The Untouchables

4 minute read

It usually starts with a bumped shoulder or a stomped-on foot amid the thick smoke and boozy haze of a Bangkok disco. Then comes the chilling glare and the sudden appearance of men in black safari suitsoften moonlighting cops or soldiers. But the sure sign there is about to be troublea merciless beating, a pistol-whipping or a shootingis when the offended party with a chest full of gold chains asks: “Do you know who my father is?”

In Thailand, being from the right family too often counts for more than being right. The scions of privileged military and business families have sometimes literally gotten away with murder. There are scantrepercussions when a well-to-do ne’er-do-well has a few too many drinks and throws a few too many punches, even when some unlucky Thai ends up dead. But now the Thai public, long resigned to police corruption and military imperiousness, is scandalized by the latest case of a rich kid going too far.

On the morning of Oct. 29, at the Twenty Club discotheque, the three Yubamrung brothers, sons of powerful politician Chalerm Yubamrung, began trading blows with a group of plainclothes police. According to witnesses, Duangchalerm Yubamrung, the youngest of the brothers, had his party restrain Suvichai Rodwimud, a police officer awarded Crimebuster of the Year honors, as he executed him with a bullet to the head. Now Duangchalerm, a 20-year-old lieutenant attached to the army’s Supreme Command until his ouster last week, is Thailand’s most wanted man. But after three weeks, the suspect has yet to be found, and the skeptical Thai public is wondering if this is yet another case of selective law enforcement. “The public is watching this case to see if there is any justice in our society,” says Senator Thongbai Thongpao. But about half of Thais polled have already abandoned that notion. They believe “political interference” is helping Duangchalerm evade capture, and that he will never be brought to trial.

Along the strip of hostess bars, cavernous discos and massage palaces of Bangkok’s Ratchadapisek Road, the Yubamrung brothers are the most infamous of the brawling brats of the Thai Elite. During the past five years, Arthan, 30, Wanchalerm, 25, and Duangchalerm have been involved in at least a dozen bar fights and shootings. Yet, until Wanchalerm’s arrest last week as an accessory to the murder, they had never spent a day in jail. “They’re the most notorious, but they’re by no means unique,” says Andrew Hiransomboon, a nightlife columnist for the Bangkok Post. Other infamous scions include Suksant Kong-udom, son of a senator and casino tycoon, charged with shooting a diplomat’s son outside a disco; Poonpol Asavahame, son of a former deputy interior minister, accused of pistol whipping a truck driver and running down a police officer who tried to give him a ticket; and Pattarapong Manasikarn, son of a former Science Minister, charged with shooting an architect to death outside a disco. None of them has ever been convicted, as a litany of witnesses later retracted stories and victims failed to press charges.

As the massive teakwood gates of his family’s suburban Bangkok compound roll open so police commandos can search it for the third time, Chalerm Yubamrung is smoking a fat Cuban cigar and complaining about the assaults on his dignity. Chalerm, a former police captain and now a member of Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s New Aspiration Party, has done miraculously well on a public servant’s salary. He and his three sons live in a 2.5-hectare, 14-building estate complete with its own football field. Back in 1991, the last military government charged Chalerm and several politicians with being “unusually rich.” He was forced into exile, but returned a year later after the military was ousted and courts ruled the charges unconstitutional. His reputation remains unsavory and he has been passed over for a Cabinet post by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Today the search of the Yubamrungs’ compound comes up empty. A retired police general says Duangchalerm shouldn’t hide. “There’s always a way to see that witnesses change their testimony,” he says.

Meanwhile, the fugitive, who professes his innocence, continues to play the daddy card. In a letter his father claims was found under a pillow after the young man fled, Duangchalerm tells Chalerm he was being unjustly portrayed as a criminal “simply because [I’m] your son.”

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