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PIRATE POLITICS
Putting the Boot in Bootleg


Mayhem and terror returned once more to the streets of Bangkok last week as angry mobs fought pitched battles with sticks, bottles and stones. Terrified tourists and locals fled and shots were fired as the battle intensified. But this time it wasn’t the brainwashed pawns of Thaksin’s red army running amok. This time it was the posturing and misdirection of international politics. Read on to find out more…

Just 2 days after Silom Road hosted the “Stop Hurting Thailand” campaign aimed at discouraging Thais from fighting amongst themselves, the very same downtown area of Bangkok was turned into another civil war battleground as around 200 angry vendors fought running battles with 50 Commerce Ministry officials who had raided the Patpong night market on the evening of Wednesday May 6th.

Tensions began to mount quickly after a handful of vendors were arrested and four vanloads of goods were confiscated by the officials as part of the government’s crackdown on pirated goods.

The vendors, infuriated by the heavy-handed tactics of the officials, became further incensed when no discrimination was made between the abundant pirated merchandise and the less prevalent non-pirated goods.

The scene quickly deteriorated into anarchy and although three of the vans reached their target of Bangrak police station, the fourth was stopped by the mob. Ten of the officials were injured during the melee, one of them seriously.

In the cold light of the following day, the government, in the guise of Deputy Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, puffed out its chest and promised more of the same. Alongkorn, who oversees the government's anti-piracy campaign, referring to the pirate traders said that the government could not allow such unlawful business to continue. As such, raids would be held every two days.

However, in the colder light of the next following day, the government’s stance softened and they agreed to change their focus to the producers rather than the retailers of pirated goods. This turnaround came after 200 of the Patpong traders rallied outside the Democrat Party headquarters to plead their case.

Through a spokesperson, the traders admitted that their business was illegal, but they requested that the government adopt a more peaceful approach and target manufacturers instead. Making reference to their customers, they also played the “tourism” card, which trumps just about every other card these days as Thailand’s once untouchable cash cow reels from one crisis to another.

The whole ugly episode arose from the Thai government’s response to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) placing Thailand on its “special watch list of nations that fail to crack down on copyright and patent violations” as reported in the Bangkok Post. In Bangkok alone, Pantip Plaza, MBK shopping centre, Klong Thom, Upper Sukhumvit Road and Patpong Road were identified by the USTR as being among the world’s most notorious markets for pirated goods.

In a bid to avoid possible penalties, trade barriers and embargoes, the Thai government was drawn into a game of international politics – a complex charade involving cats, mice, snakes, grass, more snakes and ladders.

The Patpong raids were nothing more than acts of misdirection to keep the USTR off Thailand’s back. By generating a couple of days’ worth of front-page news, the illusion of demonstrating Thailand’s commitment to beating piracy was created. However, in time-honoured Thai tradition, business is quickly back to normal once the dust settles because too many people are making too much money for the piracy to be truly stopped.

Alongkorn, aware of this, promised to investigate state authorities that fail to eradicate pirated goods because there was evidence that certain state officials “were not doing their jobs properly, or had fallen prey to dark influence”. He also pointed out to Bangkok Post reporters that the Patpong pirates were supported by influential figures, some of whom had connections to high-ranking law enforcement officers.

In response to the accusations, the police have launched their own internal inquiry, and Bangrak police chief, Pol. Col. Ekachai Bunwisut, is to be questioned about his inaction. Ekachai has been heavily criticised for turning a blind eye to piracy in his district, especially at the Patpong night market.

However, one senior police figure hit back at the Commerce Ministry with a jibe that was as subtle as a Luis Vuitton golf bag. “Preventing the sale of pirated goods is a police officer's duty, but the force deals with the matter in a different manner from commerce officials,” Pol. Maj. Gen. Wiboon told the Bangkok Post.

He explained that police react to complaints from manufacturers and then raid the production sites or warehouses of the pirates. “Arresting small street sellers would face resistance," he said in an understated reference to the Patpong affray. “Despite attempts to negotiate and warn the retailers, sometimes the arrests also led to unexpected injuries and deaths,” he concluded rather candidly.

The fact remains that piracy in Thailand is so ingrained into the very psyche of this nation that many people, myself included, know several places where to buy pirated goods but have no idea where the real thing is sold – something that is especially true of software.

The Thai government is obliged to at least scratch the surface of this mosquito bite as it faces periodic pressure from Western governments and corporations to get its house in order. The Patpong raids will certainly buy more time, just as the last cosmetic clampdown did a few years ago. But how long can this game go on?

The price differential between genuine and counterfeit goods means that for millions of Thais, the non-pirated goods are not even an option, so unless the manufacturers drop their prices, they can hardly claim to be losing customers.

And for many foreign tourists, counterfeit bargains are as much a part of their holidays in Thailand as beaches and temples. Surprisingly, the fact that so many of them are blatantly ripped off in Patpong doesn’t seem to dim their enthusiasm.

Then there are thousands of Thais, from sweatshop slaves to high-ranking state officials, who earn a living from pirated goods.

International eyes may fall on Thailand’s pirates from time to time, but it will be a long time before any Thai government is stable enough to risk upsetting so many voters.

Paul Snowdon – May 12, 2009

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