The evidence of all this, particularly the plagiarism, was beyond dispute, and the article had been vetted by lawyers and editors at the Post, the English-language newspaper for which I had worked since 2006.
But the official had lost face—the most precious of commodities in Thailand—and he leveraged his connections against me. Along with the Post’s editor-in-chief and Ellis, I was fingerprinted, jailed, and forbidden to leave the country until the Thai courts, which can take years to process cases, resolved the matter. The editor-in-chief, who is Thai, liked to remind me that one of his past defamation cases carried on for thirteen years.
I moved to Thailand in late 2005. It was a bit of a leap, motivated by malaise and desperation brought on by the year I’d spent working as an analyst in a Navy Anti-terrorism office in Washington, D.C (I was an English major, with a misguided dream of becoming a spy). I answered an ad by a travel magazine, now defunct, that operated out of a Chinese shophouse—similar to an American row house, narrow with a shop on the ground floor and residential space above—on Khao San Road in the heart of Bangkok’s backpacker district. The magazine was willing to pay me a stipend (a Bangkok stipend) and so, imagining this as some sort of magical passage into the ranks of journalism, I moved.
I knew irresponsibly little about Thailand, certainly not the language or anyone who lived there. I wasn’t even familiar with Thai food. The magazine was an experience—the three editors chain-smoked and liked to heckle me for being from the country that elected George W. Bush. In some ways, I owe them everything, but I was happy to leave in December when, with some crazy luck, I was hired by the Bangkok Post’s investigative section.
My first stories involved working undercover as an English teacher in a Thai public school and 11 hours interviewing an elderly and respected Thai statesman who also believed he was a Martian.
Eventually, though, I settled in. I became fascinated with Thai politics and wrote about an amazing range of truly sinister things—disappearances of Muslim “insurgents” from military camps, trafficking of Uzbek women into Bangkok’s night clubs, extortion of Burmese migrants—that I always assumed would get me in far more trouble than a story about plagiarism. But that’s the funny thing about Thailand, hierarchy is upheld and deference expected. Confrontation is avoided. It makes an interesting laboratory for investigative reporting. Being young, foreign, and female made navigating these values that much more unpredictable.
When I was assigned the plagiarism story, the Sunday editor, an Australian named Paul, told me it would be “a good yarn”—the irony, the absurdity, the organic asparagus. He gave me Wyn Ellis’s phone number. I met Ellis at a mall. He is a precise, meticulous man who arrived with a stack of binders containing hundreds of pages—in correspondence, timelines, color-coded charts, annotated thesis reproductions—he had compiled as evidence of the plagiarism and related malfeasance. He had made the plagiarism allegations against the official several years ago, and seen official investigations into the matter blocked ever since.
He struck me as honest, but also a bit crazy for the seriousness of his pursuit. He was particularly worked up over the lack of academic merit of the dissertation. “It’s completely unilluminating!” he’d say. “There’s nothing groundbreaking about the promotion of organic asparagus!” The dissertation was also, for all but fourteen of the 161 pages, cut and copied from four documents, three of which Ellis had been the principal author of, and one that a graduate student, with funding from the plagiarist’s agency, had researched.
The author of the dissertation was a man named Supachai. He was director of the National Innovation Agency. He had completed the dissertation for a Ph.D. program at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s esteemed royal university, under the tutelage of an adviser named Wichai who had received NIA funding for a much-disputed herbal product that he claims enhances breast growth.
Supachai declined my requests to interview him for the story, but we corresponded via e-mail about the allegations. His main defense was that he owned the intellectual property rights to these documents (not true) and so it was impossible to plagiarize them.
Even before reporting the story, I was aware of Supachai’s litigiousness—he had previously sued Ellis for defamation, and Ellis had countersued. Ronnachai, the Post lawyer, reviewed the documents to ensure we were not in violation of the court by writing about the case. Once the story was written, at least three editors approved it, and Ronnachai reviewed it again. The piece was finally published on June 6, 2009.
A couple of weeks after the story ran, I received an e-mail from Supachai informing me that he would be taking legal action. In October, I received a police summons, as did Pattnapong, the editor-in-chief, to report to Nakohn Pathom, a province several hours outside Bangkok—a strategically inconvenient and off-the-radar jurisdiction.
