SMASHING THE GLASS
By Andrew Biggs
Anybody doing business in Thailand has horror stories about red tape.
Not a day goes by where I am responsible for felling at least one tree from somewhere deep within a national park. Page after page, I sign the bottom of useless photocopied pages, in triplicate, one after the other, all the time either contemplating life or how to end it all and put myself out of this bureaucratic misery.
A recent under-the-wire news story revealed Thailand has officially some 700,000 different government forms in order to do business here. A law reform panel wants to reduce that amount to about 1,000. They also want to merge agencies so people who will no longer need to seek approval to run their businesses from a multitude of state agencies.
What admirable goals, but don’t hold your breath. “Red Tape” must be filed right next to the “Stamping Out Corruption” folder in the drawer marked “Governmental Pie In The Sky” — an action which probably can only be accomplished by filling out a necessary form.
There are just too many government agencies who stand to lose if they merge with other agencies. Plus there is the argument that if one takes away a civil servants’ duty to supervise filling out forms — exactly what is left for that servant to do all day, other than await retirement?
This week the extent of this country’s obsession with official forms rose to the surface. It happened last Sunday night and it involved Manit Intharaphim, a wheelchair-bound commuter who got arrested for smashing the glass door of the BTS at Asoke train station.
Manit, like you and me, uses the BTS to get around town. Last Sunday night he was at Asoke when he was confronted by a BTS official who demanded he “fill in a form” to say he was disabled.
This is a little weird since no other BTS station requires a form to be filled out to use the service. Disabled people do get to use the skytrain for free, but this was not the point.
Manit refused. Did able-bodied people have to sign a form to get to the platform? If not, then why should he?
The BTS manager, dressed in his red tie, came over. “If you don’t sign this form, you cannot use the service,” he said.
Is that so, said Manit. He went and purchased a 26 baht ticket to Chidlom from the machines. “Now I’m not using it for free. I’m just like anybody else,” he said. He then wheeled himself over to the lift to take him up to the platform. It was locked. Nobody came to help; ticket or no ticket, that form had to be signed.
In hindsight he admits he lost his cool and started shouting: “I bought a ticket but I cannot use the service!” He started smashing the glass door repeatedly using his bare fist until it broke. A foreign family stood nearby. “I think they thought I was a little crazy,” he said later.
Manit’s actions got him hauled off to Ploenchit police station, but no charges were laid. If justice was indeed an upheld tenet, the men in figure-hugging brown instead would be throwing the BTS executives in jail along with that officious manager last Sunday night — not just for implementing a system that reduces disabled people to second-class citizens, but for violating the orders of the highest court in this country.
Regular readers of this column should remember Manit. It reinforces my long-held view that anybody who reads this column is not just fashionable and chic, but stays ahead of the news. You see, Manit is a friend of mine, and was featured in this very column last year as Thailand’s “Wheelchair Warrior”, demanding equality for Thailand’s 1.6 million disabled.
Manit has been all over the TV news media this week, and in every interview his first comment was the same: Violence is wrong. Don’t do what I did. While that may be true, his smashing of a door is nothing compared to the despicable behavior of the BTS in its treatment of the disabled.
The BTS provides the service, but the owner of the system is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The BMA was ordered by the Supreme Court to install elevators in all 23 BTS stations in 2015. They were given a year to carry out the order.
Three years later and the BMA has not complied with the ruling. I can’t imagine the commotion that would ensue at my front door if I were to ignore a Supreme Court order for three years, just prior to my being hauled off to the Bangkok Hilton in handcuffs. And yet for the BMA it is business as usual.
Even more astounding is the idea of making a disabled person sign a form in order to use the service. Last Sunday a BTS officer appeared with a clipboard and explained that to use the BTS, Manit needed to “fill in a form” to show he was disabled.
Thus lies the madness. A man in a wheelchair, clearly disabled, must sign a form in order to verify he is disabled.
“Oh, but what if he’s a regular able-bodied person pretending to be disabled in order to use the lift?” I hear a BTS executive saying somewhere in my imagination.
I would like to meet any able-bodied person who would go to the trouble of purchasing, then hauling around, a wheelchair in order to fake a disability so as to avoid two flights of stairs. Some people really do have too much time on their hands.
“We need documentation in order to run the free service,” that same executive replies, by now starting to look a little sheepish.
Well, no. You don’t. There is something more important than documentation. And that is the rights of the disabled, as enshrined in Thai law which forbids you to discriminate against them. (At this stage I would land a forceful blow upon that make-believe official’s head, not unlike the one Manit delivered to that sheet of glass last Sunday.)
I sympathize with Manit, but at the same time I am a little lost for words when it comes to any organization that makes a conscious decision to force wheelchair-bound people to fill out a form … to prove they are wheel-chair bound.
Who proposed this idea? Was it someone in middle-management trying to climb the BTS corporate ladder? Perhaps it one of those less-cerebral executives who rose up the BTS ranks via currying favor, or a cash-strapped relative of the boss. And was there anybody, a single person who, as this idea rose up through the organization and meetings and implementation, put up their hand and say: “I don’t want to make waves, nor do I want to affect my annual bonus, but isn’t this just a little … um, wrong?”
It does need to be said that the BTS was aware it made a blunder. Rather than send the glass door bill to Manit, they offered a sheepish apology mid-week. They would not be pressing charges, and that insidious form would be going the way of bureaucratic reform – straight into the trash can.
For Manit, the fight goes on. He’s given the government seven days to ensure equality for the disabled, which happens to expire today.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” Manit told me this week. “But Thailand needs to look at the big picture. My rights are not the same of yours. This is round one of our battle to change that. There is more to come.”