FARANG IN BLUE
The possibilities of the Royal Thai Police’s latest initiative going wrong are endless. Virtually untrained foreigners, in uniform (complete with baton and handcuffs), out on the streets with all the appearance of authority, but in possession of none, conjures up all sorts of car wreck-esque scenarios.
There are sixty tourist police in Chiang Mai, only two of whom are officers. The department is under-budgeted and the majority of the policemen don’t even speak English. In September last year, a very intriguing idea was formed to recruit resident foreigners to assist the tourist police on a voluntary basis, thus The Tourist Police Foreign Volunteer programme was formed. Today there are over forty such volunteers from twenty countries including Japan, Britain, Uruguay, the United States, Korea and Canada. Many are missionaries, others retirees, some professionals such as doctors, photographers and writers with a sprinkling of business owners and entrepreneurs in the ranks. Each one has his or her (there are three women) own reason for joining. While most claim altruism it’s hard to believe that some don’t spend a few hours at home in front of the mirror practicing their salute and fast draw. I would.
From civilian to uniform, a candidate must attend a one day course which offers basic scenarios, problems and guidelines. The immigration department will then check whether there is a valid work permit and residency as well as look for criminal records. A couple of field trips to tourist sites to become familiar with Chiang Mai’s many attractions, a short trip to the uniform shop, 3,000 baht for the full kit-and-caboodle and Bob’s your policeman.
But let us put our cynicism aside and find out more about these men and women in blue (thankfully, not skin-tight like their authoritative brethren in brown).
“These volunteers are not here to fight crime,” said Pol. Lt. Col. Nattawut Chotikanjanawat, Inspector of Chiang Mai Tourist Police. “They are here to serve as an intermediary between tourists and the Thai culture and police. They translate between various languages and Thai, they teach our tourist police to speak English, they tell tourists where to find certain things, or what to do under various situations. We stress the importance of calling for backup and of never getting involved in a dangerous situation, and they always patrol in pairs.”
Each volunteer can choose to work as a translator, teacher, sit behind the police desk and offer advice, or pound the streets. Some volunteers work one to two hours per week, others spend days in uniform. It is a very informal arrangement. “While most claim altruism it’s hard to believe that some don’t spend a few hours at home in front of the mirror practicing their salute and fast draw.”
“I simply love helping people,” said Marilyn Khopang, a US citizen, raised in Burma and working for a Presbyterian church in Chiang Mai since 1974. Khopang and some other volunteers were recruited through the rainbow group. It gives me and my husband joy to meet people and be able to offer them help and advice,” she told me in fluent Thai.
“I think that every country in the world should have this service,” said Steve Kramer, a photographer and volunteer tourist police. “When foreigners come to a country which is very different from their own and experience a stressful situation, that stress can be exacerbated to the point that they can’t deal logically with a problem. We help provide a buffer zone to reduce their stress. I think that we are providing an important service which genuinely benefits Chiang Mai’s tourism. Some people may want to join this programme under a misguided notion of getting to play Batman and Robin, but the reality is not so glamorous. When we walk down Ratchadamnoen Road during the Sunday Walking Street we spend most of our times answering such mundane questions as where the bathroom is, or where to get currency exchanged.”
Sean Todd, an American missionary teacher who has been in Chiang Mai for 18 years, loves to teach. “My favourite part of volunteering is to help develop the English language skills of the tourist police themselves,” he explained. “I was initially worried that the project may die down because it is so new and untried, but it appears to be snowballing and we are learning from our mistakes. There are feelings of goodwill.”
Volunteers insist that there are moments which require more than a GCSE pass in French and the knowledge of Tha Pae Gate latrines. During one of his morning rounds, Steve Kramer came across two Swiss girls who were scraped and bruised from a snatch and grab crying in their guesthouse. They had lost their passports and credit cards and feared that they wouldn’t make the full moon party in a few days time. He acted as facilitator with the police at Phra Singh station, taking the girls to report the crime, and then called up the Swiss embassy in Bangkok to request for the special pickup of the passport on a Saturday so that the girls could get to Koh Pang Ngan by Tuesday – the full moon. They took the bus to Bangkok very happy with the help they had received.
Joel Khopang, Marilyn’s husband, was in the station one day when a 23 year old man from England came in to report a lost camera. He signed the report after being warned numerous times that it was illegal to file a false report. Going on instinct, Joel and some tourist police went to the man’s hotel room only to find said camera tucked away in the cupboard. The judge handed the lying Brit a 30 day sentence. “They are here to serve as an intermediary between tourists and the Thai culture and police.”
“Many visitors from Japan or Korea do not speak Thai or English. To be able to tell their problems or ask for help from a native speaker is a very valuable thing,” Noritoshi Urano of Chiang Mai’s Japanese language Vieng Magazine explained. “There are 2,500 registered Japanese residents and over 100,000 Japanese visitors to Chiang Mai every year. That is a lot of people who could get into trouble without being able to communicate. There are two Japanese volunteers now but we need many more. We also need Korean volunteers.”
Many volunteers speak of gratitude and appreciation for what they do from the public. Some also talk of confusion and wariness. After all how many people actually know what the tourist police do? While in some areas such as Pattaya and Phuket, where there are foreign gangs and criminals, the tourist police are active in crime solving, in gentle Chiang Mai, their role tends to be more akin to a public relations department, with volunteers serving as virtual ambassadors for the Royal Thai Police.
But expat residents of a few months offering untrained advice to tourists? Criminals and undesirables dressed in uniform offering children lollipops and a hand to find lost parents? Farang with bravado stepping into the middle of a knife fight? Men in uniforms getting a few special perks?
These are all very real possibilities, and ones which the tourist police and volunteers are not unaware of. “Because we have to go out in pairs at all times, accompanied by a tourist police, I think that we have minimised the potential for problems,” Kramer explained.
For me, while the verdict is still out, I admit to being curious. Of course things can go wrong. But those are risks which the volunteers are aware of and have agreed to take. Maybe the project is simply another propaganda drive by the police, soon to be dropped like so many other grand schemes under this administration. Perhaps the screening and training processes are still flawed and numerous mistakes will be made over the coming months or years. But I say give them a chance. There may be no structure, but their sincerity is worn on their sleeves — along with their names, volunteer badge and national flag.
“I was accused by a tourist of wanting to exceed my authority,” Kramer continued. “I had to explain to him that he and I shared the same level of authority. I can make a citizen’s arrest just like the next person if I am witness to a serious crime, but if a crime is that serious, I would call for backup anyway.”
Though Chiang Mai initiated this scheme, it is beginning to be implemented in Pattaya and Phuket as well, and many other tourist destinations in Thailand are beginning to show interest. Our local boys and girls in blue are being closely watched and if the programme becomes successful it will not only be a spectacular feather in the Royal Thai Police and the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s caps, but something which would help numerous tourists each year to return home from the land of smiles with a smile of their own.
The Chiang Mai Tourist Police are looking for a further 60 volunteers over the coming months. The only requirements are that you have a work permit or residency status and no criminal records. All you need to do is call 1155 or 053 278559 to apply, put aside a few thousand baht for your uniform and accessories and be prepared to volunteer some of your time to help others. Pol. Lt. Col. Nattawut would also like to ask the public to donate bicycles for the men and women in blue.