Monday, October 5, 2009

What Difference Does it Make?

Probably the most frequent observation about the libel suits my son and I filed against the mission is summed up in an anonymous post from another blog: "The letter [written by the mission] merely states an opinion. I have people say worse about me all of the time."


I don't doubt that people often say worse things about this anonymous poster than the mission said about my son and me. People can be very cruel in their speech. Some of the people saying such things may even be Christians; malicious gossip, after all, is a fault that is not restricted to ungodly, unbelieving and unregenerate circles. I'm even going to guess that some people, with some Christians among that number, say worse things about me than what was in that letter, too! But, the issue is not whether Christians do gossip, or ought to gossip, or whether other Christians ought to object to it. That is a totally separate issue and one which entails a great deal of hypocrisy. To all our shame.


Actually, the letter was not "mere" gossip. Neither did it merely state an opinion. It stated purported facts; it never qualified its statements at all. It was totally devoid of any "it seems to me" or "IMHO" hedges. Neither did it contain any reference to previous communications, such as "In answer to your questions about. . ." or "In compliance with your request for. . ." Opinion or fact, of course, is no more the issue than gossip.


I think the real issue lies in the implications of this anonymous person's observation: "So what? What difference does it make if the mission wrote a letter about you – true or false, opinion or fact – and sent it to the Royal Thai Government, even if they did it a year after your resignation? Who cares?"


That is exactly the question that plagued me! I did not know why the letter was written, what it was meant to accomplish or why the mission so staunchly defended it. Over a period of almost two years, they sent their house counsel to Thailand several times; they had him spend time meeting pastors in the States; they hired attorneys in Thailand; spent money having English arbitration proposals translated into Thai; and more. All to what end? I didn't know, but even someone as dense as I am could see that this was very, very important to them.


So, convinced that they cared, and cared deeply, about the issue, I felt that maybe I would be wise to care, too. These were honorable men; they would never do something like this without a very good reason. The mission leaders in America would never have defended the letter without a very good reason. And, they would never withhold those very good reasons from me without a very good reason. The letter was important enough to write, important enough to send to the Royal Thai Government, important enough to send me a copy, important enough to defend in court. . . and too important to explain to me! I confess: That worried me. And not a little, either.


I repeat: I did not know what difference the letter made; but, I was operating on the deduction that it did make a difference. I would have been very happy to learn that it made no difference at all. The only ones who knew what difference it made, however, felt that it was too important to explain, and certainly too important to retract.


I know, I know. That doesn't sound very spiritual. The obvious question for me is: "Why didn't you just trust the Lord?"


Well, inaction isn't necessarily the same thing as trusting the Lord. Often, inaction is a symptom of not trusting Him! On the other hand, I admit that I was fearful – afraid of what was going on, afraid of what was going to happen next, and why. I guess we can trust the Lord when we are scared, too, though I won't press the point.


I am not proud, but ashamed, to admit that I was so fearful that I sought relief in the Thai court from things that my Christian brothers were doing to me and my family. That is why it was important to me. Why was it important to the mission?


Friday, September 18, 2009

First Things First

In Thailand, no person is ever brought to court to answer charges against them until and unless a case has been established, based upon legal evidence, that would be sufficient to convict them if left unanswered.  In other words, people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

 

In practical terms, this means that you can't just accuse someone of libel and drag them into court.  First, there is a series of hearings where the accuser is forced to make his case.  If there is no case, the accuser pays court costs and is himself open to counter suit by the person he accused.  This is a good safeguard for the rights of the accused.  It's also a pretty good reason to avoid charging anyone with libel in the first place!

 

My son and I had filed our cases separately, so there were separate hearings for us.  During these preliminary hearings, the mission did not have to answer anything; only my son and I did.  We tried to establish the truth of our allegations that the mission had libeled us in the letter they sent to the Royal Thai Government; the mission's (new) attorney's job was to show that the complaint was groundless.  This is exactly as it ought to be; it is slow, it is difficult, it is stressful and it is fair to the accused.

 

Time constraints and schedule conflicts conspired to drag things out to an almost unbearable degree.  The only thing worse than anticipating being on the stand was being on the stand!  I am fairly conversant in Thai, but the mental strain of being under oath and having so much at stake made concentration difficult.  Questions were worded in such a way that, under the best of circumstances, they would have been hard to understand and answer.

 

At one point, for example, I was asked if one of the field chairmen had not resigned from the field as a result of conflicts with me.  This was news to me, so I said that wasn't true.  I started to explain in more detail and was interrupted by the judge:  "You'll have a chance to testify about that if there is a trial."  "If" there is a trial?

