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Getting ready for the big one – Myanmar’s earthquake threat

Tanutam Thawan

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Special report from partners Voice of America

Last month, the residents of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, felt a strong bump in the night. Their national leaders in Naypyidaw, the country’s thinly populated capital, were also stirred from their sleep.

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck between the two cities, in the early hours of January 12.

The Southeast Asian country is well accustomed to earth tremors but there are fears that the catastrophe of a major earthquake would overwhelm Myanmar’s already thinly stretched government and undo the fragile development gains of recent years.

Myanmar’s key cities, Yangon, Naypyidaw and the northern hub of Mandalay, all sit close to the Sagaing Fault, which bisects Myanmar from northern Kachin State, through the central Dry Zone, and into the Andaman Sea.

In addition, the country’s west is rattled by the continued subduction of the Indian Plate beneath the Burma Platelet. In the eastern highlands the Kyaukkyan Fault was the source of Myanmar’s strongest recorded earthquake, measuring 8.0, in 1912.

A network of more than 30 seismic monitoring stations, launched across Myanmar last year, picks up four to five minor earthquakes each day, according to the Earth Observatory of Singapore, which worked on the project.Big ones, exceeding 7.0, hit roughly once a decade, according to seismic data for the past 170 years.

The big one

The Sagaing Fault exposes up to 10 million people to disaster and casts a shadow over the development of Yangon, the commercial capital. With rural to urban migration increasing, the government projects Yangon’s 5.2 million population to almost double by 2040.

The city’s infrastructure, characterized by badly maintained British colonial relics and cheap modern blocks built over decades of regulatory chaos, struggles to cope even with day to day activity.

According to geologists, the fault segment that exposes Yangon is due for a large quake. Professor Myo Thant, vice chair of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, told VOA the recurrence interval for a 7.0-and-above earthquake is 80-100 years. The last one to strike the segment was in 1930, killing more than 550 people.

But there are signs the government is becoming more aware of the threat.

The Chauk effect

Myo Thant, and fellow Earthquake Committee vice chair Saw Htwe Zaw, an engineer, have been laboring for the past two decades to plot the country’s seismic risk, partnering with foreign universities and institutes as well as U.N.-Habitat, the United Nations’ urban division.

Both told VOA they are encouraged by the high-level activity of recent months.This included a U.N.-assisted crisis-room simulation for the national and Mandalay Region governments on Feb. 1-2 in Naypyidaw.

The table-top exercise was the first real-time test of the National Disaster Management Committee, chaired by Vice President Henry Van Thio, outlined in the 2013 Natural Disaster Management Law.

A nearly $1 million project backed by the European Commission was launched in December to draw up an earthquake Preparedness and Response Plan and Resilience strategy, as well as rolling out earthquake education across vulnerable areas.

In late January, two schools in Yangon’s outskirts conducted a tsunami evacuation drill as part of a regional, Japanese-funded program to address a threat directly linked to earthquakes. SEEDS Asia, a Japanese-registered organization that aided the exercise, has also been conducting workshops in schools in coastal Yangon and Ayeyarwady regions.

Myo Thant and Saw Htwe Zaw of the Earthquake Committee credited the response to the 6.8-strength Chauk earthquake in August 2016, which ravaged temples in the tourist site of Bagan in central Myanmar, with pushing earthquakes up the government’s agenda.

“Sometimes these shocks are the best opportunities to build both government and public interest,” Yoko Okura, SEEDS Asia country representative, told VOA.

Getting ready for the big one - Myanmar's earthquake threat | News by The Thaiger

A state of ruin

Addressing Yangon’s neglected urban infrastructure has become a core priority, but safety standards conflict with government desires for big investment and a quick expansion of the housing stock.

A new, earthquake-sensitive building code, overseen by engineers from the Earthquake Committee, was presented to the government last year.It has yet to be worked into law or even translated from English into Burmese, according to Saw Htwe Zaw, and it’s unclear when it will take effect.

The code would provide a solid safety blueprint for planned expansions and satellite towns in Mandalay and Yangon, but it would do nothing for older buildings.Many in Yangon are in a state of ruin.

The absence of a viable insurance market and a general lack of funds for costly repairs don’t help, neither do the Building Completion Certificates issued by the Yangon municipal government, which don’t require any later assessments, even on resale.

