The confusion surrounding the recent announcements by the military government that alcohol cannot be sold near educational establishments is well illustrated in the seemingly random way the orders have been enforced in Chiang Mai.
On July 20 the military government issued an order that banned sales of alcohol within 300 meters of some schools and universities. Then, on July 23 a second order was made prohibiting alcohol sale ‘in the vicinity’ of all educational establishments, which took immediate effect.
Unsurprisingly, the vagueness of the term ‘in the vicinity’ has caused a lot of confusion with this order. It seems likely no legal experts were consulted before this law was drawn up as they would have demanded far more precise wording.
As it is, even Deputy Prime Minister Yongyuth Yuthavong could not define ‘in the vicinity’, he was quoted as saying: “What does that mean?”
In what can be seen as an admission that the law as it stands is unworkable Yongyuth said that the opinions of relevant agencies will be gathered over about the next six months to “reach a clear understanding” of what is meant by “in the vicinity of.”
For reasons best known to themselves, the government seemed to think this option would be preferable to using the order from three days earlier that clearly stated 300 meters, which was instead permanently shelved.
While the government awaits the agencies’ answers “security officers will have to exercise their judgment, based on appropriateness of the situation,” said Saman Footrakul, the director of the Alcohol Beverage Office.
Clearly this might well lead to confusion as one police officer’s judgment of what constitutes “in the vicinity of” could be very different to another officer’s judgment.
This may go some way to explain the confusion with which this law is being applied in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital.
The situation would be farcical if it was not costing innocent people their jobs and livelihoods.
At present it seems that the main focus of the ban is around Chiang Mai University, with bars on Suthep Road on the southern perimeter of the campus and some more on Canal Road on the eastern perimeter of the campus told to stop selling alcohol.
Speaking to several people working at these bars it appears that police told them on Saturday, August 8 that they could no longer sell alcohol. Many reported customers turning up to watch the opening games of the English Premier League Season, only for disappointed customers leaving to watch the football elsewhere.
One restaurant owner, who did not want to be identified and who employs 10 other staff, said that since the alcohol ban he had 85 percent fewer customers.
He said he knew of more than 10 restaurants that had been banned from selling alcohol, which would, as a result, all have to shut down.
He was in a more fortunate situation than most because he was already in the process of moving his business to another location away from any educational establishments. He also vowed to keep the restaurant open and continue paying all his staff until they could all move to the new premises. “What else can I do”, he said, “they have to eat.”
Most other staff at the restaurants being banned from selling alcohol will not be so lucky and will find themselves out of a job.
Even next to Chiang Mai University the law was being selectively applied. Just down the road from one of the restaurants banned from selling alcohol a 7/11 convenience store was still being allowed to sell alcohol.
The restaurant staff were advising customers to go buy their alcohol at a small shop behind the bar if they wanted to drink, while some staff were even offering to buy alcohol for the customers. When staff were asked if this was okay they said it was and that the police were permitting it because, though the alcohol was being consumed in the restaurant, it had not been bought there.
The sale of alcohol was also banned at 7/11 convenience stores in the area, but was still easily available at smaller local shops.
The Phucombe Hotel, however, despite being the same distance from the university grounds as some of the restaurants, was still permitted to sell alcohol.
Away from Chiang Mai University it seemed the law was not being enforced sporadically, if at all.
Staff at a bar still selling alcohol directly opposite Chiang Mai Polytechnic College on Suthep Road said that the police had not visited them and that they had received no orders. One of the staff even said that he thought the law did not apply to technical colleges.
Loy Kroh, a somewhat sleazy street in central Chiang Mai that is popular with tourists, probably has the highest density of bars in all of Chiang Mai.
Near the top of Loy Kroh there is a school that is within 300 metres of at least half the bars on the street and several others nearby. If the law banning sales within 300 metres was put into effect well over 20 bars, mostly catering to tourists would have to stop selling alcohol.
So far all those bars are still selling alcohol. One of the bar owners, who did not want to be identified, said he did not know what was going to happen and that the police had not yet come to speak to any of the bar owners.
Five senior Chiang Mai policemen were officially transferred to inactive posts on August 9, the day after the ban was first imposed. According to the transfer order this was because they had not obeyed the Junta’s orders to ban alcohol sales in the vicinity of educational establishments, they had allowed establishments selling alcohol to stay open later than they should and not closed down establishments selling alcohol to minors.
It is not known whether the clamp down on bars near the university was initiated before or after the police officers were transferred. What is clear though is that since the men were transferred police have been visiting all late-night bars to ensure that they shut by 1am, with no exceptions. This includes a few bars, mainly catering to tourists, that have always managed to somehow stay open beyond the 1am deadline.
Another bar owner, who complained that he now had nowhere to go and relax after his bar shut at midnight, said such crackdowns happened periodically, but that they normally lasted no longer than two months. We will have to wait to see if this crackdown is more permanent.
As for the confusion surrounding the order banning alcohol sales in the vicinity of or within 300 meters of educational establishments, nothing has been clarified. Many suspect the law will be quietly forgotten or repealed as it could potentially decimate tourism in many popular parts of Thailand if it were ever properly enforced.
Unfortunately, many of those who work in bars and restaurants that have been banned from selling alcohol will have lost their jobs and businesses by then.
As the owner of one of the bars banned from selling alcohol pointed, out it is a stupid law, if students want to drink they will still buy alcohol and go and drink at home or elsewhere slightly further away from educational establishments.