Confusion reigns in TM30 palaver
Special report: Expats 'none the wiser' after FCCT forum, immigration put on defensive, writes Thana Boonlert
Long-term foreign residents of the kingdom have spent the weekend scratching their heads in bewilderment over the baffling requirements of the now notorious TM30 form after a recent forum at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) with senior Thai immigration officials present on the panel.
On Thursday evening at the FCCT, foreign expats and guest speakers alike expressed concerns about the lack of clarity and consistency in the application of the TM30 regulation, and the officials said they would do their best to forward the complaints and queries to Immigration Bureau Chief Pol Lt Gen Sompong Chingduang.
However, the officials hastened to warn they could neither promise a time frame for which some of the more onerous requirements might be eased or reviewed, or even whether it would happen at all, stressing repeatedly that national security is paramount.
On the books for 40 years but not rigorously enforced until March 25 this year, under the 1979 Immigration Act, the TM30 rule requires Thai landlords who provide accommodation to foreigners to report their presence to immigration within 24 hours of their arrival and departure.
Long-stayers, including foreign retirees, foreigners married to Thais, and foreigners working in fields providing much-needed expertise, among other categories, must also report their whereabouts within 24 hours under another rule called TM28 when they stay at locations other than their registered primary residence, say when they visit another province, or when they return from overseas trips.
According to the officials at the forum, reporting is an "easy" process and can be done in person at local immigration offices, by mail or via online registration and an app, though these assertions were met with murmurs of disbelief by some foreigners at the event who told the Bangkok Post they have waited in queues of up to 300 people, or dealt with an online system and app they insisted does not function properly.
What could have been an ill-tempered event proceeded quite cordially, though at times the terse questions of event moderator, British journalist and past FCCT president Dominic Faulder, may have caught the immigration officials off-guard and put them on the defensive, according to some of the old-hand foreigners present.
Mr Faulder pointed out that nobody has noticed a particular deterioration in the security situation in Thailand recently "except for some ping pong bombs that had nothing to do with foreigners".
Nevertheless, Pol Maj Gen Patipat Suban Na Ayudhya, the commander of Immigration Division 1 and the most senior official at the event, cited national security as the main reason for the strict enforcement of TM30.
"A couple of years ago, many cases happened in Thailand. A lot of terrorists came here and did something not good to my country. We have to use the law [TM30] again. Some people don't know whether it is legal or illegal to keep foreigners in their residence.
"You don't know whether foreigners at your house are good or bad guys. That is the reason. We try to save you and my country. The first reason is your safety because you don't know who is a good guy or not," he said.
Nevertheless, offering a glimmer of hope, Pol Maj Gen Patipat added: "We're going to bring the problems to my commanders when we meet to change the rules for good guys like you. But we don't know when we will be done.
"We try our best to distinguish between the good guys and bad guys. I promise all of you. We try."
Pol Maj Gen Patipat was referring to the "Good guys in, bad guys out" slogan of the Immigration Bureau with respect to Thailand wishing to see the back of criminals, terrorists and other wrongdoers.
Pol Col Thatchapong Sarawanangkul, superintendent of Immigration Division 1 Sub-Division 2, said the TM30 rule aims to curb the opportunity for crimes to be committed by ill-intentioned foreigners in Thailand.
"We are not focusing on you [law-abiding foreigners]. We are focusing on those who don't comply with the law. We can arrest criminals by using this rule.
"Criminals don't want anybody to see them. If you can tell an officer who is staying in your place, I think we can reduce opportunities for offenders to commit crime," he said.
Hit with a barrage of complaints about technical snags with the registration process, Pol Maj Gen Patipat said this might have been caused by the incomplete submission of documents.
"I understand your problems with usernames and passwords. We try our best to improve the documents. You didn't know whether you filled in everything online. That is the reason. You didn't know if it is complete or not," he said.
Pol Col Thatchapong, who said he has to work until past 10pm every day in order to cope with the number of TM30 application forms flooding into his divisional office, concluded that filing a TM30 was "really not that hard and it's easier than telling your wife you're at home".
Chris Larkin, a director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and a member of AustCham's Advocacy Group who was one of the guest speakers, said security concerns are a legitimate matter, but suggested to the immigration officials that qualified foreigners who want to stay in Thailand longer should be given long-term visas rather than a yearly extension.
To get this kind of visa, Mr Larkin proposed that police reports be provided from foreigners' home countries to reassure Thai immigration.
