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The way Phuket's Surin beach has been changed by the coup

How the Coup Saved Phuket Beaches

Friday, August 8, 2014
PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) - Raddled by allegations of corruption and mismanagement by inept authorities, the Thai holiday island of Phuket looked destined within a few years to have its once-beautiful beaches destroyed by the side-effects of mass tourism.

Since the 2004 tsunami made Phuket even more of a household name around the world, tourism boosters have catered to sharply increasing numbers of visitors, with the island's overwhelmed infrastructure deteriorating rapidly.

Bliss for many tourists became a sunbed on the beach where they could alternately loll and dip all day long and be serviced by locals bringing coconut juice or a cocktail, or perhaps even a delicious tiger prawn sandwich.

Such pleasurable indulgence proved exceedingly popular, and some beaches eventually succumbed each tourism high season under a colorful sea of sunbeds.

Along the foreshores at many beaches, illegal businesses sprang up and grew. Beach clubs predominated, but a visitor could spend hours in a beauty salon on the sand or even buy a time-share property.

A constant stream of vendors left tourists little time to snooze. Paradise was evaporating, if it hadn't already.

Then an odd and unexpected event happened.

On May 22, Thailand Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed control of the country in a military coup following months of political deadlock between opposing sides.

Within 72 hours of taking control, soldiers were on the holiday island, bearing promises to save the beaches and berate the administrators accused of contributing to the island's simultaneous ride and slide towards increased popularity and ruin.

A few months on, and Phuket continues to shake off the effects of decades of corruption that have been plaguing the island since the 1970s, when the first backpackers discovered the brilliance of the island's gleaming west coast beaches and locals discovered a new source of income.

Until recently, tales of mafia-connected taxi drivers ruling Phuket made regular headlines, whether it was for charging ridiculously high fares that were six times those of the capital, Bangkok, or forcing passengers to pay double - not just for the trip to their destination, but also for the cabbie's ride alone back to his base.

In more extreme cases, drivers threatened violence against those who attempted to use alternative transportation options, as was reported in Phuketwan.

Soldiers on the beach
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Today, all that is changing, due to the arrival of khaki and camouflage-clad soldiers.

They tromped Patong, Phuket's main west coast beach, enforcing the message that the hedonistic days of lazing on sunbeds were at an end, along with the vendors' privateering ways.

Sand was making a comeback.

Though many Western countries have condemned Thailand's latest coup, it may just have saved Phuket from further decay - also producing some useful social outcomes for similarly troubled holiday destinations in other parts of the country.

All beaches in Thailand are public space by law. The prohibition of private business operations on these public beaches is without exception, but has been ignored on Phuket and some other tourism destinations.

Restaurants and beach clubs illegally encroached onto the beaches, right down to the high-water mark in some places, too many deriving private profits by ignoring the law and doing as they pleased.

Because Phuket is 860 kilometers south of Bangkok, administrators posted by the central government seemed reluctant to interfere.

Phuket locals interpreted the concept of public beaches as meaning anyone could use them, so first they added sunbeds, then built thatch and bamboo bars on the shore fronts.

Over the years, entrepreneurs joined in, expanding the venues into large restaurants and beachclubs.

Some businesses grew to the water's edge. There was no enforcement by authorities to force them off the beach.

Once the army took charge, though, local mayor Ma-Ann Samran, of Cherng Talay, says he began receiving daily visits from officers in civilian clothes.

He had no hesitation in admitting he eventually acted to save the beaches in his district out of fear.

'''I was genuinely scared,''' Ma-Ann said. '''The Army let me know I had to act.'''

After decades of local ''law'' being applied, the Army transformation came at great speed, within days of the May 22 coup.

Graders toppled beach clubs and restaurants, while the sunbeds and umbrellas were carted off in pickup trucks, banned forever.

Tourists on all Phuket beaches now sit on towels.

Taxi clampdown

What happened with the alleged bullying that taxi drivers were accused of, was even more remarkable.

Present-day Phuket police commander Major General Praveen Pongsirin found the army to be perfect allies to conclude his covert months' long investigation of the island's ''mafia.''

In June, more than 100 taxi and tuk-tuk drivers were arrested and charged with alleged intimidation and extortion, according to police.

