Do we really want to be just like Singapore?
Thousands of vendors are being removed from the streets, and even those who follow the rules are being squeezed out of their spots
The meeting on June 15 at the Chatuchak district office lasted less than an hour. By the end of the month, the 14 licensed street-food vendors were told, they would have to move out.
“It felt like we were struck by lightning,” said Nimit Kaewkrajang, a noodle vendor.
Even before Union Mall opened back in 2006, Lat Phrao junction was a bustling area at night, with street vendors near the MRT station exit on Soi 1 open past midnight. By 9pm, when the traffic has eased, cars are parked alongside the footpath as their owners take advantage of the variety of cheap street fare.
The vendors tried to negotiate the deadline. First they argued for two more years, then six months and then three months, but all failed. The Chatuchak district chief eventually rel-
ented slightly, setting Aug 17 as the eviction date.
The vendors, most of whom have earned a living in the area for more than two decades, will become the latest among the more than 6,000 street sellers who have already been pushed out of work by the year-long campaign to clean up Bangkok’s streets, backed by the military-led National Council for Peace and Order.
“Ever since they decided to relocate vendors in the Klong Tom area [in March], we knew that one day it would be our turn,” Mr Nimit said.
Ultimatum: A vendor points at a BMA notice for the June 15 meeting discussing eviction. (Photo by Nanchanok Wongsamuth)
A LONG HISTORY
Mr Nimit has sold Chinese wheat noodles in front of Lat Phrao Soi 1/1 since 1984, when a dish of his noodles with dumplings cost only 10 baht. Now, he said, his daily revenue tops 10,000 baht from selling the dishes at 40 baht, with customers ranging from blue-collar workers to Mercedes owners. “If it weren’t for this tree, it would have been much easier for me,” he said, gesturing behind his stall, where a bent crape myrtle occupies about a metre of the pavement. Eleven stainless steel tables are set up on either side of the tree.
Although street vending is illegal under the 1992 Public Cleanliness and Public Order Act, there are more than 600 designated spots throughout Bangkok where the practice is permitted under Bangkok Metropolitan Administration regulations.
The 14 vendors near the Lat Phrao junction all have licences, which are renewed on a yearly basis. But they must adhere to the BMA’s requirements, such as not occupying more than two square metres of pavement, and leaving at least one metre of space for people to walk by.
Mr Nimit is an exception — although his stall is located just outside the designated zone on Lat Phrao, he has a licence and pays taxes.
The NCPO has been rolling out measures aimed at regulating public vans, motorcycle taxis and street vendors in an attempt to “maintain order” in the country since the military coup last year.
So far, the BMA has used various measures for their clean-up campaign, which has targeted 31 areas in 16 districts. More than 700 vendors on Sukhumvit Road, for instance, are now only allowed to sell at night, while another 6,814 city-wide have been forced to relocate.
The campaign is expected to affect more than 30,000 legal and illegal vendors in Bangkok.
“All of us have been here for over 20 years, back when we still had gravel roads,” said Banyat Sanguansittikul, one of the vendors who will be forced out next month along with his seven employees. “We don’t know what else to do; there isn’t any water left even if we went back to farming.”
Mr Banyat’s family lives in the area, and his 25-year-old daughter Nam has been serving noodles at the stall since she was three.
“Even floods and protests haven’t caused as much shock as what is happening this time,” said Nam’s grandmother, who also helps out at the stall.
“It almost gave me a heart attack. I asked the tessakit [city inspectors] and they said it was an NCPO order which cannot be disobeyed.”
Busi nes as usual: Clockwise from above, four vendors at Lat Phrao; night worker Suchart Lertkusolkul orders food; vendors leave the street congested, the BMA says; people pack a street stall at night. (Photos by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn)
Previous efforts by the BMA to reclaim city footpaths have failed, and the law regarding street vendors has not been strictly enforced. The only governor who came close to success was Chamlong Srimuang, who towards the end of the 1980s ordered vendors to take one day off per week for street cleaning.
When MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra was elected for a second term in April 2013, street vendors were among the top issues people were complaining about, along with drugs and safety, public vans and motorcycle taxis.
“Previous Bangkok governors have been flexible towards street vendors,” said Pol Maj Gen Vichai Sangparpai, an adviser to the governor. “They were allowed to operate freely during the time of governor Samak Sundaravej [2000-2004], and tessakit officers who arrested them would be transferred.”
Dubbed “the black-eared buster” by the Thai media due to a distinctive mole on his left ear, Pol Maj Gen Vichai is a former chief of the Metropolitan Police Bureau’s Division 1 and was the key negotiator in the 2010 street protests between the red and yellow political camps.
