Ask any group of American expats why they like living in Thailand and one of the answers that is sure to come up is that they believe there is much more freedom for them in Thailand than back in their home country. On the surface, that answer seems to be a total misconception on their part; how can one leave a democratic republic, the “Land of the Free…”, to come to a Kingdom with ancient customs that restrict what people can do, and still think they have arrived to a place with more “Freedom”? This is a question that I have pondered for a long time.
First, is America a “Free Country”? It does have an amazing constitution with protections for citizens in so many ways that define the very essence of freedom. In America, citizens are allowed free speech, free choice of religion, weapons for personal protection, protection against unreasonable police action and many more protections. That constitution also limits the power the US government has towards its citizens, making it illegal for those in political power to abuse their constituents in any way. It’s not a perfect document, of course, since it also has an amendment that allows the government to arbitrarily confiscate assets and income from their citizens to enforce their policies, many of which were not decided upon directly by the people. But on paper, America is truly a Free Country, and that’s the perception I had all the time I was in school preparing myself to become a producing member of the American citizenry. After all, every single elected government leader and every single military man swears to God (the most solemn oath possible) that he will always support and defend the laws in that document. The principals embodied in this supreme law of the land is beautiful, and as a young military veteran involved in a foreign conflict many years ago, I too swore to God to always defend and protect it. The Constitution is why I will always love the concept of a free America.
As an adult, like so many other Americans, I found that the reality is quite different. I believe that every single protection afforded us in the constitution is regularly violated by the US government. There is no freedom of speech; if I have some radical ideas about something (and I do have a few radical ideas), I am often not allowed to express them. American citizens are constantly barraged by the State with no probable cause from that individual (just think of TSA as one of thousands of examples). Presidents and Congressmen have no problem blatantly lying to citizens and forcing laws on them covering every tiny aspect of life so that these political elites can enjoy privileges given to them from the wealthy. Most of these laws the rulers of the US impose are not allowed under the document that they swore to defend and protect. The reality is that America is the antithesis of a Free Country, in spite of having a constitution of protections. This realization has been a great disappointment to me and so many others in the US, and we are searching for a better place in this world where there truly is personal freedom. (In America, am I free to even say these things?)
But how can we consider Thailand to be a Free Country? Unlike America, Thailand has a monarchy that has the final word on everything (but fortunately, the monarchy in Thailand has always had the best interests of their people in all that they do). Thailand has a relatively strong military that over the last century has completely taken over the government several times. There is no Bill of Rights to give each person individual protections that the United States of America has always had. How can it be considered as a place freer for American expats — people that are not even citizens of Thailand?
Thailand culture has a “live and let live” attitude. The predominate religion, Buddhism, is not judgmental, condemning actions outright that are outside of the norm. While Thais don’t appreciate deviate behavior and will not condone it, Thais will tolerate it. In Thailand, you have the freedom to be eccentric.
Since the first Western traders from Europe arrived in Thailand some 500 years ago, Thai people have considered farangs — foreigners — to be a bit nutty, but as long as that nuttiness does not infringe on their life, they let the farangs do what they want to do. Fortunately, Thailand was never conquered by a colonial power like every other Asian country, so there is no deep seated resentment against Westerners as oppressive invaders.
American expats are not allowed to buy property in Thailand, and they are not allowed to work in almost every profession (there is a very small list of jobs allowed for expats). All non-Thai residents must periodically report to Thai immigration to report where they live and what they are doing. Some forms of resident visas require expats to maintain bank accounts having a certain amount of money. No one, including expats, is allowed to criticize certain elements of the leadership (the royal family) in any way. Expats are not allowed to have a majority ownership in a business in Thailand. So how is this place more free for Americans that have come here?
The answer is that in reality the expats are pretty much left alone. There is no “Big Brother” watching them, telling them what they can or cannot eat, how they must behave (within the limits of not harming others), no unwarranted police searches and abuses, and no great restrictions on what they say (within minimal limits). So, like America, the reality of the situation is different than what it appears to be like on paper. The reality of everyday life in Thailand for an American expat is of freedom of movement, of expression and of most actions.
For me personally, the individual freedom I have found in Thailand has also given me freedom from stress, which has resulted in a happier, healthier life.