50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website

50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website
An interview with creator of Farang Deaths - maybe the most comprehensive database of foreigners' deaths in Thailand, photo: kylevdm8.wordpress.com

If you are regular reader of Thailand news, it’s hard not to notice the large number of news reports about farang deaths. Deadly motorbike accidents on Phuket and Koh Samui, fatal fallings from balcony in Pattaya and Bangkok are so frequent that already became a routine. Of course, we would like to know exact number of foreigners who die in Thailand every year. Official statistics is somethin hard to find or uncertain. So it is not surprise that someone decided to fill the vacuum.

Farang Deaths website exists for almost year and a half and become maybe the most comprehensive database related to deaths of foreigners in Thailand. Creators and contributors of Farang Deaths stay anonymous. This is why they refused to give an interwiev to Reuters and Bangkok Post (journalists needed the face) but agreed to answer our questions. During long January evenings we talked using popular social media. Name, sex, age and nationality of our interlocutor remain a mystery for us.

– When looking at Farang Deaths website it is hard not to notice how carefully you do it. Attention to the details, verification of all the facts, using different sources and so on. I cannot help feeling that website is done by a person(s) with special experience in this field. Or maybe I am wrong?

– The accuracy and attention to the details came after years of frustration with the vague and unreliable media, especially Thai media. That is why we decided to focus on quality and accuracy instead of quantity. We try to use every single information we can obtain about a case. We then verify them via different channels and, if they match, publish them in our report.

To us, accuracy is not only about the facts, but also what words are being used for that. I see many well-read news outlets that still translate police ranks wrongly, and a “Police Station” is something different than a “Provincial Police Station”. Readers should have a thoroughly clear picture if what has happened.

Farang Deaths is the first project of this kind that we have created. I act as the editor-in-chief and am responsible for the technical part. My background as a journalist, which, unfortunately, I had to put on hold when Thailand became a military dictatorship, is certainly a valuable advantage, so are my skills in web development.

– Was it your personal deliberate decision to suspend journalist’s work after a coup?

– Yes and no. I did not want to censor myself and be always frightened that I may write a word the junta seems a “threat to national security” as so many other things and “invites” me for attitude adjustments. A lot of my journalist colleagues have experienced exactly that.

It has also become harder to obtain a journalist visa. They increased the requirements and ask you subtle questions to find out whether you are in favour or against the military junta. For those who do not, it is much harder if not impossible to receive a journalist visa.

Personally, it makes me a bit sad, because there is almost no day Prayuth Chan-ocha or any of his people say or do something so ridiculous as I had never imagined. Have you checked out Prayuth’s latest hit yet? The lyrics could not be any trashier.

– Oh, yes, of course. He is greater artist than Putin with his piano playing.

– hahahah

– So it was the coup and forced pause in your work as a journalist that prompted you to launch Farang Deaths or these two events were absolutely unrelated to each other?

– No, Farang Deaths would have launched also if there was no coup.

50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website

Infographics: Farang Deaths

– Can you remember a ‘special’ farang death which impressed you more than the others?

– “Impressed”?

– I mean some story that had much bigger effect on you than ordinary news reports. For example, I have such ‘special’ death. It’s a story of Russian man Slabinsky who was killed on Phuket. After this story I started to think about launching Thaipoo.

– I have learned not to become too much emotionally affected by the death cases I write about. The case of 46-year-old German was an exception. Mr. Schwartges, living on Koh Samui, had a few beer with his girlfriend and then went back to his scooter to ride home. Three kids were sitting on it and refused to leave, they provoked Mr. Schwartges, and he provoked them. The kids then started a fight, a typical Thai fight where three fight against one and still kick him when he’s on the ground. One of the teenagers attacked him with a broken glass bottle or a knife, stabbing Mr. Schwartges’s neck which killed him.

The three teenagers ran away but later gave themselves to the police. The police charged them but did not convict them. In fact, even one year later, friends of Mr Schwartges could see the three hanging around the exact same spot where Mr Schwartges was killed. Only because Mr Schwartges’s mother’s continuous effort to get justice by making the case public and sending letters to high German and Thai authorities, the teenagers were detained. All this shows perfectly clear how the Royal Thai Police is handling foreign deaths.

– When you agreed to give me the interview you said that I can ask anything as long as you are staying anonymous. What anonymity means to you? Is this just the necessary precaution for making Farang Deaths website or is it the way you prefer to live?

– It is perhaps a bit of both. I’m used to staying in the background; I don’t crave the spotlight. For Farang Deaths, I’d like readers only to concentrate on the report, not on who has written it. I’ve seen many websites where the authors present themselves and so on, but mostly this ended up in some kind of personality cult which I find inappropriate. It distracts from your content.

