Thai New Year Awash in Groping and Road Deaths

On the first day of Songkran this year, Thailand’s three-day lunar new year celebration and festival, 52 people died in car crashes and another 421 were hurt in nearly 400 road accidents as a combination of speeding and drunk driving took its toll.

Even without Songkran, Thailand has the world’s second-highest death toll per million miles traveled. Road deaths roughly double per day during the festival, which this year takes place April 13-15.

The mayhem prompted the ruling junta to take steps to check drunk driving -- and also to warn women to cover up as a way to avoid being groped by rowdy young men during waterfights. Neither step is likely to have much impact.

Songkran, the country’s most important holiday, occurs in the fifth month of the Thai lunar New Year, partly because of the culture of rice farming and partly because of a complicated calendar system derived from Hindu culture. Songkran used to mean visiting family or local temples to offer food to Buddhist monks, pour water on Buddhist statues to wash away sins and bad luck. These days, however, it is pandemonium far beyond just car accidents.

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The center of Bangkok becomes a kind of water war zone, with free water distribution centers set up around the city and businesses making water available to those who are looking for targets, although this year, with the country facing severe drought, the government has asked that the practice be discontinued. Some people simply leave the country during the holiday period to duck the spray. One Thai acquaintance left with his wife and family for Australia.

Women targeted

“I always flee Thailand during Songkran,” said an American banker. “A once-lovely festival has degenerated badly. One of the few things the junta does that most Thais agree with is cracking down on this sort of mayhem.”

The ritual pouring of water on elders’ hands as a way to show respect during Songkran, has turned into a free-for-all in which too-often drunken revelers blast young women with water. They also dust passersby with talcum, or chalk, a practice that apparently originated with Buddhist monks marking blessings. Bedraggled stragglers of both sexes can be seen walking the streets soaked in water and covered with talcum. Occasionally fights break out, often instigated by those who object to being dusted and soaked.

But it is women who bear the brunt. According to a Bangkok Post survey earlier in April, half of the women and young girls surveyed reported being sexually harassed or groped during earlier water festivals. Young men armed with super-soaking water contraptions that are more water cannons than water pistols assault any woman who makes the mistake of appearing unprotected on the street. Many travel the streets in the back of pickup trucks carrying water barrels to dump water on any hapless woman who happens by. The governor of Bangkok recommended that instead of throwing around buckets of water, people use fogging spray bottles instead.

It is still fun

That isn’t to say people don’t love it, because millions do – except those would prefer to remain dry and ungroped. For the majority, there are traditional parades and pageant contests in native dress. People often give in to the soaking and go outside in swimsuits.

This year, the National Committee for Peace and Order – the junta that took over the country in May of 2014 – has decided to do something about the demolition derbies on the highways with check points and threats to confiscate the licenses of drivers who drink, although there is widespread skepticism that this will have any real effect. An advertising campaign flopped when people pointed out that the posters said nothing about drunk driving. The police ordered the posters withdrawn and threatened the distributors with arrest.

Police earlier this week announced they would increase security in Bangkok in an attempt to prevent violence, screen people arriving in the city and establish 84 checkpoints to control revelers.

But, said another western source: “Is it good that the NCPO are trying to identify drunk drivers and force them off the road by temporarily impounding their vehicles? I think that most people would say 'yes', though one wonders how many drivers are let go with bribes and because they are well connected and know influential people. As always, it’s the poor without necessary social connections who suffer most in the Thai judicial system, and this crackdown on Songkran chaos will fall on those least able to defend themselves.”

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Prayuth blames women

In addition, the junta’s attempts to cool things off have sounded the wrong notes as usual. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister who led the coup as a general, held a press conference in which he himself sprayed water on reporters at Government House; He then suggested rather graphically that the groping might be women’s fault and he suggested they cover up.

“Women are like candies,” Prayuth told reporters. ”They are much more interesting and attractive when fully wrapped. Then you unwrap them to eat. No one would find candies that bare it all interesting."

“What's shocking is how invariably their interpretation boils down to all the problems resulting from how women dress,” said another longtime westerner who lives in Bangkok. “This is the Thai Army's typical sexist and misogynist attitude, and the sad thing is it being articulated right from the very top by Prayuth, who in his typical short-sighted fashion fails to deal with the fact that men and boys all over the country use the Songkran as an excuse to grope, grab and sexually harass women.”

The running count of those killed and injured in traffic accidents will be broadcast over the TV and radio, and tough talk will be heard by police and other government officials, but at the end of it all the numbers will still be high.

“Talk shows will debate whether it's gotten worse or gotten better this year, and then after a week or so, it will be forgotten by everyone except the families of those who were killed and injured,” the western observer said. “And then next year, Thailand will do it all over again. You know the saying, 'same, same, but different'? Well the only thing that is different with this chaos is the year. The rest seems beyond resolution, even for a junta that prides itself on promoting 'peace' and 'order.'”