Over the past few years, government agencies have tried, with limited success, to convince worshippers to stop burning incense during Chinese New Year in Thailand.
The move was inspired by successful voluntary campaigns in Taiwan and Singapore, where most temples and shrines have voluntarily banned incense burning. However, similar campaigns in Thailand have not attracted much momentum except at a few shrines.
Among the several that have banned incense sticks are the renowned Erawan Shrine in Ratchaprasong starting in 2018 and Wat Mangkon Kamalawat (also known as Leng Noei Yi), which stopped their use during the Chinese New Year period last year.
It's still a reality in Thailand that incense burning continues in public temples, shrines, and homes despite the alarming rise of PM2.5.
On Chinese New Year's Eve in 2020, the measured level of PM2.5 at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat reached 180µg/m³ according to data from an air monitoring system during a ceremony when incense burning occurred. The government has set its permissible threshold for PM2.5 at 25 µg/m³.
On Thursday, the new director-general at the Pollution Control Department (PCD), Preeyaporn Suwanaged, warned about the "silent threat" of such toxic air to people's health and while environment minister Pol Gen Phatcharavat Wongsuwan urged worshippers at shrines and homes to use electric incense sticks instead.
It is not surprising that this attempt -- like other government campaigns that aim to reduce PM2.5 -- has failed to receive public support.
Part of the problem is that the PCD, the Ministry of Public Health and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration only conducted a piecemeal superficial campaign during the pollution season.
These organisations only warned people to stay indoors, wear face masks or buy air purifiers while attempting to solve the problem with band-aid measures such as using water spraying or artificial rain to combat the toxic dust.
While law enforcers are active in arresting a few small farmers for setting fires to clear forests, the government only gives lip service. It does not enforce a ban on farm companies that purchase maize and other farm produce that involve open burning.
Officials rarely arrest factory owners for causing air pollution -- let alone measure PM2.5 from this sector.
There are no serious and continual public campaigns to change people's behaviour. For example, despite electric joss sticks being sold in the market, there are no big public campaigns to encourage people to use them more.
Indeed, the government should look at Taiwan as an example. In 2016, the Taiwanese government tried to ban the burning of incense in public shrines. Some monks and worshippers obstructed the attempt. The government then spent a few years campaigning to educate people about the health effects of incense on small children while partnering with major temples to end incense burning voluntarily.
The cases of Taiwan and Singapore using powerful public education campaigns to end the use of incense voluntarily are examples for the Thai government and responsible agencies to follow.
For the haze issue more broadly, only giving warnings and using band-aid measures such as ordering people to work from home or wear face masks are not a smart or efficient way to deal with such a threat to the public's health.