Sunday, November 13, 2011

The flood blame game: Just kids' stuff

The fiery confrontation last Friday between the Bangkok governor and the Irrigation Department chief at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) perhaps sums up all the reasons why the anti-flood exercise has been in a mess we are in today all the way from the top down.
In a national crisis, they were arguing heatedly over where a written request for more water pumps had been misplaced – and who was to be blamed for that.
With Premier Yingluck Shinawatra at the head of the conference table, Irrigation Chief Chalit Damrongsak addressed Bangkok Governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra who was sitting across him. He said the governor had one day earlier told the press that the Irrigation Dept had not responded positively to the BMA’s request for water pumps.
“I have checked and haven’t been able to locate the official letter from BMA to the Irrigation Department. The governor’s statement could therefore be damaging to my department,” he said, in a matter-of-fact manner.
Governor Sukhumbhand immediately turned stern. He said he hadn’t said the Irrigation Department hadn’t responded. “I am still waiting, still waiting, though,” he repeated.
Premier Yingluck looked puzzled, embarrassed and confused. She said, without addressing anyone in particular, that all parties concerned should work together.
Director of Flood Relief Operations Centre (FROC), Police Gen Pracha Promnok, then chimed in to say that his office had not received any official written request from the governor’s office either.
The next day, Agriculture Minister Thira Wongsamut was quoted as saying that he had also looked into the matter and discovered that the BMA’s letter had in fact been delivered to the Interior Ministry, and not the Irrigation Department (which comes under the jurisdiction of his ministry).
“So, how can the Bangkok governor accuse the Irrigation Department of being uncooperative when he had sent the letter to the wrong place. Besides, even if the letter had got to the right place, we wouldn’t have enough water pumps to spare for BMA anyway. We are also short of pumps,” the minister said.
The arguments back and forth between the central government and Bangkok’s administration have at best been petty and irrelevant. The scene underscores the deplorable lack of cooperation despite the repeated assurances by both sides that they are “working closely together.”
After Friday’s incident, PM Yingluck admitted publicly for the first time: “We do have problems collaborating on technical operation and exchange of data.” Bangkok Governor, in a rare expression of agreement, confirmed: “We don’t have problems with long-term planning but we do have problems with short-term implementation.”
Conflicts aren’t confined to areas of anti-flood activity between the central government and Bangkok administration though. Within FROC, politicians of various shades clash over priorities and areas that should get aid first. There are also questions on whether Governor Sukhumbhand works in close tandem with his Democrat colleagues or not. He doesn’t seem to have worked out a coordination system with his own party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, either.
The irony is glaring. The premier has invoked emergency powers under the Public Disaster Act that so that she could act decisively – and the first order was to get the governor to open up some sluice gates. The governor hit back by exercising his rights under the same law to instruct police to man the dike to prevent residents from tearing it down. Working at cross purposes seems to be the order of the day.
That’s why in the social media, people have been issuing warnings among themselves: “If the PM says it’s all safe, start packing. If the governor issues an alert, just flee!”

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