I flew 12 hours and suddenly I’m interesting.

This weekend an article appeared on the BBC website about property scams in Phuket.  Given I’ve owned an apartment in Phuket for the last 5 years, I was interested to see how these scams worked.

British expat Ian Rance and Irishman Colin Vard are now living almost penniless with their children on the outskirts of Bangkok as they struggle against overwhelming odds to recover properties they bought on Phuket. Both men lost all their investments through frauds that neither of them imagined were possible.

Frauds?  Okay, I’m intrigued.

“I’d made my money in England and had enough to retire I thought. I was looking for a place that was warm, a place that had some rule of law, where I could live in safety and peace,” says Rance, a chartered surveyor and professional arbitrator from Hertfordshire, who arrived in Phuket in 2000.

Uh-huh.  With you so far.

In 2001 Rance met and married a Thai woman called Suda and went on to have three children with her.

Uh-oh.  I can see where this is heading.

The prime minister at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, had started a programme called “Thailand Elite”, through which he hoped to attract wealthy foreigners to settle by allowing them to own small amounts of land, something not normally permitted under Thai law.

Encouraged by this, Rance began investing in property, buying two houses, and eventually a restaurant and two pieces of land.

Sounds promising.

But the Thailand Elite scheme never took off, so in the end he did what thousands of other foreigners did

Pulled out of the deal and invested elsewhere?

he put the properties either in the name of the company he had already formed to run his consultancy business, or in the name of his wife.

Oh dear.

The family home was in his wife’s name, but leased to him on a 30-year lease.

Sounds legit.  I mean, which man doesn’t have his family home in his wife’s name and leased back to him?

The company was nominally Thai-owned but Rance, as a director, had majority voting rights – nothing could happen to the company’s assets without his approval. He was advised by local lawyers that this was legally quite safe.

He didn’t own his company but he had majority voting rights.  What could possibly go wrong?

But unbeknown to him, in July 2008 Suda began transferring the properties out of the company. In September she also removed Rance as a director. On paper none of this should have been possible. In practice, all she had to do was to forge her husband’s signature.

So his wife, who he appeared to have married less than a year after arriving in Thailand with his pockets full of cash, forged his signature and ripped him off.  Aside from the fact that he should have seen this coming a mile off, a wife forging a husband’s signature in the course of fleecing him or somebody else is hardly unique to Thailand, is it?

The Land Office in Phuket, where property transfers are formalised, was willing to accept a simple forged power of attorney from Rance to change ownership of properties worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and to cancel his 30-year lease on their home.

Presumably the Phuket Land Office should assume ageing expats are being ripped off by their Thai wives as a matter of course and, in contrast with the rest of the world, not recognise power of attorney documents.

To change the control of the company the forged signature had to be notarised by a lawyer – but that presented no problem. A local lawyer did this willingly, without Rance being present. When the BBC confronted the lawyer about this he admitted the signature was his, but claimed it was normal practice in Phuket.

Just as it is normal practice for expats to circumvent Thai ownership laws by running everything through a “local” company while retaining (hopefully) all control.  Funny that expats have few concerns engaging in legal gymnastics in order to set themselves up with a cushy life in Thailand, and then complain about dodgy practices used to strip them of everything a few years later.

But Rance’s attempts to sue the lawyer have got nowhere.

I don’t think we’re in London any more, Toto.

He only spotted the fraud in July 2010, when checking his company’s tax status.

According to the article, she started transferring the properties in 2008.  What kind of director – other than one who is nothing of the sort and became one only to circumvent Thai property laws – would allow fraud on this scale to go unnoticed for 2 years?

He discovered that all five properties, worth well over £1m ($1.5m), had been stolen. What began then was, he says, a nightmare period for him.

No, the nightmare started when you married a Thai girl a year after arriving in Phuket.  You just didn’t realise it.

His wife ran away.

Say it ain’t so!

