Too scary for tourists? Phuket police in riot practice today (Photo by phuketwan.com)
Saturday, May 9, 2009
By Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison
Phuket Wan (Thailand)
CONCERNS are being expressed that a large-scale military presence during the Asean Plus Six summit in June could damage Phuket's image as a popular, peaceful tourist destination.
Members of Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command and top generals met with local officials on Phuket today and decided that there will be stringent checks around the summit centre in the western beach resort of Karon.
Tourists and residents will face checks at a five-kilometre cordon, and again at a three kilometre cordon, Phuketwan has learned.
More than one resort owner fears that television footage of soldiers and police on virtually every street corner will alarm travellers as much as the red shirt protest invasion of the Pattaya summit resort did in April.
Phuket's police were showing off their new skills with riot sticks and shields on a parade ground today, and they will be reinforced by thousands more men in uniform for the summit replay.
While Phuket authorities at all levels have guaranteed the behavior of local people and are clearly committed to prevent disturbances, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is talking of imposing the Internal Security Act.
This could make many normal gatherings on the island, possibly including weddings and parties, especially those close to the centre of the summit, illegal.
Is this an over reaction?
Local businessman Adisak Auksintawakul believes that sensitive Chinese and Japanese tourists will be turned off Phuket if a large-scale demonstration of military presence is on display.
In any case, he believes it is unnecessary to put Phuket's reputation as a peaceful tourist destination at risk.
''This year Phuket has hosted the Asean Plus Three Finance Ministers' meeting and an Asean Education Ministers' Meeting,'' he told Phuketwan.
''These were peaceful gatherings. There is no cause for alarm about any summit on Phuket.
''To impose the Security Act is not far short of declaring a State of Emergency.
''Instead of encouraging tourists to visit, having too much unnecessary protection could discourage tourists, which is just what the island does not need.
''It is a two-edged sword.''
Phuket is normally thinly policed with just 1100 officers to protect up to one million residents and visitors in high season months.
Local island police will be reinforced by 2850 more, just for the weekend summit on June 13-14.
But these officers will all be on the perimeter, with an unknown number of military personnel guarding a five-kilometre ''cordon sanitaire'' around the summit central meeting point, the Hilton Arcadia Phuket Resort and Spa in Karon.
What this will mean for people going about their normal business within the five-kilometre zone, and for tourists, has yet to be made plain by local and national authorities.
The island's best known holiday town, Patong, all of Karon itself and Kata, all fall within five kilometres of the summit.
Maitree Narukatpichai, owner of the Hilton Arcadia Phuket and Villa Zolitude and a past President of the Phuket Tourist Association, has previously urged an increase in local police numbers to guard the safety tourists.
He is pleased the summit is being held on Phuket and not worried about security being overplayed.
''The Government needs to ensure that leaders are safe,'' he told Phuketwan. ''We don't want a repeat of Pattaya.''
Local Tourism Association of Thailand director Setthapan Putthani is delighted that the Asean summit is coming to Phuket and not concerned about the security, which he says is well short of a declaration of a state of emergency.
Phuket is a Democrat yellow shirt stronghold, and any invading protesters would have to get past a checkpoint near the bridge that connects the only road from the island to the mainland.
In any event, a repetition of the Pattaya invasion seems unlikely for one simple reason: it did the red shirts' cause great harm.
On Phuket, preparations for the Asean summit have begun in earnest, with median strip garden beds on the road from the airport freshly planted and unsightly tree stumps being removed.
The Asean Plus Six Summit has a troubled history. First scheduled for Bangkok, it was postponed because of the invasion of the capital's airports by yellow shirt protesters in November.
Then it was to be Phuket's turn, but sufficient accommodation could not be found during the Songkran-Easter break, so it went to Pattaya.
Poor security led to red shirt protesters invading the resort on the day the summit was to begin, triggering an emergency airlift to safety for some national leaders.
The 10-member Asean grouping of Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines is to be bolstered by China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.
In the context of the global downturn, this makes Asean Plus Six the most important conference in the Asia-Pacific for many years.