By Maxmilian Wechsler
BANGKOK’S infamous “litter police” are on the prowl again – and they’re nabbing people who drop something as small as a cigarette butt and imposing a fine of up to 2,000 baht on them. These “enforcers” are stationed at booths at three locations in central Bangkok along Sukhumvit Road.
Actually, they aren’t even police, but uniformed inspectors attached to the Law Enforcement Department of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), known in Thai as ‘Thetsakij.’ However, tourists commonly mistake them for police because of similar uniform designs, colours and badges.
Thetsakij do nothing to dispel this impression, often telling foreigners they are “city police,” which is another name for the Metropolitan Police. In reality, the Thetsakij don’t have the same powers as the police and cannot carry firearms.
One of the responsibilities of the BMA inspectors is to keep Bangkok footpaths and streets clean and tidy. Littering in public places is an offence in nearly every city and offenders are liable to fines.
What’s troubling in this case is that the inspectors seem to only target and apprehend foreigners in three areas that measure several hundred square meters out of Bangkok’s total area of about 1,500 square kilometers. The overwhelming majority of the city’s litterbugs are simply ignored by the Thetsakij. Walk the streets of central Bangkok and beyond, and piles of garbage are more often than not in evidence.
And yet the inspectors home in on foreigners – usually tourists – who drop nothing more than a cigarette butt.
Following criticism in the media in late 2010, Thetsakij reduced their visibility and the pursuit of foreigners in central Bangkok. The BMA put up signs in both English and Thai warning people against littering. They also installed rubbish bins.
Around this time a senior BMA officer told the media that “any city inspector found guilty of extortion will be sacked immediately.” He encouraged “the public and tourists” to call the City Hall hotline at 1555 to report any problems.
Today, when the hotline is dialed, tourists hear a recorded message in Thai, making it very difficult for them to reach the appropriate department. Instead, many register complaints to their respective embassies or on internet forums.
One European ambassador told The BigChilli that his embassy regularly gets complaints about motorcycle-for-rent and jet-ski scams in Pattaya and in Phuket, and also on the activities of the “cigarette police” in Bangkok.
Interview with a BMA inspector
A long-time BMA inspector attached to the Patumwan District office agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity. In the past he was assigned to catch litterers on the elevated walkway between Siam Discovery Center and MBK. This operation has now been suspended.
He believes that some inspectors continue to target foreigners and in doing so tarnish the reputation of the BMA and Thailand, but said it would be hard to stop them unless the anti-littering campaign is scrapped altogether. The inspector said that the campaign that started in late 2009 was designed to make all 50 Bangkok districts clean and tidy by fining offenders, whether they are Thais or foreigners.
“A person caught littering can be apprehended and ordered to pay a fine not exceeding 2,000 baht. The amount is up to the discretion of the inspector. After paying the fine at a BMA booth − which should be located in every Bangkok district − the inspector must issue a receipt.
“If the offender refuses to pay the fine, we can’t arrest them. You should ask inspectors at other districts how they handle these kinds of situations. Speaking for myself, when this situation occurred, especially with foreigners, I would give the person a warning, so as not to create a scene, and let them go. However, if the offender causes a disturbance we have to call the local police and let them take charge of the case from then on. We don’t have the authority to arrest anyone. Only city police can do that.
“When I was on this duty, I didn’t try to only nab people when they dropped cigarette butts and make them pay the fine. My intention was, and still is, to assist the public, and especially tourists. For example, when they approached me with a map and asked for directions, or if they were looking for a good restaurant, a cheap and good hotel, to exchange money or have their photo taken,” said the inspector.
The elevated walkway operation was known to target foreigners who dropped cigarette butts or trash and fine them without issuing a receipt – sometimes threatening them with arrest if they didn’t pay. Despite the removal of the inspectors from outside MBK, the walkway has less litter and rubbish than on the footpaths near Sukhumvit Soi 12, where Thetsakij are stationed these days.
LITTERING IN SINGAPORE
Thailand is not the only country where littering is an offence. Singapore, for example, is very strict on litterers, native or foreign. The officers in charge of enforcement will arrest anyone, and not only in tourist areas as is the practice in Bangkok.
The fine for littering is $S300 (about 7,000 baht) for the first offence. For a second offence this rises to $500 (11,800 baht) and the offender must appear in court, where they will most likely also be issued with a Corrective Work Order (CWO). This involves the cleaning of beaches and other public places. The offender must wear a luminous jacket with the CWO insignia, a measure designed to shame him or her.
Many local shopkeepers, motorcycle taxi drivers and even vendors in the three areas where the inspectors now operate are outraged at the targeting of foreigners.
One shopkeeper with a good view of the street from his shop near Sukhumvit Soi 4 said: “The Thetsakij target foreigners for dropping cigarette butts, pieces of paper or other items on the footpath. I have seen a lot of incidents but I don’t want to have a problem with them. What they do doesn’t affect my business, so I keep quiet.
“They try to get fines out of foreigners for dropping small items, but they don’t fine street vendors who make the footpath dirty. If the Thetsakij are really concerned about cleanliness, they should pick up litter left by the vendors on the footpath and throw it in the rubbish bins instead of walking over it,” the shopkeeper said.
“I see the Thetsakij following foreigners every day,” said a motorcycle taxi driver whose stand is located inside Soi 12. “They go after Koreans and Japanese in particular, but also other nationalities. I never see them catch Thais who litter the pavement. You can see this for yourself. The footpath the Thetsakij walk on is full of paper and other rubbish, but they don’t care. They only want money from the foreigners.
