SCANDAL OF THAILAND’S NATURE DEFYING ISLAND
If this story has seems like it comes out of Disneyland well its true it has fairy tale dimensions. Additionally, behind Thailand’s Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation into land grabs on the holiday island of Phuket there is an American, who, funnily enough provided ‘image support’ for Disney’s ‘The Lion King’.
And this story, which involves a somewhat courageous man who also worked on confidential projects for the U.S. Defense Department, does appear to have villains ranking up there alongside ‘Scar’, ‘Cruella De Vil’ and ‘Shere Khan’. But will it have a happy ending?
Andrew Drummond reports on one foreigner’s fight against corruption in Thailand.
In his 28th floor office in Software Park, Bangkok, I asked Police Colonel Dusadee Arayuwuthi if by chance the island of Phuket could be rising out of the sea.
While property developers are complaining of the lack of it, the land on which resorts can be built seems to be increasing by the year.
The director of Thailand’s Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission laughed.
“No. Some properties look like they are actually in the sea already. What you see is not necessarily what is properly recorded in documents and maps.”
It looks on paper at least that the island is defying global warming and rising out of the waters, but, when you visit them, many resorts seem bang up against the receding coastline.
Then again some maps seem to show the coastline way out to sea.Phuket appears to be bobbing up down in the Andaman like a yo-yo.
Yet there are strict environmental rules, dictating that this could not happen. In fact nothing should be built within 20 metres of the highest high tide line and from 20-50 metres metres can only be 6 metres high – and even then 75 per cent should be left green.
Police Colonel Dusadee sees the joke, but then again he is deadly serious about his job. He is going high profile. This is not one of these typical government investigations which are announced and which we hear little of later before they finally disappears into obscurity.*
The Colonel is banging a drum. So far he has named sixteen Phuket officials and a Vice Governor who have assisted in the plundering of the island. Gone are the days of the anonymous Messrs ‘A’ ‘B” and ‘C’.
For a foreign correspondent writing about corruption in Thailand is a ‘No. No’. That’s not because we do not wish to blot our accreditations – its simply because when you mention Thailand and corruption to Foreign Desks back home they tend to react with a paused bored silence and ask:’Next?’ Environmental reporters, once the vogue, have had to give way to the financial guys.
Back home if politicians did this to Britain or France, or Germany, or anywhere in the west, despite press contols, they would face a media lynching. Reporters and crews would be parked outside their doorsteps. They wouldn’t get a minute’s sleep. Newspapers would know the names of their mistresses and if they were school bullies, and how much their bar bills were. They will have committed sacrilege in the public’s mind.
In Thailand of course it is different.
The press reports it. But is muted. Where is the shame? Often somebody else is blamed. Earlier this year there were for instance reports that 90 per cent of the coast of Phuket was owned by foreigners. How could that happen? Well, that’s the first question that comes to mind.
Still that was a ‘gut reaction’; a nationalistic ‘them and us’ story, which, while it may not have been totally accurate in the telling, did raise the profile of a scandalous issue.
While clearly trillions of foreign dollars have been invested in the Phuket honeypot, foreigners will never of course have control. They have to buy into the system.
Meanwhile in a country of a’free press persons of influence actually control the press locally. Unlike Britain for instance, one does not slag off the local mayor. There is the matter of journalistic self preservation, which in Thailand still seems to mean not just worrying about your job.
“Ah but you know that may be true, but in fact journalists are our eyes and ears too,” said the Colonel. “They may not be able write certain things in their newspapers, but they are very good informants as to what is really going on.”
So here information is flowing regularly into the PACC files from not only journalists but members of the public..
Lt. Colonel Dusadee makes occasional public tours of Phuket himself. That is to raise the profile of the enquiry. It almost certainly causes discomfort locally. That’s why while he is elsewhere his footsoldiers like worker ants are quietly crawling over the undergrowth logging what is devastated. On Phuket and PhangNa he is looking at developments in the hills and on the beaches. He has already singled out some definitive cases.
“Er, about these resorts in the sea,” I ask. ‘Could a resort called ‘Eva Beach’ be one of them, more than plucking a name out of a hat. Eva Beach is a controversial resort in Rawai, Phuket.
‘Nae Non’ ‘Certainly!
The Ultimate Paradise Island Nightmare
Back on Phuket Eric Kenly and his Taiwanese wife Yaling are digging in for long legal battle which is testing Thailand’s anti-corruption and environmental laws.
