Each year in Thailand the monsoon comes, and each year the government in Bangkok must decide how far it’s prepared to flood the countryside in order to protect the capital, its people and business interests from rising waters. Normally damage is minimal, but this year was different.
No sooner had newly-elected Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra settled into her job than the worst flooding in 60 years struck parts of the country. Yingluck’s mandate had been to resolve the differences between the urban middle classes and their country cousins who backed her.
However, the surging floods posed an unwanted political dilemma – unleash water from the sluices, sandbag the capital and steer the flow across precious farmland, or allow the water to run its natural course through the waterways of Bangkok, resulting in the obvious devastation of homes and business.
The farmers – who believe they have drawn the short end of the political straw during the sometimes tumultuous standoffs between the Red and Yellow Shirt movements of recent years – say their land and their crops are being sacrificed to protect Bangkok, and they aren’t happy about that.
Perhaps unwittingly, former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, whose Democrat party lost to Yingluck in the July election, summed up traditional attitudes to the countryside and the capital when he said amid the rising waters: ‘This is the last line of defence, basically for Bangkok.’
Thousands of volunteers have worked tirelessly with the military to fortify flood walls, however, their efforts may have been in vain. Residents in seven of the city’s north and eastern districts are at risk from a broken dyke, and the government is now being sharply criticized for failing to divert the water around the city as opposed to through city canals.
Yingluck has appealed for cooperation on all sides, and that might include farmers who sabotaged levies that were supposed to keep the city dry, with floods claiming more than 300 lives so far. Authorities are also urging residents to switch off electrical appliances, grab what they can and prepare for evacuation.
The army has begun the evacuation of tens of thousands of workers from the Navanakorn industrial estate, on Bangkok’s northern outskirts, which was inundated after a flood protection barrier failed. Industrial output, along with crops, have been hit hard by the floods, with 1,000 factories and roads in 27 north and central provinces remaining under water. This includes the likes of Canon and Honda.
Manufacturing supply chains have also been devastated, and some analysts have estimated exports could slide by 40 percent to $3.9 billion for the calendar year. The government says the disaster will knock between 1 percent and 1.7 percent off economic growth for the same period.
In coming to power, Yingluck promised the rural poor much, including higher rice prices, improved health cover and a better standard of living, in return for their vote and goodwill. Following the damage wreaked by the floods, and the bill incurred by business, she may have to reassess those promises and give a lot more.