Busking in Thailand

Busking remains both an important source of income for a sizeable proportion of the world’s population and a sub-culture all of its own. Busking is both a professional and an identity. It a state of mind and a way of life for those involved in it. This is as true in Thailand as it is say America or France.

Difficult For Foreigners To Busk In Thailand

One thing though that separates busking in Thailand from much of the rest of the world is that it is generally a Thai only activity.

In Most Countries The Police Turn a Blind Eye

Busking is seen by a large international sub-cultural group as a way to earn money whilst moving around. In most countries you can get away with it. Even if it is illegal the police will tend to turn a blind eye: why bother wasting valuable time stopping something harmless when there are real criminals to catch. This worldwide ‘detente’ between law enforcement and buskers has allowed successive generations of people dating back to the middle ages to busk for a living. If the legend is true, Robin Hood and his Merry Men were part financed, and part disguised, as wandering minstrels. It’s a long standing tradition.

Thailand is Different

Thailand is different in so many ways and the prohibition on foreigners busking is one of them. There is no police/buskers detente in the Land of Smiles if you are foreigner, and if you choose to do it then you run some real risks.

The Strange Story of Luka Matena

One foreign man who chose to give it a go, a Czech gentleman to be precise, was¬†Lukas Matena in January 2015. This slightly peculiar story, which doesn’t totally add up, began with Mr Matena being filmed busking on the streets of Phuket Island. The background story was that his young child had been hit by a car and he was receiving treatment in the hospital. Mr Matena, with his two other young children in tow, was busking with a guitar and slightly off key singing voice to raise money for his living expenses whilst his wife stayed in the hospital with the child.

At first the Police Were Sympathetic

Sad story, and the police thought so too. Instead of throwing Mr Matena into jail they politely directed him to the Czech embassy and suggested that they might help him to support himself and his family until the child was well enough to travel back to the Czech Republic.

Then He Did It Again

Mr Matena’s story quite a lot of press coverage in Thailand. The police came out of this looking good – firm yet caring – and the Thai viewer felt good about their compassionate response to a foreign guest in distress. All good stuff. However, it all appears to have gone down hill a bit as Mr Matena then resurfaces in Bangkok a few days later busking on the street near Victory Monument. The Thai people, the police, and the military authorities are now all now feeling a bit duped by Mr Matena who managed to provide a very high profile example of why the Thais should not trust foreigners.

Thailand Has Strict Labour Laws

The thing to bear in mind is that Thailand has very strict labour laws. Foreigners are prohibited from doing the jobs Thai people do, and busking is one of those jobs. Thailand has buskers everywhere. The footage of the old man playing a guitar was taken at Nong Khai Saturday Night Market and the boy was filmed in front of a shopping mall near Chatuchak market in Bangkok. Part of the Thai legal tradition is the prohibition of foreigners entering certain profession and industries. Economic protectionism at a fairly extreme level in a country which proudly states that it has never been colonised – the three or so years the Japanese were there in WWII appears not to have counted, nor invasions by the Burmese or Cambodians, nor colonisation of Chanthaburi by the French – and this state of mind applies to the harmless activity of busking.

Buskers May be Deported

Back to Mr Matena. No one is too sure exactly what happened to him after his further busking in Bangkok. Most likely the police had a slightly firmer word with him about departing the country and he is yet to resurface in the world’s media. The wider response of the Thai state was much more visible: on the 20th April 2015 the Thai cabinet approved a draft bill allowing the Government to deport foreign buskers back to their home country without a court order or any due process whatsoever. Perhaps Mr Matena didn’t leave so easily after all.

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