Crisis in the Royal Thai Police over the extortion of tourists is growing as a new case comes to light in Pattaya while one of the victims, the Singaporean boyfriend of Taiwanese actress Charlene An, exposed what happened on the morning of January 4th. The scandal places a spotlight on the legal provision introduced in 2014 by the government which outlawed e-cigarette use in the kingdom. This requires the police to bring offenders before the courts resulting in them being detained. The nature of Thailand’s e-cigarette legal regulation is, it appears, being used to extort money from foreign tourists who are not aware of the law in Thailand since it was introduced over eight years ago. The shocking case of French woman Cecelia Cornu who ended up spending time in jail and being forced to pay ฿286,000 after she was deported from Thailand in February 2019 when she refused to pay a bribe and opted to abide by the legal process and go to trial, is a warning to visitors to Thailand of the real dangers that lurk.
A Singaporean tourist gave a press conference on Wednesday in Bangkok outlining the ordeal suffered by a group including Taiwanese actress Charlene An in the early hours of January 4th where four people including the actress were threatened with arrest and being held in custody for at least 2 days after 3 e-cigarettes were found on passengers of a Grab taxi cab. The growing scandal and outrage linked to the extortion of the actress and her friends come as a senior police officer has given assurances that they will not face prosecution for the e-cigarette offence as they are being treated as victims of a crime despite paying a bribe to policemen at the checkpoint. The news comes as a Pattaya-based police officer has been transferred after an allegation that he attempted to extort ฿30,000 from a Chinese tourist who was subsequently arrested on e-cigarette charges and placed in custody. A full investigation into the matter has been ordered by the Chonburi police chief.
Senior Thai police on Wednesday assured the public and potential foreign tourists that anyone who was extorted by a member of the force would be subsequently immune from prosecution even if they had committed an offence in the kingdom.
The assertion was made by the Commander of Metropolitan Police Bureau Division One, Police Major General Atthaporn Wongsiripreeda.
It came after further revelations in the case of Taiwanese actress Charlene An which seem to suggest a pervasive culture within the police force which is a rising cause of concern for business interests in Thailand, particularly in the foreign tourism sector.
Full account of what happened at a checkpoint in front of the Chinese Embassy on January 4th last was given by the Singaporean man who paid the bribe
A full insight into just what happened in the early hours of January 4th last was given when whistleblower extraordinaire Chuwit Kamolvisit, on Wednesday at 2 pm, gave a press conference which featured a Singaporean national identified at the event as Mr Chuwit Nam Sky who was flown in from Singapore by Mr Chuwit, at his own expense.
The story told by Mr Sky explains the sequence of events which led to police being paid ฿27,000 by a group of young adults returning from the Onyx nightclub to their hotel in Huai Khwang on January 4th last.
A Grab taxi was stopped at a police checkpoint near the Chinese Embassy and over a 2-hour period, approximately ฿27,000 was extorted from the group and paid by Mr Sky.
Chuwit slams intrusive police checkpoints operated in an aggressive and rogue manner, decries misbehaviour which damaged Thailand’s reputation
Before the visitor spoke at the event held at the Davis Hotel on Sukhumvit 24, Mr Chuwit Kamolvisit categorised the police checkpoint on that date as an activity that has been instrumental in severely damaging the image of Thailand abroad among foreign tourists.
The former massage parlour tycoon, politician and now social activist, told reporters that such intrusive checkpoints in themselves can be seen as a threat to the country’s image if they are operated as aggressively as that seen earlier this month in the Thai capital.
He said that the incident, beamed worldwide on media channels and the internet, has made many prospective tourists to Thailand feel insecure about the country and more concerned about the activities of bad actors within the Royal Thai Police than they are about potential criminals despite the mission of the Royal Thai Police being to preserve the safety of visitors to the kingdom and ensure their security.
Culture within the police needs to be improved but the activist says there are positive signs that things may change for the better because of exposure
Mr Chuwit said that the culture in the police force needs to be improved and all such activities exposed and no longer tolerated by the public.
On a more hopeful note, he suggested that he was confident that such a process had begun with ongoing exposés of wrongdoing such as we are witnessing.
The Singaporean man opened his presentation by saying that he had agreed to return to Thailand to explain what happened because he had implicit trust in Mr Chuwit Kamolvisit.
He revealed he had been in Thailand for over a week before the incident happened in early January as Singaporean visitors can stay in the kingdom for 10 days or so.
Singaporean tourist flew in on December 25th
In fact, under Thailand’s visa exemption agreement with Singapore, visitors from the city-state can enter Thailand and stay for up to 30 days as tourists.
