American Could Get Two Years in Thai Prison for TripAdvisor Review

A cleaner sweeps a field in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Photo: Mladen Antonov (Getty Images)

Anyone planning a trip to Thailand should be advised to keep their opinions to themselves. Wesley Barnes, an American living in Thailand, found out this month that the Thai defamation laws can be extreme after a negative online review of a resort landed him behind bars.

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According to the New York Times, Barnes stayed at the Sea View Koh Chang resort in June and got into a dispute with the management over a $15 corkage fee for a bottle of gin that he’d brought along for his stay. After an argument, the resort waived the fee, but Barnes claims he later witnessed the same supervisor he’d quarreled with treating an employee disrespectfully. That was when he made up his mind to leave several negative reviews on TripAdvisor and Google.

At least one of his reviews was removed from TripAdvisor for violating the travel review site’s guidelines. The post reportedly accused the resort of practicing “modern day slavery,” according to CBS News. The Times reports that a since-deleted review also warned visitors to “Avoid this place as if it was the Coronavirus!” Another Barnes review from July still lives on the hotel’s TripAdvisor page that accuses the manager of being “extremely rude and impolite to guests.”

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The resort claims it tried to contact Barnes to resolve the issue of the reviews that it felt were out of line. A spokesperson for the hotel told the Times that “the guest refused to respond to our attempts at communication and instead continued to persistently post negative and untrue reviews of our business.” With no other available recourse, the resort filed charges under Thailand’s strict defamation law. On the weekend of Sept. 12, Barnes found himself in a jail cell on the island of Koh Chang waiting for Monday to roll around so he could post bail. If convicted, the American expat could be facing a maximum sentence of up to two years in prison.

The story of Barnes’s feud with the resort first came to the attention of the outside world when the travel blogger Richard Barrow posted about it on Twitter over the weekend. Several outlets have since confirmed the account, and the Times reports that the resort immediately found itself getting review-bombed by users angered by the controversy. Reviews posted on Google in the last 24 hours accuse the resort of being “absolutely disgusting” and directly warn travelers that criticism of the destination could result in jail time.

The good news for Barnes is that the Streisand Effect is a powerful force and the resort does seem open to working out a compromise. “We simply want to ensure that these untrue reviews are stopped, and we had no way of negotiating the matter with the guest until after our filing the complaint with authorities,” a spokesperson told the Times.

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Last year, Suchanee Cloitre, a television journalist, was convicted of libel in Thailand after she reported on migrant worker’s accusations of inhumane working conditions at the Thammakaset chicken farm. She was ultimately sentenced to the maximum of two years in prison. Speaking with Reuters, the reporter said that she was “shocked” and “did not think the sentence would be so harsh.”

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DISCUSSION

I find it amazing how taken for granted our civil liberties in America are, and how Americans abroad just assume that our norms and customs about freedom of expression and by and large rational state responses to de minimis violations will take place in lands that barely (Thailand) or never (North Korea) acknowledge these as fundamental human rights. Having said that, the Attorney General of Kentucky had protestors who were lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights arrested for felonies when they were protesting outside of his house... not sure if progress is being made in those countries but it certainly seems like we’re moving closer to them.