Friday, October 21, 2011

Thai Floods' Political Damage

• Yingluck’s popularity may be washing away

Although Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is being criticized for her failures in tackling Bangkok’s massive floods, three months of thunderstorms and decades of poor preparation are mostly to blame.

Certainly, however, the floods, the worst in five decades, have dissolved the heavily scripted can-do image created by Yingluck’s brother, the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It may have been a tactical error to surround Bangkok with makeshift floodwalls in the vain attempt to divert millions of cubic meters of water outside the perimeter, seeking to save middle-class urbanites who voted in large numbers for the Democrat Party in elections earlier this year. The premier and her Pheu Thai Party government were inundating the rural poor who delivered the Thaksin-backed government to power in July national elections. Opponents are expected to use the management of floods and the resulting losses against the government in future elections. Government officials have repeatedly offered contradictory statements, assuring people that they were safe, and then advising them to flee for their lives.

Yingluck didn’t help her image when she earlier visited victims who were struggling to survive after Thailand's destroyed their meager livelihoods. She wore colorful plaid, luxury brand Burberry rain boots -- reportedly priced at about US$225 in America -- and posted the photo on her Facebook page, attracting critics and defenders arguing about her behavior. Her personal wealth was recently declared at US$18 million.

The failed tactic of turning Bangkok into a virtual island – the floodgates were opened on Oct.20 when the battle was lost -- was designed to protect it from a relentless flow of brown fluid, strewn with garbage and chemicals, all flushing alongside the capital and dumping into the nearby Gulf of Thailand.

It hasn’t worked. Yingluck announced on Oct. 20 that Bangkok could not be entirely protected after its extensive eastern suburbs were sacrificed to the floods to relieve incoming water pressure on the city’s northern flank.

"Flood waters are coming from every direction and we cannot control them because it's a huge amount of water," Yingluck said in a televised address. "We will try to warn people," so they can evacuate, she said. "This problem is very overwhelming. It is a national crisis, so I hope to get cooperation from everybody."

It is estimated by officials that 450 million cubic meters of water are rushing into the Gulf of Thailand every day although the accumulated runoff is expected to continue to rise. It is expected that it will take 40 days for the waters to subside.

The floods, which swamped a third of the country, so far have killed 320 people, put foreign factories out of commission and rendered thousands of people homeless,

Despite what is regarded by critics as her poor management of the monsoon-swollen rivers, Yingluck is not solely to blame. She heads a lackluster cabinet mostly picked by her brother, and a coalition of squabbling parties. She also faces her worst political enemy, the Democrat Party, which dominates Bangkok's local administration including the governor, who took a central role in trying to protect the capital and has also come under criticism.

The crisis may also partly rehabilitate the Thai army among some Thais, however, because troops were widely seen working in deep water to erect barriers, rescue stranded people, and perform other difficult tasks.
The military’s image was badly damaged by its role in brutal suppression of Red Shirt demonstrators – who backed Pheu Thai in the election.

But the extensive destruction is mostly due to the fact that successive governments, headed by various political parties, have neglected to build enough canals, dikes and sluices across the country, and failed to sufficiently dredge rivers and create other ways for annual rains to drain, despite warnings from environmentalists.

Bangkok is a busy river port alongside the Chao Phraya River, with an average elevation of six feet above sea level, making its streets a frequent target for floods.

"People just outside the capital were asking why they should not pull down barriers that kept much of Bangkok dry," The Nation newspaper reported. More rain drenched Bangkok on Oct. 20 as the capital's 12 million people braced for the possibility that other neighborhoods could be suddenly inundated from the north.

Pheu Thai isn’t the first government to divert incoming water away from Bangkok. Previous governments have done it, -- including last year, causing a similar outcry from people who watched helplessly as their property was deliberately inundated to protect the capital.

Previous governments also allowed cities, industrial zones, highways and other infrastructure to be constructed where floods naturally drain, blocking the water so it spilled onto heavily populated areas. Decades of extensive deforestation have stripped the countryside of natural cover, and dams allegedly have been mismanaged.

Multinationals have been lured to Thailand to profit from low wages and other cheap costs, but their factories and warehouses have been devastated in the current floods because they are located in the Chao Phraya River Basin. Shocked investors have watched as swirling liquid drowned several sprawling, investor-friendly, low-lying "industrial parks" after breaching insufficient barriers. In some of the industrial areas, the water is three meters deep. More than 14,000 factories have been wrecked by floods across 20 provinces, displacing more than 660,000 workers, according to the Labor Welfare Department's director-general, Arthit Ismo.

The worst-affected industrial zones are 80 km. north of Bangkok, where three rivers converge at the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Multinationals which suspended or slowed operations due to the floods in Ayutthaya include Canon, Ford, Honda, Isuzu, Nikon, Seagate Technology, Sony, Toyota and Western Digital.

"The company now expects that the flooding of its Thailand facilities, combined with flood damage to the company's supply chain in Thailand, will have significant impact on the company's overall operations and its ability to meet customer demand for its products in the December quarter," California-based Western Digital said in a statement on Oct. 17.

"I think this is the biggest loss for Japan's overseas investment," Japan's ambassador to Thailand, Seiji Kokima, was quoted as saying.

Thailand's main Suvarnabhumi International Airport is vulnerable because it is on Bangkok's eastern outskirts and built on swampland. Life in much of Bangkok's dry areas has meanwhile remained mostly normal, with people shopping in lavish malls, dining out, and going to work while worriedly stocking up on essential items.

(By Richard S Ehrlich Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978)

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