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Opinion: Sovereignty, rights ignored in airport debacle – The Nation

The Thaiger & The Nation

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Opinion: Sovereignty, rights ignored in airport debacle – The Nation | The Thaiger

Thailand could have blood on its hands if it fails to protect a Saudi traveller on her journey to freedom.

The fate of a Saudi woman on her way to Australia, where she has a visa and seeks to obtain asylum, teetered in the balance in Bangkok at press time yesterday. Amid Thailand’s apparent willingness to deport her back to Saudi Arabia, rights lawyers representing her failed to get a Bangkok court to accept an injunction against her repatriation, which could have spelled her doom. Then came an abrupt about-face as the head of Immigration announced that, contrary to his earlier remarks, she would not be deported against her will.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, had barricaded herself in a hotel room near Suvarnabhumi Airport while Thai authorities fumbled over a case that could have grave repercussions for our country. She believed she would be killed if Thailand sent her back to Saudi Arabia, where her family has allegedly subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

According to reports late Sunday, Saudi and Kuwaiti officials seized her as she deplaned at Suvarnabhumi and forcibly confiscated her travel documents. New York-based Human Rights Watch has backed up her claims, though its sources are unclear.

“They took my passport,” al-Qunun was quoted as saying by news agency AFP, adding that her male guardian had filed a complaint in Saudi Arabia that was she was travelling “without his permission”, as Saudi law requires of women.

“My family locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said.

“I’m 100 per cent sure they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail.”

Thai Immigration chief Surachate Hakparn first told reporters that Qunun was barred from entering Thailand because “she had no other documents such as return airfare or money”.

She insisted she had valid travel papers and was merely in transit through Bangkok en route to Australia, for which she had a visa.

Human Rights Watch was appalled by Thai Immigration’s apparent readiness to accommodate the Saudi authorities. “What country allows diplomats to wander around the closed section of the airport and seize the passports of passengers?” deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson asked, pointing out Saudi Arabia’s horrendous record on rights.

It will indeed be encouraging if the Thai government takes a firm stand in the matter after foreigners overtly trampled our sovereignty. Diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia have gradually improved since the ruinous affair of a Thai stealing gems from the Saudi royal family more than two decades ago. We owe the Saudis nothing. If there is even the slightest possibility that this woman’s life is in danger, Thailand must oppose her repatriation.

The incident comes just three months after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi who was critical of his country’s rulers, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. That case has roiled international opinion.

Thailand cannot afford to be at the centre of another such controversy, even if this one has a far lower profile. But there was Surachate early yesterday saying al-Qunun would soon be on a plane bound for Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a family problem,” he said, sounding devoid of compassion. Surachate appeared not to have heard – or not to care – that a member of her family vowed on record that Qunun would indeed be severely punished on her return, possibly even killed.

This is decidedly not a “family problem”. It is a direct threat to the same fundamental human rights that Thailand has sworn to protect, even if Saudi Arabia does not extend such rights to women.

Al-Qunun has every right to flee harsh treatment at home and seek asylum in a country willing to protect her. Tragedy could ensue simply because, on her way to gaining freedom, she first touched down in Bangkok.

Published originally on The Nation

Opinion

What’s the use of number plates if you can’t read them?

The Thaiger

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What’s the use of number plates if you can’t read them? | The Thaiger

by DW (anonymously sent to The Thaiger)

Hiding in plain sight, and rarely noted—at least by anyone I’ve spoken with—are thousands of cars, vans, buses, trucks, and even motorcycles. Most are commercial vehicles … you know, the ones with green and yellow plates.

Now when I say they’re “hiding in plain sight”, I mean to say that yes, you can plainly see that it’s a Toyota Camry, or white passenger van, but take a look at that license plate. Isn’t it difficult to make out the numbers now that they’re painted over with the same colour as the background?

Oh, wait a minute, maybe you’re looking at one of those immaculate plates that have the highly reflective plastic covers. Yes, those ones that catch any bit of sunlight and bounce it back in such way that the plate numbers are near impossible to read.

Bad enough during the day, but at night, the glare from your own headlights is enough to blind you!

Speaking of which, there is another interesting observation to be made: Next time it’s dark and you are in a line of cars waiting for the light to turn green, take a look around at the license plates.

You will likely see a lot of vehicles that have the small lights meant to illuminate the rear plate either not working or, dare I say, “modified” to disguise the numbers barely on display. If you’re keeping tabs, you will also note that the vast majority of these modifications are associated with the green and yellow license plates.

Does that surprise you?

Now consider how many times you’ve seen vehicles racing through the streets, highways, and byways of this fine little island. And, for just a moment, stop and think, how many times have you noted green or yellow plates in those photos of horrific accidents that are all-too-often reported in our newspapers?

