Political tensions rise as Thai flood disaster continues

By John Roberts
2 November 2011

The Thai government is confronting a growing economic and political crisis as it struggles to placate angry flood victims in the capital Bangkok hit by flood waters still coming from the inundated north central region. Already the floods have led to nearly 400 deaths, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and shut down hundreds of factories in industrial estates to the north of Bangkok.

The commercial centre of the capital has been spared so far by its defences and the ebbing of high tides in the Gulf of Thailand. However, this has been at the expense of areas of outer Bangkok that have been inundated as the city’s flood management system failed to cope with the huge volume of water produced by three months of torrential rains and storms.

Tensions flared on Monday when around 1,000 angry residents in northern Bangkok demanded the opening of a sluice gate to the Klong Sam Wa canal to relieve floodwaters that had swamped their homes. Protesters attempted to smash the gate open with sledge hammers. “We are calling for justice,” shopkeeper Boonsom Jitchuen told the New York Times. “All we want is a place to sleep.”

The protest triggered a standoff between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is controlled by the opposition Democrat Party. BMA warned that opening the sluice gate would increase the danger of flooding to the as yet unaffected Bangkok Bang Chan Industrial Estate, the site of 200 billion baht of investment.

When Yingluck ordered the sluice gate opened, Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra initially declared he would comply only if the order was given in writing. In the end a compromise was reached—the gate was opened by one metre.

The anger and resentment in Khlong Sam Wa district is symptomatic of the sentiment in many areas that have been flooded to save wealthier and more commercially important suburbs. In many cases, these areas are in the poorer parts of Bangkok and its environs that supported Yingluck’s Puea Thai party in July’s national election.

Yesterday’s conflict between the government and the BMA is a further sign that none of the bitter divisions within the country’s ruling elite have been resolved. Thailand has been embroiled in one political crisis after another following the 2006 military coup that ousted Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra reflecting sharp differences over economic policy and Thaksin’s populist appeals to the urban and rural power.

Yingluck won this year’s election and was allowed to assume power only after private talks between representatives of Thaksin and the country’s traditional elites—the monarchy and the military—reached a deal to protect the interests of the latter. The worsening flood disaster, which has impacted heavily on the economy, is threatening to exacerbate the underlying tensions and trigger a new political crisis.

Well over 2 million of the country’s 67 million have been directly and severely affected by the flooding. Many have been unable to evacuate. Some have been without electricity, fresh water and reliable access to food for weeks. Cases of water-borne illness, electrocution and drowning are growing.

Anger is growing over the government’s failure to provide reliable information, to coordinate any relief for the flood-affected and Yingluck’s refusal to accept foreign aid. Kan Yuanyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank, told Reuters: “People now don’t trust the leadership of Yingluck and the government. They are hoarding food and water and now they rely on social media for their information.”

For all its pro-poor rhetoric, the Puea Thai government’s main concern is to convince big business and foreign investors that its reconstruction program will address their concerns and protect their interests. Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala told Reuters: “What is important is how we handle this [the flooding] long term, because we have to give full assurances to foreign investors that this can be handled better.”

Already the economic impact of the flooding has been massive. Late last month, the Bank of Thailand (BOT) revised its growth forecast for 2011 down to 2.6 per cent, from 4.1 percent in September. The BOT predicts a 1.9 percent contraction in the fourth quarter of 2011. According to the Commerce Ministry, exports, which account for 60 percent of GDP, will fall 13 percent in the final quarter.

Flooding has already closed seven major industrial estates to the north of Bangkok and left and over 650,000 workers without jobs. Global supply chains in the electronics and automobile industries have been badly affected. The price of hard drive disks has already started to rise. Honda and Toyota have reported factory disruptions in North America and Ford production in Thailand has stopped.

Global finance capital has already put the Thai government on notice. An article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday pointedly commented: “Political analysts say the reboot of this industrial belt [to the north of Bangkok], whenever it happens, will be a test for Ms Yingluck—and one that could make or break her administration after just months in office.”

HSBC analyst Frederic Neuman told the newspaper yesterday that the government’s response to the floods represented a “make-or-break” moment for Thailand. “A very determined response,” he said, could be “a catalyst for reform and attracting new investment. “But if the disaster response is lacking and we have funds dissipated through various channels and the government focuses more on short-term policies, then that would certainly reinforce an impression that’s already been gaining strength among international investors that perhaps Thailand is not the most business-friendly environment.”

Whether it satisfies foreign investors or not, the government’s pro-business response to the disaster will inevitably place new burdens on working people. The devastating impact of the flooding is itself the product of the failure of governments and the profit system itself to plan for and prevent the worst consequences.

While this year’s deluge is abnormal, heavy rains and tropical storms are a regular occurrence in Thailand and much of Asia. The impact of this year’s deluges has been compounded by a lack of planning, inadequate flood management infrastructure and unregulated development in town and country.

Widespread deforestation in the rural areas has led to greater run-off toward the Gulf of Thailand and Bangkok. Critics have also accused authorities of retaining too much water in the country’s dams earlier in the wet season, forcing the discharge of large amounts of water that contributed to the flood crisis.

In Bangkok the system of dykes and pumps developed after the 1983 floods to push the water through drainage canals and tunnels to the sea was only designed to cope with localised flooding caused by heavy rainfall. It was not planned to handle the massive run-off that has come from the north, according the Bangkok Post.

Run-off from the north was once able to find paths to the sea east of the city; new development now obstructs this. So inadequate was the infrastructure that flood management officials on October 28 even entertained a proposal by private sector engineers to cut channels through five major roads in eastern Bangkok that were blocking water reaching the sea. The idea was eventually abandoned as impractical.

None of these more fundamental problems will be addressed in the government’s reconstruction effort.