In the near future, Thailand’s ubiquitous roadside beggars – whether young, old, or physically infirm – may completely disappear. Under the terms of a new Beggar Control Act, recently adopted by the National Legislative Assembly and slated to be enforced over the next few months, they will literally be “led off the footpaths.” Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) Permanent Secretary Maitri Inthusut explains that under the new law people will be given what they need without having to beg. Towards this end, MSDHS is reportedly collaborating with all relevant agencies to assure that beggars will be able to find employment and acceptance in their communities. Whether the new policy will work is another matter.
Begging in Thailand
There are grounds for concern. Last year, MSDHS reported that Thailand was home to some 3,221 beggars. However the Mirror Foundation, a private development organization, estimates the number to be much higher – upwards of 6,000 people. And unemployment alone is also not the sole cause of begging; labor trafficking from neighboring countries adds a level of complexity to the problem. Two years back, the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Person Report classified Thailand as a Tier 3 country because of a perceived failure of local officials to meet minimum standards in monitoring and combatting trafficking. At issue were labor conditions in the local fishing and commercial sex industries but the report also noted the ongoing problem of forced child begging.
Mirror Foundation estimates suggest that there are now more than 1,000 children begging in provincial centers and tourist spots around Thailand with as many as 500 of these operating in Bangkok. Roughly 80 per cent are reportedly Cambodian nationals, many of whom have been arrested and sent home only to return to Thailand at a later stage. With limited economic opportunities in their home country, they have little recourse but to come again and again, a process which the Mirror Foundation claims has in recent years been facilitated by well-organized cross-border gangs. Faced with the sight of women carrying small children while begging on footpaths, many Bangkokians have long assumed that at least some of the children are victims of trafficking. The reality may actually be worse - mothers and children trafficked together.
The Beggar Control Act
The previous Beggar Control Act of 1941 lacked provisions to punish individuals responsible for trafficking people into begging. The problem was never addressed. In 2008, a new law was proposed that would have empowered local authorities to manage begging by issuing licenses to the physically disabled and to old people with no means of financial support. In the end, it was shelved in the face of considerable opposition, particularly from people who took offense at the idea that the handicapped were only capable of begging. The current act took shape after the 2014 coup d’état. It was passed into law by the NLA on 4 March 2016 and will take effect 90 days after publishing in the Royal Thai Government Gazette.
Prohibitions and Punishments
Photo from the Mirror Foundation
The new law forbids people from any and all forms of begging, direct or indirect. It also prohibits impromptu “displays of skill” on public footpaths, requiring performing artists to register with local authorities beforehand. In contrast to the previous Act, which did not criminalize begging and only penalized runaways from social welfare facilities, it stipulates that beggars can be fined as much as 10,000 baht and/or jailed for up to a month. Penalties for traffickers and those seeking to benefit from begging are more severe: prison sentences of up to three years and fines as high as 30,000 baht. Government officials found complicit face more extreme punishments: up to five years in jail and/or up to 50,000 baht in fines.
As beggars are poor and unemployed, there is little likelihood that they would be able to pay such fines. Provided beggars are elderly or infirmed Thai nationals with no means of support, the law allows for them to be remanded to a welfare facility without punishment, however. Nathi Sarawaree, Secretary-General of the Issarachon Foundation, a group that works with members of the local homeless community, believes that the law is meant to provide authorities with a means of controlling the problem and that feels its more severe penalties will only be used in criminal cases. Noting that legal measures are already in place for dealing with cases involving trafficking, child welfare, illegal immigrants and the homeless, he concludes that the new law is a preliminary step in getting beggars off the footpaths, determining whether they were engaged in criminal activities and addressing trafficking cases.
Auditions and Registration for Street Musicians
Photo from the Mirror Foundation
Another aspect of the new law is its classification of street performance – by musicians and others who ‘display skills’ in exchange for donations – as a type of begging. In this instance street performance will not be banned altogether, however. In the future, would-be performers may be obliged to register with at the local Department of Social Welfare and Development office or at the provincial office of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. They may also need to audition in front of a Ministry of Culture representative. Details and procedures have yet to be clarified.
Vithanapat Ratanavaleepong, head of the Mirror Foundation’s Stop Child Begging Campaign, is one of a number of people who feel that grouping beggars and performers together might create problems. According to Vithanapat, most performers are strongly opposed to the new law. Some are concerned that registration will lead to demands for under-the-table payments and other feel that the complex registration process and likely constraints it will impose on where and when performances can be staged will essentially end the art of street performance. Another Mirror Foundation official was more favorable, noting that the new law would make it very difficult for behind-the-scenes individuals to derive benefits from street performance and adding that preliminary screening of performers would help to establish their artistic credibility. He also noted that performers were likely to oppose the law until its specific provision were clarified and added that an age provision should be included in the final draft to make sure that children were not exploited in street performances.
Separating fakes from the real deals
Discussing the impact of the new law, Vithanapat noted that while it was likely to help in addressing trafficking and gang operations, it would also have serious consequences for poor and homeless people whose begging was a matter of survival. Prachatai talked with one such individual, “Boonseng”, a physically disabled man who lives in the Ta Prachan District of Bangkok. A former lottery ticket agent who turned to begging after being robbed, Boonseng complained of being chased off the sidewalk by state welfare officials and regularly accused by members of the public of faking his disability. At one point, he says, he was even forced into a vocational training program only to be returned to the street a few days later when authorities realized the severity of his disability, the result of a crippling bout of polio in both legs.
“They will never be able to enforce this ban. There are too many poor people, a lot more than there are rich ones. No one wants to go hungry. They do what they have to. You would too. If I could eat sand, I wouldn’t beg. I can’t so I do. No one willingly starves,” Boonseng told Prachatai.
Whether the law is enforced will also depend on the police. Vithanapat notes that the earlier control act was never effectively implemented because the police did not want to be tasked with chasing after and rounding up beggars, with immediate repercussions for other agencies pursuing trafficking and child-welfare cases. Whether the relevant authorities can now better distinguish between beggars, street people, homeless persons and those who take advantage of them remains to be seen.
Photo from the Mirror Foundation
Once detained, where will they be sent?
Deporting foreign nationals and sending up-country beggars back to their home provinces for training is not likely to be a solution. The former return to Thailand and the latter have in the past generally received little in the way of meaningful vocation training. Begging for an extended period of time also creates its own issues. Vithanapat notes the case of children from Surin Province who came to Bangkok to beg by playing the khaen, a northeastern reed pipe, at local tourist spots. Growing up as beggars, without education or vocational training, many were left with few employment options and continued begging into their adulthood. Unable to gain the same level of sympathy – and income – that they received as children, at least some turned to trafficking, managing and organizing gangs of child beggars. Clearly, the steps taken to help beggars after detention are critically important if the new law is to succeed. As noted by Vithanapat, “the state must quickly provide them with support and training to develop their capabilities and quality of life.”
Whether the new Act will address the problem of Thai beggars, whether getting beggars off the footpaths of Bangkok will improve their lives and reduce related trafficking problems, remains to be seen.
The story was first published in Thai on Prachatai and translated from Thai to English by Matthew Copeland.