Thai Nak Lengs, Jao Pohs & Crime in the Days of Wikileaks
Given the vast collection of regulations, administrative rulings and laws, sooner or later just about everyone has committed a crime. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm where all animals aren’t equal, nor are all criminal equally subject to be being processed through the criminal justice system. A case can be made that Pareto Principle applies to crime. That is the bottom 20% of the socio-economic population represents 80% of those who are imprisoned. Class and crime go together like a glove and hand. Criminals thrive on ambush and secrecy. In the days of Wikileaks, CCTV cameras, tracking of cell phone, emails, and so on secrecy is on the way out. Like an evaporated river bed we are starting to see the bottom for the first time.
The word ‘crime’ evokes the list of murder, robbery, hijacking, kidnapping, and rape. Our collective fear is violent crime committed by violent, ruthless people. Understandably emotions run high when there is blood on the floor. Though, in reality, the level of absolute violence in society is a mere fraction of the historical average where homicide among males resulted in a consistently large percentage of the male population. Whatever the shortcoming of the worst criminal justice system in most parts of the world would not come close to reproducing the 33% casualty rate of our forager ancestors.
Identifying, processing and punishing criminals depends on a number of often conflicting cultural components. Murder is a crime in South Asia but honour killings have long history of authorities looking the other way. Getting away with murder happens in other cultures, too. For those who grew up on the Godfather, the idea of Mafia killers getting away is not new information.
Setting aside, violent crimes, there is a vast criminalized set of behaviors ready for about every occasion. These crimes are a bit like crowd control. It is a good way to settle scores, keep troublesome competitors, or critics at bay. In Pattaya, the authorities are looking to enforce rules restricting sound in entertainment venues. Violation of the noise control law subjects the offender to a fine and/or imprisonment. As far as I know, no one has ever been imprisoned in Thailand for making a noise beyond that allowed by law. Crime is the continuum that stretches between murder and playing Lady Ga Ga at 120 decibels.
In Thailand, the nak lang and jao poh are often viewed in romantic ways like the 1950s icon James Dean. The nak lang is a tough guy but with an underlying morality, a kind of Robin Hood, who gathers baramii (personal power, charisma and influence accumulated over time from favors, protection and patronage) by helping out others—and those are usually the powerless, defenseless villagers subject to unfairness and abuse by the powerful. In reality, when a (low-level) nak lang beats up someone for defaulting on a loan shark’s loan, he is hardly upholding the idealized role a nak leng is supposed to play. But that’s just business. Nothing personal, as they say.
The myth and reality fight with one another, mix and unmix like oil and water. Many Thais still believe that nak lengs mainly resort to violence or other crimes as a way to balance power confronted by the ‘little guy’ in a weak legal system that would otherwise ignore or crush him.
The jao poh is a strongman who operates inside and outside the law in a community that relies upon him to look after their interest. Jao pohs, the bosses of the nak lengs, oversee an empire that runs from construction and road building to gambling, loan sharking, hire gunmen, trafficking of illegal immigrants and drug distribution channels, among other lucrative enterprises that fall outside the law.
As a rule of thumb, jao pohs are immune from criminal prosecution. A telltale sign of a jao poh’s involvement in a killing is the police report that theorizes the victim died as a result of a business or personal conflict. Not much headway is made in most of these cases. But if a jao poh crosses the wrong person (meaning even a bigger jao poh or someone more powerful) it is usually a political challenge and the loser rather than imprisoned goes into voluntary exile. The jao pohs are an example of the top down criminal system. The jao pohs are usually very rich. The street thug who robs a 7-Eleven convenience store is the classic case of those at bottom of the societies barrel breaking the surface to take what they can. In Asia where harmony is highly valued, a gang of cowboys robbing and killing creates chaos and the authorities come down hard on these modern day bandits.
Thai jao pohs evoke fear through their use of violence. They’ve figured out if you want to control people the short cut isn’t love but fear. They have brought that lesson more recently in the political sphere and have found it yields profits. Jao pohs operate not unlike feudal warlords over their turf. In the world of Thai politics, both the nak lengs and jao pohs have played an important role. In a culture where patronage plays a central role in social relationships it is easy to see how it happens. The formula involves an ambitious jao poh who has an amoral view of power relationships (based on self-interest) coupled with lots of money.
The jao poh is equipped to dispense threats and favors with the skill of a kick-boxer, to reward supporters with security, punish his rivals, and to strike deals and form alliances with other jao poh who carve up the pie and divvy up the crumbs. People vote for the jao pah, his wife, brother, son, etc. as they are grateful for the big man’s favors and protection. Jao pohs are said by the Thais to have a “big heart” (jai kwang). A jao poh must not only take but also give – especially when it’s needed.
The Thai patronage system is weaved out of the holsters of gangsters. Thai jao pohs have evolved to become media savvy—better suits, dental care, and hair styles—and cultivate a more polished, attractive celebrity like public image. You could almost forget they are jao poh. But that is the idea. Forgetting (or at least overlooking or ignoring) their crimes is the end result of this grand delusional scheme.
