The Red Shirt government has brought a lot of changes to Thailand. Many are are not reported in the newspaper but you encounter them on a daily basis. Most ,in my humble opinion, are moves in the right direction, i.e. moves toward a nation of laws where everyman is equal under the law regardless of race or socioeconomic standing. The structural problems in the political system, the absence of a truly free press, and a lack of a politically independent judiciary still remain but, at least, things are not regressing.
On BigBabyKenny.com, I’ve written about the changes in visa procedures and the tightening of loopholes importing luxury cars which occurred after the Red Shirts took power. This weekend I encountered another change. An attempt to end police corruption in speed enforcement.
In case you don’t drive or you don’t read BigBabyKenny.com, Thailand’s long standing speed enforcement system was to be stopped at a road block and offered the choice of 1) having your license taken, issued a written citation, and having to appear at the local police station to pay the fine and recover your license or 2) pay the officer directly. Paying the officer directly meant negotiating the fine downwards (400 THB is standard in Bangkok and 200 THB in the provinces). Paying directly meant the officer put the money into his own pocket (and likely kicked back a substantial portion up the chain of command). This long standing system was prone to abuse because officers could and frequently did make up infractions simply to create the opportunity to line their own pocket.
There was nothing evil about paying the officer directly as a certain more paranoid expat internet commentator has written on his popular weekly column. Over more than a dozen traffic stops and while paying more than dozen fines directly to the police officer there has never been a hint of an evil plot to extract large amounts of money for bogus crimes or offenses. The transaction is conducted with a smile, the only threat issued or implied is that you will have to go to the local police station to pay a higher fine if you don’t want to be involved in the corruption. You broke the law. You pay the fine. You go on your merry way. End of story.
For foreigners, the system is innocuous or even preferable to Western style speed enforcement because the money was trivial compared to the cost of similar infractions in the U.S. Sure you were being extorted but most often you were guilty of speeding and who cares whether your money ended up in the officers pocket, his commanders pocket or in a government bank account.
With the advent of speed cameras in Bangkok, the system morphed. With speed cameras, the local policeman and corruption is cut out of the loop. A combination radar gun and camera takes a picture capturing your license plate and speed and a ticket is mailed to the vehicle’s owner. The problem with speed cameras is that driver’s license/registration records are not computerized, there is no cross referencing of tickets and vehicle registrations or license renewals, and Thai’s quickly learned there was no consequence to simply throwing the ticket away. And that is what most do. The speed cameras generate tickets but no revenue.
On a recent run to Pattaya, I encountered a new system being used.
This is one of the toll gates on the Chon-Buri Tollway (route 7) that runs from Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport to Pattaya. At each gate there is policeman with a walkie talkie. I’ve encountered this situation many times. As you transit the toll booth, the policeman waves you to the side of the road, takes out his ticket pad, tells you how fast you were allegedly going, and pretends he is going to write you a ticket. This is where you offer him the 400 THB, he quietly slips it into his pocket, and you go on your merry way.
This time something different happened.
When offered the bribe, the office politely declined (he actually chuckled) and I was waved over to this folding table and group of officers.
I was issued a ticket on the spot (500 THB for doing 141 in a 120 zone).
What was interesting is that the transaction was videotaped (note the video camera in the picture) and there were two sets of records kept.
The first was the actual ticket book where each citation has a serial number and they are sequential.
The second was a master log where the serial numbers are listed along with the infraction and the amount of the fine.
I was required to sign both and the master log was initialed by one of the officers and one of the girls.
The serial numbered ticket book is the same system used in many U.S. jurisdictions and can be used to verify if tickets are disappearing. New York city policemen were recently uncovered fixing tickets by this system. If all the tickets, serially numbered, don’t appear in the final records, you know something happened to one of them.
With this system, all the tickets are accounted for, all the money is accounted for, and if money is missing there is a video record to show where it went.
Honestly, I prefer the old system. The fines were cheaper, it took less time, and it made you feel like you were in strange and different culture having an adventure.
Most expat internet commentators work under the assumption that Thailand is corrupt. That’s the way it is, always has been, and always will be.
I prefer a more nuanced view of Thailand. As incomes grow, education improves, and Western ideas and experiences seep into the culture, Thailand can’t help but move to a more just and fair system — one that emulates the United States. One where the every man has god given right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness and those rights are protected by the political and legal system. And where hereditary power, the economically powerful, and the politically connected are kept in check by a democratic process and the evenly applied rule of law. Over time the positive effects of the U.S. system will permeate Thailand, raising standards of living, increasing the human dignity of the down trodden, and producing a more fair and just society.
BigBabyKenny —ever the optimist!