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Politics

Thailand's Cold War immigration tactics unnerve long-term foreigners

Draconian 24-hour reporting requirement inhibits freedom of movement

While the vast majority of foreign visitors enter Thailand on 30-day visas issued on arrival, most foreigners with longer visas must now report any address changes within 24 hours.   © Getty Images

BANGKOK -- Thailand's Immigration Bureau is sending a chill through the foreign business community, long-term expatriates, students and retirees following the full application in recent months of an onerous immigration law dating from 1979.

"According to section 38 of the 1979 immigration act, house owners, heads of household, landlords or managers of hotels who accommodate foreign nationals on a temporary basis who stay in the kingdom legally, must notify the local immigration authorities within 24 hours from the time of arrival of the foreign national," Thailand's immigration authorities recently advised.

Critics view the requirement as a Cold War relic dredged up from a bureaucratic silo, and compare it to some of the regulations in force in neighboring Myanmar (formerly Burma) that curtailed the movements of foreigners for decades after Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962.

Immigration officials, meanwhile, play down problems and recite the mantra "the law is the law." National security, they say, is paramount.

Police Maj. Gen. Patipat Suban Na Ayudhya, commander of Immigration Division 1, linked the clampdown directly to terrorism. "A couple of years ago, many cases happened in Thailand," he said during a panel discussion last week at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. "A lot of terrorists came here and did something not good to my country."

"Several things have been changing in Thailand and all over the world," Police Col. Thatchapong Sarwannangkul, an immigration superintendent, said at the same presentation. "Criminals are getting stronger each day, and that's why we have to make a balance between national security and [serving] you the best we can."

A Western security analyst based in Bangkok told the Nikkei Asian Review that the terrorist threat to Thailand has not noticeably increased, and that other factors are in play. "It's a cumulative sense that foreign criminality rather than terrorism has been running out of hand," he said. "This is a very conservative bureaucracy, and very typical that when confronted by new issues they go to a 40-year-old law -- they rush backwards to solve 2019 problems."

Thatchapong said compliance problems with the so-called TM30 rule are being exaggerated -- "Trust me, it's not that hard" -- but admitted that he has to work until 10 p.m. each night processing the paperwork.

While the vast majority of foreign visitors enter the kingdom on 30-day visas issued on arrival, most foreigners with longer visas must now report any changes in their address within 24 hours -- even for weekend trips out of town to private accommodation. They must also report their return.

This can be done by visiting an immigration office in person, sending an authorized intermediary, posting a registered letter, or by using an online system. Failure to comply results in compulsory fines ranging from 800 baht to 2,000 baht ($26 to $65).

Hoteliers have been required to submit the relevant TM30 foreign national notification forms to immigration authorities since the law's promulgation 40 years ago, using the standard forms filled in by guests upon arrival. The new requirement that private landlords -- some of whom own multiple properties -- must similarly notify the authorities of foreign nationals visiting or leasing their properties had been very spottily enforced in a few provinces, and not in Bangkok or other parts of the country, until recent months.

When the 1979 law was enacted, Thailand had well under 2 million tourist arrivals annually, but was experiencing major influxes of refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. This followed the fall of Indochina to communist forces in mid-1975, and the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam at the end of 1978.

Today, immigration control is a much changed proposition. Forecasts for legal arrivals in 2019 exceed 39 million, including an expected 11 million from China and 2 million from India.

Although the TM30 form should be submitted by the landlord or property owner, foreigners seeking visa extensions will have to produce the required documentation or face a fine.

"It impacts the foreigners not the landlords, because it is the foreigners who actually pay the fines," said Penrurk Phetmani, an immigration lawyer with Tilleke and Gibbins International, Thailand's oldest law firm.

Long immigration queues at Thai airports were blamed on staff shortages before additional TM30 reporting upped the Immigration Bureau's workload. (Photo by Richard Barrow)

To comply, foreigners must make sense of conflicting information from different law firms and immigration offices. A recent British arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand's main international gateway, who asked about TM30 requirements was met with polite but completely blank responses from immigration officers.

"We are not getting the correct information, and without correct information you cannot expect people to comply with what you require," said Christopher Bruton, the executive director of Dataconsult, which monitors business trends in the region. Bruton described the 24-hour reporting requirement as "extremely exacting" and suggested it be extended to something more manageable.

The turnaround on the registered post service takes over three weeks -- when it works -- in a country that operates an efficient postal service. And the online service falls far short of the aspirational "Thailand 4.0" status the country has been promoting to attract foreign investment by moving to "a value-based economy that is driven by innovation, technology and creativity."

Some applicants have been waiting over six weeks for online passwords that immigration officials say should be issued within seven days. Once accessed, applicants have encountered a poorly designed website that glitches frequently and is resistant to uploads.

The password delays appear to be down to processing times within immigration while officials attempt to check information before allowing approvals to go forward -- rather than using a retrospective system to speed matters up.

There have long been complaints that it can take longer to pass through immigration at Thai airports than to fly from neighboring countries because of staffing shortages. But senior immigration officials appear unsympathetic to their overloaded juniors.

"Our job is to make sure [officers] do the work properly," Police Col. Krissana Pattanacharoen, the Royal Thai Police spokesperson, told Khaosod English. "We are their supervisors. If they can't do it, there is no other option than handing down punishment."

Although he usually does not handle immigration processing for clients, Sebastian Brousseau, the French Canadian managing director of law firm Isaan Lawyers in Thailand's northeast, recently launched a website to draw attention to the problems caused by the new TM30 requirements. It attracted 5,000 signatures within 10 days.

"The law must be logical, rational, efficient," Brousseau said. "Foreigners, even if we are not citizens, have a voice, and we should have a dialogue with immigration to save some of our problems. Right now, I see a regression. I have clients who are leaving Thailand because they feel unwelcome."

Richard Barrow, an English expatriate, wrote on his widely followed blog: "Some have commented that it is like immigration swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer. For some reason, they don't seem to care what damage this is causing."

Observers trace the toughening of Thailand's stance back to 2016, when a former immigration commissioner, Police Lt. Gen. Nathathorn Prousoontorn, coined the slogan, "Good guys in, bad guys out." His latest successor, Police Maj. Gen. Sompong Chingduang, 55, came to the job in May with a reputation for no-nonsense crime busting.

Chris Larkin, director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and a member of its advocacy subcommittee, is promoting the issuance of pink identification cards to long-term foreigners that are already being used successfully by some 2 million migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Larkin said that his chamber's 400 mostly medium sized members are "concerned but not yet worried" about the TM30 issue. "Most people who come to invest in Thailand know they are investing in a country where there are regulatory challenges, one way or another. It is annoying but it is not a deal-breaker. It's very easy to come to Thailand, but it's a lot harder to stay longer."

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