What started as an ordinary case of a disgruntled customer asked to pay 500 baht (around $15) for a corkage fee in a seaside resort, ended in a full-fledged and worldwide PR disaster.
Things have gotten so out of hand that TripAdvisor had to close the comments on the page and publish the following message on the Sea View Resort & Spa Koh Chang page.
“Due to a recent event that has attracted media attention and has caused an influx of review submissions that do not describe a first-hand experience, we have temporarily suspended publishing new reviews for this listing. If you’ve had a firsthand experience at this property, please check back soon – we’re looking forward to receiving your review!”
It’s worth noting that before making headlines for sending Mr. Barnes into detention, the Sea View Resort & Spa Koh Chang had 1920 customer reviews, most of them showing positive feedback with an average of 4.5 stars.
The Sea View Resort, a 156-room resort on Kai Bae Beach was founded in 1989 and is ranked 10th out of 85 properties on Koh Chang that have been reviewed on TripAdvisor. It has received 1,922 reviews, with 1,090 of them rating the resort excellent, 580 very good, 170 average, 48 poor and 32 terrible, according to the Bangkok Post.
Although the Sea View Resort told AFP on Saturday that legal action was only taken because Mr Barnes had written multiple bad reviews on different sites over the past few weeks, it seems that the situation was probably too much to handle for the hotel manager.
“Unfriendly staff, no one ever smiles. They act like they don’t want anyone there. The restaurant manager was the worst. He is from the Czech Republic. He is extremely rude and impolite to guests. Find another place. There are plenty with nicer staff that are happy you are staying with them,” the review, which is still available on Tripadvisor, said.
So he decided to make a bold move and to involve the Thai police: as a result the unfortunate Wesley Barnes, was arrested and spent a weekend in jail.
If convicted of criminal defamation, Mr. Barnes faces up to two years in prison, under the country’s harsh defamation law.
Thanks to those two useful idiots (M.Barnes was a tad out of line describing the hotel as a “modern day slavery” example in one of his first comments which has been deleted by TripAdvisor), the world is now aware that Thailand is not only one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, but also a country where freedom of speech is severely curtailed.
Human rights advocates have long pointed out Thailand’s defamation law, which leads to criminal charges and is regularly abused to silence critics.
Last year, a court in the province of Lopburi sentenced Suchanee Cloitre, to two years in prison for being guilty of defamation after she posted a tweet in 2016 criticizing the labor practices of Thammakaset Co., the operator of a poultry farm.
Ironically, she used almost the same wording as Mr Barnes, “slave labour,” to describe the situation of workers who had not been paid and abused for months.
But in her case, she was right : a complaint filed in 2016 with the National Human Rights Commission alleged that migrant workers at the farm were forced to work up to 20 hours a day, were paid less than the minimum wage and had their identity documents confiscated.
Eventually Thammakaset was ordered to pay the workers 1.7 million baht in compensation and damages. Although found guilty, Thammakaset has filed 39 criminal and civil complaints against 22 individuals, including migrant workers, journalists, human rights defenders and one media company.
At the end of the day, this is a lot of bad publicity for Thailand, a country where tourism accounts for approximately 20% of the economy.
However, the Sea View Resort vs. Barnes case may also be useful from a broader perspective: it reflects the need for Thailand to review its criminal libel laws, which have been abused and used to silence and deter government critics, activists and journalists for too many years.