 

To say that I sweated through each and every session is to make it sound much easier than it really was.  The extra deodorant I slathered on before each session only ensured that my underarms were the only dry part of my body by the time I stepped down.

 

Eventually, the judge ruled that my son's case should go to trial.  We felt that this might have a good effect on negotiations, which were going on during this time.  But, the mission was still not willing to settle.  Perhaps they were waiting to see if my case would also pass muster.  When my case was also sent to trial, nothing changed.

 

Keep in mind that a judge's finding of enough evidence for a trial is not the same thing as a conviction.  It only means that there is a case that needs to be answered; the presumption of innocence means that the court assumes the case can, indeed, be answered.  It looked like the mission was determined to see this through to the bitter end.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Odds and Ends

A number of people have asked about the dates of the events related on this blog.  Math was never my strong point, so I have left it to the reader to cipher it out for themselves.  In the entry called A Good Plan Goes Awry, for instance, I mention that my affiliation with the missionary organization began in late 1978.  Twenty five years later, we parted company.  Giving the specific year would have required carrying more than one place, something that I do not do well.  Otherwise, it would have required remembering specific dates, something I do even less well.

 

I have now taken the time to do the required math and research.  Here are the dates:

 

August 1978   -  began working as missionaries with the particular organization

 

August 2003  -  ended our affiliation with the missionary organization

 

23 August 2004  - missionary organization wrote a letter to the Royal Thai Government that we considered to be libelous

 

1 June 2006  -  the dispute between us and the missionary organization was settled

 

NB:  Everything else happened somewhere during those dates!

 

A note on confidentiality:  I am not using the names of anyone besides myself on this blog.  This is by choice, not compulsion.  I have asked for a confidentiality agreement with the missionary organization, but they have declined to even answer me.  I do not believe they feel any obligation to maintain confidentiality regarding their dispute with me.  But, that is not the subject of this blog.

 

Finally, it seems that it is difficult to leave comments on this blog.  Grrr.  If you would like to comment, but find the site too user beligerant, please feel free to email me (libel.law.in.thailand@gmail.com) and I will post your comment or answer your query in the blog itself.  I envision a FAQs entry one of these days, so your question may turn up there as well.  Please be assured that I will not reveal your identity without your permission.

 

More soon, I promise.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Negotiations Fail

Although we were opposed to binding arbitration, we were not opposed to negotiation, mediation or some kind of talks, regardless of the label. In fact, we had only resorted to a law suit because there was no other way to entice the mission to talk to us.


The mission's usual way of dealing with people who had grievances was to pronounce them "unreasonable" and ignore them. So far, that is what had happened. Now that criminal libel charges had been filed, we guessed that, at some stage, the mission would talk to us before it went to trial. We were right. Their local attorney and four missionaries came to our attorney's office to talk. My son and our attorney were there.


In order to emphasize the seriousness with which he viewed the situation, my son asked for a large settlement in order to drop charges. He didn't expect to get as much as he asked for, but he didn't expect to get the reaction from the mission's attorney that he got, either: "This isn't America. People that ask for large settlements in Thailand get shot."


The other missionaries, all but one of whom spoke Thai, sat in stony silence. Not one of them raised his voice in protest. My son did, of course, and did so in no uncertain terms. The first attempt at negotiation ended without any progress being made.


The mission dismissed their attorney's comments as "an explanation of cultural differences." Presumably they found nothing objectionable about it, but they got a new attorney anyway, "for your [our] sake."


I had offered to go to America to meet with mediators, but the mission wasn't interested in that unless we first dropped all charges. Otherwise, their house counsel informed me, I would just walk out of any meeting that didn't go my way. Instead, he came to Thailand.


Again, we met at our attorney's office to try to work things out. I suggested that we take a couple of statements from their letter and compare it to other letters they had written and see how they lined up. They declined to do so, pleading a lack of time. They gathered up their their papers and walked out, ending the meeting.


Provincial courts in Thailand have traditionally had a role as mediators as much as adjudicators. In recent years, this role has actually become official. Specially trained people preside over fairly informal sessions in an attempt to solve these sorts of nonviolent cases before they go to trial. There has been a high success rate and we were pleased to participate when one of the judges suggested we try this before taking it any further through the system.


