July 6, 2007

Escape book

It has almost become fashionable these days to write books about life in Thai prisons. “The Damage Done” by Warren Fellows is probably the most well known of the prison books, though it has been criticized by some for exaggerating prison conditions. “Forget You Had a Daughter” is another popular firsthand account of life on the inside. This time a woman from the UK.  Another new prison book is “Welcome to Hell”, which for a change, tells the story of someone who was not convicted of drug smuggling. This guy was convicted of murder. There are also books from the other side of the wall. For example, “The Angel of Bang Kwang” which tells the story of an Australian woman who frequently visited foreign prisoners in the notorious maximum security prison. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is about the struggle of an Australian woman to get her brother transferred back to an Australian prison. And then there is  “The Last Executioner” which tells the viewpoint from a Thai prison guard at Bang Kwang. I think that the only story missing here is that of a Thai prisoner. Though that will probably be written by Panrit “Gor” Daoruang who is presently serving in Samut Prakan Central Prison.

At first I didn’t think that it was possible to have another prison book that would explore life in Thai prisons. I thought that just about every angle and story had been told. But then this month came the publication of “Escape” by David McMillan and published by Monsoon Books. This tells the true story of the only Westerner ever to break out of Thailand’s Bangkok Hilton, aka.Klong Prem Prison. This event took place about ten years ago. I have never heard of anyone escaping from a prison in Thailand before. I must admit I was sceptical. I googled some keywords but couldn’t dig up anything. Then finally I discovered a small article released by the newswires about the escape. It told of the escape of “Daniel Westlake” which was the name on the forged passport that David was carrying at the time of his arrest. In the article, the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Corrections said “I am quite confident we will get him soon”. Unknown to him at the time, David was already long gone. David’s very readable book, “Escape” tells the story of his arrest and the three years that he spent in Klong Prem. Despite having just published a book, David is, for obvious reasons, hard to track down. He won’t be doing any book signing and he won’t be doing a press conference. However, he did agree to do an exclusive interview for


As the account of your escape reads just like a novel, was any of the prison life and actual escape dramatized in order to make a better story?

No, all the events written of in “Escape” really happened. Some readers might think the escape seemed too easy rather than too dramatic. I suppose many stories of successful escapes read that way. Yet think of this: those who fail never get to tell their stories – their silence comes from death or their consequent chained entombment in black dungeons. The ‘novelish’ style of the book is intended to put the reader as much as possible in my shoes and not reveal things more quickly than they were revealed to me.

Although ten years have now passed, are you still in danger of being extradited back to Thailand?

It’s worth saying that I was never convicted of the charge made; had not been caught with any drugs and strongly defended myself in court. Yet, from what I saw of the courts, I had no confidence in any acquittal. I’m sure my sentence would have been death – later reduced to life, I suppose, as Thailand hasn’t executed anyone for drugs alone for many years.

As I was unconvicted, the Interpol warrant issued was for the escape alone. Extradition laws are complex. Those agreements only allow whoever is extradited to be tried for the particular thing on the warrant. No old or new charges added. Some years ago the Danish police questioned and detained me on another matter. The Thai authorities were informed that I was held, yet made no request. Possibly because EU law does not allow extradition on capital charges.

Despite all that, I live carefully. My email address is London, but I reside in a jurisdiction whose judges are unlikely to send me to Asia.

I presume then that you have never been back to Thailand. Even under an assumed name would be dangerous for you. If the charges against you were ever dropped, would you go back?

I would like to visit Thailand but I can’t imagine forgiveness coming easily. Perhaps when I am ninety and toothless someone might recommend me for a pardon. It’s a pity, for I have always felt very close to Thailand.

I was going to ask you about that. I had the impression in the book that you were already fairly fluent in Thai before you were arrested.  Is this true and what kind of relationship did you have with Thailand before this event?

My first trip to Thailand was in 1976 when I was 21 years old. Bangkok was almost a quiet town then. One could set up ten-pin bowling along New Petchburi Road on a Sunday. Serene and beautiful in many ways. That’s perhaps an advantage I had compared to other farangs in Klong Prem. I had enough knowledge and affection for the Thai people not to resent and become twisted with bitterness about my fate.

I tried to sound neutral in Escape, although some people – I read Bernard Trink in the Post – misunderstood my observations of my fellow Westerners. To call all the Thai prison officers simply corrupt is, I think, a narrow Eurocentric view. Most of the guards felt that the favours they gave some prisoners were not a form of accepting bribes. They saw themselves as being considerate to those who were deserving. Those so kindly treated would return that spirit in gifts. So, is it a naive coincidence that those who were deserving happened to be the ones with money? Not in their view. A rather old-fashioned interpretation of karma: that the lucky, those with money, must be good people somehow.

Do you have any idea what the prison authorities might think of your book?

