Daily Archives: April 6, 2009

Songkran and Alcohol Do Not Mix

Poster in Thai Temple says No selling and Drinking of Alcohol

With the Songkran holidays just around the corner, the government and the Thai people have been debating again about whether to ban the sale of alcohol. We go through this every year. The reason is that so many people die in road accidents during the traditional Thai new year holidays. This is mainly attributed to alcohol and drunk driving. Thai people like to drink during holidays and family reunions and couple this with so many cars on the roads at the start and end of this holiday, it is a recipe for disaster. Drinking is really only one side of the problem. Irresponsible driving and a lack of law enforcement is what I think they should concentrate on.

Thailand prides itself as a good Buddhist nation where alcohol consumption is seen as an evil sin. This is of course goes contrary to what actually happens here. For years the Thai government have been trying to tackle the problem. But, from what I have seen, they have been going about it the wrong way. At the moment we have alcohol sale bans during Buddhist holidays and local and national elections. We also have this strange law that forbids the sale of alcohol between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. What most people find peculiar about this, apart from the inconvenience, is that there is a side note that it is alright to buy wholesale. So, you cannot buy a bottle of beer but it is alright to buy a box of beer.

The government recently proposed two choices for the Songkran period. Either completely ban the sale of alcohol or limit it to licensed restaurants, pubs and hotel for sale between 6 p.m. and midnight. You would think that it would have to be a very brave government who banned alcohol like that. At the moment, the country is politically divided and something like this could potentially be the last nail in their coffin. However, recent opinion polls suggest a different picture. An amazing 84.6% of the people polled agreed that alcohol was a major cause of Songkran road accidents. We all know that in alcoholism, the first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem.

What I found most surprising about this poll is that a staggering 68.5% agreed that alcohol should be banned over the Songkran period. This seemed to be a more popular option compared to limiting hours of buying and limiting venues which only got 12.1% an 8.5% respectively. What is not surprising is that 77.8% of respondents said that the government’s decision on alcohol sales during Songkran would be influenced by business groups. Which could be true. Newspapers have reported that Sanan Kachornprasart, the chairman of the National Committee for Alcohol Consumption Control, likes to drink while on duty. He is often seen with a glass of wine and in fact, his family owns business interests in a winery.

In the end, the government was weak and decided not to do anything. They gave excuses that it would hurt the already weak economy and would damage further the tourism industry. So, in the end, money won over the lives of Thai people. However, I think they made the right decision in the end. Anyone who has lived here for a while knows that bans like this one don’t really work. There are always ways around it. Even though you cannot buy beer or whiskey in places like 7-Eleven and Tesco Lotus, you can always go to the small mom and pop stores that will sell alcohol to you at any time. Then of course, you could always just stock up in advance if you knew there was going to be a ban.

If there was a ban during Songkran then the main losers, apart from the grieving families of the casualties, are the foreign tourists. Even though we know where to buy alcohol at any time or which bars that sell drinks outside allowed times, the visiting tourists don’t know any of this. They have come here on a holiday and many of them look forward to a cold beer to drink with their meal. Many of them also want to visit pubs and nightclubs in the evenings to relax. For tourists away from home, the nights can be lonely. Would it be fair to them to deny them at least this one small pleasure? After all, hardly any of them would be getting behind a wheel and driving home drunk.

Someone actually suggested that they should allow alcohol sales only to foreigners if there is going to be a ban. After all, this is what happens in places like Pakistan where alcohol is prohibited. If you can show a permit that says that you are not a Muslim then you can buy bottles of beer. Maybe we could try that here. I don’t think it is discrimination against Thai people. It also won’t be that difficult to enforce. After all, there is already mechanism in place to differentiate between Thai people and the foreigners. If you are a “farang” then they will charge you 500% more when you queue up to buy admission tickets for tourist attractions. So, easy to do at 7-Eleven too and only sell beer to the “farang”.

Joking aside, there is a serious problem here which does need to be tackled. But, like they found out during the Prohibition in America, just banning alcohol sales doesn’t work. It will just drive everything underground and the sales of illicit alcohol would increase greatly. After all, most people in the countryside already buy cheap illicit alcohol rather than the nationally recognized brand names. What I believe they should do is a public awareness campaign of the dangers of drunk driving. It should start in the schools and not run just during the holiday periods. It needs to be year long and sustained over a number of years. Change is possible but it takes time.

Our second problem is the lack of law enforcement on the roads. When I visited Australia I was stopped by police three times at random checkpoints for a breathalyzer test. In Thailand this has never happened to me even though they do sometimes set-up checkpoints. If you have ever watched the American show Cops you will see the police often pulling over cars that are driving erratically. Again, this doesn’t happen in Thailand as there are hardly any police cars on the roads. In fact, the few cars that they have don’t actually belong to them as they are rented. Even if you do get caught by the police, the punishment doesn’t seem to be severe. And if you have money, you can easily bribe your way out of it. Someone I know did this recently.

I am hoping that during the upcoming holidays that the police will be more visible on the roads with patrols in cars and random checkpoints. I would also like to see breathalyzers being used more. Even if this just takes one drunk driver off the road and saves the life of one person, then it would be a success. Although there are other causes of road accidents, alcohol is the main problem. During a recent interview, an emergency worker said that on nights where there were alcohol bans it is actually very quiet. So, maybe a ban during Songkran would help. At least it would raise public awareness of drunk driving. For myself, I try to stay off the roads during Songkran. I do not do any long distance driving and just stay at home during the holidays. The roads in Thailand at this time of year are just too dangerous. Last year more than 400 were killed and in some years much more than that have died on the roads during Songkran.