Four men came into his house and threatened his life if he did not get out of Phuket. His wife phoned him and told him they would kidnap the children if he did not leave the house immediately.

At which point it dawned on him that the sweet, smiling girl he’d met dancing on that bar back in 2000 was in fact a hardened criminal.

The evidence Rance has amassed is staggering. Document after document shows the same land agent and two moneylenders, transferring the properties back and forth to his ex-wife in a form of pawnbroking, where she was in effect borrowing at astronomical rates of interest, using the properties as collateral.

None of which he was able to spot for two years as “director” of the company which he thought owned the properties.  What’s that saying about a fool and his money?

She was arrested in 2010, and is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

Ah, so justice prevailed after all. What’s the issue, again?

But nothing has happened to any of the other parties linked to the fraud.

I suspect this is because there is no document showing that they knew the signature had been forged when the property was transferred at the Phuket Land Office.  Of course, they would have known, but there is no evidence to show they did.  And Thailand, backward nation that it is, usually requires documented evidence of criminality in order to prosecute.

Rance has filed nine criminal and civil suits against them. He has had to travel to Phuket for every hearing, paying for himself, a lawyer, and a translator – hearings which are usually many months apart, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute.

Unlike everywhere else in the world where fraud cases involving treacherous ex-wives are cheap, simple, and closed out within a week with the utmost efficiency.

Worse, one of the moneylenders has filed a perjury case against Rance, claiming that he knew about the fraud all along.

A reasonable claim, given he was supposed to be the company director.  “Were you corrupt or merely stupid, sir?”

Over five years Rance estimates he has spent the equivalent of £200,000 ($300,000) on legal fees and other costs relating to the legal battle.

Rance has hired five lawyers, some of whom he says have overcharged him and sometimes deliberately sabotaged his cases.

Not content to see his Thai bride walking off with his properties, he’s decided to hand over another £200k to dodgy Thai lawyers.  Has this company director never heard of cutting one’s losses?

The only case he has won resulted in the imprisonment of his ex-wife and the restoration of his company directorship. Yet the same judge ruled that he had no right to sue the moneylenders for the stolen properties, because he had not been a director of the company at the time.

The judge probably thinks that a company director who hasn’t realised for two years that his wife has removed his name and started flogging the properties isn’t a director in any meaningful sense, and that the position was a fudge from the beginning.

Since I started working on this story a number of foreigners have contacted me to tell me about their experience of different kinds of fraud on Phuket.

Colin Vard also invested about £1m in Phuket, after a successful career in Dublin as an author and part-owner of a clothing factory. He lost a total of eight properties, over a similar time period.

Do go on.

Vard’s Thai partner, the mother of his son, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for the fraud.

I do believe I see a pattern forming here.

Ian Rance has a new wife now, and they have a young baby girl.

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

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Another Thai wife.

His main priority he says is to provide a proper home for the four children, and put them through school. With the boys’ mother in prison, and his funds exhausted, this is a huge challenge. He cannot even consider returning to the UK, because of the requirements regarding income and savings, which in his case are now insufficient.

Yes, money was so tight and my situation so desperate that I took another Thai wife and had another kid.

“Don’t. Don’t come here. The system of law is nowhere near as strong as you think it is going to be, there is no protection for you, and there are gangs of people victimising you. The lawyers have very little in the way of ethics or professionalism.”

I think what he means to say is “Don’t come here and hand over everything on a plate to a Thai wife.”

Now I may sound a bit harsh here but this Rance chap, and the other one, should have learned the lessons that were spelled out in Stephen Leather’s bestseller Private Dancer, which I have mentioned before.  Anybody but the willfully blind ought to know that you are never, ever going to meet a decent Thai girl with western values regarding honesty, integrity, and morality in a bar, shop, or restaurant in Phuket – or anywhere else in Thailand.  Difficult though it is to believe, the majority of decent, ordinary Thai girls are not interested in hanging out with fat, ageing, expats who do nothing but drink all day and are effectively long-term sex tourists.  Many expats don’t decide to live full-time in Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, they go because of the young(ish) cheap pussy that is on offer in each and every bar you stumble into between 4pm and 3am.  I know guys who have genuinely moved out to Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, and they generally do not marry a Thai girl within a year of arrival.  Indeed, most of them have their non-Thai wives or girlfriends in tow with them.

