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I have been watching the case of Annice Smoel, the 36-yr-old woman from Melbourne, Australia, with interest - not least because publications in Australia have been ringing me for the SP.
Annice Smoel has been all over the Australian press and television for the last three days because she has been charged with stealing a bar mat (not beer mat), worth A$60 according to the bar's owner Australian Steve Wood.
To all callers I have replied: 'Wait on. This story will have legs'.
Annice Smoel says friends put the bar mat in her handbag in the 'Aussie Bar' in Soi Bangla, in Patong Beach, Phuket, better known among ex-pats as the street of the 'Lady boys'. Her friends apparently told Thai police that as well, and they did it as a joke. But police, they say, sent them packing.
They also went back to Australia and signed a declaration to that affect (though it would have been better if they had done it in Thailand).
Clearly tourists do not know how nasty it can get in a Thai police station. Even Thai people do not like to go to them, despite the statues nationwide outside police stations showing Thai police carrying and holding the hands of children.
Annice Smoel protested. She was detained two nights in a police station, does not know when her trial will be (and neither apparently do police). Her kids are waiting for her in Australia etc.
Is there something I am missing here? I have to put my hands up. When I was a trainee journalist paid seven guineas a week, my flat was decked out with road signs, warning cones, bar mats, all 'liberated'. (Yes it was awful and so was I!)
Some of the bar owners rested their beers on their own beer and bar mats at the parties I had. Actually in one case the beer was the pub owners own beer too!
Usually these beer and bar mats were supplied to the pubs by the breweries but in this case Steve Wood had his personally made up with his own Aussie Bar logo and I traditional kangaroo and Aussie flag - Not exactly a work of art, but free advertising wherever they ended up.
No sooner had I said 'Wait!' than Steve Wood was on the air in Australia. To paraphrase he repeated the fact that Annice had stolen his bar mat and although he had not pressed charges he would consider doing now as he had been 'slandered' and people were going on the internet saying they would boycott his pub. He added that Annice had an attitude problem and had insulted every policeman from the bottom up to the chief!
How's that for Aussie mateship. For heaven's sake she was on holiday! What would have happened if she had been a pom! I cannot find any record of Annice saying anything bad about the bar. Perhaps next time she has a holiday she should avoid signs saying 'Kangaroo', 'Dingo', 'Koala', 'Streuth', 'Fair Dinkum', 'Bonzo Sheilas!', Ned Kelly's' , 'Barry's Booza',The (Prison) Ship', 'The Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£10 Pom' , 'Rudd's Repose' etc. What's more Steve Wood said he was not in the bar when the incident took place!
So is the big buck in Phuket causing local expat businessmen and newspaper owners to draw back into their fortress and sling missiles? Seems so.
I fled Phuket a couple of weeks ago. It was the songteow and taxi drivers who did it for me...200 baht to travel 600 metres!
After the 2004 Tsunami , Soi Bangla, Katoey Alley, was open full-on within three days. There were still piles of debris in the street from which, I am not joking, came the smell of decaying flesh, and the lady-boys were out in force lifting their skirts and showing their , what they considered, successful operations .
So what do we have today in the Phuket Gazette? Yes a story based on a fawning interview with Kathu Police Superintendent Grissak Songmoonnark, saying the arrest is no joke. He makes no reference at all to Annice being rude to all police ' from the bottom up to the chief'. He insists he has got Annice bang to rights.
Instead he compared the case to an Australian who stole a T-shirt from a deaf-mute in Patong Beach. (I guess he got sold as slave labour to a Thai fishing fleet).
'Col Grissak, has extensive experience in the ways of foreigners from his work as head of the Tourist Police in Bangkok' adds the 'Phuket Gazette' - and we are all re-assured. (A nice transfer by the way!)
I'm getting the impression people are assuming this is another Simon Burrowes case, which is all very handy I suppose. He insists that it is the Aussie bar owner who pressed charges. He seemed annoyed that Annice insisted she was innocent.
Of course the police chief may be being economical with the facts, something not unheard of in Thailand. But between the two of them they can get at the truth, particularly as the investigating officer appears to be on the security staff of the 'Aussie Bar'.
