The good and bad of a delight-filled and deadly festival

opinion March 29, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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In two weeks, hundreds of people will celebrate Songkran for the last time. They will die premature and unnecessary deaths, which are now inseparably associated with the festival.

Many of them will die “knowingly”, in the face of countless newspaper editorial warnings, highway checkpoints and public awareness campaigns, all of which, again, have become part of the holiday tradition. Almost everything has been tried, in vain, to prevent the globally notorious road carnage. Except, of course, the exercise of much-dreaded “dictatorial powers”.

The one man who thinks he can make a difference, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, has so far invoked his special powers to stop political killings, punish allegedly corrupt officials and cripple a powerful Buddhist organisation. But will Article 44, which gives him God-like powers in the wake of the 2014 coup, curtail the appalling death toll that Songkran delivers without fail?

Call me a pessimist but I think General Prayut is overestimating Article 44. Yes, it has helped him achieved remarkable things, but Songkran is unlike anything he has dealt with to date. Political killings in Thailand largely come during protests, so, when Article 44 is invoked to ban protests, there’s no killing. It’s as simple as that. As for corruption, if prosecutors and judges do their jobs, which they will if Article 44 is looming over their heads, it’s a piece of cake.

And Dhammakaya? The monks and their followers have put up a fight, but they are teacher’s pets compared with drunken Songkran revellers. Prayut has triggered Article 44 to enforce harsh penalties on traffic lawbreakers, but I have a feeling that clampdown will only frighten law-abiding citizens. Those leaving their homes not caring if they live to see another day are unlikely to care about trouble over their vehicles’ registration.

On average more than 300 people are killed on the road during Songkran’s “seven dangerous days”. But last year was especially bloody, ending the lives of a record 442. Drunk driving is the main contributing factor in the deaths and injuries, accounting for nearly half of Songkran road accidents, while four in five involve motorcyclists. The annual mayhem also brings major economic losses, not to mention huge bills for police overtime and public awareness programmes launched by the government and private sector.

 “The more people on the highways, the more deaths,” some people shrug. But that claim rings hollow when you know that many of the fatal accidents occur on roads where the traffic is light, checkpoints scarce and un-helmeted riders abundant.

Political reconciliation is tough, but try making motorcyclists and their passengers wear helmets when police aren’t looking. Prayut should take time out from constitutional analysis and tour Bangkok’s back roads at daybreak, to see for himself how the helmet law is respected. Then he can imagine what’s happening on dirt roads upcountry where traffic police are never seen.

How many police do we need to enforce the helmet law during Songkran? How many officers do we have to check alcohol levels of drivers and riders? How can we stop wayward adults and impressionable kids from throwing water at oncoming motorcycles? How many police do we have to deploy on parallel roads where a lot of the deaths occur?

But if we take away the road accidents, Songkran does give us tantalising glimpses of utopia. The holiday period tends to reveal humanity’s good side. People head to temples, build sandcastles at the beach, make merit and travel for reunions with friends and family. They smile. They forgive. They help one another. The idealist in us asks, why can’t we have Songkran all year round, and so solve all our problems?

Because we are only human, the lame realist replies: We can’t have endless forgiveness and sharing because that would weaken the species.

You have to both agree and disagree with that. Of course, no festival can last forever. But no, forgiveness and sharing will not weaken the species. In fact, these two strengths are a must if we want to guarantee our species’ survival. It is the strong who forgive and the weak who do not, period.

So what’s the point of being strong only during festival time? What’s the point of going back to “being weak” once the holiday is over? In spite of all the bad, Songkran is a lot better than “real life”, and many of us can be forgiven for wishing it was the reality sandwiched between the cruel nightmares that have been coming thick and fast.