Sat, Apr 09, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Alcohol-free safety zones set up for Thai New Year

AP, BANGKOK

Sixty alcohol-free “safety areas” will be designated nationwide during Thailand’s traditional New Year celebrations to decrease violence and sexual assaults that result from drunken revelry, health authorities said yesterday.

Inside the pedestrian-only zones, alcohol cannot be sold, carried or consumed. They will be set up across 44 provinces during the New Year holiday that runs from Wednesday next week to Sunday, Visanu Srithawongse of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation said.

Drunken revelry will still be permitted in Bangkok’s popular party zones, but in some provinces the safe areas will apply to central celebration districts and CCTV cameras and volunteers will help scan the crowd for violators, Visanu said. His organization is working with local authorities.

The Thai New Year, known as Songkran, is the deadliest driving season of the year. In recent years, the government has stepped up campaigns urging people not to drink and drive. During last year’s holiday, there were 3,516 road accidents in which 361 people died, the lowest death toll in years.

Modern celebrations have evolved from a custom meant to guarantee ample water for the next season’s crops. Traditionally, young people pour scented water over their elders’ hands as a mark of respect and receive their blessings.

Songkran is now also marked by raucous water fights in which revelers roam the streets with giant water guns and pack into pickup trucks to dump water on other motorists.

“Songkran has become a dangerous festival,” Visanu said. “Apart from causalities from road accidents, the revelers’ behavior has become more aggressive. There has been sexual harassment and fighting and alcohol is a major cause of these problems.”

The creation of Songkran safe zones first started in 2005 and has gradually expanded to more areas, Visanu said. In northeastern Khon Kaen, girls and women lodged 200 reports of sexual attacks five years ago and only two last year in the city’s main celebration district.

In Chiang Mai, 2,000 youth volunteers will monitor the areas around the city’s main canal, where revelers congregate, with the help of a special Facebook page. Pictures of people selling or consuming alcohol will be posted on the page to tip off police.

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