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Cassandra Has No Friends



It’s a quiet afternoon on New Year’s Day here in Lampang. My wife and son are down in Buriram visiting family. My partying days being long behind me, I was in bed long before midnight, though hardly sleeping, since one of my neighbors had the volume pumped up to just shy of “Let’s Open the Crack of Doom. I swear the fillings in my teeth were buzzing. I long ago gave up trying to convince the guy to just lower it nit-noi. Apparently he took great offence at my complaint that blood was pouring from ruptured ear drums. Yes 2009 got off to a bang last night. There were plenty of the obligatory fireworks. Fortunately they were all set off outdoors, illuminating the skies, and not indoors setting off a deadly conflagration.

I only learned a few hours ago of the horrendous tragedy that occurred in Bangkok last night. Poor Thailand has been through so much in 2008. I think everyone in The Land of Smiles was looking forward to a short respite from week after week of bad news. Even if a lot of the suffering here was self inflicted, the New Year is supposed to represent a chance for a fresh start. Instead it will be remembered for dozens of charred corpses on display for the Thai media.

Just yesterday I was thinking of writing up a humorous piece about looking into my crystal ball. Now, just thinking of last night’s inferno, it’s hard to feel much humor about anything in Thailand.

In retrospect, the Santika disaster seems so utterly predictable, and completely preventable. Who in their right mind thought that setting off pyrotechnics in a room packed cheek to jowl with partygoers was a good idea? I don’t suppose that the tragedy in a Rhode Island club back in 2005 had much coverage here. Ninety six people were killed when on stage pyrotechnics ignited the interior of the club.

Details about last night are still coming in, but apparently exit signs were nowhere to be seen. When panic starts in a crowded room, it’s not surprising that people are going to get trampled. Hell, I wrote a few days a go about my fear of being trampled at the Mo Chit bus terminal. I can’t even imagine the fear that people in Santika felt when the blaze started.

Some farangs write from time to time bemoaning rules and regulations here in Thailand. “This is why we moved here; to get away from all of that. We like being able to what we want when we want. To hell with paper pushers interfering with our freedom!” While I can certainly agree that some aspects of life here are needlessly over-regulated, it is also clear that many aspects are sorely in need of any regulation at all!

Let’s look at the Santika fire as an example. Do occupancy limits exist in Thailand? If so, are they ever enforced, and by who? What about fire codes? Are there any? If so are they ever enforced, and by who? The same questions can be asked about clearly marked exit signs. Did the doors open inward or outward? Common sense dictates that doors in public buildings should open outwards. Are there building code requirements for flame proof or flame retardant materials to be used in ceilings and walls? This is once again common sense when you are talking about places that regularly have large numbers of people in attendance.

Unfortunately as we all know, in Thailand rules were made to be broken…if the rules even exist to begin with! Don’t like red lights? Hey, plow right through! Who cares? Certainly not the police! Need to increase your profit margin? Go ahead; add more sand to the concrete mix. Who will ever know? That building probably won’t collapse. Shoddy construction is the norm, not the exception. And as we all know, an envelope of “tea money” given to the building inspector works wonders in making problems disappear.

So, what inquiring minds want to know is whether anyone will assume any responsibility for this tragedy? I’m not holding my breath. Oh, there will be a public outcry leading to investigations. Any politician worth his salt will be talking up a storm about how this tragedy could have been prevented. But will there be increased inspection of bars and nightclubs, and if violations are found, will anyone be required to make the necessary modifications? Considering the “good old boy” network that exists in Thailand, I seriously doubt that anything will change at all. In a few weeks after the uproar dies down it will be back to business as usual.

In 2009 there will be a handful of people working to prevent another such tragedy. They will quote chapter and verse about hundreds of places in Bangkok that are tragedies waiting to happen. Their pleas for commonsense changes will be ignored. In The Land of Smiles, Cassandra has no friends.

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Stickman's thoughts:

And the very next day a bar in Soi Cowboy caught fire… Santika was far from a one off…