Politicizing a national disaster I

27 10 2011

Pavin Chachavalpongpun seems to have a ready comment on just about everything happening in Thailand. In this article in The Nation, however, he seems to have something substantive to say and that deserves some attention.

Pavin begins with the rather nasty and personalized emails and social media posts about Yingluck Shinawatra that have been doing the rounds

Such a stupid bitch, she is!

As dim as a buffalo! She’s a bimbo, a brainless Barbie doll. The first female prime minister – who has brought all this bad luck upon the country!

This is what Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is now called and labelled by her upper-class critics….

Yingluck is about to drown in the political floods. This is no longer just an issue of natural disaster. It has become a ferocious political game.

Interestingly, this language of dullness and stupidity is exactly the same language that was used to describe red shirts protesters in 2009 and 2010 and was the dominant discourse about rural voters within the yellow shirt movement. It seems that only rich, aristocratic Thais are intelligent.

Pavin comments that the “discourse of ‘stupidity’ is being used … to discredit her [Yingluck] and belittle her endeavours to find solutions to the problem.”

He defends her, noting that no previous leader has solved the flooding problem and that while she has been “weak” in her leadership, there are plenty of others who deserve blame.

PPT is not convinced Yingluck has been “weak.” What we see is a 50 or 100 year flood that began months ago, testing a brand new administration with a civil and military bureaucracy that is both politicized and has probably made some significant errors in managing this year’s water flows and long-term failures of water management (Readers might look at the report of an official assessment of failures of water management in 2005-09 by previous governments).

What we also see is an elite not just determined to cut Yingluck down but as petrified by this year’s flood as they were when red shirts descended on the capital in 2009 and 2010 and their expression of this is not much different. Their media have worked hard to blame the enemy for the hopelessness of their own model of development and politics.

We didn’t see too much criticism of Abhisit Vejjajiva last year when floods hit rural areas and people were under water in some places for a considerable time. That much smaller flood didn’t impact Bangkok.

Pavin observes:

Rumours, lies and false statements regarding the flood situation have been found on social networking sites. A picture of Yingluck, taken before the July election, which shows her taking a photo from her hand-phone on a helicopter, has been circulated on Facebook, with captions such as: “The nation is in crisis but this bitch is having a good time.” Another picture of a Yingluck lookalike partying and drinking whisky from a bottle was also shared in cyberspace.

News of His Majesty the King mentioning that if the floods approach Bangkok, then let the water pass and do not block the Chitralada Palace, was found to be bogus*. A photo of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, taken in 2010, offering bags of commodities, was also intentionally released to mislead some Thais.

*It seems that the king has now said pretty much this, if Army boss Prayuth Chan-ocha is believed.

In an earlier post of a Le Monde article on Thailand’s “water coup,” we saw suggestions of a broad political campaign. Pavin sees it too:

Could this be a part of a coordinated attack against Yingluck with the aim of destroying confidence in the government? Certainly, the opposition Democrat Party has been busy contesting the legitimacy of the Yingluck regime. Its leader, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, absurdly suggested the declaration of an emergency decree to fight the floods. Through this, the military would be granted full authority to operate in almost any way it likes…. Yet, Abhisit did not elaborate on whether the military could handle the problem better than the Yingluck government.

Abhisit has also worked closely with MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the Bangkok governor, to compete, not cooperate, with the government. While many brand Yingluck as stupid, Sukhumbhand showed his superstitious faith in a Khmer ritual of “chasing water” in his search for a solution to the threat of floods in the city. He was intensely protective about his turf.

Meanwhile, footage of the military going into affected areas to aid flood victims is impressive. But the military, like the Bangkok governor, has functioned almost independently from the government. There is clearly a sense of competition between the government and its rivals. Some of the fiercest critics of the government have called for Yingluck to resign. Yingluck’s supporters interpret such competition and the pressure to remove her from power as part of a plot to stage a “water coup”.

Like so many others, Pavin sees this political competition as reflective of:

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.

And it is Bangkok that is again the “symbol of contentious politics…. [and the] great disparity between the people residing in the rural and urban areas. For PPT, a major problem is that the “intelligent” life that is clustered in Bangkok simply doesn’t recognize the rest of the country except in terms of the right of the “intelligent” – the rich – to lord it over the rest, to exploit them and even to submerge them in order to keep the expensive cars and gaudy mansions dry. The inability to acknowledge a national interest beyond the protection of the elite is breathtaking.

As a footnote to this story, it is interesting to see the comments of Robert Horn – we assume not the one who writes for TIME on Thailand – who takes up the yellow-shirted complaints of red shirts monopolizing the aid action and of politicians taking credit (something they have always done and we have seen the Democrat Party doing it too). He says the evidence is available of this and refers readers to… Suthichai Yoon’s blog…. There readers find “evidence” that Thaksin is involved. That is, one photo of a truck with a sign saying the assistance it is bringing is from Thaksin (well, is it?) and another photo of a guy in a red shirt with Thaksin on it. What truly remarkable evidence…. but of what?


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28 10 2011
Politicizing a national disaster II « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] addition to the comments in PPT’s earlier post, there are a couple of stories that reflect on the way that the attacks on Yingluck Shinawatra […]




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