But the Earthquake Committee has conducted earthquake risk assessments of several towns and cities, including Mandalay, and is now assessing Yangon, starting with a few townships, with a view to producing retrofitting guidelines.Meanwhile, the World Bank has agreed to fund the reinforcement of around a dozen public buildings in Yangon.

A low base

The unpredictable nature of earthquakes, and the lengthy intervals between major quakes, pose challenges to improving public awareness.”People forgot earthquakes easily,” said Myo Thant.

By contrast, 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, said to have killed more than 138,000 people, is within recent memory, and its lingering effects of displacement and poverty remain visible.

Myanmar’s internationally reviled military junta drew condemnation for its handling of Cyclone Nargis, by spurning an international relief effort while largely failing to stem the death and destruction for which the country was so badly prepared.But international humanitarian and development partnerships have evolved since limited democratic reforms began in 2011.

Shashank Mishra, a program manager for U.N.-Habitat, told VOA the government has been very receptive to outside advice and assistance on natural disasters.”There’s a lot of momentum now,” said Mishra.

But earthquake preparedness is starting from a very low base.A basic arrangement of ward-level assembly points and reinforced shelters stocked with provisions remains generally absent across Myanmar’s towns and cities.

Saw Htwe Zaw admitted there is “still a long way to go” before the country catches up with the grave risks it faces.

Getting ready for the big one - Myanmar's earthquake threat | News by The Thaiger

STORY: Voice of America

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Local Thai journalist speaking fluent Thai and English. Tanutam studied in Khon Kaen before attending Bangkok’s Chulalongkhorn University.

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Thailand News Today | State of Emergency lifted, Quarantine latest, Phuket Light Rail | October 22

Tanutam Thawan

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Government lifts Bangkok’s State of Emergency

Bangkok’s State of Emergency has been lifted, according to a statement published in the Royal Gazette, making it official.

The order, that banned public gatherings over 5 people, and censoring critical media commentary, was imposed last Thursday morning by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, leading to the breaking up a protest and the arrests of a number of activists.

Despite the State of Emergency, protesters ignored the orders and rallies only grew over the past week.

The emergency order also banned content on websites and social media considered to be a “threat to national security.” Some Thai media outlets covering the protests were under fire, and authorities tried to suspend them under the emergency order. The court dismissed the requests to block those media companies, saying the Thai Constitution does not give the court power to shut down media platforms.

Large protest group amassed at Government House

The lifting of the State Emergency follows two key events last night.

A large, prepared protest group that marched on Government House demanding the resignation of the Thai PM – they even prepared a letter for him all ready to sign. Police had 2 buses, barbed wire and water cannon trucks, along with riot police, awaiting them. Both sides seemed poised for a confrontation but protests leaders peacefully dispersed the crowd at 9.35pm. The other was an address on national TV by Prayut Chan-o-cha, asking protesters to stand down and participate in dialogue with the government.

Negative Covid-19 results for first group on the Special Tourist Visa

Surely, the most anticipated and followed tourists ever to grace Thailand’s shores. All 39 visitors who flew in from China this week on the new Special Tourist Visa have tested negative for Covid-19. While it’s a small group, they’re the first foreign tourists to arrive since travel restrictions were imposed in late-March.

More international tourists are expected to arrive next week under the auspices of the new Special Tourist Visa. If there are no positive Covid-19 cases in the first groups, the government says they could start to lift restrictions, like cutting down the mandatory quarantine period, or allowing more applicants under the STV.

Groups from China and Scandanavian countries are the next arrivals under the STV in the next few weeks.

Health Minister says quarantine could be reduced to 10 days, maybe eventually zero

Health officials have confirmed that they are ready to reduce the mandatory quarantine period for foreign tourists, provided other relevant bodies agree.

The current quarantine period is set at 14 days, but the Public Health Minister says this could be reduced to 10. He adds that if the reduction is successful, quarantine could be further reduced, eventually reaching a point where quarantine is no longer a requirement.

“The truth is, the Public Health Ministry is ready for the change, but other relevant agencies still have requested time to adjust. So, we have to wait and work together.”

4.4 million methamphetamine pills seized near Laos border

Police seized 4.4 million methamphetamine pills worth more than 400 million baht after a police chase in the northeast near the Thai-Laos border.