Local officials who allegedly sponsored the bullies were also arrested, police officials said. These include the Mayor of Karon municipality and his two deputies, plus the chief engineer and the senior officer, who remain on bail facing six charges apiece.

When they appear in court, they'll have the opportunity to enter their pleas. They have denied the charges. No court date has been set.

Anti-money laundering officers have conducted raids and more arrests have been promised. Investigations into illegal activities at Phuket airport have also been launched.

The major general said: ''Phuket wasn't like this 15 years ago. As the power of the taxis grew, so did their greed and arrogance. The only laws they recognized were their own laws.''

Administrators posted by Bangkok came and went on Phuket periodically, perceiving all the problems, but powerless to seriously fix them.

''The administrators were all able to see what ailed Phuket when they first arrived,'' Major General Praveen said.

''But the longer they stayed, the more they integrated with the lawless locals and the more blind they became.''

The army takeover, though, brought to the island the one organization in Thailand that is large enough to confront the taxi drivers and end corruption on, and abuse of, the beaches.

The message from the army's Major General Somchai Ponatong on arrival was blunt but effective: ''I told the local authorities to do their jobs. The novel idea appears to be working.''

Backhanders and corruption were previously considered the most efficient way for anyone to get anything done on Phuket, according to experienced expat investors and some local businesspeople.

Investigations are now underway into resorts suspected of encroaching on national park land, led by the Public-sector Anti-Corruption Commission.

Villas dot the hillsides, well above height restrictions. On Phuket, regulations stipulate constructions can be no higher than 80 meters above sea level.

Now, says Major General Somchai, complaints are being listened to and acted upon, without regard to the degree of influence Thailand's resident ''big people'' have always had under civilian governments.

''Enforce the law,'' the major general tells his officers, ''free from favor.

''By November [start of the tourism high season] we will have made Phuket safe, clean and appealing to everyone,'' he says.

Coup, what a difference it's made here.

Editor's note: Alan Morison is an award-winning journalist based in Phuket and founder of the regional news and information site, Phuketwan.com. Chutima Sidasathian is a journalist for Phuketwan.com. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

Republished with permission from CNN

Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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...enough with the tiger prawn sandwiches, Ed. I've never seen one.

Posted by phonus on August 8, 2014 09:11

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In regards to the taxis; how is it that the taxi drivers in Bangkok don't protest the fact that they are forced to do the same job, in worse traffic, for much less money? I read recently about them doing a further clean-up of the taxi rank at Suvharnabumi. Wow, I thought that system was working great, especially compared to Phuket Airport. It seems as though there is a double standard for Phuket for some reason. Why can't they just implement the same rules and fares as Bangkok? Forget about negotiating with the different plate-color-groups. Forget about helping the hundreds of excess taxis with finance. Make all taxis and tuk tuks use meters at the Bangkok rate and this will eliminate the greedy, lazy drivers. This should help with the traffic and parking situation as well. If the drivers in Bangkok have to work for those fares, so should the drivers in Phuket.

Posted by Tim on August 8, 2014 09:36

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Phuket is still a beautiful beach and a cesspool of sex tourists. Go to any bar and you will find young girls trapped in a world of prostitution to support their north east families. Aids still a huge problem, unprotected sex with hookers for those who insist. Why is new dictator not focusing on this. No happiness for these girls.

Posted by randy sullivan on August 8, 2014 09:43

Editor Comment:

Prostitution is not confined to Phuket or Thailand. If anything, the proportion of sex tourists has been reduced because of a change in attitude in other countries. If ''young girls'' are ''trapped'' against their will on Phuket or elsewhere, then you should report this immediately to the authorities, randy.

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I completely agree along with the vast majority of people who live here. Yet, you'll hear the Generals have gone too far. What about my sun bed, umbrella and cold drink? Appreciate what the junta has done here. It's been a miracle.

Posted by Kamalala on August 8, 2014 10:08

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Yesterday (8/8) at 12 PM I drove the length of Patong Beach Road. In the 850 meters from where 4233 joins beach road and the Bangla intersection there were 99 Tuk Tuks and green plate taxis parked. What happened to clearing them from beach road parking spots.

Posted by Dkin on August 8, 2014 10:32

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This article paints a picture that everything is nearly sorted but yet there has been no prosecution of the real offenders public officials.

