A Cocktail of Confusion: Thailand’s Alcohol Laws
A Cocktail of Confusion: Thailand’s Alcohol Laws
Since the Junta took power in a military coup in May 2014, there have been scores of botched bans and misguided announcements, most eventually retracted when logic prevailed. The latest head scratcher is the looming threat of alcohol bans, complete with conflicting announcements and confusing edicts.
On 20th July 2015, the junta announced that the sale of alcohol within 300 metres of any educational establishment would be banned. With immediate effect. Given the way Thailand works, pretty much everyone ignored the announcement, sure that nothing would come of it. And sure enough, after just three days, on July 23rd, a second order was made; the prohibition of alcohol sales ‘within the vicinity’ of an educational establishment, again with immediate effect.
Again, many bars, shops and restaurants ignored the rule while many took to social media to vent their frustration and distain for such a vague and sweeping rule. The discussion continues and will do so until early next year, while authorities “reach a clear understanding” of what the word vicinity means. However, until that decision is made, the law is left so open to interpretation that it is bound to be abused.
This is not the first attack on businesses selling alcohol either. Last year, soon after the coup, a ban on all alcohol advertising came into effect, reviving an old law passed but never enforced. No actual drinks could be displayed in advertising; no beer girls, buffets, recommendations, happy hours or any form of alcohol promotion. It would be laughable, except these rules are damaging to businesses (including our very own)…and of course, and far more importantly, to beer girls! Earlier this year, bulk purchases of alcohol over 10 litres were also confined to the already restrictive and unnecessary time constraints of 11am – 2pm and 5pm-midnight.
Other rules include a five year ban – on the property, not the business owner – when a bar is found to be breaking any alcohol law. Just for comparison, pre-junta rules stipulate that bars pay a fine and close for around two months before being allowed to open again. This new rule however, does more than close down a business, it also means the property it sits on loses much of its retail value with a five year ban on alcohol on it.
As to the latest ban, as it stands, all we can do is wait for the government to clarify what ‘vicinity’ means. According to Saman Footrakul, the director of the Alcohol Beverage Office, in these six months needed to clarify the law, all “security officers will have to exercise their judgment, based on appropriateness of the situation.” Dangerous words given Thailand’s corrupt track record.
This dangerous confusion, with words like ‘exercise their judgement’, leads to inevitable abuse by police officers who so far have had free reign to enforce the rule where they please. So far however, few places have been affected.
In Chiang Mai, the area around Chiang Mai University has been affected the most. In fact, according to some, it’s the only area where the police have even attempted to enforce the rule. It’s curious why areas around other inner city schools and universities such as Rachabhat University remain unaffected. And of course the pink-tinted Loi Kroh bars are still operating as usual, schools and temples notwithstanding.
For those places unlucky enough to have been caught up in the new legislation, new avenues (or venues) need to be found, and found quickly so as to keep them afloat in this economically challenging time. This month we talk to three bar and shop owners who have had to use their ingenuity to recreate themselves in order to survive…at least until the rules change again.
A pillar in the LGBTQ society of Chiang Mai, Soho Bar had to take drastic action to secure a future for the popular bar unluckily caught up in the ‘vicinity’ of a school.
Shauna Pugh, the current owner of Soho explained that the bar had been in business for ten years, but now its future looks bleak. “After we had to start closing at midnight, I lost customers,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not even worth being open.”
When the ruling was made however, Shauna made an ingenious proposal _ she visited the police before they visited her. After a short discussion, she struck up a deal that has allowed her to be exempt from the rule until February 2016. “Now I need to find the funds to move,” she explained. “A few years back, my business was worth around five million baht, now with the location and the new laws, it’s unsellable.” The only way out for Shauna is to find a new venue by February or risk the chance that this whole law could be gone by her deadline, which is not a pipe dream given the history of Thailand’s lackadaisical law making.
Shauna has now began crowdfunding to raise enough money to move shop and keep the well-known bar alive. A hub for art, events and all kinds of culture, (LGBTQ or not) Soho would be sorely missed. “Everyone who comes into my bar gets a hug,” she said, lightening the tone. “We are a big family, and I’m sure we will continue. Yet if we can’t raise the funds, or more laws are made further damaging my business, for my own wellbeing I will just take the loss and be done with it.”
