While the world celebrated the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand, in China frustration and anger have grown over Thai authorities’ handling of the sinking of two tourist boats which left more than 40 people dead.
The two boats carrying more than 120 Chinese tourists capsized and sank in a huge storm last Thursday off the resort island of Phuket. Several passengers were still missing almost a week later.
A huge backlash against Thailand ensued after the country’s deputy prime minister, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, blamed Chinese tour operators in Phuket for the deadly accident.
“This accident was entirely Chinese harming Chinese,” Prawit was seen telling local reporters Monday in a widely circulated video.
“The boats were theirs, and they ignored warnings and insisted on sailing out to sea. We weren’t responsible for that — they were. They have to resolve this themselves.”
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Chinese social media and official newspapers responded harshly to Prawit’s comments, forcing a hasty apology.
The state-run China Daily called his comments “provocative and irresponsible.”
“Even if what he said is true, the Thai government cannot shirk its responsibility for guaranteeing the safety and security of tourists,” it said.
Users on the Twitter-like service Weibo, citing witnesses who were at the scene, said there was no official warning in Phuket against sailing when the ship left port, before it encountered inclement weather at sea.
They also questioned the actions of the boats’ Thai crews, who reportedly abandoned passengers when water rushed in.
Some claimed survivors and grieving families arriving from China faced red tape and bureaucratic delays when trying to see and identify the bodies of their loved ones.
“Can China be so easily bullied now — and Chinese lives be so carelessly trampled on?” one popular Weibo post read Wednesday. “I’m happy for the Thai soccer boys who were rescued, but I will never go visit that country again!”
China is the biggest source of foreign visitors to Thailand, where tourism is a major industry. Almost 10 million Chinese nationals visited Thailand last year, according to official statistics.
Amid rising calls in China to boycott Thailand, the military government in Bangkok seems to have switched to damage-control.
On Tuesday Thailand’s embassy in Beijing issued a statement saying Prawit’s remarks “may have traumatized families of the victims,” and that the general expressed his “regret and apology” to the Chinese tourists in the accident.
“Thailand will provide the best and fairest treatment to all tourists affected by this accident,” it added.
“We will work closely with China to formulate preventative measures to avoid similar accidents from happening again.”