Now, he is the man behind the BMA’s campaign to clean up street vendors, who he said are causing problems for residents ranging from litter and overcrowding to traffic congestion caused by pedestrians having to walk on the street.
“The aim of this policy is to organise the city to help return happiness to the people,” he said.
Pol Maj Gen Vichai said the BMA would be looking to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, which has consolidated all street vendors into regulated food centres.
“I actually want it to be that way [like Singapore], but Thais are still attached to the idea that some people will be affected [by the enforcement],” he said. “Countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, on the other hand, don’t have street vendors because of strict law enforcement. The reason why we can’t do it is because we turn a blind eye [to the issue].”
Since the launch of the cleanup campaign last July, the BMA has been successful in cutting back on the number illegal vendors, largely due to the involvement of the military.
“The NCPO is cooperating with the Bangkok governor,” said Pol Maj Gen Vichai. “We have army backup in case there are those who violate [the law].”
Pol Maj Gen Vichai Sangparpai. (Photo by Nanchanok Wongsamuth)
THE ‘LIGHT OF BANGKOK’
Dozens of vendors on Yaowarat Road, home to Bangkok’s Chinatown, walked out of a district meeting two weeks ago, feeling frustrated after they were told to use matching umbrellas for the sake of “orderliness”, and to give up their designated spots to new vendors. Prior to the meeting, the district office claimed that there were complaints from nearby residents regarding the lack of walking space on the footpath.
Jib’s family owns a stall on Yaowarat selling Chinese desserts, which range from 20 baht for a bowl of grass jelly to up to 300 baht for a large bowl of bird’s nest soup. Over a month ago, the tables had to be moved inside a nearby soi, where she pays a small fee to the noodle vendors who occupy the area. As a result, she said sales have dropped by more than 30%.
“Some customers were either reluctant to go into the soi, or left altogether when they didn’t see any tables behind the stall. People want to sit down and talk,” said Jib, 30. “But there are those who understand us, those who say, ‘It’s OK, we’ll just eat standing.’ ”
But elsewhere along the bustling street, illegal mobile vendors continue to operate — which Jib said is the real cause of traffic congestion.
“They [tessakit officers] are causing problems for us but they are not doing anything to those [illegal] vendors when in fact it is they who leave litter everywhere,” she said. “[The vendors] are able to exist because they pay bribes [to the tessakit] and they don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
While street food remains a staple of the Thai diet, and there has been no large-scale public campaign to abolish street vending altogether, vendors have received little sympathy from a Facebook page called “Thai people against street vendors”, which has received more than 9,000 likes.
The page was set up last year, and describes its aim as “returning the pavement to pedestrians”. The group encourages its supporters not to purchase products from street vendors and to condemn advocates of street vending.
One Facebook user posting under the name Krisadakorn Puangput shared a picture of Huai Khwang market at night, with plastic bags littered across the ground.
“While many people are so proud of street vendors and regard them as the identity and beauty of Bangkok, if they are so mesmerising why don’t you place them in front of your house?” said the post from last month.
Another user, Prazert Promvong, suggested that people who purchase goods from street vendors should be fined for encouraging the practice. Several users condemned tessakit officers for receiving bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to the problem.
But vendors operating in designated zones, like Mr Banyat’s noodle stall, believe they should not be forced out because they already adhere towards the BMA’s guidelines on dress code and personal hygiene. All of the employees wear aprons, and Nam’s grandmother a chef’s hat. Every Monday, they clean the ground around their stalls using caustic soda.
“Since we open from 4pm until 5am, we are the light of Bangkok,” Mr Banyat said. “We are even cleaner than some shops in the mall, only we are on the streets.”
Institution: Banyat Sanguansittikul’s noodle shop, which has been in place for more than 20 years. (Photo by Nanchanok Wongsamuth)
Politicians have, for the most part, refrained from angering street vendors, as they are an important political base in the informal sector of the economy.
“The cleanup on street vendors reflects the hatred of the politics of the ammat [the establishment],” said Kasian Tejapira, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s political science faculty.
Because street vendors face the constant risk of expulsion, due to the absence of formal rights, it is necessary for them to become politically active to secure the resources to support their livelihood from the government.
“Preventing them from being politically active is the equivalent of directly destroying their livelihoods,” Mr Kasian told Spectrum. “On the other hand, the urban middle class can afford an absence of electoral and street politics under a military dictatorship. The lower-middle class can’t.”