It is perfectly possible to own a property in Thailand without the involvement of Thais (the hiring of a Thai lawyer to handle the actual purchase notwithstanding), but you are restricted to foreign-freehold condominiums only, i.e. you can’t buy a house and the land underneath it.  Once you decide you want to live in a villa and impress your new Thai bride and start firing out kids and live like a king, then you will need the involvement of Thais who you can trust.  And although some might be lucky and meet girls in Phuket who can be trusted, a foreigner will have absolutely no way of knowing who is or isn’t trustworthy and must therefore keep very much on his toes in the way of looking out for the odd sign of something slightly unusual – like the wife selling off all his properties over a two year period.  Such naivety would not be without consequences in the UK, and so it is also the case in Thailand.  The problem is not so much Thailand being corrupt and the authorities incompetent as there being a seemingly never-ending stream of expat men who are blinded by the availability of young, foreign pussy over whom they wield (temporary) financial power to the exclusion of everything else, including basic common sense.  Little wonder the police don’t take much interest in their plight.

The Coup in Thailand

Everyone, including the UN, appears to be getting their knickers in a twist over this coup in Thailand.

Me, I’m not so worried (I have an apartment in Phuket, so I have an interest of sorts).  This is not like a coup in some parts of the world where the military leader seizes power with the intention of running the country permanently (usually by declaring a state of emergency, which remains in force for the next three generations).  Indeed, the Thais have seen multiple coups within living memory, the most recent being only 8 years ago.

Democracy in Thailand has not been an overwhelming success, and the past several years have seen deep divisions between two opposing sides (the reds and the yellows), each of whom vociferously protest against whichever one is in power that week.  The situation appeared to be intractable with no progress or compromises from either side in years, and it looked as though things were going to take a turn for the worse and become violent.

So on the face of it, it looks as though the army has assumed the role of parent to two squabbling kids, whacked their heads together, and told them to sort out their differences or else forget about holding office in any capacity.  I am confident the generals do not want to establish themselves as the permanent head of a military dictatorship, and I am equally confident they envisage ceding power to an elected civilian government as soon as one which is adult enough presents itself.  I am not so confident this will happen any time soon, or the military intervention will not somehow make things worse, but I don’t think there were many alternatives which would have lead to a happy outcome.  Taking all this into account, I’m not sure that blanket, universal condemnation of the coup is warranted just yet.

More Civil Unrest in Thailand

After sustained protests in Bangkok, the Thai Prime Minister has dissolved parliament and is promising fresh elections next year.  The squabbling appears to be much the same as that which occurred in spring 2010, or at least the two groups involved are the same.  Only this time the yellow shirts are protesting against the supposed influence of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra over the current government, whereas last time it was Thaksin’s supporters (the red shirts) protesting about the yellow shirts, who were in power.

I’ve recently re-read the post I wrote back in April 2010 on the likelihood of a civil war in Thailand, and don’t see anything which would change my mind on its conclusion: a civil war is highly unlikely.

More Shite Music Played Loud

A few years back I made this observation:

The volume of the music being played by a neighbour is inversely proportional to the quality of the music.

I went on to say:

I am convinced that those who play music stupidly loud in apartments or houses are those who fail to get positive attention by the normal method of not being a complete prick.

Little has occurred in the time since I wrote these words to give me cause to change my mind.