What of the speed cameras and prolific use of CCTV to monitor every street, lane, and intersection? Surely that must go some way to reducing the carnage. (It seems we hear less of drivers fleeing the scene, so maybe there is a return on the investment, after all.)

Now if disguising your license plate amounts to a traffic violation, you would be right to assume the police are missing an opportunity to collect a hefty sum in fines levied against perpetrators. Since speed cameras are effectively rendered useless in the face of 30% of vehicles carrying plates that are unrecognisable, there again is huge loss in revenue.

Well then, what to do? What to do?

Here’s an idea: Police checks and road blocks are common enough; fines are given out for driving without a seat belt, no helmet, no insurance, improper registration or lack of a driving license, etc. So why not for license plates that are illegible, modified, or intentionally disguised?

What about a public reporting system that allows citizens to photograph a plate and send it directly to the police? Officers could issue fines from the comfort of their desks.

Before long, the practice of “hiding in plain sight” would lose its appeal. Instead of becoming more popular, it would diminish, possibly even stop altogether.

At the end of day, one has to ask: What is the purpose of a license plate if it cannot be read?

What's the use of number plates if you can't read them? | News by The Thaiger What's the use of number plates if you can't read them? | News by The Thaiger

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Opinion

The 35 billion baht white elephant – Phuket’s light rail

Tim Newton

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The 35 billion baht white elephant – Phuket’s light rail | The Thaiger

“About the only thing feasible in this rendering is the blue sky.”

Spending 35 billion baht on infrastructure that few will use, is planned on the least useful route and will cause mayhem for a 3-5 year build time is a waste of money.

The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) is currently chatting to the private sector and local administrative bodies to support Phuket’s planned light-rail/tram project.

Firstly, where will it travel?

The tram route plans to run from Tha Noon in Phang Nga province, across Sarasin Bridge onto Phuket, past the airport, through Phuket Town on the east coast and then finishing at Chalong’s main intersection near the Chalong Circle.

Phuket’s tourists, who mainly head for the west coast beaches, are being almost completely ignored in the planning.

Oh, but the tram will travel from the airport to Phuket Town (where less than 5% of Phuket’s tourists stay). That route is already well connected with Airport and private buses – the least of Phuket’s transport woes.

The two-way tram will be constructed right in the middle of existing, already busy, roads – principally Thepkasattri road from the island’s north to Phuket Town. Then in the middle of the equally busy Chao Fah East road which, mostly, doesn’t already have a centre-strip.

The MRTA expects to seek cabinet approval for the project in the middle of this year with construction likely to begin in 2020. They estimate it will be operational by 2023 (code for ‘maybe before 2025’).

At this stage, the MRTA estimates fares will be no more than 100 – 137 baht, less for shorter hops between the 21 proposed stations. This already puts the cost of daily use for many local Thais out of reach. If it costs about 80 baht to fill an average 110cc scooter which would last most of the week – you do the maths.

Then the locals will still have to use public transport, or their feet, to get to and from the nearest tram stop.

Here are four key problems with the whole idea…

The tram stops avoid most of the tourist hot spots along the west coast of the island and concentrates on locals living along the main Thepkasattri trunk from Thalang to Phuket Town and then Chao Fah East to Chalong.

Patong? Kata? Karon? Surin? Mai Khao? Kamala? Nowhere near them. We acknowledge that a tram would never be a solution to get to people to and between these locations.

The second point is a glaring failure in the concept to measure popular and cheap services currently available – mostly the trusty and cheap motorbike.

Thai users are unlikely to give up their point-to-point motorcycle transport for a more inconvenient, and expensive, tram that will necessitate them using expensive taxis, buses and motorcycle taxis at either end to get them to their destinations.

Next, imagine the three year construction period which, if following recent major road construction projects, is likely to blow out to four or five years. And the massive disruption of traffic during the construction time. Ask anyone living in Chalong and Rawai about how the roadworks at the Chalong circle has affected their lives in the past three years. It’s been chaotic, time-wasting, dangerous and stressful.

Finally, the loss of road space along the route will restrict local road traffic even more, neutralising any nett gains of the new tram system. Tram rails, in both directions, 21 stations, the overhead walkways (to get people to the sidewalk areas), parking… where is all this going to go? It will chew up limited road space and bring traffic and people even closer together – a recipe for disaster.

Phuket badly needs public transport reform. Recent infrastructure to improve roads, add underpasses and improve existing services has gone part of the way to making life better for locals and tourists.

But this new white elephant completely ignores the real elephant in the room – the intransigent cabal of the taxis and tuk tuks on the island which ‘could’ be the island’s best asset. But instead they are a feared, reviled and a much-discussed tourism killer.

Local people almost completely avoid taxis and tuk tuks (they already know their fares are ridiculously priced when compared to other parts of the country), and tourists use them because there’s not a lot of alternative only to end up with occasional horror stories in social media, complaints to the Tourist Police and a lasting impression of Phuket as an over-priced tourism pearl that’s lost its lustre.

