There are beguiling days on Koh Samui when a collar of mist descends on the Thai island making it difficult to tell the sea from the sky. Fishermen call these ‘days without prayer’ when no one can trust what they see and boats dare not set sail.
On a day like this, at 10am, on January 2, 2006, a tourist thought he spotted a body bobbing in the water. One hour passed before a local jet-ski instructor dragged the corpse onto Thong Krut beach. By the time Britain woke up seven hours later, the dead body had been identified as missing 21-year-old backpacker Katherine Horton, from a small town near Cardiff. Beaten into submission with a parasol on Samui’s Lamai beach the previous evening, Horton had been raped twice before being left to drown in the dark sea near to the resort where she had been staying. The killing of an innocent backpacker evoked the bittersweet paradise of Alex Garland’s The Beach.
Footage of her distended and battered body, sprawled in the sand in a green dress, played across the ghoulish nightly Thai TV news. A collision of facts also turned the Horton case into a front-page story in the UK: murder on an idyllic holiday island marketed by travel agents as the ‘perfect escape from the cares of the world’. Samui was soon crawling with British reporters and Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister, a millionaire entrepreneur who describes himself as the country’s CEO, intervened.
The murder hunt travelled at light speed. Two impoverished Thai fisherman were arrested, interrogated, tried and convicted. The day after Katherine Horton’s funeral took place in the village church at Llanishen, Wales, on January 17, Bualoi and Wichai, aged 23 and 24, were sentenced to death. Today the fishermen are still on death row, awaiting an appeal hearing, their lawyers declining to challenge the conviction only the sentence, arguing that since both men readily confessed their lives should be spared.
While many in the West have expressed concerns at the expedited nature of the investigation and judicial proceedings, the Thai PM publicly thanked the detectives for speedily solving the crime, paying them a bonus of 1,500 pounds. The Horton killing was aberrant, he proclaimed and to further reassure tourists, Samui’s three most senior police officers were removed and replaced with veteran detectives sent by Bangkok. Security on the island was to be overhauled with the introduction of CCTV, extra police patrols and new police stations – at a cost of 107 million baht (1.6 million pounds). A new governor was brought in from the mainland who promised to publish advisory guides for foreign visitors that suggested how to behave and what to avoid. By February, life had returned to normal on an otherwise idyllic isle.
Nothing could be further from the truth and beneath the reorganisation lies a disturbing story. The Horton murder, according to Thai academics and civil servants who have submitted a confidential report to their government, seen by Weekend, was the culmination of ‘a social and moral implosion’ on Samui that over the last two decades has been transformed from an isolated sea pirate’s hideaway, a land of coconut farmers and peripatetic fishermen, into a raucous engine of capitalism. More than 1.1 million tourists now swamp a population of 30,000 islanders every year, more than 60 per cent coming from the UK. And a change in Thai property laws has led to many of these farangs or foreigners staying on.
Within the last four years Samui has been put up for sale and these farangs, taking advantage of preferential exchange rates that have made them baht millionaires overnight, have bought more than one third of the island, investing in bars, hotels, restaurants and villas, plantations, sea-shore and riverside. However, according to the unpublished Thai report fewer than 20 per cent of islanders have benefited from the boom leading to ‘explosive tensions’ between rich and poor residents, between mainland Thais and foreigners.
These tensions, the report’s authors say, have triggered a succession of violent assaults and robberies, break-ins and acts of vandalism, crimes of opportunity and spite predominately aimed at tourists. Not to mention the violent clashes between the tough island families who have done well from the sell off and the new foreign businessmen attempting to compete on their territory.
When Weekend landed on Samui we found beneath a sun-drenched patina a rat’s nest of competing interests, with Thai and Western residents often set against each other to wrestle control of the tourist pot of gold. Daily grime, blood-letting, jealousy, xenophobia and score settling are the norm with the Asian poor taking pot-shots at the Western rich.
The idea of an isolated and bountiful coconut plantation kept pristine by the waters of the Gulf of Thailand is a chimera maintained by the local authorities, the police and mayor’s office, and the cartel of local businesses both Thai and Western that have striven to keep quiet about many of the violent incidents on the island less they cause the tourist tap to be turned off.
When the Samui Express, an English-language paper, dared debate the Horton murder it was harangued by readers who demanded the paper ‘print something nice’ instead. ‘This is not the UK where only bad news sells so print something [good] about the island for a change,’ they wrote.
Refusing to be bullied, the same paper reported that a Thai had raped a second British tourist, Corrie Ann Holt, on January 21, 2006. Although unconnected to the Horton murder, as the two fisherman responsible had already been sentenced to death by the time Holt was attacked, the similarity of the crimes and their close proximity, one occurring within three weeks of the other, eight miles apart on neighbouring Samui beaches, raised questions about the safety of tourists on Samui, the paper suggested. However, readers of the Samui Express, by now organised into a group calling itself ‘the angry residential bar owners’, demanded the paper stop reporting criminal incidents, accusing it of being ‘as bad as the rapists’, damaging local business.
Concealed in Koh Samui’s police headquarters are fragments of the real story: a lengthy ink-spattered crime sheet of incidents committed in the months before the Horton murder and in the weeks after, some of them acts revenge, others motivated by jealousy and hatred, many of them reflecting the increasingly hostile power struggle on the island. And out of them only the Horton case has been publicised – and solved.
In a teetering pile of ring binders stored at the back of the police Crime Investigation Unit’s office, in Nathon, the island’s administrative centre, are a few details of how on October 20, 2005, an Irish girl was raped in the toilets of a club by Thai men who had befriended her on the beach in an assault no one saw. On December 10, 2005 a British holidaymaker was shot in the leg while drinking at a crowded tourist bar although no one heard the gun discharge. That same evening a Thai policeman was gunned down after riding his bicycle to quieten down a rowdy pub whose patrons failed to see him die.
On December 29, 2005 a Scottish holiday-maker was beaten with an iron stave by a security guard weary of Western revellers. Five days later the Scot was accused by local policemen of a rape he didn’t commit. On January 4, 2006 a 12-year-old European girl was raped beside the Sila Ngu temple, her parents withdrawing the case after complaining of being humiliated by Samui detectives. Police logged the ‘un-natural death’ in his house on Samui’s Lamai beach of 56-year-old Briton Alan Jones, on January 16, 2006 but there is as yet no conclusion to the case. Three days later a Swedish tourist was sexually assaulted behind a beach-front bungalow in a reported incident that has since been dropped by investigators who claimed to have secured insufficient evidence. On January 29, 2006 a Thai coconut seller was assassinated in a drive by shooting in which the gunman and the gun have never been found. And then there are the multiple disappearances and brutal assaults (registered only as numbers) in a place of myopic entrepreneurs that is slightly smaller than the Isle of Wight, where four times the population records half the crime.
Everything bows before profit on Samui. Even the death of Katherine Horton was reduced to a sum. The local tourist chief, who lead village head men clutching joss sticks and flowers in a memorial service on Thong Krut beach, could be heard only hours later calculating that the murdered British student had cost Samui 150 million baht (2.2 million pounds) as British visitor numbers had immediately slumped by 30 per cent.
And three months on from the murder, it is business as usual on Samui. Tourist numbers are up and anything that has not already been sold is being auctioned. All around is construction for the ever-expanding population on an island that still had not bothered to invest a small percentage of its colossal earnings on a sewage system. Instead Samui sits on ever-growing volcano of human shit that pours down channels intended for rainwater, sluicing eventually into the aquamarine sea.
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