So I wrote this post back in 2014, not really expecting anything to come of it, since then it’s been viewed over 100,000 times, shared at least 9,000 times on Facebook, and parts have been translated into a few languages. It’s even been quoted or used as the source material for articles and documentaries in Time, The Independent, Channel 4 and more. I’ve also been the target of a smear campaign from various islanders and ex friends who are not particularly happy regarding what I’ve written, even received the odd threat. The post could do with a bit of a clean up as it is easily the most viewed post on mikeestravels.com. Of course, due to this post there is no change I could ever safely return to Koh Tao, but it’s a small price to pay considering the absolute travesty of justice that is two Burmese migrants being put to death for a crime that they likely did not do, because the Thai Prime Minister claimed that “no Thai could ever do this”. Heck – someone even published a book in 2015 called “How Not to Get Murdered in Thailand” which touches on this, and other similar cases throughout Thailand.
A little background – I lived on Koh Tao for approximately 6 months in 2013, living in Sairee and Chalok Ban Kao. I spent most of my time DJing in a few of the bars in the island and got to see first hand the corruption of the local police and families who controlled the place. I saw what happened when bar owners took too much drugs, when there were disputes over turf between the firedancers, or when threats were made over popular club nights. Later I moved to Koh Phangan, where I made a stupid decision to get involved with a hostel project, put a bit of my money into it, and lost it all. Once again I got to see the corruption of the local police, immigration, farang and mafia that exists in the gulf of Thailand. Luckily I knew when to leave, and was able to relocate to Bangkok for a good 6 months before moving to New Zealand and eventually the United States. Since this article was published there have been at least 5 more suspicious deaths on the island that I know of and in typical Thai fashion they were labeled suicides or “natural causes”. Had they of been in Bangkok they would have probably been dubbed members of the notorious “Bangkok Flying Club” (where foreign expats in Bangkok or Pattaya “jump” to their deaths, usually after a Thai love interest has been named a beneficiary in a will involving significant property, or insurance coverage).
Shame to the westerners who live on the island and have continued to support the family in question, those who have helped to cover up what has happened. You now have the blood of these two unfortunate workers on your hands. I hope that the lifestyle is worth it.
Background to this article:
The recent murders in Koh Tao of two young backpackers have attracted a lot of unwanted attention to the dark side of Thailand, including “mafia” style families (known as Chao Pho “เจ้าพ่อ” in Thai) operating in the Gulf of Thailand on islands such as Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samui.
Chao pho or jao poh literally means “godfather.” Chao pho are mostly of Han ethnicity based in the provinces who have business interests in both legitimate and criminal activities. Moreover, they have groups of associates and followers, move closely with powerful bureaucrats, policemen and military figures, sit in positions in local administration, and play a key role in parliamentary elections. Chao pho mostly come from a Hanethnic background.According to Thai authorities, there are chao pho groups in 39 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. From these provinces they work like a local mafia as they are active in both illegal as well as some legitimate businesses. They are involved in a wide range of criminal activities such as prostitution, drug trafficking, illegal gambling and others They are known for cooperating with the Red Wa ( who are associated with the United Wa State Army) for the trafficking and sale of narcotics.
Source: Wikipedia “Chao Pho“
A Bit of Koh Tao History
For most of it’s history Koh Tao looked nothing like it did today. It was likely a stopping off point for Malay fishermen for centuries, due largely to its isolated position in the Gulf of Thailand. In the 1800s, there would have been a couple of small villages, while later on in the 1890’s King Chulalongkorn visited the island – which is marked with a monument on Sairee beach. The island remained a quiet place for decades, with a few fishing families and farmers and not much else.
After the Siamese Revolution of 1932, the country moved from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy (of sorts). Koh Tao was used as a political prison in a similar way to Koh Tarutao in the South. In 1947, the prisoner inhabitants were given a Royal pardon and shipped off out of exile to the neighboring islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. The island was once again abandoned.
The legend then goes that two brothers from Koh Phangan sailed to Koh Tao and settled on the land that is now considered Sairee beach. They farmed and fished and lead a fairly simple lifestyle occasionally trading with those on Koh Phangan.
