Top: A man holds up a sign reading “My Country is Good” at “Walk to Support Uncle” on Jan. 12, 2020.
BANGKOK — Ask an expat what he or she thinks about politics, and they would likely tell you they are not comfortable talking about it. Otherwise they may lose their visas, or worse, get deported right away.
It’s certainly a common explanation online, where many foreigners residing in Thailand said they’d rather “stay out of” Thai politics, especially at the time anti-government protests are heating up once again.
But one foreign resident who’s made a career in calling out Thailand’s numerous human rights abuses said the fear of losing one’s stay in the Kingdom is largely unfounded.
“I would challenge people spreading these rumors to point to a single cause of a foreigner deported for going to a protest or for posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter,” Human Rights Watch campaigner Phil Robertson said in an interview. “And the truth is they just won’t find any.”
“These are reverberations in the ThaiVisa echochamber. They spend too little time going out and seeing things with their own eyes,” he added, referring to a webforum frequented by a number of expats.
Robertson, who works as the deputy director for the organization’s Asian region, also said foreigners who attend protests or express political opinions are generally treated just like the native population: don’t break the laws, and there’d be no retribution.
“I personally think it’s very unlikely that anyone will get deported for expressing opinions online or for going to watch a protest,” he said. “For people to somehow claim that is just nonsense.”
Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam speaks at a Redshirt protest in May 2012.
Some foreigners may still point to the case of Yan Marchal, 47, a French blogger who was visited by the police in 2019 for posting a video that mocked the junta’s theme song.
But in an interview, Marchal said there were no legal repercussions from the incident – and certainly no deportation attempts.
“There was no legal follow-up. I’ve not heard from the police since that informal visit,” Yan, who’s been living in Thailand for 17 years, said. “Since we are here on a visa, it’s a risk that we face if they want to revoke it. But I decide to be outspoken anyway because that is my nature.”
Another name that often comes up when discussing threats of losing visas over political discussion is British blogger Richard Barrow. He wrote on social media on Aug. 13 and 14 that immigration officers paid him a visit after speaking critically about the bureau, and informed him that his visa may not be renewed.
On Aug. 19, Barrow said that his visa had been extended, and the visa scare was due to paperwork issues.
I want to make it very clear that it had nothing to do with my activities on social media. I work for a small company that contracts me out to work at the school. Although the paperwork was passed by my local Immigration, officials in Bangkok have stricter criteria.— Richard Barrow in Thailand 🇹🇭🇬🇧 (@RichardBarrow) August 19, 2020
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that fears of deportation or losing one’s visas are real enough. Responses to a recent Khaosod English article on a lack of protests in international schools include comments reflecting those concerns.
“International teachers would be deported if they said anything about Thai current events,” one comment says. “Thai teachers at international schools receive very explicit instructions on what to teach in culture and history class.”
“Many students at international schools have like my son [sic] at least one foreign parent. We have to abide by the law or our permission to stay will be at risk,” another user wrote.
But the Human Rights Watch official said there’s simply no record of the immigration ever deporting or retaliating against any foreigner simply for attending protests.
“Certainly the Thai government is no angel in this regard, but we just haven’t seen any case of deportation or action against foreingers,” Robertson said. “Immigration has the right to check on the status of any foreigner here. If they wanted to use that in any way for intimidation they certainly could, but the reality is we’re just not seeing that.”
There were cases of foreigners being deported on political grounds in the past, though the context almost always involved the monarchy.
In 2007, a Swiss man was deported – after spending months in jail – for defacing the portrait of King Bhumibol. Then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra also ordered reporters from the Far Eastern Economic Review to be deported in 2003 after they wrote an article that referenced the King.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Natapanu Nopakun said by phone Tuesday that although the matter is not directly related to his agency, he said that as long as nothing illegal is done there should be no problem of deportation.
“Thailand allows expression of opinions,” he said.
Indeed, contrary to the claims that foreigners attending political demonstrations may be deported, the recent pro- and anti-establishment protests saw a noticeable presence of foreigners, including journalists and diplomats, without any legal consequences.
Robertson, who’s observed numerous protests in Thailand, also said many pro-democracy demonstrations would actually welcome the presence of foreigners in their midst.
“Having foreigners there, such as journalists and interested observers is important since it indicates to officials that it is of interest to the international community,” he said.
An operator at the Government Contact Center hotline said by phone that as long as a foreigner attending a protest does not engage in illegal activities, they will not be prosecuted for going to it.
“Policy-wise we do not prevent foreigners from going to protests. If they are peacefully going to protests, then there should be no problem,” he said. “If they’re not violent, they won’t be under surveillance. And to protest is within democratic rights as well.”
However, the operator said foreigners engaged in lese majeste, violence, or any other illegal action may face prosecution like their Thai counterparts. Having a criminal record may also affect applications for visa renewal.
A senior immigration commander declined to comment for the story on the record, calling it a “sensitive matter.”
“I don’t want you to write news that Immigration ‘warned’ foreigners not to participate,” the officer said. “How is this an issue? It’s not their job [to protest] when they come here.”