Lack of democracy and neoliberalism: root causes of Songkran road deaths

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Every year during the Thai Songkran holiday hundreds of people are killed and many more are injured in road accidents. In fact road accidents are one of the top causes of premature deaths in Thai society.

The elites and dictators who own and control society, like to blame the victims for “reckless and drunk driving”. When they are not frothing at the mouth about sexual activities and loose morals during the festival, these elites and dictators try to act tough and promise a crack-down on bad driving. But just as their comments on sexual morals are hypocritical, often made by the very people who benefit from the sexual exploitation of young girls, their statements about reducing accidents hardly scratch the surface of the problem.

The reasons for these appalling levels of road deaths is the poor state of affordable and safe public transport, the poor state of roads, the high levels of inequality and the long working hours suffered by Thai workers. This is a problem under the present military dictatorship and it was a problem under Abhist, Yingluk and Taksin.

The vast majority of those killed on the roads at Songkran are poor working people, especially those who are forced to use motorbikes rather than cars. Motor bike accidents form the majority of fatalities.

Rail networks in Thailand are extremely under-funded. The railways are slow and desperately need up-grading. But attempts by the Yingluk government to start this much needed development were struck down by an unholy alliance of backward, unelected judges and Sutep’s anti-democratic middle class mobs. Of course, the neoliberals at the Thailand Development Research Institute, who work hand in glove with the military and the anti-democrats, are totally against public spending on modern and affordable railways. They favour private investment for profit which has been proven to increase ticket prices, reduce safety standards and fail to provide a service to the majority of citizens who are poor. So the junta’s talk of a joint venture with the despotic Chinese regime is about goods traffic for profit.

A publically funded modern high-speed and cheap railway service for citizens would not only reduce the unacceptable toll of road deaths and injuries, but it would also help to save energy and reduce global warming.

Proper public funding for road maintenance and tight regulation of long distance buses is also desperately needed to augment the railways.

Wages for the majority of working people are far too low for them to afford any luxurious extras like cars, which are much safer than motor bikes. This is merely stating a fact that links inequality to safety. But I am not advocating building a “car culture”. Public transport must be the answer.

The majority of ordinary working people work very long hours in Thailand, often having to work Saturdays, and enjoying few days of annual leave. This means that the actual days off during Songkran become a premium to be enjoyed to the full. People often travel all night and then spend the precious few days left in “full-on” drinking and having fun. This does not bode well for safety on the roads or anywhere else. Working hours need to be reduced and wages raised. That requires a much more militant and political trade union movement and it requires reducing the power and influence of the elites, the business leaders and the military. In other words, a thorough, root and branch expansion of the democratic space is required. The first step towards this is to organise to over throw the military junta and to build political representation of the working class.

For years conservative or military-backed governments have ignored investment in social infrastructure, whether it be health care, transport, housing or education. The first coup against Taksin in 2006 was partly prompted by the elite’s distaste for a modernising government.

Where would we get the money for state investment in public transport? There is the money for real investment, but to use it for the right purposes, the military budget must be slashed, the millions wasted on the unproductive royals should be redirected and the rich must be taxed at a “super” rate with no exceptions.

Apart from the appalling road carnage at Songkran, this year’s festival is also the 5th anniversary of the start of the brutal military crack-down against unarmed red shirts. Songkran is a water festival where people enjoy splashing each other. But the military and the elites have drowned Songkran in blood, in more ways than one.