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Thailand's foreign businesses balk at stricter immigration tracking

Onerous TM30 rule threatens smooth operations with no clear security upside

BANGKOK -- The organization representing the foreign business community in Thailand has broken its silence on a decision by the country's Immigration Bureau to fully apply an onerous immigration law that dates back to 1979.

For months, foreigners working and residing in Thailand have been venting about dramatically increased immigration reporting requirements under a regulation known as TM30. But it was not until late last week that the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand (JFCCT) issued a statement on the urgent need for a rethink. The umbrella body also sent a letter of "concerns and recommendations" to Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda.

"Ease of doing business is a hallmark of any nation's attractiveness for trade, investment and tourism," said Stanley Kang, the JFCCT's Taiwanese chairman. "TM30 is undoing those good achievements. Our neighbors do not have this continuous tracking requirement."

TM30 is intended to closely monitor the movements of foreigners. The regulation requires house owners, landlords or hotel managers who accommodate visitors from overseas to notify immigration authorities within 24 hours of the person's arrival. The decision to apply it after four decades in abeyance has baffled foreign businesspeople, long-term expatriates, students and retirees.

The chairman of the JFCCT, which comprises 33 chambers with 9,000 member companies, questioned the Immigration Bureau's rationale that the more stringent reporting requirements will be effective in combating crime and terrorism. "This particular form does not seem to be the best way to do this as it relies on self-disclosure," Kang said.

Kang noted that those with business visas and work permits already disclose their places of residence and work. They are also still required to reconfirm their residential address every 90 days at an immigration office using another reporting form, the TM47.

The commander of Immigration Division 1 said the bureau was making efforts to ease the burden on foreigners.

"Some of the rules may not be modern, but we are trying," Police Maj. Gen. Patipat Suban Na Ayudhya told Khaosod English. "We will not always be million-year-old turtles, but in terms of the law, we have no power to change it. It's not under our authority... if you want change, you have to change the law."

David Lyman, a U.S. lawyer and former president of the American Chamber of Commerce, said that police officers were not to blame for the situation. "Publicly they cannot criticize this law, or their superiors who command them to enforce it and who do have the power to modify it," he wrote in a group email.

The full enforcement of the TM30 rule barely affects most tourists, but it creates a major headache for foreigners who are staying longer.   © Reuters

TM30 reporting requirements have always been observed by properly licensed hotels -- they are completed when guests check in -- but not until recently by private landlords renting or leasing properties to foreign nationals.

Although the rules barely affect the vast majority of tourists who visit on 30-day visas, they now pose a serious threat to any foreigner staying longer. Landlords who do not report the arrival of foreign tenants -- even for a single night -- within the required 24 hours risk fines ranging from 800 baht ($26) to 2,000 baht. The fines, however, are generally paid by the foreigners if they wish to renew their visas.

Several theories are being floated as to why the rules are now being fully applied.

One is the arrival in May of a new immigration chief, Police Maj. Gen. Sompong Chingduang, who is keen to burnish his no-nonsense, crime-busting credentials. Another is that immigration officials are opportunistically stoking their cash flows with additional fees and fines. And a third is that vested tourism and property development interests are lobbying against disruptive players in the travel industry, such as California-based Airbnb.

"The immigration guys saw there were definitely some more revenues and fines from foreigners to be collected," a veteran European hotel general manager in Bangkok told the Nikkei Asian Review. But he also said he believed a combination of other factors played a part, including disgruntlement over stressful working conditions at the Immigration Bureau.

During a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand last month, Patipat broke an old taboo among Thai law enforcers by admitting that terrorism can occur in Thailand. "A lot of terrorists came here and did something not good to my country," he said.

Foreign terrorist acts are extremely rare in Thailand. By far the most serious was the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok in August 2015 that left 20 dead and 125 wounded. The atrocity was linked to a people-smuggling operation moving Muslim Uighurs from China to Turkey through Thailand and Malaysia. The gang had been operating for months from a rundown private apartment block in Nong Chok, in eastern Bangkok.

Nikkei asked a Western security analyst if he thought TM30 reporting -- if it had been operative at that time -- would have made a difference. "There is no reason why that single TM30 report, amid hundreds of thousands of other reports from foreigners returning from a weekend visit to the beach, would have attracted any attention whatsoever," he said.

Meanwhile, some foreign business leaders are optimistic that the clampdown will be short-lived.

"TM30 has now attracted attention at the highest levels," Eric Brand, chair of the JFCCT tourism committee, told Nikkei. "We are confident that TM30 will be abandoned soon."

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