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Ehrlich: Half Truths Led To Thai Bird Flu Deaths

Half Truths Led To Thai Bird Flu Deaths - Officials

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Bird flu killed people because Thais told "half-truths" similar to the way a black American con-artist deceived wealthy white society by pretending to be the son of Oscar-winning Sidney Poitier, according to the government's top spokesman.

"There was no cover-up," Jakrapob Penkair, the government's spokesman, told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Tuesday (Feb. 3) during a recorded panel discussion about the spread of the disease.

"There was merely severe inefficiency within the government," he said.

"Sometimes you don't even know what the hell you are doing."

At least four Thais died of bird flu and nine others perished from suspected bird flu, but more cases may have gone unrecorded.

Vietnam counted at least 10 people dead from the virus which killed millions of chickens in both countries and also resulted in bird culling in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Critics claim Thai officials knew bird flu was killing chickens in Thailand during November, but allegedly concealed it amid hopes that the poultry industry would not lose money.

The government repeatedly denied those charges.

Bangkok announced confirmation of bird flu only when the first Thai person died on January 23.

"What we found is that we learned of this [virus] too means that it is too late to save lives," Mr. Jakrapob said.

Asked if any officials would be fired for failing to detect or reveal the spread of the disease, Mr. Jakrapob replied:

"I would like to refer to a movie that I like very much. A few years ago, there was a movie, a very good movie, called Six Degrees of Separation.

"It was about a black man who fell into the world of elite white people in the United States, and that man could be there only because he pretended to be Sidney Poitier's son.

"So being black, but being Sidney Poitier's son, did the job for him that put him among all these elites in the New England side of the United States of America.

"So there are degrees of what you feel about things and that's what happened about this crisis called, 'the bird flu in Thailand'. There are many degrees of how you tell truth.

"There are degrees of how you would go, therefore, in judging whom you would tell that truth to.

"It is a passive society. People judge character before they speak the first word, [and] what kind of a word you would put in your sentence to speak to a person.

"It's a mind-reading country. That is why we don't speak straight-forwardly, because we read minds and we speak what the other side wants to hear.

"It is not about bird flu only, it is the whole culture."

Six Degrees of Separation portrayed the real life of David Hampton, a black fraudster, who died in June 2003. He gained notoriety for ripping people off in 1983 by pretending to be the son of Mr. Poitier, a well-known black actor.

Mr. Hampton lied his way into the homes of New York's wealthiest people, including Melanie Griffith, Calvin Klein and the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and former Newsweek editor, Osborn Elliot, who wised up after finding his house guest in bed with another man.

To gain entrance, smooth-talking Mr. Hampton convinced his dupes he was a Harvard University student, freshly mugged in Manhattan and, suddenly penniless, desperately in need of shelter for the night.

Victims believed his spiel and also gave him cash and clothes.

Mr. Hampton, who was repeatedly arrested and served 21 months in prison for attempted burglary, later said: "I never beat anyone over the head. I was a perfect gentleman."

In response to complaints over Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's personal handling of the bird flu crisis, Mr. Jakrapob said, "I don't believe it is in the nature of anyone to try to lie about something that would come back on his face later on. He's more clever than that.

"It's not about one day lying, just to wake up with a nightmare the next day," the government spokesman said.

"It is too [much of an] over-simplification to say that, 'Well you lied...just to survive.'

"It's about many degrees. Like guess-work about why. About [how in] a society you would be willing to tell half-truths, because that would be what most people want to hear.

"And sometimes you would speak the whole truth and risk being alienated by most people around you because you're too direct.

"Everything that I mentioned here has been a part of the so-called 'screw-up' -- I use that word -- but actually it created the appearance of a cover-up and it affects the credibility."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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