Monsoon's return raises political storm in Thailand

Pavin Chachavalpongpun says spectre of 2011 flood disaster hangs over divided Thai society

The monsoon season has started in Thailand. Already, some provinces have seen some flooding, and the Yingluck Shinawatra government is nervous about its readiness to handle the crisis. Last year, deadly floods inundated hundreds of factories and disrupted the global supply chains for electronics and auto parts. Estimates of financial loss rank the 2011 floods among the most devastating natural disasters in the world.

The problem isn't just the government's inability to cope with the floods; political gamesmanship is also complicating the issue. The opposition Democrat Party accuses Yingluck of mishandling the floods, calling her a clueless bimbo. They're also spreading rumours regarding the flood situation.

If Yingluck is to be judged, "weak" would be a better description of her leadership. It is true that, last year, she responded to the floods too slowly. While she worked tirelessly, she failed to produce an integrated approach to improve the situation.

This time around, the opposition is working intimately with the Bangkok governor, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who happens to be a Democrat, to try to discredit the Yingluck administration. Sukhumbhand refused to co-operate with the government during the preparation period, such as on a thorough check of a flood pipeline in Bangkok built to allow the floodwaters to be released to the Gulf of Thailand.

But the Democrats do not work alone. The Thai military, like the Bangkok governor, has functioned almost independently from the government, possibly in an attempt to create a new image for itself. There is a clear sense of competition between the government and its rivals. Some of the fiercest critics of the government have already called for Yingluck to resign if the floods attack the country again this year.

This competition, even during the height of a crisis, unveils a reality in Thailand: this is a deeply fragmented society in which political ideologies have overshadowed public responsibility and the urgency for national survival. It is no longer a country where its members are willing to forge ahead and leave their differences behind. Eliminating political adversaries at the expense of a national catastrophe is seemingly acceptable today.

Bangkok, in particular, is a symbol of contentious politics. Those who complain the loudest are the Bangkok residents, who were so fortunate to have been kept dry last year. In the meantime, other provinces have continued to suffer from floodwaters that do not seem to go away.

It is a case of a great disparity between rural and urban residents.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Expect a political storm with monsoon's return