Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lack of government leadership to blame

The Nation October 20, 2011 9:01 am
Lack of government leadership to blame

Signs of public doubting Yingluck's abilities as Bangkok braces for deluge

The flood that ravaged many provinces has finally reached Bangkok and all its residents, whether in the suburbs or the inner city, are close to panic. To blame is the lack of leadership at the national level.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra proves that she has a lot to learn as a professional politician. Now, she should realise that even with the prime minister's crown, she has to flex her muscles more to demonstrate her true authority.

Previous governments are to be dammed for neglecting the overall picture of water management - including how the national irrigation system works - but the collapse of dykes here and there shows Yingluck’s inability to keep things under control.

With a historically huge runoff after several storms like this, all provinces erected barriers to protect their cities. But due to limited budgets, most barricades were earthen embankments or sandbag stacks that could not withstand the raging currents.

According to an Irrigation Department source, building a barrier with sandbags is an art - the bags must not be densely packed and they must be placed on a solid surface like a road, or they will collapse along with the ground underneath them.

Taking office in August and busy forming the government and defending her policies, Yingluck was assured by all governors that the protection measures would work. But she became a lame duck following the collapse of the dykes that led to the swamping of cities and industrial estates.

As the deluge now descends on the capital, its residents are not wrong to doubt her ability. Despite her repeated promises that she would do her best to protect the city, failures here and there to win public backing for her water diversion plans have emerged.

Yingluck can share the blame with her brother Thaksin, who is known to have handpicked the Cabinet. New to the scene, she could never know who is capable of what. Without such knowledge, it’s impossible to put the right man in the right job.

Plodprasob Suraswadi’s message to villagers living north of Bangkok was a clear example. The science minister was in charge of operations, but instead of taking care of flood prevention he enjoyed passing comments.

The Flood Relief Operations Centre was a joke in its first week of operation, as nobody in the room had any real knowledge about the matter. Chalit Damrongsak, director-general of the Irrigation Department, was brought in recently, which ably restored FROC's credibility. But that credibility was swept away by Plodprasob’s remarks and then by conflicting reports from the FROC spokesman. All that went on, unchecked.

Yingluck also proved weak when it came to conflicts with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration over the protection of the capital. Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who represents the opposition Democrat Party, insisted that Bangkok was his domain and that he needed no help from the national government to save the city. There was little response or reaction to that notion. There was only a gentle message from FROC chief Pracha Promnok that the central government needed to get involved, given the status of Bangkok as the nation's economic centre.would be delivered quickly.

Again, no reaction. The government dutifully delivered the sandbags as requested, as if it was working for the BMA, not the other way around.

Sukhumbhand is elected by Bangkok residents. Yet, Bangkok is not his personal toy, for it is the hub of government and business. This city is not only home to local voters, but also of diplomats, expatriates and foreign tourists. If the city is crippled, the impact would resonate nationwide.

It would be interesting to see how British Prime Minister David Cameron would coordinate with the London mayor to protect that city against a natural disaster like this. Certainly, the mayor would not be left to carry out his work alone and any disagreements would be ironed out at a closed meeting.

Yingluck’s weakness is also echoed following calls for the declaration of a state of emergency. The pictures of Bangkok residents smiling beside military tanks show how familiar they are with military forces in the capital. As the prime minister, she should do better in pointing out that the Army is here to defend the country against outside enemies, not natural disasters like this one. The Army was impotent in diverting the massive amount of water out of the city. It is lending a hand, even without a state of emergency. And despite heavy equipment and legions of manpower, it also failed to safeguard the Nava Nakorn Industrial Estate.

As a matter of fact, the US Army took part in rescuing New Orleans after the disastrous storm there because of the state of emergency.

But unlike Thailand, New Orleans had to declare a state of emergency so that it could access federal resources - which included military support and financial aid from the federal government - as the damage was beyond the state’s ability to cope.

Yingluck has a lot to learn if she wants to hold on to power. First, she needs to assemble a coterie of her own supporters, not those who back her brother. Through these people, she can exercise her power to get things done the way she wants.

Second, with help from these advisers, she can toughen her stance against whatever forces rock the stability of her government. She needs this and she should act fast. Sadly for her, with a disaster of this scale, the honeymoon period is over.
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