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Comment: Who’s responsible for the sinking of ‘Phoenix’?

Tim Newton

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Comment: Who’s responsible for the sinking of ‘Phoenix’? | The Thaiger

(6 minute read)

Who’s responsible for the ‘Phoenix’ boat disaster, the worst maritime disaster in Thailand since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004?

Whilst events of the fateful evening on July 5 remain under investigation, awaiting a full court hearing down the track, there are some things which are very easy to pinpoint along the faltering chain of command.

In Greek mythology the ‘Phoenix’ rose from the ashes. In this case the ‘Phoenix’ boat faltered and sank like a stone.

On the night of July 5, from anecdotal evidence of passengers who survived the boat’s sinking and videos taken at the time, it appears that there were many passengers still in the lower decks of the boat, some of them in compartments from which they never escaped. Many weren’t wearing any sort of bouncy aid at the time, let alone a proper fit-for-purpose life jacket. Many others, as can be seen in the videos, were wearing simple ’bouyancy aids’.

The Thai captain and crew of the vessel escaped on the boat’s two life rafts, unharmed, leaving many people still downstairs as the boat began to sink.

From the videos we’ve seen it was chaos and panic – most, if not all, of the Chinese passengers could hardly swim, let alone survive in the rough seas many of them fell into.

Disturbingly, there were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents. If they were wearing proper life jackets they, along with their parents, would have had a much higher chance of survival.

The tour boats that ply Phuket’s waters, to the islands and around Phang Nga Bay, usually require their guests to wear basic buoyancy aids. These have floatation around the vest giving, as the name suggests, a basic aid to the floatation of the wearer – an aid for swimming, not much else. They are quite different from a life jacket that has almost all its floating capacity supporting the neck and in the front of the wearer. This forces the wearer onto their back and keeps the head above the water.

A fully-inflated life jacket can be quite cumbersome when walking around a boat so most of the newer versions, like on planes, automatically inflate when you hit the water, have a rip chord to inflate manually or can be simply blown up or ‘topped up’ with a tube. They also have a whistle attached to attract attention, something none of the vests, worn by passengers on ‘Phoenix’, had.

The basic rule, while at sea, is that the captain is in charge. If he or she says put your life jackets on, you do. They are in control of the vessel. The captain of ‘Phoenix’, currently in custody (along with the Thai ‘owner’ of the vessel), claims that the waves were 4-5 metres high. Even if that emerges to be an exaggeration, as some claim, the boat was of a length (29 metres) and size that should be able to cope with those conditions. Seafarers know that, in most storms, you would continue head to wind, straight towards the waves, at a low speed – uncomfortable for passengers but totally survivable by a boat the size of ‘Phoenix’. That’s assuming that the design was such that it had sufficient weight low-down and wasn’t top-heavy, making the design more inclined to capsize. The courts will decide on that fact when the full evidence is presented to the presiding judge.

But the events on the actual day appear to be the thin end of the wedge with a litany of systemic negligence leading up to July 5.

Who ticked off on the design of ‘Phoenix’ – that the boat would be suitable for carrying up to 100 passengers and crew, safely? Who checked the construction of the boat as it was being built, and then when it was completed and launched to ensure that all the requirements of the engine, construction, engineering, equipment and safety equipment were met? Who was responsible for the qualifications of the Captain and crew and their fitness to handle a vessel of this size with up to 100 passengers? What safety training did the crew receive to handle an emergency? And who ticked off on their certification of ‘Phoenix’ – the final paperwork allowing to operate at sea as a tour boat?

For the company that owned ‘Phoenix’ – allegedly a Thai shelf company with a Thai nominee holding the majority shares but actually being controlled by Chinese citizens – who was checking the bonfides of the company structure? There’s little use accusing the Chinese money trail behind the company when there are laws in place preventing this type of thing from happening. Which accountant signed off on these company documents?

And who decided that the vessel should go to sea on that day when warnings had been issued? Or at least seen the storm approaching on their radars and sought shelter (as many other boats did on the day).

