From Andrew Drummond, Bangkok,
September 20 2009
Pictures Gavin Hill/Vera
A British producer cameraman has had to flee Thailand after filming a sequence in which British Royal Marines were held at gunpoint by Thai mafia after hiring a Jet Ski on a paradise beach.
The cameraman Gavin Hill, 40, from Manchester, a former bureau chief for Associated Press Television, was today back in London, after fleeing Bangkok, as his Thai crew faced up to a year in jail.
They stand accused of assisting in the filming of a sequence which could 'damage the country's image'. A battle with the Thai authorities has raged for two weeks.
Hill, who also produced 'Crime Squad' for the BBC with Sue Lawley, and a series for Real TV said today (Sunday) : 'I've made a tactitcal withdrawal and am in London to discuss how we can help our Thai colleagues. But yes, I did not wish to argue my case from prison.
'We filmed the mafia but suddenly we are the criminals apparently. The atmosphere is a little bit hysterical. The Marines are behind me thank god. '
The gun incident happened on Phuket when a young marine Jack Tebbott from Leicester was kidnapped by tattooed mafia figures, who control what's for sale on Phuket's Patong Beach.
Twenty-one-year old Tebbott was seized after his colleagues from Delta Company 40 Commando told a scammer to 'get lost' after they were presented with a bill for 60,000 Thai baht (Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£1094) for damaging a jet ski which they had hired.
The marines, from 40 Commando based in Taunton, have lost three men fighting the Taliban in Helmand province of Afghanistan. Delta section's most famous Marine is Joe Townsend who lost his legs in a mine explosion.
They had been warned about the scam and told not to hire jet skis before after arriving on HMS Bulwark in June, but did not anticipate coming up against a gunman in a Thai holiday resort.
Gavin Hill had received permission from the Thai authorities to film a series called 'Thai Cops' , a reality show which followed British volunteers in the Thai Tourist Police dealing with the hundreds of thousands of British tourists who travel to Thailand every year. However ,as a result of this incident and others, the title of the series had to be changed to 'Big Trouble in Thailand'.
The Marines incident happened after producers received complaints from tourists and went to a Jet Ski operator called Winai Naiman, nicknamed JJ, to get his side of the story.
On camera he admitted beating up tourists if they did not pay.
Then he called the production crew to film after catching Marine Tebbot and taking to him his yard three miles from the beach. Unknown to him Hill was also filming with the Marines. Naiman brought out a gun with a telescopic sight after a section of Delta Company react to a distress call.
The affair was settled after the arrival of Marine Police Sergeant and Detatchment Commander Tim Wright, from London, who told Naiman his was 'corrupt and a crook' after examining the jet ski and finding the damaged area had already turned brown proving it was old. But Sergeant Wright finally agreed to pay 35,000 baht, over Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£600.
Royal Marine Police Sergeant Tim Wright said at the 40 Commando base in Somerset: 'I got my men out of that situation without claret being spilt and that was the important thing.
'The Thais are trying to say my men were not threatened or held at gunpoint. But by doing this they are questioning my integrity. I do not like my integrity being questioned especially by a two bit crook.
'We will make representations to the Foreign Office. The warning to tourists is not sufficient.
' If Thailand wants to make a fuss about this I am happy to support the producer and raise the level to that of diplomatic incident. The case of Marine Tebbott was not the only case of extortion I had to deal with, not by far.'
The Foreign Office advisory warns traveller to ensure that the people whom they hire jet skis from are reputable. But they do not warn specifically about the extortions involved and that violence has been used.
Tourists have been milked for as much as 200,000 bat during these incidents in Thailand according to a group of foreign consuls, who estimated on the Thai island of Koh Samui jet ski operators, working with local police, had scammed nearly Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£100,000 out of tourists between December and April of this year.
'In almost all cases the police are called they make the tourists pay out and then they get the commission from the jet ski operators. In most cases it is old damage. In a case of new damage the cost of repair would not normally be more than Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£50, ' a local consul said on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for the Thai film board said the crew had violated Article 34 of the motion picture law by not having the contents examined by a Tourism and Sports Ministry film committee before they were broadcast abroad.
And Seksan Nakawong, director-general of the Office of Tourism Development, said the film-makers also violated Article 23 of the same law for making a film tarnishing the reputation of Thailand. The penalties are a Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£18,000 fine and a year in jail or both.
Meanwhile Police Lt. Gen Santhan Chayanont, chief of Provincial Police Region 8, whose officers are accused of being involved in the scams, says he has ordered his men to bring in all the Thai 'collaborators' .
40 Royal Marine Commando lost one officer Lt. John Thornton and two men, Marine David Marsh and Marine and Corporal Damian Mulvihill during a seven month tour of duty fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province in 2008.
The actions and conduct of Delta Company's Marine Joe Townsend, who lost both his legs in a mine explosion in Afghanistan, have been held up in the UK as a shining example of courage of the British forces.
Marine Townsend recently accompanied Britain's Prince Harry to New York to meet US serviceman who had lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Royal Marine Joe Townsend
Karen Elephant Patrol -Andrew Drummond. See comments below