Many members of Thailand’s vast expatriate community are up in arms over a three-page Immigration Bureau form introduced recently, asking for a wide range of personal information and raising fears that critics or people the military doesn’t like may be targeted.
The information the government is asking for includes bank details, all social media used by name and email address, car brand, model, color and plate numbers, “clubs, restaurants, shops, hospitals and other places” they may frequent, Thai and foreign persons whom they may be in contact with by name, surname, occupation and addresses before they can complete applications for 90-day visas.
Although the government has stressed that most of the information is voluntary, some expats are furious. As Thailand’s two-year-old military dictatorship has continued to wear on, antagonism has grown towards foreigners, particularly against the foreign press. In contrast to earlier times, the whole process of obtaining visas has become more onerous.
For those who in the past could skip over to the nearest border to renew their tourist visas for 60 or 90 days, the government has cracked down to the point that some longtime westerners in the country are considering moving to Cambodia, where seemingly things are a bit less strict.
“I expect long-term expats will just ignore it,” said a foreign resident living in the northeast of the country. “I certainly will.” But, he added, “My ‘fixer’ was able to renew my retirement visa in December but he said he had to be a lot more careful to avoid nosy military wonks.”
Another expatriate living in southern Thailand said the documents had made the rounds and that “some people commented that they left all these questions blank and had no issue. I am not sure how widespread it now is.”
However, it appears undeniable that the atmosphere towards foreigners is darkening. In February police swooped down on elderly bridge players in the louche resort town of Pattaya, arresting 32 of them, most of them British, in what was described as a raid on gambling. This is in a beach town of legions of go-go bars widely considered to be run by gangsters.
Suthat Pumphanmuang, the Pattaya police superintendent, told the AFP news agency that the raid was sparked by a member of the public complaining to the country’s anti-corruption center, generating widespread disbelief.
Despite complacency among some, the document has generated considerable confusion and anger, with many refusing to comply with some or all the information, considering it an invasion of privacy, particularly the demand for social media information. The bigger concern may be that expatriates simply don’t trust the government with their information.
“I sure as hell am not going to give anybody in the government any information about my bank,” said one. “There are too many crooks in the junta.”
“By requiring foreigners resident in Thailand to fill out forms indicating where they hang out, what social media they use, and what their bank accounts are, immigration has descended to an all-time new low of intrusive behavior,” said another longtime foreign observer. “On one level, it’s ludicrous they are doing this, since even by their own admission they have no capacity to process all the information they are collecting. So what’s going on?”
He ridiculed a statement by Deputy Immigration Commissioner Pol. Maj. Gen. Chachawan, who said the government is considering national security,” he said. “Considering entering the ASEAN community and the increasing terrorism problem, some people escape after committing a crime, and we cannot track them down.”
Any idea that the information would help them catch terrorists was nonsense, since terrorists are unlikely to say where they like to hang out or how they do their banking.
“Chachawan deserves all the ridicule he’s received in ThaiVisa and other popular farang [foreigner] chat forums,” he said. “The absurdity becomes even more clear when some immigration officers are trying to downplay this by saying that people don’t need to fill out the entire form, or that this is just a pilot project, and thereby appease the current fury.”
The reality, he charged, is more sinister. Key people in and out of government say the move is targeted, that the immigration department is starting to build files on people that they don’t like.
“Immigration’s public pronouncements are intended to divert attention from their real purpose, which is conducting a fishing expedition for information on certain foreigners they think may be talking too loudly on social media and elsewhere about the failures of the NCPO military regime. And if that also helps build a feeling that Thai Big Brother is watching you, and scaring the larger populace of foreign residents to keep their opinions to themselves, then that’s fine by the NCPO as well.
“When I was recently talking to a club of retirees and long-term residents down in Pattaya, it’s startling to find how rattled they are by the police arrests of the bridge playing club a couple months ago. Many foreign residents have invested much of their adult lives in Thailand and they are not prepared to risk that, even if it means biting their tongues. These forms are part of the NCPO’s new message is this is the new Thailand, and we’re going to be here for awhile. So damn well get used to it, and if you don’t like the way we’re running the place, the exit is right over there.”
Since the May 2014 coup, scores of people have been arrested under either the Computer Crimes Act or on lese-majeste charges for the thinnest of pretexts. The lese-majeste law is particularly dangerous. Anyone deemed to have defamed, insulted or threatened the king, queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent, faces up to 15 years in prison. Individuals have been arrested for accessing provocative sites.