Mr Larkin also urged Thailand to expand its pink card ID system.
"Every Thai citizen has a house book and an ID card. This is an example. The pink ID card registers [its holder's] name and address, which goes into the government system. It could be made easier for foreigners who stay longer than 90 days in Thailand to get these ID cards, like migrant workers," he said.
"I think this system would be much better. It makes everyone feel they are part of Thailand. You don't have to reinvent the system because you already do it for 2 million migrant workers."
'Too much paperwork'
Some of the panellists, including Mr Larkin, pointed out that the resuscitation of the TM30 rule adds to the already hefty pile of immigration paperwork that expats and other long-stayers must wade their way through.
Examples they gave were the TM6 forms when foreigners arrive in Thailand, the TM28 forms concerning short-term travel, and the TM47 forms when they report in their whereabouts to immigration every 90 days.
"I think the Immigration Bureau is experiencing problems of too much paperwork. It is a waste of your resources. Don't waste your time doing paperwork. Go find the bad guys," Mr Larkin said.
Law 'must be logical'
Sebastian Brousseau, a Canadian lawyer with permanent residency in Thailand who has organised a petition among expats in the country to "reform Thai immigration" and who was also a guest speaker, insisted to the Thai officials present that the immigration laws "must be logical".
In one of the more heated exchanges of the evening, Mr Brousseau, responding to comments by Pol Col Thatchapong, said: "I'm sick and tired of hearing the law is the law ... TM30 was not enforced before, so basically the law is the law, we gave you some solutions … and you tell me the law is the law. The law must be logical, rational, efficient."
Clarity and consistency
Richard Barrow, a Thailand-based blogger and long-term resident who was another one of the guest speakers at the forum, called for clarity and consistency by Thai immigration in enforcing the TM30 and TM28 rules.
"The landlord has to register foreigners within 24 hours. The problem is the landlord might have 10-15 units. It is a lot of work for them to keep registering foreigners every time they come back from a trip. Sometimes, the landlord is not even in the same city or country," he said.
Mr Barrow said Thai landlords also have to queue up at Chaeng Watthana [immigration office] to report their presence, greatly inconveniencing them. "Now some apartment blocks are putting up signs saying 'no foreigners' because they don't want the hassle," he said.
Although reporting can be done online, Mr Barrow said people have experienced difficulties in the registration process because the system is fraught with software glitches.
"It is not working as well as it should do. People who apply online take many weeks before they get usernames and passwords [to access the application system].
"The immigration officers suggest that the online form is the best way of doing it, if it works. My opinion is they should have sorted it first before they started enforcing the law. Once it is sorted, it should be simple and take one or two minutes to register," he said.
Though he suggested that the TM30 rule does not affect the tourism industry, Mr Barrow conceded that domestic travel and tourism is suffering a downturn because expats are afraid of going away for weekends for fear of having to keep reporting themselves to the authorities on their return under the TM28 rule.
"When I asked the immigration officer, his solution was travel less!
"I am not asking for the TM30 to be abolished. As a guest in this country, I respect and will try to obey the law as much as I can, but all I am asking for is clarity and consistency.
"Clarity means we want to understand what is going on because it is very confusing. Consistency means that one immigration office insists that when you go to another province and come back, you should do the TM30 whereas the other says don't worry about it," he said.
'None the wiser'
As the forum drew to a close, some of the attendees expressed frustration that many of their questions had gone unanswered and that little progress seemed to have been achieved with the meeting of minds, while others continued to gripe about the inefficiency of the online TM30 system.
Paul Williams, 73, an urban transport planner from the UK, complained about the online form registration.
"I tried to comply and twice applied online. I think I have sent all the documents. One was two months ago. One was a month ago. I've had no response," he complained.
An elderly American man, resident in Thailand for more than 20 years and who asked not to be named for fear of recrimination from the immigration authorities, said: "I'm as confused at the end of this as I was at the start. I still don't know for sure what documents I need to produce to do this TM30 thing and when I need to do it."
Another long-term resident from Australia who also declined to be named, said: "I've been here for hours listening to these lot. It's very frustrating and I'm none the wiser."
A British woman who said she had been resident in Thailand for upwards of 10 years, struck a more conciliatory tone, but still insisted on maintaining anonymity.
"Well, at least they [the immigration officials] turned up and listened. I hadn't been expecting them to. Maybe they'll go back to HQ and tell their bosses there's a serious problem here [with TM30]," she said.