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Australia's Larry Cunningham: He believes only one in 10 sex attacks are reported

Rapes, Drugs, Jet-ski Wipeouts: Harrowing Life for Diplomats

Sunday, March 16, 2008
THE APPARENT murder of a young Swedish tourist whose body was found on Mai Khao beach on March 15 highlights the dangers that female visitors face, even on seemingly-safe Phuket.

At least one diplomatic representative, Australia's Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham, believes the rapes that are reported to police represent just a small fraction of the attacks.

''I think only as little as one in 10 attacks are reported,'' he told Phuketwan in an in-depth interview.

''We feel this is probably only the tip of the iceberg. The embassy has informed us of similar things in Bangkok and Pattaya.''

Cunningham fears that because some perpetrators have escaped prosecution, they become bolder and offend again.

Attacks on tourists are just one issue of tourist safety that Phuket's local diplomats deal with on a regular basis.

If you happen to find trouble in Paradise and you're from Down Under, then Cunningham's face could be the face of an Aussie Angel. He may not be pretty, but he can help.

Cunningham, a resident businessman on Phuket and the local diplomatic representative for Australia, is always surprised at how delighted people are to see him, especially when they are behind bars in jail or on a hospital bed.

Even a tropical Paradise has its share of unpleasantness and pain, as the Aussie Hon Con and his counterparts from other nations know only too well.

In 2008, record numbers of Australians are flying to enjoy the holiday delights of Phuket and the surrounding region. Dinki-di accents can be heard saying ''G'day'' almost everywhere that the locals greets visitors with ''Sawadee.''

As an inevitable byproduct of the Australian invasion, its citizens are also finding themselves in deep trouble on and around the island in record numbers as well.

It's the same in other parts of Thailand. Although trouble is not always the fault of the tourists, Cunningham has a succinct way of summarizing the main problem.

''Too often when people leave home, they leave their brains behind,'' he says. ''People do things on an overseas holiday that they would never do in the cold, hard light of day at home.''

Some excessive holiday behavior escapes penalty, as was the case with the Aussie drinker who appeared late one night recently in Soi Bangla, a beer in each hand. The man was naked except for a money-belt.

Inevitably, witnesses reported the incident to Cunningham, who hears from a network of contacts whenever there's trouble involving Australians.

Plenty of telephone calls, both trivial and serious, interrupt his regular work as a property developer and real estate agent.

''I got a call the other week from a woman wanting to know if she could take a crocodile skin bag back to Australia,'' Cunningham said.

''A Dutch woman telephoned from the airport to say 'I'm just about to get on a plane for Australia. Do I need a visa?'

''That's all in a normal day's work.''

Cunningham, who has vivid first-hand recollections of the 2004 tsunami and last September's budget airline crash on Phuket, finds another incident even more horrifying: the holiday rape of a young Australian student.

As Cunningham tells it, the girl came to Phuket last year with uni friends who went out one night on a drinking binge in the resort town of Patong. The girl got so drunk that she could not stand up.

Instead of taking her back to their hotel, putting her to bed, then going back to the drinking, a task that would have taken about 20 minutes, her friends loaded her into the back of a tuk-tuk.

''The girl was so drunk she fell over face first in the back of the tuk-tuk, so they took her and sat her beside the driver in the front and said 'Please take her to the hotel. Here's the money for the fare.' Then they went back to partying,'' Cunningham says.

''The tuk-tuk driver took the girl to a secluded area and sexually assaulted her, then dropped her back at the hotel.''

Cunningham says the attitude of the so-called ''friends,'' who gave evidence during the subsequent court case, remained disheartening.

In January, another girl aged 22 from the Gold Coast went night-clubbing alone and narrowly escaped a captor after being held in a house for three hours. The girl had to catch a flight home before the case could be concluded.

''There are people who prey on these circumstances and probably realize over a period of years that very few perpetrators are caught or brought to trial, empowering them even further,'' Cunningham says.

''Phuket is not Africa or South America yet you just have to be careful. Similar events have happened in Bangkok and Pattaya.''

Even playful clashes with the law can produce outcomes that are far from amusing.

At 4am one morning in Patong, a bleary-eyed 19-year-old man from Adelaide thought it would be fun to don a local policeman's hat, without permission.

His sense of fun cost him dearly. He was quickly placed under arrest and taken back to the police station.

''The young man panicked and ran away,'' Cunningham says. ''So he was caught and charged with escaping. He then had to stay for the court case.

''We had to organize bail and it would have cost the young man and his family $A20,000 (600,00 baht) because his ticket expired, it was peak season, and he had to get a lawyer to represent him.

''Pushing as hard as we could from a consular side, the case took about a month to resolve,'' Cunningham said. ''The fine in court amounted to the equivalent of $A50 (1500 baht).''

Another young man from Australia was arrested for stealing a packet of cough drops from a mini-mart.

''He'd been to a local convenience store, he had paid for what he bought, then on the way out he though 'I'll have some of those' and flipped the cough drops into his bag,'' Cunningham says.

''The security camera recorded the whole thing and he was arrested and charged. His father had to to make an unplanned trip to Phuket.

''It cost the family about $A20,000 (600,000 baht) and the fine in this instance was $A60 (1800 baht). He now has a criminal record.''