They have received threats. They have been investigated on orders from the governor’s office (but not necessarily personally from him) they say.
They have been told quite specifically that their safety in Thailand cannot be guaranteed.
Well, that’s a bit of a blow. They came here for the peace and quiet.
But they are hanging on.
Eric is no fool. In the field of ‘imaging’ he is at the top of the tree. He’s the man Disney calls for colour management on its cartoon movies. A former RIT student with an M.Sc. in ‘Imaging’ he is also a man who has been called by the US government to work on projects which apparently it would be treasonous to talk about.
But Eric Kenly came to Thailand to slow down his pace and impart his knowledge in a series of technical books called ‘Getting it Printed’ which have become standard reference books worldwide.
Nothing cloak and dagger here. They are reviewed as ‘the ultimate printing resource’.
The last of his books he has actually written in the peace and quiet of Rawai, an old sea gypsy village.
Eric knows what happens in Asia. You buy a house, and bob’s your uncle, if you’re not careful a year or two year later, somebody plonks a condominium at your front door.
So after he arrived and found a house he went to the Tessaban (local authority) to check. He was informed – no way could anybody build in front of him and ruin his perfect sea view. It was against strictly laid down environmental regulations.
Six years later the hoes and diggers moved in. On went the pile driving and out went his 45 million baht paradise home, his life’s reward, the stuff of brochures.
In came the Eva Beach Resort rising into his view of tropical islands and swaying palms. Eric and Yaling were horrified but not speechless. They knew they had a case and Eric was not going to roll over.
His view used to be this above of a couple of cottages set amongst the trees and the sea and islands beyond (they’re out of sight to the right).
It has become this (above) – oh and there’s another building going up on the right to block the view completely.
As the resort rose in front of his house he took civil action against the companies Phuket Rawai Friendship, and EVA Beach run by an Italian called Paride Bruno, and a Thai national called Authanop Pankamnerd.
They had advertised on the net with the slogan ‘We develop property just as if we are going to live in it ourselves’ and started taking deposits.
The property looked smart and after all it was smack on the beach. What a location! How could that be? Publicity pictures like the one above appeared to defy zoning laws. But in documents submitted for legal cases they say they are not there at all.
Local Thai villagers were also concerned. With Kenly, 40 of them signed a petition against the development. That’s when the trouble started.
The Kenlys did not have much time to sit back and let the law take its course. Ten men in uniform turned up at his village and came knocking at his house.
At the dawn of the Tourist Authority of Thailand’s ‘Miracle Year’ he says he was told that his future safety not only in Phuket but in Thailand could not be guaranteed.
Villagers were also approached and they backed down quickly. They knew the risks it seems.
“They told me they were now too scared. Influential influences were being brought to bear and they wanted their names taken off the petition. We had to cancel a press conference we were organizing.”
Meanwhile Eric and his wife Yaling contacted their respective embassies expressing fear for their lives. The U.S. Embassy did nothing on the basis it does not interfere with the internal affairs of Thailand, but the Taiwanese Embassy contacted the Foreign Affairs Division of the Royal Thai Police, who dispatched a Lt. Colonel Warawat to Phuket.
After meeting ‘all parties’ he gave the couple the assurance that their safety was guaranteed. Problem solved?
A couple of months later along came the government officials from Immigration and Labour Departments. On orders signed within the governor’s department they asked the foreigners to produce all their papers. They were in order. But there was no subtlety in their actions.
When Eric Kenly’s case against the developers got to court the earliest trial start date they could get was in 2013, which was not good. The buildings rose and rose.
But by now the PAAC were champing at the bit and having a look at the Eva Resort themselves.
They were not impressed. Colonel Dusadee named Eva Beach in a press conference as one of the cases where he was dealing with official corruption and spoke of influential figures who had grabbed other parcels of land.
To counter negative publicity Eva called their own press conference.
Phuket News Picture: Eva Beach Managing Director Gives Press Conference
They said they were acting totally within the law, and had all the right planning permissions and permits…which indeed was true. The question was, were these permits issued legally?
From the Phuket News: “We have been affected by the inaccurate news,” said Mr Authanop. “Our future is being ruined.” He said that the buyers of nine villas had declared their intention to return their partly-constructed villas to the Eva Group. The group’s reputation has been tarnished, he added.
Mr Authanop said that the investigation by the PACC might be the result of “defamation by an individual who is not satisfied” with the Eva beach project.
