We Spoke with “Big Joke”

INTERVIEW

We Spoke with “Big Joke”

Carol Isoux & Vorasulisi Songcharoen

3 March 2019

He’s everywhere, on all television channels and on all fronts. From Saudi refugees to Chinese call centers, to tourists overstaying their visas, he combines caps, hard-hitting operations and shattering statements.

At 48, the head of the immigration police, General Surachate “Big Joke” Hakparm – a nickname given to him by his father, a policeman and card-player in his off hours, in tribute to his favorite card, the Joker – is expected to become the next Thai General Commissioner, the highest police function in the country. Provided that his omnipresence and his outspokenness do not ruffle too many high-placed feathers.

General Surachate arrives at the interview three hours late, armed with three phones that ring continuously. Between two questions, he settles his ongoing issues. At the door, a sad-faced subordinate has been waiting for several hours for the opportunity to have him sign some documents.

You are everywhere. How do you do it? How many hours a day do you sleep?

(Embarrassed laughter) I try to sleep 6 hours, but it’s not always possible, I admit it… that said I eat almost at the normal hours and I try to take care of myself.

You have announced a revolution in Thai immigration policy. What is it concretely? Are you going to abolish the 90-day report?

A legislative change is needed, yes. Our immigration laws are 40 years old, obsolete, out of date and do not reflect the reality of immigration to Thailand. I proposed a new project, in which the 90-day tally would be deleted. I know that it is annoying for many expatriates and it is not particularly useful. In the new project, there would only be a single registration process. A 10-year visa for retirees is also on the program. The idea is to facilitate entry and residence in Thailand for good people (khon dii), including the establishment of an auto-channel at the airport for residents.

But who exactly are these “good people”? With the increase of the various expenses (a deposit of 800,000 Baht is now necessary to obtain a retiree visa), we sometimes get the impression that it means rich people. Will Thailand soon no longer be accessible to tourists and retirees with modest incomes?

No, no, not at all, it’s not about that. A good person for me, it’s just someone who does what they say. A tourist is someone who comes for sightseeing, to visit our country. A retiree is a retiree. These are not individuals who actually come to work, set up a small, undeclared business or carry out criminal activities. If you want to work, it’s possible, but it involves other steps. In any country, there are rules. A retiree or a tourist employed by a company is a scammer and is punished as such. It should be the same in Thailand.

For retirees, if you cannot raise the deposit amount, you have to prove an income of 65,000 Baht per month, it’s not that much, especially for European salaries. To be a permanent resident, you have to prove a monthly income of 80,000 Baht, again, it’s not that much. The idea is mainly to make access to the country more difficult for criminals and lowlife thugs, who live on expedients.

On the phone: What, a gang? Come on, it’s just a bunch of kids, it’s because of this video on Facebook that everybody’s working up a fuss … oh, yes, yes, so we have to do something now … (launches a stream of invectives)

Does Thailand have the means to control the entry of criminals onto its territory?

No, not today, clearly. Compared with Europe or the United States, we are completely outclassed. For the moment it is very easy for a criminal to return after being expelled from Thailand, with another passport, under another identity, which is very easy to obtain in some countries. In six to seven months, I hope that a digital facial and digital (fingerprints, but also the palm of the hand) recognition system will be set up at Suvarnabhumi airport.

Will it be expensive?

No, the idea is to entrust the project to private companies, as is the case in many foreign countries. If we invest ourselves, it will cost billions, and the technology will be out of date in 10 years.
We are in discussions with a French company, IDEMIA, which has a very interesting technology.

Is mass tourism a threat to Thailand?

We receive 38 million tourists a year in our country, and in a few years this will grow to 60 million, that is to say, as much as our population. If we do not act now, we will be taking big risks, yes. Many criminals come here as tourists. They sometimes also claim
to be students, or soccer players. I was talking just now with a representative of the American Embassy, he told me that, at the time of 9/11 the United States was almost in a similar situation, many people came in and out, uncontrolled. We do not want a 9/11 in Thailand.

What are the crimes most often committed by foreigners?

We have already carried out a number of actions against overstays (note: nearly 7,000 foreigners in a situation of visa expiry were arrested in recent months during Operation “X-ray”), but there are still problems, including everything having to do with cybercrime: romantic scams, for example, where criminals ask women to send money in the hope of having a romance with a Western man, fake call centers, which involves calling people, often retirees, under various pretexts to extract their bank details. This mainly concerns the following nationalities: China, Nigeria, Romania, Algeria and Cameroon.

I was accused of being a racist, of doing discriminatory checks. This is wrong. I’m seeing facts. I want to protect all nationalities equally.

On the phone: Hello, yes, a tray of fruits and another of meat… uh… chicken… nice trays, alright? I’ll be arriving in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow in the morning…

Do you collaborate with other countries’ police services?

Sharing information with other countries’ police services is an essential part of my mission. Especially with the Chinese police, because Chinese tourists are now the most numerous in our country. But I want to develop links with my Russian and Indian counterparts as well, because their two communities are very important here. Even with France, see, I’m in regular contact with your embassy’s police department.

On the phone, talking with an older monk: I see, I see… we will try to solve your problem, I guarantee you…

Marijuana for medical use will become legal in Thailand very soon. Will this change the attitude of the police towards consumers? Will it be less risky than today to be caught with a joint on you?

(Throat clearing… short break…) You will need to respect the law, and it clearly states that, for the moment, it is for medical use. (Pause) Well, of course, that will change the game. The product will no longer be systematically illegal, so it will be up to each officer on the ground to assess the situation. It will be case-by-case. A bit like we do with morphine today.

Thank you for your frankness. You had already shown it by your outspokenness during the broadcast of the “prateet gu mi” rap clip, which severely criticized the government. At the time you said, “Today, it is normal for Thais to express what they think. The Puu Yai (leaders), should listen.” Were you not afraid to destroy your career with these statements? Did you have a falling out with the generals?

(Laughs) It’s true that I didn’t just make friends with that… but it doesn’t matter. Each country has its own laws when it comes to freedom of expression. Thailand has its own rules, and it’s about respecting the law. Nothing in that clip violated the law. It criticized the government, sure, even virulently so, but we have the right to criticize the government in Thailand! Provided that the criticism is based on facts: we have every right to demand elections, for example. On the other hand, complaining about imaginary rising in gasoline prices, that’s slander.

Precisely, you are talking about elections. Should we fear that Thailand could fall again into a cycle of street violence before, during and after the next elections?

Absolutely not. For these elections, we are in a very different context from what we have known in the past. There is no need to worry, order will be maintained. The debate must take place on ideas, not in the street, because when there is violence, nobody wins. In the end, there are only losers.

Police corruption is a real problem in Thailand. Expatriates and tourists sometimes experience it. What are you doing to fight this corruption?

First of all, we should note that police corruption is a problem that affects all countries. Maybe in some, it is more visible, but it exists everywhere. It’s a real problem that needs to be fought, but it’s very difficult when there are behaviors that are rooted in culture, you can’t get rid of them overnight. The base is a strict “No Tip” policy: no tip nor gifts shall be accepted. And then, I think that, once again, it’s the technology that will help us get rid of these old reflexes. The more automated the processes, the less room there is for irregularities. Simplifying the process should also leave less room for the temptations of corruption.

By continuing to be everywhere, you have started to arouse suspicions: some people say that you are campaigning… Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I will be two years away from retirement. I hope to finish my career in the police and, after that, I especially hope to have time to play sports!