Common law and common sense

In Thailand, the ‘rule of law' is often just a guideline and last resort

One of the biggest grievances of expats living in Thailand is the enforcement of laws. In every aspect of Thai society from murder to littering, there seems to be a casual enforcement of the law.

Thais and expats alike assume that the rich can do what they want to and the police forces are corrupt and lazy. The media in Thailand certainly provides us with evidence that this is so. But that's not the whole story.

Usually, enforcement of the law in Thailand is used as a last resort when something goes wrong or every other avenue of resolution has been exhausted. By contrast, the letter of the law in Western countries is the very first ‘go to' when people feel aggrieved.

For most disputes here, the police act as ‘mediators' when there are legal issues. People sit in a room and negotiate a settlement. The police offer advice and prevent a breach of the peace. They usually take a benign approach until they are absolutely forced to intervene.

In the West, we immediately report our lawbreakers to the police and then hand over all further decisions to them. There's no arbitration outside a courthouse and legal conflicts are at the mercy of a slow, expensive and impartial judicial system.

The Law

Thailand has a very detailed, fair and reasonable constitution of laws. In fact, they usually weigh heavily in favor of the poorer elements of society. Also, for the most part, the law is generally (albeit slowly) headed in the right direction. Animal rights are a good example of this. In civil disputes, the laws of obligations, property law, family law and succession, etc, are reasonable, fair and clear.

Just look at the labor laws in Thailand. If you took them literally, every worker could just about take every Monday off work and their employers would have no legal way to prevent them from doing so.

The Enforcement Of Law

But here we are back at the enforcement of laws... or the lack thereof, and the mystery of why and how this comes about as far as Western eyes are concerned.

There is no doubt that corruption exists. There's a sinister element of the enforcement of law, that is self-serving and almost impossible to control. Every country has its own issues with this and Thailand is no exception.

But there's another aspect of Thai culture which affects the way the laws are enforced. There is a difference between being affected by a ‘law-breaker' and being a victim of a ‘law-breaker'.

For example, you may see a remote roadside convenience store selling a bottle of beer outside the legal hours. The law has been broken, but there's no victim here. Nobody has been affected by this 'crime.'

Also, with traffic laws (speed limits, crash helmets, etc). These laws are clear and we all know them, but they aren't seriously enforced. Rather, they are used as legal tools after an accident occurs.

More seriously, the authorities have recently been trying to relocate street markets and bus terminals. Many of them are operating illegally, but these businesses are given plenty of time to relocate. When the deadline passes, there's an extension and then another and then another... Then finally, after years of obstruction, begging and gnashing of teeth, the inevitable happens and the legal process finally sends in the bulldozers.

In the West, people might be inclined to report a business or an individual for breaking the law and that business or person may suffer severe consequences as a result. In Thailand, there's simply no harm in buying a bottle of beer at quarter past two in the afternoon. And driving without a helmet (whilst not recommended) is a victimless crime. Common sense always prevails.

OK, those are minor transgressions of the law... so let's look at something more serious.

The Anecdote

Years ago, a farang teacher I worked with went out, got drunk and forgot his apartment swipe-key. It was late at night and he couldn't wake anyone up so he kicked in the glass door, climbed through the hole and went to bed. The whole thing was captured by the CCTV camera aimed at the door. The next day the police were called.

What would have happened in your country?

In this case, the apartment manager, two policemen and the hungover teacher sat down and negotiated a settlement. (I was a witness as the police had advised the teacher to have one.)

The teacher paid for a new door, a surprisingly expensive one, wink wink. He was evicted from the apartment building the same day and the police went home. No arrest, no fines (apart from the, ahem, massively expensive door) and no criminal records or proceedings.

Everyone was very polite, iced water on the table and smiles all around. The potentially rather nasty issue was entirely resolved in favor of everyone. Even the nervous teacher thought he'd gotten off very lightly... and I agreed with him! It was a surprisingly conciliatory affair that I will never forget.

Is 'Different' So Wrong?

So, for a Westerner living in Thailand we should understand and accept that, in most cases, the ‘rule of law' is a guideline and last resort. It's never the first option to resolve most legal matters. As much as you may feel that it's wrong, there are many instances (big and small) where it may even work in your favor.

The enaction of common law or the application of common sense... which do you prefer?


Guy, I completely agree with you. You very diplomatically said the system is far from admirable. I really don't know how that was perceived as negative. I can think of much harsher ways to describe the system.

I agree that common sense needs to be applied when dealing with the law. In the West, everything is very by the book. Over here it can be more negotiable. The only problem with it being negotiable is that we are humans and have flaws. These things can be exploited by the rich 'and' poor. The police have to take it upon themselves to prosecute sometimes even if the person accepts a payout. If people can buy their way out of certain situations, it can set horrible precedents and examples. People often don't learn if they don't have to.

As for thinking our system is better than the Thai system, let's look at the US as an example. The richest and most powerful country the world has seen. There seems to be an inherent problem in the training the police receive there. Police in the US can be too gung-ho and are only thinking of preserving their own lives when coming across even the smallest element of danger. "To serve and protect" seems to be very much lost on some police. There needs to be a huge shake up with the police in the States.

