Aerial view of the flood at Don Muang, Bangkok

Don Muang, home to Bangkok's former international airport, is among the worst-hit areas of the crowded and flood-stricken Southeast Asian metropolis.

The Bangkok Post reports that "The big bag (sandbag) barrier in northern Bangkok has been credited with saving the inner city from flooding, but it has left residents in the outer city under water, prompting protests."

Flood barriers that favor one district at the expense of another have become the focus of "fear and rivalry" according to Reuters.

Lots of recent photos here.

This page will keep you up to date with the latest latest news about the Thai floods.

Thailand is "juiocracy" backed by the military

An article by Thitinan Pongsudhirak entitled "Thailand's Misrule by Law" was published today in the WSJ:
 The red shirts movement, initially pro-Thaksin but increasingly beyond Mr. Thaksin's control, is likely to be further galvanized. Rallies around the country now regularly attract tens of thousands of red-shirt demonstrators. Their claims of injustice and "double standards" will intensify, and their anti-status quo resolve will harden.

Supporters of the post-coup status quo are preparing for a return to democracy, but with the playing field tilted in their favor.  Following the Democrats' fraud dismissals, military authorities have hinted they will soon lift the state of emergency in the Bangkok metropolitan area. This would prepare the way for the Democrat-led coalition government to call elections in 2011.

The establishment forces' game plan is clear. Having put down Mr. Thaksin's challenge and crushed the red shirts' uprisings in April 2009 and earlier this year, the latter at a cost of 91 fatalities and 1,900 injuries, the army-backed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva is emboldened to soldier on with its own populist agenda of deficit spending on handouts and giveaways in preparation for the polls.

The Democrats are unlikely to win an outright victory, but the establishment camp can ensure they remain in power. The army is poised to pressure smaller parties to join a Democrat-led coalition, leaving out the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party. 

But using the military's power to thwart the results of elections in this way will likely inspire a new outburst from the red shirts. Fragmented both in terms of organization and ideology, these activists are united only by their opposition to the redistribution of power after the coup. Their lack of a common set of objectives, in turn, feeds the paranoia of the establishment, setting up a series of confrontations down the road. 
The article is mostly about the role of the courts in changing governments.   But the key player on the eve of a national election, Thitinan suggests, is the military.   That's why I was disappointed that Thitinan does not spell-out how he expected the army to pressure the smaller parties during the run-up to the next election (surely not at gunpoint!).   Some discussion as to the specific means by which the army can be expected to achieve a political ends without using force would have made for a more compelling analysis.  The army can certainly make a show of force, but it's not clear what else it can accomplish (if the aftermath of the 2006 coup is any indication, not much).  Perhaps more than its fire power, the political ineptitude, and to some extent, the apparent disunity of the army, has been a factor in Thai politics.

Thitinan concludes:
In the protracted face-off between the establishment, fronted by Mr. Abhisit and reinforced by the judiciary, bureaucracy and army, a compromise involving reform of the way power is wielded is the only way forward. But the government and its powerful backers seem determined to prevail at all cost. They are risking an even bigger upheaval that threatens Thailand's survival as a unified state.
Other scenarios?  For example, change at the top of Thai society could lead to a fragmentation of the elite, altering the post-war political dynamic.  Certainly, change is coming.  Depending on how events unfold, a decisive shifting of alliances within the elite might be expected.   It's not a stretch to imagine that elements associated with today's opposition movement could find themselves positioned as the new power-brokers.

In other words,  the unity of the two contending political forces in Thai society is not eternal.   One  side or the other -- possibly both -- could shatter at any time.

Perspective on corruption in Thailand and allegations of vote-buying

Voranai Vanijaka writes in the Bangkok Post about corruption:
The point I would like to make is this: We need to point the finger less at the poor masses as the reason Thailand can't develop and democratise and direct it more at ourselves.
When a prai (peasant) commits an act of corruption, it's for 500 baht here, or a 1,000 baht a day. Here, vote for this person. There, get on the bus and go to Ratchaprasong for a month of concerts, festivities and fireworks.
When a middle-class person commits an act of corruption, it's in the millions. When it's a member of the elite, it's in the billions. And when the middle class and the elite are complicit in perpetuating the system, we are selling out the entire country. 
One might question whether payment for attendance at a rally even qualifies as "corruption."  Nevertheless, Voranai makes an important point: even allegations of petty corruption by the poor have to be put in perspective.

