500B HOLIDAY HANDOUT:

Chaos erupted in front of Krung Thai Bank offices and ATMs nationwide as crowds flocked to receive a government stipend just in time for the holidays.

While an ATM withdrawal may be routine for many, that wasn’t the case for all of the 11.4 million welfare card holders who turned up to get their cash, especially in rural areas. A scarcity of bank branches and lack of familiarity with the system resulted in lengthy queues and long waits punctuated by brawls and lurking opportunists.

The 500-baht handouts, described as a “New Year’s gift” to registered low-income Thais, were included in a 38 billion baht raft of measures approved last month by the interim cabinet to improve their living conditions.

Though many praised the money as a bonus that would help “extend the lifeline,” its distribution caused major disruptions and confusion at most – if not all – branches of Krung Thai, the sole institution used by those enrolled in the welfare program known commonly as “cards for the poor.”

Not all card holders could receive the money on the same day. They were divided into three groups based on their identification numbers. The money was deposited in three rounds Saturday through Monday, which also happened to be a national holiday.

Banks were closed, leaving ATMs the only option.

Apart from monthly cash stipends for seniors over 60 and about 4 million other recipients of government vocational training, it was the first time cash was deposited onto the cards used in the program. They normally are furnished with limited credits for transportation, groceries, school supplies and agricultural products which are renewed monthly and cannot be accrued.

Many who showed up with their cards thought they had to do so immediately or risk losing it, while others just wanted the money in hand as soon as possible.

And thus the disarray began. In Songkhla City, several card holders, not knowing about the system, rushed to the banks on the first day only to later leave empty-handed because it wasn’t their day yet.

Aggravated delays piled up as many forgot their PIN numbers, or simply didn’t know how to activate the cards to withdraw money from the machines.

Napakhwan Phaiyasaen, 29, said she went to withdraw the money yesterday for several of her family members who had no idea how to do so in her hometown of Uttaradit’s Thong Saen Khan district, where about 32,000 people live.

It has no Krung Thai branch, leading to a chaotic scene at its sole Krung Thai ATM.

“It was really messy, because the procedure is quite complicated. … Many entered the wrong PINs until their cards were suspended,” she said. “People were lining up since 4am, and there was still a queue there at 10pm.”

In Trat City, 66-year-old Bulloon Sangsuwan said Monday that the withdrawal process was too complicated, especially for seniors who had never used such machines before. He said he normally asks bank staff for help, but this time he couldn’t as it was closed for the holiday.

Machines in other provinces, such as Ranong and Ratchaburi, simply ran out of money due to the massive cash rush.

Heated arguments broke out in the crowd Sunday in front of an ATM in Uthai Thani province and had to be settled by police. Officers said the frustration was caused by line cutters, some which carried numerous cards to withdraw from in one go, a few of which had yet to receive the deposit.

Nampheung Pongsawas, who was among the dozens in line at the scene, said she arrived at 9am and had waited several hours. She added that some enterprising people were charging 10 baht to 60 baht from those who didn’t want to wait or didn’t know how to do withdraw.

The program, initiated by the junta after it seized the power, has long been criticized for its restrictions as the wrong way to help the poor. The program has been accused of being yet another spending stimulus and means of passing money from the poor to business owners. Critics of the military government said the New Year’s stipend amounted to illegal campaigning in the run-up to an election just over two months away.

Napakhwan, who works at the Thong Saen Khan Hospital, also mentioned people taking advantage to profit from the situation.

“Some were hired by the whole community to withdraw the money for 10 to 20 baht each. They carried like a hundred cards with them,” she said. “One grocery shop owner I know told the people to take any goods from the shop within 500 baht, and took the cards from them to withdraw the cash later.”

Although she thinks giving stipends to seniors is a good thing, she believes it won’t be a sustainable way to help other low-income Thais, as most of the money will be spent in vain if they aren’t educated about savings and encouraged to find viable income sources.

“Most holding the cards are people who don’t have a permanent job or land of their own. More than half of whom I know are just lazy and alcoholic. They’ll spend it all on booze,” she said. “Giving them cash won’t improve their lives at all. It only encourages them to wait for help from others.”

There’s no time limit to withdraw the one-time stipend. Those who obtain cards before year’s end will receive the cash Jan. 5 and Feb. 1.