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The Donkey and the Buffalo

Just as donkeys are regarded as the embodiment of stupidity in the West, so the water buffalo is characterised in Thailand. The personifications of these two lumbering animals came face to face in Thailand this week in a lose-lose situation that would have left even the slow-witted animals hanging their heads in shame.  

Australian mother of four Annice Smoel was celebrating her mother’s 60th birthday with friends and family in Phuket’s Aussie Bar when a drunken prank quickly deteriorated into a farce of monumental proportions.

The 36-year-old Melbourne woman ended up being accused of theft after a bar mat somehow found its way into her handbag. Although the theft of a bar mat may appear a trivial matter in itself, Annice did not exactly endear herself to the law enforcement officers who were called to the scene when she apparently became abusive and ran away from them.

Quickly pursued and apprehended, Annice earned herself free board and lodge in the cells for her efforts. While she claims that the bar mat was put in her bag by friends as a prank – and one of the friends even went along to the police station to confess as much – Annice was kept in custody for two nights before finally being released on bail.

After much unwanted publicity and loss of face all round, Annice was eventually handed a six-month suspended jail term and a 1000 baht fine in return for a guilty plea that ended the possibility of spending the next 4 months in jail whilst awaiting trial and a possible prison sentence of 5 to 10 years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the case of the donkey versus the buffalo.

Enter the donkey. Annice Smoel may have been innocent of the actual theft, as she claims, but she demonstrated all the intelligence of a donkey when she chose to act abusively and flee from the local police who would doubtlessly have let her off with a warning had she shown a little more decorum.

To act in such a contemptuously loutish manner with the police in your own country is foolish enough, but to do so in a foreign land is not only a gamble with the odds stacked heavily against you, but also a stain on the reputation of your nation.

Enter the buffalo. It has often been said that the law is an ass, but in this case it takes on the guise of a buffalo. As Thailand’s tourism industry reels from one crisis to another, surely this case could have been handled more intelligently. While no-one is suggesting that criminals in Thailand should receive preferential treatment just because they are foreigners, Annice’s punishment seems vastly disproportionate to the crime.

So what level of punishment could be considered just? Direct comparisons are often futile, but the value of a stolen bar mat when weighed against the ill-gotten gains of mass corruption seems somehow inconsequential.

How could it be, then, that Annice spent two nights in jail and had her passport withheld after she was released on bail, while some far more heinous criminals have remained at large? Take, for example, one former prime-minister who not only retained his freedom before, during and after the trial in which he was finally convicted of massive corruption, but also was allowed to leave the country whilst on bail after his conviction to “attend the Olympic Games in China”.

This megalomaniac who creamed billions of baht out of Thailand’s national coffers continues to thumb his nose at the law as he remains free to agitate civil unrest in Thailand from abroad.

In the case of the donkey versus the buffalo, it seems that there are no winners.

It was reported that the Smoel family was celebrating back in Melbourne after Annice’s release from jail. Let’s just hope that none of them takes a fancy to the bar mats.

Paul Snowdon – May 22, 2009

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