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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Wild Wild West

A song that I used to like to dance to when I was much much younger and went to dance clubs instead of nodding off about the time most people are getting ready to go out, was The Wild Wild West by the Escape Club. There are times that song bounces around my head, especially when I go out motorbike riding, and especially during the high tourist season, such as now.

There is a real sense of lawlessness and the tales of the wild untamed west in North America must be how it feels for the tourists. Indeed many times, I wondered if there were actually laws here, let alone enforced. I meet the tourists who try to hide their open bottle of beer on the sidewalk, when it is legal to carry and drink it here. I have often said that if you want it you can find it or buy it. I find that the expats who seem to rant on in the local comments section of the English language papers, seem to have lots to say about law and order. It is usually about the laws they don't like having enforced, such as drunk driving and wearing of helmets or having a valid driver licence. After a period of time, you begin to think that the westerners who come to visit, get caught up in the loose approach to law and order, and soon they are drunk driving, not wearing helmets and generally driving in ways they would never even dare to dream of doing back home. But for some reason they feel that they can do whatever they want, so they do. I get some enjoyment, I must admit, when they do run into a roadblock and the traffic fines begin to pile up.
Then I hear them complain that they only pick on the tourists or the non-Thais. My experience is that this is totally unfounded. I have seen the Thai and non-Thai alike lined up to pay the fines. I usually have little empathy for the non-Thais because they come from countries and cultures where things like drunk driving are serious and intolerable in society in general.

Recently there have been a series of events in Phuket that have made some people think that maybe the line that is wiggly on a good day has suddenly become too wiggly. They change Police commanders on a rotational basis and we have been subject to some of those changes recently. I have also just come back from Bangkok, where I do not recall seeing a single helmet less driver. But as much as Ottawa is out of touch with rural Canada, and Washington with the mid-west, so too is Bangkok with Phuket. So I can only imagine the new police commander coming to the tourist destination, probably expecting a relaxing posting in  a tropical paradise.

Within days of his appointment and his high profile display around the island, he has a situation whereby a highly connected wealthy man is attacked in a bar with knives and a home made battle axe at 4:30 in the morning. http://phuketwan (click to read the story) reported the events. All bars, by law, are to be closed by 2AM, but it is not uncommon to find some still open for business. He is showing a Hollywood actor the sights, and I expect he decided that going into the equivalent of the downtown east side dockworker bar, would be an interesting experience for the Hollywood actor. What happened is not clear, but suffice to say he suffered serious injuries, the actor apparently ran away when the crap hit the fan. The manhunt is on. At the end of the day a number of staff are arrested, the bar is closed for 90 days and fined for being illegally open. Oh yes one of the bouncers, the guy with the battle axe is apparently 14 or 16 years old depending on the news source. So the new police commander orders enforcement of the laws, as reported by thephuketnews (click to read the story) resulting in enforced closures at the lawful time, proper documentation and screening of employees, mandatory drug testing of all people who work in the bars, including the owners and announces that he will personally take trips out across the island unannounced to see that it is being enforced. The bar owners are in an uproar and some expats are disgusted by this police action, as it means they need to stock up at 7-11 instead of wandering the streets half loaded on their motorbikes.

No sooner is this activity underway, than in the middle of the day, on a busy major road, a prominent local media figure is gunned down by a drive-by motorcycle hit squad. As covered by the phuketgazette (click to read the story) It is speculated that he may have been targeted as he has been outspoken about local land deals and corruption. While I was away it appears that someone has been fingered and arrested. In some media he signed a confession and then recanted it while being flown back to Phuket. Tonight I see that he is doing a photo shoot re-enactment. They love these media re-enactments. And there seems to be nothing that does not warrant a media re-enactment. A recent story was in regards to a man accused of having sexual relations with young teenage girls. Some decided this warranted a photo re-enactment with a giant teddy bear used to portray the young girl. So you have the suspect, with a teddy bear simulating sex, with a large gleaming smile on his face, while a stern looking policeman looks on. It escapes my logic about why you need to do this, both the crime and the re-enactment.

This is followed a few days later with the journalist shooting, there is another shooting, this time with a landowner involved in a dispute, as carried by phuketgazette leads to a call for control of firearms by the Governor, which 24 hours later sees a news story about an off duty police officer shooting someone at a restaurant following some form of dispute, as reported by phuketwan-policeman-shoots-diner.

