Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok, Thailand
Most escape books have been written about Prisoners of War (POWs) from the Second World War. For example, The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Colditz. I actually have all these books and more as I had a bit of an unhealthy interest in prisons and escaping as a youngster. I say unhealthy as I had something like 300 books on escaping. As I grew up I changed my interest to travel books, which I guess is another form of escape, though a little bit more healthy. Now it would seem that in the last year I have gone full circle and have gone back to an interest in prisons and how to escape from them. So, it was inevitable that I purchased a copy of “Escape” by David McMillan as soon as it hit the bookstands here.
But of course, this guy isn’t a POW. He is a self-confessed drug smuggler. A professional in fact who has been in the business since his twenties. I know some people will not want to touch this book because of the background of the author. Nor will these same people go to visit convicted foreigners in Thai prisons. They say that they deserved to be locked up for a long time and that we shouldn’t give them any sympathy or support. On the other hand, there are people like Susan Aldous, who has been dubbed “The Angel of Bang Kwang” for her work with foreign prisoners in that maximum security prison. To her it doesn’t matter what crime they committed. To find out exactly why she does that, we will be interviewing Susan later this month. At the same time, we will be interviewing an inmate of Bang Kwang who is presently serving 33 years.
The following is the conclusion of my interview with David McMillan. Click here if you missed part one. At the bottom of this article is a competition to win your own copy of “Escape”. The book is presently available in Asia Books and Bookazine in Thailand and also in bookstores in Singapore. It will reach other parts of the world in September 2007. I have also included a link to a map of the actual escape route from Klong Prem.
ESCAPE FROM KLONG PREM PRISON – PART 2
A recent book reviewer criticized you because you didn’t “warn people against becoming mules”. Do you think that was an unfair comment?
Well, do you think that books should carry health warnings? Let me briefly tell the story of three Pakistani guys I met by chance in a bar five or six years ago. We got talking as we found we had mutual friends. Some years before, these three and another countryman had been caught running dope into Saudi Arabia. That had been in the early ‘90s. Prices are very high in Saudi Arabia as you might guess.
One thing about the Saudi judicial process: it is quick. They had been sentenced to death within a couple of months. And I think their appeal process was over before they’d returned to the prison. The knives were being sharpened to hack off their heads, and they were apparently resigned to their fates – they were four days away from execution. Then, an unusual thing happened.
My companions at the bar took another brandy apiece before explaining what happened next.
Not long before they were arrested, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Saudi Arabia felt under threat and half the world’s armies joined in the UN-mandated rout of Saddam’s troops. As thanks for all this support, the Saudis made some gestures of gratitude. Among those gestures was a royal decree to free, immediately and unconditionally, all foreigners from their prisons.
Three days before a certain and grisly death all four Pakistanis (and quite a few more) were freed and repatriated. One was so happy he died of heart failure two weeks after returning to Multan.
I presume they had now learned their lesson.
Well, after hearing that happy ending to the story, we finished our drinks and went our separate ways, as we were all in the transit lounge bar of Dubai international airport. The three Pakistanis I’d met boarded their various flights – Frankfurt and Chicago – and I went my own way. Each one of them was carrying a kilo of heroin strapped to his waist.
I can’t imagine that there are many people today who need any warning about the dangers of carrying drugs.
That is the thing. I have lived in Thailand for a long time, and it always surprises me when I read a newspaper report of yet another foreign mule that has been caught with drugs at the airport. Don’t they read newspapers? Surely they must know that there is a death penalty in Thailand for drug smuggling. What do you think of these amateur runners and why aren’t they deterred by the possible consequences?
As I see it, deterrence from crime is very rarely balanced on the appalling consequences. Sentences have reached their maximum since the 1950s but that has not stopped the traffic. Dependence depends on the perception of risk, the odds of being caught. Those who choose to act as couriers already think of themselves as lucky, that if caught the bad luck in being grabbed will be balanced by good luck in soon being freed.
I guess that is true. We always hear about the people that are caught. Am I right in saying that far more are successful?
The statistical probability favours the courier, yet I think the perceived safety is in those crowds of people at airports. Those sheer numbers in which couriers feel safe doing something as routine as air travel. That, plus the fact that as a courier he takes no action that feels criminal: he is passive, just walks forward like a foot soldier on a battlefield supported by the ranks of his fellow travellers. If couriers were active rather than passive – had to do something out of the ordinary in the way a bank robber does; something confrontational – then I’m sure many would think twice. Yet they just put one foot in front of another before an unseen enemy, and daydream of fine times.
One of the Thai guards on the execution team at Bang Kwang was himself later convicted of selling drugs. He is now on death row with no idea of which day will be his last. Obviously he knew full well the consequence of his actions if caught. As the death penalty doesn’t seem to be a deterrent and as there is always the risk that an innocent man could be executed, would you agree that capital punishment should be abolished?
