'Affluenza' in Thailand

Early in the morning of Sept. 3, 2012, a 27-year-old driver named Voravut Yuwitthaya drove his speeding US$1 million Ferrari FF into the motorcycle of a Thai traffic policeman named Wichien Klinprasert, killing him instantly. Voravut dragged the dead policeman for more than 100 feet before he fled for his family’s mansion to hide out.

Voravut is the grandson of the late Chaleo Yuwitthaya, the billionaire founder of the Red Bull fortune. The family also owns the Ferrari dealership in Bangkok. Forbes ranks the family fortune at US$5.4 billion.

No charges

Nearly four years later, Voravut has yet to be tried on reckless driving charges although the family has paid compensation of US$97,000. A speeding charge has been dropped, not because it was invalid, but because the statute of limitations has expired. So far, despite public calls for prosecution, the case has yet to come to court.

“The guy was super drunk when he killed the policeman,” said a Thai businessman. “Bad enough, his Ferrari dragged the body almost to the door of his expensive home. There was blood all over. He went in and got a senior gardener to accept the responsibility, lying that he was the one who was driving. Still he walks around Thailand and Singapore like nothing has happened.”

Voravut is hardly alone. While the children of the rich are insulated from prosecution across much of Asia, it seems as if it has become endemic in Thailand, recalling the US case of Ethan Anthony Couch, the Texas youth who sparked a national debate when his lawyers argued that he suffered from “affluenza” – that his wealthy family had raised him without giving him the ability to know right from wrong.

In June of 2013, the then-16-year-old youth, driving while drunk, plowed his truck into a group of people, killing four and injuring nine. A Texas judge sentenced Couch to 10 years probation and in-patient therapy. He and his mother promptly left for Mexico, where they were apprehended and returned to the US.

As in the US, there is rising anger over Voravut and a crowd of other socialites’ children whose affluenza appears to be just as deep if not more so. Both Couch and his mother have been arrested. There have been few arrests and fewer convictions in Thailand, causing an army of netizens to criticize the police investigations as well as the junta which took power in May of 2014 with a promise to make the justice system fair.

"Impunity for the rich and powerful continues to be a major problem in Thailand, where those with means and connections can evade responsibility while the poor face the full brunt of the law. The Red Bull heir is just the most obvious case, but every year there are dozens more,” said a western source with long experience in Thailand. “In fact, the only reason that the Red Bull case is still in the news is that he ran over and killed a policeman rather than an ordinary person."

Taking orders from above

Part of the Thai state of affairs is the nature of its strongly hierarchical society, according to Thai researcher Thongchai Winichakul in a recent scholarly paper for the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

What he called “Thainess” is characterized by attentiveness to hierarchical relations among individuals based on their social positions. These latter, he wrote, “reflect seniority, class, rank, wealth, gender and/or power, depending on the particular setting. In key fields such as education, law enforcement, the military, the justice system, business, journalism, and so on, which are apparently professional in nature, relations among people become very ‘personal” or person-based rather than ‘impersonal.’”

That Thainess is part of what has caused society to genuflect to the latest coup. But junta or no junta, the Thai government commitment to the rule of law turns to jelly when it meets scions of well-connected clans running people over with their Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

The World Health Organization’s latest figures show Thailand, with 36.2 road deaths per 100,000 of population, is the second most dangerous in the world, behind only Libya with an astounding 73.6 deaths. By contrast, the average for Europe is nine deaths. Thailand’s death rate is more than twice the global average of 17.4.

In the wake of a horrific accident on March 13, in which Janepob Veeraporn, 37, smashed his Mercedes into the back of a Ford Fiesta in Ayutthaya, killing two university students when the Ford exploded, the Bangkok Post published a kind of rogues’ gallery of such drivers, with a history of their treatment by the law. Janepob is the son of Jessada Veeraporn, an importer of luxury vehicles. He has since been charged with drunk driving. Police allowed him to refuse a drug and alcohol test at the scene of the accident.


Photo credit: Bangkok Post

One of the most egregious cases was that of Orachorn “Preewa” Thephasadin na Ayudhaya, the daughter of a high-ranking military figure, who rammed her Honda Civic into the back of a passenger van in 2010, blasting it off an elevated roadway and killing nine people, then got out of her wrecked car and started texting. She was charged with reckless driving, property damage, driving without a license and driving while using her cell phone. On appeal, she was given a two year suspended prison sentence and ordered to do 48 hours of community service per year, which she refused to do, claiming it was a violation of her rights.


Praewa kills 9, tends to her correspondence

In another case, Kanpitak Pachimsawat, the 24-year-old son of a property magnate and a former Miss Thailand, drove his Mercedes into a crowd at a bus stop after an argument with a bus driver. He killed a woman and injured two others. He received 15 months in jail.

It helps to be rich

“Thais have now become cynical about their system of justice, and firmly believe that there is a double standard between the treatment that the rich and well-connected get, and what ordinary people can expect,” the western source said. “They're right, because money and the right connections can get you out of almost any problem situation. The only thing that has changed is the power of outrage expressed on social media against these blatant injustices - and even then, that anger diminishes over time and eventually the system re-sets and continues in the same way as before."