Can Thais learn to respect the spirit and meaning of the festival, or is it too late to save it from drunkenness, lewd behaviour, violence and road carnage?
The five-day Songkran festival begins today, with the public holiday extended into Monday and Tuesday as approved by the Cabinet. This is the time of year when people leave Bangkok and other big cities in droves for the provinces, to spend the holiday with their families or simply to go on vacation.
Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year, and is normally celebrated from April 13 to 15. April 13 is National Elderly Day and April 14 is Family Day. Thus the festival is intended as a time of celebration for family and friends. But for many people, Songkran is just “the water festival” – a chance to throw water at anyone in sight, including complete strangers, and have fun drinking and revelling all day and night.
It is also a time of year when the number of road accidents increases dramatically, with casualties throughout the country. In addition to the unacceptably high number of deaths and injuries on the roads, there are numerous cases of violence and lewd acts committed in public (mostly by male revellers) that are fuelled by alcohol. It’s a sad fact that, when in holiday mood, many people turn to alcoholic drinks and, as a result, make trouble or cause problems.
The authorities have fought a losing battle over the years, attempting to reduce the number of road casualties during the Songkran period, as well as during the international New Year holiday – another time of year when there is an exodus from the big cities.
In recent years state agencies like the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation and the National Institute for Emergency Medicine have collected data during the “seven dangerous days” of the Songkran holiday.
Between April 11 and 17 last year, 3,129 road accidents were recorded across the country, with 320 people killed and 3,320 injured, according to the Disaster Prevention Department. In the same period a year earlier, 3,215 road accidents were reported during the “seven dangerous days”, with 271 people killed and 3,476 injured.
The top three causes of road accidents – contributing to more than 60 per cent of the casualties reported – were drunk driving, speeding and abrupt lane changes, according to data collected in the last two years by the Interior Ministry’s Road Safety Directing Centre.
Motorcycles and pickup trucks have been involved in about 90 per cent of the road accidents during the Songkran festival over the past two years, according to the agency. Motorbikes made up more than 78 per cent of the vehicles involved in road accidents last year, and more than 77 per cent in 2011, compared to about 11 per cent for pickup trucks last year and 13 per cent a year earlier.
In order to reduce the number of road accidents and casualties, those major causes should be taken into consideration when measures are initiated, such as a ban on the sale of alcoholic drinks at petrol stations. In addition to strict law enforcement on the part of police and officials, drivers should take precautions to prevent accidents, and should refrain from drinking alcohol.
The authorities involved should also focus on the types of vehicle mostly involved in road accidents – motorcycles and pickup trucks. This calls for mandatory wearing of crash helmets in the case of motorcyclists and pillion riders, and safety belts in the case of pickup drivers and their passengers. These laws exist, but are seldom enforced.
Songkran helps keep Thailand on the world’s tourism map. Many foreign visitors come to the Kingdom during this hottest month of year for the annual “water war” – when they have the chance to battle other people with water guns and get soaked in what should be a fun-filled festival. It’s a facet of Thai culture that many tourists enjoy.
But there are both beautiful and ugly sides to Songkran. While efforts to correct the ugly side have proved futile, we as citizens of this country should focus more on promoting the beautiful side – by preserving and respecting the good traditions of the Thai New Year. Only in that way can we experience the real meaning and true spirit of Songkran.