Readers' Submissions

Economics or Xenophobia?




Thailand is a beautiful country: all those charming beaches, soft smooth sand, palm trees, iced coconuts just waiting for your enjoyment as you sit on a lounge chair underneath a colorful umbrella, relaxing after a dip in the pleasantly warm ocean. Smiling locals waiing and bowing, catering to your every whim.

Paradise on earth for vacationers. What a life here in the tropics.

I always believed that to really know a place, one should live there and not in a hotel either.

Rent a bungalow, go to the local markets, hang out and observe life as it carries on around you. It would be nice to learn the language, get a job, become close to your neighbors.

There are two types of travel chroniclers. The first are people from The New York Times, Frommers or Fodors recommending the best restaurants, the finest hotel and guided tours. How nice.

Even the good old Lonely Planet is so popular now that it seems gentrified.

The second type are the people who have really traveled, been there, done that. People like Ryszard Kapuscinski, Paul Theroux, Peter Pinney, Eric Newby. Okay, letีs not get carried away. I’m no adventurer. I live a quiet life in peaceful Phuket.

However, living here full time, one tends to witness a bit more than the passing tourist does.

Sometimes the experience of observation is forced upon you. Like seeing tourists shopping in a large department store without shirts or vacationers walking into restaurants dressed only in bathing suits.

I can only imagine that these people act equally as stupid back home.

I had just returned on a flight from Bangkok with two young Thai ladies. They had never been to the beach before and had never seen the ocean. We drove straight to Nai Harn beach and stepped out of the car for a clear view.

We were appropriately dressed, just having departed from the Thai Airways plane. We were not holding hands and were behaving quite properly, just standing there enjoying the scenery when three beach boys, lounge rental guys, began shouting to my companions.

ิLetีs go” the girls said.

Once in the car and driving away, I asked what happened.

ิThey called us whores because we are with a farang.ี

Well, not very nice I thought. But here I am pulling up in a new car, in air-conditioned comfort with two cuties and there they are in the hot sun trying to rent out beach chairs for a hundred baht.

Possibly life did not seem fair to them at that moment. Was it economics or xenophobia or a bit of both?

On the other hand there is a lovely Thai couple living next door to me and they are always pleasant and polite.

Itีs their vacation home and they have a Mercedes parked in the driveway.

Do they resent me? Are they angry because I have a new car or a Thai girlfriend? I donีt think so.

I was turning onto my street the other day when a Thai man drove by on his Honda Dream and shouted something to me. Wow, my Thai girlfriend was hopping mad. She was fuming; she was in a foul black mood.

Again I was clueless.

ิWhat did he say?ี

ิHe called you a buffalo.ี

ิSo?ี I smiled. ิWhy did he shout that to me?ี

She patiently explained to me that itีs the worst insult in the world.

ิArenีt you angry? Why didnีt you shout back to him?ี She said.

I explain that I am feeling pretty happy at the moment and that man bellowing has no effect on my mood.

Itีs his problem and not mine.

But really, why did he have an attitude? Was it because I was a foreigner and was with an attractive Thai girl

Or was it because I was driving a new car? Okay itีs only a Toyota, so I am not bragging.

Or was it some of both? Was it because of his lower economic position?

Itีs a well known fact that if life is not going smoothly, then one tends to be bothered by the smaller problems and inconveniences. The opposite holds true as well; if you have a happy life the little annoyances are no trouble at all, hardly worth thinking about.

I remembered my time in New York City when I was going out with a black girl. Now hold on all you politically correct African-Americans and hot headed hip hoppers; donีt get yourselves into an uproar.

She really was a black girlั from Haiti.

Hey, white people are from Haiti too. I would say Caucasian but no less an authority than Wikipedia claims that the term is often offensive – as relating to one of the traditional divisions of humankind, covering a broad group of peoples from Europe, western Asia, parts of India and north Africa.

Go figure.

Anyway to continue, New York being a very cosmopolitan city, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to us.

It was a quite different circumstance when I was dating an African-American young lady. Men of color, blacks, African-Americans, and Hispanics would holler at us. (now hold on hopper, the phrase ิcolored peopleี is a politically incorrect but the term ิpeople of colorี is properly used in reference to other non-white ethnic groups).

Once again I had no idea what was happening.

She had to explain to me that these people were angry that we were together.

I did notice that no one that was well dressed (black or white) had ever scolded us.

The people that had attempted to rebuke us were all dressed less than humbly.

I was not angry or annoyed by people ranting on the street, just curious as to why they were so disturbed.

Could their economic and social status (or rather the lack of it) be fueling their anger?

My girlfriend of the moment did not help matters by giving the gentlemen in question the finger and shouting back, ิYou donีt think that I would go out with you do you? Are you crazy? Why would I go out with someone like you?ี

But back to Thailand. What about the Foreign Business Act and all of itีs implications for the Thai people and foreign investors? Over the past seven months, successive Thai governments have passed measures scrutinizing land purchases by non-Thais and clamping down on long-stay retirees and expatriate workers who lack proper visas. In January, 2007, the cabinet passed a sweeping bill that tightens restrictions on foreign companies, a measure that awaits final approval.

"There's been a trend that suggests rising economic nationalism," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. Under proposed new rules for foreign investors, companies such as Federal Express might have to give up control of their operations in Thailand. Car and electronics manufacturers could be barred from delivering their cars or disk drives to ports for export; only Thai-owned companies would be allowed to transport items within the country.

Retail chains ั big ones like Carrefour and hundreds of smaller ones ั could be frozen out of future expansion.

Land purchases by thousands of foreigners could be declared illegal.

These amendments to the Foreign Business Act were approved by the Thai cabinet in January and are now under review by the Council of State, an independent government body of legal experts. With a few exceptions such as condominiums and small plots, foreigners are barred from owning property in Thailand. But many have skirted these laws by registering shell companies, a practice that the government now promises to stop.

There are not going to be any winners on this one.

Is it xenophobia? What else could it be?

But it is tinged with the fear of foreign investment, the power of money the Thais do not have, so economics are a factor here also.

And the new law – three visa stamps and you are out. In September, just before the coup, the head of the country's immigration department announced that foreign tourists would be limited to staying in Thailand for 90 days within any six- month period.

This was primarily aimed at foreign retirees who take up permanent residence without proper paperwork and the thousands of people working here without the proper visas.

This will certainly stop people vacationing here for six months or longer and from purchasing homes as will the Foreign Business Act.

Who will suffer? The average Thai worker of course.

I know a half a dozen retired men that have moved to Cambodia as they do not have the 800,000 baht necessary to obtain a yearly visa and have only a small income. But the point is – All of that money was spent here in Thailand in the local small shops.

Are the Thais ravaging their economy for the sake of their xenophobia?

Are they happy about this?

Can we just stay home and send them money?

Here on the southern resort island of Phuket, roadside billboards advertise million-dollar condominiums – this in a country where a local schoolteacher is lucky to bring home a few hundred dollars a month. In northeastern Thailand, men from Germany, Switzerland, Britain and other Western countries live with their Thai wives on neatly groomed streets that stand out from ramshackle neighboring villages.

Itีs facts of life like this that must foster envy, jealousy and xenophobia. It's unfortunate that the majority of visitors and expatriates do not visit the rural areas near Chang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Possibly things are different there.

The residents up country may be more tolerant and patient. We could be less resented and even liked and esteemed.

But I really doubt it.

Some of these new policies are just so dammed short-sighted. Protecting your economy and your people is one thing, but they don’t seem to look beyond the end of today, and don’t look at the bigger picture.

Stickman's thoughts:

Welcome back, Frank. Excellent article.