Bangkok shakedown: Tourists report increased harassment by police
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Bangkok shakedown: Tourists report increased harassment by police

By Jack Radcliffe

Over recent weeks there has been a sharp increase in reports of police harassment, intimidation and flat-out extortion in the Sukhumvit area, usually between Thong Lor and Asoke. While stories of the Bangkok police engaging in less than exemplary behavior are not new, and no official statistics for ‘on-the-spot fines’ exist, there does seem to be a policy of targeting foreign males in prime tourist areas at the moment, although due to their unofficial nature these reports remain unverifiable.

A number of recent letters to English-language daily the ‘Bangkok Post’ highlight the present protocol: tourists, either in taxis or on foot, are stopped, searched and ordered to show ID; often even required to provide an on-the-spot urine sample.

On Friday night, our taxi was stopped by police. We were told to exit the car and we were searched. My handbag was checked, while my fiance had to turn out everything in his pockets and undergo a frightening and humiliating search at the side of the road. The police refused to answer questions and were quite rude. After finding nothing we were sent on our way with no apology or explanation.

Postbag: Thai holiday nightmare‘, Bangkok Post, November 29, 2014

A secret Facebook group was established for local residents to share stories and to discuss their legal rights should the police stop them. This group has amassed almost 800 members in less than 14 days and is filled with troubling stories about interactions with the police, most ending the same way: the victim is eventually allowed to leave after paying a fine.

(UPDATE: Thailand police: Foreigners not required to carry passports at all times)

Bangkok writer Joe Cummings tells of somebody spending the night in Thong Lor police station after refusing to pay a 5,000 baht (US$152) fine for failure to show identification on request. Others worry that by subjecting themselves to bag and body searches that they will have items planted on them, followed by hefty fines. Others doubt the veracity of road-side urine tests. The sense that the police are desperate to extort as much money as possible at the moment only feeds greater fear, and not without cause given their gutter-level reputation.

Popular blogger Richard Barrow attempted to get first-hand evidence of the police shakedown on Sunday by walking up and down Sukhumvit with a backpack on. While he didn’t get stopped, searched, asked to show ID, or urine tested, he did witness the police fining some tourists 2000 baht (US$61) for dropping cigarette butts. When he took a picture of this happening, he was chased by the officers involved and had to hide out in a mall.

Barrow’s story was picked up by Japanese media, and the story is rapidly gaining traction in the international press with a new story seemingly coming out daily. Even the Wall Street Journal has written that Thai Police are harassing foreign tourists on the streets.

It is only possible to speculate on the reasons for this recent upturn in harassment, but the jurisdiction of the Thong Lor police department includes many of the venues that formerly opened until the early hours. Since the coup these venues have been closing at their legally required time, and this presumably means less kickbacks to the police. Could these shakedowns be a way to make up the deficit? Could they be a way to build up a kitty for the Thong Lor police department’s New Year party by targeting foreigners who do not have the contact networking to oppose them? Could they have something to do with the recent police purge? Or could this just be rogue officers besmirching the good name of the Thong Lor police department?

What are your rights if you are stopped? First, it is recommended to carry identification. A photocopy of your passport might do, but carrying the original is probably the wiser choice at the moment, especially around Sukhumvit.  Even Thai citizens are legally required to carry some form of ID.

Technically, searches are not permitted without probable cause and suspicion that someone is in possession of something illegal; presumably refusing to be searched provides such just cause though, so it’s a catch 22 situation. You are allowed to refuse a urine test in public and insist that it is instead done at the police station, do be aware though that should your urine tests results come in positive severe penalties are applicable even if the substance was not consumed in Thailand or even willfully. If you are fortunate enough to benefit from patronage and have the number of a powerful Thai on your phone, give them a call and let them ‘mediate’ on your behalf. And, as always, say no to drugs and don’t litter!

If you are the victim of a corrupt official, you can report it here. It is also advisable for as many people as possible to contact their embassy and make them aware of what is happening: contact details of Bangkok-based embassies here. 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, although junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha would no doubt say that complaining is not what ‘good people’ do.

UPDATE: Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand, tweeted on Thursday that he had raised the issue with Thailand’s tourism authorities, who promised to look into it:

I spoke with a European man who was victim of a police scam a few weeks after the coup in another part of Bangkok. The tactics of the police involved were similar, although there have been no reports of this particular scam taking place since. The victim says that he was forced to get out of his taxi and interrogated in a car park. He was threatened with deportation and prison time, while police officers shouted at him and tapped their guns. There was a good cop/bad cop scenario in play, and one officer made the suggestion that this could all be over for 20,000 baht (US$609). Wanting to avoid trouble, the man paid the officers rather than spend the night in a prison cell or bring shame on his employer by having to miss a day at work due to incarceration, even if unfounded. Since then, he has been very cautious of the police and recently wrote an email to his embassy about the recent upturn in police activity. He has kindly allowed me to publish his email below and he recommends using it as a template for your own should you fall foul of the Bangkok police.

Dear…..,

I would like to report about the latest events of the Thai police corps, since there is an increasing number of worrying harassments by the Lumpini and Thonglo police corps (it gets a lot of media attention over the last days).

Over the last two weeks they have targeted Caucasian males, forcing them to undergo a stop and search, and to do a pee test (to check for drugs). This is not to fight crime, but solely in order to receive bribes. Furthermore, this is done in a very aggressive and harassing way. There are several stories nowadays from tourists forced to drink water in order to do a pee test. Pee tests are known to give a lot of false positives and negatives (it’s just an indicator, a real test requires blood or hair and contains a few days). However, there are plenty of recent examples of people who are threatened to be locked up or have to pay a significant amount of money because they tested positive (although they knew they were clean).

There is a Facebook group reporting this crimes (around 500 members in a few days), and it seems that people are already informing their respective embassies. I think the embassy should definitely consider it in its travel advice to Thailand. Again, the focus is on tourists in the tourist areas: mostly around Asok intersection.

I was also wondering what your advice is in order I get forced to do a pee test in harassing circumstances. Of course I am clean, but as I said these tests are not reliable at all, but more a tool to scare people off in order to demand money.

Looking forward to your answer.

With Thanks and Regards,

…..

 

About the author:
Jack Radcliffe is a Bangkok-based anthropologist focusing on contemporary Thailand.