Exactly a month before the start of an unprecedented crackdown on foreigners who overstay their visa, it got tougher for foreign news people who want a visa at all.
The Foreign Ministry announced tweaked rules for the M-class non-immigrant visa and extension. Minister Don Pramudwinai himself helped to write, signed off, defended and will oversee the new rules for journalists.
For reporters and media workers like camera operators, producers and the like, the actual effect won’t be known for a while, probably months. But before official evaluation, it’s safe to say that in the history of the world up until this morning, no government - not any government - has ever said or meant, “We want to adjust the visa status of foreign journalists because, frankly, we feel the current rules are just too strict and don’t give the press enough freedom.”
And both the announced new guidelines and Mr Don’s various explanations were vague enough that the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand was peeved. The club worried the rules would impede freedom of reporting. Mr Don pooh-poohed the concern, because everyone knows Thailand isn’t that strict about rules. Stalemate. Or, better put, uncertainty.
It is particularly troublesome because, first, it comes in the middle of a period of military regime whose chief is thin-skinned; second, because the country has a long and well-deserved reputation as one of the best and most tolerant on Earth for foreign journalists working in highly contentious, political areas, and, third, because Mr Don openly wants to apply his visa Weed Whacker to those whose inaccurate reports do damage to Thailand.
Rating inaccurate reporting and assessing damage to the country are as subjective as it gets. Like all governments, Mr Don’s regime would like a little more self-censorship. And much of the damage to Thailand’s image is by the government’s own actions. Irony alert: Removing an M-visa from a news person does a lot of damage to Thailand’s overseas image.
And that is an accurate report.
If the journalists with M-visas for Thailand are wondering just exactly what is happening to their visas, all other foreigners are not. For them, the rule change is clear. They have had months to absorb the single policy change that matters.
First, though, it’s important to note the Immigration Bureau’s new rules that kick in exactly three weeks from today don’t affect 99.9% of real tourists. These folks can be and will be oblivious. Under the “Good guys in” half of the new immigration slogan, actual tourists will come in legally, have their holiday and go back home - nothing new.
But come March 20, the other half of that slogan kicks in: “Bad guys out.” It covers people who live in Thailand illegally or, in many cases, against the spirit of the rules. These folks have tourist visas or free-entry passport stamps but they stay a long time. They work, far too often in criminal activities, and then they remain in the country longer than permitted by the terms of the immigration stamps in their passports.
Unless they have been in a coma, these people already know the details of what will soon occur. The Immigration Bureau has run one of the best government information campaigns ever. Let’s sum this up in four words.
Overstaying just got serious. After decades of treating visa-overstay less seriously than jaywalking, there now will be real and lasting consequences.
The overstayers aren’t going to prison. Oh, no, it won’t be that easy. The author and enforcer of the new regulations, Immigration Bureau Commissioner Nathathorn Prousoontorn has come up with a more diabolical plan.
He has figured out what overstayers want and now he plans to take it away from them. What do overstayers want? Obviously, they want to remain in Thailand. So he and the computerised blacklist operators at every airport and border crossing are going to kick out those who have overstayed, and not let them back. This is the really new part of the plan - exile.
The banishment is on two, side-by-side sliding scales. The re-entry ban will run from between one and 10 years, depending on how long the overstay was. And those who surrender and confess the overstay will be on the blacklist for a shorter time than those caught by authorities making visa checks.
No one has the right to a visa, but there is an expectation of clear rules. Action moving closer to clearer rules must be appreciated.