A task force of district officials, soldiers and police stormed a crime scene involving an international gang last week. Or so the authorities claimed. The raid on a gentle bridge tournament has made Thailand a laughing stock. Law enforcers could find no trace of gambling, which makes sense since bridge is not played for money. Then, 32 of these elderly foreign residents were arrested, marched into a police cell and, after a lengthy and exhaustive (for them) wait, charged with possessing playing cards without excise stamps.
It is difficult to express the absurdity of this situation. The worldwide media have reported the facts to astonished readers and viewers. This is the equivalent of arresting Asian Games skeet shooters for possession of guns. It is the same as halting a motorcycle race at the Chang International Circuit to issue tickets for speeding violations. On a risibility scale of 1 to 10, Pattaya police and the army have scored 11.
The follow-up effects will be even more serious than mere mockery of Thailand. Khunying Chodchoy Sophonpanich, a prominent social activist and president of the Pacific Asia Bridge Federation, says the raid could cost the country millions of dollars in tourist revenue and much more in good will. About 300 well-heeled tourists are currently waiting to come here to play bridge. They may cancel.
Khunying Chodchoy says 10,000 bridge tourists with lots of money and the best of intentions visit annually, and all could cancel. They may also take note of the Pattaya organiser who claims police tried to intimidate him, promised to release him for 150,000 baht and then dropped the extortionate demand to 50,000 baht. If true, it is a criminal matter. This story has not yet run out of "legs".
Having made the ridiculous decision to bust the bridge game, police claim to be stuck. Pattaya chief Pol Col Sukthat Pumphanmuang has dug in his heels, adamant that full prosecution of the card players must proceed. To put this another way, Pol Col Sukthat insists it is necessary to make Thailand look foolish several times more in coming months so he can avoid admitting a spectacular judgement lapse.
The first error was to conduct the raid. The "crime" was adjudged as such during the Japanese war. The pro-Tokyo authorities passed the Playing Cards Act of 1943 to create a government monopoly and revenue source. It taxed all playing cards and banned those without excise stamps. Here is how decrepit the law is: the maximum penalty is a fine of 500 baht. This was an astonishing amount 73 years ago. An excellent lunch cost less than 1 baht back then, so the huge fine was a disincentive to play with illegal decks of cards.
The next error was when the military-police task force arrested everyone in the room, hauled them off to the police cells, and then to compound an error-ridden day of legal misjudgement, actually charged every arrested person bail of 5,000 baht.
The correct action -- apart from not raiding the premises at all -- would have been to take the details of the players and let them go on their own recognisance. Putting almost three dozen elderly foreigners including an 84-year-old woman behind bars was simply appalling.
"The law is the law" is a maxim frequently trotted out to excuse flawed enforcement. Everyone knows Pattaya's sordid reputation and how crime flourishes unabated there. "Sin City" attracts more than its share of law-breakers. They normally do not join the Jomtien and Pattaya Bridge Club.