Bangkok, Thailand – On a recent weekday evening, as dusk fell across Bangkok and bored-looking hostesses beckoned tourists into empty bars, the police moved into position.
At checkpoints clustered in Bangkok’s nightlife-heavy areas, officers prepared to spend the night administering alcohol tests, drug tests, and passport checks.
Many would simply do their job, but by morning, claims of extortion, threats and harassment that have tourists walking out and expatriates fearing for their safety would again start trickling in.
Senior police and embassy officials said they are investigating claims that the checkpoints – the latest military government action to “restore order” – have been systematically abused to extort money from foreigners.
“We’d like to have more information on it [harassment claims] … If you have any clear information or others do, don’t hesitate to call us,” said Sunshine Ratanatanich, a spokeswoman for the Royal Thai Police. “You can come here to the foreign affairs division of the Royal Thai police or contact directly with the embassies, which have police attaches.”
Police officials in Bangkok met last week with Dave Bell, a restaurateur and an administrator of a popular Facebook group that collects reports of unwarranted police searches, urging those affected to come forward.
“I thought [Lieutenant General] Prawut [Thavornsiri] and [Major General] Apichat [Thi-amart] were very serious about investigating the issues raised. I found them both to be very approachable and felt they both were intent on improving the image of the Royal Thai Police,” said Bell.
“I was extremely impressed that the RTP contacted me and asked me to come in.”
Martial law tourism
Checkpoints are just the latest potentially misguided cleanup move by Thailand’s junta.
It's good in terms of restoring order to society, but it's not good in terms of the economic situation and now people are sometimes too scared to go out.
Since the May 22 coup, the government has cracked down on Bangkok’s legendary nightlife and pushed forward bar closing hours.
On some beaches, a much-lampooned effort to clear the sand has seen officials pulling umbrellas from tourists’ hands.
“Hotels are suffering, restaurants are suffering, bars are suffering. This is our high season and there are definitely less people around,” said David Jacobson, the American owner of Smalls bar.
“The foreign community feels like they’re being targeted.”
On social media and local websites, stories have proliferated of degrading shakedowns. People have spoken of steep fines for not carrying a passport, public police pat downs, and hundreds of dollars extorted after false positive tests.
Those who have been stopped, and spoke on condition of anonymity, said police sometimes appear eager to frighten and humiliate their marks.
“They force a test and no matter [if] you had one beer or 10 you’re positive,” said TM, who explained that bribes are demanded with most tests.
The deejay from the United States, who asked to be identified by only his initials, said he gets stopped “almost daily”.
While officials have been adamant that drug tests are to be applied only when there is a strong suspicion of use, and only at police stations, TM recounted being pulled from his car and ordered by police to take one on the side of the street.
“People who live here won’t go out, tourists won’t come back. I got friends coming in this month. I’m scared to take them out right now.”
Even police who deny that foreigners have been targeted admit there may be opportunists among the ranks taking advantage of the situation.
“It’s corrupt police, bad police,” said Lance Corporal Nakhontham Rumsanit of the Crimes Suppression Division in Thonglor district when asked about extortion cases.
“As far as I know, police at this station don’t take bribes from people, but I don’t know about the others.”
Nakhontham estimated that 20 people are stopped at Thonglor checkpoints each night and stressed that most of them are Thai – a detail hotly contested by those following the cases.
As for urine drug testing, said Nakhontham, it was to be applied only in rare cases when “they look really suspicious, or really drunk”.
“They can’t force you,” he added. “They don’t have any right to force you [if you refuse].”
Like the police spokeswoman Sunshine, Nakhontham said the stops were intended to “restore order”.
But he admitted there are deleterious effects. “It’s good in terms of restoring order to society, but it’s not good in terms of the economic situation, and now people are sometimes too scared to go out.”
This is a potentially awkward blow to the military government, which has sought to promote martial law as a boon for tourists by guaranteeing a “safe” holiday.
|Thai police have been accused of shaking down tourists [AP]|
In October, to the bemusement of many, the Tourism Authority of Thailand announced the launch of a campaign advertising martial law as a travel perk.
But it appears to have missed the mark.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Tourism, which run through October, show an unprecedented 8.7 percent drop in arrivals compared to the same period last year.
In the month of October, arrivals did increase by 6 percent, but that represents a major levelling out in a country that previously posted a 14 percent increase year-on-year.
During the last coup in 2006, tourism still managed to increase.
Of half-a-dozen embassies contacted, most told Al Jazeera they were aware of the harassment reports but hadn’t seen an increase in complaints themselves.
“However, if people experience something like this it is not necessarily something they would involve the embassy in,” said Sandra Landi, deputy head of mission at the Danish embassy.
On Twitter, British Ambassador Mark Kent said last week he had raised the issue of “stop and search in Bangkok” with Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul.
“The minister took note of the reports we cited and promised to follow up. [She] said there was no campaign.”
Additional reporting was contributed by Rin Jirenuwat