Why doesnt PW go after these corrupt people with the same venom you have gone after the local business's?

Posted by Ciaran on August 8, 2014 11:23

Editor Comment:

Sorry? You seem to be expecting PW to act on rumors and conjecture. If you wish PW to ''go after'' anyone with ''venom,'' perhaps you are transferring your aberrant desires to us. We're not that bitter and twisted.

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Great article in CNN. Good Job!! Any idea why or when the local bus from Karon to Phuket Town will be running up to Patong? Seems like a good place to start with affordable transportation. Keep up the good work.

Posted by Ranger on August 8, 2014 11:49

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So far jet skiis and tuk tuks are still at large and continuing to "ruin" Phuket

Posted by sky on August 8, 2014 12:04

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The day after the law-enforcemnt people removed an illegal taxi stand in Kamala, I went to get a taxi from many that remained. Business as usual --same price, not a care in the world as soon as the tsumani of the law ebbed.

Posted by Optimistyque on August 8, 2014 16:51

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My comments on the removal of beach loungers and dining with feet in the sand were misconstrued before, my concern on the impact of tourism being my concern without me saying that I do not support the principle and the practice which I do. This has now been reinforced with the extension of the Clearance Order to my beloved Khao Lak by 15th August. The Editor's views are well known and repeated again as are mainly those of residents and ex-pats. I wonder if TAT is brave enough to conduct exit polls at Phuket Airport to see to what extent visitors share the clean beach vision of the future. Personally I believe that the authorities will need to embark on a strategy that is not just about enjoying beaches as nature intended but how they can enjoy them in a controlled and regulated environment enjoyed in other countries who will only be too glad of their Tourist "Dollars". If that is the Big Plan for the future, other than promoted by PW, sorry I've missed it.

Posted by Alan on August 8, 2014 17:07

Editor Comment:

We advocate an independent Phuket Beach Authority to remove decisions about beaches from the people who are elected by locals and inclined to give in when locals argue that beaches (and shorefronts) are for making money. Asking the tourists what they want is not going to be much use because those who want sunbeds will also say they want natural beauty, too. The military is giving Thailand what it deserves, not what some tourists want. Any money lost this high season will be rapidly regained and multiplied as long as the beaches remain natural. There is no doubt beach dining is a pleasure but it's easily abused. Strong controls, however, and a substantial environmental tax could make it a winner for everyone. Isn't Phang Nga already supposed to be free of all commerce on its beaches?

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Beautiful beach empty as the pockets of phukettiani, they will not see tourists.

Posted by augusto on August 8, 2014 17:14

Editor Comment:

Well, they seem popular during the low season and they will be even more popular during the high season. You will be able, possibly, to stroll the entire length of Patong and play beach football.

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I will be convinced the changes are here to stay, when the jet skis are finally banned from all beaches and islands.
The new authorities must crack this last nut.

Posted by stuart on August 8, 2014 17:56

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The Army has truly been a God send. It is so wonderful to see many of the islands problems dealt with. Bot one side affect we are now seeing, and this speaks to the Major Generals comments on a "safe Phuket by high season", is the spike of home burglaries, purse snatchings, and armed robberies where victims are knocked off their motorbikes before being relieved of their property. Many of these are reported in the media, but many more I am aware of are not, especially when they happen to Thai's. The people who lost thier means of income due to thier illegal businesses or activities on the beaches being shut down also ones prone to turning to other crimes. It was previously reported here that this was actually one of the reasons given by the jet ski association as to why they should be allowed to continue operating. If shut down, the jet ski touts would turn to crime against tourists.

Posted by NomadJoe on August 8, 2014 18:04

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" Isn't Phang Nga already supposed to be free of all commerce on its beaches?"

It was largely so and will be completely so from 15h August! However, as usual in Khao Lak, the ocean will have saved the owners or Army demolishing many structures fringing the beach as they get washed down and have to be rebuilt each Wet Season. Also erosion of large parts of most beaches over successive years now means that certain resorts built beyond the post-Tsunami official beach line are now on the beach.

