THAILAND’s traditional new year celebration, the Songkran festival, which takes place mid-April each year, was once again marred by a fatalities on the road, youth violence and sexual assaults.
The Songkran water festival is famous throughout the world as one of the Asia’s wildest celebrations, and this festival features on the bucket list of many travellers.
On average half a million foreign tourists from Europe, North America and Asia join the Songkran festivities every year. Most are fortunate to experience the beauty of this event, making friends and taking part in good-natured water fights.
And because it is a great tourism draw, the event provides a major boost to Thailand’s tourism economy. According to figures released this week, this year’s festivities saw spending increase by 14 percent to hit BHT45.428 billion (US$1.3 billion).
However, there is a darker side to the celebration, which many travellers remain blissfully unaware of.
This darker side results in thousands of road accidents caused by drunk drivers and hundreds of deaths, which occur during the aptly named, ‘Seven Dangerous Days’. Away from the tourist centres, violence and assaults are also a common feature of this event with teenage gangs and drunken youth often using the festivities as a backdrop to settle scores.
This year there were a total of 390 people killed in road accidents during the Songkran holiday period, from April 11-17, which is an actually an 11.76 percent drop on the same period last year. However, this year saw a 7 percent increase in the number of road accidents, with a total of 3,690 road accidents recorded during the festival.
According to Interior Ministry permanent secretary Kritsada Boonraj, drink driving was once again the biggest cause of these accidents, accounting for almost 50 percent of all recorded incidents.
Figures from past years indicate that wide-scale failings in road safety during the Songkran period have become the norm.
In 2013, there were 2,828 accidents, and 321 deaths, in 2014 there were 2,992 accidents and 322 deaths, in 2015, Songkran saw 3,373 road accidents, and 364 deaths and in 2016 there were 3,500 road accidents and more than 440 deaths.
Every year the government announces new measures and road safety regulations to save lives, but looking at the data, it becomes apparent that authorities are powerless to enforce the necessary regulations that would make Thailand’s road safe. Any attempt to improve road safety during Songkran need to be part of wider year-round road safety campaigns and more stringent law enforcement.
Violence during the Songkran festivities often goes unreported and rarely makes the headlines, unless, as was the case last year, elderly foreigners are hospitalised after being beaten and left unconscious by drunken Thai youth.
Violence between revellers at local celebrations, such as the brawl by the banks of the Mekhong River , rarely gets reported, being such a common occurrence at celebrations across the country.
However, when youth gangs fire handguns at innocent passers by, the news does get reported.
In Ayutthaya this year, members of the public were were injured by gunshots fired by a group of youths while celebrating the Thai new year at Wat Phu Khao Thong. Later the same day, another gang opened fire in a parking area of a shopping centre injuring more innocent passers by.
The number of sexual assault causes is also a concern during the Songkran festival, although this problem is largely ignored by the general public, with official figures unable to provide even a partial picture of the problem.
The lack of data is due to the reluctance of victims to come forward. Sexual assault victims who do come forward are often shamed and subjected to public scrutiny, with a culture of victim-blaming and a male-dominated police force, which retains some old-school attitudes towards sex crimes and lacks adequately trained professionals to deal with these sensitive cases.
Victims are also aware that justice can be hard to find and coming public is more likely to bring shame to the victim than justice to the perpetrator.
Thailand’s Songkran festival highlights the positives and negatives, the contrasts and contradictions of modern Thai society. As such, tackling the drink driving, the violence and the sexual assaults that mar this unique celebration requires wider, year-round, law enforcement policies to ensure these behaviours are no longer tolerated.