Thailand’s Democracy Drought

During one of the year’s heaviest tourist seasons, Thailand’s military-backed government has banned alcohol sales for two consecutive election weekends. This could seem to be very bad news for thirsty non-voting expatriates, but life has a way of working out.

“Man, that’s coffee,” observed the live entertainment, a soulful American keyboardist, as he savored the contents of a mug at his side. The dozen or so customers in the pub, whose tables also had coffee mugs rather than the beer bottles or cocktail glasses one would normally see here on a Friday night, seemed to agree.

Kafae ni mai rawn” (this coffee is cold) I had pointed out to the comely waitress when my own mug arrived, and she politely giggled at my lame attempt at humor. Icy cold, in fact, and tasting rather like a certain Singaporean brew made with hops and named after a striped cat. My companion, meanwhile, reported that his “coffee” had the distinct bouquet of Jack Daniels.

Later, a cruise through the Soi Cowboy area found the normally bustling strip of go-go bars much quieter than normal on a Friday evening. Most had opted to stay open with large signs out front proclaiming that only soft drinks and the like were available, but at least one chain of bars shut down all of its venues. Thailand’s other great economic driver, the sex industry, seemed thrown for a loop.

Except for the so-called Dark Age of a couple of years ago, during the morality crackdown under then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the governor of Bangkok, the girlie bars of Soi Cowboy and vicinity have not faced anything like a Christmas period two-weekend ban. In places that were open, a few sad-looking foreigners could be seen nursing colas and water bottles as the dancing young women gazed glumly down from their brass-poled perches – sober foreigners are just not that much fun, and their pocketbooks were more likely to stay closed.

This was our investigative experience on December 14, the first evening of the sudden and unwelcome alcohol ban in the Land of Smiles. The purported reason: the Dec. 23 general election, with the first weekend being set aside for advance polling. The second weekend will be election time – and one of the busiest weekends of the year, since it is Christmas season.

Before we found our pub with its “brewed” coffee, we found masses of confused people wondering what the hell happened. Some were tourists who had just arrived to sample Bangkok’s renowned nightlife; others were locals who had simply not heard of the booze ban.

Indeed, the mini-prohibition had either been an afterthought or, more likely, was simply kept under wraps for reasons known only to the authorities. Whatever the truth of the matter, the evidence is that even some Thai-owned establishments were only notified a day or two ahead of time, and some Christmas parties and other events had already been planned and venues booked.

Thailand, of course, is well known for its frequent alcohol bans, usually for important Buddhist holidays or the King’s birthday, but often for less comprehensible reasons.

Bans for elections are a long tradition, and apparently serve three purposes:

  • Sober voters theoretically make better choices in the election booth (although when the people soberly elected Thaksin Shinawatra one too many times in a landslide, the army brought the tanks out and set up their own regime).

  • Because most elections in the past have necessitated travel to the voter’s home province, a booze ban should reduce highway carnage.

  • Probably most important, the ban makes impractical, if not illegal, the “vote-buying parties” for which Thailand is infamous.

That’s the theory. The practice is something else.

The most obvious objection to the way election-time alcohol bans are carried out is that they target precisely the wrong people: tourists and expatriates, who can’t vote anyhow. Thais, of course, simply ignore the bans; as do most expatriates, but the authorities typically make life difficult by forcing bars that cater to foreigners to obey the edict while blatantly ignoring – even patronizing – those that cater to Thais. As for tourists, most are unaware that the probability of their actually being penalized for ignoring the ban is extremely low, and they don’t know the venues that practice business as usual (albeit with “coffee” or other ploys).

The Internet forum in Hua Hin, the eponymouos city on the Gulf of Thailand popular with long-term expatriates, was burning up this past weekend with complaints about the ban – and the duplicity of allowing Thai bars to stay open while expat hangouts were watched more carefully.

Numerous posts noted the ease with which anyone – foreigners included – could access a favorite beverage if necessary, but many said that wasn’t the point. For Thais, flouting the law is a national sport. Foreigners, typically from Europe or North America, are generally law-abiding by upbringing, if not by nature.

Not only that, expatriates are upset by what they see as inane governance that can only damage the economy. Slapdash lawmaking gets even further up expatriate noses when it is seen as targeting them or their livelihoods. Many are in the tourism or entertainment trade, and most support Thai families.

“Had a bottle or two of Chang at our favorite watering hole today. Just 50 meters away from a polling station and out in the sticks. It was business as usual. No question of hiding the bottles or drinking out of mugs,” wrote one poster: “Sadly, the crazy ‘laws’ (and I use that term loosely) seem to only affect the farang-run bars, which are, from what I hear, really suffering from the lack of tourists this year.

“Come on, Thailand! We've had the tsunami, a military coup and some murders ­– which are all reported in the tabloids in the west. And now holidaymakers are denied alcoholic drinks because of a (another loose term) ‘democratic’ election. Great news for the tourism industry! I feel sorry for the unaware tourists who have booked the Christmas holiday period here.”

“Isn't it about time the farangs had some kind of proper representation in this country? We pay taxes, can’t vote, can’t buy land, can’t work even for free, can’t take up a hobby without a work permit ­— it would drive you to drink (sorry, can’ t drink!).”

The forum moderator replied: “Amen to that – can’t see it happening for a long time, though, the powers that be simply don’t like us. They tolerate us but they don’t like us. A good example is the alcohol crackdown on farang bars only, while the Thai-cop-run karaoke places are partying like there’s no tomorrow – all laughing at the stupid farangs that aren’t allowed to drink!”