Editors’ Note: this is a companion piece to the Darts & Laurels column that appears in the September/October 2011 issue of CJR, and that will be available at cjr.org on September 22.
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.
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.