By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
For more than a decade, every Thai New Year has been not just a time to celebrate, but a time to mourn.
Every Songkran, as the festive occasion is known, some 300 or so people die on the roads, and the best most of us can do is to follow the death tolls published daily. This is arguably the worse time, along with the Gregorian New Year, for a country listed as the world’s second-deadliest places to drive by the World Health Organization last year, with 14,059 road deaths in 2012.
That means 36.2 people per 100,000 died on the road. Only war-torn Libya is worse.
This is a fact that the Thai government is not even trying to hide. In fact it was advertised in television commercials sponsored by Toyota this past week in hope of reducing the number of fatalities.
One can blame it on drunk, sleepy, undisciplined, reckless and speedy drivers. There’s also plenty of blame for inadequate enforcement of traffic laws and dangerous road conditions in some areas.
Few mention the fact that too many motor vehicles head in and out of Bangkok at the same time every year. This is so because Bangkok is the center of virtually everything in Thailand. It sucks not just natural resources from rural areas but human resources as well.
Many Thais from other parts of the kingdom end up working there because decent jobs – as well as better-paid but less-than-decent jobs – are concentrated here. And so every New Year, these Thais seeking to be reunited with their families and relatives leave and return more or less on the same day, risking a higher chance of injury or death on roads already notoriously dangerous.
Unless there’s a greater decentralization of job opportunities elsewhere, it’s going to be hard to expect any drastic reduction of road fatalities during such holidays.
This cannot be achieved without political will and public recognition that the problem is more than just reckless car drivers, motorcycle riders and poor law enforcement.
My heart goes out to the millions of Thais who seek employment in Bangkok and have to risk their lives travelling home, some of whom won’t make it there or back because they ended up statistics cited with precision by the media on television, comparable to Japanese media’s attentive reporting about the seasonal blooming of cherry blossoms there.
The fact that so many attempts over the years have failed to reduce the butcher’s bill puts a fine point on the need to think outside the box. It’s easier for me as a Bangkokian to say many should not travel back home into the provinces at the same time every year, because there’s no one I miss upcountry.
The problem is nothing short of the structural failures of Thailand’s social and economic development on a grand scale. Some big cities outside Bangkok, such as Khon Kaen and Chiang Mai, have given thought to improving public transportation to decrease reliance on motor vehicles in order to spur economic growth and opportunity, as well as improve the quality of life.
Such moves deserve the full support of not just the central government but those of us living in the capital. Bangkok is too crowded and reinforces Thailand’s systemic inequalities because it sits at the center of almost everything, be it government, business or education.
These disparities, reflected in the annual death toll of the “seven dangerous days,” perpetuate the notion of non-Bangkok Thais as second-class citizens, fostering feelings of inferiority among them and condescension from those who call the capital home.
We need to rethink and change that for the good of Thailand as a whole.