The Vietnam war came about, which created a tourism boom in Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s for American GIs on R&R. Early backpackers began to explore the Islands in the gulf of Thailand, with dive trips originating from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The first full moon party being held on Phangan in the late 1980s. Gradually tourism began to increase on the Islands, and the island began to become more and more developed. First with a few simple shops and dive huts, then resorts, and later bars and other non diving related business. Larger ferry companies such as Lomprayah, Seatran and Songserm began to serve the island with overnight buses originating from Bangkok to fill the many spots on a growing dive industry. The island developed its two main areas of Sairee beach (which is now full of nightclubs, resorts and dive shops) and the sleepier “local” side of Chalok Ban Kao as well as the busy port of Mae Haad.
Power Structures on the Island
As with virtually any other town, village or island there is a patronage style system that those in the west would consider “mafia like”. However due to Koh Tao’s isolation and history this becomes more complex. (Technically these go all the way from the lowliest street vendor, through mafia and local government, all the way up to the military and eventually Royalty –
Spend any time living on the island or speak to long termers under normal circumstances and they will speak of the “five families” that inhabit the island. Three of these key families inhabit and control the main Sairee beach, while the other two have more power on the Chalok side of the Island.
These families are the descendents of the original settler families that arrived on the island between the 1940s and 1980s, prior to the advent of dive tourism. Although they do not own land (all land on the island is technically owned by the King via the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources) they do have a form of squatters rights that allows them to extract rent and develop businesses on their patch. A very small land rent is then payable to the crown for every “rai” (a Thai measurement of land) that they possess.
These families control or have an interest in virtually every business on the island in some way, shape or form. This can either be in the form of direct ownership, partnership, as a landlord or major supplier. No business on the island, whether Thai or Farang exists without some form of interaction of patronage or involvement from these key families. The families areas are fairly clearly demarcated around property boundaries. What might be appropriate behavior in one area of the beach, would not be acceptable behavior in another. A long termer may have “protection” in one bar, but would never contemplate entering another due to relationships (business, friendship or otherwise) with someone connected to another. These families, in typical Thai fashion, tend to be incredibly jealous of each other, and highly competitive for every tourist dollar. There are many stories on the islands of what happens when one family perceives another family to have wronged them in one way or another and it generally involves petty rivalries over cash.
The other power source on the island is the Royal Thai Police who operate out of a building behind the school and temple on the Mae Haad end of Sairee beach. To describe them as law enforcement is generous, as they are merely another form of mafia style organisation on the island (a 6th family if you will). Their police work generally consists of driving around the island on their scooters, collecting their weekly extortion money from local businesses before spending it on booze and other entertainment. It’s worth noting that police purchase their postings in Thailand, it costs money to be the top police officer in a Tourist area, because to Thais – being the local sheriff in town is a business opportunity. Ask locals what the going rate is to be head of police in Phuket, Samui, Pattaya or any other area with a large potential revenue stream of bribes from strung up tourists.
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2007, a survey assessing the public’s perceptions and experience of corruption in 60 countries, states that, for Thailand, the police received a rating of four out of five, where one represents “not at all corrupt” and five represents “extremely corrupt”– Wikipedia
Drugs on the Island
Drugs are prevalent on Koh Tao and easier to get. As with everything on the island there is a police of family involvement. In my time there, I saw people on a wide variety of substances, including cannabis, LSD, Ya Ba ( literally “crazy drug” in Thai, a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine) and surprisingly cocaine. Cocaine was being consumed by many of the Thai Bar owners on Sairee beach while I was there during low season, and resulted in unpredictable behaviour – extreme highs, and extreme lows, which could potentially turn dangerous at a moments notice.
Long term locals all know the situation with drugs on the island, either consuming or turning a blind eye. When the police start to run low on cash, checkpoints will be set up on the road to Ao Leuk and the entrance to North Sairee village. This is where fresh foreigners will be caught with small amounts of cannabis, or urine tests will sometimes be taken for substances. The police intention is not to catch and charge foreigners for drug possession, but to use the threat of criminal sanction as leverage in order to extort cash off them.
