Littering is against the law and offenders should be punished, but some say the capital city’s inspectors are perhaps a little too vigilant
- Published: 29/08/2010 at 05:06 AM
- Newspaper: Bangkok Post
Many foreign tourists in Bangkok have complained they have been “burned” after being fined for littering by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s (BMA) inspectors. An investigation by a Spectrum team lasting several weeks has revealed that foreign tourists appear to be the targets of the city’s uniformed inspectors.
CAUGHT SMOKING: A French couple line up at a BMA booth to pay a fine for littering.
Commonly known as the “cigarette police”, the BMA’s inspectors, known in Thai as thetsakij, appear to ignore most of the city’s litterbugs _ a look down any of Bangkok’s main roads will reveal piles of garbage _ and only catch foreign tourists who drop cigarette butts.
Even the Spectrum team was harassed by the thetsakij as they gathered evidence and conducted interviews with people who had been caught and fined for littering.
In fact, the author if this story had a brush with the thetsakij outside Benjasiri Park _ one of the many downtown areas they operate in _ which could only be described as an act of intimidation and harassment (see sidebar story).
FRIGHTENED: Two German women pay their fine on the skywalk outside the MBK building.
Dropping a cigarette butt, a bus ticket or anything else on a public street is certainly illegal, but it is not a serious crime. But to police this relatively small crime, the BMA has assigned dozens of uniformed officials to enforce the littering law, especially in the central parts of Bangkok frequented by foreign tourists.
What the Spectrum team witnessed during their investigation appeared to be more of a money-making enterprise than law enforcement. It should also be pointed out that the Spectrum team didn’t see a single Thai person being apprehended for littering, only foreigners.
Some shop owners and residents of central Bangkok that Spectrum spoke to suggested the inspectors would provide a better service to the public by evicting or fining the dozens of vendors who cook food on the streets and block both pedestrians and traffic.
A number of shopkeepers and vendors interviewed along Sukhumvit and Rama 1 roads where the thetsakij operate said they had hardly ever seen them catch and fine Thai people _ perhaps yet another set of double standards in Thailand? Readers can make up their own minds.
Here are some examples:
GERMAN WOMEN FINED ON AUG 12
UNCLEAR: A sign warning people not to litter near the MBK building.
One of the many complaints sent to Spectrum about the thetsakij targetting foreign tourists concerned one of the city’s most popular shopping centres, MBK.
Several Spectrum researchers took up positions on the walkway connecting the Siam Discovery Center and the MBK building at midday on Aug 12. They waited only a few minutes before the thetsakij apprehended two young German women.
The two young tourists were led to a table where one of the inspectors showed them a piece of paper, then later something that looked like a receipt book.
The Spectrum team took photos of the two young women and the inspector sitting at the table.
The women appeared frightened and confused, with one constantly drinking water from a bottle. Both women left the table after about five minutes and walked towards the entrance to MBK, followed by a Spectrum researcher. Two thetsakij watched from a distance, before following the two women and the researcher.
The researcher then approached the two women at the entrance to MBK and explained who he was, and asked them what happened.
The women, who appeared to be frightened and upset, said they were holidaying in Bangkok. “I dropped a cigarette butt on the bridge and was taken by a policeman to a table where he showed me a piece of paper in English with some regulation on it and he told me I had to pay a 2,000 baht fine,” one of the women said.
“He was putting a lot of pressure on us to pay the money. He was making a big deal out of it. I gave him the money just to get away from those horrible people. They didn’t give us any receipts. We didn’t want to argue with the policemen.
“I don’t like the way we have been treated. We are visiting Thailand for the first time and don’t have too much money to spend here. We won’t come back again. This is really disgusting.”
The two were surprised when told that the men in uniform were not policemen.
“We thought they were police because in Germany the police also wear green uniforms,” one of the women said.
Another researcher who watched from a distance said the thetsakij were aware that photos had been taken of them at the table and they followed the two women and watched while they were interviewed. The researcher became concerned for the team’s safety and suggested everyone leave the area immediately.
