Indebted to loan shark, woman sets herself ablaze

THAILAND - Hounded by a loan shark and losing hope for help from authorities, a Lop Buri woman yesterday set herself on fire opposite Government House and had to be taken to a hospital with burns over half of her body.

She's now in the intensive-care unit," said Dr Ponlert Phanthanakul of Vajira Hospital, the medical school of Navamindradhiraj University.

The shocking incident happened at the government's call centre that responds to people's complaints.

The centre is across the road from Government House.

Sangvien Raksapetch, 52, was heard saying, "Can't you help me?" during her phone conversation with an assistant chief of Lop Buri's Khok Samrong district before soaking herself with fuel from a bottle she was carrying in her bag and igniting it with a lighter.

Flames rapidly engulfed her. Although witnesses rushed to put out the fire and sent her to a nearby hospital, she sustained serious injuries.

Suksawas Suwanwong, head of the call centre, said Sangvien mentioned the assistant district chief, so he decided to call him.

"I let them talk. I didn't expected things to turn out this way," Suksawas said.

According to available records, Sangvien's first visit to the call centre was on August 13 to lodge a complaint about her heavy debt, the next one on September 30 and the third yesterday.

Suksawas said Sangvien told him she was illiterate and ended up signing a contract stating that she owed about Bt1.5 million (S$59,000) to a loan shark when in fact she had borrowed only about Bt400,000 from him.

Sangvien's younger sister Janja Thong-aram said Sangvien was forced by the loan shark to shoulder the bad debts of other farmers.

"My sister usually collected payments for the loan shark. When she couldn't do it, his gang threatened her," Janja said.

Thanakorn Khoksalung, assistant chief of Khok Samrong district, said that initially Sangvien's debts to the loan shark were not written down in any contract.

"I told her there was no evidence she owed the money. But she insisted she wanted to negotiate with her moneylender out of concern for her family's safety.

We then arranged for mediation," he said.

He said he did not know that Sangvien would be asked to sign for the big amount of debts.

Sangvien's husband Thongchai said his wife had been under huge stress after the family lost its crop.

"In fact, we had planned to repay some debts with the [proceeds from the] crop. But when the harvest time came, we were barred from entering the plantation," he said.

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