When the amount is too large to cover up, criminal charges may be laid, but generally the person charged will get out on bail and a local lawyer will arrange a generous fine in order to get the person off the charges. Everyone involved takes their cut. In my time on the island I’ve personally witnessed a Thai businessman threatening to plant drugs under the seat of the motorbike due to a perceived insult from a farang, before calling the police.
Motorbike Rental Extortion
The biggest scam on the island (as with the other islands in the Gulf) involves the rental of motorbikes to tourists. All of the motorbike rental companies require a passport as collateral and use a standard rental agreement that is common on Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Requiring a passport for collateral is illegal in Thailand, and for many nationals it is also illegal for them to provide. That said most tourists still do this, naive to how everything works. Bikes that are returned with any damage, no matter how small result in massive costs for the renter. A scratched piece of plastic that costs no more than 300 baht, will be charged anywhere from 3,000-10,000 baht. Excessive consumption of booze, poor quality roads, crazy taxi drivers and lack of lighting at night result in more than a fair share of motorbike accidents. Tourists are often eager to leave after a crash, and don’t want to miss their ferry – leaving all of the power with the rental company to extort whatever they like for a damaged bike. Those who argue with a rental company risk physical violence, and there have been multiple reports of on tripadvisor of firearms being pulled on those who argue with the rental company.
Koh Tao continues to rent out dangerous four wheel ATVs to inexperienced riders, a practise that has been banned on the other gulf islands due to the sheer number of accidents. None of these bikes are insured (even those that advertise insurance) and riders who do not carry an international drivers licence, with a motorbike endorsement along with specific cover for motorbike riding are not covered. As with any other islands, police involvement may result in a slight decrease in the compensation for any motorbike accident, but the police officer will need to take his cut.
Violent Crime on the Island
Generally speaking the island is very safe. Part of the reason for this, is ironically enough that local strongmen and families keep the peace. There is only one main way in and out of the Island, and if you put a foot wrong you will be made to leave. By the same token, there is little theft because of the small size and difficulty of removing valuable items. There have however been a few incidents that I know of in the recent history of the island.
- Burmese migrant workers have been murdered and burnt with tires similar to “necklacing” incidents in South Africa.
- The bodies of Burmese migrant workers have been found by divers at sea after being shot on fishing boats in the gulf and washing near shore.
- A bar owner was shot dead in in Star Bar on Sairee beach, in public on a busy night in front of multiple witnesses over a business dispute. During the time I lived on Koh Tao that re opened and renamed under new management (I even worked there as a DJ). It has since closed and been demolished. No one was ever arrested for the shooting, and I was told by long termers living on the Island that the alleged shooter operates a bar on the other side of the island in Auw Leuk.
- Around 2002, one of the most powerful business people on the island – Virat Asavachin, and brother of the operator of Ban’s Diving School – which is the biggest dive school in the world was school is shot dead in the middle of Sairee after a dispute with families. This is allegedly in or around the same shop that Scot, Sean McAnna was in when hiding from the two Thai men over the weekend. Again, no one was ever arrested for the shooting, though many locals claim to know who did it. Apparently the body was still in a freezer waiting to be cremated 6 years later.
The story was covered by the Bangkok Post, but is no longer available online, but has been reposted on diving message boards:
“TAO chief killed by masked man Shot in daylight, talking to friendsA local administrative organisation chief and business tycoon was shot dead by a masked gunman on Tao island early yesterday morning. Virat Asavachin, 42, chairman of Tambon Koh Tao Administrative Association, was shot while talking with three friends near Ree beach. A lone gunman, his face covered with a woollen mask, walked up to the group and fired six shots at Mr Virat, police said. One of the bullets entered his left ear. The gunman then walked calmly away towards the main road, witnesses told police. The dead man’s wife, Ramluek, 29, and tambon organisation officials were questioned yesterday as police investigators looked for a motive. The investigators suspected the attack arose from either a business conflict or a dispute over work in the tambon. The victim owned Ban’s Diving, a 100-million-baht diving business and the largest dive shop on the resort island. He recently began a ferry boat business serving the Chumphon-Koh Tao route.
