BANGKOK POST
The Bangkok Post is an English-language daily newspaper published in Bangkok, Thailand. It is published in broadsheet and digital formats.
Geopolitics
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Manon Dambrine

Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters

In two very different parts of the world, seemingly impenetrable authoritarian regimes suddenly appear under siege by popular democratic uprisings. But as protesters take to the streets in Belarus and Thailand — and garner widespread international support — it still remains unclear if they'll be able to turn their mass demonstrations into tangible change.

Flawed democracy, military rule: Thailand, which for years has vacillated between periods of a flourishing if flawed democracy and straight-out military rule, has been run by generals who took over in a 2014 coup and suspended the constitution. The junta has faced sporadic protests, but General-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's victory for another four-year tem in a sketchy 2019 general election did not cause a major stir, until the recent unrest.

One-man show: In contrast, Belarus has seen next to no bona fide democracy since it became independent following the end of the Soviet Union. President Alexander Lukashenko (who has served for 26 years) recently won reelection in what is widely considered to be a corrupt race that included his opponent fleeing and seeking asylum in Lithuania. Many Belarusians had developed a sense of complacency with the man often described as Europe's last dictator — particularly in defending the small former Soviet country against its neighbor Russia.

What changed in Minsk: But the spark of revolution is drawing supporters from even his traditional base. Belarus's largest protest ever took place last weekend in the capital Minsk.

• Tens of thousands chanted "Resign" and condemned the police brutality that has led to at least two deaths and around 6,700 arrests. Accounts of torture and forced disappearances have only spurred more to join the protests.

• Many state employees have quit their jobs, including members of the government-controlled media, who called it a propaganda arm for Lukashenko.

• Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya encouraged collective action in a video, saying "We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. I call on the government to stop this and come to the negotiating table."

What changed in Bangkok: Meanwhile last Sunday in the Thai capital, an estimated 10,000 student protesters attended a rally at the Democracy Monument asking for the reform of the country's monarchy.

• The protest, organized by the Free People group — formerly called Free Youth — is the largest anti-government rally since the 2014 coup. Thatthep Ruangprapaikitseree, the group's leader, announced in a statement they will stick to three demands: They want the dissolution of the House of Representatives, a new constitution "based on the will of the people" and "the end of intimidation of critics of the government."

• This movement comes after a month of almost daily protests which took place all around the country; a Harry Potter-themed rally criticizing the monarchy drew global media attention. Dressed as Hogwarts students, the young protesters denounced "lèse-majesté" laws, which ban criticism of the royal family and can lead to 15 years in prison.

Recent protest in Minsk against President Lukashenko. — Photo: Ulf Mauder/DPA/ZUMA

• Like in Belarus, Thai authorities are using the threat of incarceration to silence both movement leaders and those protesting on the front lines.

Eleven activists have already been arrested over the recent protests, but police have said there are arrest warrants for a further 12 people with more under investigation. This past Saturday, the student activist Parit Chiwarak, 22, was arrested on charges of sedition.

• Thai youth are criticizing the establishment itself that is promoting obedience to authorities and tradition. They are also concerned with a worsening financial situation, with the poverty rate jumping from 7.2% to 9.8% between 2015 and 2018.

The pandemic factor: COVID-19 is raising the stakes for both the regimes and protesters in both countries.

• The tourism sector, vital for Thailand's economy, has been severely impacted. With no foreign tourists allowed into the country for months, the crisis caused millions of job losses in hotels and restaurants. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Thailand recorded its largest economic contraction since 1999 in the quarter ending in June.

• The economy was also an important factor in Belarus: While it experienced economic growth in the first decade of the 2000s, growth especially in industrial sectors has stagnated as public debt to GDP ratios have increased. The economy is now expected to contract 2% this year because of the health crisis and decreased demand for its commodities.

Democratic takeaway: The Belarus protesters have garnered more attention and global support than their counterparts in Thailand. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the president of the European Council have said they want Lukashenko to be held accountable. But the country risks turning into a proxy battlefield in a larger geopolitical landscape, as offers of military assistance from Russia are raising fears of President Vladimir Putin gaining control in the country of nine million people.

The relative diplomatic silence around Thailand since the military takeover in 2014 is a sign that the fate of the country is largely in the hands of its own people and leaders. For those risking their lives for the cause of democracy — in Bangkok, Minsk or myriad places in between — global interest in your country can cut both ways.

Society
Mathieu Pollet

Take 5: Overtourism Pushback From Venice To Machu Picchu To Maya Bay

With many in the Northern Hemisphere now making their way back to the office, it's time to share stories and rankings of our respective summer vacations. One question that always comes up: How crowded was it?

