BANGKOK – When an official in this Bangkok suburb of Samut Prakan asked British blogger Richard Barrow for 1,000 baht ($33) to finalise some tax documents, the longtime Thailand resident requested a receipt.
The official refused to give one, and conceded that the money was to buy lunch for him and his staff. Barrow then pulled out his iPhone and outed the bribe-demanding official, complete with photo, to his 22,000-plus Twitter followers.
“Unbelievable. This revenue officer wants me to pay him 1,000B before he will release my tax documents. I’ve refused,” Barrow tweeted as he left the man’s office on Monday morning.
Twenty-six minutes later, Barrow tweeted that the official, anxious to have his picture deleted from the Internet, had backed down: “Success against corruption. Price for my tax documents has gone down from 1,000 Baht to 260 Baht with receipt.”
Bribery and corruption pervade all levels of Thai society – from the cash paid for traffic offences and government permits – to the grand-scale leakage that plagues infrastructure projects. Barrow’s blow-by-blow account on Twitter illustrates one way people can fight back.
“FOREIGNER = MONEY”
Barrow’s visit to the Department of Revenue office was part of his annual task of collecting paperwork to renew his Thai visa.
Barrow moved to Thailand 19 years ago to teach at a local private school and has been here since, heading the school’s computer department for some time, and now managing its online social media and training teachers. He also runs a company that produces dozens of travel- and news-related web sites.
His Twitter followers and social media friends multiplied when he began to report on-the-ground news snippets from the so-called “Red Shirt” political protests in 2010 and the massive floods that inundated the country a year later.
Yet in his nearly two decades here, he says he “never faced any corruption” until he came up against the official this week.
“He must have seen I was a foreigner and tried to get some money out of me,” Barrow told TrustLaw on Thursday, when he felt more at ease to talk about his case because he had successfully submitted the paperwork to get his visa earlier in the day.
After Barrow took a picture of the official, he changed his tune in the hope that Barrow would take the image down. Seven minutes after the photo tweet, Barrow tweeted a second time: “I’m sorry, but I have zero tolerance for corruption in government offices. We’re now at a stand-off. He wants me to delete the pic I took.”
But after one hour, his Twitter post had already been re-tweeted 62 times, reaching 621,634 people.
Then Thai media picked up the story, and the British ambassador to Thailand, Mark Kent, chimed in on his own Twitter feed: “@RichardBarrow UK Bribery Act applies to UK citizens overseas. We encourage any UK citizen who is asked for a bribe to report it.”
Kent later commented on Barrow’s Twitter feed with a link to the law.
RECEIPT TRUMPS CORRUPTION
As of Thursday night, Barrow’s post had been re-tweeted 277 times.
He admits he was nervous he might be refused a visa and kicked out of Thailand. On Monday, after learning that Thai media had reported on the incident, he expressed his fears on Twitter.
“What’s the chance that I will be the one to get into trouble for this? Thai officials don’t like losing face & could cause trouble for me,” he wrote, followed five minutes later with: “I have this sinking feeling that Immigration will refuse to renew my visa now & they will kick me out of the country 🙁 ”
Barrow told me he feels he took a “calculated risk” when he snapped the photo and posted it, and that he was saved, in a way, by his high profile in Thailand.
Yet when I asked him for the moral of the story, he made no mention of social media or Twitter, and instead sang the praises of the good old paper receipt.
“Always insist on having a proper receipt, and stand your ground. Insist on knowing where the money’s going, and what it’s for, and we can cut down on corruption. Don’t pay the bribe.”
The British ambassador has contacted Barrow to talk to him about the incident. Meanwhile, Barrow is waiting for his visa to come through.
By Alisa Tang from Trustlaw a one-stop shop for news and information on anti-corruption and women’s rights from our expert editorial team and content partners.