Escape is certainly critical of Klong Prem, and no one in authority welcomes that. However, jail authorities know that jails are secure only because the inmates agree to remain imprisoned. Inmate trusties are the real guards, and security is not made by adding shackles.

Klongprem prison

Klong Prem Prison – The infamous ‘Bangkok Hilton’

Ten years have passed since your escape and I would expect that they would have made it more difficult for people to escape.  Do you think that you could escape again today using the same method?

If I ever find myself locked up again, I’ll let you know! There are only three truly important things in successful escaping: the will to leave; the ability to keep secrets; and most importantly, having close friends. Can you imagine where I’d be now if I’d arrived at that flat in Lat Phrao, groped behind that bathroom mirror only to find that no passport had been left?

I would imagine that everything hinged on having a new passport. But, these days it is not a simple matter of just forging a passport and visa stamps. Immigration now has computerized records of you entering and leaving the country. You cannot leave the country if their computer has no record of you arriving. If you didn’t have help on the outside to hack into their computer, what would you have done without a passport?

You’re correct there. I had grave doubts at first that the necessary entries would be added to the immigration computer. So, an early plan was this: to fly immediately to Hat Yai on the earliest domestic flight. Then to drive – probably by taxi – to Satun on the southern coast. There is a ferry that operates between Satun and Langkawi Island, a territory of Malaysia. The Satun border post was then little more than a shack and certainly had no computer.

However, you can imagine the dangers in that. Just a few examples: if the Hat Yai flight was cancelled or delayed; the clear memory that any taxi driver would have had of the farang that asked to be driven 100 kilometres to Satun; possibly arriving late for the ferry; then having to hide out in Malaysia or switch to the spare passport I carried. All risky, to say the least.

As a foreigner in Thailand, it is almost like you have to break out twice. First from the prison and then the country. In your book you talked about two Israelis who escaped from Chiang Mai Central Prison.  Although their prison break was successful they were eventually caught hiding in a local guesthouse.  What was their biggest mistake and if you were in their shoes, with the same resources, what would you have done differently?

The Israelis had no real plans beyond the wall. If they’d had friends, at least someone could have driven them separately to some previously rented accommodation. They had time to fly south, and they should have split up and done so. I don’t think they even had proper street clothes. Quite probably they lost their nerve and stayed together to reassure each other. Not many people are confident alone. The history of escapes is stained with those who could not function alone.

Which part of this so-called double escape is the easiest? Escaping your captors or evading capture in order to flee the country?

That depends on the country. In Thailand at that time, getting out of Klong Prem was difficult. Making those preparations as a farang demanded utter secrecy. Every element of good fortune became essential: the existence of an army-boot factory for the rope; the paper factory for the long bamboo poles – even the umbrella factory, as I’m sure I would have been spotted by the tower guards without that umbrella shielding my pale face.

You know, that black umbrella sat on a special stand for years afterward in the study of an influential tribal lord in Baluchistan. He said it would bring him luck.

Was there much publicity about your escape or was the government trying to hush things up? I saw a story from the newswires three days after the event. In it, a government official was saying how you would soon be caught and that he was sure that you were still in the country. Was this all too little too late?

As with the Chiang Mai escape, there was a delay in making the breakout public. At Bangkok, prison officials sent guards to Don Muang airport around 10:00am (just as I was taking off) that day hoping, it seems, to keep the escape and a hopeful re-capture ‘in-house’. A full 24 hours passed before my escape was made public. Not a cover up but a hope by the authorities of Klong Prem that they could find me without official police help.

How confident were you that the escape would work?  Would you have tried again if the first attempt failed?

There would have been no second chance. Assuming I survived after being caught (you might recall the four from Klong Prem who were shot following an attempt in 2000), I would have been chained to a wall in a Bangkwang dungeon. Now that would be something!

You have certainly had plenty of experience of prisons around the world. In your late twenties, you served ten years in an Australian prison. There were also reports of a dramatic escape attempt by helicopter. Straight after that you were in Thailand and in prison there for three years before escaping.  Then you were detained in Asian and European prisons over the last few years. How does Thai prisons compare to others around the world?

I’ve been in worse prisons. By that I mean terrifying. There was two months in solitary in Pakistan when I was fed only watery beans poured through the bars with a piece of roof guttering, for the solitary door was never opened. Still, I managed to get out. Not using money as many like to assume, but by absorbing everyone there.

I worry about people who get stuck. Simon Mann’s friend Nick du Toit in Black Beach prison, Equatorial Guinea, for example. What were they playing at? Such delusions of a lost – and rightly damned – age! Even so, I can’t help wondering what might be possible. If they could get out.

Your account differs from other Thai prison books as you seem to take everything in your stride. Whilst others painted a grisly picture, saying that their prison experience was the worst ever, you seemed to take a calm and almost detached look at life in Thai prisons. I presume money helped you to a certain extent. But, what part of your character helped you survive those three years? What advice would you give to people trying to survive in a foreign prison?