He had flown into the country on Christmas Day or December 25th and was due to return on January 5th. He said that on January 3rd he had been with a party including the actress Charlene An or An Yu Qing celebrating a friend’s birthday.
A group of them including Charlene An and three men had been returning to their hotel on the Ratchadapisek Road in a Grab taxi when he noticed that the car was stopped by police who shined a torchlight into the interior.
The driver was instructed to pull the car over to the side and everybody inside was told to step outside.
The passengers then were asked to remove their shoes and were searched including a search of their bags which led to police discovering 3 vaporizers or e-cigarettes.
The Singaporean man said they were asked which country they came from.
Group enjoying the Bangkok nightlife wondered what the purpose of the police checkpoint was as they were asked to get out of the taxi and searched
He said at that point the group which included just one Thai national began wondering what the purpose of the police operation was.
Officers began asking the group to produce their passports which is a legal requirement under Thai law and has been at the heart of countless complaints among foreign visitors to Thailand over the last few decades.
At the same time, there was difficulty communicating with the police officers as only one of the passengers in the car could speak Thai.
Mr Sky told reporters that he wanted to explain that as a Singaporean guest in Thailand, he had no problem obtaining a visa as it was granted on arrival at the airport but that his passport was at his hotel for safekeeping.
Police informed the group that they were required by law to show their passports to the police on demand and that the possession of e-cigarettes in Thailand was a criminal offence.
Threatened with arrest and being held in police custody for at least two days for possession of the e-cigarettes or vaporizers as per the law
They were informed by the officers that they would have to be arrested or detained and that they would be held in custody for at least two days.
This is the legal requirement placed on police officers even though the penalty when brought before the court is often only a minimal fine.
Over the last eight years, many foreigners have reported being threatened with this and in particular, since 2018 when a get-tough policy was introduced by the government to ‘crackdown’ on foreigners breaking the law in Thailand including abuses of the visa regime.
Since then, the perception of Thailand as a welcome ‘Land of Smiles’ for visiting foreigners has dimmed.
This negative perception or image problem has been exacerbated by reports of official corruption, dangerous roads and foreigners meeting their demise either through misadventure or homicide.
Taiwanese actress and her friends were probably wise to have paid the bribe when requested as the alternative would have been dire and expensive
Another key problem for foreign visitors to Thailand is the draconian nature of some elements of the Thai legal system including the 1979 Immigration Act where small infractions of the law can lead visitors into a nightmare situation through a deportation order.
This often leaves them at the mercy of corrupt officials, something which is readily exploited as we saw on January 4th this year.
Mr Sky told the police that he and his friends had no idea that e-cigarettes were illegal in Thailand.
He explained to reporters that the three devices had been bought at a market in Huai Khwang that week for ฿800 to ฿1,000 each.
He said that they had seen Thai people everywhere smoking with the vaporisers and it appeared to be legal.
This appeared to make the policemen they were dealing with quite angry as they insisted that those in possession of e-cigarette devices faced arrest.
At that point, it emerged that the owner of the vaporisers was the Taiwanese actress Charlene An and a senior officer approached them and said that as the actress was responsible for the items, she would face prosecution.
Senior police officer at the checkpoint out of uniform made the call and a bribe was negotiated to buy their way out of legal trouble over the vaporisers
At this point, a senior officer out of uniform appeared to have the final say on the matter and a deal was negotiated to pay a bribe of ฿8,000 for each e-cigarette device and ฿1,000 each in relation to the three foreigners who did not have their passports on hand to produce to the police at the checkpoint.
He said that there were three officers involved in the discussions relating to the bribe payment.
He confirmed that he paid over the money from ฿30,000 he had on him to buy souvenirs for his family in Singapore and that he saw the officers pocket the money between them.
He identified one officer on a video clip, who was obscuring the view and had a bald head and a third officer who was a skinny man.
He said he had paid the money after walking to a corner of the checkpoint.
The police officer who accepted the bribe told him to gather his group of friends in front of a camera and that a taxi would be called for them.
After the incident, all four of them in the taxi back to the hotel in Huai Khwang remained silent, such was the stress and fright they had suffered during the extended ordeal.
Singaporean man, on Wednesday, invited by Mr Chuwit to identify the police officers who extorted money from the tourists out on the town in Bangkok
Mr Chuwit Kamolvisit told reporters that photographs of serving officers at Huai Khwang Police Station are being shown to the Singaporean who has already identified some of the police officers involved in the incident.
