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Thai new year 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 Wednesday to drench each other in the mass water fight that marks the country’s new year festival Songkran, as authorities attempted to crack down on alcohol, topless dancers and other “indecencies”.  

The three-day festival is traditionally celebrated by paying respect 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 water guns and douse passers-by. 

This time partygoers are bracing not only for the sudden splashes of water that can come from any direction, but also threats from authorities to arrest scantily clad women and ban alcohol from the raucous street bashes in an effort to return the festival to its traditional roots.

Police in recent days have warned that they will block the trucks carrying topless dancers — female and transgender — that have become a regular feature of Songkran street parties.

“It is also essential that we maintain our cultural heritage through genuine traditional activities, such as pouring water on Buddha statues,” the country’s military leader, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, said in his weekly televised address ahead of the holiday week. 

“There are laws governing indecent exposure, which will be enforced. You should celebrate in a polite way as there will be people of all ages joining in,” added the junta chief, whose administration has launched a streak of public morality campaigns since seizing power in a 2014 coup. 

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

But police efforts to block the deluge appeared fruitless by midday, with water-soaked street parties in full swing across Bangkok with people  unleashing brightly-coloured plastic water guns. 

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.

Thailand’s 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.

The past two days alone have seen 116 people killed and nearly 1,000 injured in road accidents, according to government officials. 

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

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