A meeting of Breathe Council’s public relations subcommittee was held on 28th January at Woranan School of Music. Breathe Council, set up in 2019 as a loose network of volunteers from academic institutions, medical institutions, NGOs, private organisations and citizens, aims to be a neutral organisation to drive policy and efforts to relieve the air pollution issue along with liaising with the government to impel them to act. One of its most active and vocal members Bunnaroth Buaklee, an environmental activist, said at the time of the group’s inception, “We would like to invite those interested to take part in the council. Our first mission is to work on the Air Quality Index standard, emphasising citizens’ awareness of health effects — without having tourism distracting us.”
Fast forward to today, as the PM2.5 particles descend and infiltrate across the region, the council’s public relations sub-committee has been tasked with crafting a message which can be used by all stakeholders to raise awareness and hopefully instill in everyone the need to take personal responsibility in helping to reduce this crisis.
The meeting comprised familiar activist faces as well as some energetic young students, and Citylife. The first question to arise was whether one universal message would be effective for all. There was a debate whether a separate message should be crafted for people living in the city, in hopes that they become more aware of how to reduce their own contribution to the pollution, either through burning or emitting of exhaust fumes while another message would target mountain and rural people urging them not to burn. As the topic descended into targeted messaging for an ever-growing number of sub-cultures and groups, it was agreed that one message for all would be more effective.
When Citylife raised concerns over the council’s use of 14 million baht of their budget in the past year, asking how they measured whether it had been effectively used, some argued that it had on the most part been well spent, while others agreed that perhaps it was time to focus and spend according to a strategy rather than on various projects proposed and championed by members of the council.
One consensus was that after just over a year of work, there is still a widespread lack of awareness and full understanding of the dangers of this problem.
“We have all the data we need,” said Chanoknun Nunthwan a student volunteer. “It is all here because we have so much expertise. What we need is to analyse the data and use that data to educate people and change not just their perceptions but their behaviour.”
The meeting went off topic for a while as people debated over ‘necessary fire’ versus ‘unnecessary fire’ with some arguing that it is important to determine which is which so that ‘necessary fire’ can be managed ‘with conscience’.
This debate highlights the almost impossible challenge the council has to overcome. As the region burns there are some people who are still advocating management of ‘necessary fire’ as it is important to the ways of life of some highland people while others say that the crisis has gone beyond concerns over culture and a total ban on all fires over this period must be put in place. We at Citylife have prevaricated for years as to which side we support in this argument, though we are leaning heavily towards the fact
that universal health must surely trump cultural practices. But this highlights the many, many complexities in tackling this multi-layered issue.
One member of the council asked the group to be careful of stepping on toes or being too confrontational, which highlighted yet another challenge the group faces which is that no one wants to offend anyone. This wish to please and appease all then carried on to the messaging as to whether to create a fear-inducing message such as #WeCan’tBreathe or to keep the tone neutral to pacify all stakeholders such as the current #WeLoveCleanAir.
“Our aim is to reduce the PM2.5 levels,” warned Plai-auw Thongsawat, a well-known environmental activist. “But we need to focus on public awareness and instilling in people the urge to own up to responsibility. Everyone is complicit to some degree and our lifestyles, habits and attitudes need to change. Sacrifices need to be made. City people can no longer just point fingers of blame to the mountain people and the mountain people can no longer say that the problem for city people is not theirs too.”
It was somewhat disheartening to see that after one year the council was still struggling to find a direction. However, it is also understandable considering the sheer scale and complexity of this problem, and the fact that our collective problem is being taken up by a group of volunteers. The meeting concluded with the acceptance that while last year the council was busy – figuratively – putting out fires, this year must be about finding a strategy to prevent such – figurative – fires in the first place.
It was acknowledged that the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai specifically, needs to be a leader for the entire region in this war. The focus needs to be on health, because while the environment and the economy are also casualties of this fight, our health is something which is of visceral concern and a way which we can potentially trigger people to take action.
“How about we ask everyone to change a little something,” piped up one student hopefully.
The meeting was adjourned with no consensus, though it was loosely agreed that the committee would craft their umbrella message which it hopes it can throw out to the public or a marketing company to fine tune into a slick campaign to stick in the minds of the public. If you have any ideas please feel free to send to me, Pim, at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to pass on to the council’s public relations sub-committee.
In the meanwhile, please consider what you can do to help. Surely, there is something.