William Putnam

The senselessness of Thai bureaucrats and oligarchs

Thailand is ruled by men, not laws

Based on how much paperwork and bureaucracy is necessary to work legally in Thailand, one would think that Thailand is a booming developed country with no need for foreign labor or expertise. The reality is quite different. Though Thailand is a beautiful country with warm people, it certainly has its fair share of problems. Thailand needs to learn to admit its faults and risk conflict or else its primitive societal structure will continue to hold back the lives of the majority of its population.

I realize the ideas I have listed above seem disparate, so please allow me to explain. I have recently started a new job at an education company in Bangkok and have spent the last month dealing with visa and work permit issues. Towards the end of last month, I had a 30 day stamp after doing a visa run in Myanmar. My first step towards obtaining a work permit was to convert my visa into a non-immigrant B visa. My company lawyer thought it would be easiest for me to upgrade to a non-B visa while remaining in the country.

I scanned a copy of my passport (every page), my old work permit, my original college diploma, a letter from my college indicating that I had graduated in good standing, and my sealed college transcript. I was told that I needed a letter from my previous job detailing my position. The letter required the signatures of my former boss and the school director.

Moreover, I needed to scan this letter by the next day. Now, if you know anything about Thai government schools, you know this was an impossible task, especially considering that school directors often do not show up for work. Luckily, my boss was incredibly helpful and I was able to pick up the letter within two days. Unfortunately, the letter did not have the necessary stamp so I had to go to back to the school and have the letter stamped with the official government seal.

I then went about getting my medical certificate, which was easy enough. Everything seemed to be going okay for a couple of weeks, when I was notified that, since my college diploma was in Latin, I would need to go to the US embassy and have them prove that I did, in fact, graduate. Considering that I had already sent in a sealed transcript, a letter signed by the chancellor of my university, and an original diploma, I was quite frankly stunned by the request.

I finally realized what the Thai bureaucrat I was dealing with was: a micro-megalomaniac, the most insecure of all figures. The micro-megalomaniac has so little power that he or she will dominate their little world as they see fit and will never stop letting you know who is in charge.

Being from the United States, I realized I had no right to comment on unjust immigration officers, so I politely agreed to go to the US embassy as requested. However, I was notified before my appointment that the lawyer had spoken with a different immigration officer and that I now had my non-B visa. I was elated to finally get my visa changed, but something about this left me unsettled.

It is one thing for a control freak, or even many of them, to attempt to get his or her way, as is the case with many of those who work at US customs, but it is quite another for laws to change with the caprices of petty officials. The rules were different with this immigration officer, and it worked well for me in this case. Yet, laws should not be changed depending on who is working that particular day. This was a minor case, but I think it illustrates a bigger problem. The rules in Thailand are different depending on who is applying them, and who they are being applied to.

Thailand is ruled by men, not laws. The rules do not apply to the Bangkok elite, who are able to run over their fellow citizens, often purposely, in luxury cars with no negative repercussions. In Thailand, if you are rich then you are right. Here, the circumstances of the event have no bearing on who is at fault. The person with less power is always to blame. The fact is, Thailand is a kleptocracy. Society is run based on a feudal concept of patronage and rulers have been using their privileges to self-aggrandize for quite some time. However, most Thai people are apparently just figuring this out. Though the protesters seem to think corruption has just started, the fact is corruption has always been here.

Thai people appear to only see what they want to see. They complain about foreign customs ruining traditional Thai culture, but then they go and spend all their money on foreign gadgets and clothing. They claim to be humane and compassionate Buddhists, but their efforts are focused on not euthanizing feral dogs with two legs instead of on stopping fundamental human rights abuses, such as child prostitution or the over 2000 extra-judicial killings involved in Thailand's war on drugs ten years ago. I understand that Thai people do not like causing conflict or losing face, but the first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is one.

The average Thai has too much faith in the feudal system that exists here. The middle class Thais are afraid of the great unwashed masses below and too deferential towards the oligarchs above. This feudal system has not always existed. It was invented by people and it does not have to exist indefinitely. Neither does the Thai emphasis on saving face.

I understand the desire to uphold tradition, but not at the cost of human suffering. If the Thai attitude does not change, then I am afraid Thailand will become a banana republic, with a moneyed class taking its stolen funds and leaving its destitute and structurally deficient homeland to rot. I hope that Thailand will change its ways soon and abandon its pre-modern societal structure. Until then, saving face and preserving the social hierarchy will continue to trump human rights and development.


"An exceptionally bright and hard-working American or Briton, no matter how poor, will find recognition and upward movement possible. "

What a bunch of b.s. The generalization and assumptions going on here are a result of heavy propaganda and a sheltered life.

By Dan, Ayutthaya (18th April 2014)

"Firstly, this rant about bureaucracy and elitism could apply to any country at any time in any situation… so, nothing special about Thailand so far… (Try India if you want to see SERIOUS bureaucracy in action!)"

This is a sloppy statement at best. "apply to any country at any time in any situation", really?

The reality is there are differences. There are public notices about the policy (what do I require, what legislation does it refer to), there are controls for professional quality feedback, there is transparency about the overall process, and a certain degree of notice given for alterations in policies related to immigration.

