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Thailand Voters Get To Vote For The First Time Since 2014 Coup

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A Thai officer checks a clock to commence voting at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019. Thailand's first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup has begun. VOA

Voters in Thailand were heading to the polls Sunday in the country’s first election since the military ousted an elected government in a 2014 coup.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief who led the coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.

About 51 million Thais are eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule have urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth’s plans.

The junta leader was among the first to vote in the Thai capital Bangkok, arriving in a Mercedes, after polling booths opened at 8 a.m.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his vote at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019, during the nation's first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his vote at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019, during the nation’s first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup. VOA

Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot, Prayuth said, “I hope everyone helps each other by going to vote today as it’s everyone’s right.”

The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand’s politics with a populist political revolution.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated corruption prosecution.

Thailand’s powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement on the eve of the election that said the role of leaders is stop “bad people” from gaining power and causing chaos.

Invoking a speech by his father, the previous Thai king who died in 2016 after reigning for seven decades, Vajiralongkorn said not all citizens can be transformed into good people so leaders must be given support in ruling to create a peaceful nation.

He urged government officials, soldiers and civil servants to look after national security.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Future Forward Party, poses as he casts his vote during general election at a polling station in Bangkok, March 24, 2019.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Future Forward Party, poses as he casts his vote during general election at a polling station in Bangkok, March 24, 2019. VOA

It was the monarch’s second notable intervention in politics recently. Last month, he demanded his sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol withdraw as a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party within 24 hours of her announcement.

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One of the first people to vote, 92-year-old Prabha Svarachorn, echoed the royal statement.

“I come to vote whenever there is an election,” she said. “I think it’s our duty to vote for good people. I would like people to come to vote.” (VOA)

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Thailand’s Prime Minister Urge Residents of Bangkok to Wear Face Masks after Smog Cover Parts of Capital

He also asked the construction and manufacturing sectors to reduce activities that release pollutants

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Thailand, Prime Minister, Bangkok
A thick layer of smog covers Lumpini Park in central Bangkok, Thailandy, Sept. 30, 2019. VOA

Thailand’s prime minister urged residents of Bangkok to wear face masks on Monday after smog covered parts of the capital in what some fear is a harbinger of more pollution to come.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned in a statement on his Facebook page that the concentration of tiny dust particles called PM2.5 in the air had reached unsafe levels and said he has ordered government agencies to expedite anti-pollution measures. He also asked the construction and manufacturing sectors to reduce activities that release pollutants.

Smog levels are expected to stay high for the next two or three days.

The head of the country’s Pollution Control Department, Pralong Damrongthai, said the visibly dirty air was not caused by smoke originating from forest fires in Indonesia. Since last month, haze blown by monsoon winds from fires in Indonesia has affected nearby countries including the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and parts of southern Thailand, raising concerns about aviation safety and health.

Thailand, Prime Minister, Bangkok
Thailand’s prime minister urged residents of Bangkok to wear face masks on Monday after smog covered parts of the capital in what some fear is a harbinger of more pollution. Pixabay

Indonesian officials say they have made progress in containing the fires, including successful efforts at rainmaking, which they say reduced the number of fire “hotspots” from more than 5,000 about two weeks ago to 491 on Sunday.

Thailand’s Pralong told Thai PBS television that the problem in Bangkok is due to still air and high humidity becoming loaded with ultrafine dust from vehicle emissions, construction sites and other pollutants. He said it was then trapped close to the ground by a blanket of warm air in what meteorologists call an inversion.

Thailand’s government has set a safe level of 50 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air, although other countries have lower limits. The Pollution Control Department’s website put Monday’s level as high as 79 micrograms.

PM2.5 particulates are small enough to be sucked deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, and can cause respiratory problems and may raise risks of cardiovascular disease and cancers.

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It’s the second time this year Bangkok has been blanketed with a cocktail of pollutants. Smog levels also spiked back in January.

Pralong acknowledged the pollution levels might shoot up again in January and February, during the dry season, when farmers burn fields to make way for new planting, another factor that contributes to the problem. He said his department and other units are preparing more stringent measures to better handle the problem than earlier this year.

As the noxious smog settled over Bangkok, many residents fished out masks from drawers and went about their business.

“A lot of my friends are saying they come to the office, their noses are running. Their eyes really hurt. All of them are really coughing today. It’s not normal anymore,” said Piyavathara Natthadana, an office worker who was wearing a mask.

Thailand, Prime Minister, Bangkok
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned in a statement on his Facebook page that the concentration of tiny dust particles called PM2.5 in the air had reached unsafe levels. Pixabay

“There’s not much we can do. We have to monitor the news and protect ourselves,” said Chakrapong Sanguanjit, another Bangkok resident walking downtown with a mask on.

Some environmentalists blamed the government for failing to act fast enough, despite being well aware of the issues.

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“The cause of the problem is the same. The sources of the pollution are the same. But measures to control the sources of pollution are not implemented yet because they said that takes time,” said Tara Buakamsri of the environmental group Greenpeace. (VOA)