I was locked up the Immigration Detention Center in Soi Suan Phlu for 10 days in November 2002 and the experience wasn't nearly as bad as many expats had led me to believe it would be. Sure there were 95 men in my cell, and the food was lousy – the same bad rice and dull lentil and tiny meat soup three times a day though if you had money (which I didn't) you could order all sorts of decent food.
What was so pleasant was the extraordinarily good company. One third of the cell was Iraqi, one third African and the rest Afghan and Irani with a handful of Westerners. I learnt to play African draughts (4 not 3 ranks of pieces and you can take backwards, a truly entertaining game), and the Nigerians who I knew the best (having lived in Lagos) referred to me as Mr. British which I rather liked, being a patriot.
I played chess with the Iraqi boss – a Kurdish Islamic philosopher – who played irritatingly slowly but told me fascinating tales of his terrorist activities against the Saddam Hussein secret police in Kirkuk, and provided me with a regular supply of nasty roll-up cigarettes and tiny cups of cold coffee for which I was remarkably grateful.
I deployed to the Afghan corner next to their boss, an ex-communist doctor whose lying space was surrounded by medical books and whose application to the UNHCR for refugee status ended up by being entirely written by me.
Among the miscellaneous nationalities, there was a Russian who was most certainly losing his mind and whom I felt I had to befriend since everybody else disliked him; a somewhat arrogant plump German Pattaya businessman who, whilst also unpopular, I bothered less with; a happily nutty Austrian who loved Thailand so much he preferred a life of perpetual Buddhist-style meditation in the IDC than being obliged to leave the country; and an Australian who was so angered by the disrespectful attitude of a certain consular official from his embassy that he was refusing to leave although free to do so.
The British, whenever they turned up, were uniformally smooth and I couldn't help notice how well they got on with everybody and how well they were respected. (I can't imagine how an American or an Israeli would fare but there never were any).
I was visited twice by a nice British embassy woman who seemed to think I was looking better than when I came in to the embassy previously to get certain matters sorted out: something to with being off the Sangtip whiskey, I suppose.
It wasn't actually such a bad experience to be with Muslims who could live without alcohol and the religious dimension, it seemed to me, was valuable in reducing tension. When the Muslims prayed 5 times a day the rest of us got out the way and kept a discrete profile. On the Sunday it was the African Christians' turn and it was powerful how they stood in a circle and how their singing echoed down the corridors of the prison and how Africans in other cells took up the chanting, all sorts of harmonies being created in the process.
Unfortunately, but rather interestingly I must admit, the only real serious tension was between the Arabs and the Africans – the Arabs there clearly regard the Africans as dangerous primitives, and the Africans see the Arabs as duplicitous crooks – so I made a point of being equally friendly to both. I was there luckily in November – presumably in the peak hot season the bad feelings between the two would be much heightened and life in general would be more unpleasant. The chief trustee was a dangerously-quiet sinister-looking Iranian who ran the cell very effectively – I kept the right side of him without feeling impelled to creep, grovel or tell tales. Upon being admitted to the cell, his Nigerian lieutenant invited me to contribute a small sum daily to the 'cleaning fund' in order to avoid being told to do the mopping up, since I had no money whatsoever I said cheerfully that I didn't mind mopping up; this was graciously received albeit with a flicker of disappointment and I never was asked to perform this duty nor were any other Europeans.
I was searched only once upon entering the prison, casually by an African trustee, I was never chained or handcuffed, I saw only two acts of very minor violence in the whole ten days (against the Russian by his neighbours – not me- and against the Burmese by one particular small bitchy guard.
The cell was spotlessly clean and well-ordered by the trustees who had their own sub-room next to the always clean toilets and the large water tank used for showering. The Africans shamelessly stood around this tank naked using bowls to shower with and chatting away, while the Arabs took buckets into the toilets for the sake of modesty, with the rest of us doing one or the other depending on how the mood took us.
Once a day there was great excitement when anyone who wanted to was taken off (some in chains – usually the Africans) for an hour or two to a holding cell downstairs where there were several telephones; I had no reason to use the telephone so used the opportunity to walk like a maniac round the then near empty cell.
Once a day too some fellow came in with a long metal bar and banged the bars of the windows – a few months back a couple of Africans had managed to saw through the bars somehow and make a spectacular escape.
We had a silent TV perched high on the wall, football matches being the primary focus of interest and good will.
There was wild cheering when the word came that I was to pack up and to be taken off to the airport, whereas there was a sarcastic murmur when the German went, so I took this as a compliment. The British Airways flight home was the most pleasant I have ever been on and the cabin crew who knew my position gave me three times as much food as anybody else. I really don't know whether being deported effects my ability to return to Thailand; I guess that since I now have a new passport and some time has elapsed I should be alright but I would be grateful if someone would put me right on this issue.
I am in contact via email with quite a few Iraqis, Afghans and Africans who have since been released – usually by the good offices of the Catholic Church who are seemingly the most active in this respect. As an experience to remember it wasn't too bad and gave me a good impression of the country and of its farang illegals.
This is a great insight into one aspect of life in Thailand where there is much myth, and precious little in the way of facts or first person accounts.