WikiLeaks Mirrors

As many of you will have heard, the main WikiLeaks site has been blocked for several days. However, it's possible to access an exact replica of the original WikiLeaks site. At a functioning WikiLeaks mirror site you can view the WikiLeaks archives which will continue to be updated.

Additional State Department cables will continue to go online as before. That is, they will be released onto the WikiLeaks site once each new batch of cables has been checked by newspaper journalists partnering with WikiLeaks. The only thing that's changed is that you must now visit a mirror site.

A newsite called WikiLeaks Mirrors (http://wikileaksmirrors) is designed to keep you up to date about various websites around the world that "mirror" the content of the non-accessible WikiLeaks site. The mirrors can also get blocked, so the continually updating format of this website should be useful.

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew outs ASEAN leakers (via WikiLeaks)

On May 30, 2009 US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg had an off-the-record conversation in Singapore's Presidential Palace with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.  The conversation touched on the question of China's influence over ASEAN countries, a topic we have been discussing on this blog.  For example, Jotman recently asserted that "China will surely attempt to use its influence over weak regimes like Cambodia or Burma to divide and control (ASEAN)."

A secret June 4, 2009 US State Department cable from the US Embassy in Singapore (released by WikiLeaks on Nov. 30, 2010) reported on the senior State Department official's conversation with MM Lee Kuan Yew:
MM Lee said China is following an approach consistent with ideas in the Chinese television series “The Rise of Great Powers.” The mistake of Germany and Japan had been their effort to challenge the existing order. The Chinese are not stupid; they have avoided this mistake. China’s economy has surpassed other countries, with the exceptions of Japan and the United States. Even with those two countries, the gap is closing, with China growing at seven-nine percent annually, versus two-three percent in the United States and Japan. Overall GDP, not GDP per capita, is what matters in terms of power. China has four times the population of the United States. China is active in Latin America, Africa, and in the Gulf. Within hours, everything that is discussed in ASEAN meetings is known in Beijing, given China’s close ties with Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, he stated.
Can there be any doubt as to the identity of ASEAN's biggest leakers?

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew on ASEAN's leakers

Post moved here.

China's buying Cambodia

A development I noted previously, was a front-page story in last week's Washington Post:  China's growing influence over Cambodia.  
Instead of exporting revolution and bloodshed to its neighbors, China is now sending its cash and its people.

At this clangorous hydropower dam site hard along Cambodia's border with Thailand, and in Burma, Laos and even Vietnam, China is engaged in a massive push to extend its economic and political influence into Southeast Asia. Spreading investment and aid along with political pressure, China is transforming a huge swath of territory along its southern border. Call it the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese style.

Ignored by successive U.S. administrations, China's rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors to Burma, also known as Myanmar, which U.S. officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses. In a speech about U.S. policy in Asia on Oct. 28, before she embarked on her sixth trip to Asia in two years, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used military terminology to refer to U.S. efforts: "forward-deployed diplomacy."
I'm not sure a comparison to the Monroe Doctrine conveys the potential intensity of China's growing ties to the economies of mainland Southeast Asia.   China is much closer in geographic proximity to northern Southeast Asian countries than the United States is to most of Latin America.   Also, in the case of Burma, there are reports of mass migration of Chinese across the border.  With the possible exception of Costa Rica and the Panama Canal Zone, citizens of the United States have never migrated to Latin America in significant numbers.

The story provides some details of the inroads China is making in Cambodia:
China has concluded a free-trade deal with all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while a similar U.S. pact is only in its infancy. It is cementing ties with Thailand - a U.S. ally - despite recent political unrest there. Guards at the gates to two of them - a gold mine and a hemp plantation - shoo travelers away unless they are able to pay a toll. "It's like a country within a country," quipped Cambodia's minister of interior, Sar Kheng, at a law enforcement conference earlier this year, according to participants at the meeting.

China's real estate development firms have barged into Cambodia with all the ambition, bumptiousness and verve that American fruit and tire firms employed in Latin America or Africa in decades past. One company, Union Development Group, of Tianjin in northern China, won a 99-year concession for 120 square miles - twice the size of Washington - of beachfront property on the Gulf of Thailand. There Chinese work teams are cutting a road and mapping out plans for hotels, villas and golf courses. The estimated investment? $3.8 billion. The target market? The nouveau riche from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Last month, China pledged to support the construction of a $600 million stretch of railway between Phnom Penh and Vietnam that will bring China a major step closer to incorporating all of Southeast Asia, as far south as Singapore, into its rail network.