It is understood that the Singaporean later met with Police Major General Atthaporn and four to five other senior offices with the Metropolitan Police Bureau who are investigating the payment of the bribe to serving police officers as a separate offence to charges against the officers involved already under Section 157 of the Criminal Code for dereliction of duty concerning the affair.
Police Major General Atthaporn has assured the Singaporean and the Taiwanese actress Charlene An that they are not facing any police action and are welcome to visit Thailand in the future where their safety and security will be assured.
Police Major General Atthaporn later confirmed that seven officers will be facing dereliction of duty charges for their part in the checkpoint operation on January 4th last for failing to arrest Ms Charlene An and others found to be in possession of vaporisers.
Officers are already facing dereliction of duty charges under Section 157 of the Criminal Code for failing to arrest Ms Charlene An and her friends
He said these current enquiries were with a view to prosecuting those involved with extorting money from the four passengers of the taxi which was stopped.
‘Camera footage showed 6 or 7 officers approaching the people who were victims in the affair, with them staying a long while,’ Police Major General Atthaporn explained.
Police presented Mr Sky with pictures of 14 police officers from Huai Khwang Police Station linked with the checkpoint operation to identify those involved.
The latest development in the story is that a tourist in Pattaya has allegedly also been the victim of an extortion attempt when ฿30,000 was allegedly demanded by a traffic policeman in the resort city, again, for being in possession of an e-cigarette or vaporiser.
New case of extortion in Pattaya over possession of an e-cigarette allegedly committed on a Chinese tourist by a traffic policeman in the resort city
The incident is alleged to have occurred on January 28th or 29th last, just days ago in the middle of the controversy generated by the Charlene An extortion scandal.
Police Major General Kampol Leelaprapakorn, the Chief of Chonburi Police has confirmed the reports and said that the officer in question has been assigned to assist the province’s police operations centre while the allegations against him are fully investigated.
The Chonburi police chief has tasked the Pattaya police chief to get to the bottom of allegations made by a Chinese tour guide who said that a tourist in one of his parties had been already arrested for possession of a vaporiser and for failing to pay a bribe of ฿60,000 which was reduced to ฿30,000.
The officer is a senior police sergeant major at Pattaya Police Station.
A fact-finding committee is currently retrieving CCTV footage from where the incident is alleged to have happened.
In a telephone interview, the officer denied the charges against him and invited a full probe into his conduct which he defended.
Prime Minister and National Police Commissioner promise action and say the problem is due to ‘rogue’ officers who must be removed from the force
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha commented again on the affair saying that rogue police officers must be exposed and prosecuted to preserve the kingdom’s reputation and good name.
‘There are still a lot of decent police officers, but we must get rid of rogue ones,’ General Prayut asserted.
At the same time, National Police Commissioner General Damrongsak Kittiprapat apologised for the failures of police officers under his command to the Thai people.
He vowed that legal action will be taken against all officers where any evidence came to light of wrongdoing.
Thailand introduced a legal provision which criminalised e-cigarette possession and use in 2014 and since then there have been ongoing cases where tourists have been extorted and situations where tourists have been arrested by the police.
In many cases, they faced detention before the court hearing if bail cannot be paid.
In court, often a simple fine is imposed but this subsequently results in their deportation from the country on the basis of an offence committed resulting in a cancelled visa.
What can happen to people who refuse to pay a bribe when requested to do so by police for using an e-cigarette while in the kingdom is disturbing
On January 30th 2019, a French tourist in Thailand, Cecelia Cornu, was arrested for being in possession of an e-cigarette after she refused to be extorted by police who demanded ฿40,000.
After being detained by police in Phuket, the French woman claimed she was again coerced into paying a bribe but refused.
Her passport was taken and she was forced to pay ฿100,000 bail to secure her release from detention with a trial date set for February 11th 2019 before Phuket Provincial Court.
In court, she was fined ฿827 which she duly paid.
However, Ms Cornu received a shock when she went to retrieve her passport from the Phuket Immigration Bureau office.
She was informed that she was being detained and transferred to Bangkok for deportation for having committed an offence in Thailand.
Ms Cornu was subsequently held in detention for four days and three nights at a Bangkok Immigration Bureau holding facility in the capital sharing a cell with 60 women and forced to sleep on a hard and dirty floor.
She told reporters that she then had to pay a further €8,000 or ฿286,000 to pay for expenses while being detained and her flight out of the kingdom.
Local police in Phuket subsequently denied that a bribe was requested at any time from the French tourist. They pointed out that Ms Cornu’s bail funds were repaid in full.
They explained that they knew nothing of the expenses incurred by the French woman subsequently to secure her freedom through being deported from Thailand.