“There was no CIA or any secret camp here,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ratkrik Daengthaisong in the coffee shop of Ramasun Station, nine kilometres south of the city of Udon Thani in northeast Thailand. “The media made up that story,” he added, battling the skin-crisping summer heat by slurping an iced latte. Was he protesting too much? It was hard to tell. But one thing’s for sure – the rumours around Ramasun won’t hurt the fortunes of the country’s newest, and unlikeliest, tourist attraction.
“Thailand denied the existence of any secret prisons on its turf, but leaked documents suggested otherwise”
Ramasun Station, founded in 1964 by the US army, has always had a wisp of mystery about it. During the Vietnam War it was a spy base used to monitor the movements of enemy troops plus whispers about coups in nearby Laos and Cambodia.
“We monitored everyone: friend, foe, and people who were neither,” a US veteran based at Ramasun between 1969 and 1971, who has written about the place under the pen name MH Burton, told me over the phone. “The highest priority [interceptions] were called ‘critics’, or ‘The one that wakes the President up’. The overthrow of a government, a major battle, the assassination of a head of state…”
For this work Burton and his colleagues used enormous, missile-like antennae protruding from the ground in a vast egg-shaped formation. When their shifts ended they sparked spliffs and headed into Udon Thani, which according to Burton was a “city of whorehouses, loud bars and Thai bands playing unintelligible covers of American rock’n’roll.”
Almost 30 years after the base was supposedly abandoned in 1976 following the end of the war, rumours that something dark was still taking place at Ramasun, officially named the 7th Radio Research Field Station, geared up. Around 2003 they suggested that the place was a secret CIA jail where terrorists were interrogated in the wake of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 World Trade Centre attack in New York.
In 2014 Thailand denied the existence of any secret prisons on its turf, but leaked documents suggested otherwise. Current CIA director Gina Haspel was thought to have overseen a “black prison” somewhere in Thailand from 2002, just before Ramasun rumours swirled around terrorist Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali. A member of the Jemaah Islamiyah group thought to be behind the 2002 Bali bombings, Hambali was supposed to have been probed in Ramasun before being shipped to Guantanamo Bay.
None of this background instantly suggests that Ramasun would make for a good tourist attraction. Thailand after all is a place most people come to down booze by the bucket load (quite literally), or go full Leonardo DiCaprio on remote islands – not to explore the bleak history of CIA black sites. But on September 1st, it fully opened to tourists for the first time, and I was first through the gates.
The chance of stumbling across dusty waterboarding equipment seemed low. Still, with the Ramasun site closed to the public until 2016, when a few selected visitors were allowed inside, the base’s continued isolation allowed the CIA rumours to fester in minds and Facebook groups. Lt Col Daengthaisong hoped that the full public opening would finally kill these rumours.
“Cross-dressing dancers moved to rickety rock songs from a live band. It wasn’t Glastonbury, but it was hardly torture”
“This kind of news can damage the image of the country,” he said. He seemed less decisive when I asked if there was a CIA jail anywhere else around Udon Thani. Further rumours suggested that if not at Ramasun, an interrogation site may be located at one of the area’s army bases not open to the public. “I’m not sure,” he mumbled. “I have no idea…”
Spread over a few square miles, with park-tidy lawns and blocky barracks dotted around, the atmosphere at Ramasun Station was more like that of a provincial university campus than somewhere terrorists got hanged upside down and electrocuted. One of the Lt Col’s lackeys drove us to the antennae field where the huge grey pillars still stood. A “secret” underground tunnel leading from them, the existence of which helped fuel the CIA rumours, was for communications lines, my host explained.
When a troupe of cross-dressing dancers arrived I became even more confident that the Lt Col was telling the truth. He’d laid on a bizarre opening party among the base’s derelict corridors, featuring rifle-toting soldiers demonstrating attack formations. As their guns clicked and pivoted in unison, grinning male dancers wearing dresses, red lipstick and coffee stain moustaches danced to rickety rock songs from a live band. It wasn’t Glastonbury, but it was hardly torture.
“There were CIA facilities in Thailand, but I didn’t think they could have been in Ramasun because not only was it shut down, it was [covered] in jungle by the time that stuff would have been happening [around 2003],” said Burton. “I know they had torture and interrogation facilities; I don’t know where they were. The only thing I heard was that they were on some Thai military base.”
I peeled away from the party. Next to a dusty road chickens quietly clucked beneath upturned wicker baskets and young Thai soldiers saluted as I passed. Old flood-ravaged concrete barracks, bereft of life signs beyond the occasional discarded boot, had impressive zombie film set potential. Signs warned residents that “drugs are a threat to life”. Burton said: “I got off marijuana [at Ramasun] because the stuff they were growing was far more powerful than anything I smoked in the US.”
He spoke of his time at Ramasun with pride, saying he was happy that by opening to the public its image could move from associations with shady torture. It was a sentiment shared by Suwit ‘Sweet’ Jaikun, a Thai army veteran visiting the base. During the war, he told me, he sat in the back of a US L-19 observation plane, translating radio instructions to an American pilot as they flew over Laos.
After his time in the skies Sweet got a job in a Ramasun snack bar. “An American taught me to report weather conditions and when things were ready to bomb,” he said. “After the fighting in Laos I came here… we had good relations with the Americans.”
He’d been waiting for Ramasun’s opening for a long time, and was at the gate at 8.30am. “It feels good to be back,” he said, adjusting his blue army hat. Then added that he knew absolutely nothing about CIA secret jails. Well, I had to ask.
Jamie Fullerton is an Asia-based journalist. Keep up with him at jamiefullerton.co.uk