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Cablegate: Where There's Smoke There's Politics

VZCZCXRO7348
PP RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHCHI #0051 0750942
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 160942Z MAR 07
FM AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0423
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK PRIORITY 0676
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI PRIORITY 0466

UNCLAS CHIANG MAI 000051

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV PGOV TH
SUBJECT: WHERE THERE'S SMOKE THERE'S POLITICS

REF: CHIANG MAI 41 (CHOKING IN CHIANG MAI)

1. (SBU) Northern Thailand's continuing environmental crisis
has some locals complaining about the lack of governmental
action and recalling the action-oriented style of former Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. With the heavy haze over the
north topic number one in Chiang Mai, one rumor has it that
pro-Thaksin forestry officials are less than eager to douse the
fires that have smothered the region in a blanket of smoke. At
a minimum, people note that appointed ministers lack the
political drive to deal with the problem forcefully.

2. (SBU) While commentators blame the regional pollution on a
variety of possible culprits - from garbage burning to Korean
barbecue restaurants - most agree that forest fires are a
primary source. As the air worsened over the past two weeks,
authorities seemed helpless to enforce the law against burning.
Current fires as well as blackened areas are visible on the
outskirts of Chiang Mai.

3. (SBU) The unabated burning led some to wonder why forestry
officials couldn't do more to extinguish the fires. For an
explanation they harked back to Thaksin's time, when
then-Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Yongyut
Tiyapairat reportedly countered anti-Thaksin demonstrations by
organizing forestry workers under his ministry to attack protest
gatherings in Bangkok. The post-coup interim government later
refused to renew contracts for temporary forest guards, leaving
the affected workers disgruntled and lessening the department's
capacity to carry out its duties. As a result, rumor mongers
suggested that officials might have their own agenda in ignoring
violations of the forestry and environmental laws. They claimed
that Thaksin and former minister Yongyut still hold sway over a
large number of forestry personnel, adding that many government
units have shifted into "neutral gear" under the present interim
government.

4. (SBU) Faced with smokey skies and cough-inducing air, even
some anti-Thaksin partisans admit to a touch of nostalgia for
the days when the former Prime Minister would fly to Chiang Mai
with a portfolio of projects for his home town. In contrast to
those days, one reported overhearing a visiting Public Health
Ministry official on the phone March 12 saying "the situation in
Chiang Mai is OK; it's just a hazy sky".

5. (SBU) Comment: Although everyone from the mayor to the
Prime Minister has addressed the north's air quality crisis, the
government at all levels seems powerless to enforce the ban on
burning. While the idea of passive resistance from forestry
officials may be farfetched, the official ineptness in dealing
with an environmental and health disaster that has drawn
international attention is not increasing confidence in the
interim government.

CAMP

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