Thailand's war on piracy

by AFP/Sonmo Wai , May 7, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok
A Thai man walks past a VCD movie stall at a market in Bangkok.

A Thai man walks past a VCD movie stall at a market in Bangkok.

A Thai man walks past a VCD movie stall at a market in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai, Thailand, May 5, 2003 - Flushed with the self-proclaimed success of its drugs war, Thailand's government has launched a crackdown on pirated goods, but vendors in this northern city are pushing on with sales regardless. At Chiang Mai's famed night bazaar, where a jumble of colourful street stalls rub shoulders with arts, antiques and souvenir shops, vendors of pirated CDs, VCDs and DVDs say they cannot afford to stop peddling their illegal wares.

"I am scared of being arrested, but I cannot close down this small CD shop if my family is going to survive," said a vendor calling himself Paiboon. Business is already dismal, locals say, due to the drop off in tourism following the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

"My shop is still open because I don't know when the campaign is actually going to begin and I can't close down and wait for it to start (and end)," said another named Domn. "If the officials try to arrest me I'll just try to escape."

At the market and in surrounding retail shops, music CDs sell for 100 baht (about two dollars thirty cents US), compared to around 450 baht for their authentic counterparts. DVDs sell for around 180 baht, substantially lower than their 800 to 2,000 baht price tag in legitimate outlets.

The United States warned in January that Thailand -- a major global exporter of pirated CDs -- needed to do more to tackle piracy. It loses an estimated 250 million dollars annually due to piracy in the kingdom, where US cinema releases can be snapped up before they hit screens at home.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said at the weekend that the crackdown must succeed, or Thai traders would suffer retaliatory trade barriers. "If we ignore piracy, foreign countries will impose non-tariff barriers against our farmers and they will not be able to sell their produce," he said. "My government is not doing this for foreigners, but also for Thais."

The crackdown officially kicked off on May 1, coming on the heels of a three-month drugs war aimed at curbing the country's use of methamphetamines, which wrapped up on April 30. More than 2,200 people were likely killed in the brutal campaign, which Thaksin has labelled a success. Police admitted to shooting 51, with the remainder, authorities say, killed in shootouts among drug dealers. Thaksin, vendors may be relieved to hear, said such bloodshed will not occur in his latest battle. "The crackdown on violations of intellectual property will not be as harsh as the war on drugs, because drug traffickers are considered the worst of all (people)," he said.

Meanwhile in Chiang Mai, savvy vendors -- who have survived half-hearted clampdowns in the past -- are prepared for police swoops, with plans in place to warn each other along a verbal telegraph if anyone spots a potential raid in the making, they say. "The first priority of the vendors is to escape arrest. It doesn't matter if their goods get captured -- most only display empty CD boxes with cover sheets," one shopkeeper said.

Once buyers select their purchases, vendors dash off to where the real goods are stashed. Such systems are in place at markets all over Thailand, from tourist haunts like Bangkok's Patpong night market to shops frequented mainly by locals, such as the capital's Panthip Plaza, a haven for pirated software.

Pirated goods in Chiang Mai are mostly sourced from Bangkok, the vendors say, because professional equipment is unavailable in Chiang Mai. "I bought all my CDs and DVDs in a Bangkok market for less than 50 baht each on average," said one retailer. "But most of the vendors and stores here are taking commission from major (illegal) distributors." The vendors are sceptical that targetting them alone will be effective.

"I don't believe that they can stop pirated CDs in the country by only cracking down on vendors and small outlets like us," said one, asking not to be named. "The big fish are the producers." The raids on vendors, however, are just one aspect to the campaign, Thaksin warned Saturday. The control of CD copying machines and their production is also due to come under attack, as well as the marketing of pirated goods, he said.

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