BANGKOK, Thailand — Jet-setting Instagrammers beware. There’s a nation where authorities have recently warned that flashing a bottle of beer in your selfies could be punishable by a year in prison.
It’s not Saudi Arabia. Nor is it Iran. Strangely, it’s a place where people from around the planet flock for boozy holidays: Thailand, among the most popular destinations in Asia.
Viewed by many as a hedonistic playground, Thailand might seem like the last place that would issue such an edict. But ever since Thailand’s army seized power in a coup last year, promising to restore happiness and virtue, authorities have issued a series of schoolmarmish rules on alcohol.
The latest injunction warns that social media posts displaying a booze brand’s logo could be interpreted as “encouraging another to consume an alcoholic beverage,” which is already forbidden under Thai law.
The maximum penalty? A $14,000 fine and a year in prison — all for snapping a selfie while downing a bottle of Carlsberg. (Ripping the label off pre-selfie, it seems, would skirt the law.)
This warning was issued after dozens of Thai celebrities’ Instagram accounts posted photos of the stars gripping bottles of Chang Beer, a hugely popular brew. The en masse posting bore the marks of an orchestrated marketing campaign funded by the alcohol firm.
Though all stars dubiously denied they’d been paid, the nation’s alcohol czar, Samarn Futrakul, warned of legal action against the celebs. For good measure, he added that the censure extends to regular citizens too — so long as he can prove they intended to encourage boozing.
“If they have no intention to do that, they won’t be guilty,” Samarn told the newspaper Khao Sod. “However, people shouldn’t post photos of themselves with alcoholic beverages anyway, because it’s a sinful product… They shouldn’t pose with that product because it’s not good for them.” (Samarn, director of the government’s Alcohol Control Committee, did not respond to GlobalPost’s requests for comment.)
This warning follows another junta commandment engineered to discourage teen drinking. In July, the military forbade bars from selling alcohol within 300 meters of a college or vocational school.
If enforced in crowded Bangkok, this would gut the city’s infamous nightlife industry. Many entertainment zones, from posh nightclub strips to red-light districts, are located near schools.
And that order — which was never fully enacted — came on top of yet another warning last year against servers who are “verbally promoting” alcohol by suggesting drink specials. This caused Time Magazine to run the headline: “Is the Thai Junta Really Going to Jail Sommeliers for Recommending Wine?”
The answer is no. Nor did the military rulers get around to shutting down Bangkok’s nightlife scene. Nor do they appear poised to lock up no-name citizens for boozy selfies.
As Thais know all too well, officials’ finger-wagging declarations from the podium don’t always translate to action on the street. This is the same government that proposed all tourists wear ID wristbands in case they “get drunk or lost” — yet another plan that never materialized.
Some of these edicts are hard-line interpretations of existing alcohol law. Some are orders issued by the all-powerful military. But all of them are in line with the junta’s core message: we are a moral guiding force that knows what’s best for you.
The coup leader and self-appointed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, issued a syrupy pop ballad shortly after seizing power in 2014. Laying out his vision for the country, the song asks the public to “let us be the ones to step in before it’s too late... all we ask of you is to trust us to make the land good again.”
In addition to locking up dissidents, the junta chief and his subordinates have tried to “make the land good again” by threatening incredibly harsh consequences for pedestrian acts — all in the name of restoring the nation’s moral purity. The junta has even warned women that posting an “underboob selfie” can bring on five years in prison.
It’s unclear how any of these poorly enforced orders have strengthened Thailand’s moral character. But they’ve been highly effective in panicking tourists, confusing citizens and making Thailand look like an authoritarian state where piety is enforced by diktat.