If you have been following the news of late, you will know that British journalist Andrew Drummond, a veteran of investigative crime journalism who has mostly written for the British and Australian press from Thailand for over 25 years, is finally packing it in (and up) to return to Blighty. His life has been threatened many times over the decades, but this time, it is the safety of his three children that is forcing him to leave Thailand behind. Threats to them from criminals under the protection of certain authorities have made his stay here untenable.
Andy first contacted me about sixteen years ago, I don’t remember why exactly, some crime story, no doubt. And for many years I was his northern contact girl: fixer, translator, assistant, investigator… Whenever a news story broke about a British citizen-related crime in the north, I would get a phone call from Andy. He paid the young me so well I found it hard to refuse and he also taught me so much about the ethics of crime reporting and the world of journalism at large, but I dreaded those calls because I knew that I was about to be asked to do something that would make me extremely uncomfortable. I traipsed up to Pai to take a picture of the sad little room in the guesthouse where Bob Monkhouse’s son died of a heroin overdose for his story in News of the World. I spent hot afternoons loitering in front of police stations waiting for a loose-lipped policeman to let something slip about a rape case, at times even getting generous bylines in The Times or The Independent (no hogging of the limelight with Drummond). One frightening – but thrilling _ evening I paired up with Andy’s photographer Andrew Chant, pretending to be a married couple as we eavesdropped on a group of drunken policemen at a local English pub whom we suspected were covering up a murder.
Just over a year ago, I accompanied Andy to court to hear the sentencing of a Thai policeman who, as it turned out, received 37 years for murder. It was already frightening enough standing one foot behind a convicted murderer, but of course that wasn’t enough for Andy. Seconds after the sentence was passed, I felt a prodding. “Go on, ask him. Go on.” And against my every screaming cell, I tentatively whispered to the back of his shaved head, “How do you feel about your life sentence?” Needless to say, I was ignored (though images of him turning around and wrapping his chains around my neck did flash before my eyes), but I still pinch myself at the audacity.
Andy has spent his career investigating the darkest underbelly of crime in Thailand involving foreigners, mainly Brits: murders in Koh Tao, Kanchanaburi and Pai; rapes in Chiang Mai and Bangkok; scams and syndicated crimes in Pattaya and Phuket. If it is a nasty story, Andy is there. He is relentless, tenacious, has skin as thick as an elephant’s heel and is one of the very, very few journalists who follows a story long after the others have returned to the bar for a self-congratulatory gin and tonic. There was one suspect that Andy asked me to interview – read: grill – over a dozen times. The suspect and I were so over it by then, we actually bonded and would enjoy many an evening over beers, but Andy’s tenacity was so single-minded that we just kept at it. And amazingly, each interview would reveal another little nugget worth pursuing.
But it was when I suspected that I was being followed by a couple of policemen many years ago, after repeated phone calls to a police station with probing questions the police were not happy to answer (at Andy’s behest, naturally), that I knew I would never be cut out to be a good journalist, let alone a great one like Andy.
It has been hugely satisfying playing just a small part in seeing criminals jailed, bringing peace to families and discovering the truth. But you need to have a stomach – and balls – of steel.
Andy has that. And it is a gigantic loss to Thailand that he is forced to give up on his very important job. My cousin said to me last night on Facebook, following a debate on freedom of press, “Be patient, Pi Pim, journalists should not criticise the government now, let them fix things. We all hope it will be better soon.” Well, while we are being forced to wait, criminals go free and journalists flee. Thailand needs to realise that a safe environment for journalists to work in is essential to the country’s wellbeing. Andy’s departure is a loss to families and friends of victims, to the eroding strength of the media in Thailand, to his readership and to Thailand as a whole.
As Andy said to me today, “What I have achieved is that I have given people hope where there was none. I have given victims a voice and the stories I do gnaw away at authorities. But of course I haven’t changed Thailand. My advice to journalists: do not pull your punches if the story is true. Do not be intimidated. Failing that, become a sub-editor. I do not consider myself particularly brave; I’m just doing my job. The authorities will always win. But this is all about changing attitudes. Their attitudes will have to change.”
Here’s to hope. And to Andrew Drummond. Thank you. On behalf of many Thai citizens.