The peculiar case of the non-existent birthday

If you have lived in Thailand for any length of time you will know that matters of bureaucracy can often be more complex than String Theory.

  • Published: 12/01/2013 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

Furthermore, if you have lived in Thailand for any length of time, you will know that it is almost impossible to do anything about it.

Sangwien Khuncharoen, the assistant village chief in Sa Kaeo, must not have lived in Thailand for a very long time.

Mr Sangwien recently volunteered to step down as assistant village chief after he was slammed by Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan for attempting to tarnish the ministry's image in the media.

The complaint centred around a mistake on Mr Sangwien's birth registration documents that incorrectly marked his date of birth as Feb 30, or as it is more popularly known, the day that doesn't exist.

This mistake, Mr Sangwien alleges, has left him unable to open a bank account and presumably do absolutely anything official whatsoever. Well, except for becoming a village chief. Village chiefs don't need official documents, you see.

But rather than jump through hoops trying to fix the problem by himself, he instead went to the media to shed some light on the ridiculousness of his predicament.

Well, we do not actually know whether he had initially tried to rectify the problem through official channels, because the Interior Ministry responded so quickly with their counter-attack that Mr Sangwien apologised and resigned before anyone could ask him.

What I, and now you know, however is that a senior editor at the Bangkok Post has also faced the problem of trying to rectify an incorrect birth date on official documents and has not been able to do so. So this is not an isolated incident - made-up birthdays are an actual problem in Thailand.

Assuming for a minute we take the "bad guy's" side in this story and throw our support behind Mr Sangwien, there are two major problems we will have to confront.

Firstly, what is wrong with our interior minister, and secondly why is our bureaucratic system so hopelessly inefficient?

To answer the first point, the problem here is a simple case of flawed logic. Does the interior minister seriously believe Mr Sangwien went through life with this incredibly inconvenient mistake on his documents without ever trying to change it, just so that he could tarnish the Thai government's glowing reputation?

If this is in fact the case then Mr Sangwien is the most dedicated civil servant in Thai history and should be given a promotion.

Does the interior minister also believe that investigating the complainant instead of the complaint is the appropriate course of action?

Perhaps Mr Sangwien was wrong to expose the internal workings of a government ministry to the general public but that doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist.

Instead of accepting his resignation, or if he had been slightly more important, moving him to an inactive post, why not put him in charge of fixing the problem? This would be far more beneficial to the ministry's image. Support the people who are able to recognise problems and are brave enough to talk about them. Don't let them quit or we'll be left with a country run by imbecilic yes men ...

The second problem we must tackle is the issue of our antiquated bureaucratic system. This obviously affects most levels and areas of Thai society. But do you know who it doesn't affect? The people at the top of the food chain, the people with the power to affect change.

In a culture that is built upon a system that allows the haves to manipulate their underlings and bypass certain channels, the politicians, civil servants and businessmen rarely face the kind of bureaucratic challenges that the rest of us come up against.

Why should they spend their time trying to fix a problem that they are most likely oblivious to? Well, the answer to that question is obvious for any logically minded person, because their job is the betterment of society.

Unfortunately, self-interest and corruption take up so much time there is little time left to attend to the minor problems that affect millions of people. And like a child who has been caught doing something they shouldn't the Interior Ministry has gone on the offensive and refused to take responsibility, deflecting the issue at hand and trying to make the telltale look like the villain.

The fact that it was so hard for Mr Sangwien to change his birth documents is not even really that big of a deal. Everyone knows that paperwork is a headache, I personally wouldn't even place the blame on the Interior Ministry. I blame the paper for making us work.

But I most certainly blame the Interior Ministry for not listening to a genuine complaint and for not taking this opportunity to look at its internal structuring, investigating what the problems are and why they occur and then putting their collective feet up the backsides of those responsible for allowing it to continue.


Arglit Boonyai is Digital Media Editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Arglit Boonyai
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