Thailand is the second most dangerous place in the world to be on the roads. Lax enforcement of road rules, low numbers of riders wearing helmets and cracked, pot-holed highways pose innumerable dangers to drivers. During Buddhist New Year, fatalities spike dramatically.
Songkran is a world-famous three-day party that often extends to fill an entire week. It is known locally as the “seven dangerous days” because of the high death toll on the roads as people drive from the capital to their hometowns to celebrate with family. This year 442 people died on Thai roads during this period, a 20% increase from last year. Authorities identified drunk driving as the principle cause of death, with 277,055 drink-driving violations recorded between 9-17 April.
Although drink-driving accounted for 31.4% of all traffic accidents this Songkran, amazingly, Thailand’s ruling junta announced that this demonstrates the success of the junta’s campaign to combat drink-driving.
The determination by the junta to deny such obvious evidence of a worsening situation on the roads is indicative of their broader philosophy of governance: ignoring problems and suppressing opposition voices.
Indeed, developments over the past fortnight demonstrate the dramatic changes that have taken place in Thailand since General Prayuth Chan-o-cha took control of the country in a military coup on 22 May 2014.
Songkran falls during the hottest part of the Thai year, and water pistols and buckets are ubiquitous during the week-long street festival. It is an important time of year for Thais, and has become a major draw-card for backpackers and tourists.
But this year the junta did not want things getting out of hand. With Thailand experiencing its worst drought in 20 years, Bangkok officials urged revellers to use spray bottles rather than the more typical super-soaker to save water.
Prayuth also issued a number of warnings leading up to the event about appropriate behaviour, warning women to cover up and to “look good and civilised.” Not known for his love of women’s rights (he previously indicated a woman who was raped on a beach brought the attack on herself by wearing a bikini), Prayuth also warned women that if they were to wear skimpy clothing they would be treated like “unwrapped toffees” which no one would want to eat.
Rules for propriety were not limited to women either. In the aftermath of this year’s Songkran festivities, during which time temperatures hovered at around 40 degrees each day across most of the country, at least four locals and one foreign man were arrested and fined for celebrating shirtless.
Tensions were high even before this year’s festival began. Two weeks prior, a woman was charged with sedition for posting a photo on social media in which she was holding a red bowl of the type commonly used during the festival to douse others with water. The “seditious” aspect of the photo was that the bowl was emblazoned with a New Year greeting from former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. If found guilty she could face seven years in jail.
The red bowl incident made global headlines as an example of the regime’s disproportionate response to threats. Crackdowns on media freedom and free speech have been escalating since the junta took control almost two years ago.
Foreign journalists, many of whom had lived in Thailand without incident for years, have noted trouble extending their visas. Most recently Thai immigration created a new document for foreigners to fill out prior to obtaining or renewing a visa which asks them to list all social media accounts, bank details, and locations where they like to spend time.
In an ultimate irony, journalist critical of the ruling junta, Pravit Rojanaphruk was officially prevented from travelling to Finland to attend a UNESCO event marking World Press Freedom Day.
These restrictions on free speech and the media are likely to continue until a referendum on whether to accept the new constitution drafted by the junta is held on 7 August 2016. The vote will decide whether Thais will be given their 20th constitution in 84 years, or whether the junta will continue its military rule.
In theory there is meant to be open debate about the draft constitution; a document which many have labelled undemocratic. However it is clear that debate on the issue will not be tolerated. The junta has announced that anyone criticising the Charter could be jailed for up to ten years. Already in the past year, at least 85 people have been summoned for what is known as “attitude adjustment” after openly criticising either the junta or proposed constitution or both.
The junta’s efforts to control festivities during Songkran, to spin the horrendous death toll into a positive news story, and to suppress even the smallest dissent, demonstrate just how far the nation has retreated from democracy over the past two years. This week the deputy head of the junta urged police to step up their surveillance of social media ahead of the August referendum, so anyone else with a penchant for posting photos of red plastic bowls better be careful.
Caitlin McCaffrie lives and works in Phnom Penh and has a major interest in Southeast Asian politics.
Image credit: Wyndham Hollis (Flickr: Creative Commons)