Published on September 16, 2007
The man I glimpse in London seems innocuous enough. Used to hiding in crowds, he now travels to work against the morning commuter rush to Dorking, a small town in Surrey. His job is filling tins of health supplements, and his boss says he's a quick worker.
He should be. David McMillan is a notorious drug trafficker. He still faces the death sentence in Thailand for heroin smuggling.
He's better known as "the only Westerner to have escaped the notorious Bangkok Hilton'', as Lad Yao Prison is unaffectionately known. He did so in the middle of his trial in August 1996.
In the decade before that event McMillan was at the centre of a daring plan to escape by helicopter from Australia's Pentridge Prison, a stunt for which he was willing to pay half a million Australian dollars.
His story, "Escape", has been selling well at Asia Books and in airport lounges throughout Southeast Asia. It has not been released in Australia, where publishers fear the cash might be seized as the proceeds of crime.
Britain will not allow extradition to a country that still uses the death penalty, so at 51, McMillan remains safe from Australian clutches, and Thailand, busy with a higher-profile fugitive, seems to have all but forgotten him.
In the book McMillan gives some details on how he operated during the 30 years he was moving heroin from the Golden Triangle and from Pakistan and Afghanistan's Golden Crescent to markets in Australia and Europe - and about his amazing Bangkok jailbreak.
But the book is not a testimony to inhumanity and depravity in Thai prisons, like so many others on the shelves. In fact, it's almost the opposite. McMillan played the system and won. He was an Oriental Hotel regular; others who write of Thai jail horrors seem to be more Nana Plaza types.
At the peak of his career in the '80s McMillan was a multimillionaire with homes and offices in London, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Brussels, as well as Bangkok.
But as he came to the attention of British, American and Australian authorities, he never took a direct route anywhere. He lived a life of switching cabs, entering and exiting department stores, and carrying a seemingly endless variety of mobile phones and passports.
After finishing school McMillan did actually try to get a regular job, but then started his own company. It was called Kilo Productions.
He was busted for his first kilo of cannabis at London's Heathrow Airport in 1979 and served six months in jail.
"I started dealing among friends, but of course, with the profits being so good it went much bigger," he says. "I am not going to pretend what I am not ... It is inevitable that ... I will be labelled a 'Merchant of Death' or something like that. I make no justification for my actions.
"Actually the reason I wrote the book was not to make money. It's because so many people asked me during dinner conversations how I escaped from the Bangkok Hilton. I just thought I'd put it down on paper."
McMillan writes that he wanted "a life of adventure. The drug world provided that opportunity ... Travelling to exotic locations, devising ways to cheat customs, and being handsomely rewarded seemed ideal."
And he admits to paying a high price: His wife was arrested along with him in Australia and died in a fire at the remand centre a few weeks later.
"Was it worth it? The answer is that such a life is not quite worth the suffering. All of us have less than 50 years of quality, and so many were spent imprisoned or locked in a losing battle with police agencies of different kinds. Most of my friends from those days are dead and coped less well, I think ...
"I've got no time for most of the people who write these whining books about Thai prisons," McMillan says. "I understand the Thais and the way they work. I do not see what they do as corruption, in the same way that other prisoners did."
Of course, McMillan was not just a lowly courier, as are most foreigners at the Bangkok Hilton. His banker on the outside knew exactly how to look after him.
While the foreign prisoners in the prison's Building 2 were waging a battle against vermin, worms, tuberculosis and Aids on a diet of soup with an occasional fish-head, McMillan in Building 6 had his own chef and servants and dined on goods bought in the local supermarket.
"I had access to television and radio and my own office, and instead of 70 to a cell we just had five. This all cost about Bt10,000 a week each.
"I did not see it as bribery. The guards saw themselves as helping and I was just showing my gratitude. We wanted it to be a bit more like a hotel and we were willing to pay."
One of his privileged fellow prisoners was former police general Chalor Kerdthes, jailed for murder in the Saudi gems fiasco. McMillan refers to him in the book by a pseudonym, but is happy to talk on the record.
"General Chalor had an even more comfortable time than I did. He was like royalty. He had taken over the prison's [Intensive Care Unit] as his own suite."
Chalor refused to help McMillan, and that's when the Briton decided it was time to go.
"I knew I was going to get the death penalty," he says, and a move to Bangkwang Prison was imminent.
Using hacksaws smuggled into prison in a box of pornography that served to distract the guards, McMillan got from his third-floor cell to the jail's outer wall.
He built a pair of ladders from bamboo poles and the picture frames that the prisoners make to earn some income, and cleared two smaller walls and the outer electrified wall. He says he felt only two surges of electricity on his rubber soles before dropping to the ground below.
Then, using an umbrella to shield him from the guards in the towers, he followed the path around the prison. Other guards were just arriving for the morning shift as he strolled out to the main road and hailed a taxi.
By 10am, McMillan had picked up a passport that was waiting for him in Chinatown and was boarding a flight for Singapore.
Having escaped the death penalty - or at least the minimum 100-year sentence - he might have considered quitting the drug trade. He didn't.
He fled to Pakistan, and there was arrested on another charge of heroin trafficking. At Karachi Central Prison, McMillan befriended the husband of deposed president Benazir Bhutto, and a bank executive jailed for fraud.
"Both men had been allowed to build their own houses in the prison complex, complete with gardens. I dined at their typically British Sunday lunches, at which all sorts of influential people from the outside, including leaders of industry and police, attended."
McMillan was ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence and by the late 1990s was back in England, still unwilling to quit.
He was last arrested in 2003 at Heathrow for bringing in half a kilo of heroin. He got four years and is currently out on parole.
McMillan can only console himself with a statement made last week by Australian lawyer Philip Dunn: "McMillan was very charming, a dashing buccaneer, very different from your average criminal."
Special to The Nation
Andrew Drummond is a Bangkok-based British journalist and correspondent for the Times of London.