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LAW AND SOCIETY
By William J. Klausner
In urban society similar conflicts between law and customary behavior abound. To observe this conflict daily in a somewhat dramatic fashion, one has only to traverse Bangkok's concrete rat's maze where traffic laws ore regularly flouted with reckless abandon; where buses, lorries, tricycles and motorcycles constantly spew forth fumes that are illegal as well as asphyxiating; where motorcycle taxis illegally transport harried commuters up and down winding lanes and through traffic clogged road; where, in contravention of the law, construction sites are not covered with thick canvas to prevent the spread of dust; and where children sell flowers and snacks at intersection, risking the law as well as life and limb.(8) On the sidewalks, ubiquitous stalls, illegally situated, openly flouting tradernark laws, sell fake Lacoste, Fila, Ellesse shirts and Gucci, Cardin and Vuitton accessories while the expensive originals are displayed in the elegant luxury shops in nearby malls. Beggars importune the public on the streets and pedestrian overpasses in flagrant violation of the 1941 Anti-Begging Act. In office buildings, workers play the underground lottery(9) and participate in a variety of legally questionable pyramid and chit share schemes. As in the case of their rural brothers, the urbanites feel no guilt in their above-described illegal behavior, as they too are largely acting from economic necessity and from the demands of time and convenience, a negotiable currency in urban society. Their actions are also in conformity with traditional practices sanctioned by the community.
Bangkok, the City of Angels, provides in its uncontrolled, unplanned, chaotic growth, a dramatic example of how even when a law to regulate dysfunctional behavior is finally promulgated it may actually accentuate rather than minimize the discrepancy between the law and customary practice. The capital's first official city plan was only passed into law in 1992. While this was 210 years after the establishment of the city, it was also some seventeen years since the draft plan was first drawn up in 1975. As the law is not retroactive, one is constantly confronted with the stark reality of buildings, in their construction and siting, in contravention of the law's requirements. To add insult to injury, the new law itself is already outdated, e.g., there is no recognition of the expressway system, presently under construction, in the plan.
Prostitution and abortion provide two further examples where there is a marked divergence between the law and customary behavior. Over the years there have been recommendations to legalize prostitution and to broaden the exemptions under the abortion law. Those favoring reform are principally concerned with lack of proper medical controls and the concomitant threats to health which both prostitution and underground abortion represent.
Despite legal prohibition, prostitution flourishes in a variety of disguises. In addition to the more conventional "a house is not a home" brothel. there are bars, massage parlors, escort services, member clubs, teahouses, "cricket" hotels and "drawn curtain" motels. Raids and arrests occur sporadically. Enforcement is on a highly selective basis, at irregular intervals, motivated largely by political pressures. It is inevitable that such selective enforcement will involve a certain amount of corruption. There appears to be a general cosensus that penalties for procurers and owners of brothels should be increased. However, those advocating legalization of prostitution have made very little headway. Recently, recommendations for the decriminalization of prostitution have found increasing receptivity within academic circles. Such decriminalization would serve to bring the law and custom into closer conformity while avoiding the problems attendant on legalization through registration, e.g., bureaucratic red tape, corruption, loss of face and stigma for the women with public labeling, and issues of morality and prestige within the international community. The prostitutes simply would not be subject to punishment while procurers and pimps would he severely punished.
(5) In October 1993 thousands of villagers under the aegis of the Confederation of Isaan Small Scale Farmers marched on Bangkok demanding that the government respond to their appeals on land ownership rights, falling crop prices, resettlement problem caused by government projects, etc. As usual, the government promised to be responsive to their grievances; in fact, little was done. A little over two years later the Thai Forum of the Poor, drawing on the Confederation's membership, as well as urban disadvantaged labor and slum groups and a cross-section of socially conscious academics and NGO representatives, organized a protest in front of Government House with a familiar list of demands for greater people participation within the political system in order to solve problems concerning eucalyptus plantations, land rights, compensation for lands and income lost through construction of dams, toxic waste dumping, health security for laborers, etc. As usual, the government in power made soothing noises and promises. The first few months of 1997 saw the Assembly of the Poor once again encamped before Government House, the number of protesters sometimes reaching ten thousand.
On the other hand, although frustration, annoyance and discontent is obviously felt by the harried urbanites, they have shown remarkable forbearance in tolerating the daily degradation of their environment. Unlike their rural counterparts, they have not taken to the streets. The Bangkokian's patience with the excesses of political degradation is far less. There have been demonstrations and protests, some drenched with blood, others merely with rhetoric, in defiance of abuses of authoritarian power and control. A colleague at the university remarked that the capital's citizenry probably feels reform of Bangkok's environment is hopeless, but reform of the political system is still possible. In this connection, there seems to be a growing impatience on the part of the Bangkok populace with the corruption and inefficiency of parliamentary democracy. Some have suggested it would better serve the Thai body politic if there were more patience with the relatively controlled chaos of the democratic process and less with the uncontrolled chaos of the environment.
(6) Even the normally serene monkhood has not heen immune to the increasingly confrontational approach vis-a-vis authority now so prevalent in the countryside. Activist monks have taken up the cause of villagers fighting for their rights to continue to work in reserved forest areas where they have been living and to actively participate in conserving such land.
(7) Within the past few years, more than a few activists have peen murdered. As was the case with the more than twenty unsolved murders of farmer activists in the early and mid-seventies, these recent killings are, with few exceptions, either unsolved or unpunished.
(8) As for children and others servicing traffic-weary commuters at intersections, the police have acknowledged their sympathy for the economic plight of the sellers and have basically turned a blind eye to these transgressions. There is similar compassion for and lack of enforcement against out-of-work provincial mahouts who bring their elephants into Bangkok in contravention of a law prohibiting such travel. The authorities also have no facilities to house the elephants if they were forced off the streets. It is deemed to be good luck to pass under the stomach of an elephant, and urbanites pay for the privilege.
(9) This illegal underground lottery system, huay tai din, is as prevalent in up-country provincial and rural areas as it is in the capital. To add insult to injury, this illegal gambling system is based on the last two or three digits of the officially sanctioned government lottery draw, or, in a variation, huay hun, on the last two numbers of the Stock -Exchange of Thailand index at the close of each session. It has been estimated that the cash turnover of the underground lottery is around Baht 100 billion a year, roughly equivalent to the total yearly value of Thai rice exports. While the sellers and corrupt policemen reap obvious benefits, it is the bosses who operate and control the lottery in sectors of the capital, in a province, or even in several provinces, who have become immensely rich. Their profits are estimated as anywhere between five to thirty million Baht a month. An analysis of the undergound lottery system clearly indicates that when a specific illegal activity is, for whatever reasons, not challenged or controlled, it can lead to a subsequent separate and seemingly unrelated criminal activity. In this case, it is the huge profits from the underground lottery that provide the necessary capital for vote buying the sine qua non of provincial politics. It is not surprising that many successful MPs are reputed to be underground lottery bosses. Certainly quite a few of the financiers and election canvassers associated with political campaigns are drawn from the pool of underground lottery bosses.