Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Ancient Guardian Monk – Luang Pu Thuat Pt. II

Luang Pu Thuat
 The Ancient Guardian Monk, Part II

          In a recent post, I wrote up some brief stories about Luang Pu Thuat, a highly revered monk from the south of Thailand.

          I have always been an idealist and going to Cooley Law School sharpened that idealism. I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for the last couple of years while my wife and I begin our family.  But this story and the next one are about how Luang Pu Thuat protected me while I was in Thailand. Both stories take place on the Thai-Malaysia border at the Sadao checkpoint, which can be a very dangerous place for the unwary foreigner. Many of us foreigners go to the Thai Consulate in Penang to get our visas processed. We pass through Thai Immigration in Sadao on the way home.

          I have made the trip about half a dozen times in the last few years. On my way home a year ago, something new happened. As we got out of the van to get our passports stamped at the Sadao checkpoint, the van driver told everyone in the van to make sure that we put 200 baht1in our passports to ensure that there were “no problems” going through the checkpoint. (Of course, this didn’t sit well with me.)

          Of the 10 people in the van, I was the only one who did not put the bribe into my passport. One young lady from our van was ahead of me, but in another line. I heard the immigration officer say something to her, but couldn’t make it out because she was a bit too far away. A few people in line in front of me were stamped through in the time that it took her to get through in her line. Her officer looked irritated, but I had no time to think about that since it was now my turn at the window.

          I handed my passport to the immigration officer. He looked at it for a couple of minutes, which was quite noticeably longer than any of the 3 people who were just in line before me. Then the questions began. He asked “how you get Non-B visa?2” (This is the visa for doing business or working without wanting to immigrate and become a Thai citizen. It is a very common visa.)

          “I went to the Thai Consulate in Penang,” I said.

          “How you get non-B? You must have work permit first,” he replied.

          “Really?” I asked. Now, where I went to law school, we would get grilled on the cases and law in every class. We all knew to never be unprepared for a legal situation, and I hadn’t slouched here. I had looked up and even downloaded the official English translations of Thai Immigration law and the accompanying regulatory rules. The officer thought that he would “help” me, though3, and clarify these new “changes” to the law.

          “No, no. Must have work permit first, then visa,” the officer replied.

          “Really?!?” I asked, with mock surprise.

          “Yes, really,” he replied.

          “Did they change the law?” I asked.

          “Yes, they changed the law,” he replied with an attitude of being serious and trying to be helpful at once.

          “When did they change the law?” I asked. “Because I read the Thai law, and it said we must have a contract to get a visa, and a visa to get a work permit.”

          “No, no,” he replied, “the law changed. Work permit, then visa, then contract.”

          “When was that?” I asked with feigned confusion. I held up 3 fingers and continued, “because I looked up the law 3 days ago, and it said contract, visa, and then work permit.”

          "Change law only short time ago," he replied.

          This went on for a few more rounds of back and forth. A few things were becoming obvious at this point. First, I knew the law and was not going to be pushed around by a petty, corrupt bureaucrat4. Second, the officer had his heart set on extorting that 200 baht bribe from me. Third, he was not going to openly tell me to give him the 200 baht in order to get through5. Lastly, he was getting irritated with my stubborn “ignorance.” His frustration was turning to anger, and beginning to show on his face. When you live in a culture where people are expected to show a smile at all times, you really notice when the happy expressions disappear. He was beginning to stare at me, and I had the feeling that the next step was to take me into the back office.

          If I were taken to the back office, there are a few possibilities of what could happen. First, they could just harass me until I grovelled like a dog, then they would let me go (after paying the bribe, of course.) Second, as part of the process, they could begin to lie even more about what Thai law actually says, and come up with other “problems” that would result in severe “fines.” Third, they could just trump up some charges, or even plant some evidence, and arrest me6. I was on a razor’s edge, and we both knew it. That’s when the lessons of my martial arts teachers began to repeat themselves in my mind: “conflict is about space.”

          I took 2 steps back from the immigration officer to create a little physical space. Then I looked quietly and pensively at him to make mental space. I scratched my head and let my other hand absentmindedly fall to the Luang Pu Thuat amulet that I wear all the time. I began to rub the little amulet between my thumb and first two fingers. Then everything changed again.

          “Luang Pu Thuat!?!” exclaimed the immigration officer.

          “Yes, yes, Luang Pu Thuat!” I replied7.

          The situation had just flipped 180 degrees. Between his broken English and my broken Thai, we had a little conversation. I said that I knew Luang Pu Thuat was a ‘very good’ monk in my limited Thai, and that I had been a monk at a local temple the year before. I then told him that I was married to a Thai woman and that we had a baby daughter. That was it. He said he would let me through “one time,” and stamped my passport.  How nice of him!

          Of course, this delayed me, and the rest of the van’s passengers were waiting for me. A few expressed shock that I was able to get through without paying the bribe. I then found out why the young lady that was ahead of me in the other line was delayed. She had forgotten8 to put the 200 baht in her passport. The officer gave her the passport back and told her “show me the money.” Literally. I asked her twice if she was serious that those were his exact words, and she confirmed. He actually said it twice. She thought she misheard him the first time, but he repeated: “show me the money.” She put the 200 baht in her passport, and he stamped her through with no further problem.

          It was nerve wracking to not know if you would be arrested for refusing to pay a bribe. I was glad that it was over, for another year at least.

          A quick note on some of the terms I usei. For these articles, I am only dealing with bribery and extortion in the context of a government official.

          Bribery is a payment given to ensure better than fair treatment. A person who pays and the officer that accepts are both guilty of bribery.

          Extortion is when a payment is made to because the payor9 is threatened with less than fair treatment. Normally, we consider the payor to be a victim who is only buying back a level of fairness that was wrongly denied to him.

          There is some confusion about this however. The money exchanged in extortion is still often called a bribe. (This makes sense because the extortioner is demanding the bribe, instead of merely accepting it.) Some nation’s laws do not make a distinction between the extortion victim who pays to get back to fairness and the briber that pays for more than fairness. The result is that victims can be charged with bribery when they are actually victims of extortion.

1The Thai unit of money. 200 baht was worth about $6.50 at the time. As a foreign English teacher I made about 1,500 baht per day. So, 200 baht isn’t much, but it’s also not trivial.
2No disrespect to the officer with the broken English. That’s how he spoke. I promise, though, that this is much clearer and easier to understand than the officer’s original words.
3“Help” me get rid of some baht.
4This was only obvious to me, apparently.
5The common procedure for getting a bribe is done in a few steps. First, the government official finds a problem. This can be a real problem in an application, such as not having the correct documents. It can also be a made up problem that they create by ignoring what the law actually says. Second, they hesitate and ‘calmly’ argue with the applicant until the applicant is confused and frustrated. This creates a situation where the applicant will ask something like “what can I do to make this right?” This leads to the third step, and that is telling the applicant how much they will have to pay.
6If this sounds outlandish, please check out this story: http://thailandjustice.com/koh-tao-appeal-case-information-information-defense/
7At this point in the conversation, I began to speak as much Thai as I could because the subject was changing to one where I knew some Thai to speak. It was still barely any Thai, but Thai people are usually happy if foreigners at least try to speak a little of the language.
8She honestly forgot. She was willing to pay the bribe in order to avoid problems.
9Payor: the person paying.

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