You won’t be surprised to hear that I am against the death penalty anywhere in any circumstances. Imposing death is the state surrendering its duty to be creative in devising sanctions and finding solutions. In a sense, they’ve given up and are throwing people to the mob.
Have you now retired from drug smuggling?
As you know, retirement can be the busiest time of a person’s life. Each day I plan to do no more than go to the beach, eat well and read the papers. Yet always other things happen.
Some of the recent prison books were written with the help of ghost writers. Did you have any assistance?
I wrote Escape without help. In fact, I wrote it initially to provide my friends with details too lengthy to recount over even a very long lunch. Repeating fragments of the story became exhausting; also, I had doubts that anyone might be interested – I guess that’s why it took so long to reach print. Escape is as much about the fifty other inmates I wrote of as about my adventure.
In countries like Australia, there are laws against people making money by writing books about their crimes. What do you say to people who might criticize you for writing this kind of book? Personally I have no qualms about buying your book. In fact I will be buying a couple more to send to foreign prisoners here that have requested a copy.
Those laws you speak of are peculiar devices. An indirect censorship and a barrier to rehabilitation. And arbitrarily applied. No one would suggest that, say, Fidel Castro not tell history, or that Salman Rushdie returns his payments in Australia for Satanic Verses, yet both were deemed criminals in particular jurisdictions. Sure, people may say, ‘How can you compare yourself with people like Castro or Rushdie who act on their beliefs rather than greed’ but I am not. The law is written wide but applied to a class of people. These laws have not been passed to silence or tax those who have been accused of criminality, but to prevent undesirables – outcasts from society – from ever rejoining it.
In my case I hope the information and presentation of Escape has some value to readers – and I’m sure I will never make much money from a few sales. I suppose whatever I write – even if some day I begin to write fiction – would be drawn from my life’s experiences, including crime. I suspect those laws are the old Puritanism revived to ensure that ordinary criminals must remain humble, quiet and repentant for life.
In your book you didn’t really say what happened to the prisoners in your cell. From my own research I discovered that all foreigners were immediately chained and the ones in your room were sent to the punishment cell. Apparently your Thai friend was severely beaten. However, despite all of that, everyone regarded you as a kind of hero for years to come. Were all the characters that you wrote about real and if so what happened to them?
Everyone portrayed in Escape is real. There was no need at Klong Prem to invent characters! I did what I could (which was not much) to ensure that they would not be too severely punished. I’ve kept in touch with most friends I made then. ‘Sten’ was transferred to Sweden, then released and now lives happily with his wife and new baby daughter. ‘Jet’ has been released, too. He keeps out of trouble; still draws pictures. Unfortunately, English ‘Martyn’ remains at Bangkwang — a barely surviving testament to the UK’s cruel application of the transfer system.
I have heard that you have been sending food parcels to Bang Kwang. Is that true?
For some years I would have a Saturday morning routine of shopping and packing parcels to send to Klong Prem and Bangkwang. Money, too. Of course it would have been insufferably vain to have mentioned such things in the book.
What are your future plans?
I’m writing a book now about some Russian guys I met while locked up in Pakistan. (I stayed for the end of the trial there and was acquitted) Ten very hardened Russian prisoners had broken out of their Soviet jail and then hijacked a plane at the local airport. They didn’t fly out straight away. Incredibly, they flew to another Russian city and freed the rest of their gang before flying on to General Zia’s Pakistan. Landed at Hyderabad and endured (and made the Pakistanis endure) a decade of prison warfare. I followed up their story while on business some years later in St Petersburg with the aid of a young Russian girl who’d served time in Karachi for smuggling. The book is a challenge as Andreas and his gang are nearly beyond the understanding of his countrymen, let alone soft Europeans and polite Asians.
I look forward to reading that book. Thanks for your time in answering our questions.
This interview at thai-blogs.com was put together from about a dozen emails that were sent back and forth between myself and David. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t do personal interviews, nor will he be going to Asia Books for a book signing.
Escape is an enjoyable read and far more believable than previous books written about prisons in Thailand. It is also an important historical record of the only escape by a foreigner from Klong Prem Prison. If you buy only one Thai prison book, then it should be this one.
Escape Map: If you are interested in seeing some satellite pictures of Klong Prem Prison and the actual escape route then please visit ThailandPhotoMap.com.
Prison Museum: If you are interested in prisons in Thailand in the old days, then read Thai Prison Museum which is an article I wrote here a few months ago. You can also see many more pictures of forms of torture as well as executions by sword and gun at ThaiPrisonLife.com. Coming soon is an article on the last person to be beheaded in Thailand – complete with graphic pictures.
Win a copy of the book: The book “Escape” by David McMillan is now on sale in Thailand and Singapore. It is available in all good book stores. If you would like a chance to win this book, then answer this simple question:
Question: What year did David escape from Klong Prem Prison?
Email your answers to me by clicking on the little email icon next to my name at the top of this article. The closing date is 21st July 2007.