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For decades, thousands of foreigners have been living on a stipend in Thailand, attracted by low living costs, tropical farniente and lax visa rules. But now — after months of focusing on its Thai population — the junta appears to be shifting its gaze to those many call the “beach expats” in its latest efforts to restore happiness to the kingdom.
This week, Thailand’s immigration office announced that those overstaying their visas could be banned from entering the kingdom for up to ten years, and border officials could block entry to anyone they suspect is not a “genuine tourist.”
“We have asked the Interior Ministry to approve harsher punishment,” immigration division spokesman Colonel Worawat Amornwiwat told local newspaper The Nation, explaining that if a foreigner overstays his visa for more than a year, he will be banned from entering the kingdom for three years.
“And if he does not turn himself in, the ban will be longer,” he added.
Some foreigners arrive in Thailand on a visa exemption stamp, granting them a 30-day stay if they come by air, or a 15-day stay if they arrive by land. They can then indefinitely extend their sojourn by “visa runs” — leaving the country by plane, land, or water for a few hours to get a new stamp. Since May, however, border officials have caught up with those with an unusually high number of exemption fee visas, refusing some of them entry.
From August 12, this rule will be extended to foreigners arriving by air, raising the possibility that many could be turned back at the airport. Regulations governing 60-day regular tourist visas granted by Thai embassies and consulates overseas are also becoming stricter.
Since the announcement, thousands of worried foreigners living for years on short-term visas in Thailand have flooded the boards of specialized websites such as Thaivisa.com to enquire about the significance of the new rules.
“Today, I was denied a tourist visa at the Thai embassy in Singapore,” wrote one last month under the username name Newbie. “This really sucks, because I have a Thai girlfriend and an apartment full of stuff in Bangkok.”
For the home-weary foreigner, Thailand offers an attractive combination of quality life at an affordable budget, natural beauty in a tropical setting and the animated tempo of a bustling capital city with its glitzy malls, red-light bars, and “Indochine” old quarters. To Westerners, all is available at a discount price — renting a comfortable apartment in Bangkok can cost a mere $300 per month, less than a fifth of what it would cost in London or Paris. Add to this the automatic respect and consideration often granted by local people to Westerners which makes many feel as if they have “made it” after often bitter experiences in a tough working environment at home.
Given the low proficiency of the average Thai in English, there are employment opportunities aplenty for Westerners — even those with limited qualifications — from English language teachers to news copy editors and tourist guides. Criminality has also taken hold, expat gangs — many believed to be in league with high ranking members of the local police — running prostitution rackets and illegal bars, many abusing Thailand’s lax visa system to hide out in the country while evading capture in their home countries.
Complimenting this lifestyle is the oft-perceived stereotype of the Thai female, who are seen by many male newcomers — rightly or wrongly — as strikingly graceful and more traditional and submissive than the more independent-minded female back home. It is quite common for a male who came to Thailand for what he thought would be a short pleasant holiday to spend the rest of his life here, sometimes hopping from one job to another.
The Bangkok Post warned Sunday, however, that the impact of the new regulations could prove disastrous for some of the country’s biggest expat employers.
For years, the country’s high streets and malls have been overrun with pop-up language schools, the battle to learn English for class mobility fought on billboards, thoroughfares and back streets — neon signs for schools claiming Cambridge or Oxford University-affiliation shining bright while inside foreigners sweat in bulging classrooms over grammar exercises.
Most of the teachers, however, have no long-term visas, and with many of the schools running without education or business clearance, applying for expensive working visas for their expats is not an option.
Besides stricter immigration rules, the Thai junta is also reviving old legal clauses, redundant for decades, which call on foreigners to carry their passports wherever they go, and to inform authorities every time they travel to a new province.
After the initial outcry, there may be signs that the immigration division, however, is stepping back.
“Making all foreigners in Thailand carry their original passports with them would be very difficult. But if immigration police suspect an individual to be overstaying in Thailand or being involved in illegal activity, then the individual would be required to produce their original passport promptly,” Thaivisa.com quoted the immigration division spokesman as saying this week.
There are also deep concerns that stricter regulations may further depress tourism, which contributes 20 percent to the Thai GDP.
After months of massive anti-government demonstrations followed by a May 22 coup, the number of tourists has dropped by 10 percent in the first semester compared to the same period last year and tourism authorities are desperately trying to revive the sector.
Since seizing power on May 22, the junta has tightened rules and regulations, rounded up and attempted to reeducate “political agitators,” and held a series of festivals and events in a bid to bring together the country’s two warring political factions and “return happiness back to the people.”
It has also come under intense criticism from abroad at its attempts to clamp down on dissent after a crackdown on public political gatherings, censorship of the press and a sporadic blocking of websites.
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