As Thailand prepares for its new year holiday this month, almost 200 hospitals are asking for more blood to cope with the inevitable road carnage that comes too.
Thailand has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world after Libya, with 36 deaths reported per 100,000 population. The World Health Organisation says Thailand has more 24,000 deaths annually or 66 per day.
Ahead of Songkran in mid-April, the Department of Highways deputy chief Apisit Promasen has launched the “Safe Songkran Festival 2018” under the “7-7-7” road safety campaign.
Thais like catchphrases including numbers and this one refers to seven days before, during and after the holiday period, running from April 4 to 24.
Apisit said his department aimed to cut road deaths and casualties by a distinctly unambitious 7 per cent this year.
He has advised drivers to take enough rest and extra care before travelling this month. Is that all the authorities can offer?
In 2016, 442 road deaths and 3,656 casualties were reported during Songkran, although the military-controlled authorities are keen to downplay the numbers and their own inability to control the situation. Official figures normally count those killed at scene, and not those who succumbed later.
Songkran attracts a deluge of tourists for its drunken street parties and five days of non-stop water play. The international media carries pieces reinforcing this image of Songkran as an essential date in the tourist calendar. They carry headlines like “Everything you need to know about Songkran” without mentioning that hundreds die every day in avoidable road carnage.
The obvious advise for visitors is to avoid unnecessary road journeys, especially where water is being thrown around.
While the media agenda grinds to a halt every time an act of violence is attributed to Islamist terrorism, the world seems to ignore the fact that hundreds of extra deaths and casualties are looming in Thailand.
If there was a regular series of terror attacks where hundreds of people were killed each year in a single country, the only foreigners arriving would be war correspondents.
Because the annual bloodbath involves wet T-shirts and alcohol, however, the inbound flights are stuffed with visitors.
Does a parent mourn a dead or crippled child less if they fall victim to a road accident rather than a terror attack?
Anyone who has visited during Songkran has seen revellers squirt hoses or hurl bucketloads of water into motorcyclists’ faces. Helmets are non-compulsory. Scooters swerve to avoid the water while oncoming pickup trucks are controlled by distracted, and potentially tipsy, drivers gazing at drenched, scantily glad partygoers on the pavements or in the back of their trucks. Some of the world’s most dangerous road conditions take place to backdrop of pounding Thai pop.
The government leaders that allow water, alcohol and vehicles to be combined are the real terrorists. In neighbouring Myanmar, however, pedestrianised areas are designated for Thingyan water play and the road carnage is reduced.
Rather than looking at ways to cut the death toll, the Thai junta has relaxed its ban on splashing water from pickup beds.
In 2017 the government banned pickup spraying but last month Police Lieutenant-General Panurat Lakboon said the ban would be relaxed.
“This year, the government will allow people to sit in the back of pickups and enjoy the water festival. However, we recommend that drivers of vehicles do not travel over the speed limit to prevent road accidents,” the deputy commissioner said.
Passengers were still banned from drinking alcohol, he said, although it is hard to see this being enforced against drenched, poorly covered clad revellers.
In a typically Thai aside, the police chief told the media: “We would like to ask cooperation from women and transvestites to refrain from wearing revealing costumes as this could be against the law and punishable by a fine of Bt5,000.”
Soldiers will also be brought in to help enforce traffic laws during Songkran, temporarily impounding drink-drivers’ vehicles, according to defence spokesman Lieutenant General Kongcheep Tantravanich.
Unless the intoxicated driver has the cash or connections to bribe the troops, the general might have added.
Police and land transport officers also say they are conducting random drug and alcohol tests on bus drivers. Last week the driver of a chartered bus carrying 60 passengers was arrested halfway to Nakhon Ratchasima after testing positive for amphetamines.
Meanwhile, the health sector is bracing itself for bloodshed.
The Thai Red Cross Society is calling for blood donations ahead of the Thai new year.
As millions usually travel during Songkran, the society said that almost 200 hospitals had asked for blood.
“With their requests, we will have to provide between 3,000 and 4,000 blood units per day during Songkran,” a society representative said, adding that the target was to have about 28,000 pints of blood in storage ahead of Songkran.
The Thai generals appear keen to ban almost everything. First it was any discussion of the monarchy, then it was democracy. Last month they moved to stamp out the apparent social ill of darts, ignoring the fact that the largely harmless game is often played in venues that rely on prostitution.
The requirements for an illusive dartboard licence resulted in the suspension of Pattaya’s popular darts league with the Thailand Darts Association blaming strict Thai gambling laws.
The generals greet an influx of tourists this month with the message that darts is banned but squirting water from the back of pickups, despite the hundreds of deaths because of this every Songkran, is permitted.
A cynic might argue that the junta wants Thais to get drunk and expel their energy in childish partying, rather than asking when they might get a chance to chose their rulers. The Asian tradition of the controlled release continues.
Motorbikes, water and alcohol. What could go wrong? Picture credit: Flickr