Finding a pathway through the haze of pollution

Citylife continues its efforts to help support the anti-pollution fight

By | Fri 19 Feb 2021

Apparently I caused some offence when I published my recent editorial on the Breathe Council.

Though I did somewhat (and I still believe quite rightly) criticise the council on some concerning issues such as its lack of transparency, strategy, accountability and communication, I also pledged Citylife’s support to this loose group of activists who are dedicating their free time and expertise to help solve our annual scourge. There is simply no other group at this point who can take on this formidable task. I think we all recognise and appreciate how hard, and thankless, the challenge is, but this doesn’t mean a free rein to do as they please without any accountability to the public which is funding them…and suffering alongside them. My thinking then, as it remains now, is that instead of sidelining an imperfect council and thereby leaving a void, wouldn’t it be better to help it become more effective? But first, the Breathe Council needs to accept help and we all need to work together to find the best way for them to receive help.

Following the editorial’s publication, I heard from a LOT of people – inside and outside the Breathe Council. My concerns were echoed by many, mainly expatriates, who have felt that their voices haven’t been heard nor their efforts supported. You can read some of the comments sent to us here. Unfortunately, on the council’s Line group, some members expressed regret that I was invited to their recent meeting; though thankfully most members realised that media spotlight is not only a necessary, but crucial, part of the ecosystem which the Breathe Council hopes to, and should, build. After all, the group has been tasked by the public, thousands of whom donated a whopping 28-million-baht last year, towards supporting them in their efforts to help us all. Surely some degree of accountability, some expectation of transparency and communication, some critique of priorities and strategy, and some advice to be more inclusive to other voices can only help further the cause, not take away from it.

One of the council’s founding members Bunnaroth Buaklee heard and understood, taking hours to talk to me about how he and other members of the council intended to work on all these issues. I was glad to hear him accept the group’s weaknesses while insisting that they will be strengthened. Importantly, he also asked the public, including the English speaking community, to contribute.

How they could contribute though was left vague. The council’s members simply don’t have the bandwidth at this point to translate everything into English and open up the forum to international discourse. Some members have also felt affronted by the more vocal, and at times vicious, expatriate voices, finding them more offensive than productive. The easiest thing was to ignore those voices…which has only exacerbated the problem and perceptions.

And so it was with that conundrum in mind that I sat down last week with another founding member of the Breathe Council. Due to his workload last year he had resigned from his position. He told me that the lack of communication from the group as well as the council’s refusal to entertain contributions from the expatriate community were further reasons for him to pause for a while. We were also joined by the founder of the Blue Sky Chiang Mai which has, for many years, been working on fire-fighting efforts across the north, and whose outreach to the council has also been firmly rejected.

The reason we came together wasn’t because we wanted to berate the Breathe Council or wish it to fail, but because we still want, and need it to succeed.

We acknowledged that the Breathe Council is facing a vast challenge. We accepted that the council can only learn by doing and that there would be many trials and errors before any glimmer of success. We also admitted that rather than force a merger between two clashing cultures and approaches, it would be best to find a solution which focuses on the problem and not the people.

The Thai way may not be as direct and speedy as many westerners would like. It may also submit to more compromise to the appeasement of more egos and to the slower turning of wheels than desired. The expatriate way may be too brash and insulting for many Thais to bear, especially the pesky habit of soliciting and encouraging dissent and objection. Then there is the added obstacle of language, which may simply not seem worth the effort to some Thai members of the council.

After all, we are in Thailand.

Yet, air pollution is a global issue. So, let’s remind ourselves again that we all have one goal in common: the vision of a future with clean air.

This is, surely, a good start.

There is much work to do. Various strategies and players must be put in place: education across the nation on the threats of air pollution, a massive public awareness campaign, laws and regulations which are clear and concise, an advocacy group to pressure the government to do the right thing as well as creating a platform to encourage inclusiveness. Some of these missions, such as government advocacy, education reform, community outreach, messaging and rewriting of laws will surely be better suited to Thai members of the Breathe Council. But there are many other areas where our many expatriate experts can contribute.

To that end the member who had resigned has now agreed to step back up again. He has offered to set up a Breathe Council (Expatriate Chapter) which will share the council’s agendas, information and strategy while raising its own money and having its own management and methods. He has pledged to act as coordinator with the Breathe Council to help develop the expatriate chapter which will bring expats under the umbrella of, but not beholden to, the Breathe Council. The expat chapter can work at their own speed, create their own culture and bring in all the expertise, experience and enthusiasm of the expatriate community. The aim is to support the Breathe Council without distracting them with the burden of accommodating a multitude of rather loud, and yes, sometimes rude, farang voices.

The way I see it, until the council is fully open to the public in all ways, it cannot claim to represent the public. Like it or not, there are tens of thousands of expats who call the north of Chiang Mai home. Their voices too must be heard. So, let’s help the council to build a platform which can accommodate the expansion of its network into the expat community; then imagine how it could expand across the region to include all manner of other groups. There should be no limit to the ability of the public to participate in the works of the council.

Why alienate the very people who can help?

We can donate money, we can raise money, we can donate time, and we can raise awareness. But the Breathe Council should be transparent and reassure the public that they are working only for the public interest, and not their own agendas or biases. This isn’t a criticism, just a caveat.

If the council agrees with this suggestion, and I don’t see any downside at all, then I will get back to you all with a call to action.

In the meanwhile, Citylife has no intention of causing conflict which would distract from this important work. My role is not instigator or sh*t stirrer, but watchdog and spotlight holder!

I see you council and raise you an entire community.

Photo credit: Resident Chiang Mai photographer Alex de Blonay’s self portrait taken from inside her office in 2020.