Asean ignores real killers

Thailand’s Songkran water festival, starting this week, results in numerous road deaths each year, but the Thai newspapers are filled with stories about a fabricated Uyghur threat. Source: Flickr

The weekend’s news agenda in Thailand was preoccupied with two Uyghur “terror” suspects who were thought to be plotting attacks on Koh Samui or Phuket during the chaotic Songkran water festival this week.

However, what receives less coverage is the carnage that takes place on Thailand’s roads every April during Songkran, killing more people than almost any terror strike, and the fate of the two suspects.

The two alleged Uyghur suspects believed to have left Thailand for Malaysia are refugees, according to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

He declared that his government was working with Beijing to return them to China, where Uyghurs face well-documented torture and persecution.

Zahid, also the home affairs minister, said Malaysia received information from Interpol and Homeland Security of China, not an organisation renowned for its fierce defence of human rights, about an intelligence memo issued by Phuket’s immigration officials in Thailand.

Zahid said: “We’ve been working very closely with the Chinese government in sending them back to China.”

The reasons why Thailand’s repressive, military rulers might wish to dominate the news agenda with a “terror” alert remain unclear.

He alluded to the pair’s poor treatment by the media but saw no contradiction in handing them back to the power they were fleeing.

Zahid said: “They are using Thailand and Malaysia as a transit point to get to a third country and to brand them as terrorists, I think it’s unfair.

“Some of their people may have been involved in terrorism, militancy and radicalism but it doesn’t mean that all of them are,” he told the media.

He said the government would continue to monitor the issue with Interpol and the Asean Chiefs of Police.

The state-backed Bernama news agency reported that two men of Uyghur descent, suspected of plotting terrorist attacks in Thailand, were in Malaysia.

Earlier, the leaked intelligence memo claimed that two Uyghur and two Chechens were plotting terror attacks in Thailand.

It identified the Uyghurs as Ali Yalcin Egin and Hidayet Dorsun, who arrived in Phuket on March 23.

On Friday, Thai newspaper Khaosod leaked an intelligence memo from Wongsiri Promchana, the governor of Surat Thani in southern Thailand, which claimed the four were plotting terror attacks in Thailand.

Wongsiri was apparently referring to a dossier from the National Intelligence Coordination Centre, detailing a warning about possible attacks on Koh Samui and Phuket. Both tourist destinations are expected to be crowded during the four-day Songkran festival this week.

Each year, the water festival results in numerous drink-driving deaths, which go largely unreported; often while intense media scrutiny is given to fabricated terror alerts.

The Bangkok Post reported in January that during the week of Songkran last year there were 3,373 reported traffic incidents, resulting in 3,559 injuries and 364 deaths.

Anyone who has experienced Songkran will know how these accidents occur. Numerous pick-up trucks cruise the streets loaded with scantily clad, drenched revellers squirting water in all directions. Add copious amounts of alcohol and scooter drivers veering away from buckets of water hurled in their faces to create a perfect storm of traffic peril.

But road deaths are not deemed as newsworthy to the mainstream media and instead the public is told to fear a terror threat based on scant evidence.

And the death toll may be even higher this year as the number of people travelling during this Songkran holiday is predicted to rise by more than one million as a result of the Thai authorities’ tourism tax deduction measures.

Repressive regimes throughout the region often encourage the controlled release offered by a water festival. Even Burmese dictator Ne Win, during the darkest days of junta rule, permitted the similar Thingyan festival. The populace gets drunk and tired, soaking each other rather than rioting against the authorities.

In Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast Thailand, inspector-general for the region’s public health Kiattibhoom Vongrachit said during last year’s Songkran, the northeast topped the country’s road fatality rate with 146 deaths, followed by 86 in the central plains and 46 in the south.

The British consul to Thailand, Layla Slatter, appears aware of peril of Songkran. She said: “We encourage British people to enjoy the festivities and appreciate the local customs and traditions, but also to understand the risks. Due to the high number of road traffic incidents that occur during the Songkran holiday period, we urge British people to be alert and cautious when using the roads and to keep valuables protected from water and out of sight.

“British people in Thailand should take extra precautions if planning to travel around the country during the Songkran period, and where possible avoid using the roads,” she added.

By the end of the week, the story will probably conclude with the only victims of terror being the two Uyghur migrants who are likely to be subjected to horrendous treatment at the hands of the Chinese authorities. The hundreds of Thai families who will be left bereaved by Songkran road accidents will not be covered in the media as they will not be deemed victims of terror, but that will not make their loss more palatable.