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After the flood in Thailand

Asia Times - November 19, 2011

Shawn W Crispin, Bangkok Massive floods have shifted Thailand's political current, draining Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's previous strong momentum and replenishing the royalist establishment forces aligned against her criminally convicted and self-exiled former premier elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Four months after winning a resounding electoral mandate, Yingluck now faces a credibility deficit over her administration's erratic and by many accounts inept handling of the natural disaster. The floods have inundated thousands of factories, adversely affected more than two million people and resulted in nearly 600 deaths. Competitive responses to the high waters, meanwhile, have underscored Thailand's still deep political polarization.

As the crisis shifts from emergency response to rehabilitation and recovery, Yingluck is now gambling that massive state spending for flood-hit areas, ramped up populist policies and, most controversially, a secretly proposed draft amnesty decree that would allow Thaksin to return next month to Thailand as a free man will restore her government's once-strong, now-weakened standing.

While Yingluck has faltered, the floods have served as what some analysts have called a "perfect disaster" for rival conservative forces. Before the deluge, Yingluck's government was steadily moving to undermine several royal establishment power bases in the name of political reform, putting the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and anti-Thaksin media outlets on the political back foot.

A defense bill aimed to establish greater civilian control over the armed forces, including over promotions and demotions, while the creation of a new commission aimed at revamping the judiciary seemed set to shuffle top royalist judges. Proposed new media legislation, drafted by the Culture Ministry, would empower the national police chief, currently Thaksin's former brother-in-law, to unilaterally censor the print media without the legal recourse of court review.

Military coup-makers buoyed by opposition media overthrew Thaksin in a 2006 putsch. Royalist judges, meanwhile, have handed down a series of decisions that have gone against Thaksin and his political allies. Politicized verdicts banned his top deputies from politics, brought down two Thaksin-affiliated governments in 2008, and last year seized US$1.4 billion of Thaksin's personal assets on corruption-related charges.

Yingluck's pre-flood moves aimed at tackling the military and judiciary cut against the pre-election accommodation reached in Brunei between Thaksin interlocutors, the military and a section of the royal palace that underpinned this year's smooth democratic transition and raised hopeful new prospects for national reconciliation after six years of on-off crises.

So, too, did earlier trial balloons floated by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung suggesting legal loopholes to absolve Thaksin of his criminal conviction, and new police investigations he launched into the military's role in last year's pro-Thaksin protest-related killings.

Those moves and the political reset brought on by the floods would seem to indicate the earlier Brunei accommodation has now run its full course. Now, as Yingluck bids to regain lost political momentum, she will face a rejuvenated royalist establishment that has scored political points at her government's expense during the floods and more radical elements that are already threatening a backlash against her royal amnesty plan to rehabilitate her elder sibling Thaksin.

To Yingluck's detractors, the floods have exposed badly her political inexperience, a leadership vacuum they contend has raised unnecessarily the human, economic and reputational costs of the disaster. Allegations of corruption in delivering, storing and procuring aid have hit some of her top deputies, while Yingluck's periodic bouts of crying on camera have raised uncomfortable questions about her fortitude and mental health.

To her proponents, her Puea Thai party-led government has done as well as could be expected considering the scale of the floods, widely characterized as the worst to hit the country in over five decades. They have argued blame for the lack of preparedness should be shared with the outgoing Democrat Party-led government, which allowed now overflowing dams to fill with water before leaving office.

The Democrats, now in control of Bangkok's governorship, have in instances shamelessly, though not always effectively, exploited the crisis to undermine Yingluck's credibility and leadership and pre-emptively campaign to retain the politically powerful post at elections scheduled for 2012.

Military rescue

While Yingluck has jousted with the Democrats, the military has turned the crisis into an opportunity to rehabilitate its image after last year's lethal crackdown on pro-Thaksin, anti-government "Red Shirt" street protestors. Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly resisted calls to invoke a state of emergency, countering Red Shirt criticism that he aimed to exploit the disaster to seize power in a "water coup" by deferring to Yingluck's civilian power.