Many tourists, after leaving Siam Discovery Center or MBK, immediately light a cigarette, making it the perfect place to catch someone for littering _ and make money. Very few rubbish bins were seen in the area, making if difficult for smokers to dispose of their butts.
THE CASE OF MR ANWA ON AUG 14
Two days later, other Spectrum researchers returned to the skywalk between Siam Discovery Centre and MBK, just in time to witness another incident, this time involving Mr Anwa, a 40-year-old tourist from Indonesia.
Mr Anwa dropped a cigarette butt in the drainage system on the floor of the skywalk because he did not see any warning signs about littering and could not find a rubbish bin. He was pounced on by a vigilant thetsakij.
But Mr Anwa refused to pay, and was threatened with arrest and told he would have to appear in court.
Spectrum photographed him at the same location as the two German girls. However, Mr Anwa’s reaction was the opposite of the German women, and he challenged the thetsakij, who finally let him go with a warning.
One researcher interviewed Mr Anwa (see sidebar story) on the nearby skytrain station where the thetsakij could not see them. The researcher, who had been walking around the area for about an hour and took some photos, was followed by one of the thetsakij.
“I wonder why they suspected me,” said the 35-year-old female researcher. “They passed by me several times, turned back and took a look at me. Many people were walking around there and taking photos, and I don’t know why they knew I was part of the investigating them. They are obviously well-trained.”
She noticed two signs in English on concrete pillars warning people against littering, and some signs in Thai.
“I saw quite a few foreign tourists approach the thetsakij and ask them for directions or information. This is, of course, beneficial, but the negatives outweigh the positives,” the researcher said.
SHOPKEEPER AND VENDOR SPEAK OUT
Another area where foreigners complained about being targetted for littering was a BMA booth located between Sukhumvit Soi 2 and 4.
Spectrum interviewed one shopkeeper and one vendor there on Aug 14. At first they were reluctant to talk, but later agreed to speak because the thetsakij hadn’t appeared on that day.
“They are not here every day, but always on Sundays. They catch mainly foreign tourists for littering and they make them pay a fine. I don’t know whether the thetsakij issue receipts or not. Most foreigners will pay, but some won’t and just walk away,” the shopkeeper said.
The vendor said he had seen the city inspectors in action many times, and didn’t like what he saw. “I have seen many foreigners being caught by the thetsakij. Before there were several warning signs posted along the street, but not any more. Someone took them away.”
Both men agreed that the activity of the thetsakij does not affect their businesses.
Most of the other Thai people interviewed by Spectrum in various parts of central Bangkok had a very negative opinion and resented the thetsakij.
FOREIGNERS CAUGHT ON AUG 15
Two Spectrum researchers took up position near the BMA booth the following day around midday. One sat on a stool in front of the Bully’s Pub between Soi 2 and Soi 4 on Sukhumvit Road sipping a soft drink, able to observe the booth a few metres away. The other watched from a short distance away.
“The first man apprehended was an unidentified foreigner who followed the thetsakij to the booth, where another inspector was sitting. The man talked with the city inspector for about five minutes while the other one was standing guard, looking in every direction, like he was afraid of something,” the researcher said.
“The foreigner took money from his wallet and gave it to the official. I didn’t see how much it was or if receipt was given.
“After paying, the foreigner quickly walked away, but before I could talk to him, he suddenly jumped in taxi.
“I took his photo while he was negotiating. The whole event took about five minutes. I don’t know what violation the foreigner committed,” the researcher said.
The thetsakij pounced again a few minutes later, this time on a French couple. They followed the thetsakij, who caught the man dropping a cigarette butt on the footpath.
“They spent about five minutes at the booth, with the thetsakij looking around constantly and often speaking into a walkie-talkie. I followed the couple and interviewed the man at a safe place, about two blocks away. I was looking behind to make sure that the thetsakij weren’t following me,” the researcher said.
