Paper trail that leads nowhere
You lose, or have stolen, something of value. Your duty is to trot along to the local police station, and report the fact. After some time (a phrase deliberately chosen for its flexible interpretation), you will emerge with a police report.
And the question is, why bother?
Sometimes you have to do it because other parts of the bureaucratic machinery will not into creak into action without the impetus provided by a police report. Any official document like a driving licence, passport or bank book, anything that has your name and a number of some sort on it, will not be replaced unless you first report the loss to the police.
Sometimes you need it for the insurance. So you list lost property with insanely inflated values because you equally insanely hope the insurance company will believe anything a policeman writes down.
And sometimes you need it to cover your backside. Like when you lose the office keys and although you are too paralytic to remember which bar you were in, or what her name was, next morning you have a crystal clear recollection of losing them on the skytrain between Siam and Chidlom.
Let us first deal with this epistemological problem that the Thai police throw at anyone who has lost something. Since each station is responsible for events only within its precinct, they are unwilling to issue reports unless your property disappeared in their bailiwick. So they will always ask where you lost it.
But if something is lost, then inescapably, you don’t know where it is. If you did, it wouldn’t be lost.
This is why, when reporting missing property, you should never ever say you lost it on a bus or train, because the police station at one end of the line will argue that you must have lost it at the other end and you must report it there. All Thais seem to know this, leading to an amazing number of reports of items gone missing almost on the doorstep of police stations throughout the city.
But even if you do remember where you lost it, you wouldn’t report missing property in the hope or expectation of getting it back. The system is simply not designed for that.
Look at the piece of paper that you leave the police station with. This is a handwritten carbon copy in Thai. This, as long as the factual errors on it are no too glaring, will be enough to get you a new ID card or to make an insurance claim.
But neither it, nor the original in the police ledger, will do any more than that. The information is hiding on paper, not available for access in a database.
Suppose someone walks into a police station with your missing property. Whatever action the police take, it will be the same whether you did or did not report the loss. If it’s something with your name on it, no problem. If it’s something with some other identifying mark, like a laptop or a phone (which could be traced to you if had reported it and there was a database with this information) (which there isn’t), then good luck. And if it’s something fairly anonymous, like a piece of jewelry, then hard luck.
Have the police not heard of computers? you may ask.
Of course they have. Every officer in the building has one (except for the one writing police reports longhand, of course). And at the end of their shift, they unplug them, and their printers and other peripherals, and the next shift brings in a complete new set of hardware.
Because this is all the personal property of the officers, not standard equipment issued by the Royal Thai Police to enable officers to do their job.
This is quite bizarre. Do teachers have to buy their own personal blackboards and trundle them from classroom to classroom? Must supermarket check-out girls buy their own cash registers?
And because they are their own computers, they feel, with some justification, that when business is slow, there is nothing wrong with checking out the latest coyote video clip, or placing a bet on next week’s Premier League games, or maybe even accessing subversive websites like Prachatai. Courtesy of the police station’s internet connection, of course.
It is often argued that police corruption can be stopped if police officers’ pay is improved. Maybe they wouldn’t need the backhanders so much if they didn’t need to buy their own tools of the trade.