Instead, the military has forwarded the democratic notion, including over its mouthpiece television news station, that it serves as a "people's army" through its lead role in evacuations, emergency transport and aid delivery. It has also strategically deferred to police to maintain order in cases where flood victims have protested and dismantled flood barriers erected to protect industrial estates and inner Bangkok at the expense of their poor, often pro-Red Shirt communities.

More symbolically, Prayuth has emerged as a de facto spokesman for hospitalized King Bhumibol Adulyadej by conveying in public statements the revered monarch's perspective on how best to deal with the flooding. Royal army units have conspicuously worn tee-shirts with "King's Guard" emblazoned across their backs while conducting emergency operations, underscoring the notion that the palace and military are working hand-in-hand to provide flood relief.

The notion was underscored when Prayuth announced that Bhumibol was opposed to government plans to give special priority to protecting royal palaces from the floods. The Thai media, meanwhile, have repeated potent nationalistic terminology used by military spokesmen that has effectively likened newly inundated districts in Bangkok to lost national territory on Yingluck's watch.

The palace, too, has waded into the battle for public perceptions. Princess Chulabhorn told local media that King Bhumibol recently lost consciousness after watching hours of news reports about the human suffering caused by the floods and apparently as a result suffered from intestinal bleeding a candid report on Bhumibol's health that some royalists and independent analysts interpreted as veiled criticism of Yingluck's crisis management.

Throughout the crisis, Yingluck has bowed to royal authority, including through direct consultations with King Bhumibol, who over the years has taken a special interest in water management issues. The obeisance was also seen in her appointment of Thongtong Chandrangsu, a top royal adviser to Princess Sirindhorn, to take over as spokesman of her Flood Relief Operations Command (FROC), and Sumet Tantivejkul, one of King Bhumibol's closest advisers, to steer a committee overseeing the government's flood rehabilitation efforts.

Both appointments came after Yingluck's earlier flood managers and messengers came under harsh media criticism and have played into the royalist narrative that elected politicians are prone to corruption and prioritize personal over national interests. At the same time, some analysts believe royalist bureaucrats involved in water management have intentionally skewed and backtracked on their assessments and predictions to make Yingluck appear conflicted in her media appearances.

The crisis has also exposed underlying divisions and conflicting agendas inside Yingluck's and Thaksin's diverse political camp. A group of 111 politicians legally banned from politics for five years after the 2006 coup will be eligible to run for office or take up cabinet posts as early as May 2012. Factional leaders in the group have carped in private to Thaksin about Yingluck's performance, though local media reports indicating some have called for her removal were apparently overblown, according to people familiar with the situation.

Some analysts believe Yingluck needs to reshuffle her cabinet before Thaksin's old guard returns to show responsibility for relief supply scandals and reassert political control over key ministries, including the agriculture, energy and interior portfolios, to avoid becoming a lame duck administration. Agriculture Minister Teera Wongsamut, who admitted under opposition grilling that he kept water levels at key dams high in a bid to store enough water to support a third annual crop of rice, is most vulnerable.

Teera's Chart Thai party hails from the country's central rice growing region and is poised to profit from Yingluck's populist rice price pledging scheme, which will use government funds to pay prices high above prevailing global market rates. However, if Chart Thai, a junior but pivotal coalition partner, is made the crisis fall guy, the party could work at odds with Yingluck's priority policies, including national reconciliation schemes, that require parliamentary approval.

With her government weakened, the royalist establishment emboldened, and the flood crisis not yet resolved, some analysts wonder whether Yingluck may have miscalculated in pushing now to secure Thaksin's return. Thaksin critics, including the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) "Yellow Shirt" protest group, have said the draft royal decree puts undue pressure on King Bhumibol, who by law is above politics, has been hospitalized with a series of maladies since September 2009, and ultimately would have to sign off on the amnesty order.

Those are still volatile charges in Thailand's polarized political context, particularly in the lead-up to the widely revered Bhumibol's numerologically significant 84th birthday celebrations and in light of the monarch's many recent addresses promoting rule by law.

Renewed anti-Thaksin street protests threaten new bouts of instability, particularly if the establishment forces that shunned the PAD's anti-Cambodia, anti-Democrat party protests last year rededicate their resources to the more unifying anti-Thaksin cause. As Thailand's flood waters slowly recede, a new crisis is already emerging on the political horizon.

[Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.]

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