As Wall Street has shown us, in terms of real damage the adverse economic damage caused by white-collar crime is far greater and far less visible than the violent crimes. It happens in boardrooms, offices, luxury hotel suites, mansions and yachts and becomes almost impossible to track. Crimes of violence or crimes based on paperwork—which movie would you go to see?
WikiLeaks has announced its intention to the public the confidential tax details of 2,000 wealthy and prominent individuals, who were clients of Swiss bank Julius Baer. The promise is that the information will contain evidence of money-laundering and tax evasion.
The Pareto Principle acts in a recursive fashion. The top 20% of white-collar crime also has the top 20% as does that top 20% and so on until you reach something like 2,000 people who collectively have accumulated a vast amount of ill-gotten wealth.
Julian Assange (L) receives CDs containing data on offshore bank account holders from Rudolf Elmer. (Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters)
Authorities in the United States have been working around the clock, covertly and overtly, to haul Julian Assange into the American criminal justice system. The 2,000 wealthy individuals at Julius Baer would no doubt support the American effort to put a stop to the way the world finds out about crime, defines who are criminals and processes them as such. Julian Assange is, in an odd way, a kind of global nak leng, perhaps even jao poh, who is seeking to redress perceived imbalance in the justice and political system. But there is a big difference.
The Thai jao poh tend to be team players, they form alliances, coalitions, and become part of the system. Challenging the actual structure of power is dangerous. That is how power is institutionalized, arranged, connected, networked and co-ordinated is masked behind the powerful individual personalities who appear daily in the media. We tend to think of only power as having a human face at the top. We overlook a central feature of power, which like crime, disperses along a thickly veined socio-bio system that leads to ever smaller capillaries. Power nourishes a large political-corporate body, circulating the life-blood of wealth, opportunity and status.
Crime follows a similar trajectory and often the players overlap. That’s what makes writing and reading crime fiction popular. The crime author is doing a literary autopsy by peeling back the veneer and examining the underlying correlations connecting crime to the larger society.
At the end of the pipeline in a criminal justice system, we have a way of measuring the policy of a country about convicted criminals. Every year, most countries release statistics on the number of people in jails and prisons. We can find from the statistics a lot about criminals and their crimes and the appetite of governments to use prison as the main way to deal with crime. Remember, they are numbers stripped of their cultural context. Comparing one legal justice system against another risk missing important factors not revealed in the raw numbers.
Still we all love comparisons. We can’t resist raw scores and drawing all kinds of conclusions from the numbers as if reading the weekend results from the Premier league.
Wikipedia says, “According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 7,225,800 people at yearend 2009 were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole—about 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population, or 1 in every 32 adults.” The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population and 23.4% of the world’s prison population.
Thailand comes in at 313 per 100,000 is 33rd on the list of international incarceration rates squeezed between Lavita and Chile. Compare that with the world’s number one in incarceration the USA at a whopping 748 per 100,000. Malaysia is ranked 108th with a 130 per 100,000, Vietnam ranks 114th with 122 per 100,000, Cambodia ranks 145th at 94 per 100,000. Of course, there is Burma ranking 117th at 120 per 100,000, which may illustrate the problem with such a chart. However you define ‘imprisonment’ a case could be made that the authorities in Burma keep locked down a population 42,000 per 100,000.
At the bottom of the ranking chart are Nepal at 215th and Timor at 216th with respectively 24 and 20 per 100,000 of their population behind bars. What these number show is that imprisonment rates don’t tell use a great deal about the overall crime rate, detection of crime, enforcement of laws, or cultural considerations that exclude classes of criminals and criminal activity.
Crime like power or religion diffuses or filters through the larger population according to the cultural constraints of the system. Some places have more crime but few people in jail; while other places have a lot of people in jail and lower rates of serious or violent crime. Something to contemplate next time you decide where to spend a holiday. Next time you see the celebrity or high profile criminal and think about what forces in that culture sacrificed this person and what were their motives for doing so.
Every politician, lawyer and judge will tell you they follow the rule of law. That has been true enough so long as you remember the caveat: those who rule make and enforce the law to sustain their power and position. This traditional way of power having the monopoly over crime is under threat. The trend line suggests that WikiLeak like information may encourage people to take matters into their own hands. This recently happened in Tunisia after disclosure of vast corruption by WikiLeaks. The streets in Tunis were filled with outraged citizens. What happened next is still being studied but it is a kind of reverse polarity of fear where the bottom of the social heap pushed back in the face of official violence. When people are willing to gather in mass crowds against guns of tyrants, the fear reverses. The tyrant fears the demonstrators.
The Zeitgeist of secrecy required for crime at the highest political levels is vanishing before our eyes. The smell of fear is rising from the top. But before anyone becomes to romantic and heralds a new dawn, it is wise to revisit the Pareto Principle. One unrealistic expectation is that the Pareto Principle will be buried in Tunisia or anywhere else where demonstrators seek a new political beginning. What is likely is that once the pieces are picked up in the wake of shattered secrecy, a newly assembled 20% minority will have found a new cloak to gather, justify and sustain their power and immunity. They will be a new generation of jao poh nonetheless and the cycle of history will start again.
This week a collection of my essays has been published under the title The Cultural Detective. You can buy a paperback or ebook copy here.