“The man admitted he had dropped a cigarette butt on the footpath. He said that the man in uniform showed him a piece of paper but he couldn’t remember what it said. He paid a 500 baht fine, signed three pieces of paper and was given a receipt.
“While sitting in front of the pub, the thetsakij looked at me often. They became suspicious after I took photos with a small camera. One even followed me when I went to a nearby shop to buy a newspaper. I am sure that they knew who I was and that’s why they issued a receipt to the French man,” the researcher said.
She and other researchers did not see any warning notices, except one placed next to the BMA booth, and few rubbish bins in the area.
FOREIGNER CAUGHT ON AUG 17
Spectrum researchers saw one thetsakij riding a bicycle catch a Japanese man smoking a cigarette in Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit Road near the Emporium shopping centre.
The Japanese man appeared surprised when told to follow the thetsakij to the BMA booth. There, one inspector was sitting inside with others standing nearby watching the area. “The offender spent about 10 minutes outside the booth and then walked fast towards the skytrain station. I spoke to him on the platform. He was visibly upset and looking around like he was afraid of something.
“He wouldn’t give his name, saying only that he was from Japan and was caught in Benjasiri Park while smoking. He said he paid a 2,000 baht fine. After a short interview recorded on tape, he returned to the park.”
Most of the people interviewed by Spectrum, both Thais and foreigners, agreed that the BMA should keep Bangkok clean and the regulations on littering should be observed by everyone.
However, the majority said the thetsakij should take a different approach to offenders _ for example, they could be more lenient with foreign tourists visiting Thailand for the first time, but more strict with those who have lived here for a long time or reside here because they should know the regulations.
All agreed there should be more signs in different languages on Bangkok streets warning people about littering, especially in tourist areas, and rubbish bins should be placed at appropriate places.
As for the thetsakij, the majority of people interviewed said they should issue receipts and stop using scare tactics with foreign tourists, as was witnessed and recorded by the Spectrum team.
Interview with Mr Anwa on Aug 14
NABBED: Mr Anwa, left, talks to an inspector outside MBK.
Q: TELL ME HOW YOU WERE CAUGHT BY THE CITY INSPECTORS?
A: I came here to shop and I didn’t know whether it is illegal in this area to litter. After finishing a cigarette, I looked for a bin, but there were none, and not a notice, poster or a sign. I tried to find a bin for a long time, but couldn’t find one, so I dropped my butt into the drainage system.
Q: How did the city inspectors treat you?
A: When they caught me, the man spoke to me in Thai, which I don’t understand. Then he said in English: “Come with me.” Are you police, I asked him. He replied: “Yes, come with me.” I said, if you are a policeman then it is okay. He was dressed like a policeman, but I didn’t know if the police in Thailand look like that. After, he told me to sit down and asked for my passport. I asked, are you the police? “Passport,” he said again. He didn’t give his reason to stopping me. Then he showed me a piece of paper and said: “Do you understand?” I replied that I didn’t understand. I told him that you didn’t put any signs against smoking and littering on the skywalk. If you want people to follow the rules, please put the signs up and bins, so the people know about it. And if they still litter then you can fine them, but if the people don’t know, how can you fine them?
Q: What happened next?
A: The officer said: “If you go to court then you must pay a lot of money. I just want 500 baht.”
Q: Did you pay?
A: No, I didn’t pay and told them: “You guys didn’t put any sign or bin up here.” His friend then said: “The bin is in front of the door.” I don’t know and I don’t care if the bin is over there. If you want to fine me here, you have to put the bin here.
Q: What happened after you refused to pay?
A: He wanted to have me arrested and taken to the police station. I took a picture of him because I didn’t know if he was a real policeman or not or a real government official or not. Then I said to one man who was very arrogant: “If you do with me like that, I will report you. I took your picture because I don’t know your name. He then gave me a paper in Thai writing and told me: “Sign. This is a warning for you.”
Q: What did you sign?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Then, did you get a warning instead of paying?