I am currently sitting on my balcony in Thailand having to put up with blaring music from the block opposite.  The occupants of the apartment appear to be two men in their late 50s, lily-white, unfit, bald, and sporting recent tattoos and some swarthy chap with hair down to his arse who looks to be in his 40s but thinks he’s still in his 20s.  I’m not sure what nationality these twats are, but I’d put a strong bet on their being American or British.  Each has a Thai hooker girlfriend in tow, and it is probably for their benefit that the music is being played.  And sure enough, the music is utter shite: commercial house from about 15 years ago.  Stuff like Encore Une Fois and a remix of The Key, the Secret.  We were all listening to this stuff during my second year in university, and we knew it was naff then but at least it was current.  Now we have blokes old enough to be my dad – who would have been past 40 when it was fresh – playing it off balconies in Thailand.  I mean, don’t they have any Rolling Stones CDs?

Like I said, I’m sure this is all done for the benefit of  the women they have lolling about the apartment, who regularly get blind drunk and scream the place down.  It smacks of a desperate attempt to appear young, or at least cool, to girls who really couldn’t give a shit who or what you are so long as you’re dispensing ready cash.

I’ve quoted Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer in a previous post, and I could have quoted a lot more:

I’ve never yet met a sex tourist who I’ve found the least bit entertaining or interesting…sex tourists in the main are men who would find it difficult to get a half decent girl back in their home towns.  You think that just because you’ve sat in the economy section of a long-haul flight for a day that you’ve suddenly become a fascinating person? Think again.

Words which would be lost on these dickheads living opposite me, I’m sure.

Uneducated Expats

This amused:

According to the Deputy Director, the Thailand Ministry of Education is warning all schools who offer Education Visas to foreigners to be legitimate and make sure students adhere to attendance and testing requirements.

At the Pattaya City Expats Club meeting on Sunday, Immigration Volunteer and former British Consul Barry Kenyan stated the problem with Education visas as he observed it first-hand in the local Immigration office on Jomtien Beach Road, Soi 5.

“A guy came in and wanted to renew his Education visa for a 7th straight year. He waited in the queue and when it was his turn he sat at the Immigration officer’s desk in charge of Education Visas. He had all of his documents from the school. His application was completed and he had the two photos now required for any visa. So the officer looked at him and said, ‘You have been learning Thai for six years already. Is that right?’ The answer was yes so the officer looked at a nearby fish tank and said in Thai, ‘The big fish eat the little fish.” The foreigner looked at him without a clue. The officer smiled and picked up a big red stamp and stamped “CANCELLED” on the remaining portion of the current visa and told the fellow he would not again receive an Education visa,” Barry reported.

That explained why my wife got given the third degree when she went to renew her education visa in Phuket last week.  Fortunately, being a child of the Soviet Union and understanding of the phrase “Учиться, учиться, учиться, как завещал великий Ленин“, she actually attends class and can speak a fair amount of Thai (enough to annoy the teacher), so was able to reply “Yes, but the little fish is not so tasty!”  Or something.  Anyhow, she got her visa renewed.  I’m guessing there are a few worried expats in Thailand right now (and a few worried Thai girlfriends), because of all the people I met living in Thailand on education visas, the only one who actually bothers studying the language with any seriousness is my wife.

Holidays

Posting has been non-existent because I am currently in Thailand on holiday.  After almost 3 months in Nigeria, Phuket never looked so clean, inviting, and friendly.  I’m way too busy enjoying myself to be blogging.

Remember this post?  All is forgiven.  Phuket is the best place on the planet.

Goodbye Thailand, for now

Visitors to Thailand, especially those going to one of the resorts, are advised to learn a foreign language before going. Not something common like French, German, or Spanish and not one of the north European languages with so few native speakers that they are all fluent in English. Something like Russian, Hungarian, or Korean will do. Here’s why.

