Bangkok’s troubles and an overreaction from the Foreign Office

Evergreen, Opinion, Thailand / Monday, May 3rd, 2010



I’m glad I’m not the only one criticising the UK Foreign Office’s current travel advice for Thailand. This short and sweet blog post from Adrian Michaels at the Telegraph pretty much sums up what I’ve been saying for the last few days; that their change of travel guidance to advise against ‘all but essential travel’ to the whole of Thailand is truly ridiculous.

No-one is going to dispute that the Foreign Office has a very important role to play in keeping travellers of all backgrounds – tourists, backpackers, expats, businesspeople – up to date of developments in the safety and security situation in countries around the world that we might be planning to visit. In an age where travel is so much more independent than ever before – where travel agents and tour companies are ever more eschewed in favour of flight comparison web sites and online guidebooks and forums (and it’s a wonderful thing) – government-issued travel advice, which at the very least claims to be devised without undue thought for the political repercussions of whatever guidance might be issued, has become a sort of parent figure, a bit of sage old wisdom that should help leave the final decision about a trip up to the traveller themselves. As we’ve seen so clearly in the unfolding of events of the last few days surrounding Thailand’s troubles, it also provides a solid basis for travel insurers to back out of covering their customers, when they’re deemed to have taken too much risk in making a trip.

But something pretty big seems to be amiss in the case of the current advice for Thailand. For months, years even, there have been strong recommendations against travel to the far south of the country, and rather more recently to the area around the Cambodian border in the north-east. Advice for both these regions is easily understandably, and you’d struggle to find someone who would disagree with its basis. The south is hugely unstable thanks to unrest between Muslim separatists and the Thai state, with frequent deadly attacks, bombings, beheadings – not the sort of place you want to be hanging around. The problems with the Cambodian border, meanwhile, stem from a long-running dispute over a temple claimed by both countries; Cambodia was awarded it by an international court in 1962, but it was a decision only very grudgingly accepted by the Thai government and still barely recognised, and certainly hugely resented, by the strongest-feeling of Thailand’s nationalists. The area sees sporadic outbreaks of violence between the two countries’ soldiers, who face each other off pretty much non-stop on either side of the demarcation.

In both these cases, the most sensible approach seems to be to advise against travel to these particular areas, and that’s what the Foreign Office has done. Never have they seen fit to extend the advice to the whole country, and nor ought they have – save for unrelated incidents, the rest of the country has remained stable, safe and welcoming to foreigners throughout the problems in these parts.

Why, then, does the British government now recommend we avoid Thailand altogether? The background to the situation of course stretches back to 2006 – and further. In September of that year, the Thai army launched the latest in one of the nation’s many coups – bloodless, ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was away at a UN conference in New York, amidst allegations of the corruption of his administration. After a year’s direct rule by the army under martial law, polls re-elected those allied to Shinawatra, and two successive administrations sympathetic to his politics were brought down – one on the seemingly trivial charge that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, a celebrity chef prior to taking office, had appeared in a paid capacity on a TV programme, something disallowed under Thai law. All of this alongside massive protests from the ‘yellow-shirted’ People’s Alliance for Democracy, opposed to Shinawatra and his successors, which shut down both of Bangkok’s international airports for eight days and brought the country’s tourist industry to a standstill.

Helped on by some allegiance-shifting of elected members of parliament, a new administration favoured by those yellow shirts was able to form, and problems have only escalated from there. Those loyal to the former government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who are drawn largely from the rural poor and the urban working classes and dress themselves in contrasting red shirts, see this government as unelected and illegitimate and in turn want its downfall. Protests by these red shirts have flared every so often, last visibly manifesting themselves, before the current crisis, back in April last year – two people died in those protests, with many injured. Buses were being burned out on the street. But the British government didn’t see fit then to issue strong travel advice, and for good reason – Bangkok was safe before and after the flash point of the trouble. I was in Thailand at the time and took a taxi from central Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi airport to catch a domestic flight to Chiang Mai, as red shirts lined the streets to the airport and set up a few road blocks. Sure, traffic was heavier than usual – and, having woken up late and not factored the protests into our thinking, we weren’t far from missing our flight – but nothing worse. Equally, in Chiang Mai, despite strong wording to the contrary in British and international media (and the Foreign Office web site), I witnessed no violence or even so much as a protest.