As the yacht was constructed in Phuket, the answer to all these questions is Thai officials and professionals – officials that were allegedly qualified and authorised to tick off on all these standard compliances. Apart from the head of the local Marine Department being ‘side-lined’ pending further enquiry, we haven’t yet heard much about the designer, the engineers, the safety inspectors or training regimens of the tour boat crew. Or who missed the company documents.

And then, sitting above these people, with the final responsiblity, is the island’s Governor.

Phuket Governor Noraphat Plodthong has fronted most of the media briefings where the latest bad news in the boat tragedy has been presented to the local media. He’s also been the face of Phuket with the sad task of having to meet with survivors and relatives and listen to the concerns from the Chinese Ambassador to Thailand.

The Thaiger’s main reporter says that very few questions were asked by journalists at those media presentations, beyond the current situation and the rising numbers of dead Chinese found floating around the Andaman Sea. But questions as to people’s responsibility in the sinking were rarely raised.

Whilst the blame game will continue, and Phuket’s Provincial Court eventually convenes to hear all the evidence, it is quite apparent that it is a long, long period of non-compliance to standing maritime laws, blind-eyes being turned (for reasons we hope emerge in the hearings), correct procedures not being put in place and a somewhat ‘sabai sabai’ attitude to the entire issue of marine safety beyond a few media releases and photo opportunities.

Finally, there’s the role of the media in all this. When tragedies have occurred in the past the media seem more interested in getting a photo of the line-up of dignitaries than following up the nitty-gritty of the incident. The investigative reporting that may may reveal some of the systemic failures, and courageous owners who would publish these stories, never happened.

For the foreign media in Phuket this is a complicated issue as we’re ‘guests’ working here and are generally told not to ’step on toes’ in our reporting of local news lest we find problems arising in our Work Permits or Applications for visas. And, in some cases, those who have risen to the challenge and published damaging news about Thai ofiicials, are now no longer working in their capacity as publishers of news in Thailand.

The full investigation is yet to wrap up but some of the key people are now in custody, insurance companies are making payments and the Chinese families have either buried the 47 passengers that died or repatriated their bodies for arrangements back in China.

If not for the huge amount of attention on the Tham Luang cave story in Chang Rai, by any standards, the sinking of the ‘Phoenix’ and the deaths, including 13 children, of 47 Chinese citizens should have made lead-story headlines. It didn’t, except in local media. In some ways Phuket dodged a media bullet.

The fallout of this tragedy – in terms of Chinese tourism to the island and the findings of court cases in relation to this matter – will be more apparent in time. But if just a few of the many, many mistakes that were made along the way could have been prevented there is a strong chance the 47 tourists would still be alive.



Read more headlines, reports & breaking news in Phuket. Or catch up on your Thailand news.

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,900 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 360 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and is now CEO and writer for The Thaiger - Website, Radio, TV, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He presented for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and provides stories for Feature Story News as the south east Asian correspondent.

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Opinion

Thai businesses locked out of potential $237.2 million medical cannabis market 

The Thaiger & The Nation

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Thai businesses locked out of potential $237.2 million medical cannabis market  | The Thaiger

by Daragh Anglim

Thailand is emerging as a frontrunner in the nascent Asian cannabis market. With 175 clinicians now qualified to prescribe cannabis-based medicines in the country, Thailand is at the cusp of a major breakthrough in realising the commercial and societal benefits of medical cannabis.

The Asian Cannabis Report published in May by leading market analysts and advisors Prohibition Partners, forecasts that the Thai cannabis market will be worth US$237.2 million by 2024 should medical access open up. 

In February, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) took the landmark decision to approve the use of cannabis for research and medical purposes. This cemented Thailand’s position at the vanguard of medicinal cannabis in Southeast Asia, as the first country in the region to use cannabis to treat Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, drug-resistant epilepsy and pain and nausea in cancer patients.

The NLA’s decision will theoretically allow medical practitioners to prescribe cannabis-based treatments to people living with a range of chronic and debilitating conditions. 

