Published on September 22, 2007
Not so long ago, foreign retirees were being encouraged to spend the rest of their years in the Land of Smiles. What better! A warm climate, healthy diet, sandy beaches, mountain walks and that gentle massage to soothe those creaking joints.
Thailand not only promoted its friendly natural environ-ment and alternative therapies to the aged, but also inexpensive medical treatment in hospitals of international standard. To make this dream come true, retirement visas were granted to pensioners over 50 years old who could sink Bt800,000 from an overseas account into a Thai bank, or prove a Bt65,000 monthly income from abroad.
In order to keep families together, retirees moving to Thailand under these conditions could also bring their spouse, parents or children, who would be entitled to the same visa status. So, it was hardly surprising when a large number of elderly couples - some with kids - collected their lifelong savings, sold up, and moved out here to start a new life.
But these old folk, who have committed the rest of their days and financial income to this country, are likely to see their world shattered.
Yet more Thai visa restrictions state that as of September 1 this year, the foreign dependents of retirees from abroad will no longer receive extension-of-stay permits. In other words, they'll have to go home.
This shock wave is bound to cause panic. On the face of it, dependents aged over 50 years could apply for an individual retirement visa, but they would need to raise the cash to go with it. And children might be able to obtain an extension on the grounds of education. Otherwise, families will be forced to move or split up.
Have we ever been welcome?
Most short-term visitors to Thailand experience the genuine warmth and kindness of its people, but those who stay longer come into contact with a different mould of character.
Way back in the 17th century, visiting foreigners considered Ayutthaya a splendid and fascinating kingdom, but Thai historian Bhawan Ruangsilp discovered that everyday life for the expatriate was not so dandy at that time.
From 1608, employees of the Dutch East India Company complained of being used by the authorities as a negotiating tool, and they were victimised and treated differently to native Siamese. Some were arrested and had to seek favour from those who could benefit them in the royal court.
The descendants of these Dutch expatriates set sail from Ayutthaya in 1765, with 157 years of bitter memories, and they never returned.
Since then, foreigners have been largely seen as outsiders, and even bogeymen, with children being told that if they don't behave themselves a farang will eat them up. No one has been able to clarify concisely whether the term farang is negative or not, but eating children isn't too favourable, and strongly suggests that foreigners are some sort of threat.
So it's little wonder that to this day foreigners cannot own land or property and in many cases, a car or motorcycle. For years they have been subjected to duel pricing and now they're getting chucked out of the country.
The changing trends
Perhaps Thai immigration became too friendly in the 1970s and '80s when tourism began to boom in the Kingdom. In those days, expatriates were living here for years on tourist visas.
This encouraged no end of dropouts and deadbeats to fester in the country, and it was understandable when measures were taken to get rid of them. This flushing out of undesirables was only partially successful, however, because the visa restrictions placed all the emphasis on financial status, and most of the criminal element has money.
And so the rules have continued to tighten. Some visa holders are forced to return home for three months after 90 days stay, and fees have become progressively higher. If the empty bars and cafes are anything to go by, the scheme of things is working, and there are fewer drunks and people trying to pick a fight.
But now it is clear that things won't stop here. To the surprise of the business world, investors are being deterred from putting their money into Thailand. Ominous changes due to take place in the Foreign Business Act fall in tandem with a lack of confidence in the economy and political situation.
When Thailand shuns foreign investment and starts expelling seniors, who were urged by Thais to come here in the first place, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what this country wants; while at the same time, the authorities are making it crystal clear what they don't want - foreigners.
What next? Where will it end? Maybe this will stop when there is no more need for a department to issue visas because there will be nobody eligible to apply for one.