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Thailand Temples, Bus Lines Using Coronavirus as Cover for Anti-Foreign Racism

Wat Pho Temple Reclining Buddha Bangkok Thailand
Bangkok's Wat Pho is denying entry to foreigners, claiming renovation work, while simultaneously admitting Thais.

Even as the U.S., Europe and Australia reckon with institutional racism and treatment of minorities, Thailand is using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to up discrimination against its own major minority group: foreign expats.

From state-enterprise bus company Transport Co. to some of Bangkok’s most-famous temples, foreigners are being barred with no apologies from management or government higher-ups.

The ruckus began early Thursday when blogger Richard Barrow tweeted a makeshift, bilingual sign at Wat Pho that read “Open for Thai Only. Not Open for Foreigner”. Within hours, Barrow’s Facebook post racked up more than 200,000 views and more than 1,000 comments.

While Barrow has a well-deserved reputation for being Thailand’s self-righteous master of self-serving, social media pot-stirring, the his example is a singular occurrence. The Transport Co. is defending its policy to deny boarding to foreigners, claiming their hands are tied by fine print in the government’s emergency decree.

That follows reported instances of restaurants, such as one in Chiang Mai, posting signs blocking entry to foreigners.

In that case, the Tourism Police forced the restaurateur to remove the sign, but the most-recent examples are being backed up by the powers that be.

In the case of Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, both Bangkok City Hall and the Ministry of Tourism and Sports backed the racist policy.

A Bangkok Metropolitan Administration spokesman told reporters “it was up to the temple” to decide who it would allow entry to. A ministry spokesman said temples and other tourist destinations “should wait for further clarification on allowing foreigners in”.

No explanation was given for why up to 35 Thais at a time are allowed in Wat Pho among the supposedly disruptive renovation work.

Pointing out there are few tourists even left in the country – meaning that foreigners here are legal residents, hold work permits or have permanent residency – foreigners screamed bloody murder on social media well into Thursday night.

Such discrimination is nothing new to expats or tourists in Japan, where “No Foreigner” signs are a common sight throughout nightlife districts in Tokyo and other major cities. In Japan, “gaijin” translates in its roughest form to “dirty foreigner”, but “farang” in the Thai language supposedly doesn’t carry that connotation.

It would be hard to argue that point during this “new normal” where the coronavirus has provided cover to both public and private Thais to insinuate foreigners spread Covid-19.

Statistics, of course, prove just the opposite, with only a few handfuls of foreigners among the 3,125 cases reported in the country as of Thursday.

Wat Pho spokespeople fumbled throughout Thursday to justify their discriminatory policy, with clerks answering the phone clearly caught flat-footed by reporters at the other end of the line. Spokespeople went from the baffling “we aren’t ready for foreign visitors yet” to citing “temple regulations” to, finally, an “official” statement on the temple’s Facebook page that simply perpetuated another bald-faced lie.

“Due to restoration in progress on the Reclining Buddha & paintings inside the building the temple is not allowing access to non-Thai nationals, it was decided that for the safety of tourists we would restrict access,” the statement read. “It has been discussed that the temple should reopen to all from 1st July 2020. It was decided that it was a good opportunity to use the situation with Covid-19 to do the work that was needed, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience and disappointment people may feel.”

No explanation was given for why up to 35 Thais at a time are allowed in Wat Pho among the supposedly disruptive renovation work.

Transport Co.’s excuses were equally as flimsy. The major inter-provincial bus operator claimed it needed to have the numbers of Thai identification card holders for contact tracing in case a passenger is found to have Covid-19.

Why this government entity is not using the government’s own Thai Chana contact-tracing app was not addressed. Likewise, Transport Co. executives couldn’t explain why passport numbers, work permit numbers or Thai driver license numbers couldn’t be use.

When contacted, company officials blurted out something about not being allowed to take foreigners due to a provision in the government’s emergency decree. Meanwhile, the State Railway of Thailand and private bus lines don’t seem to have a problem.

Call it racism, rampant nationalism or simply incompetence, but none of its reflects well upon Thailand in this supposed age of awakening enlightenment about prejudice and discrimination.