At the time, I wasn’t particularly worried. Defamation cases are not uncommon in Thailand, and my story was solid. While the possible consequences were a fine of two hundred thousand Thai baht (about $6,700) and/or a several-year jail sentence, even in the event that we were found guilty, the fine would have been paid by the Post and everyone assured me jail was highly unlikely. It also was reassuring to me that Pattnapong was a co-defendant—the Post would certainly use their best resources to defend him, and by extension, me.
But then we spent the day in jail and, according to Ronnachai, I was placed on a travel “blacklist.” This meant I had to request permission from the court to leave Thailand, which Ronnachai assured me the court would grant. Neither he nor anyone else was able to tell me more about the list, whether it really existed, in a computer system at the airport or anywhere else. A couple of months after the day in jail, I requested permission to travel to Singapore to visit a friend. My request was denied. I appealed the decision twice, and it was denied twice, apparently because I was a flight risk. Only when my editors agreed to assign me a “story” in Singapore was I allowed to make the weekend trip.
By this point, I was feeling less good. I questioned Ronnachai’s competence. Besides the unsuccessful appeals and various abnormalities with my case, Pattnapong once boasted to me that the company had chosen Ronnachai because he had given them a great deal. A lawyer I knew told me Ronnachai hadn’t won a single case for the Post. He also spoke little English, and granted, the burden should fall on me to speak Thai, this was nonetheless troubling given that the story and many of the documents it was based on were in English.
About this time, I learned I had been accepted into Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism for the academic year that began in August 2010. I also learned my trial was scheduled to begin November 1. And then, just a few days later, I learned that Pattnapong had negotiated himself out of criminal charges, and that it would just be me and Wyn Ellis on trial.
I discovered this only by chance, when I tried to access my article online. It was no longer there. I confronted the editors about it, and Pattnapong told me it must be a technical glitch. I didn’t believe him, and had a colleague contact Ronnachai, who admitted that a deal had been made. I asked for an explanation, which Pattnapong provided in a confrontation-dodging, typed letter he sent by courier, third floor to fourth floor. He wrote that Supachai had threatened to file separate charges for the online version of the story, and so really he was saving the company from more trouble. He assured me the company was standing by the story, and promised that Supachai would drop the case against me as soon as I testified in court. Given the course of events and the fact that Supachai would not allow me to merely testify as a witness, rather than a defendant, I found this information hard to trust. I also learned that Ronnachai had been spreading preposterous lies about me, alleging to others that I had placed phone calls from the Post newsroom to the Ministry of Science and Technology, which oversees Supachai’s agency, demanding he be fired.
I wondered if all this had something to do with Ronnachai and Pattnapong trying to protect themselves. Both, at least theoretically, had approved the story before it was published. Or it may have been politics. Supachai worked under the ruling Democrat government, and was supported by a number of its big financial backers. The Post was run by the cousin of the prime minister, and owned by one of the major financial backers of the Democrat party. Or maybe it was just a matter of money exchanged, as is often the case in Thailand. Or complications created by gaps in culture and age; I sometimes got the sense that Ronnachai and Pattnapong didn’t know what to make of me, whether because of my foreignness or youth or both, and didn’t completely trust my version of events. Clearly, I had trust issues with them, too.
Whatever their reasons, I was left particularly vulnerable, since my legal status depended on my work permit, which the Post controlled. Had I been fired, theoretically I could have been sent to the Immigration Detention Center, a sad, worse-than-prison sort of place where they hold destitute foreigners and asylum seekers, sometimes for years.
So I had to tread carefully. I went to see the Post’s publisher, Pichai, a Thai who had been educated in Australia and talked a big game on press freedom when he was on television or panels. Pichai has a charming, Bill Clintonish air and a well coiffed head of white hair. He’d sit in his chair—casual, fat-cattish—swiveling and chain smoking. I appreciated his time, but he lorded over the conversation, by turns faux-concerned and condescending, chuckling off my fears about the situation. He told me Ronnachai was the best, his longtime lawyer, and that he personally had faced—and won—numerous defamation cases. He was totally deaf to what I actually wanted to talk about, which was the fact that I felt I was being thrown under the bus, that my lawyer appeared to be actively working against my interests, and that I faced being stuck in Thailand for an indefinite period of years.
