The controversy over Thaksin’s passport in recent years has also raised intriguing questions about the overall value of the Thai passport in the global community. Thai passports belonging to political leaders, celebrities, officials, diplomats or members of the Royal Family carry certain privileges that ordinary ones do not.
General Thai passport-holders have to stand in long queues waiting for their visa applications to be approved. Ordinary Thais also have to endure constant cynicism and even verbal abuse from the assigned personnel along the way, not to mention the numerous problems they have to overcome in order to get permission to enter. Worse, at some of the immigration checkpoints, especially in Europe, Thai passport holders will receive special treatment with sinister questions and suspicious looks from some officials, as if the visitors are criminals or terrorists on the loose. Some have even been turned back.
It is interesting to note that a Thai passport affords few advantages. It does not grant the bearer the freedom to travel, as do other Asian passports such as those of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore or Brunei, whose holders enjoy visa waivers from more than 100 countries. In the case of Taiwan, for instance, even though the island has diplomatic relations with only 23 countries, mainly in Africa, Central America and the Pacific islands, its distinctive green passport is a key to the doors of 124 countries, and the number is growing. Thailand’s position in the world today has been constantly downgraded – so has the Thai passport – due to continued domestic uncertainty and possible turmoil. The recent floods have further dampened the country’s future economic growth prospects.
During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Thai passport-holders carried some clout as they could visit the Scandinavian countries – rare among Southeast Asia countries at the time – and New Zealand without visas. That helped explain why national carrier Thai Airways International had several flights to the North. Some of them continue today. These countries served as the homes of Thai activists in exile during the first student uprising in 1973 and later in 1976. Now, visas are compulsory for Thai visitors to Scandinavia. Holders of Thai official and diplomatic passports can enter only 47 countries without a visa, while holders of ordinary passports have access to only 22 countries or territories, of which eight are Asean members. The others are Argentina, South Korea, Brazil, Panama, the Maldives, Seychelles, Peru, Chile, Russia, Peru, Mongolia, Macau, Hong Kong and Bahrain. Burma is still the only Asean country for which Thais require a visa.
The Thai government has given unilateral visa exemptions to 48 countries to boost tourism.
The Amazing Thailand campaign, which began in earnest in the 1990s, when the annual number of tourists was still under 10 million, has attracted more and more visitors to the country in the past two decades. Despite the recent floods, 17 million tourists have already visited the country this year – still short of the 19.5-million target.
Like it or not, visa requirements serve as a good barometer of the relationships between individual nations, which generally reflect levels of closeness of their friendship and the status of a country within the international community of nations. However, in the Thai case, it does not often reflect this reality. For example, both the US and France have long-standing diplomatic ties with Thailand. Washington often boasts that its excellent ties with Bangkok are the region’s oldest with a 178-year history. Moreover, the two are key allies in the Asia-Pacific. But when it comes to visa requirements, Thailand is being treated as a normal country, with no reflection of their close relations and cooperation. In fact, continued efforts to negotiate a visa exemption in the past have not made progress. It is still not a priority.
At this juncture, given all the fanfare over the recent visit of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to showcase her country’s efforts in flood-relief operations, Thailand still does not feature high in US foreign policy. In addition, Bangkok has not yet fulfilled certain criteria for consideration to be part of the US visa waiver programme. One of the most cited reasons was the high number of Thai tourists who become “robin hood” – illegal visa overstays – failing to return to Thailand after their US trips. At present, nearly 400,000 Thais live in the US, mainly in southern California. The number has been more or less stable in the past three decades. Quite a few countries that do not have longstanding relations with the US, however, have enjoyed visa waivers.
In a similar vein, Thai-Franco diplomatic relations go back more than 300 years to the times of French King Louis XIV and Thai King Narai. Sad but true, these ancient ties have no bearing on today’s visa requirements or the manner in which the two governments treat their respective citizens. Ask Thai passport holders travelling to France how comfortable or easy it is to obtain a visa at the outsourced consular service office, and the likely answer often heard would be one of self-pity. They all wish that they could get a visa without too much hassle.
The Thai Foreign Ministry should be assertive and spend more time negotiating with foreign countries to expand its citizens’ right to travel to as many as countries in the world as possible. Quite often, the ministry is lackadaisical because some senior officials do not want to see the country’s name tarnished for fear that the ill-intentioned Thai passport holders would cause trouble in visiting countries. Most of the complaints received in Thai missions abroad were mainly of illegal workers of all kinds involving all genders. Recent negotiations with the EU have not yielded any progress due to repeated deportations of illegal Thai workers. Also, Thai diplomats have complained about the lack of interest by the EU bureaucrats on this issue. Down South in Narathiwat, many Thai-Malay citizens holding dual citizenship proudly show their Malaysian passports, which they often use to go to Europe under the Schengen visa exemptions.
In the age of globalisation, Scandinavian passports carry the most privileges, as the holders can roam most of the world’s countries and territories without any visa requirement. Other European passports come second followed by North American. It is hoped that when the Foreign Ministry is not focused on the passport of one person – Thaksin – it will have the time and courage to negotiate with foreign governments, especially good friends, to expand the list of visa-exempted countries.