Submerging the rest of the Chao Phraya river basin to secure Bangkok is a mirror image of Thailand’s political crisis
Thai residents evacuate their houses on a flooding main street in Pathum Thani province near Bangkok, Thailand.
Inaccurate information, poor management and nature have all combined to unleash one of Thailand’s worst floods in decades. When the newly elected government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in early August, it wasted no time in rolling out populist policies catered to its up-country supporters, putting in motion the legacy of Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a military coup five years ago and later convicted and exiled for corruption.
The jury is out on Yingluck’s leadership and her ability to pull Thailand through the ongoing deluge. Whether and how she bounces back from this flooding crisis will define her premiership.
To be sure, floods are not uncommon in Thailand’s low-lying central provinces just north of Bangkok, the country’s traditional “rice bowl”. These provinces have also spawned manufacturing estates for multinational companies in recent decades. Severe floods also beset the central plains and Bangkok in 1983 and 1995, with 1942 the most catastrophic. But the cost of each flood has risen dramatically over the years, as the Thai economy has become more developed.
Early rainfall this year, intensified by a string of monsoonal storms, should have prompted early release of waters in the country’s main upstream dams along the Chao Phraya river, the main waterway through the central region descending on Bangkok before it reaches the sea.
But the dams did not release enough water to accommodate the monsoons. When the dam gates gushed in earnest, torrential downpours came, thereby submerging adjacent provinces. The damage to farms and factories is likely to cost several billion pounds.
The government’s response was initially inept. Different ministers issued different warnings. Inter-agency conflicts and lack of policy co-ordination were rife. Yingluck delegated and skirted around tough decisions. Her strengths of patience and even temperament became her weaknesses.
Information was not centralised and reliable. The saturation and sensationalism of television images on a constant news cycle made the public edgier. Yingluck has shifted gear and appears more in charge, having invoked additional laws to give her government more authority short of declaring a state of emergency, which would give the army more powers.
The floods also have underlined Thailand’s urban-rural divide which has underpinned a broader national polarisation and conflict since Thaksin’s departure. Downstream provinces were awash in order to divert waters away from central Bangkok. The Thai capital was kept mostly dry at the expense of its surrounding areas.
Bangkok’s omnipotence is partly justifiable as it harbours some 40% of GDP as well as being the residence of movers and shakers in Thai society and the yoke of the economy. Yet submerging the rest of the Chao Phraya river basin to secure Bangkok is a mirror image of Thailand’s political crisis pitting the well-heeled urban elites against the hapless downtrodden elsewhere.
Moreover, the governor of Bangkok happens to hail from the opposition Democrat party. Unsurprisingly, Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra’s priorities differ from Yingluck’s. Unless the rains lighten, this trade-off between saving the capital to see its adjacent provinces suffer may prove futile.
If Bangkok shares some of the flooding, economic damage will mount but a sense of equality and justice will prevail. When the floods go through the capital, they will find faster release into the Gulf of Thailand.
Yingluck’s learning curve will have to steepen quickly. This flooding crisis has enabled her to carve out some autonomy away from her impatient and blustery brother. Managing the floods requires a day-to-day, hands-on operation that precludes the involvement of Thaksin.
But the challenge for Yingluck will come during the recovery and rebuilding aftermath. If ways can be found to institute a broad-based, post-crisis stimulus programme, she may not need her brother’s populism as much, and Thai economic growth can still clock a solid expansion with minimal slowdown in spite of global adversity. If her leadership is drowned out by the same floodwaters, her brother’s enemies and opponents will directly become hers.
Author: Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Photography: Rungroj Yongrit / EPA
Source: The Guardian