- A taxi driver stabbed another taxi driver in Mae Haad after he “stole” a customer from him in broad daylight. No one was ever arrested. Taxis on Koh Tao are also operated by two mafia families – there are no motorcycle taxis allowed and the lack of competition results in extortionately expensive taxi fares. Due to this they will not drive passengers to certain areas on the island that are the other families “turf”.
- There are also numerous stories of bars being burned down by jealous brothers, or even landlords. I personally know someone who had a party shut down at gunpoint by jealous competitors and former business partners who were stuck with an empty bar. Business owners have been made to leave the island at gunpoint by the close of business (I also know of this happening in Koh Phangan, and personally know people who have had this happen after running up debts).
- There are many stories of Thai on Thai crime, generally this involving shootings between men who have fooled around with others wives. This tends to happen away from the resort areas, one such case was near the local council buildings in the interior of the island.
- The attempted rape and throat slashing of a foreign bar managers wife, which went unreported.
- Dimitri Povse was found hanging from his Sairee village property balcony, with his hands tied behind his back. This death was ruled a suicide by the Koh Tao police.
- On New Years day in 2014, Nick Pearson was found dead on the Island. I didn’t realise it at the time of initially writing the article, but I was staying on the island at the time with my wife and father in law, and a friend of mine was initially called to the police station to try and attempt to identify the body. Nick’s brother also has many mutual friends with me in Bangkok, and was a regular at the same backpackers hostel I met my wife.
- In January 2015 Christina Annesley died in Koh Tao, on a property linked to one of the key families on the island. This death was ruled to be of natural causes due to mixing alcohol and antibiotics, but there was no toxicology report.
- In January 2017, Luke Millar was found dead in a swimming pool on Sairee beach.
- In February 2017 Valentina Novozhyonova went missing from her hostel in Koh Tao. She is still missing, presumed dead.
In the Context of the Recent Murders
In the first few days after the murders a very complex and every changing story emerged from the Island.
- A pair of British tourist’s were brutally murdered on the beach front in front of a bar owned by a local Poo Yai (big man on the island) using tools that belong to either a Thai business or migrant labourers.
- Local police were quoted as saying that a Thai could never do something like this (even though there are thousands of Thais in jail for doing similar things to each other), and proceeded to attempt to pin the blame on everyone from the victims best friends, migrant burmese labourers and more.
- Police officers start posting images of the victims on their personal Facebook accounts, people who are IDed as potential suspects later on are photographed walking all over and contaminating the crime scene.
- The media leaks sensitive information, and starts to paint a picture blaming the friend of the victim, claiming he is his gay lover and completely defaming him. Police apparently plant bloodied shorts in his bag.
- The Prime Minister then stepped in, proceeding to blame the victim of the murder for being pretty and wearing a bikini, even though the murder was at night and photos of video the victim show her fully clothed prior to the incident.
- A long termer on the island (Scott McAnna) who is also a friend of the male victim accuses local family members of being involved with the murder (he does not directly accuse them of it) and threatening to hang him, and use him as a scapegoat. He posts this on social media, and attempts to get it far and wide, with posts along the lines of if he is found dead tonight, these are the guys who did it.The Thais involved openly admit they “had words” with Sean, confirming that he was at least threatened, but because they are “Poo Yai” and mates with the cops, they are allowed to walk – without taking a DNA test.
- The police continue their ludicrous investigation including reenacting the scene in the middle of the night, measuring the footprints of Burmese women and taking urine tests from Burmese males.
- Various things would have happened behind the scenes, and eventually those fingered by the foreigner are brought into the police station for an interview, and refuse DNA tests.
- Relatives of those accused by Sean of threatening to kill him do a runner up to Bangkok. Thai media name them as suspects while local police claim they are not, and merely at University. This is after the island was supposed to have been sealed off.