The court mediator suggested that we first agree to a financial settlement, then work on any other areas after that. Several sessions were held and it seemed to us that progress was being made. We were getting very close to an agreement when the mission told us that the Field Chairman was no longer authorized to negotiate; only the house counsel for the mission could do that. He wasn't doing it, so that ended that.


The case continued to grind its way towards trial.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Apples and Oranges

I want to direct your attention again to the large American church that resorted to threatening a law suit against a person when they found no other effective way to deal with him.  I admit to being impressed not only with their patience, but also with the effectiveness of their strategy.  It wouldn't make a very good initial approach of course.  But as a last resort, it seemed justifiable.  It was also successful for them, and that ought to count for something.

 

I saw many parallels between their situation with their former Sunday School teacher, and the one I faced regarding my former employer.  I compared my apples with their apples, and they were basically the same.

 

Consider:

 

The Sunday School teacher was defaming the Church and its leaders.

The mission was defaming me and my son.

 

The Church did everything they could to solve the problem.

My son and I did everything we could to solve the problem.

 

The Sunday School teacher would not listen to the Church.

The mission would not even talk to my son and me.

 

The Church, as a last resort, communicated a threat to pursue legal action.

My son and I, as a last resort, threatened legal action.

 

So, I saw myself in much the same position as the Church, and the mission as being very much like the Sunday School teacher.  I expected similar outcomes.

  

Remember, once the Church threatened legal action, their problems were solved.  Somewhat overly optimistically, I envisioned the same in our case.  However, I was so focused in on the apples, that I missed the oranges.  That is, I overlooked any differences between the two situations.  There were many, all of them significant.

 

The most obvious difference was that I was an individual – more analogous to the Sunday School teacher than the Church – and the mission was a "reputable Christian organization" – more analogous to the Church than to the Sunday School teacher.

 

The Church embodied the reputation of all its members; it would have a great deal of credibility in any venue.  The mission, also, had built its reputation on the lives and work of its many missionaries; it would have much more credibility than I.

 

Very few individuals have a reputation that can compare to "reputable Christian organizations" doing the Lord's work.  I don't think the Sunday School teacher did; I know I don't.  In this respect, I didn't even have an orange!

 

The Sunday School teacher had limited resources to fight a libel suit.  The Church, while not wealthy, certainly had more money than he did.  Like the Church, the mission had way more resources at its disposal than my son and I did.  In fact, we probably had less than the Sunday School teacher.  When engaging in legal solutions, it is always wise to count the cost, since the side that can hold out the longest often wins.  I missed seeing this very important orange.

 

The Sunday School teacher was perhaps not the smartest man in the world, but he was smart enough to know when he was wrestling out of his class.  The mission sized up me and my son and saw lightweights trying to compete in a heavyweight contest.  I don't think they were impressed.  I admit, their oranges were more orange than mine!  I just hadn't noticed it.  They had, though.

 

When comparing apples with apples, things looked pretty promising.  Once the oranges were included, it's easy to understand why the mission was in no hurry to settle.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Storm Begins

The mission organization did not respond to us until criminal libel charges were filed.  Their response was two-fold:  First, they got the word out that we were taking our brother (the mission organization) to court in violation of the prohibitions of I Corinthians 6.  Second, they asked us to engage in binding arbitration with them, in America – even though the offense occurred in Thailand, against Thai law and in the Thai language.

 

We would have been very happy to have the intervention and help of other concerned Christians.  However, we were more than a little reluctant to drop charges, since without them the mission had not talked to us.  Why give up the only leverage you have?

 

But, what really convinced me to reject binding arbitration was the section of the agreement that said the terms of arbitration were enforceable in a court of law in the State of Florida.  If either party did not fulfill their obligations under the terms of the agreement, court action could be taken and the party that "prevailed" would be granted damages.  Someone was going to have to "prevail"?  In court?

 

So, we would be agreeing not to go to court now, supposedly because we felt it violated the Scriptures.  At the same time, in the same agreement, we would be agreeing to do so later if we weren't satisfied with how the other party performed!  Well, we already weren't satisfied!  Why not cut to the chase and go ahead and pursue these charges in Thailand, where it would be convenient and less expensive?  The offense had happened in Thailand, in the Thai language.  Thai court would make more sense than an American court.  If other parties wanted to mediate an agreement in the meantime, that would be perfectly acceptable to us.

 

The mission organization was no longer interested in any form of mediation, arbitration or intervention.  The only thing that they wanted to talk about now was binding arbitration.  Or, more specifically, our dropping charges.  This we would not agree to do, so an impasse was quickly reached.