For Farang Deaths, anonymity gives me a certain degree of secured freedom that is needed to document foreign deaths. The longer the website is up, the more enemies it will get. Some Thai police stations have sent me messages, French police as well. It will be only a matter of time until someone sees their business in danger because of our reporting and decides to sue for defamation (see Andy Hall and countless others).

– Could you tell me more about this messages from Thai police? What was in this e-mails?

– I wish I could, but the officer that wrote the email was clearly using Google Translate, or an even worse online translation software. I understood only 25% of what he said. He wanted me to remove a video from my site and from YouTube. The rest I didn’t understand. I looked him up later that day, it was all legitimate.

50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website

Infographics: Farang Deaths

– And what about French police?

– I can’t look up that email anymore, but from what I remember, their English was perfect. They said they were acting on behalf of Ms XXX who filed a complaint against the website to remove a certain picture. The way that officer wrote the email, it was more than obvious that he was aware of the fact that he has no jurisdiction over Farang Deaths, so he just “kindly asked”. That’s all he can do.

– Did you delete that picture? How do you usually deal with pretensions of displeased relatives?

– That’s a difficult topic. On the one hand, we want to display the truth with all its details. However, some details are not flattering to the person who has died. We will include these but try to write them in a respectful way. On the other hand, we don’t want to offend anyone, especially not those who go through what I think may be the hardest time of their lives. Farang Deaths’ policy is: Comply if the request comes from a direct relative (no friend of… or cousin of…), and only if the request doesn’t alter the story itself. Published reports will be deleted under no circumstances.

Almost every email we’ve ever gotten from relatives were about removing a picture or rephrase one or two sentences, like where it says that he was in a brothel. We go along with that, we usually have more pictures we can use, and being in a brothel is not a crucial information for a report.

Most of them are very kind, even though they’re suffering a lot, and fully understand the aim of Farang Deaths. That’s why they don’t even ask for too much. Only a small minority emails us, calls us names, and demands we take article X offline, right now, “otherwise I’ll get myself an attorney!” Those messages are being deleted right away.

– One of the top causes of death, according to your statistics, is ‘unknown’ (4th place). What kind of deaths are marked with this label?

– We use “Unknown” when the police don’t state a cause of death and when the information doesn’t let us conclude it by ourselves.

50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website

Infographics: Farang Deaths

– ‘Falling’ is also quite frequent cause of death. Why do you distinguish this category? Maybe suicide and accident would be enough?

– Over the time, we have learned that deaths were people fall from great heights is not easy to categorise. If there is no suicide note, you can’t tell for sure whether this was a suicide, an accident or even murder. “Falling” covers all of them. If one day the real cause of death is being published, it will be changed accordingly.

– Your website exists for year and a half (am I right?) Enough time to make conclusions and resumes. Did you discover something new about deaths of farangs in Thailand? I mean your personal observations and knowledge.

– Yes, that sounds about right. But honestly, I don’t keep track. Since we’ve never done a project like this before, almost everything came as a surprise. I specifically learned that Chinese are bad swimmers and often drown, farangs commit suicide almost exclusively by jumping from a building, and tourists love swimming during red flag warnings.

Another procedure that most foreigners don’t know is that every foreigner who died in a non-natural way has to undergo an autopsy. How this autopsy is performed can only be guessed. Sometimes, the hospital responsible for the post-mortem examination is in Nakhon Nowhere or any other place where doctors are either not fully qualified or just too lazy to conduct a professional autopsy.

I also got a peek into how foreign deaths are being handled in Thailand. English-language news media rarely report about deaths of foreigners, and if they do, they omit the name. Thai media reports everything, including pictures, sometimes even uncensored.

From all the cases we’ve covered so far, I’ve got the impression that the Royal Thai Police is not that keen on finding out what’s really behind a death. In these cases, they fall back to few bullshit reasons they give to the media: suicide, shock, or pre-existing medical conditions. Those can be applied to almost every case and saves the assigned officer a whole lot of work. Case closed. I also receive many emails of foreigners who complain about the work of the Royal Thai Police. But I don’t think this is a farang-only thing; Thais also make their very own experiences with the RTP.

50 shades of death in Thailand: interview with creator of Farang Deaths website

Infographics: Farang Deaths

– Since you’ve mentioned Thailand media I would like to ask what news media outlets do you use to be aware of current situation in Thailand? Not for Farang Deaths but for yourself.

– To stay up-to-date with what’s going on in Thailand at the moment is harder than it seems. Thai media, e.g. Thairath, Matichon or Manager, often publish articles with glaring mistakes in it. It seems like once an article has been written, nobody is proofreading or fact-checking the piece – it goes straight to publishing.

English-language news media that focus on Thailand are, in my opinion, more professional. The Bangkok Post is useful because it offers a panoramic view of the current events in Thailand and sometimes interesting opinion pieces. Prachatai English is one of my favourite resources. They touch the topics other news media are too afraid of publishing, despite constant threats from the establishment. Unfortunately, the English version is not as frequently updated as the Thai version.