There are of course again the usual cries up on the internet 'jail the bitch'. They were under starters orders from dawn yesterday on ThaiVisa.com and have so far filled over 20 pages of comments. I am wondering which sort of internet posters Steve would like in his bar. He might be better off without a lot of them unless he wants new noxious security!
Then comes this from the Phuket Gazette:
'The Gazette was then told to contact her solicitor, Bernard Murphy of Morris Blackburn, in Melbourne. Why she would choose to be represented by a solicitor in Australia for a fairly straightforward case in Thailand remains open to conjecture.
Mr Wood, who has made it clear that he now has no interest in pressing charges, has his own explanation'. 'I think they are holding out for some money from the media in Australia. Everyone tells me that all she had to do was file a report at the police station, and I can't think why else she hasn't already done so,' he said.
File what report? I think we should be told. And am I detecting a little resentment here from the bar owner, who might begrudge the woman some hope of the cash for a flight home? I have been waiting for cash from the Aussie media for years but 'Good on her' if she gets it.
As for hiring a local lawyer, if Annice had heard about the Simon Burrowes experience she would be right to be cautious. Friends of Simon Burrowes , the last person I know to appoint a Phuket based Embassy listed lawyer, deposited Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£3000 (150,000 Thai baht approx) . There was a one minute hearing.
The lawyer said nothing in court and outside he said he would return the cash to the British Embassy before disappearing into the ether! Simon is still waiting for his change. The British Embassy has not been informed by the lawyer of this arrangement.
Annice now has two choices. Either she pleads guilty and is allowed home with perhaps a small fine (but there is a much higher risk here than in the Simon Burrowes case because money is involved - albeit an alleged A$60 bar mat and senior officials in Bangkok recognised the Burrowes story for what it was).
On the other hand she can fight this one and invite the whole Australian media pack along. She'll have to bring along the friends who pulled the joke too. Most lawyers I know however advise, never fight anything on a point of principal.
I'm so tempted to tell her to fight it, but I know all the agony it will bring her. Best to get out of Phuket as soon as possible.
The Phuket Gazette interview suggests police are entrenched and will do everything to protect their position.
(As an aside another Phuket expat story, in this case the defence of a local British* 'property company' in Phuket which has been accused of ripping off clients, see this Phuket Gazette story. Some defences you just can't make up! And this article will be memorable for years to come for what it does not say). * For British read 'Sarf London plumber type!
I love Australians. They have a great sense of humour. They have elected a Prime Minister with the first name Kevin. I am waiting to vote in Britain's first Wayne or Sharon.
But Australian mateship versus the Thai baht or Aussie dollar has come in a distant second in this case.
Somebody ought to get a grip. We are not dealing with hardened criminals just a bunch of girls on a night out!
Lessons for Aussies from Annice Smoel's experience:
1. Do not be tricked into believing Phuket is in Thailand. This is merely an illusion. So is Koh Samui.
2. If you intend to collect bar mats I can do you a set of ten for $AU60 and stand you a free beer.
3. A songteow (a pick-up with a roof) to the Aussie bar may cost you a day's pay but do not be tempted to pick up free souvenirs as retribution.
4. Like Britain, Australia will not interfere with Thailand's Justice system unless your name is Lisa Marie Smith and your father is the Aussie CEO of a massive Hong Kong Assurance Company and you have been caught with various quantities of hard drugs , in which case you can get bail , and skip and become 'Thailand's Most (Unwanted) Wanted' person. Lisa had two passports by the way. Initiallyshe thought the British one had more clout but switched to the Aussie one on the advice of her dad.
5: For Aussies with British second passports bring both! If you get nicked for stealing bar mats, sail into Malaysia on the second and say you have come from Oz!
6. For sailing solidays contact here! My pal is sailing around the Andaman looking for paying crew! You have to be rich though. He's bloody expensive.
Post script: I suggested two options for Annice but did not anticpate the third. On Wednesday May 20 in stepped the Governor of Phuket, Wichai Praisa-nob. After receiving calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism Authority of Thailand he went to the court paid her fine of Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£1000, after she pleaded guilty to expedite the case , and Annice was on the next flight home.
So sensible but it took the outcry back home in Australia to bring her release. Such a pity that the local police and bar owner were so entrenched.