The following is an extract from A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton by Chavoret Jaruboon with Pornchai Sereemongkonpol, which was published last month.
To Thai minds, the Bangkok Hilton is a place of gloom and danger. Years later, I found out that working there was a risky business for those who lacked moral courage as there were plenty of opportunities to be corrupt.
Life gradually introduced me to good and evil until I realised how grey the world actually is and always will be. This is especially true in Thailand, where many things are ‘flexible’ or ‘compromised’ and a blind eye can be turned when money is paid or power is exercised. A lot of things in Thailand don’t always work the way they should.
Once as my father and I were on our way to visit my uncle, we came across a team of barefoot prisoners in their tattered brown uniforms cleaning the sun-parched road. I couldn’t imagine how thick their soles must be to endure the heat of the ground. They had been brought out of the prison for a few hours to labour under the glaring midday blaze.
The practice of prisoners performing public service can be traced back hundreds of years and continues to this day. During the early days of Rattanakosin, Thailand’s current era, they contributed to the kingdom by building canals, roads and railroads among other public structures. In fact, the Bangkok Hilton was built in part with prison labour.
During World War I, the Corrections Department transferred 200 prisoners from Bang Kwang Prison to a temporary camp in the Bang Khen area and ordered them to grow rice and raise livestock to be sold cheaply to law-abiding citizens. At that time, Thailand was suffering economically and such commodities were scarce.
The practice was revised in 1980 and a set of rules was introduced. Convicts are entitled to reductions in their sentences equal to the number of days they have performed public service and, on some occasions, a small wage.
The intention is to remind people that prisoners are not outcasts but are still part of society and that they can contribute towards the common good. Personally I don’t think it really influences Thai attitudes towards inmates. In fact, this arrangement has backfired a few times as prisoners have attempted to escape.
As a boy, I saw the convicts as bogeymen rather than outcasts. At that first close encounter, they were figures to be feared. Yet I could hardly take my eyes off them. This left a lasting impression on me. The difference between then and now is that I’ve adopted a more realistic attitude.
The scraping sounds the ankle shackles made as they struggled to walk and work further drew my attention to them. One inmate had covered his swarthy body with tattoos of tigers, Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and occult writing. The prisoners derived great feelings of support and protection from these. They did so, perhaps, because there wasn’t much else for them to hold on to. One could easily wonder why, if the inked symbols possessed any power, those men had ended up in jail.