Amidst severe criticism and real damage in one-fifth of the country, the Yingluck government was beginning to streamline the current disaster management and fine-tune its communications to the people. But this might not be adequate or in fact too late to appease, if not console, millions of residents in the capital of the country.
Psychological damage has already been rife for weeks now. The experiences of the people displaced from Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus are emblematic of the broader problems caused and reflected by the flooding. Good intentions but poor coordination between concerned Thammasat University senior officials and ruling politicians have left the flood-affected people confused. Core volunteer leaders in Bangkok said Thammasat University administration were at odds in managing the relocation of thousands at the Rangsit campus, hence several human loads of transportation had to be organized while water surrounded the Ayudhya and Pathumthani residents who flocked there.
Government agencies and universities as well as volunteer networks were clumsily fine tuning how to move the people and where to. The first day of relocation saw some 1,400 moved out from Rangsit Campus but only 280 went to Ratchamankala Hua Mak, said the University’s senior management.
Most went to Saraburi, some hundreds returned home and some 200 foreign migrant workers have been moved under the care of the Labour Ministry. It took another two days to clear the temporary shelter at Thammasat Rangsit campus.
Mahidol University Salaya Campus which has received hundreds from nearby Nonthaburi and Ayudhya provinces were also closed down less than a week after opening the temporary encampment.
Now some 1,500 residents are staying at Ratjamangkalastan Stadium, some 4,000 at Chonburi Physical Studies Center, a few hundred at the National Stadium at Pathumwan and another thousand at the Muak Lek Physical Studies Center.
A few hundred others were also scattered in temples and schools near their flooded residence such as those in Nonthaburi. But for 11-year-old Nui, moving again and again within a month was too much for her to cope with.
“Just after came back from Suan Siam (water amusement park) the day before, today we had to pack and get ready to board a bus to Hua Mak,” said the Prathom 6 pupil from Pitsanulok, who arrived at Hua Mak on 24 October from Thammasat Rangsit. Nui said she did not know whether to be honoured to visit Bangkok at this weird time because it was a chaotic and unprecedented experience.
“Everything happened so quickly. I just visited grandparents in Uthai District in Ayuthaya province during the school break. But then I have to move out with aunties to Muang district and now to Bangkok. Hopefully, I can return home to Wangthong District which is not flooded at all soon,” said Nui. She said Thailand should never be flooded again and again, and the affected should not be cast adrift from one place to another.
Amidst the bare, harsh difficulties faced by Nui and other displaced persons and the fears and struggles experienced by all people across the city who wonder if, and when, their house is going to flood, the government has tried to adjust their strategy. Part of this adjustment has been to add more academic and expert faces like former “Irrigation Man” Pramote Maiglad, “Disaster-Warning Man” Smith Dharmasaroja, and “Geo-statistic Man” Anond Snidvongse; until gradually removing the Government Flood Relief Operation Center (FROC) spokesman faces led by Phuea Thai Wim Rungwattanajinda to the senior bureaucrat and royalist Thongthong Chandarangsu.
Invoking the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act 2007’s article 31 which empowers the government to take over supervision of flood control and drainage in and around Bangkok has produced a sigh of relief for many though it was a belated gesture after the desperate and frustrated people, and in many cases with support of “provincial influential figures,” in some central provinces had already taken unilateral steps: either diverting floods out of their way or dismantling sand-bags/dykes to drain out the water and express their anger.
Resolving distribution of relief items and managing temporary shelter for flood victims has been cumbersome but subject to on-the-ground adjusting. Now that the FROC has said that non-flooded areas would be open for displaced persons who have been moved around from their provinces to Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, Mahidol University’s Salaya campus, and the Don Mueang center, as well as other scattered places. The announcement came early this week after the “refugees” were moved twice or more.
Government TV channels also changed from being dominated by one-way talks from ruling politicians to a more information-sharing tone. But the current government’s incompetency was not the only factor to be blamed for this unfortunate tragedy; the my-agency-comes-first mindset and bureaucratic hierarchy culture has to equally share a load of shame for the country’s damage. Experts and authorities have conceded that the economic growth orientation, deforestation, and urbanization have caused a tremendous shrink in wetlands and water reservoirs which naturally and historically slowed down the run-offs.
Mr Smith, chief of the National Disaster Warning Center, has said the extent of the current disaster should have been lowered if water was released earlier this year from Bhumibol and Sirikit dams. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has also played around with the flood-approaching situation after the prime-minister invoked the law, not opening all the sluice gates.
Had the BMA opened the gates two weeks ago to help drain out the northern run-off, the government could have been better managed the floodways to eastern parts of Bangkok as they are naturally-designed and not to pour too much water to the western parts of Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom, noted the disaster prevention and mitigation officials. “The Law was launched just a few years ago and this flood is the first litmus test of how the command/response structure in crisis time works. The Thai way is to seek cooperation from all agencies and the people, but if it does not work, perhaps we need a supra-agency leadership to give orders to all,” said a senior official.
Sources at the Defence Ministry conceded that inefficiency in dealing with pressing emergency situations among government agencies were due to the incapability of both civilian and uniformed heads of several agencies.
“Look at the Irrigation Department, the deputies and the former head are now shouldering the tasks (not the official head) because they know the situation better. Even Red-Shirt politicians are now clashing for public scenes to get their footprints and possible share of the post-flood budget,” said the officers.
Sociologically speaking, observers believed, gone were the days people would sacrifice for others; that was why flood gates and sand bags dykes were destroyed in several provinces causing a quicker attack of water against the C=capital.
Above all, the final chapter of the sufferings is now borne by the middle class which has yet to shed the feeling that the Thaksin-nominee government with hillbilly faces sitting as advisers at many ministries was sailing the country amidst the waters if a tsunami—they were truly frustrated and put all the blame on the government they did not vote for as the culprit bringing “disaster” to their doors.