Posted by Alan on August 8, 2014 19:12

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=randy sullivan= "Go to any bar and you will find young girls trapped"

Why trapped? Just an easier lifestyle, nobody hold them captive there. When you have problems with Phuket, did you look to Pattaya, Angeles City-Philippines ect?
"in a world of prostitution to support their north east families."
Yes easier with RED LIGHT money than with 250 Baht p 8 hour day in the rice field. ;-)
"Aids still a huge problem, unprotected sex with hookers for those who insist."
Up to the sex worker what she/he does and does not, how you want change that?
"Why is new dictator not focusing on this."
You sound same a dictator, you would change that, yes?

Ban mixed couples and marriages? A lot of such relations started in Soi Bangla. (Even my relationship, now 3 children and 12 years together!) Bad attitude.
"No happiness for these girls."

Ask them! I think no happiness, if you force them back to Issan and they have to work normal 250 Baht jobs, 8 hour work days, 6 days a week and no good chance to fin a Westerner who marries them. lol

Posted by Alfred on August 8, 2014 19:48

Editor Comment:

I'm not a great fan of the use of lol but in this case it is used appropriately. Thanks, Alfred.

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Too early to make a call on whether Phuket was saved from ruin or not, true test will come when the reigns are handed back to the parliamentarian system and the local OrBorJors will get back to business. After the clean sheet the Tsunami provided then it did not take a long time to get back to business as usual, let's hope this time around will be different.

Posted by Sailor on August 8, 2014 19:58

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Implement same fares/rules for taxis and passenger Van's as in BKK.( give them all the same color plate, after installing taximeter). We see on Phuket to many empty taxi's, tuk tuks, Vans standing at road sides for nothing. There are just to many! To many stand still and not drive like in BKK. Same fares as in BKK will do a number of taxi/tuktuk drivers leaving Phuket. That would be great.

'Natural' way of decreasing number of 'sala drivers'. Lesser taxis, tuktuk, and Vans will create better fair competition and better passenger service.

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2014 07:52

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In June there more than 100 taxi and tutuk drivers arrested, just in Kata-Karon area. Do we miss these more than 100 taxi and tuktukd drivers? I don't thinks so!
Lesser taxis and tuktuks by implementing BKK taxi fare-level.( natural selection) .Than,.. lesser corruption, money laundering, extortion, intimidation, and more parking space for 'us', the normal people. A great plus will be that by than no more need to tame them.

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2014 08:22

Editor Comment:

The taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are on bail, Kurt, so still on the roads.

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Thank you, Editor. I missed that bail matter. However, being on bail is 1, being allowed to be still on the road again is 2. How is that possible? No prove of good conduct first before being allowed to work again?, after being in court to be convicted?? This is now exactly what feeds the simple thinking of these drivers that they did nothing wrong. Being allowed to do still taxi-tuktuk job while waiting for being called in Court to be convicted is absolutely flabbercasting.

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2014 09:22

Editor Comment:

As someone who is awaiting a court appearance in March, I am more certain than ever that it would be a mistake to assume guilt in the case of any charged person. To prevent the taxi drivers from earning a living before any court judgement would be an abuse of justice.

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Sorry Editor, a arrest in Thailand is really something. It means your criminal file is solid. Being out on baiL? Ok. Being allowed to continue work as taxi or tuktuk driver is not ok. The public, mostly tourist ( thai here can not effort the prices of transport. They can in BKK!)are now 'transported' by more than 100 taxi and tuktukdrivers who out on bail and wait their conviction? Earning a living by arrested/out on bail, without a certification of good conduct? Editor, are you thai? This..I have to feed a family mentality ( as a excuse for everything)has firmly to be ruled out! So, tourists here get transport of people who are waiting their court case for criminal issues. Unbelieveble.

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2014 11:16

Editor Comment:

Perhaps you come from a draconian law-enforcement country, Kurt. There are just as many wrongful arrests on Phuket as everywhere else.

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Sorry Editor, I see your point. However in which other civilised country is a arrested taxi driver without certificate of good conduct allowed to continue doing what he was use to do, with or without bail? They wwere not arrested for nothing, right? I think the concern of Governemt should be more about the tourist who are not aware of these criminal charges of the drivers, than about the more than 100 taxi/tuktuk drivers who were ARRESTED! Arrests do not happen here like you buy a icecream. Being out on bail? ok!. But being allowed to continue to work in the job in wich you not function and being arrested for is unbelieveble. We talk here about safety of tourists.
Who likes to be transported by a accused person who is out on bail?
Bail is in the process of juridic process. But at same time we want to be protected and not being on a drive with a driver on bail! Because he is charged, arrested and wait trial. Do you understand that? That 'family feeding' thing is a idiot excuse, as it is for everyone who commited crimes or was working illigal. This is serious. We not talk about a beach chair or a umbrella.We talk about more than 100 people who are out on bail and are a possible treat to tourists. NCPO should look into this. When a accountant is out on bail, he can do his garden, but can not work as a accountant until after a court has said.

