Source AP ©

Thailand celebrates traditional New Year under tightened security

People of Thailand celebrated their traditional New Year by splashing each other with water Friday, but authorities were focused on traffic safety and anti-terrorism security in the south, hit by Islamic insurgency.

The Songkran holiday, which unofficially lasts a week, is an occasion for many urban Thais to visit relatives in the countryside.

Modern celebrations have evolved from an ancient rite meant to guarantee ample water for the next season's crops. Under the old custom, young people would pour scented water over their elders' hands as a mark of respect, and would receive their blessings.

But in recent years the festival has become wild, wet and raucous, and each year drunken and dangerous driving leads to hundreds of fatal accidents.

Initial reports from the official road safety center showed that 98 people had been killed since early Thursday in holiday-related accidents, and that 1,234 had been injured, mostly while riding motorcycles.

In the country's far south, the scene of a bloody Islamic insurgency for the past three years, security was tightened because of the possibility of attacks.

To promote goodwill with Muslims - who are a minority in overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand and might feel estranged by the Buddhist-oriented holiday - Songkran has been renamed the Sadnam Krairon, or Splash Water festival, in the Muslim-dominated southernmost provinces.

There were no reports of violence marring any celebrations in the south, as hundreds of Buddhists turned up at temples Friday morning and later splashed each other in designated public areas where security was out in force.

"So far there has been no violence. I hope that the insurgents will take a rest today and allow ordinary Muslims to come out and relax by splashing water," said Pranai Suwanarat, chief of the Southern Border Provincial Administration Center.

Festivities were more carefree in other parts of the country, especially Bangkok's Khao San Road area, which is popular with young foreign tourists.