Walking the streets of Thailand will see you accosted by a hawker, trader, or rip-off merchant every ten paces. Shouting out six or seven saleable items in the time it takes you to walk past them – a distance of two metres – is their preferred method of advertising, with the wares of the last stall fading only once those of the next are at maximum pitch. It’s kind of like a linear barbershop quartet, only with a couple of hundred members instead of four. This is a place where not being able to speak English, or being able to feign such ignorance, is a distinct advantage. Looking straight ahead with a baffled but purposeful expression will get you through provided you don’t utter a word of English. Unfortunately some, especially the Indians trying to flog you suits, will step in front of you, hand outstretched in greeting like your brother would if you showed up at his house to watch the football. There are several ways to deal with this, one of which is to ignore him completely leaving him standing in the pavement as if he’s trying to greet the invisible man. If Indians understood the concept of embarrassment they’d soon quit doing this, but then they’d also not be trying to flog suits to strangers on the side of the road. And ignoring annoying pests is only possible for a while, and eventually you have to say something. Such as “Who the fuck are you?”, but they’ll probably chalk this up as a foot in the door and claim a sales commission. Occasionally I stop and ask excitedly if they sell suits, waiting for the beaming “Yes sir, come inside please sir!” before I say “I don’t want one” and walk off briskly. Mean, but fair. Continue reading

A Civil War in Thailand?

My wife has just returned from a trip into the Thai countryside which involved a two-night stop-over in Bangkok.  She reported that there are soldiers everywhere, almost as if martial law has been imposed, and areas of the city are blocked off at night and the whole place is generally very tense and the normal hustle and bustle of this lively city is significantly subdued.  There has been some violence, although this being Thailand it is far more contained and things are much calmer than you could expect in almost any other country.

However, the tourists numbers have dropped significantly, no doubt due to various foreign offices firstly covering their arses by telling people to avoid the place regardless, and secondly by lazily assuming trouble in Bangkok means trouble everywhere else.  It doesn’t.  The closest I have seen to a Red Shirt rally in Phuket is a Manchester United game on TV.  Unless you go looking for trouble or are very, very unlucky, the worst that will happen to a visitor to Thailand is the airport might be disrupted, and a volcano in Iceland can just as easily cause that at the other end.  For sure, I would not recommend a visit to Bangkok itself right now if that’s what you’re planning, but lying about on a beach on Phuket or Koh Samui is as safe as anywhere and your holiday is not going to be interrupted by anything going on in Bangkok.

But all that said, the political situation is uncertain and unless an accommodation or compromise is found soon, things could turn uglier and hit tourism and the industries which rely on it pretty hard.  A few expats I have spoken to said they are refraining from buying property in Thailand until this issue is resolved fearing a change in the law a few years down the line, but I don’t think that worry will ever completely go away.  I have no idea what will happen and can offer no insight here, except perhaps an opinion as to whether Thailand will fall into full-scale civil war.  I don’t  think it will, and here’s why.

Firstly, it needs to be understood that fighting a civil war is a tough business.  The entire population, and not just the fighting men and boys, will have to endure extreme and sometimes unimaginable hardship.  For those actually fighting, this will involve living in the jungle on meagre rations, away from home and family, without access to anything but the very basic medical care, for an indefinite period which might be for decades.  For the rest of the population, which includes the fighters’ family and friends, a civil war will entail death, disease, hunger, a destruction of all infrastructure and civil society, and a return to the peasant farming of fifty odd years ago.  In short, anyone who wants to pick up a rifle in a civil war must be prepared to give up anything he has gained thus far and values in life, e.g. children, a house, car, etc. and endure serious hardship in the knowledge that his loved ones will suffer too.

