Catastrophic failures of inept governments

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am

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Like the Japanese tsunami, flooding in Thailand is causing widespread death, displacement and disruptions of global supply chains for cameras, computers and cars.

Yet it's not even clear who is overseeing the crisis in Bangkok: fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, exiled in Dubai; or his sister, neophyte Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has never managed a disaster.

The global stakes are high. Thailand, the world's leading rice exporter, has already lost a quarter of this year's crop. Companies such as Honda, Toyota and Apple are learning the hard way about the folly of trusting governments and building factories on rice paddies in flood-prone river deltas. Voters in Thailand, as well as Japan, are angry with governments seemingly unable to cope with natural and man-made forces.

Northern Thai farmers and urban workers, who voted for Yingluck to empower them against the Bangkok establishment, have seen their homes sacrificed to preserve elite property in central Bangkok. They see Yingluck on TV crying, and wearing flashy designer boots around barefoot victims, while Bangkok's governor, whose party lost the July election, tells people to listen to him.

Billionaire Thaksin brags about his plan to conquer future floods, and reportedly tells Yingluck what to do. Environmentalists, however, blame Thaksin for profiting from the dam building, illegal logging, and construction of industrial parks and housing estates on farmland needed to absorb annual flooding. They remember how Thaksin's cronies didn't even issue a tsunami warning on TV in 2004, and after taking power three months ago, failed to open dams early in the rainy season.

Many Japanese seismologists complain that politicians and nuclear executives ignored their warnings about building reactors in areas prone to quakes and tsunamis. Experts at the Royal Thai Irrigation Department warned for years against building on flood plains, to no avail.

Soldiers, meanwhile, have shouldered the heavy workload on the ground. Japan's military rescued thousands stranded atop buildings, and exhausted police officers spent months searching for the dead and missing. The Thai military, which ousted Thaksin in a bloodless coup in 2006, is digging trenches, piling sandbags and saving flood victims. They promise not to stage a coup for now.

Yet even their efforts aren't enough, and few want to see a return to military rule. Lacking ample state assistance, citizens are joining volunteer groups, taking disaster relief into their own hands. The world community should help them immediately, instead of leaving victims at the mercy of dysfunctional states.

Freelance journalist Christopher Johnson, author of Siamese Dreams, has covered the region since 1987