Saturday, August 14, 2010

Impressions - Dealing with Governments

Duang and I went to Bangkok on Monday and Tuesday of this week as part of our effort to obtain an Immigrant Visa for her to enter the United States.  Duang had been cleared by the United States Department of Homeland Security in Bangkok the week before.  On July 23 we received a form letter on plain paper with no letterhead or seal to distinguish the document as being "official" from the "AMERICAN EMBASSY" notifying us of how to apply for immigration to the United States.  The letter referred to attached instructions which were not included. Fortunately the instructions were referred to as enclosure "Packet 3" which I was able to download off the Embassy website.  The letter was from "Chief, Immigrant Visa Branch" but was unsigned.  With the clearance we are now dealing with the American Consulate in Bangkok.

As part of the next step in the Visa process, Duang must submit Police Clearance Certificates for every location where she has lived for longer than one year since she was sixteen.  Duang would need a Thai Police Certificate and a Brunei Police Certificate.  In the "Packet 3" which I had to download from the US Embassy Bangkok website, there were detailed instructions on how to obtain a Thai Police Certificate.  I have come to the conclusion that in bureaucratic matters it is best to deal with the bureaucracy face to face rather than through the mail.  Rather than attempting to obtain the Thai Police Certificate through the mail after obtaining photographs and fingerprints here in Udonthani, I decided it would be best to go directly to the Royal Thai Police Headquarters in Bangkok.

The US State Department website had information on how to get a Brunei Police Clearance Certificate.  According to the website, we needed to send a letter to the Police Commissioner in Brunei requesting the certificate, along with a copy of the current passport, copy of Brunei ID card if available, evidence of the duration of residency in Brunei, and a fee of 50 Brunei dollars.  This seemed too easy to be true.  I was concerned that the authorities in Brunei may not understand English.  Duang had lost her Thai passport for the period of time that she was in Brunei.  Fortunately she still has her Brunei ID card.  I was concerned about how to safely send 50 Brunei dollars - once I figured out how to obtain them!  Lastly I was concerned about any other "required" document requirements not listed.  All these concerns lead me to decide that it would be best to visit the Brunei Embassy in Bangkok to attempt to obtain the required Clearance Certificate.

On our last visit to Bangkok, on July 21-22, I had brought one of my camera lenses to the Nikon dealer for repair.  The lens was repaired and available for pick up.  Rather than transferring money electronically to pay for the repair and having the lens shipped to my home, I decided to pick up the lens myself while in Bangkok.

I made our travel arrangements over the Internet.  Two days after completing our arrangements, I received a "Warden's Message" from the US Embassy warning of unconfirmed threats of bombings against Thai government buildings and unnamed Embassies on Wireless Rd (our hotel location) during this week.  This explained the heightened security that we witnessed during our stay.

After settling in to our hotel we went to the Royal Thai Police headquarters - akin to visiting the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Akin, but I suspect definitely very different.  The Royal Thai Police Headquarters is a large complex in the heart of Bangkok.  It is a compound with many buildings inside of a two square block fenced area.  We approached the guard house and told the guard what we were there for.  He stepped out of his guard house and pointed out where we needed to go, Building #24, as he gave Duang instructions.  On our way to Building #24, we passed a parade square where a color guard of about 50 policemen were forming up with their weapons  stacked off to the side.  Duang was headed on a path that would take her close to the rifles.  I redirected her away from the weapons - I didn't want any one getting excited.

We found Building #24 without any difficulty.  We opened the sliding glass door and entered a large room filled with desks occupied by uniformed policemen.  The policemen were all relaxed and appeared to be quite friendly - unlike police stations that I have had experience with in California.  We were directed to sit at the first desk on the right at the room's entrance.  Duang told the policeman what we had come for and he reviewed our packet of documents that I had assembled.  He spoke to her in Thai and then to me in English.  He explained the steps that we would go through to obtain the certificate.  I noticed that on the side wall there was a huge poster in Thai as well as English illustrating and numbering the steps to apply for a Police  Clearance Certificate.  He complimented us on our packet of documents and directed us to a section of the room where there were several counters and chairs for people to fill out forms.  Two policemen were busy assisting people to fill out their applications - filling out government official documents is intimidating for many Thai people.

The next step in the process was to have a photograph taken.  After being photographed, Duang was fingerprinted.  She then took her package to a policewoman at one of the desks.  She reviewed the package, approved it, and told Duang that she could pick up the certificate in two weeks.  "Pick it up"?
I asked Duang if the Police could mail the certificate to us instead.  She checked and it was possible but we had to pay the postage - 40 Baht ($1.20 USD).  We had finished this task in 20 minutes at a cost of $1.20 USD.  I was impressed.  I was comfortable the entire time that we were in the office.  The Police were friendly, polite, helpful, and very well organized.  This was a pleasant experience as well as welcomed surprise.