Thai media reports that the alleged drug traffickers threw black bags full of the drugs out onto the road during the police chase and drove off into a rubber farm in the Bung Kla district.

Police had received a tip about drugs allegedly being trafficked across the Mekong River and were tracking a truck driving fast by the river.

Police searched the bags which contained over 4 million methamphetamine pills. Police also found 2,970 ecstasy pills.

Since October 1, the Royal Thai Navy has been involved in 18 drug trafficking busts, seizing methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin and marijuana, totalling around 2.7 billion baht.

Phuket light rail study goes to Cabinet for approval

The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand has approved the findings of a study on Phase 1 development of a light rail system in Phuket.

The first phase, budgeted at 35 billion baht, will run 42 kilometres from Phuket Airport to Chalong intersection.

The findings of the study will be tabled in the Cabinet in 12 months time. If approved, bidding for joint investment will begin in early 2022, with trams expected to start running in 2026.

The service will have 21 stations, of which 19 will be at ground level, one at elevated level and one underground.

Critics say the route won’t do much to benefit local communities and that the main Thepkasattri Road artery will be severely disrupted during the years of construction.

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Crime

Expat in Koh Samui Prison on drug charges, nearly $3,000 raised to get her out

Caitlin Ashworth

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Expat in Koh Samui Prison on drug charges, nearly $3,000 raised to get her out | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Facebook: Ashley Oosthuizen

A 21 year old South African woman is locked in Thai prison after she allegedly signed for a package containing 250 grams of MDMA, an ingredient in ecstasy, according to a GoFundMe account. People say she’s innocent and have raised $2,966 USD to get her out. She’s apparently facing drug charges that carry life imprisonment.

Ashley Oosthuizen has been living in Thailand for more than 2 years. She worked as a teacher at an international school in Koh Samui, according to her Facebook page. The GoFundMe page says Ashley started Hot in the Biscuit, a breakfast and brunch restaurant on the island.

“She is well known in the community and liked by all who meet her. She is truly a wonderful human being with a heart of gold.”

While Ashley was at work, a package was delivered and addressed to her former boss. She signed for the package, but didn’t open it and set it aside. Later, the police raided the shop and searched the package, finding 250 grams of MDMA, according to the GoFundMe page.

Apparently, Ashley was arrested and charged with importation with intent to distribute a Category 1 narcotic. Importing a Category 1 substances carries a penalty of up to life imprisonment and a fine of 1 million to 5 million baht under Thailand’s Narcotics Act.

“The case against her is absolutely horrible – there is no evidence excepting the unopened package addressed to her former friend but because the package contained 250 grams of drug they are holding her as the one responsible.”

The GoFundMe page says Ashley was drug tested and came out negative. Her friends say they expect the case to be dismissed, but say Thai courts move “painfully slow” and they don’t want Ashley spending time behind bars waiting for a court date.

“Thai prisons are not like Western prisons. She cannot stay there so long. She is only 21 years old. She is an innocent victim.”

To donate to the GoFundMe account, or to read about Ashley’s story, click HERE.

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Thailand

Foreign yachts allowed to dock in Thailand, tourists to quarantine onboard

Caitlin Ashworth

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Foreign yachts allowed to dock in Thailand, tourists to quarantine onboard | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Unsplash: Marcin Ciszewski

Overseas yachts are now allowed to dock in Thailand, but foreign tourists and crew members still need to adhere to strict health measures, according to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration. Tourists will need to quarantine onboard the yacht for 14 days and be tested for Covid-19 tests 3 times before entering Thailand, according to the CCSA spokesperson Taweesilp Visanuyothin.

So far, there’s around 60 yachts, each with about 600 to 650 tourists and crew members, that looking to dock in Thailand. The 27 superyachts and 33 cruisers could generate an income of 2.1 million baht.

Along with yachts, foreign ships are allowed to dock in Thailand to change vessels and head back to sea, the spokesperson says. Seafarers must also go through a 14 day quarantine period.

The spokesperson didn’t go into detail about the visa requirements for the tourists and crew members travelling to Thailand on a yacht. Recently, Thailand started issuing the Special Tourist Visa to travellers from countries considered a low risk for spreading the coronavirus.

“At this stage, the countries considered as low-risk by the Department of Disease Control are China, Macao, Taiwan, Sweden, and Finland, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.”

SOURCE: Phuket News

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