Despite the hurdles Shauna faces, she does believe the government is trying, but not in the right way. “I commend the government for trying to stop corruption,” she said.
“No longer can I pay off the police to stay open later, which is always risky business, though financially, I would rather lose close to a quarter of a million baht a year to corruption than have to close at midnight and lose all my business.” Quite the conundrum.
If you want to help save Soho Bar, then simply go to life.indiegogo.com and search for Save Soho Bar.
For anyone following the vibrant Chiang Mai art or music scenes, Minimal would certainly be on your radar. A bar-slash-gallery-slash-music production studio, Minimal has, for over eight years, served as a stepping stone from which some of the most exciting Chiang Mai bands and artists have entered the national stage. This year the bar was given a five year ban on selling alcohol after a police raid netted someone under the age of 20 at a university student’s art exhibition opening party.
The owner ‘Met’ had to think fast on how to keep Minimal alive.
“I was dumbfounded,” he said. When the letter was delivered I was so stressed I almost had to go to hospital.” Met stopped eating and struggled with the reality that his prosperous and famous business was now apparently over. “My first thought was to give it up,” he explained while clearing stock from his now useless minibar. “But I am a centre of new music in Chiang Mai. Art cannot be presented alone. It needs something to go with it, and a bar is perfect for that.”
“I had to think of something, what else was I to do!” With two years left on his lease, he couldn’t afford to move, so he had to change. Now Minimal has expanded, literally _ by adding a lowercase e to its name. With no alcohol on the menu, Minimeal now serves food instead of alcohol under the new name of Minim/e/al. Inventive.
“Upstairs will remain my recording studio and gallery, but downstairs will focus on food and artwork rather than drinks and parties,” he said optimistically, yet clearly still devastated by that one excessive ruling. “Who knows if it will even work,” he said, the taste still very bitter in his mouth.
The most heavily affected area in town is without a doubt around Chiang Mai University.
Enter Santi, an ex-military man who opened Gim Ngor in 1977. A lifelong resident of this area and proud owner of this long standing off-licence, Santi has, after being in business for nearly forty years, finally reached a hurdle that even he may not be able to jump.
“The police came in one day and they said I could still sell alcohol, as I sell it wholesale,” he explained. “But then just a few days later, I got this.” He laid on a table a photocopied document explaining the new laws, with several points highlighted.
His annoyance was clearly visible; as were the now empty shelves, some lined with soft drinks and crisp packets. “This isn’t a formal order you know,” he said, waving the document. “It’s just a photocopy of some rules. The police just come in and do what they want.”
A few sois down sits a small Tesco Express. “Tesco used all their lawyers to fight the order and now they are selling alcohol again – I should be allowed to sell too but I can’t afford, or be bothered, with the battle.” After 38 years in business, Santi knows when to follow orders. “The Excise Department have now revoked all alcohol licences in the area, and we all have to go get a new one in mid-October,” he said. “I’m confident I will get mine back as I am a wholesale outlet, but all the bars and restaurants won’t, that’s for sure.”
Santi’s distain for article 44 is obvious. He’s not happy and he doesn’t like how it supersedes standard law making processes. He even said that “no wonder foreigners don’t take Thailand seriously, our laws are so weak. They are so vague, and have been built around corruption and Thailand’s sabai sabai culture too long. It’s a joke.” Yet despite his discontent, he knows the battles to avoid. “I’m not interested in all the politics anymore, it’s just a waste of time. I’ll just do what they want. We are living on their land, they make the rules, and if we fight, we suffer.”
It’s a sad attitude to take, but completely understandable. But just as things were hitting a dead end, Santi pulled a small trick from out of his sleeve. “Behind my shop is my home. If the law is really for 300 metres, then I will just sell from my house.
Right now, I technically can still sell alcohol as it’s all stored in my house, which is past the 300 metre mark.” A cheeky game of exactities; but a fair effort in beating a hard system. “I’ve lost so much business already but we still bring in enough to eat and live,” Santi said as I was leaving. “I’m a retired man, I’ve given up fighting the laws built around corruption. I’m just going to sit and wait to see what happens and then just deal with the outcome.”