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