Yingluck has been taking the blame for the Thailand’s inept response to the flood crisis that has ravaged the country for the past few months. She deserves to take some of the blame, but not for her performance managing the floods. Rather, her poor record in managing people has led to policy missteps, contradictory information and chaos.

To be sure, the floods really began during the Abhisit administration, with the advent of the Nok-Ten tropical storm that hit much of the North and caused very heavy rain. Subsequent storms, more rain and near-full dams culminated in the country’s worst flood crisis since 1942.[1] But the issue really became a “national crisis” when waters began to approach the capital, whose economy accounts for 41% of the country’s GDP.

The picture of Abhisit and Yingluck “working together” caused such hype that their public support soared.[2] Sadly, it was all a hoax.

Yingluck set up the Flood Relief Operations Center (FROC) on October 7 in an effort to tackle floods in a nation-wide, comprehensive manner. Justice Minister, Pracha Promnok, was put in charge along with Interior Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Pranai Suwannarat. Science and Technology Minister Plodprasob Suraswadee was put in charge of operations, while Transport Minister Sukampol Suwannatat managed FROC’s information and public relations. Governors were to follow FROC’s orders in managing the floods in their respective localities and encouraged to set up provincial versions of FROC. The armed forces as well as other governmental agencies were to take orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.[3]

But things didn’t work out as planned.

Outspoken Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra immediately declared a water war with Yingluck and FROC by telling all Bangkokians to “listen to me only.”[4] His overconfidence in his ability to assess the situation coupled with the upcoming Bangkok election has meant defending the capital at all cost. “Millions of people elected me. I can’t let Bangkok become inundated.” Sukhumbhand’s sharp tongue and uncooperative attitude has meant constant bickering with FROC as well as other agencies, such as the irrigation department. At one point when FROC sent the governor sandbags, he accused them of sabotaging his work by sending him “paper” instead of sand.[5]

FROC, unfortunately, has not mounted a united front in its management of the flood crisis. The Center’s chief has found himself giving contradictory statements to the media and a false sense of confidence to the public. The most damaging was when he reassured the public that Navanakorn Industrial Park – now submerged – would “for sure not be flooded.”[6] The race to steal media scenes also ran amok within the organization, with Pracha and Plodprasob trying to outdo one another.

On October 14 Plodprasob and FROC spokeperson, Wim Rungwattanajinda, issued a warning to residents in Lamlukka area of Pathumthani to move belongings to higher ground or evacuate if possible. Thirty-minutes later Pracha made a televised announcement correcting Plodprasob’s statement.[7] Plodprasob then told the media “I don’t know if the government has been telling 100% truth to the people or not. For me I told most of the truth but I don’t know about others.”[8]

FROC appears uncoordinated, disunited and confusing in the eyes of the public. ABAC Poll reveals 87% of the respondents felt they could not trust information given by FROC.[9]

In the face of mounting criticism towards the government’s management of the flood crisis and the seemingly inevitable flood in inner Bangkok, Yingluck invoked Section 31 of the 2007 Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act which gives the prime minister full control of all officials in the country. This action was meant to mitigate conflict between the City Hall and FROC as well as to make the Bangkok governor comply with the premiere’s order to open all the floodgates to allow full water drainage. Moreover, Yingluck has sidelined both Pracha and Plodprasob by appointing Pranai as forward command in charge of operations in East Bangkok.

Yinguck is rather late in taking control of the situation, given the public’s dwindling confidence in FROC and her administration as a whole. The post-flood reconstruction period will be a crucial opportunity for Yingluck to regain public confidence in her leadership.

[1] Dr. Seri Supparathit had provided excellent explanations and reports of the flood on Thai PBS

[2] See Dusit Poll

[3] PM’s televised speech, October 8, 2011