PATTAYA – The Thai junta is on a morality drive and police in Pattaya are trying to help out by arresting and fining the beach resort’s transgender sex workers.
Pattaya has plenty of other problems. Law enforcers in the city, a two-hour drive from Bangkok, complain about the spread of pickpocket gangs and cheap methamphetamine’s here in recent years. Prostitution, technically illegal in Thailand, is openly practiced in its hundreds of bars and massage parlors.
But with Thailand now under the control of a strait-laced military government, the city is making a show of cleaning up the more visible aspects of Pattaya’s vice-fueled economy.
“Look, there goes one now. Keep an eye on her! Watch where she goes!” yelled Police Capt. Natithorn Rattanasuchanun to his colleagues during a midnight patrol here recently.
As he and his plainclothes team chugged down the city’s main beach side road in a battered Toyota minivan, scores of people scrambled away from the glare of its headlights. Some tottered down side-streets in their high heels or made for the shadows of the beach as waves from the Gulf of Thailand rolled gently into the bay as tourists and other, less vulnerable, sex workers looked on.
“They’ve figured out who we are now and try to get away,” says one of the deputies riding shotgun, Sgt.-Maj. Auttakave Autchiyaluk.
Officials in Pattaya say they need to be seen to be doing something to scrub up the city’s reputation before the army is tempted to intervene in ways which local officials say might be bad for business.
It is a growing worry for them. Since Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power last May in a bloodless coup and became prime minister, he has made recalibrating Thailand’s moral compass one of the main components of this administration.
Political analysts say he is attempting to draw a clear line between his government and the sometimes chaotic elected administrations it succeeded, channeling in part the anti-corruption zeal that has characterized President Xi Jinping ’s China in recent months.
To that end, Gen. Prayuth has set targets across a wide array of Thai society.
Sometimes the push centers on allegations of graft. The nominally independent National Anti-Corruption Commission said Thursday it will ask the country’s military-appointed legislature to impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for ignoring flaws in a rice-subsidy program that became embroiled in corruption accusations. Ms. Yingluck denies doing anything wrong.
The junta is also assessing proposals for a new constitution that would remove the statute of limitations for prosecuting the taking of bribes or kickbacks.
On the holiday island of Phuket, the army has broken up lucrative taxi cartels, providing metered cabs a way into what had been a closed market. Police have shut down businesses encroaching on public beaches and illegally renting out deck-chair space to five-star hotels.
Other times, the junta’s attentions veer in surprising directions.
In recent weeks, Gen. Prayuth, 60, has offered to rewrite television soap-opera scripts to tame the racy story lines favored by Thai broadcasters. He has also spoken out against the influence of cultural imports such as Korean pop music and Hollywood films.
After two British tourists were killed on the island of Koh Tao last month, he suggested that foreign women might want to stop wearing bikinis to avoid drawing unwanted attention—remarks for which he later apologized.
Troops have even intervened to set prices for spicy Thai papaya salads and other fare in some places, notably at another beach resort, Hua Hin.
Gen. Prayuth’s diktats have strengthened a perception among some analysts that the general is trying to turn back the clock to a more ordered, disciplined age.
Government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said the morality drive was designed to help provide a sense of cultural continuity in Thailand. “When we were young we had to learn about these moral codes by reciting them,” he said, pointing to another of Gen. Prayuth’s initiatives, an instruction for schoolchildren to chant 12 moral principles each day. “It’s a good thing to do and we should continue doing it.”
Thailand based writer and academic David Streckfuss says Gen. Prayuth’s calls for moral purification have become a central pillar of his regime. They “remind the depoliticized masses of the loathsomeness of the recent political past, the need to continue rooting out every vestige of corruption, and the importance of submitting to the sovereign to realize the greater happiness of society,” Mr. Streckfuss wrote in a recent essay in the journal Cultural Anthropology.
The junta’s pitch for a moral renewal appears to resonate among many Thais. Opinion polls have largely given Gen. Prayuth good grades since taking power.
In Pattaya, at least, that is bad news for Thailand’s transgender sex workers.
While often seen as exotic in the rest of the world—the Lady Boys of Bangkok cabaret plays to sellout crowds during the Edinburgh arts festival each year, while American singer Lady Gaga made a point of attending a glittering drag show before performing in Bangkok—police here view them less favorably, often accusing them of robbery and other petty crimes.
“They are the biggest problem,” declares Pattaya’s deputy police chief, Col. Suppattee Boonkrong. “They are much more likely to drug or rob their clients than the girl prostitutes, so we have to bring them in and ask them not to do this. It hurts the reputation of us all. It’s bad for business.”
Some sex workers dispute that. They say they feel they are being unfairly singled out for attention because of long-running prejudices against the transgender community in Thailand.
“We have to make a living, too,” said Ratchaporn Kabkean, a transgender 23-year-old, adjusting her black halter top at the Pattaya City Police Station while waiting to be processed and fined 100 baht, or about $3, for soliciting.
A number of officials here privately say that the arrests are designed to make it look as if the city is following Gen. Prayuth’s program without destabilizing Pattaya’s economy. Rather than a full-on crackdown, they say, the operation is more an experiment into calibrating the precise level of raunch that allows the city to grow without trampling over the conservative sensibilities of the country’s new military rulers.
It is a difficult balance to strike. There are over 1,000 bars and massage parlors here, helping the city draw in over $3 billion a year in tourism income, according to the local tourism association. Over nine million people visited last year, many of them visiting bars with names like Sugar Baby or Kitten Club. At night, the main beach-front is lined with sex workers waiting for clients.
Previous attempts to re-brand the city as a more family-friendly destination and lure in higher-spending tourists have largely foundered, despite the arrival of attractions such as a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” museum and a Hard Rock Hotel.
T-shirts for sale at roadside kiosks sum up the situation neatly: “Good Guys Go to Heaven. Bad Guys Go to Pattaya,” they say.
“Things had gotten out of hand,” said a local government administrator, Sakchai Taenghor. “As a city, we’re very disorganized. People tend to do what whatever they want. With the army in charge, it helps us clean things up.”
As for Ms. Ratchaporn, who identifies as female, she complains that she doesn’t have many options besides sex work.
“I tried herding goats, but that didn’t work out,” she said. “Hopefully things will be back to normal soon or I’ll have to move to another town.” -By James Hookway and Wilawan Watcharasakwet