By Jack Radcliffe
Since I wrote last week’s Bangkok Shakedown article a lot has happened. The Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story, which led to a police probe into whether extortion really was taking place, and a threat from Pol Lt Gen Prawut that he would pursue the issue with the Australian embassy if no evidence was found.
Around the same time reports of the police shaking people down dried up. The now world-famous secret Facebook group fell silent. Had the whole thing been a figment of our imagination? Had it been blown out of proportion?
What happened next surprised everybody. One of the main contributors from the Facebook group was invited to meet with Pol Lt Gen Prawut; yet rather than apply testicular electrodes, Prawut offered the hand of friendship in front of the press:
‘They said that this is the right time to come forward and address the issue. That changes are coming in the police force and they really appreciate the input.’
Even more surprisingly, later the same day, the head of the Thong Lor police department – the department responsible for the area in which most of these incidents were taking place – dropped by at this same contributor’s restaurant, Charlie Brown’s, on Sukhumvit 11 to ‘clear up a few things’. Again, the tone was relatively convivial and a number of interesting revelations came out of the meeting:
- Phones can be seized during a search by officers who think there is evidence on there. But after the search it must be handed back. Evidence would presumably include pictures and videos, but there needs to be a reason given.
- Passports – a laminated copy is acceptable, provided it shows BOTH sides, i.e. the identification page and the visa page.
- Reasons for search – generally looking intoxicated by drugs, or looking scared/ suspicious when walking by the police. However, sitting in a taxi/walking down the street does not constitute a valid reason. If you can talk coherently and act normal you should be OK. During searches both parties should be polite.
- Legal searches – must be at a checkpoint with lights and signs and a ranking officer. Two or three random guys at the side of the road is not sufficient.
- Urine tests – must ALL be done at the police station. No peeing in cups at the side of the road.
Since then, Pol Lt Gen Prawut has come out and said that people are allowed to film themselves being stopped by the police in public. This was in response to a video emerging online of a Thai man who was threatened by an officer for filming. The officer has since been transferred. These developments are, frankly, startling. The standard modus operandi of Thai officialdom is to punish the victim in this type of scenario, so full marks to the police, at the very least for a good PR job.
I said in my previous post that “more embassy attention, plus more international media attention to shine a light on to the corrupt practices of Bangkok officialdom may be just what Thailand needs,” and it seems that was the case, at least in terms of getting a reaction. Once British ambassador Mark Kent got involved, and the international media started to report on the topic, some kind of reaction was inevitable, but many people expected it to be a flat out denial, and a number of online posts seemed to suggest that the whole thing was a conspiracy cooked up to deface Thailand. The most surprising thing about these posts is that none of them accused Thaksin Shinawatra of being the man responsible for the bad publicity Thailand was receiving, as seems to be the knee-jerk reaction from a certain kind of yellow-oriented Thai.
Rumours of this type of shakedown on tourists/expats have been going on for years; yet, it was only when there was organised resistance that a change took place. Who knew the power of a little Facebook group? I guess those taking part in the Arab spring, perhaps? We will see how this actually plays out in reality. There is still likely to be a shortfall in tea money with Sukhumvit after hours clubs staying closed, so perhaps those who are genuinely caught committing crimes are going to be paying more than usual. However, this is not a time for cynicism. As always, if you commit a crime (yes, littering is a crime), you have to expect to face the consequences, so do remain vigilant. Penalties for crimes that would only be misdemeanours back home can be severe here.
White males were/are an easy target for the police: women need to be searched by female officers, and there aren’t so many of those around. The whole world knows of Thailand’s reputation for shady officers, so fear of disappearing, plus having no idea of your rights, generally leads to compliance when stopped. In addition, unlike many Thais, foreigners are unlikely to have an uncle/third-cousin/wife’s friend’s aunt that they can call up to get them out of trouble, so with no push-back it’s an easy win for those officers with a predilection for the dark arts of policing. However, there is a certain sense of irony that it was white males being targeted. While not wishing to blame the victims for this, there would have been a twisted sense of justice if Thai police had organised and decided to take an anti-imperialist stance, targeting white males for indirect reparations due to third world countries. Zero percent chance of that one though.
While it seems we have seen the end of the Bangkok shakedown for now, if you do experience an incident of extortion you can report it to 1155. Also, it is definitely wise to carry at least a copy of the passport pages mentioned above in case you do run into any trouble.
About the author:
Jack Radcliffe is a Bangkok-based anthropologist focusing on contemporary Thailand.