Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bangkok Post's Disturbing Editorial on Terrorist Warnings


Bangkok Post

Be alert for more warnings

The world today is a dangerous place, not least from terrorists who strike anywhere, against anyone, without motive. At this time of worldwide peril to life and limb, nations around the world face a dilemma. On the one hand, citizens expect governments to take strong steps to protect them. At the same time, people want to know if there is a threat, so they can adjust to the danger. Authorities have done a generally poor job of dealing with this. To warn or not to warn: That is the question.

Last week, four governments cautioned their citizens about possible terrorism in Bangkok. The Thai government was not one of them. Canada advised citizens not to come to Bangkok for now _ unless it was necessary. Australia, Britain and Japan issued rather useless but motherly advice, "Be careful." Thailand, whose defence and interior ministers started it all with reports that terrorists might be planning violence, issued no warning at all. The other 170-plus countries with which Thailand has diplomatic relations also were silent. The infallibility of 20-20 hindsight makes it seem four countries were wrong and the other governments were right.

But not so fast; it is not quite so clear. There are many possibilities beyond the binary, that terrorists were or were not planning attacks in Bangkok. Perhaps, for example, the reports to Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas and to Interior Minister Aree Wongarya were off by a few days. Perhaps the terrorist planner got sick and delayed an hour before the attacks. Perhaps the intelligence reports were real, but plants by terrorist leaders trying to test the reaction of security forces. And here is a perfectly plausible explanation, showing the difficulty of security decisions. Perhaps there were plans for terrorist attacks in Bangkok last Friday, exactly as the ministers and embassies warned. It could be that press coverage of the ministers' speeches, and the diplomatic warnings to foreign visitors, caused the terrorists to change, postpone or even to call off their plans.

In the event, the peaceful weekend put the Foreign Ministry in a somewhat testy mood. Certainly Australia suffered terrible casualties in the Bali bombing, said the ministry. But security warnings "should be made with consideration". The army disagreed with the tenor of that rebuke. Chief of Staff Gen Montree Sangkrasap said foreign governments have to decide for themselves about travel warnings. Neither statement will weigh too heavily on either foreign diplomats or on the Thai government itself, which has in recent years taken _ and quite properly _ to giving its own warnings to citizens planning to travel to countries near (Indonesia) and far (Israel).

We must be clear: Travel warnings are good. Indeed, both governments and knowledgeable groups have a responsibility to warn about impending danger. Tourism, national image, even fear of panic are not very good reasons to withhold public concern that could save a life. But the current system is an abysmal amalgam of information, leading to confusion.

There are two major problems, neither of which will be quickly fixed. The first is the lack of cooperation and decision-making. Clearly, if Thais and Americans party while Canadians and Australians cower under the bed, one of the pairs will have made the wrong decision. At a time of global terrorist threats, governments have done a bad job of sharing information and making the right decisions.

The second is simpler but more difficult to fix. Bureaucrats fear making the wrong decision and being called to account after the event, as Australians were after Bali, and Americans after 9/11. Erring on the side of caution is as unacceptable as failure to warn of clear and imminent danger. For the public, the greatest lesson is taught by Aesop in The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Sooner rather than later, government cautions will not be taken seriously because too many have not come true.

It is within the power of governments to cooperate and to make warnings more exact and more relevant. It is lamentably uncertain they will do so.

This is a disturbing editorial. Basically, the Bangkok Post is accusing Australia, the UK, Japan and Canada of "crying wolf" and cowering in fear "under the bed" while the Americans and Thais are partying and not worrying too much about the real security problems of the country.

Outside the realm of foreign intelligence that embassies in Bangkok keep close to their chest, what is that we laypeople know for fact in the public domain concerning threats to public safety in Thailand.

We know that the New Year's terrorists who were responsible for multiple bombings all over the country are still on the loose. Thai security forces have made little headway in capturing those terrorists or bringing the conspirators to justice.

We know for a fact that terrorism is a daily occurrence in Thailand's Deep South. The terrorists make no distinction between civilians and military targets, between Thais and foreigners.

We know for a fact that terrorists have been torching schools in many provinces upcountry.

Two Russian tourists were shot point blank in Pattaya couple days ago.

We know for a fact that violent and non-violent crime is on the rise against foreigners all over Thailand.

We know that the Thai military backed government and the Thai media have been waging a right wing campaign against foreigners, notably Singapore and evil American lobbyists, for the last few months.

The Bangkok Post says that embassies are crying wolf. I don't think they have been crying enough.

The Bangkok Post should be more concerned about the Thai government's the lack of competence in protecting the public more than highly justified warnings of a few foreign embassies.

Once again, The Bangkok Post demonstrates that it cares more about the bottom line and the country's image more than safety of the people and the serious terrorist problem in Thailand.

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