- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

BANGKOK — A government crackdown on Bangkok's notorious night life has left tourists and local night owls accustomed to a nocturnal diet of beer, scantily clad women and the occasional illicit drug wondering where they can spend their post-midnight hours.
Establishments such as the White House have been shuttered. Bill's Coffee House, named for former President Bill Clinton, is nearly empty. Even the customers in Monica Lewinsky's seem forlorn.
"It's crazy," said Lesley, an Australian chef on a two-month vacation who asked that his family name not be used. "It's not even 1 a.m. and I can't get a beer."
Nin, the young hostess sitting in his lap at a bar along Sukhumvit Road, shook her head in resignation.
"Not so many customers these days," she said. "In a half-hour, the police will sweep through and anyone still here will scatter."
The unlikely couple were among the stragglers propping up one of two dozen open-air bars at the Clinton Entertainment Plaza, an office building converted into a warren of strip clubs, girlie bars and pickup joints named after the former U.S. president.
In the month since Thailand's interior minister, Purachai Piumsombun, began his campaign for "social order," a half-dozen bars in Clinton Plaza, almost all of those that featured nude dancers, have closed their doors.
The crackdown on Bangkok's bars, dance halls and other entertainment venues quickly gained wide public support.
The campaign, which includes random urine testing of bar patrons, is intended to scare away local underage customers and put an end to the flouting of laws that require bars and dance halls to close by 2 a.m. Those under 20 are prohibited from entering nightspots.
"It's nothing personal. It's the law," said Mr. Purachai, explaining the reason for the campaign. "We've tolerated lax enforcement for so long that people now think it's OK to flout the law."
The campaign has opened the interior minister to attack not only by nightclub owners, but by taxi drivers, noodle vendors and others whose income is tied to Bangkok's bars and clubs, which are estimated to attract 600,000 customers locals, expatriates and tourists every night.
Thailand is one of the great success stories of Asian tourism, with more than 10 million visitors annually. It offers a rich culture, beautiful beaches and more than 200 golf courses, with none of the political turmoil and kidnappings that plague neighboring countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
At first, Mr. Purachai's get-tough tactics sparked protests from other politicians, including Sanoh Thienthong, chief adviser to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"The policy has merit, but anything too drastic might not work," Mr. Sanoh said recently, citing concerns about tourism. "We just want measures that cause the least effect on innocent people, decent members of the public and foreign visitors."
Mr. Purachai, who has led some of the police raids, countered by insisting that most tourists visit Thailand to take in the kingdom's natural beauty.
"They don't want to see exotic dancers or take drugs," he argued. "The night life is secondary."
Mr. Thaksin, the prime minister, initially asked his interior minister to move cautiously. But he seems to have embraced the campaign as public support for it has grown.
"The government won't allow underage people to drink in a place which could lead them to take drugs later," he said earlier this week, explaining that his government simply was enforcing an entertainment-industry law that for the most part has been ignored since it was enacted in 1966.
Some foreign tourists and expatriate residents have been forced to submit to drug testing in recent weeks. Those tactics received what many viewed as a surprisingly strong endorsement when a senator who is a longtime human rights crusader, Thongbai Thongpao, threw his weight behind the campaign.
Mr. Thongbai said he had "nothing but praise" for the interior minister's initiative.
"In my view, the moves do not violate the constitution," Mr. Thongbai wrote in his weekly column in the Bangkok Post. "Teen-age and student prostitutes abound. More teen-agers use drugs. Enough is enough."
At Monica's, the open-air bar named after the intern involved with Mr. Clinton, two Irish tourists downing local Singha beer expressed surprise over the lack of patrons.
"We had heard so much about Bangkok," said Derrick, who like other tourists interviewed declined to give his last name. "But that's OK. I came to go trekking, to see the beaches. I don't really care when the bars close."


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