Our next task was to pick up my lens.  I was very pleased with the repair.  Niks is more of a boutique than a store or shop.  Niks deals only in high end equipment and resembles a high end jewelry store.  There are comfortable chairs for customers to sit in as they wait for their merchandise.  I ended up speaking with a women from Dubai who visits Niks every six months to have her Nikon D3 and lenses cleaned.  This gave me confidence that I had brought my lens to the right place.  Sure enough they mounted my lens on a Nikon D700 and invited me to test it out.  My lens had been broken for almost a year so perhaps my memory has faded, but I swear and Duang agrees that the lens is sharper than it was before.  It is great.  The final cost was midpoint of the range that was quoted when I brought it in.  Another task of our trip was successfully completed.  Just as with the Royal Thai Police, I was impressed with the service, courtesy, and professionalism of Niks.

Test Shot of Duang with repaired lens

After leaving the lens at our hotel, we headed off to the Brunei Embassy.  The Brunei Embassy is located in a poorer neighborhood of Bangkok in a nondescript compound which easily could be mistaken for a a school or private residence.  There were two private Thai guards outside of the gate.  Duang told them what we were there for.  They allowed us through the gate and directed us to a small single story building.  We entered through a sliding glass door to a spartan reception area.  There wee two counters for filling out forms, Thai and English notices regarding instructions for obtaining Visas, and several chairs.  The front of the room was like a bank tellers station - narrow counter, glassed partition, and a small slot for passing documents.

After waiting about 3 minutes, a young woman appeared behind the glass.  She was not a Thai employee but an actual Brunei citizen.  Since Brunei is a sultanate and Muslim state, she was modestly dressed in a decorative silk long skirt, matching long sleeved blouse with a coordinated head covering - very similar to Muslim women in Malaysia.  She was very polite and friendly as Duang explained our purpose for the visit and the particulars of our situation.  It was apparent to me that the Brunei representative understood that we had a problem and that she accepted that it was her responsibility to assist us to resolve the problem.  She went to a cupboard and brought  a 3 ring binder to show me.  She opened it and showed me a letter to the Police Commissioner requesting a Police Clearance Certificate.  She waited patiently as I took notes.  She looked at the documents that I had gathered in accordance with the US Department of state website.  There were some additional documents that would assist in obtaining the certificate.  Fortunately I had them with me from our trip to the Royal Thai Police.  She assured us that Duang's missing Thai passport would not be an issue since she had retained her Brunei ID card.  The Brunei representative informed us that the fee was 1,101 Baht and if we came back the next morning with the letter she could send the request to Brunei.  We could expect to have the certificate in 1 to 2 months.

We returned to our hotel where I was able to use their business center to write the required letter and make copies of some of the documents.  It had been a great day.  A topic of discussion over dinner that night between Duang and I was the difference between the US Embassy and Brunei Embassy in Bangkok.  I am convinced that the difference in dealing with the embassies is attributable to Brunei using Brunei citizens to deal directly with the public whereas the US Embassy uses Thai citizens for much of the contact with the public.  At the Brunei Embassy the employee understood that the public's first impression of her country would largely be created and influenced by their dealings with her.

We returned to the Brunei Embassy the next morning.  Our experiences with the Embassy the previous day had not been a fluke.  The Brunei representative was just as friendly and HELPFUL as the day before.  Since Duang and I are married, I needed to provide a copy of my passport as well as a copy of our marriage certificate.  This was a new requirement.  I had my passport with me and the original Thai version of our marriage certificate but I did not have a copy of each.  I asked the woman where I could get copies made.  Without hesitation, she said that she would make them.  I asked what the cost would be.  She seemed almost hurt that I would think that there would be a charge for such a service.  She answered me quite energetically that there is no charge.  This was another pleasant surprise but consistent with my perception from the day before that she considered part of her job to solve and resolve problems.  She requested an English translation of our marriage certificate which I did not have with me but had back in Udonthani - another problem, another issue.  I asked her if I could have an email address to send the document upon our return to Udonthani. She gave me her email address - another problem solved.  Another issue was resolved with ease.  I wrote a note to her boss in which I stated how polite, professional, and helpful she was.  I stated that I had never been to Brunei but based upon our dealings with her, I had a very good impression of Brunei.

With some time to kill before our late afternoon flight back to Isaan, we went to see a movie at one of the huge commercial complexes in downtown Bangkok - my alternative plan if everything had worked out on this trip.  Everything had worked out well.

We got home in the early evening and I sent electronic files of the requested documents to her by 8:00 P.M.  The next morning, around 11:00 A.M. I received an email from her informing that she had sent the documents to Brunei and would call us when the certificate arrived in Bangkok - 1-2 months from now.

It had been a very good trip.  Once again a decision to deal up close and personal with people proved to be the best way to accomplish goals.  How many times have you tried to ask a simple question of a company or government agency that did not fit into their pre-designated categories of their automated phone answering system.  I suspect, that like me, you got lost in robot land and became disgusted before you hung up.  Perhaps, like me, you had some choice words - maybe some of the same choice words.

The quality of life suffers greatly when we ignore the fact that we are a world of people.

The quality of life suffers greatly when we ignore our responsibility to assist and help where as well as when we can.

The quality of life suffers when governments and companies forget that they serve people.

The service that we received at the Royal Thai Police Headquarters, Brunei Embassy, and Niks during our visit had made a strong and lasting favorable impression.  As the old saying goes - you often get only one chance to make an impression.  These organizations had made the most of their first opportunity with us.

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