This appears to be easy for the menfolk in places like Somalia or Afghanistan where they have very little by way of possessions or material wealth and comforts, so the difference between fighting and not fighting is minimal, almost to the point that it is down to whether you let off some rounds from your rifle or not.  This is not the case in Thailand.  Despite Thailand’s reputation as being a cheap place to holiday with lots of little poor brown people to serve you, the laws of the Kingdom regarding business and property ownership have resulted in a large middle-class which has been ever growing for the past three decades.  The wealthy Thai elites in Bangkok have done very well out of the tourist industry, but so has a huge number of hitherto poor folk.  The elites have made sure they’re all right, but they have not prevented everyone else with a brain or a work ethic from prospering too.  When I went to Cambodia a few years back, I found a bunch of new hotels being built by Korean contractors using Thai and Malaysian money and a whole load of Thai and Malaysian tourists.  The Thai middle class has grown to a point where going on holiday abroad is now affordable, investing abroad is possible, and a good many Thais go abroad for their education.  These wealthier Thais are in the minority, and those in the countryside (from whence all the dancing girls come) are still poor by almost any standard, but the numbers are moving in the right direction: things are getting better, not worse.  And the farmers and other rural dwellers, despite being poor, are not destitute.  I’m sure there are some areas of  Thailand where poverty rivals that of Africa, but in general even in the remote countryside most people share – if not own – a reasonable house with an electricity connection and a refrigerator, a scooter or old pickup truck, and a telephone situated somewhere nearby.  There is enough food and water to go around, and epidemics of disease exist but are not widespread.  Education services are basic, very basic, but nonetheless available.  Small comforts these may be, but they are not nothing, and the Thais will appreciate their lot now compared with 20 years ago regardless of any displeasure with the current government.  So should any Thai decide to pick up a rifle and join in a civil war, he will certainly lose out on something: in some cases not a lot, but each and every Thai will lose something which they have worked pretty hard for.

However, populations with lots to lose can and do plunge themselves into civil war regardless of the hardship that entails, but it requires the fighters and their supporters to have serious motivation to do so.  This motivation is normally driven by religious or ethnic differences, a desire for national liberation, or extreme ideological divides with the last one usually requiring the outside backing of one or more of the belligerents.  Pretty much every civil war I can think of rose from a situation where one or more of the above criteria applied, where enough of the population had sufficient motivation to take up arms in support of their cause.

Thankfully, none of the above applies in Thailand.  Thais share the same religion and much the same ethnicity (I’m simplifying here, but there is no divide in Thailand along ethnic lines).  Nobody is advocating separatism.  And the ideological divide seems to be relatively minor compared to the Soviet-backed Communists vs Western-backed Everybody Else conflicts which caused such mayhem during the Cold War, or the Royalist vs Maoist conflicts in Nepal.  Indeed, the problem in Thailand seems to be a disagreemment over government policy between the rural poor and … well it’s hard to say, but somewhere between the Bangkok elite and everybody else.  Judging by what’s being shouted about, the demands of the Red Shirts are not unreasonable in the general scheme of things.  It’s along the lines of “More money and power for us!” which sounds pretty much like political movements of all stripes anywhere.  Nobody is calling for the dissolution of the monarchy to become a socialist republic with the southern half of the country joining Malaysia.  Far from it.  And probably most importantly, there is no outside party – either a troublemaking neighbour or distant superpower – with any interest whatsoever in seeing Thailand descend into violence.  In the event of a major armed conflict arms sanctions would almost certainly apply, and without any outside support it is unlikely such a conflict could sustain itself for long.

The Red Shirt protestors are motivated enough – by money or otherwise – to hold lengthy protests in the capital and engage in sporadic and relatively low-level violence, largely aimed at the police or army.  But this is a long, long, way short of finding the motivation, and the numbers, to wage a protracted civil war.  A swift coup is always a possibility in Thailand, with the population wishing for – almost demanding – a rapid return to normality immediately thereafter, as has been the case in the past.  The worst case scenario would be a low-level terrorist campaign waged against government targets in the provinces with the occasional bombing of a city or two, but even that would probably struggle to garner the popular support such a campaign requires to sustain itself, let alone succeed.

There just isn’t the anger on the streets to warrant fears of a civil war.  The Thais simply have too much to lose and not enough reason to lose it.