This month there are some comments on the most interesting current events before the main story.
New visa regulations
A lot has been going on in September in Thailand. First there was the much debated change in visa regulations, with the main actors – victims just doesn’t sound right – the long-term residents without a proper visa who do monthly border runs. New visa regulations – if they are really enforced starting 1 October – will limit the number of consecutive visas on arrival to three, well actually to 90 days of stay within a 6 months’ time-frame, no matter how many stamps your passport sports. More information can be obtained on the Ajarn Forum or other websites such as www.thaivisa.com. What seemed to be a major cleanup in order to get rid of unwanted individuals, amongst others teachers working illegally in the Thailand, lost a great deal of its effectiveness when I read somewhere that tourist visas would still be readily available for those willing to spend lots of time in the Kingdom. Instead of putting a stop to the border run carousel, immigration might just have given the green light to start the visa run carousel. The latest news is that embassies could start to get very finicky when issuing non-immigrant B visas. The situation will probably get clearer in a couple of months.
Then there was the coup on 19 September, a non-event that the majority of Thais apparently welcomed with open arms, if we may believe most opinion polls. The military finally decided that caretaker PM Thaksin had overstayed his welcome because he had caused unseen division in the country, muzzled or intimidated the press, got Thailand into debt with his populist policies and did anything but do away with corruption and nepotism. Although a military coup is definitely undemocratic, I agree with one of the Bangkok Post’s editorials saying that this was a step backward in order to be able to move forward. Mr Thaksin’s arrogant and snobbish attitude and his Bush-like “it’s my way or the highway” approach couldn’t last forever. His overwhelming support in the North and Northeast seems to have vanished as quickly as it appeared five years ago. Could the fact that these rural people know that handouts will surely stop and their rent-a-crowd services won’t be needed anymore have anything to do with it? Thaksin should have seen it coming, but didn’t. Good riddance, I suppose.
The new airport has finally opened. After more than four decades of planning and building, one would think that’s not a minute too soon. Well, think again. Although most of the facilities are finished or in the final stages of construction, there were some glitches on the first day of operation. Fortunately they were said to be minor, such as an overload of the computer system, remedied by issuing boarding passes manually, inadequate signage, which caused some passengers to get lost in the huge terminal, and a lack of taxi drivers willing to drive to the new airport without overcharging. Getting to the airport is said is a piece of cake, thanks to the mass rail link, which is due to open in two years if all goes well. Minor problem as I said. Unfortunately, there also seemed to be some more structural problems, such as a lack of toilets and a leaking roof. Incredible when you think this is supposed to be a brand new, state-of-the-art building. Let’s just hope all these inconveniences are remedied soon. Good luck, Suvarnabhum (please notice that I omitted the final letter – an i - from the official transliteration Suvarnabhumi, as it is not pronounced).
That’s it for current events. Let’s get to this month’s main story, which is not about visa regulations or politics, but about missing persons. Well, one missing person in particular actually.
Where is Brian?
Thailand is a beautiful place. Thousands of foreigners, many among them teachers, have made it their home. Lately some commentators have noticed however that more and more of these foreigners, or ‘farangs’ as they are locally called, are meeting their maker in the Land of Smiles. It wouldn’t be disturbing if they started pushing up the daisies because of natural causes such as heart failure, stroke, alcohol poisoning, STDs or traffic accidents involving motorbikes.
Unfortunately, a growing number of foreigners seem to receive a helping hand in kicking the bucket. Getting help while falling of balconies, being stabbed or shot during a brawl or just old-fashioned premeditated murder are gaining popularity as a means to quickly lay hands on a Westerner’s wealth or get rid of an undesirable individual. A number of farangs just disappear and are never heard of again. This month’s column describes my own search for a missing teacher.
Brian Sterenberg was one of the weekend teachers whom I hired in May this year. He already had a weekday job but was looking to make some extra cash. He worked a full weekend and always showed up early before class. During the short time I knew him he never called in sick or failed to show up. Until Saturday 22 July. That day Brian failed to show up and didn’t even bother to call. The school and I tried to contact him, but to no avail. His mobile phone seemed to be turned off. He failed to show up the next day as well and we haven’t seen him since. He hasn’t even claimed his last salary. What happened to Brian?
Let’s go back to the Sunday before his disappearance, July 16. That day around noon, he received a phone call at the school urging him to return home because of some water problem at his apartment. I haven’t a clue if it was flooding or a leaking pipe, but off he went and I filled in for him in the afternoon. I tried calling him that Sunday evening to see if everything was all right but I couldn’t get through. His phone seemed to be switched off. I tried later that week but same scenario.
