In Thailand, complimenting an American beer for tasting “so good” on social media or captioning a bottle with “miss you” can cost a fine large enough to pay for 500 cans of the good stuff.
A craft beer fan says he was recently charged with a crime and faces a THB100,000 (US$3,100) fine for “advertising” beers – simply by talking about them to the 65,000-plus followers of his page. The anonymous writer is among a number of people bewildered by how the law has been bent from prosecuting large corporations to persecuting individuals for completely normal behavior.
In August, Prapavee “Bamee” Hemmatat posted a photo of a beer bottle on her beer distributor’s Facebook page with the words “miss you” in Thai. A few weeks later, she received a letter informing her she had violated the law.
As one of the founders of Group B Beer, Bamee is being told she faces a fine as large as THB500,000, or US$15,000. She said she is fighting the case.
“Laws that oppress, exploit and bully the people should immediately be amended,” Bamee told Coconuts Bangkok on Thursday. “I’m doing everything I can to change it.”
The anonymous craft beer writer said last week on his page that he was fighting the charge. He said the complaint stemmed from 2019 Facebook posts in which he described the taste of some beers as “so good” and “aromatic” and said the case has been ongoing since then.
“The price of fighting for justice in this country is really expensive … It’s the two years that I lost so much, especially my mental health. I had to go to a police station and prosecutor’s office to report in every month,” he wrote.
“This law is absurd. It deprives the right to freedom of expression of the people,” he went on in the post. “No other country imposes such an absurd law.”
Reached for comment, he declined to discuss the case without being granted anonymity for fear of repercussion. He said he is due in court early March.
Prohibition on the rise
Alcohol consumption has been on the front line of Thailand’s culture wars for years. Even before the 2014 coup brought in a government friendly to anti-alcohol crusaders, the status quo pushed for earlier closing times and what at first were common sense advertising regulations.
Today, those laws under Section 32 of the Alcohol Beverage Control Act have created a new taboo of royal proportions threatening to silence citizens by controlling what they say about booze with severe consequences.
Over the years, the laws, which went from limiting advertising in magazines and on television, have crept to cover all forms of public expression, including Instagram feeds.
That means a ban on all advertisement or display, directly or indirectly, of brand names, labels, trademarks, and the like of any alcoholic beverage that ascribes qualities to it or might “induce” another person to drink. And, as with most things, enforcement is highly selective.
Violators risk fines from THB50,000 to THB500,000, depending largely on the “sympathy” of officials. Drinking and driving? Violators pay much less – THB20,000, maximum.
The ban has been criticized as deeply flawed and misguided.
“Regular people just want to express their thoughts on the smell and color of the beer. They get zero baht from this. They just do what they love to do,” beer activist-turned-MP Taopiphop Limjittrakorn wrote previously of the law. “Enforcing the law is an abuse of government power and limits people’s rights.”
Already reeling from losses due to pandemic closures for much of two years now, bar owners and importers have faced a spiraling number of prosecutions, from a few hundred before the pandemic to more than 1,000 each year now.
But not all is hopeless, Bamee said. The community of beer lovers and their supporters is growing, and they hope repeated calls to change the unreasonable laws will bear fruit.
Through the parliamentary petition process, enough people – nearly 11,000 – signed a petition calling for the law to be amended, meaning it is headed toward debate on the floor. It’s even on the policy agenda of the top progressive opposition party, Move Forward. Sponsored by Taopiphop, the Sura Kaona (Booze Forward Act) bill would also decriminalize microbrewing, which is currently only permitted on Thai soil by the two major brewers which control the industry.
The same request to amend the Section 32 of the Alcohol Beverage Control Act has also been submitted to the government body which interprets statutory processes, the Council of State Office.