The lawyer issue was especially sensitive—that face-saving thing again—as hiring a new one would have been a slight against Ronnachai. I knew this and was careful to frame my request accordingly, saying that for my parents’ peace of mind I needed an attorney who spoke fluent English. Even so, when I broached the subject with Pichai, he got serious for a moment. “Lawyers fight, Erika,” he said, meaning that if I brought in another lawyer he or she would clash with Ronnachai. He went on expressing his disapproval at the idea, and speaking as if I had no right to make that decision.
I planned to hire one regardless, and had been enlisting people outside the paper to help me with my case. I had contacted the embassy after the jail episode. There was not much they could do, though they did occasionally dispatch officials to the Starbucks across from the embassy—300 meters from officialdom—to speak to me as “friends.” Their advice was candid and unequivocal: get out of Thailand before the case goes to court and trust no one with the information that I had gotten into grad school, as it would make me an even bigger flight risk. A defamation case, particularly one I was facing alone, was not likely to turn out well for me. They stressed I would do more for press freedom by publishing something about my experience while safe and stateside than by sticking around and trying to fight it out in the Thai courts.
At the time, this course of action seemed wildly premature. In my mind, fleeing was a last resort, and I was still optimistic that reason would prevail. I very much wanted to be able to return to Thailand, because I love the country and care deeply for a number of people there. This was such a small and silly case, the facts of which were so easy to prove.
I met with at least ten lawyers, and even a couple of Thai judges, including one who wore a Hawaiian-print shirt. They understood I couldn’t afford them, but were good enough to give me their opinions—all were puzzled that the Post had put me in this situation—which tended to be, reach a settlement or leave (“You can always hop onto a truck at the Cambodia border,” one said helpfully). They reminded me I could also confess; I’d be charged and fined and probably have to apologize, but it would all be over.
The Search for a Puyai
Most cases in Thailand are settled out of court because they can take so long, and because it suits the non-confrontational yet power-gaming nature of Thais. These settlements often happen in elaborately indirect ways: a friend’s very important friend contacts his very important friend who contacts the very important friend of the relevant official’s grandfather or boss or some other person very important to the official, who despite being thoroughly corrupt must be kowtowed to in order to reach a settlement. This seemed a gross, unprincipled way to go about things, but when in Thailand
So began my hunt for the big, important people, or puyai, as they’re known in Thailand. There was the voice teacher of the child of Supachai’s boss. There was a hotel owner, close to the Post bosses and under the same corporate umbrella, who I met one night at dinner. There was a Thai senator who was known for fighting for the rights of the wronged. And then there was, most hopeful of all, the grandfather of my closest Thai friend, who had done well by developing a hair-growth shampoo. By the Thai rules of hierarchy, old and/or rich people are especially suitable for these purposes, and sure enough, he boldly contacted Supachai directly. He learned that Supachai claimed to have nothing against me, but that his lawyer was insisting he not drop the charges because in a defamation case, two foreigners (Ellis and me) were more compelling than one.
There also was a very rich Thai-Indian textile tycoon, a Sikh, who had taken an interest in my case after hearing of it from an acquaintance, a former Wall Street banker. The tycoon said he wanted to help because his daughters were journalism students and because he had no tolerance for injustice, but really I think he just wanted to play the White Knight, as did the former Wall Street banker who was assigned by the tycoon to coordinate all of our communication through a separate e-mail account. There could be no trace of the tycoon’s involvement. We would meet for lunch on Sundays at the Polo Club to discuss matters, where the tycoon, who was self-educated, preferred to lead intellectual discussions and drink whiskey.
I began to wonder whether this was such a good idea—I’d been so careful, so secretive, so distrusting—and then just like that had given everything away to this mysterious man about whom I knew almost nothing. But I was running out of time, desperate, and tired of dead ends.
The Sikh tycoon always brought a professor friend, whom he had asked to carry out a computer analysis of the plagiarism in Supachai’s thesis. Both were certain that I was being targeted not for this story, but for other, more important stories I had written. At that I realized how little they knew about anything. They were a high-maintenance pair, wanting to establish everything from the very beginning, demanding documents of all kinds from me, and I lost patience spending so much time and money copying, binding, providing them phone numbers of Supachai’s political supporters. Perhaps fortunately, they eventually got distracted with some trip, organized by the Wall Street banker, to the Redwood forests in California, and I moved on.
