The Long Arm Of The Law
As a fairly frequent traveller, if I know I am going to be spending any time in a foreign country, I like to read up on the place in advance and check out the “do’s and don’ts” of the place I am visiting. I am sure I am not alone in doing this, and a reasonable amount of research is likely to save you a hell of a lot of grief at some unknown point in the future.
I did my “due diligence” before my first ever trip to Thailand, and learned some of the basics about what to do and what not to do. It would be arrogant of me to write this as an advice piece, as I am sure that many of the readers and contributors to this site are much more experienced than I, but I will mention a few things and how I found them relevant, rather than give readers the impression I am the fount of all knowledge on matters Thai. I am not.
I would start off by saying how many amongst us would have ever thought the soles of the feet and the top of the head could be such controversial areas? When you hear the explanation given for this, you might be inclined to think in terms of “third world superstitious claptrap”, and you might even be right. The point is it is also a part of the culture, and just because we don’t see any rationale for it, doesn’t mean we should disrespect it.
Another matter I learned about was the reverence in which the King is held. I for one, see all forms of Monarchy as anachronistic. The reason for this is the principle of primogeniture is hardly any way to decide who should rule a country. For instance, if Queen Elizabeth of England’s son, Prince Charles, was born mentally retarded, he would still become the King of England in due course.
It is not very well known, but before an Act of Parliament in England becomes law, it has to receive the Royal Assent. If the Bill was placed before the Queen and she found it so objectionable, she refused to sign, it could not become law. Of course, it would also require she abdicate. Not so much a Queen; more a Queen Bee with one sting that would lead to her own demise.
So far, the Monarchy has never exercised this power, though Queen Victoria came very close to it regarding a Sexual Offences Act in the 19th Century. While she was reading the Bill, she came across references to lesbianism. She refused to believe women could do such things and refused to sign. The then Prime Minister, faced with a potential constitutional crisis arranged to have the offending sections deleted, and the amended bill eventually became law. So until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 1965, we had the position in the UK that homosexuality was illegal, but lesbianism wasn’t.
Anyway, to return to the point, I have already said, I am not in favour of Monarchy as a form of government, but nevertheless, it is necessary to deal with local sensitivities appropriately. Though I find myself opposed to the idea of Monarchy, I am even more uncomfortable with the idea, of lese majeste, and there are laws that can lead to draconian penalties if you speak badly of the Monarchy in Thailand. The issue is not that I want to talk badly, but one of freedom of speech, which to me, is the cornerstone of any free society.
Regardless of the freedom of speech issue, I have to accept if I am in someone else’s country, I have to respect their laws and traditions, no matter what I think, in the same way that I would respect religious beliefs though I am an atheist, which brings me on to behaviour at Buddhist Temples. It is not rocket science, to know in any religious establishment, if you cannot be reverential, you should at least be respectful, and dress and behave appropriately, which includes no groping or outward displays of affection to your girlfriend.
I remember many years ago visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on a Sunday morning. Notre Dame combines both tourism and religious devotion, and it is not unusual for tour guides to take parties around the church discreetly while services are conducted. I was in one of the side chapels perhaps 25 yards away from the main altar, when a group of Americans, mainly women, came in. While the tour guide was explaining the history of that particular chapel, a second similar group came in.
All of a sudden, a woman in one group let out a loud screeching whoop. This was almost immediately followed by a similar response from another woman in the second group, followed by a stream of “shhhh” from the congregants as well as the Tour Guides. It turned out that the two women were old friends. As the women exchanged greetings at the top of their voices, the service on the main altar came to a halt. An Irish Nun, who had been following the service, left her pew to remonstrate with the tour parties who by now were busy introducing themselves to each other like it was a reunion party.
As the Nun explained that there were people trying to worship, and the tour parties should show more respect, one of the whoopers became very irate, and explained how Notre Dame, Paris, France, Europe and the rest of the world were going to benefit from the dollars she had spent and was about to continue spending, and the Nun needed to calm down. By this time, the Tour Guides were becoming very embarrassed, and were doing their best to calm the situation. Cut a long story short, the Americans from both parties were offended at the lack of hospitality shown by the French, and left en masse in a noisy crowd while shouting at anybody who tried to ask them to be respectful. I remember hearing one shout she would not be coming back. I am sure that this brought some consolation to the congregants.
As well as local culture and customs, I also read up on the “vice laws”, drinking, smoking, gambling, women etc. I always found it something of a paradox, you can’t buy alcohol in a supermarket and some restaurants between 2 and 5 pm, but you are free to get as drunk as you want in bar. Many years ago when London had some of the worst licensing laws in the world, many West End pubs had what were called “Supper licences”. This allowed pubs to stay open an extra hour, as long as they were serving a meal with the drink. For many, a meal was a cheese sandwich cut into four, and shared. After a while, the Police took exception to this and started raiding pubs with supper licences, and one by one, all these licences were revoked, and closing time went back to 11 pm. This led to a situation where if you were in the largest city in Europe, it was impossible to get an alcoholic drink after 11.00 pm unless you were in a private club, or a guest in a hotel.
Until 1915, there were no restrictions on when a pub could open or close, but during World War One, the then Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, complained that workers in the munitions factories were spending too much time in the pubs, and not enough time making bombs and bullets. As a result, the pubs went from 24 hour opening to eight hours a day (five on a Sunday) as a temporary measure. This temporary measure lasted 75 years and it wasn’t until 1990, they started to liberalise pub opening hours in the UK. Of course, the idea it was a “temporary measure” that lasted 75 years should not have been a surprise to Britain. Income Tax was also introduced as a ‘temporary measure’ to fund the war against Napoleon.