By Dan, Ayutthaya (18th April 2014)

"They don’t ‘blame’ anyone or anything. Instead, they take control and create their own success."

You're right that most poor Thai people don't blame anyone for their plight (they accept it as their karma instead), but you make it sound easy for a poor Thai to move up in the world.

Thailand is a heavily stratified society, and Mr William is absolutely right that it's arranged in line with money and connections as opposed to merit. An exceptionally bright and hard-working American or Briton, no matter how poor, will find recognition and upward movement possible. How many bright Thais have been forced to forget about college because they can't afford the entry fees? An initial payment is even necessary to get a remedial job in Thailand. If you have no money, you're not going anywhere. Period.

Those at the bottom of the social strata, no matter how driven and intelligent, have little means for upward movement within any of the country's institutions (education, business, government, etc.). My personal opinion is that the bureaucracy, which is deeply rooted and considerable, does not want to see poor Thais come up in the world. Up so far as having electricity and paved roads through the village is fine, but as far as entering into a respectable profession or even a position of power, no way.

I don't agree with everything Mr William wrote, but his assertion that "The middle class Thais are afraid of the great unwashed masses below and too deferential towards the oligarchs above" is spot on. And I too hope that Thailand evolves beyond its deeply entrenched ways that hold it back. Judging by the youth I know and encounter here, I think it's happening, but very gradually.

By David, Bangkok (28th March 2014)

The run around is intended to give you an incentive to supply a little tea money, which should take care of these little problems.

By Jack, On the road (again) (25th March 2014)

Will, these are accurate observations offered in a measures, sincere spirit-- the opposite of a rant.
You have no reason to apologize. Given the severity of Thailand's problems, anyone who loves the country as I do should thank you for addressing what too many expats want to ignore. It is quite obvious you are not complaining about being inconvenienced, rather you are concerned about Thailand's future, have a deep affection for its people, and do not insulate yourself from the realities of a country very likely at a pivotal moment in its history. Bravo.

By Donna Chang, California (23rd March 2014)


Looking back over it now, I can see that it does seem like an annoying rant. I didn't mean for it to come out that way. I had been thinking of writing about Thailand's unaccountable elite for a while and I just happened to think that the immigration story was a way to introduce the topic. It wasn't meant to be a "lashing out" as you describe, though it I can see how it may appear that way.

You are right that everything I talked about could apply elsewhere; I don't disagree with this, but I do think the scale of privilege and corruption is larger here. There was a young man who purposely drove his Mercedes into a bus stop and killed a woman. His father called the people at the bus stop "uneducated buffalo," and the driver was not only set free but also allowed to keep his driver's license. The same driver purposely hit a bus later. Apparently, he suffers from fits of anger.

I also agree that the Thai people's pragmatism and lack of clear laws are often beneficial for foreigners. I think I mention in my post that these things made the process easier for me. However, I still don't think it's a good system to have. In my opinion, the rule of law is always better than the rule of men.

I appreciate your comments. I did not mean for the writing to sound as angry as it did. I just wanted to write some thoughts down.

By Will, Bangkok (22nd March 2014)

It's a funny thing but after reading your post, I came to two conclusions...

Firstly, this rant about bureaucracy and elitism could apply to any country at any time in any situation... so, nothing special about Thailand so far... (Try India if you want to see SERIOUS bureaucracy in action!)

In fact Thailand is one of the few remaining countries where it is possible to circumvent a sticky situation when regulations and common sense conflict with each other.

I have personal proof of this. What could have been a very serious and long lasting (unintentional) infraction on my part was taken to a supervisor and rules were broken to solve a problem in my favor.

Secondly, the writer has some very clear mis-understandings about how Thais view themselves and their reaction to obstacles. As much power and sway the ageing elite think they have in Thailand to cling on to traditional ways, it is in fact, a country that is fueled by youth, both culturally and commercially.

The writer is involved with the education system and so the impact of it's structure leaves an impression. But to most Thai people, they don't give the way farang teachers are treated, a second thought. Why should they?

Instead of blaming the government and the 'social elite' for the faults of an admittedly appalling education system, the Thais that actually want to excel in this arena, do it on their own.

They don't 'blame' anyone or anything. Instead, they take control and create their own success.

I understand the frustration of the composer of this article, but lashing out at all and sundry for some frankly minor inconveniences seems to me to be a bit of an over-reaction.

By Mark Newman, LOS (22nd March 2014)

Agree with everything you say but this is Thailand and no matter how much it likes to pretend it does,Thailand doesn't have freedom of speech. So you might want to be a little careful about what you say in public about public figures in Thailand. Your name and picture are here. On occasions things can come back to bite you on the ass.

By Rich, Bangkok (21st March 2014)

Postscript: I recently had to resign all my documents since my signature differs slightly from the one I used when I signed my passport 6 years ago. I did as requested, using the same signature that was visible on my passport.

Apparently, that was not good enough though. I now have to go to the Ministry of Labor next week and sign the documents in front of them. Hopefully this process will be over with soon.

By Will, Bangkok (21st March 2014)

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