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Thai festival kicks off despite junta call to water down party

Thailand's new year festival Songkran is known as one of the world's biggest water fights, with crowds of revellers battling in the streets and dousing passers-by
AFP

Bangkok (AFP) – Thais and tourists took to the streets on Wednesday to drench each other in a mass water fight marking the country’s new year, as authorities attempted to crack down on alcohol, topless dancers and other “indecencies”.  

The three-day Songkran festival is traditionally celebrated across the country by paying respects to elders and visiting temples to sprinkle water over Buddha figures.

But the holiday, which takes place at the peak of Thailand’s sweltering dry season, is also known as one of the world’s biggest water fights.

Every year massive crowds of revellers descend on the streets to battle each other with brightly-coloured plastic water guns and douse passers-by.

This time merrymakers also faced threats from police to arrest scantily clad women and ban alcohol from the raucous street bashes, in an effort to return the festival to its traditional roots.

The clean-up crusade was ordered by junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, whose military government has launched a streak of public morality campaigns since seizing power in a 2014 coup. 

After surveying Bangkok’s downtown Silom district on Wednesday afternoon, the city’s police chief Sanit Mahathavorn reported the scene of some 30,000 party-goers to be “orderly”.

“We tend to compromise on the little things,” he said, adding that 430 officers had been deployed to monitor the area. 

AFP photographers witnessed police detain several bikini-clad women taking part in the water warfare.

The police chief stressed that any “lewd acts”, including the topless dancing that has been a feature of previous Songkran parties, would be punished severely. 

“We will indict every case because it is destroying our country’s image,” he told reporters. 

Authorities have also urged the public to spray water more sparingly this year, as the country is currently in the grip of the worst drought in decades.

But efforts to block the deluge in Bangkok appeared largely fruitless, with water-soaked street parties in full swing across the capital city by midday.

Hoses and buckets were also out in neighbouring Myanmar, one of several other Buddhist countries in the region to celebrate the festival, despite similar calls to curb water waste and return to more traditional celebrations.

The Thai junta has also ramped up a campaign this year to crack down on drunk driving, which soars during the Songkran week and sees hundreds killed every year. 

It is one of two periods dubbed the “Seven Deadly Days” by the Thai government and press — the other being Western New Year.

Officials said 116 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured over the past two days on Thailand’s roads, which are among the world’s most dangerous.

The junta said Wednesday that authorities had arrested more than 20,000 motorists accused of drunk driving since Saturday.

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