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Monday, Oct. 31, 2011

All too familiar signs of state paralysis in Thai crisis


By CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON
Special to The Japan Times

Like the Japan tsunami, flooding in Thailand will have a global impact on the supply and price of rice, cameras, computers and cars.

Yet many are wondering who is overseeing crisis management in Bangkok: fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, exiled in Dubai; or his 44-year old sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won the July election despite little experience with politics or disasters.

The global stakes are high. Thailand, the world's leading rice exporter, has already lost a quarter of this year's crop. Companies including Ford, Honda, Toyota, Nikon, and Western Digital face disruptions to their global supply chain, as waters continue to inundate thousands of businesses.

Amid a spate of disasters, voters across the region are increasingly fed up with state paralysis. Since the March 11 tsunami, Japan's Democratic Party, elected in 2009, has struggled to implement policies amid opposition from entrenched bureaucrats loyal to former rulers. Accused of mishandling the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, reformist Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to resign amid popularity ratings below 20 percent.

Elected mainly by poor Thai farmers and urban workers, Yingluck's government has instead chosen — among difficult options — to sacrifice rural areas and Bangkok's northern suburbs in order to preserve elite property in central Bangkok. Not surprisingly, polls this past week showed declining approval ratings for Yingluck. Though she's been out front on TV appealing for unity, some have ridiculed her for saying that Bangkok would be safe, and for wearing flashy rubber boots into a poor ghetto.

Thai media reports say her brother Thaksin, who boasts a 400-billion-baht plan to conquer future floods, is actually directing the Bangkok crisis team from his desert abode 5,000 kilometers away. But many critics are blaming the flood on the billionaire Thaksin. They say he profited from the dam building, illegal logging, and construction of industrial parks and housing estates on farmland needed to absorb the annual rainy season runoff.

Environmentalists such as Smith Dharmasaroja, the former Thai weather office director who predicted the 2004 tsunami, say the novice rulers, focused on bringing Thaksin back to Thailand, ignored expert advice on how to deal with monsoon rainfall 25 percent above average. They neglected to release water already pooling in reservoirs in July, and mismanaged the water flow system installed by their political rivals. Science Minister Plodprasap Suraswadi and others have sent out false alarms, or no alarms at all.

Though politicians often take the blame, unelected bureaucrats with lifetime jobs tend to run things — or block progress — behind the scenes. While Tokyo politicians scrambled to save face during Japan's worst postwar crisis, civil servants in devastated Iwate prefecture forbade some doctors, nurses and volunteers to enter disaster zones without proper permits. Amid widespread fears of food contamination, Tokyo's chief health officer told a reporter in October not to worry about radiation because "people don't eat dirt anyway." No longer trusting the once-heralded bureaucracy, citizen groups have tested for radiation on their own, and found more than 20 hot spots in Tokyo.

Others on the public payroll, especially seismologists, are frustrated that leaders ignored their warnings about quakes and tsunami historically destroying coastal areas in Fukushima and elsewhere. Water management experts at the Royal Thai Irrigation Department, which for years warned investors about the hazards of building on flood plains, are also feeling left out of the decision-making process.

Given the tug-of-war between politicians and mandarins, soldiers and police have shouldered the heavy workload on the ground. Japan's military, which has kept a low profile since 1945, rescued thousands stranded atop buildings. Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, a former air force pilot, has gained respect in a country where six prime ministers have quit in the past five years.

The Thai military, which ousted Thaksin in a bloodless coup in 2006, is winning support for digging trenches, piling sandbags, and saving flood victims. Despite fears of another coup d'etat, Thai military sources say they don't want to take over now, and bear responsibility for the disaster.

Lacking state assistance, increasing numbers of citizens are following the lead of volunteer groups who are taking disaster relief into their own hands. The world community should help them immediately, instead of leaving victims at the mercy of dysfunctional states.

Fluent in Thai and Japanese, freelance Canadian journalist Christopher Johnson has covered the region since 1987.


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