BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's new prime minister is suffering criticism for her failures while tackling massive floods which killed 356 people, knocked out U.S. and other foreign factories, and rendered thousands of people homeless, but three months of thunderstorms and decades of poor preparations are mostly to blame.

The public may be convinced that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra inherited Thailand's traditionally weak funding to prevent floods, and allow her government to survive.

But foreign investors may consider moving their wrecked factories to locations that are higher in elevation, or to other countries.

The floods, which swamped one-third of the country, dissolved Mrs. Yingluck's seemingly superficial, heavily scripted, can-do image.

Her officials repeatedly offered contradictory statements, assuring people they were safe, and then advising them to flee for their lives.

Despite her poor management of the monsoon-swollen rivers, Mrs. Yingluck is not solely to blame because she heads a lackluster cabinet and a coalition of squabbling parties.

She also faces her worst political enemy, the Democrat Party, which dominates Bangkok's local administration including the governor, who took a central role in trying to protect the capital and has also come under criticism.

The Democrats headed Thailand's previous coalition government and unleashed the army in 2010 against pro-democracy Red Shirt insurrectionists, resulting in clashes in Bangkok's barricaded streets which killed 91 people, mostly civilians.

The army may have partially rehabilitated its image among some Thais, however, because troops were widely seen working in deep water to erect barriers, rescue stranded people, and perform other difficult tasks.

Mrs. Yingluck's opponents are meanwhile expected to use the floods, and the resulting losses, as fodder to attack her government, especially because the water may stagnate in places and take weeks to clear.

But the floods' extensive destruction is mostly due to successive governments, headed by various political parties.

For decades, Thailand neglected to build enough canals, dikes and sluices across the country, and failed to sufficiently dredge rivers and create other ways for annual rains to drain, despite warnings from environmentalists.

Bangkok is a busy river port alongside the mighty Chao Phraya river, with an average elevation of six feet above sea level, making its streets a frequent target for floods caused by monsoons.

Other cities have also suffered floods during past years, despite demands from residents for better flood prevention schemes.

"Flood waters are coming from every direction and we cannot control them because it's a huge amount of water," Mrs. Yingluck told the nation on October 20, describing the deluge draining from northern and central regions, south to Bangkok and into the nearby Gulf of Thailand.

"We will try to warn people," so they can evacuate, she said.

"This problem is very overwhelming. It is a national crisis, so I hope to get cooperation from everybody."

Mrs. Yingluck earlier visited miserable victims who were struggling to survive after Thailand's worst floods in five decades destroyed their meager livelihoods.

But she wore colorfully plaid, luxury brand Burberry rain boots -- reportedly priced at about $225 in America -- and posted the photo on her Facebook page, attracting critics and defenders arguing about Mrs. Yingluck who recently declared her personal wealth at $18 million.

She also endorsed a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest strategy of surrounding Bangkok with makeshift floodwalls and diverting tons of water onto crowded suburban neighborhoods, shopping centers and businesses outside the perimeter -- reminiscent of medieval times when people dug moats and sealed off their fortress cities against plague, war and other calamities.

That controversial tactic was designed to turn Bangkok into a virtual island while under siege from a relentless flow of brown fluid, strewn with garbage and chemicals, all flushing alongside the capital and dumping into the nearby Gulf of Thailand.

"People just outside the capital were asking why they should not pull down barriers that kept much of Bangkok dry," The Nation newspaper reported.

Mrs. Yingluck announced on October 20 however that Bangkok could not be entirely protected, after its extensive eastern suburbs were sacrificed to the floods to relieve incoming water pressure on Bangkok's northern flank.

"We cannot block the water forever," from flooding parts of Bangkok, Mrs. Yingluck said.

"The longer we block the water, the higher it gets...we need areas that water can be drained through, so the water can flow out to the sea."

Mrs. Yingluck's strategy to divert incoming water away from Bangkok was used by previous governments -- including last year -- causing a similar outcry from people who watched helplessly as their property was deliberately inundated to protect the capital.

Previous governments also allowed cities, industrial zones, highways and other infrastructure to be constructed where floods naturally drain, blocking the water so it spilled onto heavily populated areas.

Decades of massive deforestation stripped the countryside of natural cover, and dams were allegedly mismanaged.

U.S. and other foreign companies were lured to this tropical country to profit from workers' low wages and other cheap costs, but their modern factories and warehouses were devastated in the current floods because they are located in the Chao Phraya River Basin.

Shocked investors watched as swirling liquid drowned several sprawling, investor-friendly, low-lying "industrial parks" after breaching insufficient barriers.

The worst-affected industrial zones are 50 miles north of Bangkok where three rivers converge at Ayutthaya, which was founded in 1350 and became an opulent capital before it was abandoned in 1767 because elephant-riding troops from Burma invaded and destroyed it.

Multinationals which suspended or slowed operations due to the floods in Ayutthaya included Canon, Ford, Honda, Isuzu, Nikon, Seagate Technology, Sony, Toyota and Western Digital.

"The company now expects that the flooding of its Thailand facilities, combined with flood damage to the company's supply chain in Thailand, will have significant impact on the company's overall operations and its ability to meet customer demand for its products in the December quarter," California-based Western Digital said in a statement on October 17.

"I think this is the biggest loss for Japan's overseas investment," Japan's ambassador to Thailand, Seiji Kokima, was quoted as saying.

More than 14,000 factories have been wrecked by floods across 20 provinces, displacing more than 660,000 workers, according to the Labor Welfare Department's director-general, Arthit Ismo.

Thailand's main Suvarnabhumi International Airport was vulnerable because it is on Bangkok's eastern outskirts and built on swampland.

Life in much of Bangkok's dry areas has meanwhile remained mostly normal, with people shopping in lavish malls, dining out, and going to work while worriedly stocking up on essential items.

Mrs. Yingluck was elected in July after her extremely popular multi-billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, announced that she was his "clone" and a vote for Mrs. Yingluck was essentially a vote for him.

Thailand's U.S.-backed military ousted Mr. Thaksin in a 2006 coup, and he continues to be a fugitive based in Dubai, avoiding a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his authoritarian five-year administration.

His sister had no political experience, but charmed voters who expected her to bring Mr. Thaksin back under an amnesty, and restore his $1.2 billion in assets which a coup-installed government seized.

Thailand's current floods are the deadliest since October 1962, when tropical storm Harriet ripped across the southern Isthmus of Kra, killing more than 670 people before sweeping toward the Andaman Islands.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.

His website is

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(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)