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Thailand Tries to Discourage Charity for Beggars

ASSOCIATED PRESS

After failing for years to chase off foreign beggars, Thailand’s government is resorting to a peculiar tactic--it’s begging people to stop giving.

A state publicity campaign contends that most beggars are charlatans preying on their sympathies. Officials say most beggars are able-bodied men pretending to be handicapped and work in criminal gangs.

“You can say we are at our wits’ end,” says the public welfare department’s chief, Wallop Phloytabtim, who devised the publicity campaign. “We are begging you to stop giving.”

As part of the campaign, three-minute daily television spots using secret cameras expose beggars stashing away money in secret pockets and eating McDonald’s hamburgers and grilled chicken.

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Billboards in downtown Bangkok and along expressways show a huge brown eye brimming with tears. A caption says: “Sympathy Brings Loss. Foreign beggars carry 200 million baht [$4.44 million] out of the country each year.”

Officials say the government has tried to keep out a growing army of beggars who come from Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. They have been detained, threatened and deported, but most sneak back after a few days.

Bangkok is a mecca for beggars drawn by Thailand’s relative prosperity and by Thais’ natural generosity, nurtured by the compassionate teachings of their Buddhist religion. Buddhists also believe that by helping the needy they earn merit for the afterlife.

Even those who disapprove of the beggars say they give money, the Thai Farmers Research Center found in a poll. The center said the physically handicapped get the most sympathy, followed by children and the elderly, the blind, women with babies and beggars with chronic injuries.

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Somwang Numnuan, a 65-year-old food stall owner, is not convinced by the government campaign. “I focus on the joy of giving for the sake of giving itself,” she said.

Her daughter, Narumol, agreed. “Those who lie to us will suffer the consequence anyway.”

One of the beneficiaries of that view is Wee Min, who was born into a peasant family in Cambodia and lost a leg when a train ran over it. He came to Bangkok two years ago to beg.

Dressed in a dirty white shirt and boxer shorts, he sat on a pedestrian bridge in Pratunam, a busy market area, exposing the stub of his leg severed at the thigh. After two hours, he had collected 100 baht, or about $2.20, a windfall compared to the 65 cents he could earn daily as a rice harvester in Cambodia.

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“I wouldn’t have been able to support my family if I hadn’t met with the accident,” said Wee Min, 30. He said he has a wife and a son in Thailand and a wife and a daughter in Cambodia to whom he sends money regularly.

The Public Welfare Department says at least 2,000 foreign beggars sneak into Thailand every year seeking to escape economic hardship.

Suwit Khantaroj, director of the Welfare Assistance Division, says many belong to beggar gangs that are responsible for burglaries, thefts and kidnaps of infants used as begging props.

According to government figures, 58% of the 1,860 beggars arrested in Bangkok in 1996 were foreigners. By 1997, the figure had risen to 2,700, with 70% to 80% foreigners.

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Officials estimate the beggars earn at least $6.60 a day and say some have been found with more than $250 stashed in their secret pockets.

“There are many miserable souls out there, but how can you tell? Most of them are just plain lazy,” Wallop, the welfare department chief, said in an interview.

A 35-year-old Cambodian named Ha said he has been deported more than 30 times during the seven years he has been begging.

“I can make as much as 7,000 baht [$154] in 10 days by begging only during the rush hour. Why would I do something else?” Ha said.

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