I was also in contact with a handful of press organizations, who encouraged me to publicize my case and to pursue a shame campaign against Supachai and Thai defamation laws. I agreed in principle, but did not want the attention for fear it would complicate my ability to leave for school. I had also been warned by lawyers that such efforts would only make things worse for me—more face lost—and that in the court of public opinion, many Thais might side with Supachai. Plagiarism is considered a minor thing, whereas causing a senior official to lose face, not so minor.
By June, I had developed chronic stomach pain and serious sleeping problems. This silly matter had become all-consuming, and I had to keep so much of it to myself. I needed to unburden myself, find the person who could just fix things. It seemed like it should be so simple to settle. I remained hopeful that Supachai would come to his senses and it would all be over.
In what I thought would be that breakthrough, Songpol, the investigations editor and my direct boss—one of the few people at the paper I still trusted—took me to court one day. He was going to attempt one last negotiation with Supachai. But Supachai didn’t show up, and sent a messenger asking to be excused for a case of diarrhea.
We left, disappointed, Songpol chuckling about Supachai’s diarrhea. Songpol asked if he could take me to a famous temple in Nakohn Pathom. It was Monday, and I hadn’t the motivation to work. It was hot and sunny, and we padded unhurriedly around the edge of the temple grounds, reading the descriptions of the statues. In the prayer area, I followed him through the rituals, mimicking his timing and actions: the lighting of the joss sticks, the kneeling, the clasped hands and look of prayer, the gold foiling of the Buddhas. He had me shake the canister of wooden sticks for a reading of my fortune, and was tickled (as was I) when the paper said, “You may face trying times, but you will get whatever you want.”
The fortune was fleeting consolation. I had promised my parents I’d be home by the first of July, and suddenly, it seemed, July had arrived and there was no resolution in sight. Supachai was not going to settle; I was not going to confess; and no one was going to magically make this nightmare vanish. After being told by so many people that it was the best of bad options, I resigned myself to it, the last resort—I would leave.
I hired a lawyer the next day. She had a deep voice and a foul mouth, and her office, which she had worked out of for years, still had its wall hangings and legal certificates laying on the floor. While none of this instilled confidence, she had been recommended by a good Thai friend, and she was direct and decisive, which I appreciated. She outlined a plan: I’d sign over my power of attorney the day before I left the country so she could represent me in place of Ronnachai once I was gone. She’d file the necessary documents once I had arrived in Iowa, just to make sure suspicions were not raised before it was too late for anyone to stop me.
The drill for getting out of the country was this: Submit a request with travel dates, round-trip ticket, and explanation of purpose signed by the editor, to the judge no later than ten days before expected travel. Hope. Wait. Pick up immigration papers, submit them to the immigration officer at the airport. Fly off.
Singapore was the natural choice—close, efficient, English-speaking, and not a strong ally of Thailand. I was advised not to purchase the ticket from Singapore to the US until I got to Singapore, and to get a flight with as few connections as possible.
I submitted my travels plans eleven days prior, with a letter from Songpol detailing an assignment to report on Thai sex workers in Singapore. Though, he denies it now, I remember Pattnapong signing off on the request, and Ronnachai had to deliver it to the court. There still was no word a few days before my scheduled departure, but I couldn’t worry too much about that, as there was so much to do. I packed, shipped boxes, and worried about my baggage—it had to look like I was on a four-day work trip. I’d go to the office and gradually clear documents from my computer, take valuables from my desk, prepare to leave without it looking like I was leaving. I left my desk messy, like it always was, a tottering pile of papers, payslips, press manuals, notepads, complimentary mousepads, and calendars from UN agencies.
Finally, I got approval from the courts on Friday afternoon, July 9, seventeen hours before my flight. A relief, but not without one last complication. The embassy had called earlier in the day to inform me officials there had scheduled a meeting for me with Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I would have to reveal my intent to leave the country to go to school, but they would argue that I should be allowed to do so. A famous Russian pianist accused of raping a fourteen-year-old Thai boy earlier in the week had been bailed out and allowed to travel to Russia the day before, so the embassy folks thought I could use that as leverage.