So there you are. If I've been implicated in a serious crime, give me the US police and system anytime. If I'm being pulled over for speeding or something much more trivial, give me the Thai police. I'm a liberal, but I'm not a bleeding heart liberal. People often hide behind 'culture' for doing something bad. Bleeding heart liberals will say "It's their culture so we must respect that". Let me tell you now - A big crowd of poor and angry Thai people didn't run to city hall one day and demand corruption in the system. No level headed person wants a corrupt system. It really only benefits the few and that's literally not fair.

If there's corruption in the law and justice system, so be it. Am I not allowed to avoid the system by abiding by the law and steering clear of the police? There's a big difference in respecting people's right to 'have' an opinion or respecting their right to choose 'their' way of life. I respect both. I simply don't always respect what their opinion is or what their way of life is. (And, no. I'm not talking about the LGBT community)

If you run someone down in your car and simply pay off everyone to avoid any punishment, I'm not going to respect that. I'm not here to change the system, it's not mine to change. But I'm sure as hell not going to celebrate it.

By Liam Gallagher, Republik of Mancunia (1 year ago)

"On an Internet forum there are no 'safe zones' where you can go hide from being offended" - Liam

This is not an internet forum.

By Phil (, Samut Prakarn (1 year ago)

@Jack, I'm sorry you don't understand the difference between civil disputes and criminal complaints. As far as your 'two options' - understand the system or leave Thailand - that's a false dichotomy. A better option is to avoid the police in Thailand at all costs and NOT do stupid things like kick in the glass doors to an apartment building and hope for a good outcome with the police. Right?

By Guy, Bkk (1 year ago)

I think I'd rather have Thai cops than American cops! The strange thing I've always noticed about the Thai police is that they often seem to clamp down on one crime at a time. This month they might be going after people with no helmets, next month it's people parking in the wrong place.... My wife got pulled over for riding her motorbike with no helmet and they made her attend a lecture. At this lecture, the doctors from the local hospital gave them a lecture on head injuries and showed some graphic pictures. They said "if we see any of you lot in the hospital with crash injuries, you'll be last in the queue to be treated." It scared my wife into wearing her helmet in any case!

By John, Bangkok (1 year ago)

Jack, why not just make your point? Tell us why being distrustful of the cops here is actually wrong. I'd genuinely like to know.

Civilized adults debate subjects. On an Internet forum there are no 'safe zones' where you can go hide from being offended. You can't just take offence and not back it up with why.

If you think the cops here are good and trust the system, good on you. I simply don't. I can give you endless reasons why.

You do know that corruption is illegal in Thailand, right? You know the law states that it will be applied equally to all. The only people I can think of who would defend the police here under the 'guise of culture' are people who enjoy abusing it themselves. People with dodgy businesses, etc.

No one has the right not to be offended. I just hope for you, mate, that you never have to rely on the police for anything serious here. You may be in for a shock.

By Liam, Republik of Mancunia (1 year ago)

Ok, Thailand is bad and is a great venue where "we" can come to whine, complain and express our opinion of our cultural superiority over the people in the country we live and work.

By Jack, In front of my computer (1 year ago)

Jack: What are you talking about?

Let's not debate why corruption is bad. We all know it's bad. Within the police force here, it's a business model. You can pay 400 Baht at the station, or you can pay 100 Baht right now and drive off.

The police here have a bad reputation. This isn't because of foreigners coming here with a bad attitude and a negative mindset of not trying to understand their style. Thai people are also distrustful of the police. And now with social media being so prevalent, we are seeing exactly why.

I simply avoid any dealings with the police. Call it self preservation. I abide by the law so it's pretty easy to avoid them. The police here often do bad things and people talk about it. If you don't like that, maybe you should leave. This is what civilized adults do. They talk about stuff. Maybe in Thai culture people don't openly talk about it, but go and Facebook where people think they're hidden. Oh, human beings being human beings! How dare they! I hate myself for being a progressive!

Think of any person, thing or institution that has a bad reputation, and then think why. "So and so did a bad thing" Well, we all make mistakes. Let's not judge too quickly. "So and so has done more bad things. Sometimes so and so does good things, but more often than not, so and so is doing bad things". Right, I'm beginning to think you should avoid so and so. I've got no vendetta against so and so, but probably best to stay away. Common sense, you know. Survival instincts even.

If you were a gambling man, would you bet on a three legged horse? Of course not. Even if that horse could speak English and was a sensitive horse, you still wouldn't bet on that horse. This is not being negative. It's being normal.

It's not personal, it's business.

By Liam, Republik of Mancunia (1 year ago)


I see it didn't take long for the Thailand bashing to start in the comments section.

Mark is right, the system and approach is different here than it is back home, and English teachers are not going to change the system. The best two options would appear be be to follow Mark's lead, try to understand the system and accept it, or go home.

Or I guess there is another option, one can stay, not try to understand or accept and constantly complain while hoping to never get involved in a legal dispute in the country.

By Jack, In front of my computer (1 year ago)

The author confuses civil and criminal law and makes weak cases for both. In the West, all disputes are NOT reported to the police. In Thailand, people must PAY police to file complaints and act as arbitrators, so the police are not benign keepers of the peace as the author would lead us to believe. As far as victimless crimes such as not wearing a motorcycle helmet or not enforcing important rules of the road, Thailand has the second worst driving mortality rate of any country in the world. I think this 'system' is far from admirable.

By Guy, Bkk (1 year ago)

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