Across Cambodia, dozens of state-run Chinese companies are building eight hydropower dams, including the 246-megawatt behemoth on the Tatay River in Koh Kong. The total price tag for those dams will exceed $1 billion. Altogether, Cambodia owes China $4 billion, said Cheam Yeap, a member of the central committee of the ruling Cambodia People's Party. 

Phnom Pehn water festival stampede tragedy

I've posted one eyewitness report -- I came across the report on a traveler's bulletin board -- at There Live.

The NYT is vague about the cause of the stampede that has left at least 339 dead according to the government.  According to an AP report:
Soft drink vendor So Cheata said the trouble began when about 10 people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. She said that set off a panic, which then turned into a stampede, with many people caught underfoot.
Someone familiar with the water festival event at which the stampede occurred commented on the traveller's bulletin board:
Should have been foreseen by those in charge of organizing and policing the event.
4 years ago I lived above the pate-baguette shop on Hun Sen Park, and the crowds at 9/10pm are choker-block, all across the park and roads (what? About a 6 lane highway size?) back to back, 10's of thousands of people and to think that volume of people could cross over the single lane bridge leading to Koh Pich!!!
I've come across reports suggesting that the initial panic may have resulted from the spectacle of people on a small bridge being electrocuted when police fired a water canon at the bridge (the bridge was apparently lit up with small lights).   According to the Phnom Pehn Post:
A doctor at Calmette hospital, who declined to give his name, said after a preliminary assessment the principal causes of death among the victims he had examined were suffocation and electrocution.

Ouk Sokhhoeun, 21, was at the scene with his sister, 23-year-old Ouk Srey Mom, who was left unconscious and taken to Calmette hospital, said that military police started firing water cannons into the crowd on the bridge after the stampede had already caused scores of people to fall unconscious.

He said the water caused many people on the bridge to receive electric shocks from the cables lighting the bridge, at which point “some police also received electric shocks”.
A Phnom Pehn Post reporter told CNN:
Finch cited witnesses as saying that the bridge was festooned with electric lights, which may have played a role in the deaths.

The government denied anyone died by electric shock.

But a doctor who declined to be identified publicly said the main cause of death was suffocation and electric shock. Police were among the dead, he said.

While Finch said the incident apparently coincided with the firing of the water cannon, a witness, Ouk Sokhhoeun, 21, told the Phnom Penh Post that the stampede began first.
Here is a Cambodian TV news report:

This video shows the scene by the river earlier in the day:

This video was shot on the morning of Nov. 23, showing the debris from the stampede:

How important is ASEAN to the United States?

 President Obama, writing in a NY Times op-ed on Nov 6:
Indonesia is a member of the G-20.  Next year, it will assume the chairmanship o the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a group whose members make up a market of more than 600 million people that is increasingly integrating into a free trade area, and to which the United States exports $80 billion in goods and services each year.  My administration has deepened out engagement in ASEAN, and for the first eight months of 2010, exports of American goods to Indonesia increased by 47 percent from the same period in 2009.  This is momentum that we will build on as we pursue a new comprehensive partnership between the United States and Indonesia.
A strong ASEAN is in the interest of the United States.  ASEAN offers a way to keep the states of the region somewhat independent of China.   In the absence of ASEAN, the United States, Japan, India, and the European Union will find it harder and harder play a meaningful role in China’s backyard. 

On the other hand, for the  export-dependent economies of Southeast Asia, the growth of an ASEAN economic community could act as a hedge against over-dependence on the Chinese market.    If ASEAN countries develop strong internal political and trade ties, then states of the region will retain a stronger bargaining position with respect to China.    The countries of Southeast Asia need to retain the ability to walk away from a Chinese demand.    The heavy-handed approach of China towards Japan with respect to rare earth elements demonstrates that China is not above using its economic power as a hammer (the Chinese recently cut off Japan’s access to these resources over a fishing-related incident).   The incident proved that China is not above using its economic clout to coerce a weaker neighbor.    

But there’s only so much outside powers like the United States can do to help Southeast Asian countries retain their independence, their ability to play one major power against another.    More important than outside encouragement will be for the ASEAN nations to pull together.     Yet this will be more difficult than it sounds.   China will surely attempt to use its influence over weak regimes like Cambodia or Burma to divide and control the organization.

ASEAN needs the support not only of Obama, but governments on every continent.