- Posts pop up on various Facebook groups urging foreigners not to comment to the media, or speak to any outsiders until approval is given by key people on the island. Comments are deleted or self censored. There is an appearance of a wall of silence, either for personal safety, or to protect business interests. It is at around this time that I posted the original blog post, and a locals, including former friends start a smear campaign against myself and this blog, including all sorts of insane accusations against me. It is at this stage that I had to remove a few blog posts that named friends still on the island, as they did not want to be linked to me for their own safety until they left.
- Various sock puppet accounts appear on online message boards such as Thaivisa.com attempting to derail commentary on the incident and the character assassination of the only witness begins.
- It turns out that the witness has a very shady past of his own back in Europe, this is reported in Scottish newspapers.
- Family are cleared due to DNA tests that are processed in record time (bare in mind that it takes 3 hours to get off Koh Tao by boat, and up to 9 hours to drive to Bangkok – where the main forensic labs would be, otherwise its a 3 hour boat ride to Koh Samui, then a 1 hour plane to Bangkok. This is before even factoring in the time it would take to actually process the tests). DNA Tests in a first world country generally take anywhere from 24-48 hours, and thats not even taking into account the chain of custody of samples each way. There is some concern as to whether Thailand even is capable of testing to international standards (this is an old source, circa 2007): “Currently, neither of the 6 forensic DNA laboratories in Bangkok is accredited for forensic DNA analysis by international accreditation bodies nor ISO17025:2005. However, out of the 6 DNA laboratories, one laboratory is ISO 15189:2003 accredited and one is ISO 9001:2000 accredited for the management system. All of the 6 laboratories are equipped with essential instruments sufficient for carrying out forensic DNA analysis, though a need to balance the capacity of major instruments to reach it’s full capacity. To strengthen the competency of staffs, special training regarding forensic issues must be provided. All 6 laboratories have positive attitude towards standards and accreditation as prerequisite to carry out forensic case work. Over 66.67% of the DNA laboratories aim for being ISO17025:2005 accredited within 3 years. However, in order to process for the accreditation, the main organization must have a clear supporting policy. An external auditor may be appointed as a part of the auditing team to provide a broader view to the laboratory, as well as demonstrating clarity of the quality assurance process. In the beginning of this year, 2007, the Bureau of Laboratory Quality Standards, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand has launched an accreditation program based on ISO/IEC 17025:2005 for forensic science laboratories. This is would help support Thai forensic laboratories to meet the quality and international standards in the very near future.”
- Family head man offers 1 million baht (about $40,000 NZD) to the police if a member of his family is guilty. This screams either blood money, that he knows who did it, or that its a thinly veiled threat against any local who might name a family member.
- Police stop considering Head man’s son as a suspect as he has a dubious “alibi” in Bangkok, yet no DNA tests are taken. It is unclear whether there is a second son on the run, due to the poor quality of Thai and Foreign of media reporting. The person in charge of the Forensics institute in Thailand is none other than Pornthip Rojanasusnan, the same person who defended the fraudulent GT-2000 bomb detectors, which had no working parts. She even suggested using these fake bomb detectors to find corpses that were rumoured to be held in shipping containers off the Thai coast in 2009. In 2010 she was quoted as saying: “I do not feel embarrassed if the bomb detector is proven ineffective. Personally, I have never handled the device myself. But my people have used it and it is accurate every time. Long long time ago, people believed that the Earth is flat and anyone who said otherwise faced execution. Things which are not visible does not necessarily mean they do not exist.”
- A Thai Taxi driver says he is arrested by the local police who then offer him 700,000 baht to give false evidence. He is beaten when he does not comply. He states that the knows nothing about the incident. The headman (whose family was earlier implicated by Sean McAnna as making threats on his life) urges the police not to use violence with the police or arrest a scapegoat.
- The Tourism Authority of Thailand visit Koh Tao, and the Minister of Tourism suggest solutions such as wristbands with tourists ID details and tracking devices for tourists, as well as a local “buddy system” and safe areas. This is received with widespread ridicule worldwide, as such a system would do absolutely nothing to prevent violent crime against tourists, but would make a considerable amount of money for whoever is involved in the production of said devices and wristbands.