He argued that while the traditional elite have a tendency to ignore the concerns of the informal sector, at the end of the day their distress cannot be ignored. Even the NCPO, he said, compromises by implementing “populist” measures such as price guarantees for crops.
“It’s interesting why they don’t [initiate the crackdown] in a normal situation under a democratic regime, because I don’t think it’s easy to do,” Mr Kasian said. “Do not underestimate the resilience of these vendors. They may have to move out now, but if the situation changes, they might come back. The point is they are human beings, not garbage. How can you make them disappear as easily as that?”
Pol Maj Gen Vichai denied that clearing out street vendors would damage the junta’s popularity, citing a BMA poll claiming that more than 90% of Thais agree with the campaign.
Spectrum visited district offices to ask for the results of the survey, but was told such a poll does not exist. The BMA later admitted it was conducted only in Pomprap Sattruphai district, which is the location of the Klong Tom night market. The decision to remove some 2,300 vendors from the area was met with staunch opposition, and even after the eviction order stalls are still set up late at night.
Pol Maj Gen Vichai also dismissed claims that the livelihoods of vendors would be affected by the cleanup, claiming that some of them already own townhouses but choose to place their stalls outside instead.
“We listen to vendors who claim they are poor and struggling to make ends meet. But while tens of millions of Thais see them as a problem, we never pay attention,” he said. “It will only increase our popularity. The pavement cleanup is the showcase policy of the governor. People love it.”
A glimpse of the future: Lat Phrao Soi 1 is quiet on Monday nights as vendors are not allowed to sell their goods. After Aug 17, the street will look like this every night.
Tables not allowed: Yaowarat vendors are forced to let their customers eat without tables after complaints about a lack of space. (Photos by Nanchanok Wongsamuth)
Although the BMA’s initial efforts are to eradicate illegal vendors, Pol Maj Gen Vichai acknowledged some of the designated areas where street vending is allowed will need to be scrapped as a result of increasing traffic congestion. But there are other problems these areas face as well, such as overcrowding and illegal subleasing to other vendors.
Some vendors “disobey the law because they think that they have the privilege of being in a designated area”, Pol Maj Gen Vichai said.
The process of revoking a designated zone needs to go through various committees comprised of police, district officials, representatives of vendors and local residents, with a final order signed by the Bangkok governor. But the vendors on Lat Phrao Road said they have not yet received an official letter regarding their eviction. The district office told them the reason they had to move out was because the number of vendors in the area was less than 15. Pol Maj Gen Vichai said the BMA is responsible for finding the vendors alternative selling spots, and they are given at least two months’ notice.
Mr Banyat said district officials last month mentioned Pinklao as the suggested area for the Lat Phrao vendors, but getting there would require a long journey across the river, and he is worried about existing competition.
“It’s a double standard that they are targeting only some areas. I’m starting to lose trust in the current BMA administration,” he said. “I actually regret voting for [MR Sukhumbhand]. I find his policies dismaying.”
For night shift workers like Suchat Lertkusolkul, who works at the Phahon Yothin MRT station, street food is the only choice for the last meal of the day. At 11pm, he eats two bowls of noodles at Mr Nimit’s stall. “Singaporeans aren’t like us. [Street vendors] are part of our daily lives from the day we are born,” said Mr Suchat. “We can’t get rid of them like Singapore. They [the Singaporean government] develop their people to become investors.”
Other people interviewed by Spectrum said that while street vending in some crowded areas should be abolished, those who comply with the rules should be allowed to stay. Mr Banyat and other vendors who are to be forced out next month plan to file a complaint concerning unfair treatment to the Administrative Court.
“The NCPO’s initial policy is to return happiness to the people, but already they are returning sadness,” Mr Nimit said. “I will fight until the end.
“Having this delayed until the government changes would be better [than moving out].” n
PLAYING BY THE RULES
• Street vending is illegal everywhere except in the more than 600 areas designated by the BMA, which are identified by signs.
• Stalls placed in designated areas must be registered, and owners must obtain a licence from the BMA, renewed on a yearly basis.
• Stalls in designated areas must not exceed 2m², with a height of no more than 1.5m.
• At least 1m of space must be left for pedestrians to walk by.
• Products must not be placed on the pavement.
• Stalls must have a roof or umbrella and must be clean, hygienic and orderly.
• Even within designated areas, the following areas are prohibited: bus stops; pedestrian crossings; BTS/MRT entrances and exits; around phone booths and postboxes; on the road.
• Illegal street vendors face fines of up to 2,000 baht, enforced by city inspectors, or tessakit. n