It is essential to recover quickly from any culture shock. To crawl out of denial and transform oneself in some kind of Zen manner. To say to yourself: ‘I am at one with these people; I will build here, I will help those around me.’ By such means, fear is replaced by understanding. With that knowledge, choices can be made.

I hope “Escape” reveals that key to survival. I was not particularly rich; couldn’t buy my way out. Yet I embraced the very ground and created a little family. Of course that, like all things there, was actually a false construct for survival, and I know that my leaving was in part a betrayal.

So, what do you think of books like “Damage Done”? Do they paint an accurate picture?

I’m not a big fan of “My Time in Hell” books about prison experiences. Exaggerated or not, many of those accounts seem totally self-absorbed. Blind to the insights to be gained from the extreme conditions that reveal so much of others.

I was determined that “Escape” would contain no wailing about my enduring the unendurable – that kind of thing. We are all the result of those layers of evolution that create the human disguise, and I hope readers will more easily find themselves reflected and sensing the freedom by standing as though with me on that one still night in Klong Prem.

You certainly don’t seek our sympathy which is to your credit.  In some ways you are a kind of anti-hero as you are a self confessed drug smuggler but at the same time you were the voice of the underdog.  I was certainly cheering for you by the end.


Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok, Thailand

Most escape books have been written about Prisoners of War (POWs) from the Second World War. For example, The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Colditz. I actually have all these books and more as I had a bit of an unhealthy interest in prisons and escaping as a youngster. I say unhealthy as I had something like 300 books on escaping. As I grew up I changed my interest to travel books, which I guess is another form of escape, though a little bit more healthy. Now it would seem that in the last year I have gone full circle and have gone back to an interest in prisons and how to escape from them. So, it was inevitable that I purchased a copy of “Escape” by David McMillan as soon as it hit the bookstands here.

But of course, this guy isn’t a POW. He is a self-confessed drug smuggler. A professional in fact who has been in the business since his twenties. I know some people will not want to touch this book because of the background of the author. Nor will these same people go to visit convicted foreigners in Thai prisons. They say that they deserved to be locked up for a long time and that we shouldn’t give them any sympathy or support. On the other hand, there are people like Susan Aldous, who has been dubbed “The Angel of Bang Kwang” for her work with foreign prisoners in that maximum security prison. To her it doesn’t matter what crime they committed. To find out exactly why she does that, we will be interviewing Susan later this month. At the same time, we will be interviewing an inmate of Bang Kwang who is presently serving 33 years.

The following is the conclusion of my interview with David McMillan.


A recent book reviewer criticized you because you didn’t  “warn people against becoming mules”. Do you think that was an unfair comment?

Well, do you think that books should carry health warnings? Let me briefly tell the story of three Pakistani guys I met by chance in a bar five or six years ago. We got talking as we found we had mutual friends. Some years before, these three and another countryman had been caught running dope into Saudi Arabia. That had been in the early ‘90s. Prices are very high in Saudi Arabia as you might guess.

One thing about the Saudi judicial process: it is quick. They had been sentenced to death within a couple of months. And I think their appeal process was over before they’d returned to the prison. The knives were being sharpened to hack off their heads, and they were apparently resigned to their fates – they were four days away from execution. Then, an unusual thing happened.

My companions at the bar took another brandy apiece before explaining what happened next.

Not long before they were arrested, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Saudi Arabia felt under threat and half the world’s armies joined in the UN-mandated rout of Saddam’s troops. As thanks for all this support, the Saudis made some gestures of gratitude. Among those gestures was a royal decree to free, immediately and unconditionally, all foreigners from their prisons.

Three days before a certain and grisly death all four Pakistanis (and quite a few more) were freed and repatriated. One was so happy he died of heart failure two weeks after returning to Multan.

I presume they had now learned their lesson.

Well, after hearing that happy ending to the story, we finished our drinks and went our separate ways, as we were all in the transit lounge bar of Dubai international airport. The three Pakistanis I’d met boarded their various flights – Frankfurt and Chicago – and I went my own way. Each one of them was carrying a kilo of heroin strapped to his waist.

I can’t imagine that there are many people today who need any warning about the dangers of carrying drugs.

That is the thing. I have lived in Thailand for a long time, and it always surprises me when I read a newspaper report of yet another foreign mule that has been caught with drugs at the airport. Don’t they read newspapers? Surely they must know that there is a death penalty in Thailand for drug smuggling. What do you think of these amateur runners and why aren’t they deterred by the possible consequences?

As I see it, deterrence from crime is very rarely balanced on the appalling consequences. Sentences have reached their maximum since the 1950s but that has not stopped the traffic. Dependence depends on the perception of risk, the odds of being caught. Those who choose to act as couriers already think of themselves as lucky, that if caught the bad luck in being grabbed will be balanced by good luck in soon being freed.