Because Brian was incommunicado during that whole week, I didn’t really expect him to show up the following weekend and I was proven right. By that time there were some rumours flying in the teachers’ room about him having gone to America to either see a family member or start a new job. By the way, Brian’s Irish but he had mentioned having an uncle stateside to some of his colleagues and the possibility of getting a new job there. Nevertheless, I thought it was quite unlike him to do a midnight run without informing me or claiming his last salary. This was the man who’d call me three weeks in advance to announce that he’d be unavailable on a certain day because of some seminar he had to attend.
Anyway, another week passed during which I repeatedly emailed Brian asking him to give me at least a sign of life. When that failed to return any results I asked a Thai staff member to contact the school where he worked on weekdays. His weekday employer informed us that he failed to show up there without giving notice on the Wednesday 19 July, apparently without claiming any of his salary as well.
I couldn’t find a phone number of his apartment building near Pinklao, so I finally contacted the Irish embassy. A few days later I got a reply informing me that they hadn’t had any contact with Brian. Back to square one. I thought about contacting Immigration to find out if he’d left the country, but I didn’t have a copy of his arrival card, so I put it off. In the end I asked one of the Thai staff to help me explain the situation to Immigration. Although the only thing I wanted to know was if Brian had left the country, the immigration official on the phone refused to release any information, claiming that the matter had to be reported to the police first. He was probably anxious to go on his lunch break and it is difficult to offer a small bribe through the phone.
A colleague of mine reckoned that Brian was probably alright because if not, his family would surely have contacted us or the Irish embassy. Although I had to admit he had a point, I couldn’t put the matter to rest. I put a message on the Ajarn forum concerning Brian’s disappearance, but I didn’t get any useful replies.
Then I decided it was time to play detective myself. I got a hold of Brian’s application form and CV with photo and went looking for his apartment. I knew it was in the Pinklao area, but unfortunately there was no soi number on the form. I contacted someone living in the area and was able to narrow it down to just a couple of sois. Armed with a map and a copy of his CV I took a bus to Pinklao. Would he still be there or would he have checked out? And if so, were did he go?
I set off early on my day off and a couple of buses later I was at the Central Pinklao shopping mall. I ventured in some of the sois near the mall, but I couldn’t really pinpoint any big apartment buildings. I asked around, but nobody was able to help me. Then I went back to Central Pinklao and had an idea. I asked one of the motorbike taxi drivers if they knew where the Bangkok Noi Apartments were situated.
Most of them didn’t seem to understand or weren’t willing to earn a fare, but one of them told me he’d take me to Bangkok Noi Village for the princely sum of 20 baht. I later found out that he’d overcharged me, as the set fare was only seven baht. Never mind. It wasn’t very far. After a minute we reached the end of a soi were Bangkok Noi Village was situated. It looked quite nice really.
I approached the reception desk, or least what I thought was the reception desk, but wasn’t. Two watchmen were just sitting there poking their noses lazily. I asked them if they knew Brian and showed them a copy of his passport photo. They immediately recognised the face and starting gibbering to each other in Thai. The first one told the other to make a call to a room. Brian’s room number was 846, but I definitely heard the men talk about khao-suun-chet, which means 907, and I think I also picked up the word faen, meaning girlfriend. Were they about to call his girlfriend and have her come downstairs to explain the situation?
My hopes were dashed as they didn’t get any answer. I suppose the alleged girlfriend was out shopping. They then directed me to the real reception desk. Three women in uniform greeted me perfunctorily. They too recognised the photo, but couldn’t answer most of my questions. The only thing they could tell me that made sense in English was ‘move out, move out’. When I questioned them when or if they knew where he’d gone too, they couldn’t tell me but from their gestures I deducted he’d moved out a long time ago.
So that’s it. The plot didn’t thicken but reached an anticlimax. I think I’ve explored almost every possible avenue. At the time of writing though, now more than two months after his disappearance, the question remains: Where is Brian? A colleague of mine again tried to reassure me by repeating that his relatives surely would have been in contact by now had anything untoward happened to him. I suppose so. There’s also the possibility that he simply doesn’t want to be found, for whatever reason. Finally, he might have become the victim of a crime or an accident. Was he involved in a hit-and-run accident and were his unrecognizable remains cremated? Was he murdered because he gave a tuk-tuk driver who tried to overcharge him the finger once too often? Did a jealous girlfriend take revenge? Remember that insulting or offending someone is considered serious enough by many rural or uneducated people to severely beat or even kill someone.
I’ve kept this article rather vague as to where exactly Brian lived, where he hung out, where he worked and who his friends were. I did this partly because I simply don’t have all that information and I don’t want to invade too much of his privacy. People who know him will surely recognize him by the facts mentioned in this article. If any of you have relevant information, feel free to share it with me. This is not a witch hunt; it’s just one worried farang looking for another.