Breathing fire: Chiang Mai Breathe Council excoriates minister

 |  April 10, 2020

Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Warawut Silpa-archa visited Chiang Mai along with Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan to look into the air pollution and forest fire crisis earlier this week. Upon returning to Bangkok Warawut gave a live interview to Thai PBS about the fire which has caused consternation, confusion and anger across Chiang Mai and the north.

Yesterday, 9th April, the Chiang Mai Breathe Council wrote an official letter to the minister’s office which it also published on its Facebook page to counter many of the minister’s claims.

Parts of the letter reads as follows:

“Following statements by [the minister] which was aired live on Thai PBS on the morning of the 9th April 2020 concerning the state of air pollution in the north, we felt that there were many statements made which were contrary to the truth and the understanding of citizens and of the Breathe Council of Chiang Mai. We feel uncomfortable with the statements made as they do not show any intention by the government to solve this ongoing crisis in the north. The statements diverted from and were misdirections from the main issues at hand and has caused confusion in society.”

“The council disagrees with [many aspects of] the interview such as when the interviewer asked about hot spots and how many had been extinguished. The minister told the audience that all the hotspots in the north were rapidly extinguished because, ‘Our potential and ability in terms of officials and volunteers can extinguish all spots in a short time’. Whereas in actual fact throughout the past three months so many new fires have lit up, sometimes as many as 600 per day, and they are not promptly extinguished; some taking firefighters days to even reach, let alone put out. Reports from those actually putting out the fires is contrary to the statement.”

“The minister then also went on to talk about the causes of the fire being arsonists and people hunting and foraging,” continued the letter. “This is not the whole truth and there are other reasons which he didn’t mention. Then the interviewer asked about the manpower, equipment and support for the firefighting efforts and the minister said that the ministry had no problem on that front and went on to say that no official from the ministry had lost their lives. As to the one official who had hanged himself a week ago, the minister said that the cause wasn’t the fire [even though his suicide letter clearly stated that it was], while also dismissing the four heroic fire fighters who did die as, ‘non officials’. We take great exception at this them vs us mentality. This has led to many people on the ground feeling very upset by his statements as they are the ones on the front lines risking lives, working with unacceptable equipment and relying on the largess of the public. In the suicide letter, the official wrote about cronyism within his department, laying blame there for much of the problems facing the ministry’s firefighting efforts. Instead of dismissing him as committing suicide for other reasons, the minister should look into his accusations and investigate the matter.”

“The minister continued the interview by saying that they had sent 7,000 personnel up north to fight the fire, moving 3000 from the south – mostly apolice and army officials. He also mentioned tens of thousands of officials in the north. The council does not believe these numbers. The truth is that in every

report so far from various firefighting units, there have never been more than dozens of officials at any single location.”

“The ministry also said that the government has not stood still and that it has given the air pollution crisis the same level of attention as the COVID-19 virus. The public sees this as the total opposite of the truth as this annual crisis has never been declared a national emergency nor has it been elevated to a level where it has received top tier management or resources. While there is a single command centre, in actual fact there is little real support on the grounds. Even the mention of tens of thousands of man power, where are they, are they here in shifts or have they been here throughout the three month crisis?”

“The council believes that this matter should be open up to the society at large to solve. We would like to have dialogue with the governor, with the representative of the ministry and we would like to open up the entire matter up so that we can all be involved in problem solving, and not just deviating from the issues at hand, bringing up one or two talking points and creating confusion as is the current situation.”

Citylife was sad to hear today that following government ‘request’ the Thai version of Breathe Council’s letter has now been removed from Facebook. Apparently, “we need to work with the government,” a council representative told Citylife. He also went on to promise that the council will not be cowed nor intimidated by the government, but will choose its battles and continue to work for the benefit of the people of the north. Follow the efforts of the Chiang Mai Breathe Council here.