“Different inspectors come here from the Klong Toey district office,” he continued. “They rotate – they also patrol around Soi 4 and Benjasiri Park; and they have a table across the street under the pedestrian bridge over Sukhumvit. This area is under the jurisdiction of BMA’s Watthana District Office.
“I don’t know if the Thetsakij issue a receipt to foreigners after they pay the fine, which is usually 2,000 baht.
“They should be helpful to foreigners, not stalk them and take money from them. This is not good. It’s spoiling the city’s reputation. I wish you good luck and thank you for trying to do something about it,” concluded the motorcycle taxi driver.
During this conversation, an inspector came close to us, possibly attracted by a piece of paper in my hand. After I left to buy a soft drink from a kiosk nearby, he came even closer and stared at me with a stern expression. It was quite intimidating. As I walked I noticed a lot of litter on the footpath − paper, cigarette butts, and even a plastic bottle.
A food vendor near Benjasiri Park said: “I don’t like what the Thetsakij are doing, following foreigners who smoke and waiting for them to throw away the butt. I think it is shameful, but it is not my business, so I keep quiet. I have to survive.” When asked if he had ever been fined for littering (there was plenty of trash around his stall), he said: “They [thetsakij] are going after the foreigners, like Japanese, because they have money.”
Thetsakij at work near Soi 12
The BigChilli watched inspectors at work around Sukhumvit Soi 12, where it is much easier to keep a low profile and observe them in action than around Soi 4 or especially Benjasiri Park.
At 4.40pm on May 23, an inspector stopped a European man and his Thai female companion walking down Sukhumvit across from Soi 12 after he dropped a paper. The inspector spoke with the young woman at first and then took them to the table under the pedestrian bridge. Another inspector arrived from the booth on Soi 12 shortly after. The man and the young woman spent about 10 minutes talking with the officers, who were constantly watching the area at the same time. After the man paid a fine (I never learned the amount), the couple walked toward Robinson department store. They were followed by one inspector, preventing me from following them and asking questions about the incident.
The next day around 2.45pm an inspector approached a European-looking man near Soi 12 after he dropped a cigarette butt. He was then escorted by the inspector to the BMA booth. The man appeared angry and upset while talking to the inspector inside the booth for about 10 minutes, after which he immediately jumped in a taxi and left the scene.
A little later, at 3.20pm, another European man was apprehended by the same inspector for dropping a piece of paper. The man stayed in the booth for about 20 minutes. He also appeared very upset and was talking loudly. The inspector called for another inspector who was standing near the booth watching the area. The foreigner was writing something on a piece of paper while a third inspector arrived with five Japanese tourists. The first foreigner left shortly after and practically ran from the booth. It’s not clear if he paid a fine.
The five Japanese tourists spoke to the inspectors outside the booth for about five minutes. Apparently one Japanese man had dropped a piece of paper on the footpath near Soi 12 at around 3.30pm. After they left the booth we followed them and approached after a safe distance and asked what happened. One man could speak a little English but he indicated that he didn’t want to talk. They all continued walking, visibly upset.
At around 3.45pm on May 26 a married couple, a British man and an Australian woman, were apprehended by an inspector outside the 7/11 store near Soi 12. The man later explained that he was holding the cigarette in his hand while crushing it with his foot and wanted to throw it into a rubbish bin − as he didn’t want to throw it in the bin while still lit – the inspector called him over and accused him of littering. Despite the man’s protests, the inspector told him that crushing the cigarette with his foot on the footpath was the same as littering, even if he still had it in his hand.
The man protested that he had done nothing wrong, but the couple was taken over to the booth. The man was told that if he didn’t pay 1,000 baht there, he would be taken to the police station, where he would be fined 2,000 baht. Believing the inspector to be a Bangkok police officer, the man paid the 1,000 baht but didn’t get a receipt. Both the man and the woman were angry and told The BigChilli they want their money back. (We took photos and a video of them being apprehended, and recorded a short conversation with them. We also took the woman’s mobile number in the case we can be of assistance later).
INTERVIEW WITH AN INSPECTOR IN BENJASIRI PARK
I approached one inspector while walking on the footpath near Benjasiri Park and asked him a few questions:
Are you a policeman?
Yes, I am with the city police.
Like the one on this poster (pointing out a hoarding showing a high-ranking police officer attached to the Royal Thai Police)?
Where is your office?
In Klong Toey.
No, my duty is to look for people littering, and also motorcyclists riding on the footpath.
Can you make arrests?
Yes, I can.
Do you take suspects to the police station?
The inspector didn’t answer. In fact, he suddenly lost interest in the conversation, and looking around nervously, forced a smile and left.
As a footnote, during many visits to Benjasiri Park, I saw many motorcyclists riding on the footpath past the BMA booth, as well as parking on the footpath, some of them right in front or behind a large sign prohibiting this. I also watched inspectors walking past cigarette butts and other litter. A short distance away, across Soi 24, many vendors make the footpath dirty, but I never saw an inspector go there. In fact, I never saw a single Thai approached near any of the three booths operated by inspectors.
One European ambassador whose posting in Bangkok has ended told me he was caught by an inspector after placing a cigarette on top of a plastic bag filled with rubbish, most probably put there by a vendor at Benjasiri Park, because he couldn’t find a rubbish bin. The inspector was rude even after the ambassador showed him an ID card issued by the Diplomatic Privilege and Immunity Division, Department of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After a heated conversation during which the ambassador demanded to talk with his superior, a senior inspector arrived and let him go immediately.
The diplomat said that he knew of a Canadian woman who was apprehended in the same area after dropping a piece of paper. At first she refused to pay the maximum fine of 2,000 baht, but after she was threatened with arrest she paid, just to get away from “these horrible people.”