Smarter Thailand? Only on paper

Smarter Thailand? Only on paper

After PM Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the policy of a "smarter Thailand", aka Thailand 4.0, I also wished that he considered to reform the Immigration Bureau with technology.

I am a regular visitor to an immigration office in Pathum Thani where our house is located. Every year I accompany my husband to extend his one-year marriage visa. And every time, I see piles of papers and many types of rubber stamps on each officer's working desk while a flat screen computer is placed on one side for playing music.

Early this year, while we were lining up in front of the information counter for staff to check our papers before issuing us a queuing number, we had to wait for 20 minutes because the officer cleaned up her unwanted papers and rearranged things before she was be able to service anyone.

Every time when we apply for the visa extension, we need to make another set of copies of all required documents and arrange them neatly into two stacks. I think the photocopied papers must be very important because even when we receive a receipt for the visa fee, we must also make a copy and hand it to the officer who issues us the receipt.

I remembered the first year when we applied for the marriage visa about a decade ago, we went straight to the immigration headquarters on Chaeng Watthana Road because I thought the service was computerised -- like the service of the Bureau of Registration Administration which allows me to extend my ID card at any office or like the Revenue Department where I can pay my annual income tax at any branch regardless of where my house is located. But I was wrong.

After 10 years, nothing has changed in terms of service. Yes, I know I should not expect service improvement from immigration police officers. They, unlike other government officers, are not there for service but for other reasons related to national security, right?

Perhaps for those reasons, new rules are announced almost every year and in this case I refer only to the marriage visa.

The recent story happened three years ago. We were told that there would be a yearly visit of immigration police officers to couples who do not have a child. We do not mind their visits. The thing that makes me feel weird is that every year the officer will call me in advance to arrange a visiting date and time. We are also asked to prepare two witnesses. Each of them must have a copy of a house registration and an ID card.

The immigration officers always visit us in pairs. Every year they ask our two witnesses the same set of questions such as when, where and how the witnesses know us. The process ends with group photos in which everyone smiles.

I wonder if this is a process of verification. My Thai friend who is married to a British man and lives in Australia told me that their immigration officers sometimes make a surprise visit to check if the couples are for real. Some couples are put into separate interrogation rooms to find out if it is a fake marriage or not.

In Thailand, there is no surprise visit, but a friendly visit. Should I be glad?

Two years ago, we were told that there was another new requirement. We were asked to submit a Registration of Family Status apart from a copy of our marriage certification. We had the original paper with us so I made a photocopy. The officer told me that we must have the government certified copy and told us the direction to go to the nearest district office to get our copy certified.

While on the road, we sometimes had some funny experiences during the past years of travelling.

When a computer system at a border checkpoint in Kanchanaburi was down, an immigration officer proceeded with the process manually. Somehow he didn't input some information into the system. And the information happened to include the date of entry of my husband. Later when we planned to travel to Penang by land, we were questioned by an immigration officer at the Sadao border checkpoint because there was no record of my husband's entry in the computer system, although there was a date stamp in his passport.

After our vacation was done, we returned home through the same Sadao border checkpoint. We were faced with a surprise request when an immigration officer asked my husband to show her 20,000 baht before she could allow him to re-enter the country. We told the officer that he was not a tourist and we lived in Thailand. He also had a valid one-year multiple entry visa, but the officer insisted on the money.

I thought we were heading towards a digital society and cashless economy, but the experiences with our immigration officers emphasise that the Thailand 4.0 concept is still a far cry from reality.

Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Travel writer

Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.

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