Currently, there are only two officially sanctioned plantations in Thailand which are permitted to grow a strain of cannabis that is low in psychoactive compounds – less than 1% THC – to supply hospitals or government research institutes. All medical cannabis must be grown indoors to prevent illegal trade and ensure quality. 

While the Thai government is still tightly controlling the production and supply of the market, foreign companies such as GW Pharmaceuticals and Otsuka Pharmaceutical are alert to developments and have begun to file patent requests. The Thai Department of Intellectual Property has denied requests from the British and Japanese companies. Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong recognised that cannabis ‘is Thailand’s future cash crop’ and hard-working domestic businesses will naturally be concerned that if future patents are granted, international parties will get a head-start and dominate the potentially lucrative market. 

In order for Thai businesses to reap the rewards medical cannabis can bring, legislation needs to be clarified. Right now, all eyes will be on regulations due to be published next month. It is believed that these will establish licensing and prescribing criteria for medical practitioners, but it is yet to be seen whether Thai farmers and businesses can expect the same clarity around domestic cultivation.

Whether in Oceania, Europe or North America, the evidence is unquestionable; citizens and governments across the globe are rapidly waking up to the potential of developing medical cannabis markets, and, provided legislation keeps apace, Thailand is well placed to lead the pack in Asia.

Daragh Anglim is Managing Director of Prohibition Partners, leading market analysts and advisors for the emerging cannabis industry. 

• The view expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Thaiger or its staff. The article is published to enhance the understanding of the issues related to partial legalisation of medical cannabis in Thailand.

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Opinion

OPINION: The Phoenix shouldn’t be auctioned off today

Tim Newton

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OPINION: The Phoenix shouldn’t be auctioned off today | The Thaiger

The Phoenix is going up for auction today. The auction is being held by Thailand’s AMLO (Anti Money Laundering Office) as the investigation is now complete and the vessel is no longer needed for evidence. Interested bidders have been able to inspect the vessel as it sits at the Rattanachai Shipyard in Phuket.

The Phoenix is the boat that sank last July in a sudden storm that hit the area south of Phuket. The boat capsized and sank. The Captain and crew were some of the first people to get into the life rafts. Many Chinese passengers were stuck downstairs and drowned when the boat sank to the bottom of the Andaman Sea.

But, with a starting price of 900,000 baht, it may sound like a steal if you’re wanting a second hand tour boat which, new, would have cost millions of baht to build.

You would hope that the simple business process of today’s auction will start with some mention of the 47 souls that succumbed to the poor design, poor duty of care and poor application of marine laws and inspections that caused the boat to sink in the first place.

But we suspect that nothing of that sad tale will even be mentioned. Just 10 months following the incident, today’s auction is far too soon. But the boatyard is likely charging ongoing hard-stand fees and that would be the main driver to get rid of the boat.

Let’s remember the AMLO are auctioning a boat not fit for purpose. The design of the vessel has already been partially responsible for the death of 47 Chinese tourists whose only mistake was to trust Thai authorities and the boat’s operators that Phoenix was seaworthy and safe to take them on a day tour.

Last December, the Thai Immigration Bureau Chief, Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn (at the time), deemed the Phoenix a floating disaster, waiting to happen.

“This boat only has one watertight door. It should have four watertight doors. Glass should be a marine glass grade. In this boat passengers couldn’t break the glass to escape. Also, a converted truck engine had been used instead of proper marine-grade engine.”

“Cement blocks were used to help balance the boat and keep it upright. Experts analysis has matched the actual vessel with the original plans and design of the boat.”

OPINION: The Phoenix shouldn't be auctioned off today | News by The Thaiger

Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn, leading the investigation of the Phoenix sinking

Whatever the buyer of the second hand tour boat thinks they’re buying there will have to be fundamental changes to parts of the design and engineering of the vessel to make it capable of carrying paying passengers ever again.

In the original myth, the phoenix was a bird that lived for 500 years before it built its own funeral pyre, burst into flame, and died, consumed in its own fiery inferno. Soon after, the mythical creature rose out of the ashes, in a transformation from death to life. This story of becoming ‘born again’ predates the story of the well-worn phrase “phoenix rising from the ashes”.