With regard to gambling, apart from the lottery in Thailand, it appears that it is banned in all forms. I recently read of the arrest of a number of bargirls who were gambling with playing cards when a member of the best police force money can buy happened to pass by, so it is sometimes enforced. I am aware there is a racecourse in BKK, but as to whether it has any betting facilities, I don’t know.
Now I have always taken a view on gambling very similar to my views on prostitution. It has been around virtually forever, and you are not going to get rid of it, so why not legalise it? If you look around the world, where either of these activities are illegal, it is not uncommon for organised crime to fill the void. How many stories have we seen of a Farang who married a local girl, only to find out she had gambled away all the spouse’s money to local heavies, just to prove the case in point?
My first trip to LOS coincided with the 2006 World Cup, and I recall reading an article in the Bangkok Post, where they carried out a survey, and though I don’t recall the exact figure, I recall it involved billions of Thai Baht, that Thais had admitted they were going to gamble on the World Cup via the Internet to extra-territorial bookies. This is only one event, and with gambling all the year round, one wonders what the true scale of illegal gambling is in Thailand.
As I said, I take the view if you can’t eradicate it, a better option is to regulate. Apart from reducing the criminal element, it creates employment, and contributes to the local economy through taxation. As an aside, there is the story of Queen Victoria, who was being shown the benefits of electric lighting for the first time. When she asked what the real benefits were, she was told that every house could have electric light, to which Her Majesty replied pointedly, “And….?”
The entrepreneur realising that it wasn’t necessarily obvious to the Queen as to the benefits of this, racked his brains for an answer to impress her. He then suggested that the government could then tax this, which did impress HM.
In my view, the most important laws relate to potential sex crimes. I say this because most laws are commonsense, to the extent that we understand that people have property rights, as well as the right to go about their lawful daily routine without fear of violence, so it’s a ‘no-brainer’ not to worry too much about acquainting yourself with these laws as they will be what we experience in our own country.
However, when we get into the area of ‘sex’ there is a virtual minefield to walk through. Before I started writing this, I did a bit of research on issues such as Age of Consent. The extremes are amazing. For example in Saudi Arabia, there can be no consent outside of marriage, and adultery is a capital crime for which the ultimate penalty is public beheading. At the other end of the extreme, a few countries do not recognise the concept of “Age of Consent” (AOC) so technically, there would be no laws to deal with paedophilia.
The Vatican City has set the age at 12, whereas Italy has set the age at 14. This poses the question that if a pedo brings a 12 year old Italian girl into the Vatican for the purposes of ‘consensual’ sex, which laws (if any) has he broken?
In most of South East Asia, there is a two-tier AOC with the limit being set at 15 for ‘local on local’ which rises to 18 for ‘farang on local’. <Never heard of this before and while I cannot speak for other countries it is certainly NOT the case for Thailand where the age of consent is 18, or 15 if the parents of the person aged 15, 16 or 17 consent, or most confusingly, 18 if she is a sex worker remembering that prostitution is technically illegal. Nationality is not relevant – Stick> As the issue of pedo-tourism has become more publicised, various countries have passed laws to bring their own citizens who indulge in this to justice or to extradition. Though the UK has passed laws to this effect, I have no knowledge of anyone who has so far been brought to book on this, but it does raise some interesting scenarios.
One example is there is a long standing convention that we do not extradite to other countries for matters which are not illegal in the UK in the first place. So if the AOC is 16 in England, would we arrest someone who was charged with having sex with a 17 year old Thai girl? In England he has done nothing wrong, but in S.E. Asia, he is a paedophile, and in Vietnam, can face the death penalty.
Transnational legal issues can always produce contradictions. I recall in the 1960’s, the story of a British Student who skipped bail in Athens after being charged with burning the Greek flag as a protest (an offence that carried a maximum penalty of five years in a Greek prison), and the UK refused to even entertain a request for extradition. American on the other hand see flag burning as protected under the First Amendment as freedom of speech.
Of course, if you are Norwegian, you face the rather unique situation where their government, in its wisdom, has made it illegal to pay for sex worldwide by any of its citizens. This conjures up the image of the Sex Police waiting to question anybody with a Thai entry stamp as they land at Oslo Airport, as to exactly what they spent their hard earned Krona on while they were in LOS and the possibility of having to produce receipts just to prove that he has not spent his money on pleasures of the flesh.
Most laws are reactionary, which generally means they are introduced in answer to a problem. I can only think of one law passed before a crime was actually committed; The Alchemists Act, which made it illegal to turn base metal into gold under penalty of being burnt at the stake. Apart from being the only law passed before a crime was committed, it is probably also the only law where nobody was ever prosecuted for breaking it.
When you consider the implications of both British and Norwegian law to prosecute their own nationals for alleged and sometimes victimless crimes committed abroad, you can start to believe the phrase “The Long Arm Of The Law”. Conversely, just like the Alchemists Act, nothing undermines the reputation of the law more than a law which is ignored by both its breakers and it’s enforcers.
And then in some countries you also have hassles from the police when you haven't done something wrong in the first place – but are led to believe you may spend a long time in awful conditions in prison if you do not comply with their "wishes"!