Tourists flee Thai islands as Tropical Storm Pabuk looms

The islands, hugely popular with tourists especially during the peak Christmas and New Year season, have emptied out since Wednesday. (File/AFP)
Updated 03 January 2019
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Tourists flee Thai islands as Tropical Storm Pabuk looms

  • The islands, hugely popular with tourists especially during the peak Christmas and New Year season, have emptied out since Wednesday
  • Pabuk, Thailand’s first tropical storm in the area outside of the monsoon season for around 30 years, is poised to batter Koh Phangnan and Koh Tao

BANGKOK: Tens of thousands of tourists have fled the Thai resort islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in a mass exodus ahead of Tropical Storm Pabuk which is set to bring heavy rains, wind and seven meter (22 foot) waves, officials said Thursday.
The islands, hugely popular with tourists especially during the peak Christmas and New Year season, have emptied out since Wednesday as tourists packed onto ferries bound for the southern Thai mainland, with swimming banned and boats set to suspend services.
Pabuk, Thailand’s first tropical storm in the area outside of the monsoon season for around 30 years, is poised to batter Koh Phangnan and Koh Tao as well as Koh Samui on Friday night, before cutting into the mainland.
No official evacuation order has been given but tourists are leaving in droves.
“I think the islands are almost empty ... between 30,000 to 50,000 have left since the New Year’s Eve countdown parties,” Krikkrai Songthanee, Koh Phangnan district chief, told AFP.
The acting mayor of Koh Tao, one of Southeast Asia’s finest diving spots, said boats to Chumphon on the mainland were crammed with tourists, but several thousand guests were still on the island likely to brave the storm.
Pabuk was packing winds of 104 kilometers per hour(65 mph) but was unlikely to intensify into a full blown typhoon, according to forecasters.
“But we expect waves as high as five or seven meters near the eye of the storm. Normally in the Gulf of Thailand there are only two meter high waves,” Phuwieng Prakammaintara, director general at the Thai Meteorological Department, told reporters.
“It’s difficult to predict the severity of the storm so people should comply with authorities’ recommendations.”
On Koh Samui, the closest of the trio of islands, authorities said they were preparing shelters for any tourists who decide to wait out the storm.
Pabuk, which means a giant catfish in Lao, is also expected to dump heavy rain across the south, including tourist hotspots in the Andaman Sea such as Krabi and the southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.


Japan’s Okinawa votes on controversial US base move

Updated 24 February 2019
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Japan’s Okinawa votes on controversial US base move

  • Polls opened early on Sunday morning, with about 1.15 million Okinawans eligible to vote
  • Japan’s military alliance with the United States is seen as a key partnership

OKINAWA: Residents of Japan’s Okinawa were casting ballots Sunday in a closely watched referendum on the controversial relocation of a US military base to a remote part of the island.
The vote is seen as highly symbolic but is also non-binding, raising questions about what effect it will have, even if opponents of the move, including Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, prevail.
The ballot asks residents whether they support a plan to reclaim land at a remote coastal site for the relocation of the Futenma base from its current location in a heavily-populated part of Okinawa.
It was initially planned as a yes-no vote on the move, but a “neither” option was added after several cities with close ties to the central government threatened to boycott the vote.
Polls opened early on Sunday morning, with about 1.15 million Okinawans eligible to vote. The Jiji Press agency reported around 20.5 percent of eligible voters had already cast ballots in early voting by Saturday.
“They are using a lot of tax money and manpower for this referendum, even though the result will not have any legal power. So, we thought that we should take this opportunity and think very carefully about this issue,” said Yuki Miyagaki, after casting her ballot at a local school.
“We usually shout no to the new base construction. This is a good opportunity to tell the government directly with concrete numbers: ‘No’. This is an important vote,” 32-year-old Narumi Haine said.
Although the referendum is not legally binding, “it is significant that people in Okinawa can express their will through the vote,” said Jun Shimabukuro, a professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa.
“It can be a test to gauge if democracy is working in Japan,” Shimabukuro said before voting opened.
The relocation of Futenma to Nago, 50 kilometers away, was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to calm local anger after US servicemen gang raped a local schoolgirl.
But the plan has long been stalled in part over local opposition.
The Futenma base has stoked tension with local residents over problems ranging from noise and military accidents to crime involving base residents.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government says the relocation will address those concerns, but many in Okinawa want the base relocated elsewhere in Japan.
They argue that the region bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to hosting US military troops in the country.
Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s total land area, but hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan.
Anti-base rallies have been staged daily in Okinawa since campaigning for the referendum began in mid-February.
But the vote has not stopped reclamation work at Nago, with construction workers continuing to shovel dirt into the ocean offshore with bulldozers.
“We hope the referendum will boost the momentum of our fight,” demonstrator Masaru Shiroma told AFP on Friday, as more than 100 fellow activists tried to block trucks entering the construction site on Friday.
“The government is making a fool out of Okinawa.”
The ballot closes at 8:00P.M. with exit polls expected soon after and official results from as early as midnight.
Okinawa’s governor is required to “respect” the vote’s outcome if at least a quarter of eligible voters — around 290,000 votes — vote for any one option.
Tamaki has urged residents to turn out and cast their “precious votes” in the poll.
An opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper this week found 59 percent of people in Okinawa oppose the reclamation while 16 percent support it.
The survey also found 80 percent of respondents want Abe’s government to respect the results.
But there has been little sign Abe’s government will shift course if the vote goes against the move, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying there were no plans to halt the relocation regardless of the outcome.
Japan’s military alliance with the United States is seen as a key partnership, and Okinawa’s location near Taiwan has long been viewed as having huge strategic importance for US forward positioning in Asia.