IT’S meant to be one of the happiest times of the year, but unfortunately the hugely popular Thai New Year festival of Songkran has a startling dark side.
Also known as the ‘Seven Days of Danger’, it’s estimated that a staggering 2.3 people die and 160 are injured every hour during the celebrations, with many more sexually harassed.
The event attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists, mainly for the “wet and wild” street parties which see boozed-up revellers line the streets, dancing to loud music or prowling around in pick-up trucks, armed with water guns and ready to douse anyone in sight.
With the main celebrations kicking off today, authorities have been pulling out all the stops over recent days in a bid to stop the death and madness that sadly continues year after year.
However, they have also been accused of trying to cover up the desperate situation across the nation regarding the drought, news they’d rather tourists not know about.
Here’s what’s been going on in the popular holidayspot.
DRUNK AND RECKLESS DRIVERS SENT TO WORK IN MORGUES
With thousands on the roads during the festivities, many of the deaths and injuries are caused by drunk and reckless drivers, so authorities have decided to go gory. Yesterday they announced that traffic offenders will by sent to work in hospital morgues to see the results of their irresponsible acts.
Casual attitudes toward road safety give Thailand the second worst record in the world for traffic fatalities, with health and safety experts fearing things are just getting worse.
“Traffic offenders who are found guilty by courts will be sent to do public service work at morgues in hospitals,” Police Colonel Kriangdej Jantarawong said.
“It is a strategy used to make traffic offenders afraid of driving recklessly and driving while they are drunk because they could end up in the same condition. It is aimed to be a deterrent, a way to discourage people.”
CRIMINALS ROUNDED UP
In an attempt to curb crime during the festival, police have arrested 20,172 criminal suspects wanted under 42,915 arrest warrants around the country from April 1-10. They were mainly arrested for theft, drug offences, assault, fraud and embezzlement.
Deputy national police chief Winai Thongsong told the Bangkok Post: “Police arrests of suspects in crimes against people and property will help prevent these people doing it again during the Songkran Festival, and reduce the amount of drugs in major urban areas.”
‘NO MORE SEXY OUTFITS’
Revellers who wear clothing deemed “too sexy” will be banned from 40 water-playing areas, and alcohol will be banned at 96 public sites nationwide in a bid to crack down on lewd behaviour, particularly during the famous water splashing events.
“I have told officials, police and soldiers that there should be no women — or transgender women — dressed provocatively or dancing on the backs of trucks,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said. “If they do, they will be arrested.”
It comes after a shocking poll revealed around half the females who attended the water festival complained of being sexually harassed and groped by drunken men during the event in past years, the Bangkok Post reported.
While 86 per cent of the 1793 women involved in the survey said they disliked the sexual harassment and wanted it stopped, the remaining 14 per cent said it was normal and acceptable behaviour.
A 24-year-old local woman told of how a group of men threw water at her and put talcom powder on her face, then used the opportunity to touch her breasts and further down her body.
The Prime Minister has even issued some controversial words of advice for women today, comparing scantily dressed revellers to “candy”.
“During Songkran, I ask that women wear proper clothes, Thai style, so they would look good and civilised,” Mr Chan-ocha said.
He said that in his opinion, women “are like toffee or candy,” which people would not like to eat if already unwrapped.
WHAT WATER SHORTAGE?
It’s a fact little known to many, but Thailand is actually going through its driest period in 20 years, with 27 of its 77 provinces declared drought zones. However the government doesn’t want tourists to know that and risk them cancelling their trips.
“We can still use water for the New Year festival, it’s not that dry,” government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects this year’s holiday to generate more than 15 billion baht ($557 million) for the tourism sector and attract half a million visitors in a span of five days.
But this year there was controversy, with calls for a “dry Songkran” ignored. That’s despite farmers being ordered to cut back their water use, and tap rationing happening in some regions.
“The government should tell people the truth, that the drought is bad. They should not try to cover up the truth,” Smith Thammasaroj, chairman of the Foundation of National Disaster Warning Council said.
“If people keep thinking we have enough water, it could badly hurt agriculture and farmers.
They shouldn’t worry about clothing and covering up the body. They should worry about the drought.”
Bangkok city hall has ordered a 9pm curfew on water fights and is trying to keep the festival to three days, excluding the weekend — measures that it says will save five billion litres of water.
Wanlop Suwandee, the chief adviser to Bangkok’s governor, made a highly publicised proposal that partygoers put down their water guns and instead use handheld spray bottles, the kind used on indoor plants to make leaves wet.
The idea struck many as laughable in a city where water guns are not mere pistols, but large pump machine guns often with water storage tanks worn as backpacks.