Breathe. Don’t breathe. Leave. Don’t leave. Do Something

Forest burning is blanketing Chiang Mai in smoke for months on end.Pim Kemasingki wonders whether Bangkok will finally hear our city's cries for action.

By | Fri 31 Jan 2020

Breathe. Don’t breathe. Leave. Don’t leave. Do something. We can make a difference. What’s the point of trying? Help!

It’s him. It’s her. It’s them. It’s you. Is it me?

It has been a very frustrating and confusing few years as we have watched, helplessly, as the annual pollution levels rise, start earlier and last longer. For a long long time information was scarce and often misleading, as authorities did their very best to pretend that nothing was wrong, or that they had the matter in hand. From the time we published our first article on this matter, the optimistically titled ‘Solution to Pollution’, it took nearly two decades for our annual crisis to become a widespread concern, and it is almost unbelievable to think that it is less than two years ago that we were begging the governor to discuss PM 2.5 rather than PM 10 as well as to hand out masks that ACTUALLY worked — and look how much trouble that got me into! While there is still much debate as to the short and long-term causes, effects and solutions, we can now at least all agree that we are facing a very serious problem.

A ponderously painful start, but a start.
But while we are all on the same page that we have a problem, scattered in the noxious winds are how to go about fixing it. It’s easy to blame farmers for burning, local authorities for complicity and complacency, the Chinese market for loving our mushrooms, big agro for being greedy bastards, lazy locals for being irresponsible with fire-lighting, neighbouring countries for their smoky contributions, general citizens for apathy…and we would be right. And while we have made great strides in public awareness, in demanding local authorities’ attention and in forming important working groups such as the newly minted Breathe Council, we still lack the support of the government. After all, a problem this size surely requires, no demands, national attention.

I try to be kind in my thoughts and interaction with people (and fail frequently), but I couldn’t help feeling a rather schadenfreudey glee at the news of Bangkok’s panic over this year’s pollution. It is small-minded of me and nothing to be proud of at all, but there you go.

Bangkok authorities have, to much fanfare, invited the press to watch them spray masses of valuable water from giant cannons, ostensibly as part of efforts to combat the problem. The press are still on the most part toeing the PR line, not challenging the wisdom of such obviously impotent practices. Members of the government have also come out to beseech people to stop burning incense sticks, as if that alone would halt the pall of particles from descending on the city. They are even mulling banning the use of private cars and hundreds of thousands of children have missed school to go home to…well, breathe in the same air. As experts begin to explain which masks to buy to a confused public…we veteran sufferers in the north, watch it all unfold with a sense of déjà vu. It’s like stepping back to 2018. We are woke compared to those folk in Bangkok.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not in reality in the slightest bit *sa-jai about the fact that my relatives and friends in Bangkok are suffering. It’s just awful. But since we have been beating the drum for years without being heard, my hopes are that the Bangkok beats will resonate and instigate some much-needed real action at the top levels. This is a national crisis, it’s time to treat it like one.
And they can start by turning off the water cannons, getting honest with the public, formulating a national strategy, putting aside some serious budgets, make agro business take responsibility for their practices or better yet enforce better practices, and look north towards our balding mountaintops and figure out how to regenerate the entire region’s ecosystem. There is a lot of work to be done and yes, it’s time you, the government, pulled your weight.

* schadenfraude in Thai