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2014 12:19

Editor Comment:

We'll leave that to the courts, Kurt, and without knowing what was said at the bail hearings, we won't make guesses. But innocent until proven guilty is not a bad way of looking at it.

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Not that I automatically go against the grain here, but many people tourists or otherwise enjoyed the sun beds and the shade provided. I think a highly regulated form placing sun beds is appropriate. As for playing football on the beach it was always played at Kata beach sun beds or not. Also cannot see the 50 over set out there beating a ball around in the sun very long. I am a sun bed supporter, obviously the silent majority.

Posted by Capealava on August 16, 2014 13:21

Editor Comment:

Sunbeds are for the self-indulgent few, C. The beaches belong to Thailand and if all Thais were asked whether the beaches should be maintained in their natural state or run for sun-loving hedonists and the private profit of a few, you and I both know what the answer would be. The silent majority favors natural beaches.

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The chairs and umbrellas are gone but the tourists are gone, too

Posted by Expat on August 17, 2014 19:47

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I have been to Phuket many times and usually stayed in a hotel with a pool. This year I am going for 5 weeks and cannot afford to stay in a hotel for that long and have therefore booked into a popular guest house. I for one am disappointed they have removed the sunbeds, as I am no longer a spring chicken I will find it hard to lie in the sand for any considerable time but it appears I won't have much choice after emailing all the local hotels to be told that they are not open to non residents even at a cost. If the sunbed situation can't be regulated somehow to allow those of us who are happy to pay, I will be looking elsewhere to holiday in future, or, as I love Thailand, won't visit for a long period. So capealava, it seems I am also part of the silent majority

Posted by Dwanny on August 18, 2014 01:32

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@Dwanny

Don't want to sound impolite, but this situation may be forming a case where accommodation options that offers just room will disappear , and those that have a pool, garden and other facilities with thrive attracting more affluent visitors?
That is what predicted by C9 Hotelworks consultancy, especially for Patong beach area where just-a-room establishments are so wide-spread.
Number of visitors can change as "affordable comfort" market share will is not going to be served well, but pure economics is not a major issue here, substantially for a reason that Thailand has disproportionate overheated job market for unskilled/low-skilled jobs, and acutely need structural changes; tourism is exactly offering predominantly unskilled/low-skilled positions.
At the same time, across whole price range there is a group that fancies beaches in natural states, that will come in the place of a group, that prefers "affordable comfort" .

Posted by Sue on August 18, 2014 06:18

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In the past in Europe many local elected authorities were authorized to "privatize " ( not the exact legal term but it is the meaning ) up to 30% of the space on some beaches of the Mediterranean sea . But the large majority of the people is rejecting this now and some regulations are trying to reduce the space to a lesser percentage. Of course the business owners drag their feet, there is so much money involved for such quiet jobs ! If tourists are to come in greater numbers on Thai beaches ( - and natural beaches will be a very strong pull factor to cope with as such beaches tend to disappear from our planet - ) planting trees for the shade and to prevent erosion is the key to this increasing number of beach usere , Thai and foreigners.

Posted by natural beaches : strong pull factor on August 18, 2014 11:54

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I spend every year more then 600000 bath
In phuket to have my comfort on the beach. No beds no Umbrella no service no vacation anymore in Thailand.Thank you very much. A lot of peopel have done a great job to serve and take care of the Beach. What think this General? old peopel like to lay down in the sand and playing with it like littel children.
They have no idea what peopel want. I am agree what the have done to the hole mafia incl police tuk tuk driver etc.but to take the beds and sunumbrella away this is stupid. Next year the will see whats going on.

Posted by Anonymous on December 28, 2014 02:36

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Somebody should update the "after"pic.
Surprise!

Posted by Georg The Viking on December 28, 2014 13:03


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