All of the mentioned news media have one in common: They censor themselves. Mostly only when it comes to reports about the royal family, but some journalists have told me that entire pieces that had nothing to do with the monarchy had to be thrown out because the editor-in-chief or his lawyers found it “too dangerous”. This is exactly what the military junta is trying to achieve: Establishing a climate of fear where people are too afraid to tell the truth.

For uncensored news, I follow Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s Facebook account and read the blocked Thai Political Prisoners. And if I’m in the mood for comics, I visit 2bangkok.com that collect all illustrations published in newspapers and magazines, translates them and interprets them.

– You’ve mentioned complains about police work that you received from foreigners. Would you like to try yourself in investigative journalism to find the truth about strange and outrageous Farang deaths which were not properly investigated? Or maybe you already have such experience.

– We would certainly love to be our own source for our reports, but investigative journalism is not that easy, especially if you’re a foreigner. Many Thais get suspicious when asked about topics the police is also investigating. I assume this is just fear. In the beginning, we have tried a few time to get first-hand information, but hotel operators refuse even to acknowledge the death, even though their building is clearly seen in the pictures. Witnesses usually don’t dare to speak out, especially when they know the police is investigating as well. It’s frustrating.

We are now in the process of building a network and hiring trustworthy rescue volunteers to forward us more or less reliable information. But there are simply too many rescue foundations in this country to cover all death cases.

– What are your plans for further development of Farang Deaths website? Did you think about covering deaths of foreigners from another countries of South-East Asia (Barang Deaths for Cambodia maybe)?

– Every now and then readers mail us and ask whether we could launch something similar in another country, or even worldwide. Until now, they always receive the same answer: We would if we had the resources for it. Farang Deaths is a non-profit project, and nobody has ever donated. Everybody working for Farang Deaths is doing so voluntarily or even pay for necessities out of their own pocket. I would love to change that, but I’m not very hopeful this will ever change.

But it’s not only a money issue. We like to be at least able to go away from the English-speaking media and dig into what the locals read. That allows us to see the incident from a different perspective. But learning a language and adapting to a new country is a long process. But even without any donations, Farang Deaths will continue – but other countries will not be covered.

I have been working on a new website for Farang Deaths that I find more user-friendly and easier to use on mobile devices. Apart from that, we are still in the process of extending the network of information. We don’t want to rely on badly-written news articles or unreadable police reports for our reports forever. But this process involves a lot trust from the opposite site, which has to be built up over time.

– Did you have any problems in connection with your website? I mean personal troubles, angry relatives and maybe even Thais who think that your website blackens the reputation of Thailand and tourism.

– Short answer: No.

Long answer: This is one of the main reasons why we chose to remain anonymous. First off, the website is not about us but the victims. We have had to decline interviews with Reuters and Bangkok Post and other reputable news outlets during the year solely because we take this anonymous thing very seriously and they needed a face.

I’m not telling anyone what I’m doing in my free time, but when I see two Americans on a BTS station sharing a smartphone and reading one of our cases, it makes me chuckle. The fewer people who I am, the less dangerous it’ll be. I’m perfectly aware of what the police and army are capable of; that’s why I’ve taken several measures to avoid being “invited” to one of the legendary attitude adjustment.

I do believe that Farang Deaths has the ability to scare off potential tourists. I see this from both sides: On one hand, it might force people working in tourism to be more caution and to take more care of safety. On the other hand, if you look closely, you’ll see that one of the top causes of death is drowning. You can hardly blame that on Thailand. People should make their own decision about what country they’d like to visit, and Farang Deaths helps them. Our goal is not to scare tourists but that people become aware of the dangers that so many foreigners simply ignore while they’re on holiday-mode.

There are only very few people who know my identity, and these are the ones I can rely on the most. They find my “hobby” a bit morbid, which it certainly is, but agree that independent facts should be public. 95% of the relatives of the deaths we’ve covered so far agree with that. Of course, there are some who ask to remove this picture and rephrase that sentence that makes the victim lose his dignity, We’re the last one who says no to that. And even those understand the concept and don’t try to bring it down or whatever.

If in one case Farang Deaths becomes too big and they censor it – a scenario that I see as likely -, We taken precaution for that. Farang Deaths thinks people, especially foreign travellers, should know the truth about the country they stay. My deepest wish is that some of them learn from these cases and don’t fall into the same pattern.

January 2017, exclusively for Thaipoo.com. Follow us on Facebook.

In Russian: 50 оттенков смерти в Таиланде: эксклюзивное интервью с создателем сайта Farang Deaths

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Editor-in-chief of Russian website for weird and cruel news from Thailand.