The kingdom of Thailand has a pretty good international brand for a place where anyone can be thrown in jail for criticizing the monarchy, rich people can commit murder with impunity, and a remarkable number of foreigners die mysteriously.
Most Americans think of Thailand as a tourist paradise with gorgeous beaches, incredible friendly people, great food, and ornate temples. And while there’s always been the well known, and aggressive, Thai prostitution industry, it’s not really a factor for most tourists.
Lately, this staunch American ally is also ruled by a military junta which seized power from the democratically elected government in 2014, took control of the news media, and partially repealed the constitution. But that’s also not much of a practical issue for outsiders, or for the ruling elite.
Still, so many foreigners die in Thailand, under strange circumstances and without much investigation, that there is a popular blog to document it. It’s called “Farang Exits.” Farang means foreigner in Thai, though the name was recently changed to “Farang Deaths,” likely for decorum’s sake.
And the justice system remains totally skewed. One of the heirs to the Red Bull beverage fortune is the latest example of a different set of rules for the elite.
A Thai court has been attempting to hold a trial for Vorayuth Yoovidhaya for five years now. “Mr Vorayuth is accused of knocking down and killing a policeman while speeding in Bangkok in 2012. He has repeatedly failed to meet police to face charges, which include reckless driving causing death. Mr Vorayuth is the grandson of Chaleo Yoovidhaya, who co-founded the Red Bull empire with Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz.”
According to the BBC, “he was apparently first arrested shortly after the incident and later let go. He was subsequently summoned repeatedly to face charges, but each time his lawyers said he was unable to do so, citing overseas work commitments and illness. A charge for speeding has since expired.”
If the Thai government does track him down, Mr. Vorayuth could face ten years in prison. But a person of his financial stature can pay someone else to serve time for them, and sources say it’s a fairly common practice among the Thai elite.
In some ways the justice system and the alternate set of rules may trickle down from the special code governing treatment of the Thai royal family. Indeed there is a zero tolerance policy for any press or public comments critical of the Thai royals.
For instance, the Thai press was legally forbidden from covering the release in 2007 of some incredible video. The footage showed the current king, then crown prince Maha, throwing a birthday party at the Royal Palace in Bangkok for his pet poodle Fufu, who held the rank of Air Chief Marshall. As servants looked on, his third-wife sang happy birthday dressed only in a G-string.
Last year, the now king was “pictured on the runway at the Munich airport wearing a bizarre, skimpy, torso-baring tank top, with fake tattoos covering the small of his back, chest and arms. Love handles poked out above his jeans. The scantily clad woman standing beside him on the red carpet was Suthida Nui, a flight attendant who is believed to be his mistress.” It’s good to be the king.
Writing in a critical way about these events would absolutely get a Thai journalist thrown into jail.
But the rules of privilege in Thailand work both ways. Even the Thai elite can sometimes suffer from their status. A story recently made the rounds about a group of wealthy Thais waiting at a private aviation terminal as members of the royal family were also about to board their plane. A very young royal traveling with his parents pointed to the gorgeous Gulfstream owned by a private citizen and told his nanny emphatically, “I want that.” The owner of the $50 million plane began to get extremely nervous, i.e. s–t in his pants. In Thailand, when the royal family says it wants something, the only answer is “yes.” It’s not a joke or a request. As it turned out, the young boy’s nanny picked up a model plane from a shelf in the waiting room and gave it to the child as a sort of pacifier. After a brief moment weighing the current utility of the scale model vs the unwieldy jet, the boy was appeased and ran off with his new toy.