Flood crisis in Thailand worsens

November 3, 2011

Devastating floods are wracking Thailand, and working-class and poor Thais have been hit hardest, as the government fails to implement the measures needed to deal with the disaster.

In July, the party associated with Thailand's pro-democracy "Red Shirt" movement won a landslide victory in elections, making Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister and giving a parliamentary majority to a coalition led by the Puea Thai Party--the latest in a line of populist parties reaching back to the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup. This also marked a defeat for the rightist Democrat Party and the royalist "Yellow Shirt" protesters, who were responsible for violence against pro-democracy protesters last year.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai dissident who was accused of "lese majesty"--essentially, not being loyal to the king--and forced to flee the country in 2009. Here, he explains the political backdrop to the current crisis, and why neoliberal solutions will only make the situation worse.

THE FLOODING in Thailand has affected millions of people. Houses, property and infrastructure have been seriously damaged. Factories and workplaces have been closed, and hundreds of thousands have become temporarily unemployed. Agricultural land has been flooded, leading to further loss of incomes.

Millions of people who are living modest lives will see their incomes and savings drastically fall and the economy can only be dragged down as a result. The waters are now predicted to remain high for at least a month.

It should not surprise anyone that the sharp political crisis, which has engulfed the country since the 2006 military coup, has had an impact on measures to deal with the floods. The military, the Democrat Party Bangkok governor and various royalist Yellow Shirt officials, have dragged their feet and been extremely reluctant to cooperate with the government.

In contrast to the rapid mobilization of troops to kill pro-democracy Red Shirt protesters last year, soldiers have only just been mobilized to help with the floods, weeks after the crisis started. The governor of Bangkok, known by the nickname "idiot prince," spent time on a Hindu ceremony to "push the water away" instead of coordinating with the government's efforts.

Flooded roadways in the town of Chumpon in Thailand
Flooded roadways in the town of Chumpon in Thailand

Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Yellow Shirts have kept up a constant and vitriolic criticism of the government's record over the floods. Yet this crisis is a long-term problem of a lack of planning, compounded with unusually heavy rainfall. The Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva showed a total disregard for what Thais were suffering by going on an expensive holiday to the Maldives just as the crisis was worsening.

Many Red Shirts have fallen to believing conspiracy theories about the floods. They claim that the floods have been "deliberately caused by the King." Conspiracy theories and rumors flourish in a country where there is no transparency and any discussion of the role of the king or the military is forbidden by the draconian lese majesty law.

Yet the King is not some all-powerful god who can order floods, famines, droughts or plagues. There have been simultaneous floods in all neighboring countries because of unusual levels of rainfall and lack of water management planning.

THE LONGER-term effects of the flood damage will become a real test for the Puea Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra. If this crisis is not solved to the satisfaction of most citizens, the government risks losing long-term public support.

If the government listens to the neoliberal economists at institutes like the Thailand Development Research Institute, or to the Democrat Party and the ruling elites, it will cut government spending in all areas. Already, a 10 percent across-the-board cut has been announced. This will raise indirect taxes like VAT [value-added tax], which affects the poor. It will delay the much-needed increase in the minimum wage to 300 baht per day.

It will raise funds to help businesses. But it will leave the ordinary citizens to fend for themselves. That was the kind of response we experienced from the free-market Democrat Party under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, just after the 1996 Asian economic crisis. They used public money to prop up the banks and guarantee middle-class savings and then told the poor to fend for themselves.

Employment quality and incomes fell drastically. Then, after Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party won the following elections in 2001, on a platform of government spending on the poor, the Democrats shouted that this pro-poor spending on health, education and jobs was "against fiscal discipline." What "fiscal discipline" meant in practice to the Democrats and neoliberals was shown by the massive increase in military spending under the military-appointed Abhisit Vejjajiva government a few years after the coup.

What is really needed in the face of this huge crisis today is a massive program of government spending in order to repair houses and infrastructure, to compensate the poor for their losses and to create thousands of jobs. In addition to this, there needs to be a serious project to build flood canals to prevent the floods happening again in the future.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin has suggested a water management project and estimated the cost to be around 400 billion baht. All this would create jobs and stimulate economic recovery, especially if the minimum wage were to be raised in all provinces, as initially promised in the government's manifesto.

But the government cannot hope to raise the money by not increasing taxes, borrowing money and making budget cuts. It is the way in which the government does this that will be a crucial test. Direct and progressive taxes should be raised on Thailand's millionaires. That includes taxing the royalty.

Severe government spending cuts should be imposed on the military. There should be a total freeze on military spending, especially on weapons and hardware. Military salaries at the top should also be frozen or cut, while maintaining the salaries of ordinary soldiers. A total freeze on spending should be imposed for all palace ceremonies.

Not a single baht should be spent on the king's birthday and other wasteful activities. But to do this, would mean the government breaking with the royalist elites, especially the military. Thai society will never be fully democratic and equal without engaging in this necessary and highly moral task.

On its own, the government is unlikely to implement the necessary program to solve the flood crisis. The Red Shirts face an important test today. Will the movement rise to the occasion, start debates and discussions around the issue and then move to pressure the government, or will it sink into inactivity and eventual despair?

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