Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The night-time shutdown is cutting the income of countless Thais; it must be ended as soon as possible

The country has been under curfew for a week now, following the military takeover on May 22. Few are applauding the 10pm-to-5am shutdown, which is part of wider restrictions placed on rights such as free speech. But the junta's orders curb much more than just freedom of movement and expression. The curfew is hitting all classes where it hurts - in their pockets.

Barring anyone from being on the streets during those hours means life effectively ends each day before 9pm, as citizens rush back to meet the deadline. So far the focus has been on night workers and after-dark entertainment venues, but the reality is the seven-hour shutdown is causing much wider disruption.

The coup-makers have admitted concern of their own, and must have foreseen the action would damage normal life. They pledged leniency in policing the curfew and said it would be lifted as soon as possible. In the meantime there is no question that business is suffering, from shopping malls, convenience stores, restaurants, musicians, roadside noodle shops, waiters and taxi drivers to the humble squid vendors outside pubs. All are seeing fewer customers and reduced income.

For the first time, the usually around-the-clock 7-Eleven stores are closing their shutters at 9pm. The malls close at 8, cutting short the peak after-office shopping hours on which their tenants depend. Mall-based food outlets have been badly affected, missing much of the suppertime trade. The picture is much worse for pubs and bars. And these are businesses that collectively employ millions in the capital and other big cities across the country.

Being hit even harder are the night-time street vendors and taxi drivers. Cabbies working the night shift have reported their income halved, to around Bt400 per day. The combined losses in the night-time entertainment sector are veering toward hundreds of millions of baht.

It is important that Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha follows through on his pledge to lift the curfew soon. It must be lifted to remove the pressure on the business sector and on the countless ordinary Thais whose income relies on after-dark activities. When businesses can't operate at night, they suspend workers or cut their pay. In the worst cases, they fire staff.

The coup-makers cited the need to promote economic growth among the reasons for their actions, so they must return the seven hours of public life as soon as possible.

The military is understandably concerned about security, but there must be a better way to keep the peace. It could, for example, beginning the curfew at midnight to give more businesses more leeway. By stepping up their security efforts elsewhere, the military might be able to scrap the stay-at-home order quickly. Perhaps there could be more checkpoints in Bangkok and key provinces.

If the coup-makers' aim is to return Thailand to normal conditions of peace and economic growth, their first priority should be to lift the curfew to enable people to go about their lives as usual. As incomes fall across the country, so do the chances for social and economic health.

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