- The eventual court case, along with the appeal finds the pair of Burmese suspects (whom many believe to be scapegoats) guilty of murder and sentences them to death.
At this stage its not clear exactly what happened, though generally speaking, when there is smoke – there is fire. I have no idea what happened on that night, as I’m on the other side of the world. Based on past experiences on the island – I do have strong suspicions that the local families and police have actively tried to derail the investigation, attempted to cover it up and that had social media not attracted international attention on the case, that a Burmese scapegoat would have been found. The police almost admit this in a newspaper article: “Please have confidence in our work, there will be no scapegoats” and “The case is being watched closely, watched worldwide and we are working hard to make this case as airtight as possible”
I personally believe Sean McAnna when he says he was threatened by the local Thais. I’ve read various claims on Thaivisa.com that the threats were too direct and in colliqual english that would not be used by a Thai. Koh Tao is not like other areas in Thailand – the locals have the best command of English out of anywhere I’ve been. His chequered past would have made him an easy patsy, but then again so would many long term residents on the Island whom the local police are probably keeping tabs on. The police were building a story about guitar players, about foreigners and that Thai’s couldn’t possibly be involved.
I think had Sean not made his outburst that he probably would have ended up either dead, or blamed for the whole situation. I have absolutely zero faith in the Thai justice system or any island police officers ability to do their job.
I’m saddened by the wall of silence from the Koh Tao expat community, but I can also understand why. Many have had brushes with the law in the past, mostly to do with drug use – and the police always hold this as ammunition for use in the future. Many others have business interests but incorrect Visas or nominee shareholdings in their business or property ownership. They could lose their entire investments and lifestyle that they have become accustomed to simply for speaking out. Some could get deported for overstay, fined for employing illegal immigrants or arrested for working without a work permit.
Something about the whole story still doesn’t make sense though. I simply cannot understand why someone from one of these powerful families would actually get involved in this mess and do something so brutal. Somewhere these facts don’t add up. Thai males are known to get violent at a moments notice – but this is when “face” comes into play. They don’t (especially well connected business owners, even ones descended from squatters) just rape and murder two tourists when their entire industry depends on them. I very much doubt that the person (or people) who did this will actually be punished. I think someone will be arrested, and will have a confession beaten out of them by Thai police. Due to the international attention, local cops cannot risk the loss of face by not “solving” this tragic crime. It is unlikely however that justice will be done
There will likely be a short term drop in tourist numbers to the rock, but backpackers generally don’t pay attention to these sort of things, many tend to think they are invincible or will never happen to them, and by next season – things will be back to “normal”.
Is Koh Tao Safe for tourists?
Here’s the thing – I don’t think Koh Tao is any more dangerous now than it ever was. The simple fact is that most places in Thailand can be dangerous if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. As with anywhere in Thailand, tourists should use caution while having fun, and always be careful around Thai males when drugs, alcohol and women are involved. I think that for the average tourist, if you behave well, it will be safe – things do get more dangerous the longer you stay, especially if you are working or starting your own business, essentially any situation where you can appear to be a source of money, or potential victim of extortion. I’ve been in a few very dangerous situations myself, but looking back – I should have seen the warning signs and I could have avoided them.
There is something bad going on in terms of a cover up regarding crime in Thailand against foriegners, especially what happened in Koh Tao. If something happens to you, chances are there will be no justice, but this is the same anywhere in the country. This doesn’t mean that you should not visit Thailand, nor does it mean that you should not visit Koh Tao, but you should do it with your eyes open and aware of the risks, as with visiting any other foreign country. What happened was a very rare occurrence, but its not unprecedented on the islands, where suspicious deaths are often reported as being by “natural causes” or “suicide”. Personally I won’t return to Thailand for a very long time, more so due to the political situation there, and I definitely won’t return to the gulf, as this article has ruffled some feathers and I have been threatened because of it. For the average person however – this should not stop them.
Spend some time reading up on culture and history of the country. Learn the language, and use common sense and generally speaking you’ll still have a safe and fun time in the country.