I must say however, that unlike the western society I lived in, they do seem to make arrests and get confessions very quickly here. So I believe there is some hope in what might otherwise seem like a lawless arena. All of this activity of course cannot help but impact on local residents sense of safety, and tourists planning vacations seeing this activity, must think twice about wanting to come here. There is a comment on one of the forums, that claims that Expedia Germany has issued a warning on their web site regarding safety and travel here, and further that they are charging a higher premium for insurance for trips booked to Phuket.

I usually read with amusement the comments put on-line with the various forums, who lament the lack of law and order. It is always narrow in the scope. They like some laws enforced and others not. And then there are the intelligentsia who lament about how good law and order is "back home", and figure the best way to tackle this is to implement the same processes as they experienced in their home countries. I find it amusing because the same reason they like it here, is usually exactly what they are happy to be away from. Recent trips back to Canada and listening to other expats here, it is now pretty clear that as much freedom, as I thought I had in western countries, really it is quite repressive, rule bound and punitive oriented. People appear to have given up individual responsibility and look for the scapegoat, in the system, other people, or businesses.

I must say that I have never felt unsafe here. My dealing with the police have all been very friendly and fair. I have not accumulated a single ticket. But then again, I wear my helmet and have a valid Thai licence and I do not go out to bars and get hammered. I am also experienced and took training in riding a motorbike. I try to contribute as much to my own safety as I can.

In the recent road safety campaign, there were a number of deaths and injuries, involving expats and tourists. The largest contributor was the consumption of large quantities of alcohol and/or not having a crash helmet. I exercise extreme caution lately with the high season, and worry whenever Clive goes out and I hear the sirens of the ambulances. Not because he is an unsafe driver, far from it. It is instead the tourists and expats who drive like complete and utter idiots. Yesterday a large gaggle of young Italian men were road racing and swerving all over the roadways, open bottles of beer and not a helmet in sight, and wearing just a pair of bathing trunks. Last week I had the opportunity to go to the hospital in Patong for a meeting, and as I went through the emergency room seating area I saw a large percentage of non-Thais in various stages of bandaging, all branding what I refer to as the tourist tattoo. Normally from motorbike accidents, and there was the strong odour of stale alcohol in the air, as I wandered through. I had heard that the nursing staff had very little compassion, and I cannot say that it was evident to me, but I would also not blame them if it were true. How can you go to work everyday and be greeted to an endless stream of what I refer to as "stupid farangs" wanting sympathy and treatment from what I consider self-inflicted injuries. I have taken to riding my motorbike and having a running dialogue with myself, and I must admit on occasion out loud, about the behaviour. There is a song by Boney M called Holiday. I have adjusted the words and as I watch the antics, I sing "Hurray, hurray, my brains on a holiday". I did get some sideways glances as I took the dogs out for their run one day and was caught behind some tourists on rental bikes. I took to chatting with the dogs, as I watched some inexperienced riders try to cross 4 lanes of traffic. It may have been my comment that they should watch as the driver got knocked to the ground and screamed like a little baby when their helmet less head cracked open and the road rash began to sting.
They are very easy to spot. Aside from the bleached white complexion, or alternatively after 3PM a lobster red complexion, from behind, you look ahead and see if they have their arms at a resting posture as they ride, or are their elbows stuck out straight at a 45 degree angle, with a death grip on the handle bars. The Thais and the seasoned bike riders, sit relaxed, and the Thais may even be in a side saddle posture. Does the bike move in a straight line and take off from a stop, with the feet lifted up. If not and the legs stick out and the feet seem to do that Fred Flintstone hop, it is a non-experienced driver.
They also tend to take that most dangerous posture on the roadway of sitting close to the center line, as I was thought in Canada, but here, it makes you a prime pick-off target for the tour bus that careens down the roadway at 100KMH, who's brakes may or may not work, and may cross the center line, to miss a parked motorbike at the fish ball stand on the opposite side of the road. They also leave themselves open to being less visible, as the Thai riders do not expect to see you in the middle of the roadway, and passing on the left is a common occurrence. So your ability to move safely to the left may suddenly be gone, as you try to avoid that bus.

So we have a new police commander, and others filling new positions. I am hopeful that his law and order approach will sustain, and it is not just another new broom coming in with lots of sound good speeches. I see his critics are all sounding off, and the man has been here less than 3 weeks. He has his hands full and I for one would not want to be him, trying to decide what needs a priority in the wild wild west.

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