Thailand finds hazards to health, environment on the road to riches

A LETTER FROM BANGKOK

November 18, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,John Woodruff is chief of The Sun's Tokyo Bureau.

Bangkok, Thailand - Here at the epicenter of the world's fastest-growing economy, the visibility is not always very good.

In the sporadic moments when the glut of buses, cars and motorcycles moves on the perpetually traffic-jammed streets of this capital, the first effect usually is huge clouds of blue-gray motorcycle exhaust.

Breezes stirred by the traffic carry the clouds, rolling them across sidewalks and puffing them into gigantic cumulus-like towers that rise higher than most of the buildings in what is still largely a low-rise city.

"It's hard to drive here, but it's harder to breathe," Ben Prasaert, a driver for the Oriental Hotel, remarked as he sat waiting for traffic to budge.

Mr. Prasaert solves the problem by dividing his life between Bangkok and his hometown, Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

His job at the Oriental includes a bunk, a shower and meals in the drivers' room and requires him to be on call 24 hours a day for seven days at a time. Then he gets seven days to go back to Chiang Mai to spend with his family.

"Chiang Mai has changed a lot, too, but at least I know where my children are going to go to school," he said.

"And I know I'll get a few days to clean this Bangkok air out of my lungs," Mr. Prasaert said. "The life expectancy is nine years longer for people who live away from Bangkok, so I know it's better for my family to be in Chiang Mai."

Right on schedule, Thailand, a strong candidate to become the next Newly Industrialized Economy, is living through the environmental and social nightmares that have accompanied breakneck economic growth in many countries of Asia.

The capital's traffic jams, which already were legendary a decade before the economic takeoff of the 1980s, and its air pollution are only two in a broad array of trade-offs Thais make daily for their rising prosperity.

Another price some Thai people pay for modernization is acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Asia had once counted itself blissfully free of AIDS, but Thailand has become one of the region's leading centers of the disease.

Last summer, Thai diplomats faced the embarrassment of having to fend off a move by New Zealand's government to restrict visa rights, on grounds that Thai immigrants and visitors threatened to cause an epidemic there.

A key factor in bringing AIDS to Thailand has been Bangkok's free-wheeling tourist business, which has made a major contribution to the foreign-exchange reserves that have helped to back the country's economic takeoff.

In Thailand, tourism has for decades included prostitution services by massage houses, escort companies, bar girls and scores of other providers as simply part of the country's famous hospitality.

Many of the women are country girls, sold to Bangkok whorehouses by their parents. In some provinces, whole towns are known as places where parents specialize in selling their daughters.

This year, two of those towns have been haunted by local AIDS scares, each discovering that several residents have been diagnosed as carriers of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

No direct connection has been established with the towns' custom of supplying massage and escort workers, but that has not kept provincial and Bangkok newspapers from commenting on what they see as a return of evil to its home base.

Other Thais pay for their country's prosperity in the disappearance of the country's once-famous teakwood forests, which scarcely exist after a generation of virtual surface-mining of the timber.

Today, Thai furniture companies import from Myanmar and look forward to peace in Vietnam and Cambodia as a chance to strip still further sections of the region.

Increasingly, Thailand's furniture industry churns out prefabricated stuff made of particle-impregnated wood from rubber and other trees that were thrown away as junk a decade ago.

That keeps the furniture industry in business -- it's flourishing, in fact. But for many ordinary Thai people, the overwhelming majority of whom still are rural, it does nothing to alleviate a shortage that is forcing an unwelcome change of lifestyle.

Once the symbol of one of the world's most graceful tropical lifestyles, the Thai teakwood country house, with picturesque pointed roofs and 10-foot stilts holding it aloft over the annual floodwaters, is rapidly falling victim to the pillage of the region's forests.

The price of high-quality teak logs, when they can be found, has doubled since early 1989 to $640 a cubic meter, which means the simplest two-bedroom house would now cost $24,000 for the shell alone, without land, plumbing, wiring or fixtures, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported recently.

Even in the hinterland of the world's fastest-growing economy, a price like that is prohibitive to all but the richest rural families.

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