A: Yes. I was told to wait there for 10 minutes because the police were coming to take me to the police station. I said, are you the police or are you the immigration? I don’t know the law in Thailand, but I know the rules. I am a tourist, so people who want to take my passport must be from immigration.
AUTHOR INVOLVED IN INCIDENT WITH INSPECTORS ON AUG 17
IGNORED: A pile of rubbish on the footpath, a short distance from the BMA booth, circled, near Benjasiri Park. Inset, the nearby BMA booth.
The author also had an unpleasant experience with the thetsakij opposite Benjasiri Park on Aug 17.
While walking around the area, occasionally taking photos, including one of the Japanese man who was caught smoking in the park, I was approached by one thetsakij who told me to follow him to see his boss.
I refused, asking why. He didn’t give any reason and insisted I must go, and became very pushy. I decided to obey, just to find out what was going to happen. The Japanese man was still there with the inspector inside the booth, having a neatly written receipt prepared for him.
He showed me the receipt and said: “You see, I am writing a receipt. You can take a photo if you like.” He kept insisting that I take a photo. I asked why should I? I wanted to leave but he insisted I not leave, and repeatedly said: “Wait, my boss wants to talk to you.”
I complained that I was being detained and had done nothing wrong. Then another thetsakij arrived on a bicycle and radioed to someone, saying in Thai: “We have him!”
He then took several photos of my face, against my wishes. I protested and covered my face with my hands. I told him that he has no right to do that, but he didn’t care.
When they finished with the Japanese man, they asked me questions, like where I came from, what I was doing there, where I lived and if I could speak Thai. When I told them I don’t speak Thai, the man with camera said: “He can speak Thai!” I told them several times that they had no right to keep me there.
The incident was witnessed by one of the researchers, who also accompanied me to Thong Lor police station, where I reported what happened to a police officer.
He said the thetsakij have no authority to take my photo unless they suspected I am about to commit a crime.
The police officer suggested I lodge a complaint with the district BMA office in Klong Toey, but I did not _ writing a story about the experience is a better response.
While I had been sitting at the bus stop outside the park, one thetsakij watched a Japanese man smoking a cigarette and waited for him to drop the butt, so he could march him to the nearby BMA booth and levy a fine.
However, the vigilant thetsakij did not pay any attention to, or try to remove, a pile of garbage lying on the footpath near the booth. It seems that the cleanliness of the area is not really their main priority. Or as one street vendor said: “Garbage cannot pay.”
The BMA on littering and fines
HARD TO FIND: The sign inside the BMA booth near Benjasiri Park.
It took several phone calls and conversations with five different officials at the BMA headquarters before Spectrum’s researchers were able to get some information. Most of them didn’t want to talk unless they had a written request for an interview.
Finally, Mr Boonchai Leesiriwit agreed to answer some questions. He is attached to the BMA’s Inspection and Operation Division for Area 1.
“One BMA official told me that I need to submit a request for an interview and statistics, and another one wasn’t sure. However, I could find easily the statistics on their website,” the Thai researcher said.
Interview with Mr Boonchai Leesiriwit
Q: When did the campaign against littering start?
A: It started in October 2009, but we publicised the campaign a month earlier.
Q: How many areas of Bangkok does the campaign involve?
A: All 50 districts. We have booths in all districts to catch people who are littering. It applies to everyone, whether Thai of foreigner.
Q: How much is the fine?
A: The maximum is not over 2,000 baht.
Q: Where are the fines paid?
A: It must be paid at the district booth where the offender was caught. The officer will issue a receipt.
Q: What will you do if someone refuses to pay?
A: Sometimes there are cases that people don’t want to pay, but you must ask our officers at each district how they handle the situation like that.
Q: Can you arrest people who refuse to pay?
A: No, we can only give them a warning. We have no authority to arrest anyone. Only police can do that.
Q: What about foreigners?
A: Most foreigners are willing to pay the fine because it is much cheaper than, for example, in Singapore or in Malaysia.
Q: If the case is serious, like when the offender is shouting or resisting, what can you do?
A: We can report it to the police and they will handle the matter.