The procedures in Thailand are ''quite long and quite detailed,'' Cunningham says. ''Many people fly on discount and have to return on a specific date. Even a trivial encounter with the law can be quite a drain.''

Amid the sunshine and filled with holiday spirit, many people take to the roads on hired motorcycles without wearing helmets or bothering about proper insurance.

One Australian, approaching retirement in Canberra, had to take out a second mortgage to cover $60,000 (1.8 million baht) in hospital expenses when his strapping young son came a cropper and broke his skull and collarbone while riding without a helmet on Phuket.

''It turns out that insurance only applies if you have qualified for your motorcycle licence in Australia,'' Cunningham says.

He says local hospital authorities and police are always helpful but there is only so much they can do.

''Anyone driving a motorcycle on Phuket is foolhardy,'' Cunningham says.''The Italians probably have the worst reputations.

''One dealer told me they graduate from a Vespa step-through scooter in Rome and get on a 900cc Kawasaki here and often end up spread all over the road.''

Sure enough, within days of this interview, two Italians on a motorcycle, a man and a woman, died in a collision with a pickup. Friends and acquaintances were left to solve how best to repatriate the bodies.

Those who survive a motorcycle crash are frequently scarred with a ''Phuket tattoo,'' the large mark left on a trapped right leg by a burning exhaust pipe.

It is not unusual to see banged-up tourists wearing bandages on various cuts and scrapes and usually hopping along on one crutch or two.

Roads claim Australians and other holidaymakers frequently. So do the beaches out of season, when undertows known as ''rips'' drag unwary swimmers to their deaths.

As well as rips, rip-offs pose a trap, too, with ATM and jet-ski scams topping the latest list from the Tourist Police of ways to lose your precious cash.

The largest percentage of the problems that tourists encounter occur in Patong, says Cunningham.

''Nowhere in the world is 100 percent safe and on Phuket we have a lot of problems in areas that are unsafe late at night, or even during the day, with motorcycles, jetskis, tuk-tuks and so on,'' he says.

Unscrupulous jet-ski renters will claim that preexisting damage has been caused by the latest innocent rider, claim an extortionate repair payment, and call in police when an argument begins.

But Cunningham is also sometimes appalled by the behavior of Australian visitors, as with the two young men who ''crashed a pair of jetskis thinking it would be fun, then one trying to jump his mate who has already fallen off his jet ski, collecting him in the skull . . .

''You have to pick up the pieces,'' Cunningham adds, matter of factly. ''In many incidents, we do.''

He vividly recalls the tsunami of December 2004 as well as the Phuket plane crash of September 2007 in which, remarkably, only one Australian was among the 90 victims.

Cunningham drove swiftly to the makeshift morgue at the airport. His actions in the aftermath earned the praise of the Australian Ambassador to Thailand, William Paterson.

''We couldn't believe it,'' Cunningham says. ''On board a plane coming to Phuket, where up to 25 percent of travellers are usually Aussie, there were only two Aussies on board this one.''

Delighted to have Cunningham at his bedside was Phuket resident and expat Robert Borland, the sole Australia survivor of the crash, who is now recovering at home on Phuket after months of skin graft surgery for burns.

There are, however, some who are not pleased to see Cunningham, including the Australian caught handing out ecstasy tabs at a local disco. He somehow ''negotiated'' his own release.

''I went to see one young fellow down in jail in Patong, charge with assault, and he basically said: 'Where have you been? I've been waiting two hours.'''

For his role as honorary consul, Cunningham receives the princely sum of $7500 a year which he says ''probably wouldn't cover the cost of the phone calls.''

''But you don't do it for the remuneration,'' he adds. ''You do it because you want to help.''

Cunningham, who came to the island to retire and opened a business instead, followed five years on from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating as the top athlete-academic at a high school in Sydney's tough Western suburbs.

''I remember shopping with my mother when she only had copper coins in her purse,'' he says. ''I mean, I never had my own shirts. We used to get hand-me-downs.''

It was an upbringing that equipped him to deal with all kinds of circumstances on Phuket. ''I'm probably still frugal as a result,'' he says. ''You learn so much from a background like that.''

These days, though, the honorary consul's social mix also includes Australians who are far from hard-up.

One of Australia's richest men, billionaire Solomon Lew, was the first person to call Cunningham after the tsunami. Like many well-off Australians, Lew enjoys escaping to Phuket.

Another friend is music impresario Michael Chugg, whose 60th birthday celebration on the island last year attracted legends of Australian pop music and Britain's Leo Sayer, plus the faint whiff of pot.

These days, Cunningham prefers to relax with a swim at upscale Surin beach, or unwind watching sport on television. He plans to continue as Hon Con through to 2010, when he turns 60.

SWEDEN was planning to close its temporary consulate on Phuket in the middle of the year and return to an honorary consul system. But with 17 deaths among Swedes in the region in 2007 and now a murder, it may be time for a rethink. More than 228,000 Swedes visited Phuket in 2007. Australian visitors numbered 345,000.

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Comments have been disabled for this article.


This is so true. Phuket is not safe any more. The police don't care.

Posted by helen heffernan on March 18, 2008 12:59

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