I spent the afternoon calling various lawyers I had gotten to know through this ordeal, who all agreed I should not take the meeting and leave as planned. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not the Ministry of Justice, they reasoned, and there was no guarantee the lobbying effort would work anyway. Plus, I’d have to come back in November for the trial, which could lead to an even trickier predicament.
So I left. I had a big dinner of Thai yums—all the best Thai salads too obscure to be found here—and was dropped off at the airport with my small suitcase early the next morning. I was worried about immigration, and my story being scrutinized as I went through the procedure of presenting my court documents and proof that I would be back in three days. While the immigration officers pored over by papers, I spent five long minutes in a plastic, child-sized chair answering their questions, trying not to cry. They waved me through.
I had expected to feel relief—I’m not exactly sure when; once I had cleared immigration, or boarded the plane, certainly by the time I had landed in Singapore—but I didn’t. I cried all they way there and decided on the plane that I had to go back, take the meeting with the foreign affairs ministry. If it didn’t work out, then I could always, as the one lawyer suggested, jump in the back of a truck to Cambodia.
This was judged as a terrible idea by everyone I spoke with when I got to Singapore, and so, twelve hours later, I was Iowa-bound.
I arrived at my parents’ house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the night of July 11, and was greeted by half the neighborhood. They had festooned the front of our house with balloons and a huge black-and-gold banner that read, “ERIKA’S BACK!!!” It was touching and I was happy to be home, but again, I felt less relieved than sad, ashamed, and guilty, given my parents’ elation and the stress I had caused them.
I sent my letter of resignation to the Post a couple of days later. They were not happy—and rather shocked that I had been so cunning to have, as one colleague put it, “flown the coop”—and told me I needed to come back and face the charges. I soon got notice that a warrant had been issued for my arrest, and the fact that the Post had seized the money in my investment fund in exchange for what owed them for my bail.
In August, I started school and tried to put the matter out of mind. I would occasionally hear from Wyn Ellis, who usually sent troubling news—on his way to court one day, a large rock had been thrown through his car’s back window, for instance.
But Thailand was hard to shake. I followed the news there as closely as I could. I was still in touch with a friend I had in the Thai government—I had studiously avoided discussing my case with him and was never sure what he knew about how I left Thailand—and met him one afternoon when he came to New York last October to promote the Princess’ “Enhancing the Lives of Female Inmates” initiative at the UN. He took me to a Borders nearby to introduce me to the then-prime minister and members of the Justice Ministry, who were purchasing reading material for the flight back and who, as far as I could tell, had no knowledge of my story. The prime minister and I exchanged some pleasantries as he looked over a display of Eat, Pray, Love. They offered me a ride uptown in the motorcade. I thanked them and took the subway.
November came and went. The charges were dismissed against Ellis, but not against me since I wasn’t there—an outcome that inevitably, and unhelpfully, caused me to question my decisions. Just last month, I finally paid the Post the bail money they said I owed them. In return, they paid me what remained in my investment fund. The financial officer sent news of the transfer with kind words: “You will stay in our memories and wish you good luck, happiness and success.”
For a moment, it was almost enough to make me forgive and forget how the Post had handled my case.
But then, Pattnapong sent his own account of what happened and why. Not surprisingly, it differs significantly from mine. He says that one of the three editors at the paper had warned against publishing my story—if this is true, I was never informed; he says Supachai had warned me not to publish the story—that is true, but editors knew it and besides, it is hardly grounds for not publishing a story that is accurate and thorough; he says Ellis was not telling me the truth about his motives—having investigated this matter more deeply than Pattnapong, I believe my reporting to be fair and factual; he says he consulted with me before having the case against him dropped—not true—and that I was difficult and demanded the case be dropped against me despite the assurances that Supachai would, in fact, drop the charges against me once I appeared in court. I don’t see how I could have reasonably trusted these assurances.
Yet what is most infuriating is that nothing has changed, other than I now sit across the ocean from Thailand, unable to return. Supachai is still a “doctor” and still has his job. Pattnapong and the Post still pretend to stand by their reporters. Thailand’s draconian defamation laws, and a justice system that is routinely manipulated by people of power and influence, remains intact, making the pursuit of honest journalism there extremely difficult if not impossible. I feel only lucky, in that I had the luxury Thai journalists do not—I had somewhere to run.
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