THAILAND will be pushing for ASEAN-level efforts to rein in haze that comes from smoke-belching fires in neighbouring countries.
"I have already instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to raise the issue with source countries," Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday, as people in Thailand's lower South struggle with the impact from Indonesian hotspots. Fires in eastern Myanmar also regularly affect air quality in Thailand's North.
Prayut addressed the smog issue a few days after the Malaysian premier urged Indonesia to act against the people and companies responsible for raging fires, mainly in Sumatra.
Smoke originating from Indonesian burn-offs has blanketed Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand, causing health problems for people in those areas, plus difficulties for businesses.
About 50 Thais turned up at the Indonesian Consulate in Songkhla yesterday to officially complain about the haze.
The Pollution Control Department's air pollution index showed the haze yesterday was the worst since 1999. As of yesterday, the amount of Particulate Matter up to 10 micrometers in size (PM10) exceeded safe limits in Songkhla, Phuket and Satun provinces.
"This is the first time we've come forward because we are afraid that if we just stay silent, the problem will just get worse and worse," Supawan Chanasongkhram said yesterday on behalf of the demonstrators.
She said governments of relevant countries needed to explore solutions together.
Supawan said she had now had difficulty breathing and had heard that people with underlying illnesses had even graver symptoms.
Her group wanted the Indonesian government to tackle the smog problem more seriously.
In the southern province of Yala, a local hospital reported that as many as 214 patients sought medical help for symptoms that could be related to smog on Sunday - a jump from 64 on Saturday.
Locals in Phuket, meanwhile, said they had already developed eye irritation, skin irritation, and headaches when exposed to smog.
In Trang province, about 400 fishing trawlers stayed ashore because reduced visibility made it impossible for them to head out to the sea.
"This has hurt our livelihood. We can't go out fishing for three days already," said Aren Phrakong, who chairs a local fishing group.
Trang Governor Dejrat Simsiri said motorists needed to be careful now given that smog reduced the visibility on roads.
Satun City municipal mayor Prasit Baesakul said relevant officials were now busy handing out free protective masks in a hope of protecting locals from smog impacts.
The province's disaster-prevention-and-mitigation chief Chaowalit Nithornrat also advised people against consuming rainwater, saying it could be contaminated.
'Hurts region every year'
Ittirit Kinglek, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said all ASEAN member countries should have formal discussions on smog because this shared problem hurts the region every year. "As smog shrouds the Andaman provinces, such as Phuket, Satun, and Hat Yai, tourism feels the pinch. Smog usually hits
during high season too," he said.
Suchart Hirankanokkul, adviser to the Thai Hotels Association (Southern Chapter), said the Prayut government should ask the Indonesian ambassador or embassy representative what emergency measures Indonesia will use to tackle the problem.
Both Ittirit and Suchart said hotel occupancy in major southern provinces, such as Phuket and Songkhla, had not yet despite the smog. "But if the problem continues, the situation may turn critical," Suchart said.
He said local hotels had occupancy of between 80 per cent and 90 per cent currently, with most tourists from Australia and China.
Hat Yai International Airport said yesterday it was closely monitoring the situation and had instructed pilots to strictly comply with guidelines given if visibility is low.