And here it is, about to rise again, most likely picked up by another tour boat company in the region, re-sprayed, re-named (usually considered bad luck for a boat) and pressed into service again as a money-making venture.

The new owners will need to disguise the boat’s tragic history well as very few Asian customers would ever step foot on a boat with so many unhappy ghosts inhabiting it.

The auction is far too soon and doesn’t accompany any recognition of the tragedy or the destructions of lives and families that must never be forgotten.

OPINION: The Phoenix shouldn't be auctioned off today | News by The Thaiger

Phoenix in happier days as a Chinese tour boat work-horse

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Bangkok

OPINION: A sad, but inevitable, farewell to The Nation daily

Tim Newton

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OPINION: A sad, but inevitable, farewell to The Nation daily | The Thaiger

Sad news yesterday when The Nation announced it was going to stop the daily publishing of its newspaper. After 48 years, The Nation Multimedia Group is shutting up shop on its daily newspaper.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected and is a decision that every newspaper has either already made, is constantly reviewing or will have to make in the future, probably soon. The Nation Multimedia Group’s CEO maintained that there would be no reductions in editorial staff. When these announcements are made there is always promises of a rosy online future and no reductions in staff. In reality there has to be a reduction in staff to make the transition from paper to online fiscally possible.

For The Nation it was somewhat of a perfect storm of problems that precipitated yesterday’s announcement to go online-only.

Thailand’s expat and english-speaking demographic is changing. The numbers of English-speaking expats is dropping (not a lot) but the numbers of non English-speaking expats is growing. The same is reflected in the tourist mix passing through the Kingdom these days. It’s just an evolutionary transition that’s also reflected in the nationalities buying property in Thailand.

A hard core of expats, some of The Nation’s devout readers, are also finding it increasingly difficult to stay in Thailand. Take a long-term British expat for example, living happily on their UK pension and spending long days by the beach. With the British pound plunging against the Thai baht the real cost of living has gone up, a lot, for many of these long-termers. Then add the steadily rising costs of living in Thailand and new requirements for long-stay visas and the long days at the beach are getting more expensive and more complex.

OPINION: A sad, but inevitable, farewell to The Nation daily | News by The Thaiger

Then

The expat mix is also getting a lot younger. You guessed it, younger people are more inclined to read their news and seek information online.

Finally, the advertising revenue for newspapers is getting very thin on the ground. Newspaper advertising is expensive, non-intuitive and certainly not ‘real time’ as demanded by both readers and advertisers. Why would any sane business owner place an ad in their newspaper when, for a fraction of the cost, they can directly target THEIR buyers with an online ad. AND it’s totally measurable.

Just current economic conditions – a strong baht, falling exports and political uncertainty – are eating into business advertising spend and confidence as well.

There’s also a lot more choice for advertisers these days as the revenue creeps away from the old triumvirate of press, radio and TV. At the same time online platform traffic soars in numbers and new platforms and innovations get added every day.

OPINION: A sad, but inevitable, farewell to The Nation daily | News by The Thaiger

Now

The Nation’s daily paper is just another victim of the relentless technological march.

The people (me included) who used to make it a daily habit to trawl through the pages of the dailies are getting older, moving across to the online platforms, or simply dying or leaving Thailand. At the same time a few thousand smartphones will be bought today bringing almost instantaneous news to their screens, along with hundreds of choices of media, opinions, formats and, yes, advertisements.

The sight of people travelling on public transport, or walking around, heads buried in their screens is scary to us ‘old-timers’. But the smartphone, and to a lesser extent tablets, laptops and desktops, is where people will increasingly source just about everything they need to know. They will ‘choose’ what they want to read, not some editor’s view of the world or slanted choices of news to publish.

It’s a sad day when any venerable banner, like The Nation, has to cease publishing but we, the consumers, have determined their fate, and the fate of the remaining newspapers in Thailand, by making the move online. The publishers are adjusting to the new technology as well and following the new money-trail.

The Nation will publish its last daily newspaper on June 28.

The Thaiger has an editorial partnership with the Nation Multimedia Group.

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