Apec, ganja, World Cup football and the weakness of Thai planning


Public anger simmered over four big issues in Thailand in recent weeks. The plan to allow foreigners to own land, the Apec summit, the Public Health minister’s latest attempt to control cannabis use, and the last-minute deal for World Cup broadcast rights all sparked fiery debate. The hot issues burned the fingers of the powerful and are worth sharing here.

Amorn Wanichwiwatana

Special to The Nation

Let’s start with the Interior Ministry’s bid to attract investment from foreigners by offering them the right to buy Thai land. It came with assurances from high-ranking ministry officials that Thais would not lose out. Several praised the initiative as a perfect tool to boost investment needed to recover from the Covid crisis. But as the public outcry swelled, the same officials distanced themselves, claiming the idea was initiated long before the current government and needed amendments before being implemented. Many people complained that land-ownership rights would open the door to foreign criminals.

Public opposition then boiled over with reports that police had raided the Bangkok property of a Chinese tycoon who was posing as a diplomat. His grand house built on pricy land in the heart of Bangkok was stuffed with luxury furnishings, supercars and limousines displaying Thai and Chinese flags in the style of diplomatic vehicles. Authorities said the suspect often rode in the fake state cars accompanied by a police escort. I myself encountered something similar when I stayed at a Bangkok riverside hotel some months ago. I was surprised to see several Chinese in casual dress standing outside the hotel, chain-smoking and talking loudly in strong Chinese accents, surrounded by bodyguards with crewcuts. They fitted the image of mafiosos, but I had forgotten the brief encounter until the arrest of the Chinese business tycoon appeared in the headlines.

His arrest coincided with a police crackdown on five Chinese Triad gangs in Thailand.

Questions poured into the authorities, politicians and even celebrities.

Chuwit Kamolvisith, the former politician and massage parlour tycoon, claimed one alleged Chinese mafia boss was operating with help from certain Thai state officials. The allegation resulted in a furious war of words with a senior police officer who is no stranger to scandal.

Thai vice cops and the criminal underworld often make a perfect match, and it is very difficult to divide them in the eyes of criminologists and the public alike. Vice officers tread a thin line, associating with the bad guys in the line of duty. Many end up overstepping the mark, lured into the underworld by the promise of lucrative rewards.

As public tempers boiled over, the government suddenly shelved the move to legalise foreign ownership of Thai land.

A few years ago, Chinese gangsters in Thailand were reportedly running “zero-dollar tourism” schemes. Then they transformed themselves into call-centre scam operators, or ran illegal casinos to make big money. Now they are back with a new technique – marrying Thai women to gain Thai nationality and access everything a Thai citizen can do. There’s no doubt that buying Thai land or property, big or small, is not difficult for foreigners. They don’t need an extra law to assist them right now. I need to be careful with my words here to avoid any negative effects on our international relations. The vast majority of Chinese people in Thailand are not involved in these scams. However, many here have fallen victim to criminal schemes run by Chinese.

Meanwhile, the success of the Apec summit early this month sparked hope of a perfect outcome for host Thailand. Video clips of world leaders showcasing Thai food and culture went viral around the globe. However, a group of protestors broke out of the designated Bangkok rally site and clashed with riot police on the street. Many were wounded and took their cases to court, accusing the police of unwarranted violence, but there was little public outcry over the incident. Perhaps people remembered the Pattaya Asean summit a decade ago when protesters forced world leaders to flee, or maybe they were more concerned about the cost of living and bored with politics for now.

But the political show must go on – and it did! Smouldering controversy over the legalisation of cannabis finally caught fire. The Public Health Ministry insisted the move was aimed to boost public health by allowing medical use of the herb. Some coalition parties complained authorities could not control recreational ganja use, adding there was no “plan B” in case of rampant pot abuse.

Meanwhile, Thais’ anxiety was rising over whether they would get free broadcasts of the Fifa World Cup. Relief came when the Sports Authority of Thailand led by Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, secured a last-minute deal to broadcast all 64 matches of this year's tournament. But the broadcast-rights fiasco led many to question why the deal had not been planned ahead. Were authorities waiting for a Thai tycoon to step in like they did for Euro 2020, when Aerosof’s owner was hailed a national hero for contributing 300 million baht to buy the broadcast rights? Another mess followed the deal when the broadcasters complained True Corp had dominated the World Cup broadcast allocation with 32 of the 64 matches. As True was one of three conglomerates that stepped in to help the government buy the rights, many said it was a fair deal. Away from the money talk, we saw the huge leap that Asian football has made, with Japan stunning mighty Germany 2-1 and South Korea holding Uruguay to a draw.

In Thailand, unhealthy incidents happen all the time and everywhere, particularly when we implement our plans. Somehow, challenges and surprises seem to occur in our society more often than in other places. Why is that so? How about poor planning and the habit of sweeping uncertainties under the carpet?

Amorn Wanichwiwatana, DPhil (Oxon), is a former member of the Constitution Drafting Commission and a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.