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.