 

The passage in I Corinthians 6:1-8 seems pretty clear:  Believers are not supposed to take disputes "to law" before the unbelievers.  Why didn't we think this passage applied to us in our situation?

 

I would like to quote from an unfriendly witness, an anonymous person who has taken exception to our law suit in no uncertain terms.  He has called us bitter players, dirty players, "a piece of work" and a few other names.  He has made it clear that he is not on our side.  However, read his thoughts on the applicability of this passage to our case:

"I'm not one that believes this passage even applies to the situation at all. I think the probability is that the passage is instructing members of the same church that with respect to disputes between members of the same church, those disputes should be determined by that church. I don't think there is anyway two missionaries on the field who are not part of the same church could ever settle a dispute according to that passage because they would never be able to agree on which believers should settle the dispute (they are not part of the same church…and [the mission] is not a church)."

(http://ntmabuse.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/allen-long/#comment-542)

 

More could be said, but that is a pretty succinct summary of how we interpreted this passage, and how we applied it to our situation.  This does not mean that we would not engage in any kind of talks with the other side in this dispute.  In fact, that is what we most desperately wanted.  But, our experience to date had shown us that the mission would not negotiate – would not even talk – when they held an advantage.  Now that they did not have the advantage, they were only interested in regaining it, not resolving the original offense.

 

It looked to be a long, drawn out affair.  Little did we know how long, how drawn out!

 


Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Good Plan Goes Awry

My life in Thailand began in late 1978 as a missionary with a reputable mission organization. This organization had such a sterling reputation that most people did not even hold it against them that they let a guy like me in!


After twenty five years of working together, our family and the mission parted ways. There were no legal, moral or doctrinal issues involved, but it still turned out to be a pretty unhappy parting. Not that both sides weren't happy to part, but there were a number of bumps along the path of separation.


My son and his family, who had joined us in the work here about a year before we resigned, were asked to stay with the mission organization, but work in a different place. Instead, they also resigned and stayed here among the Yellow Leaf people.


A year after our departure, the mission wrote a letter to a quasi-governmental organization and sent a copy of it to the Religious Affairs Department of the Royal Thai Government. In this letter, they said things about me and my son that were uncomplimentary, untrue and could be proven so. They ended their letter with the words, "So we are making this report in order that these things might be made known everywhere." For good measure, they sent a copy of the letter to me. Ouch.


I immediately wrote a letter to the mission and asked them to please retract their letter. Failing that, I asked them to explain themselves. Finally, I told them that saying untrue things like this to third parties would damage my reputation, make it difficult for me to make a living and/ or cause me to be held in reproach by other people. That is the legal definition of libel in Thai law.


They did not respond.


Unsure of what was going on and why, concerned lest our standing with the Royal Thai Government be jeopardized, and not knowing what was coming down the pipe next, my son and I sought legal counsel.


"Nothing easier," said the Thai attorney. "We write them a letter and tell them to retract their letter. We'll say that failure to do so will result in our pressing criminal libel charges against them. It works every time; no one wants to end up in court."


It turned out that he was overly optimistic. I'm not sure the mission wanted to end up in court, but they made no serious efforts to resolve the issue. The time to file charges was about to expire and no progress had been made. Reluctantly, we filed criminal libel charges and waited for the storm to hit.


In Thailand, libel (defamation) is both a criminal and a civil offense. However, because it is not a violent crime, it is possible to withdraw the criminal charges at any point before a trial, provided both parties agree to do so. Criminal charges are normally filed before civil charges, since the standard of proof is higher and no damages are awarded to the plaintiff. Of course, once a criminal conviction has been won, it is pretty much a matter of formality to win a civil suit and recover damages. It is even possible to win a civil suit after a criminal suit has failed, though this isn't attempted very often.


Filing criminal charges, believe it or not, is seen as a show of good will on the part of the plaintiff. They have voluntarily subjected themselves to a higher standard of proof without any claim for losses. To file a civil suit first, along with claims for damages, while perfectly legal, would look mean-spirited and vindictive.


Conviction for criminal libel in Thailand entails a fine and a jail sentence. In practice, the jail sentence is rarely served, and never for a first offense. It is always suspended for the first conviction, and often for subsequent ones, depending on circumstances. The fine is variable, again depending on the seriousness of the offense.


So, while filing criminal libel charges sounds drastic, it is the preferred way to do things in Thailand, when negotiations have broken down. Often, of course, the very act of filing these charges will lead to renewed negotiations.


In our case, it led to the storm.


Watch this space. . .