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.
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.
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?