Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fire Proves Thai Disaster Response Capabilities in Tourist Region Still Woefully Inadequate

Thai News Asia reports on the Phi Phi Island fire:
Police organised crowd control and contacted Krabi authorities and the Royal Thai Navy to send a helicopter to assist in the operation.
The fact is that the Royal Thai Navy did absolutely nothing significant by way of assisting with the fire-fighting operation. The Royal Thai Navy helicopter just flew around a few times -- showing up a full four hours after the fire broke out. I later assumed the helicopter had been responsible for delivering the Governor of Krabi Province to the island so he could make a statement (as reported in this post).

But when that Royal Thai Navy helecopter first appeared in the sky, hundreds of firefighters cheered and waved: help had arrived! Or so we imagined.

The second time helicopter passed by -- about half an hour later -- the cheers from the bucket brigade were mixed with jeers and sarcastic remarks. Tourist-fire fighters on the front line were risking their lives to put out a massive fire amidst collapsing walls. What had this helicopter done to help the situation since it flew by the first time? That was the question. As I was bucketing water, a British woman -- a tourist-firefighter -- said to me:

"Why can't they drop some water on the fire?"

"Good question," I replied.

Two years after the tsunami, the recent Phi Phi Island fire demonstrates that the Thai Royal Navy remains ill-equiped to help in the event a disaster strikes this heavily-touristed island. Also, it glaringly highlighted the equally appalling fact that the popular island of Phi Phi still lacks any formal disaster response organization or fire fighting squad whatsoever.

This situation is deplorable, especially in view of 1) the massive influx of aid monies Thailand received from the interational community, post tsunami; 2) the fact that hundreds of thousands of international tourists continue to support the region economically.

It is not only possible, but quite probable that the vital Phuket-Krabi tourism region of Thailand will experience disaster again in the near future. Of particular concern is the region's proximity to the violent provinces of Southern Thailand, where insurgents have waged a two-year long campaign of bombings and murders. Many informed foreign observers of Thailand strongly suspect that Southern Insurgents were responsible for the bombings in Bangkok on New Years Eve. And the Phuket-Krabi tourist region is every bit as viable a terrorist target as Bangkok -- perhaps more so. Given the deteriorating situation in the South of Thailand and the recent Bangkok bombings, it would be no small miracle if the Phuket-Krabi region were spared terrorist attack. It is incumbent upon Bangkok to establish rapid disaster-response capabilities within this key economic region.

An angry Phi Phi business owner informs me that that Phi Phi businesses pay what she considers "high taxes": well over 300 baht per square meter per year. Also businesses must pay a separate "sign" tax.

"What do we get for our taxes?" she asked.

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