Saturday, December 05, 2009

Languishing with hope


LATELY I have been receiving letters via e-mail from “Bangkok Hilton” – the nickname for Bang Kwang Central Prison in Thailand, one of the most notorious prisons in the world.

The e-mail contained a scanned letter stamped “Censored” (by the Bang Kwang authority). The letter – which I call “love letters from Bang Kwang” – was written cursively in a polite but firm tone.

“Greeting, how are U doing? It’s been a while since UR last reply. Hope U are o.k. Actually I don’t want to bother U but as I said, U are the only one we have for media,” wrote Dennis Ooi in a letter dated Nov 13.

I met the 30-year-old Penangite in Bang Kwang late last year.

He was charged with importing drugs in 2003 after selling 700 Ecstasy pills to a Thai contact who turned out to be an undercover policeman. Not knowing how to read and write the Thai language, Ooi claimed that he was made to sign an admission so that a death sentence would be reduced to a life term.

He said that although his brother paid a Thai lawyer 1.5mil baht (about RM150,000) to represent him in court, the lawyer did not turn up.

Ooi felt it was unfair for him to languish in prison for 50 years for signing a sheet that stated he imported drugs. He also said that the Thai prisoners and prison wardens did not like Malaysian prisoners.

Malaysian prisoners, according to him, got the idea for a prisoner transfer treaty from Nigerians who serve a minimum time in Thailand and return home to serve their remaining term.

“We feel sad when we see them go home. We are serving the same sentence but they get to go back because their government has a transfer treaty with Thailand,” he said.

His plea – to be incarcerated in a Malaysian prison – was a front-page story in The Star on Dec 29.

Ooi wrote the letter because a Malaysian embassy official visited some Muslim inmates before Hari Raya and told them last December that Malaysia will negotiate with Thailand a transfer treaty to enable prisoners to finish their jail term in their homeland.

“We ask you again to write an article about our wish to go back before the meeting in December,” he appealed.

In his second letter, which I received on Nov 25, Ooi asked if I knew when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would visit Thailand.

“Wow!” I thought, “Even though he is incarcerated he even knows that his Prime Minister is visiting Thailand.”

I e-mailed that Najib would be visiting Bangkok on Dec 7 and then Narathiwat in southern Thailand on Dec 8 and 9.

I also told him that I would only be able to visit him the second or third week of December as I was off for a Manila trip.

I received on Dec 2 via e-mail a letter from Ooi. And he was worried that my article on his and other Malaysian inmates’ wish for Malaysia to sign a prisoner exchange treaty with Thailand would only see print after Najib’s Thai tour.

Ooi is not the only Malaysian in a Thai prison hoping Najib will discuss with Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a treaty that will see them return home.

Last year, I visited a 40-something Malaysian woman in a Bangkok women’s prison as both she and her husband were convicted for credit card fraud.

She enthused that she and her husband – who is jailed in the nearby men’s prison – was excited as they could celebrate Hari Raya in a prison in Malaysia.

“A Malaysian embassy official told us that he had read in a Malaysian newspaper that Malaysia and Thailand had signed a prisoner exchange treaty.

“And because our crime is not serious, we will be one of the first to be sent home,” she said in a posh accent which betrayed her high society background.

She was crestfallen when told the report was inaccurate.

Perhaps Najib’s visit – which Bernama described as “four years after hitting the lowest point in their otherwise excellent bilateral ties, Malaysia and Thailand are on the brink of a historic milestone as their top leaders meet in the kingdom” – will change the prisoners’ lives.

(Published from The Star on Dec 5, 2009)