What are we to make of the deputy premier’s belief that Islamic State terrorists are among foreigners overstaying their Thai visas?
No one doubts that better law enforcement at the various entry points to Thailand would help block unwanted elements. But nor does anyone doubt there are state officials and other people of influence who benefit financially from fines imposed on foreign visitors who overstay their visas and criminals operating in major cities who are willing and able to pay bribes.
Briefing reporters a couple of days ago about a planned crackdown on the estimated 100,000 foreign nationals who are currently overstaying their visas in Thailand, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said it was possible that Islamic State terrorists are among them. It’s not clear what Prawit had in mind when he made the statement, but political insiders have said the Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc), which he oversees, is seeking to expand its scope of operations into the realm of anti-corruption initiatives.
Debate never ceases over the reasons foreign visitors fail to renew their visas in a timely fashion, but it cannot be denied that a segment of the private and official establishment feeds on foreigners working in Thailand without the required work permit and those who overstay their visas. Countless foreigners working here without a permit routinely hire “runners” to take their passports to the border to gain an exit stamp and turn right around for a fresh tourist visa. Those who cannot afford this service simply proceed without the proper documentation, taking the chance that the authorities won’t catch them. If caught, they believe, often rightfully, their employers will bribe the authorities to let the matter pass.
Once in a blue moon, however, security chiefs decide a crackdown on visa mischief is in order. Buildings are raided, arrests are made and little regard is given to individual rights on these blind sweeps conducted in the name of “national security”. It’s no surprise there is scant consistency to such operations in terms of either policy or procedure. High-ranking officials also send out mixed and confusing signals, such as Prawit’s baffling statement linking visa abuse to Islamic State terrorism.
The deputy premier, who is also Defence minister, really must be clearer in his pronouncements, especially when they involve sensitive issues. He and the rest of the state security apparatus owe the public an explanation about this apparent terrorist presence in Thailand, if indeed there is one. They cannot toss notions about, heedless of their possible impact. The abuse of visa laws is one matter, the menace of terrorists quite another.
For half a century, Thailand has been an R&R (rest and recreation) destination for millions of participants in wars and war games taking place around the region. It has been home away from home for self-proclaimed freedom fighters and other combatants, from Khmer Rouge and Lao Hmong to Myanmar ethnic militants and Tamil Tigers, here to lie low, take a break or make a deal.
If it is deemed to be in Thailand’s interest, they’re given logistical support. If not, the authorities have often turned a blind eye, reasoning that the government can’t risk becoming mired in another nation’s conflicts. However, there are times when
turning a blind eye can only make matters worse. Foreign crime syndicates are operating in Pattaya and Phuket with little restraint – and in fact often with the cooperation of the local authorities.