Indeed, travels to popular foreign destinations continue to grow worldwide. In 2018, there were an estimated 1,4 billions international tourist arrivals, according to The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) — which forecasts a 3-4% rise for the current year.

Sure, tourism does generate wealth and creates jobs. Yet certain destinations around the world are now seeing it as more a question of "overtourism." The list of troubles outside visitors brings is long: overcrowding, littering, rising housing and land prices, hidden costs to upgrade infrastructure to meet both tourist demand and to take care of sometimes already endangered, natural habitats and monuments. There is also a broader awareness of travelers' contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

All of this adds up to an "invisible burden" — as dubbed by the charity The Travel Foundation which has been taking on the matter by focusing on different ways to curb mass arrivals. Here are five destinations which have been looking for new ways to, well, push back on the growing crowds:

NEW ZEALAND — Matapōuri

Waitangi and the Matapōuri Mermaid Pools, two New Zealander hot spots, were recently added to the interactive map of the Travel Responsible website of 98 "places that are suffering under the strains of overtourism." Matapōuri had already been closed since April after being polluted by urine and sunscreen, reported the New-Zealander news website Stuff.

Matapouri, with tourists — Source: Google Street View

A nationwide response has been put in place: Since July 1st, every tourist flying to New Zealand has to pay $35 NZD ($23) International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy. This new tax will help combat the environmental damage that overtourism is causing to the country's world-famous natural venues and landscapes.

PERU — Machu Picchu

Peruvian authorities are taking a very different approach when it comes to dealing with the flows of tourists to Machu Picchu. As a cornerstone of the local economy, the government recently approved another airport in the Cusco region, hoping to double the number of tourists to the ancient Inca site that is already visited by more than one million tourists each year.

It didn't take long for UNESCO to send a letter to Peruvian authorities to warn about protecting the Inca citadel, which has long been on the list of world heritage sites, the Lima-based newspaper El Comercio reported. Any construction that may have an impact on protected areas must be cleared with the UN agency. In 2017, the news website Gestíon reported, Peruvian authorities decided to tackle this alarming issue — by introducing a new ticket for a specific period of time, a guide for each group of visitors.

ITALY — Venice

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The city council in Venice, which is bursting with 36 million international tourists annually, implemented a new set of regulations, including fines from 25 to 500 euros and permanent bans from the city center for visitors showing "anti-social" behavior.

The "City of Canals' — Photo: veneziaunica via Instagram

Among the behavior that can be punished: taking part in some sort of noisy celebration (stag, hen, university-degree parties, etc.) Monday to Thursday between 8 A.M. and 8 P.M., eating or drinking outside of designated areas, wearing bathing suits or walking bare-chested, riding or even pushing a bicycle in the historical center, caught singing, shouting or listening to music without earphones from 11 P.M. to 8 A.M. and noon to 5 P.M. Italian daily Il Giornale wrote about two German backpackers who were fined 950 euros (and then banned) for making coffee on a travel cooker on the steps of the Rialto bridge.

THAILAND — Maya Bay

Made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach starring Leonardo Dicaprio, the beautiful Maya Bay is closed for business. Initially, the Bay was supposed to be granted a four-month break to allow the local natural ecosystem to recover from the up to 5,000 tourists, on 200 boats, who visited every day. But last May, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation decided to extend the closure of the tourist magnet for another two years, the Bangkok Post reported. It is estimated than 80% of the coral around Maya Bay has been destroyed by human activity.

The decision received mixed feelings from professionals and experts. Some fear that focusing on one spot will just move the damage someplace else, and not really deal with the root of the problem. So, unless authorities tackle the environmental damage caused by tourists more generally — by imposing a limit on tourist number for instance, it may just be a matter of time before other national parks meet a similar fate.

THE NETHERLANDS — Amsterdam

De-marketing as last resort. Last year, an estimated 19 million tourists descended on the 850,000-inhabitant Dutch capital...! Last December, the city decided to remove the "I Amsterdam" letters, a famous selfie hotspot for tourists. Symbolically, it marked the beginning of their intention to "de-market", i.e. stop advertising, the destination, after it reached its breaking point. Locals had had enough of disturbances and were pushed out to quieter areas, outside of the city center.

I (and them) Amsterdam — Photo: Kevin Mcgill

New regulations were introduced in 2018 to fight against mass tourism, as listed in Dutch Review: higher tourist taxes, Airbnb accommodations won't be rented to tourists for more than 30 days per year (in some neighborhoods, there is even a complete ban on holiday rentals), several awareness campaigns. In an interview for Het Parool, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema has even started considering relocating the Red Light District — famous for its prostitution industry — farther out of the city as it had become an attraction for tourists, and disturbed both sex workers and locals.