Broken windows, threats, and detention: Is whistleblowing worth it?

Wyn Ellis
Wyn Ellis

Several years ago, a UK academic living in Thailand for decades decided to expose the fact that a Thai official had plagiarized his PhD thesis. And he’s paid the price. Last year, Wyn Ellis was held in a Thai airport for five days, as officials claimed he was a “danger to Thai society.” As some new developments have emerged in the case, Ellis ponders the after-effects of his actions.

This month marks the 4th anniversary of the very public revocation by Chulalongkorn University of the PhD degree of Supachai Lorlowhakarn, the former director of Thailand’s National Innovation Agency (NIA), for ethical violations, and plagiarism of his thesis.

For me, as the original whistleblower who first alerted authorities to the problems with Lorlowhakarn’s PhD thesis, the knowledge that justice was eventually served is far from cause for celebration. Indeed, the Byzantine twists and turns, the lawsuits, surveillance, physical attacks, and even death threats over the past nine years have — without a doubt — taken their toll on my family and I, and should serve as a salutary lesson to anyone harboring naive notions of civic duty. This was certainly my own motivation back then, as an advocate and passionate supporter of Thai science and innovation.

Here are some of the threats I encountered: Listening to a surreal, disembodied voice on the line, yet again informing me of my own address, and how he intends to abduct and kill my family and myself; the shock of a large rock smashed into my car window on two occasions as my wife and I drove to court hearings. I experienced repeated ‘investigations’ of my tax and immigration status; attempts to have me kicked out of my job, my PhD studies, even my own adopted country. And of course, the nine lawsuits and police reports, which could have landed me in a Thai prison for years. Looking back at such systemic and long-term intimidation, it seems incredible that anyone would continue to pursue such a cause, given the very real prospect of rocks being replaced by bullets. The pressure cost Erika Fry, the Bangkok Post investigative journalist who famously broke the story in 2009, her job; facing criminal defamation charges while those against her employer were dropped, she jumped bail and returned home to the USA.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, My wife, who is Thai, and was formerly a lecturer and researcher in agriculture until her retirement, is possibly even more passionate than I in her advocacy for academic integrity and ethics in Thai science and education. Without her constant support and strength, we would never have accomplished the feat of prevailing in nine legal cases against such a well-connected and resourceful adversary, with everything to lose.

Corruption requires complicity, whether from peers, superiors or subordinates. However, something in this case does not fit. The scale and coordination of the harassment over the years can surely not be justified by a simple case of plagiarism; the obsession with face — both personal and institutional — guaranteed a united front against a transparent investigation by any of the institutions with a duty of care. The obvious exception to this is the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), whose importance as Thailand’s last bastion for truly independent investigation cannot be underestimated.

Most worryingly of course, has been the active and long-running harassment – of which my recent blacklisting and detention at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport last September is only the latest example, though perhaps one of the most contemptible. Having lived harmoniously for over 30 years in my adopted country, the very real prospect of deportation as ‘persona non grata’ brought my whole life crashing down around me. I was to be deported as a result of my blacklisting at the behest of a letter from Lorlowhakarn to the Immigration Chief, alleging I was a ‘danger to national security’.

I was held in a windowless detention room with lights on 24 hours a day, with up to 30 other unfortunates. It was an unnerving experience to have guards bursting in at any hour to summon some poor inmate from his slumber and usher him off for summary deportation.

Fortunately I was able to use my phone and laptop, and resolving not to ‘go quietly’ to an uncertain fate, turned to Facebook, and called everyone I knew as the seriousness of my predicament began to take hold. I was completely unprepared for the scale of the response. Within two days, over the weekend, the story made global news, and was covered by The Guardian, BBC, Reuters as well as Retraction Watch (among others). Mark Kent, the British Ambassador, called personally, and the Embassy played a large part in facilitating my ultimate release from detention on the night of Monday September 7th, 2015.

My wife Arada is of course the real hero of this tale; she fought untiringly to face down a very entrenched bureaucracy, and finally harangued the Immigration Department into submission by sheer force of logic, supported by a heap of court verdicts exonerating me from any of the wrongdoing alleged by Lorlowhakarn.

Though the Immigration Department staff treated me as best they could (they even called me ‘Professor’), to this day I am constantly reminded of the fragility of our daily life, and truly, deeply hate making that long walk through the airport.

In the aftermath of my detention, I was overwhelmed by the many messages of support I received from friends and well-wishers from Thailand and overseas, who shared their outrage at such mendacity.  However, I received no word of apology from the current NIA Director, Dr Pun-arj Chairatana, for the damage inflicted by his organization, and have therefore filed a police complaint against Lorlowhakarn and NIA itself.

NIA’s continuing obduracy in refusing to recognize my authorship of a UN study and its continuing online distribution of its own republished and expunged version of the report has finally obliged me to file suit at Thailand’s Intellectual Property and International Trade Court. The first hearing will be on 25 July. But in Thailand it never really ends: One of the defendants – a retired senior civil servant- has already counter-sued, demanding US$ 50,000 in damages for defamation.

Lorlowhakarn’s legal issues have continued, as well – recently, the NACC recommended Lorlowhakarn’s criminal indictment. These offences carry custodial sentences ranging from 1 year to life imprisonment. The ruling relates to Lorlowhakarn’s use of the State budget for unauthorized publication and sale of the academic works of others, of conflict of interest in hiring a third party to conduct field research that ended up in his own thesis, and of wrongful registration of copyright.

In the midst of all this, lessons are still not being learned at an academic level, despite the introduction of anti-plagiarism software in most Thai universities following the scandal. The editor of the Thai Journal of Agricultural Science has yet to comply with my requests to officially retract a paper co-authored by Lorlowhakarn and his academic supervisors at Chulalongkorn University, and drawn from his cancelled thesis, despite the resignation of several members of the TJAS Editorial Board and the journal’s relegation by Scopus to Group 3 over its handling of the matter.

Thai science deserves better. And yes, I am writing a book.

Wyn Ellis is a Bangkok-based consultant in agriculture and the environment. He was selected as one of two recipients of an Anti-Corruption Award presented by the Prime Minister of Thailand, Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha during Thailand’s International Anti-Corruption Day on December 9, 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Broken windows, threats, and detention: Is whistleblowing worth it?”

  1. Over the years, I have heard/read about the mistreatment of whistleblowers (this case of graduate students comes to mind:, but Wyn Ellis’ account is particularly exceptional. I sincerely hope that full justice will prevail.

    This case illustrates the great difficulties that would need to be overcome if a system for combating research misconduct across borders is ever developed.

  2. More reason that jail sentences, fines, Grant repayment and other disincentives for science fraud must become the norm.

    Let the penalty fit the crime – grad student plagiarizes dissertation take away the PhD.

    Scientist fabricates data that lands big grants that pay their executive salaries – jail time.

    Let the threats that the scientific thugs make against the whistleblowers become a crime too or part of the court or judge’s decision for penalty.

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