Phuket boat tragedy shows our indifference
Forty-two is the latest number of tourists who fell victims to a boat mishap in Phuket last week. Or should I say, to be more exact, that they were victims of negligence, sheer dereliction of duty of the authorities concerned and of a "This Is Thailand" culture?
As this column went to print yesterday, 14 tourists on board the Phoenix are still missing as the search goes on. The doomed boat which was carrying 105 people, including tourists, crew and guides, sank about seven nautical miles from Ao Chalong pier in Muang district following a freak storm on July 5.
Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
It's apparent that this tragic news has been overshadowed by the cave rescue operation. Yet I don't think we should let it slip from public scrutiny. I want to bring the matter to public attention despite cries that it will affect the image of the country and tourism because it involved a high number of tourists, all of them foreigners. I think this loss could have been prevented if only someone cared, and this makes me sadder than any economic knock-on effect.
Like many of those who followed this news, the immediate question that came to my mind when learning of the capsize was: why didn't the boat operator cancel the trip? Actually, there were two other vessels that also made the journey -- they were just luckier.
In an interview with the media, Phuket governor Norapat Plodthong insisted a warning was issued about weather conditions that day.
This information has been confirmed by deputy tourist police chief Surachate Hakparn who blamed the boat's crew for "failing to heed a weather alert". Police have pressed criminal charges against the captain for recklessness causing deaths.
Can boat operators really afford not to adhere to weather alerts as they embark on such perilous trips as if it's business as usual?
Of course, things would have been different had the boat operator cancelled the trip. The cost in lives might also have been less if the operator had provided for the right kind of life jackets, and if the tourists had been shown how to use them properly. Some experts said the kind of life jackets on board -- which may work well for a diving trip -- didn't help much in such angry seas as they tend to slip from the users' body too easily. This fact is new to me and many others, but comes too late for those unlucky tourists.
Many may blame the boat operator's greed, as cancelling such trips would mean a loss of income; some think the crew may just have wanted to please their customers, most of whom were in Thailand for a short visit and may have been upset to miss the excursion on account of the weather. But whatever the reason, the July 5 mishap demonstrates a failure on the part of authorities who allowed reckless people to toy with people's lives. And in the blink of an eye, a happy holiday turned into a nightmare.
In fact, we are more than familiar with this kind of unnecessary loss. Remember the overloaded passenger boat that sank in the Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya, killing 28 in September 2016? The victims were pilgrims who scrambled on board after a temple service, not realising that their number was beyond the boat's capacity.
That news also caused concern which too soon faded from the public arena, another flash in the pan of concern for safety. After the usual outpouring of concern, promises to improve standards failed to materialise.
Last week, a PostBag writer complained about a Bangkok express boat carrying too many commuters, perhaps three or four times its capacity.
Is this issue new? Not at all. It has been discussed in this column quite a few times before, but the letter writer's complaint suggests that nothing has changed. I once interviewed a marine officer who conceded that the problem exists and his agency, the authorised body, had no plan to rectify it.
I dare not think how many more "unnecessary losses" we will have to endure if this "disaster waiting to happen" culture continues to be met only with shrugs of indifference from those given the responsibility of fixing it.
As I said, this only makes me sadder.
Former editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.