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Friday, 11 November 2011

The Thai Floods - When tomorrow never comes

With the Asian Tsunami of 2004, the lack of a decent education, the rampant corruption, the near civil war last year between the Red and Yellow Shirts, and now the floods, you have to feel for the average Thai who seems as a resilient and flexible as on old leather bag. No sooner has one disaster come and gone, but another floats along like an abandoned Styrofoam tray. Now threats in the flood waters of crocodiles and snakes have been added to the mix. One wonders when, if ever, Thailand will settle down and Thais can enjoy a modicum of peace and tranquility. Or can they ever?

(above photo -  Thai Businesswomen make their way through the floodwater as it advances into central Bangkok, on October 26, 2011

"Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don't worry...I'm here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you. " (Charlie Brown to Snoopy)
Water, water everywhere...
Everyone knows how important water is to Thai life. You only have to look at the many rivers which coil around the land like a weaving snake; the monsoon season which covers Thailand's cities with a deluge of the liquid stuff; the myriad rice paddies; the water buffalos lazily grazing in fields; the variety of water-lilies and lotus blossoms in nearby ponds; the Tom Yum clear soup dishes, and a host of many other very Thai images that depend on water for their identities.

How sad now that the floods have been so harsh to the landscape and inundated the terrain smothering everything in its path. It's as if the Thai God of Water has put a curse on Thailand and opened its banks to usher in a post-deluvian world: a world where Thais have no choice but to wade waist deep in the thick browny liquid until sufficient supplications have been made at various temples and the god's anger subsides allowing the water to recede. For me though, better to put your faith in the gods, or Buddha, or an amulet than rely on your leaders, and this may partly explain the deeply held religious beliefs of your average Thai. After all, as the British like to joke - "The Romans, what have they ever done for us?" The same question could be asked by Thais - "Thai politicians, what have they ever done for us?"
Jam tomorrow...
Perhaps it's a bit unfair to say it, but it does seems to me that once again Thailand has been let down by its leaders. As usual the politicians have been busy figuring out ways to not say and do what should have been said and done at the start of the flooding, instead, preferring to protect Thailand's image abroad at the expense of the people who desperately needed help in terms of evacuation along with food and medical supplies. It's a familiar story in Thailand: tourism and the potential negative effects of a downturn were the main focus above helping the local population, just as the business sector was valued above the needs of poor Somchai and his wife in a paddy field in Loei.
With recent news that, as a last resort, the Thai army has been called in to help get the flooding under control, you have to wonder how and why a young, completely inexperienced female politician could possibly be in charge of a country of 70 million people? To say that Yingluck Shinawatra was as overwhelmed as the Mekong Delta is an understatement. The size of the monumental task before her would have tested the mettle of even the most seasoned politicians, so it beggars belief that she was left in charge of such a difficult situation, not just geographically, but one which has ramifications both politically and economically.

Those who remember Hurricane Katrina in America will see striking parallels in Thailand with the response to the disaster to the current flood. In fact, it seems as if every time there is an emergency or national disaster, the politicians and local leaders, instead of rising to the occasion like leaders should, see the opportunity in disaster and find ways to profit from it. As usual, what results is an "Alice Through the Looking Glass" scenario where things are promised but never actually turn up, hence the phrase "Jam tomorrow."
Disaster capitalism
This slow and/or inadequate response also happened when the H1N1 crisis came around as the government withheld information vital to people on the ground with the result that many people were in fear of just how much the disease had spread. The same scenario played out during the early stages of the 2004 Asian Tsunami where the potential for a disastrous impact on the local economy meant that many people didn't know how many had perished in the tsunami.

Perhaps someone can tell me why an event that happens every year, the rainy season, and has done since the beginning of time, has not been monitored to the extent that a clear, and well organized contingency plan exists for just such a disaster that we are all currently witnessing? Or am I being unreasonable here and expecting too much? I remember the words of a high ranking Thai water official who berated the government for repeatedly telling them, year after year, that they should make sure that the reservoirs in and around Bangkok and in other areas should always be emptied before the rainy season. Did the government, central or local, take a blind bit of notice? We all know the answer, unfortunately. No, this wouldn't have solved the flooding problem in of itself, but it would have mitigated some of its effects thereby lessening the impact on at least some of the country's denizens.

Of course a lack of leadership is prevalent not only in Thailand, but in other parts of the world today. Politicians like Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Christine Lagarde, and David Cameron, shuttle in and out of eleventh hour meetings in European capitals with the clear mandate to solve many of the world's economic problems that they should have prevented from happening. Yet, little ever seems to happen, and last week a high ranking European official was sent, not unlike Dickens' "Oliver Twist", cap in hand, and a begging bowl at the ready, to ask for investment from the powerhouse of Asia - China.

Those who want to find out more about this so-called Disaster Capitalism playing out in so many cities and countries around the world can read Naomi Klein's interesting book - "The Shock Doctrine". According to this doctrine, you need do the following: "Invest in "Disaster Capitalism. This new investment sector is the core of the emerging "new economy" that generates profits by feeding off other peoples' misery: Wars, terror attacks, natural catastrophes, poverty, trade sanctions, market crashes and all kinds of economic, financial and political disasters."

You could easily have added the banking crisis and the Credit Crunch to this list. I only hope that the negative effects of Disaster Capitalism do not happen in Thailand as they did in America where scores of schools were shut down forever and public services drastically cut back. Thai people deserve better: better leaders, better planning, and a better future.

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