Mr. Authanop also referred to a foreigner who was trying to sell the company his house, but the company would not buy.
There is of course a political angle behind this. Most of the encroachers in the PACC investigation are aligned to the Democratic Party. South Thailand is of course the Democratic stronghold. The Pheu Thai government is cleaning out corruption in its rival party perhaps.
There is an element of ‘If you think we’re corrupt, well take a look at this!’ about it.
And in this case former Prime Minister and Democratic leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is understandably remaining silent. A lot started on his watch.
Lt. Colonel Dusadee is aware of politics behind this situation. When I asked about it he replied:
“I take your point. But I am investigator investigating wrong doing and dealing with each case as it comes up. There are Pheu Thai members involved in another areas. I will not be expressing any political preferences.”
The Colonel seems fearless. Teams of PACC officials in combat fatigues and jungle boots have been scouring the coastline and protected jungles of Phuket, Phang Nga, and Krabi for breaches of environmental laws.
Their findings have so far been massive and they are giving them to their committee to adjudicate. Large chunks of Thailand have been misappropriated or depending on your view point destroyed or turned into ‘dream resorts’.
Thai investigations into corrupt officials, politicians, police etc., have not in the past ended in many jail sentences. Those convicted tend to leave the country and return forgiven and seemingly richer than ever.
Less noble people get ‘transferred’ to ‘inactive posts’. Those who make jail seem to get bed linen and room service.
In this case Police Colonel Dusadee, who has a meticulous air about him insists:
“ My job is to go after the officials who have allowed this destruction of our country and even encouraged it. I will complete my job.
“As for the illegal structures We want them torn down.”
Kenly is also encouraged in his action by officers of the Administrative Court in Nakorn Sri Thammarat which is now handling complaints of malfeasance against both the Tessaban in Rawai and the Natural Resources and Environment Committee in Phuket, which he says both ignored the environment and the island’s natural resources by issuing permits to Eva Beach. Here his treatment has been a breath of fresh air, he says.
“They have been very helpful and informative. They keep us informed of the progress of their panel and even correct us if we lodge something which contains an inaccuracy.”
Meanwhile Eva Beach has joined in the defence of the Tessaban and Natural Resources and Environment Committee. They complain that as Mr. Kenly is a foreigner and that his company is more foreign owned than Thai then he is not entitled to lodge a complaint. The foreigner just wants to make money. These complaints, say Kenly, are invalid. He has a working company. He has invested in Thailand.
For most its all about money. But Eric Kenly says he just wants his quality of life and peace of mind back.
So what is it about the Eva Beach Resort which sounds so outrageous? Well, Eva claims not only is their resort not in Zone 1 (beachfront property which must be 20 metres back from the highest high tide mark and 75 per cent undeveloped) – but is actually in Zone 2 – property which is more than 50 metres back from the high tide mark.
Their own pictures above and below seem to defy this claim.
And the Environmental Impact report below denotes the high tide mark at a place where it looks like one might be able to park a pocket battleship.*
The red denotes the beginning of Zone 1. The green line is where construction starts.
“We have tried to approach this issue without causing trouble. We were hoping this would not be brushed under the table. Everything has been done low key and methodically. I came here to relax,” says Eric, from Arvada, a suburb of Denver, Colorado.
“Sticking up for our rights has been debilitating and of course costly. But we have been given strong hope that this issue will resolve itself in the right way.”
Will this story have a happy and judicious ending? Millions of dollars are at stake.
It’s hard to see. But it looks like the Administrative Court and the PACC could rule well against these developments and the officials involved.
The beauty of the investigation for Lt. Colonel Dusadee is that the environmental laws are carved in stone and environmental officials and local authorities have to sign off on every bit of land. Of course there are further complications over ownership papers but that’s a good starting point.
|A Flying Sporran
Will the foreign investors squeal and say how much they really paid if they see their resorts go up in smoke – or will they just walk away?
Below I have added below a very specific letter from the Office of the Governor of Phuket.
Of course with the Thai justice system as it is there seems plenty of scope to return to ‘old values’ particularly if there is a change of government, but that’s not on the immediate horizon and its been a long time since Thailand has been so stable, whatever one’s political views.
*Of course battleships cannot anchor there. Rawai Beach is quite flat and the tide goes out a long way. But you get the drift.
* Colonel Dusadee was removed from the Public Sector Anti Corruption Commission and this investigation frizzled out.