If you follow the ‘going ons’ in Thailand, you’ll know that it’s a precarious position sometimes with the possibility of finding yourself in a situation you never thought you’d be in. Case in point, it was reported in the Phuket Gazette recently how a Russian tourist found herself on the wrong side of the law. The consequences of which was being detained in the police holding cell for 48 hours before enough funds were raised to obtain bail on 100,000 baht bond and now required to wait for the matter to go to Court. 100,000 baht amounts to approximately USD$3,000.00 or AUD$4,000.00 so not something you would be carrying with you. On top of that, she has the added expenses while waiting for the Court date.

Source: DMCR

The offence that Ms Smirnova committed was to feed bread to some fish at Koh Racha Yai on 19 February 2017 which apparently is in a forbidden area (for feeding fish) because it contains corals in some places. The picture shows her in the water with 3 children around her handfeeding some small fish. One could assume that Ms Smirnova was attracting the small fish for the enjoyment of the small children.

Background

After doing a little research it appears that the problem of feeding marine fish is that it can interfere with the eco-system balance. Mainly, the concern is that fish that would normally eat algae off the coral will stop doing that with the alternative food supply. The corals would then become covered in algae and the coral will die. There’s some debate as to whether this is a real possibility – but it’s enough to say that Thailand has made its decision on the subject which it is entitled to do.

The arrest

It was reported that Ms Smirnova was arrested by members of the Marine and Coastal Resources Department (DMCR) and taken to the police station in Chalong where the complaint was made and Ms Smirnova was charged. While a moot point, I very much doubt that members of the DMCR have any powers of arrest, however they would likely have the ability to ‘detain’ someone. The reference may have simply been used in the original news story as a matter of convenience without much thought concerning the differences. In any event, when she was presented to the police with the complaint by DMCR, at that time Ms Smirnova would have been arrested and charged – the end result of course is the same.

Bail

It was further reported where a police officer sated that Ms Smirnova was able to be released on bail the same day she was charged, however she did not have 100,000 baht readily available. She was therefore held until she could come up with the money. It’s a big call for a lot of people to get that sort of money at short notice. Even if you had the money sitting in your account, overseas daily withdrawal limits usually apply thus making it more probable than not that you will be spending some time in the monkey house.

The alternative

The obvious alternative to putting a tourist through the formal legal system of Thailand, which is not known for its speedy time-frames, is to impose a fine system for these minor offences. This allows the matter to be quickly and efficiently dealt with without interrupting the tourist’s holiday in any significant way and definitely avoids the tourist missing their departure flight. It’s simply amazing that this law was passed without this obvious point being taken into consideration.

Why throwing tourists in Jail is bad for tourism

There are a number of reasons why it’s bad to be throwing tourists in a cell. First of all, it creates a boatload of bad publicity sending the wrong message to potential tourists that Thailand will jail you for minor offences. Anyone who knows anything about Thai cells knows you don’t want to be in one. Secondly, any punishment or penalty should fit the crime – something that seems to go askew more often than it should in Thailand.

It’s simply not justifiable for these sort of offences to detain a tourist in a holding cell with a 100,000 baht bail condition and then forcing them to stay in the country awaiting their appearance at Court, simply over feeding some fish in the ocean. It simply puzzles me why any law maker would consider such a process as being reasonable given that these laws are applicable in high tourist areas. The proper way to deal with it is to make it a regulatory offence requiring the payment of a fine (just like a speeding ticket) to deter all those evil people in this world who want to feed fish inside a Thai Marine Park.

You reap what you sow

Thailand has every right to impose whatever laws and penalties it wants. It could reintroduce the death penalty for fish feeding if it wanted to. That is the right of every sovereign nation to deal with its internal affairs as it sees fit. But Thailand, don’t be surprised or stand there scratching your head wondering why tourist numbers decline and your neighbour’s tourist numbers go up in response. It’s generally known that TAT have creative ways of making it appear Thailand tourism numbers are always on the rise, but Thailand is just one of a number of countries in South East Asia that tourists can travel to.

Conclusion

If you think this is just about someone being caught breaking the law in Thailand – you’re not looking at that bigger picture. It’s an example of how quickly and unexpectedly things can go wrong for you as a foreigner in Thailand. It’s ridiculous to be locked up in a cell, scrambling to get released by finding enough money to pay a high bond amount because of a ridiculous penalty system forcing a minor matter to go through the Court system. Whether you agree or disagree with the policy (fish feeding), the process of dealing with offenders is in serious need of being corrected and penalties against tourists to be handled in a more expedited way.

Hopefully there will be a follow up in the media of the outcome of Ms Smirnova’s Court date. Whatever the outcome, it’s highly doubtful that Thailand will be high on Ms Smirnova’s lists of countries to spend her next holiday at.

UPDATE: 

Two weeks after Ms Smirnova was charged on 19 February 2017, a Thai Court has convicted and fined her 1,000 baht (approximately USD$30.00 or AUD$40.00). It was reported that the Russian Embassy made a number of communications to Thai authorities to assist in the reduction of any delays in the matter being dealt with. One news agency reported the fine as being “minimal”, but it would be fairer to say that the fine was ‘appropriate’ to the circumstances. It shouldn’t be forgotten that she was convicted of a crime.

Do not fall into a false sense of security that all will turn out OK if you find yourself in a similar situation. This or any other scenario can easily take a different course. Ms Smirnova still had to endure 48 hours in a holding cell, 2 weeks of stress and uncertainty of an impending Court appearance, and 2 weeks of additional expenses – not really a ‘holiday’ period to allow you to sit on the beach care free. In relation to the 100,000 bond she had to pay to secure her release from the holding cell, she is entitled to this being returned to her however I understand it takes some time to ‘process’ the red tape to eventually receive the money back in her hands.