The point is that deaths in Bangkok and supposed protests elsewhere in the country did not lead the Foreign Office to declare any such sort of general adverse travel guidance at that time – so why should it now? Certainly the situation in Bangkok itself is more grave this time – instead of two deaths, we are talking about fatalities in the high twenties – and video of the scenes from 10th April, of grenades, of gun battles on backpacker haven Khaosan Road, mean it’s hard to argue with a travel warning about Bangkok itself.

But general guidance? If you believe the hype (and it depends on where you look) there have also been sporadic outbreaks in other parts of the country – Chiang Mai again, Pattaya, Chiang Rai and Ayutthaya. It’s still hard to believe, though, that the atmosphere in any of these places is half as dangerous as that in Bangkok – or indeed dangerous at all. Three and a half weeks back, I was still in Thailand, five hours’ minibus ride from Bangkok in Sangkhlaburi, way up west near the Burmese border. Here there were no problems, as you would expect – nor in nearby (and far more mainstream touristy) Kanchanaburi, nor for that matter in any other town, city or whole province I passed on my way there and back from Bangkok. Even Bangkok itself, though there were visible protests on the street, was calm – my taxi driver pointed them out on my arrival, still mildly amused by the situation; if he was upset or annoyed by anything, it was simply the extra traffic. On the way back too, even though there was by this time a state of emergency declared, ridiculous traffic and an even huger police presence on the streets than the week before, it felt safe – I was only overnighting, and spent the evening in and around Khaosan, but I walked a fair way to a cab at 4am the next morning and witnessed no problems at any time. The ride to the airport was fine and I left without a problem – in spite of my half-serious prayers for a repeat of the PAD protests to shut down the airports and keep me locked inside Thailand just a little longer.

Things have deteriorated a lot since then, I know – you didn’t have up to 25 dead in one day at that point, for a start – but the fact remains that this is still not an issue for the whole country to be worried about. The Foreign Office’s current guidance would make it nigh-on impossible to find insurance cover for a trip there, but I would otherwise have no issue whatsoever with taking a flight back to Thailand tomorrow. I would probably avoid Bangkok as much as I could, granted – flying in and heading straight out by bus. But I wouldn’t let it change my plans – because I am confident that I would be perfectly safe whether up in the north, in the north-east, the west, the east coast or down in the south. To date, the focus of these protests has been Bangkok, and I cannot see that radically changing anytime soon.

So for the Foreign Office to issue the guidance that it has, to write off the whole country as more dangerous than Sudan, Iran and Iraq, as Adrian Michaels’ blog post points out, is a gross overreaction and downright irresponsible. Even if we believe what are likely also overreactions about the mild unrest in some provinces – Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya and Ayutthaya, with Khon Kaen also being kicked about as troublesome after red shirts intercepted a Bangkok-bound train there a few weeks back – the number of places where trouble has allegedly brewed is not at such a level that would make it unfeasible to advise against all but essential travel to Bangkok plus these other parts of the country. If we were talking a list of fifty provinces, then I could understand taking a more generic stance so as to make the advice clearer, but we are not.

Tourists might face some inconvenience because of restrictions like these, but those who really miss out are the thousands of Thais who work in the tourist industry – particularly in places where there is no even potential danger to tourists anyway. It is for this reason that Thailand’s tourism authority has already lodged its appeal against the travel advice with the UK government – and presumably too with the United States, Australian and Canadian governments, who all still also advise against non-essential travel – on these same grounds, that most parts of the country remain without danger. Their arguments have been rejected, and the Foreign Office’s stance leaves travellers in an impossible position – risk going to Thailand, invalidating most insurance policies but in the knowledge that the majority of the country will be safe from violence and unrest, or cancel entire trips because of overzealous advice.

Clearly, though, the Foreign Office view is not universal – while many insurers will be writing cover off as invalid because of the current travel advice, World Nomads for one is still covering its customers, and has said it will only stop doing so in the event that the advice changes to warn against all travel. The voice of discontent with current travel guidance is also growing, and it seems as though the Foreign Office will increasingly have to defend its position. To set out Thailand, a long-time stable, safe and hugely popular tourist haven, as more dangerous than war zones like Sudan and Iraq (the Australian travel guidance interestingly advises against all but essential trips to both these countries, unlike the UK) strikes many of us as frankly unreasonable. Either they have strong intelligence that we don’t know about, which seems unlikely given the ongoing peaceful nature of so much of Thailand, or they are spectacularly failing tourists, Thais and their reputation at large as each day goes by.

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