Whenever disruptive innovation reaches the shores of Thailand, time and again the knee-jerk reaction is to make a huge fuss, ban it as yet another Western evil, launch an “improved” and “appropriate” Thai alternative that nobody ends up using, and finally forget about it when people move on to the next crisis du jour.
I am still waiting for a government-approved Uber alternative app to arrive for my Pebble smartwatch – and therein lies the rub. There is no way the “legal” Go Bike developers would focus their efforts on the Pebble platform while Uber does have a pretty usable Pebble app. Thailand is tiny in the big scheme of things. The powers that be simply do not understand the concept of “ecosystem” or that Thailand is no longer the center of the universe.
Remember SiamTube? Of course not. This “improved” Thai imitation of YouTube launched back in 2007 because YouTube was, well, evil and full of bad Western propaganda and values. Today, the site doesn’t even resolve, and everyone watches YouTube.
Or how about when Thailand answered Hotmail with Khonthai.com webmail? A whole whopping 2 meeeellion bytes of free, official government goodness for every patriotic Thai citizen to use for safe, secure, official (and undoubtedly backdoored) communication.
Ultimately every case ends after a lot of huffing and puffing with nothing more happening than the evil Western companies winning while Thai innovation or participation in the ecosystem is squashed.
Fast-forward to today and see the same fiasco replayed over Pokemon Go. Telecoms regulators huff and puff at Nintendo (rather than actual developers Niantic) for several days while strutting their make-believe power to control the rest of the world.
More meaningful than Pokeman is the topic of Bitcoin. A decentralised, unstoppable, borderless electronic currency is a good idea, especially for the poor and unbanked. Whether you agree Bitcoin is a good thing (quick test: replace the word “Bitcoin” with “cash” in whatever argument you have and then stop blaming technology), it is happening. And in the great Thai tradition of banning ‘em all, the Bank of Thailand demonized and squished it before it took root with rules that effectively outlawed it.
Read the terms and conditions on one of Thailand’s major bitcoin exchanges, bx.in.th, next time you need a good laugh.
“No foreign currency exchange. The customer must agree never to exchange currencies purchased from the website for any foreign currency other than Thai Baht,” it reads. “The customer must also guarantee that any crypto-currency the customer sells at the website have never been involved in exchange with any foreign currency other than Thai Baht.”
To anyone who understands how Bitcoin works, that statement is both impossible to comply with and practically impossible to enforce. Bitcoins are math and exist everywhere in every single Bitcoin node all over the world at the same time. The concept of borders simply does not compute.
Like the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commision pretends now to control the world of Pokemon, the BOT pretends it can control Bitcoin and keep its lucrative foreign exchange monopoly intact.
Like the best Thai laws, it simply creates a mechanism for capricious, selective enforcement. The BOT can, if it wishes, pick out any Bitcoin user on a whim for persecution, I mean, prosecution. Of course, whether it does so depends on how good that user appears in the eyes of the powers that be.
But while all this huffing and puffing may appear to only massage the egos of those in power, it does comes with a cost. This ban-them-all attitude kills grassroots innovation. (Sorry, I mean home-grown innovation – Gen. Prayut has banned the use of the word “grassroots” because reasons).
Innovation simply goes to more fertile jurisdictions such as Singapore, and what little is left remains clenched in the hands of the conglomerates and banksters.
Or perhaps that was the plan all along.
Ed. note: As longtime fans of Don’s writing at Telecom Asia, we are delighted to have him join Khaosod English as an occasional columnist.