Spending 35 billion baht (let’s spell that out for you – 35,000,000,000 baht) on a shiny new tram system does little, if nothing, to address the island’s key transport issues – better roads and better alternatives for transport in and around tourist zones.

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The 35 billion baht white elephant - Phuket's light rail | News by The Thaiger

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Opinion

In the wake of Pabuk, a media storm is brewing

Tim Newton

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In the wake of Pabuk, a media storm is brewing | The Thaiger

by Tim Newton

Now the actual storm has passed, a media storm is brewing over two key issues – tourists claiming they had little knowledge about the approaching storm and local tour operators, especially in the Andaman region, who say the media coverage was ‘hyped’ and overblown.

“Stranded British tourists have spoken of their anger after being allowed to travel to parts of Thailand despite warnings over Tropical Storm Pabuk.”

The Evening Standard in the UK has come out punching with quotes from disgruntled British tourists venting their dismay about the apparent lack of information about the approaching storm.

In the wake of Pabuk, a media storm is brewing | News by The Thaiger

“The horrific storm has taken tourists by surprise and a lack of information has left some unsure how to remain safe.  It is bringing five-metre high waves to coastal areas along with powerful downpours, prompting evacuations from many locals and leaving one man dead so far.”

The article emerging today appears quite different from reality where the approaching storm was given a lot of media attention, locally and internationally. A few moments on your Facebook newsfeed or chatting to other travellers you would heard about Pabuk.

“Katie Preston, 23, and her partner Liam Bland, 29, are stranded on the island of Koh Phangan. They were allowed to take the last boat there before services were stopped due to fears over the storm.”

As a question of timing, if you arrived on an island just before the boats were forced to stay ashore, well, you’re stuck until further notice. This is when travel insurance comes into play. Neither the boat operators or the tourists could have been prepared for the order to stay ashore. It may have been ‘on the cards’ with the approaching storm but the timing was determined by the weather, not the officials.

In the Gulf of Thailand’s southern coastal areas the ban on boating activities was a good call with winds up to 80 kph whipping up seas to a reported 4-5 metres.

Along the Andaman coast the closure of Marine National Parks and the ban on boating activity was a precautionary measure with forecasters not sure exactly what the storm would do as it approached land. ‘Pabuk’ could have veered inland at any time. Different forecasters were publishing slightly different tracks for the storm. No one knew for sure.

On this, The Thaiger was using a US weather model which was mostly correct – a lot more accurate than some of the local weather models. Tropical storms often have a mind of their own and different models can come up with different predictions.

This was even more apparent on Saturday morning when local media were reporting the ‘eye’ of Pabuk sitting somewhere over Krabi! In fact the storm had scooted north of Krabi and was past the Phang Nga coast and heading west out to sea by Saturday morning. It was also a very weakened storm by the time it arrived on the Andaman Coast.

“The centre of tropical storm Pabuk is forecast to cross Phuket later today (Jan 5), after cross Ao Leuk in Krabi overnight.” (Their typo, not ours)

10 seconds on the local live weather radar would have shown that this was nonsense. The local weather radars were the most useful tool to locate the storm whilst it was near and crossing the southern Peninsula. Forget any forecasts, THERE is is, live.

In Phuket, it barely even rained.

With Andaman tourist locations like Krabi, Phi Phi, Phuket and Phang Nga dodging much of the angry weather, local tour operators are now crying foul about the precautionary banning of marine activities saying it’s cost them lost revenue with cancellations, and angry travellers stranded on islands waiting for the ban to be lifted.

The Government, together with local marine officials, took the correct action in curtailing the movement of tourists. They were damned if they applied the ban and damned if they didn’t.

What if Pabuk randomly started moving westward earlier than it did and bringing its high wind speeds across the Peninsula? With the ‘Phoenix’ marine disaster fresh in everyone’s memories, officials would have been keen to avoid more tragedy if the weather had turned bad in the Andaman region.

The ‘language’ used in the reporting was another problem with terms ‘storm’, ‘tropical storm’, ‘tropical depression’, ‘severe storm’, ‘typhoon’ and ‘cyclone’ all appearing in different media. As The Thaiger tried to clarify, Pabuk was never more than a Tropical Storm and definitely not a ‘typhoon’. But readers of some of these terms may not have been educated about their meanings and the differences of kilometers per hour, knots and miles per hour which were variously used to describe the storm as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand.

When tropical storm ‘Harriet’ hit the same coast back in 1962 it caused the death of 900 people. Improved infrastructure, emergency preparedness, much improved weather forecasting and some precautionary evacuations and banning of boat movements surely saved Thailand from, what could have been, a much more serious aftermath.

For the families and friends of the three people who lost their lives as a result of Pabuk, we extend our deepest condolences.

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