I guess that is true. We always hear about the people that are caught. Am I right in saying that far more are successful?

The statistical probability favours the courier, yet I think the perceived safety is in those crowds of people at airports. Those sheer numbers in which couriers feel safe doing something as routine as air travel. That, plus the fact that as a courier he takes no action that feels criminal: he is passive, just walks forward like a foot soldier on a battlefield supported by the ranks of his fellow travellers. If couriers were active rather than passive – had to do something out of the ordinary in the way a bank robber does; something confrontational – then I’m sure many would think twice. Yet they just put one foot in front of another before an unseen enemy, and daydream of fine times.

One of the Thai guards on the execution team at Bang Kwang was himself later convicted of selling drugs. He is now on death row with no idea of which day will be his last. Obviously he knew full well the consequence of his actions if caught. As the death penalty doesn’t seem to be a deterrent and as there is always the risk that an innocent man could be executed, would you agree that capital punishment should be abolished?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I am against the death penalty anywhere in any circumstances. Imposing death is the state surrendering its duty to be creative in devising sanctions and finding solutions. In a sense, they’ve given up and are throwing people to the mob.

Have you now retired from drug smuggling?

As you know, retirement can be the busiest time of a person’s life. Each day I plan to do no more than go to the beach, eat well and read the papers. Yet always other things happen.

Some of the recent prison books were written with the help of ghost writers. Did you have any assistance?

I wrote Escape without help. In fact, I wrote it initially to provide my friends with details too lengthy to recount over even a very long lunch. Repeating fragments of the story became exhausting; also, I had doubts that anyone might be interested – I guess that’s why it took so long to reach print. Escape is as much about the fifty other inmates I wrote of as about my adventure.

In countries like Australia, there are laws against people making money by writing books about their crimes.  What do you say to people who might criticize you for writing this kind of book? Personally I have no qualms about buying your book. In fact I will be buying a couple more to send to foreign prisoners here that have requested a copy.

Those laws you speak of are peculiar devices. An indirect censorship and a barrier to rehabilitation. And arbitrarily applied. No one would suggest that, say, Fidel Castro not tell history, or that Salman Rushdie returns his payments in Australia for Satanic Verses, yet both were deemed criminals in particular jurisdictions. Sure, people may say, ‘How can you compare yourself with people like Castro or Rushdie who act on their beliefs rather than greed’ but I am not. The law is written wide but applied to a class of people. These laws have not been passed to silence or tax those who have been accused of criminality, but to prevent undesirables – outcasts from society – from ever rejoining it.

In my case I hope the information and presentation of Escape has some value to readers – and I’m sure I will never make much money from a few sales. I suppose whatever I write – even if some day I begin to write fiction – would be drawn from my life’s experiences, including crime. I suspect those laws are the old Puritanism revived to ensure that ordinary criminals must remain humble, quiet and repentant for life.

In your book you didn’t really say what happened to the prisoners in your cell. From my own research I discovered that all foreigners were immediately chained and the ones in your room were sent to the punishment cell. Apparently your Thai friend was severely beaten. However, despite all of that, everyone regarded you as a kind of hero for years to come. Were all the characters that you wrote about real and if so what happened to them?

Everyone portrayed in Escape is real. There was no need at Klong Prem to invent characters! I did what I could (which was not much) to ensure that they would not be too severely punished. I’ve kept in touch with most friends I made then. ‘Sten’ was transferred to Sweden, then released and now lives happily with his wife and new baby daughter. ‘Jet’ has been released, too. He keeps out of trouble; still draws pictures. Unfortunately, English ‘Martyn’ remains at Bangkwang — a barely surviving testament to the UK’s cruel application of the transfer system.

I have heard that you have been sending food parcels to Bang Kwang. Is that true?

For some years I would have a Saturday morning routine of shopping and packing parcels to send to Klong Prem and Bangkwang. Money, too. Of course it would have been insufferably vain to have mentioned such things in the book.

What are your future plans?

I’m writing a book now about some Russian guys I met while locked up in Pakistan. (I stayed for the end of the trial there and was acquitted) Ten very hardened Russian prisoners had broken out of their Soviet jail and then hijacked a plane at the local airport. They didn’t fly out straight away. Incredibly, they flew to another Russian city and freed the rest of their gang before flying on to General Zia’s Pakistan. Landed at Hyderabad and endured (and made the Pakistanis endure) a decade of prison warfare. I followed up their story while on business some years later in St Petersburg with the aid of a young Russian girl who’d served time in Karachi for smuggling. The book is a challenge as Andreas and his gang are nearly beyond the understanding of his countrymen, let alone soft Europeans and polite Asians.

I look forward to reading that book. Thanks for your time in answering our questions.


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