TIME Thailand

Is the Thai Junta Really Going to Jail Sommeliers for Recommending Wine?

TO GO WITH STORY Lifestyle-finance-econo
In a picture taken on July 6, 2009, Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailand's first female winemaker tests her wine at a wineshop in Khao Yai National Park 155km (96 miles) north of Bangkok. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL—AFP/Getty Images

A threatened booze crackdown hasn't materialized yet, but it speaks of a moral tension in the so-called Land of Smiles

Earlier this week, local officials in the sleepy city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, called a meeting of media and hospitality industry representatives to outline draconian curbs on alcohol promotion.

All drinking, they said, was to stop at midnight. Advertising and happy hours were to be banned; promotional staff could no longer serve beer while wearing branded uniforms; glasses, ashtrays and any other items sporting brewery, winery and distillery logos were to be removed. Even decorating a pub or trattoria with empty bottles could mean six months in jail — as could “verbal promotion” of alcohol, which could be something as innocuous as a sommelier telling you which wine to try.

“This law was put into effect due to the rapidly growing costs of alcohol to this nation,” Second Lieutenant Taweesak Jintajiranan told the meeting, which was reported in the Chiang Mai City News. “Alcohol-related accidents have increased significantly in recent years. While the government makes 70 billion baht [$2.2 billion] income per year from alcohol tax, the cost to the government is upwards of 150 billion baht [$4.7 billion].”

Predictably, social media erupted with indignation. “No booze sold or consumed after midnight?” wrote one Bangkok expat on Facebook. “Ludicrous in what purports itself to be a world class capital city and something of a nightlife capital.”

As it turns out, none of the proposed curbs on alcohol promotion are new. They are already provided for under a strict interpretation of the 2008 Alcohol Control Act. The act has never been enforced because it is seen as unworkable in a nation that depends on free-spending tourists for much of its income. But the threat of its implementation in Chiang Mai — described by Andrew Bond, editor of travel website 1stopchiangmai.com, as “a local official taking his orders from the junta a little too literally” — has drawn attention to a growing split between the military’s moral agenda and a nation synonymous with cold beer and cheap cocktails.

Alcohol is a major Thai industry. The firm Thai Beverage brews the nation’s iconic Chang beer and Sangsom rum and boasts distilleries in Thailand, Scotland, Ireland, Poland China and France — along with annual profits nearing $1 billion. Boon Rawd Brewery, which produces the popular Singha and Leo beers, enjoys royal patronage and has lucrative marketing deals with English Premier League goliaths Chelsea and Manchester United.

Little wonder alcohol moguls enjoy enormous political sway. The poster-girl of the recent Shutdown Bangkok protests, which culminated in the May 22 coup, was Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, heiress to the Boon Rawd fortune. The photogenic 28-year-old openly called for the overthrowing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, prompting pro-democracy Red Shirts to boycott Singha and Leo beers in response. A ban on alcohol advertising by the junta she helped install might see her rethink her political loyalties.

There is no doubt that the junta has taken on an increasingly priggish character. It has set about attempting to address “social ills” such as inflated state lottery prices and undocumented migrants. Raids have also targeted sex workers, particularly from the “ladyboy” transsexual community, and this week officials swooped on markets hawking counterfeit and pirated goods.

“The military is trying to legitimize itself as some kind of moral force,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor for Southeast Asian studies at Japan’s Kyoto University and an outspoken critic of the coup. “But such matters do not concern them at all,” he adds. Pavin suggests that the moral crusade is instead a political trap to goad the nation’s protesting demimonde — what he calls “dark influences” and “godfathers” — out into the open, which then provides further legitimacy for the junta’s grip on power.

There could be another reason. There is a tradition of Thai leaders embracing ascetic Buddhist values after becoming embroiled in bitter tumult. Military dictator General Thanom Kittikachorn famously entered the monkhood in 1976 after the Thammasat Massacre; firebrand Shutdown Bangkok leader Suthep Thaugsuban followed suit immediately after the May coup. According to Pavin, Prayuth could similarly be trying to atone for the sin of seizing power and so “really wants to prove something to society.”

But the reality is that vice is deeply imbued in modern Thailand. Prostitution is officially illegal, but up to two million sex workers toil in the country’s twinkling neon go-go bars and massage parlors. And while alcohol is undeniably conflated with social problems — Thailand’s roads are ranked as the second most dangerous in the world with 44 road deaths per 100,000 people, a quarter of which the WHO says are alcohol-related — even the junta would struggle to make an impact.

The tourism industry is worth up to $60 billion annually, and the nation welcomes over 20 million foreign arrivals each year, drawn by the pearl-white beaches, beautiful temples, fabulous cuisine and, well, the pumping bars.

“I don’t think we’ll see an immediate effect on tourism because Thailand’s reputation for vibrant nightlife continues, whatever the reality is,” says Joe Cummings, author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand. What’s more, “Thais are among the most clever people in Asia when it comes to finding legal loopholes.”

There could also, of course, be a domestic backlash. One poll conducted soon after the coup found an astonishingly high 93.5% of respondents approved of the military’s intervention. But petty booze curbs, if enforced, could well turn the tide.

One bar owner in Chiang Mai, who asked to remain anonymous, gave his own caustic assessment. “It won’t last if they ever do enforce it,” he said. “Give it a few months and they’ll have to change the stupid law. Maybe we’ll get some clarification instead of just paying off the cops whenever they want.”

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