Thailand world's 2nd deadliest roads for US travelers

Road accidents — not terrorism, plane crashes or crime — are the No. 1 killer of healthy Americans traveling abroad, a USA TODAY analysis of the past 7½ years of State Department data shows.

About 1,820 Americans, almost a third of all Americans who died of non-natural causes while abroad, have been reported killed in road accidents in foreign countries from Jan. 1, 2003, through June 2010. On average, one American traveler dies on a foreign road every 36 hours.

Almost 40% of the deaths occurred in Mexico, the analysis shows. The second-highest number of road fatalities occurred in Thailand, where relatively few Americans visit.  The Dominican Republic, a popular resort destination, ranked No. 3 in fatalities, followed by Germany and Spain.
 An accompanying chart shows that between 2003 and June 2010, 56 Americans were killed in road accidents in Thailand. 

During that period 16,240 Thais lost their lives on the kingdom's deadly roads. To put this figure in context,  nearly half as many Thais lose their lives on the roads as Brazilians, even though Brazil's population is nearly  three times larger.  Turkey's population is slightly larger than Thailand's, but Turkey had only two-thirds as many traffic fatalities as Thailand.    Accounting for the population, Thailand's roads are only marginally more deadly than Malaysia's, which is surprising as Malaysians are far more prosperous  than Thais (on the same level as the Turks and Brazilians)*. As more affluent countries tend to have safer roads, Malaysia's roads are far more dangerous than should be expected. 

If Thais want to think of their roads as safe, they have to compare their country to Iran.  Iran has about the same population and GDP per capita as Thailand, but its roads are two-thirds more deadly.   

* GDP per capita of Turkey, Brazil and Malaysia is twice that of Thailand. 

Pirates of Southeast Asia

Somali pirates are getting a lot of press, but the world's most successful pirates are not working off the east coast of Africa...

Continued at JOTMAN.COM.

Rising cost of labor in China is opportunity for ASEAN

The cost of labor in China is higher than all ASEAN countries except Malaysia and tiny Singapore.  As China's artificially low currency appreciates, the wage cost disparity could cause a flight of manufactures to ASEAN countries.

According to a WSJ report, the opportunity has ASEAN  countries scrambling to coordinate supply chains so that the region can offer not only a labor price advantage, but the infrastructure that will remain China's strongest selling point long after it ceases to be competitive on wages:
Several Southeast Asian countries—including Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia—lack sufficient infrastructure to support much larger manufacturing industries, even though their wages are cheaper than China's. Individual Southeast Asian countries also lack the scale to single-handedly absorb a massive influx of jobs from China.

Leaders in the region are pressing ahead with plans to stitch together the patchwork of nations into a common market and production platform by 2015. If fully realized, the project will include fewer restrictions on the movement of skilled labor from country to country and streamlined customs procedures.

Southeast Asian countries are also making headway on road and rail investments. Efforts funded by the Asian Development Bank and others have created three major overland trade corridors, with improved highway connections across Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

Many companies are pursuing the same goals on their own. In the garment industry, more than a dozen Southeast Asian suppliers have reached agreements recently to more-closely integrate their supply chains by linking stitching companies in places such as Cambodia with raw-material makers in Thailand or other nearby countries. The companies effectively agree to market goods jointly so that they appear similar to suppliers in China, which often offer all the steps needed to make a whole garment, including access to yarns, fabrics, buttons and sewing, in the same area.

The long-term goal is to make Southeast Asia operate like one country with many states, rather than a region of 10 nations, says Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. "We have huge differences, but we have to make it happen" to grab more business from China, he says.
Although many of the developments cited in the article are not news to ASEAN watchers, the potential for countries in the region to quickly reap economic benefits from ASEAN integration were never so apparent in the past.   Not mentioned at all in the article, looking further ahead, I believe the biggest ASEAN winner from China's appreciating costs is is likely to be Burma (where a transition to a market-oriented dictatorship like Vietnam or China seems to be underway).   Moreover, I strongly suspect that most analysts over-emphasize China's advantages, while overstating the importance of some barriers facing ASEAN.

Jotman will explore these and other questions further in the near future.

Pakistan flood relief: Why only token donations from Thailand and Singapore?

In 2005, Thailand and Indonesia were recipients of the largest aid response to a natural disaster in history.  One would think that these countries would give generously to victims of the large natural disaster that has devastated Pakistan.

The UN says that Pakistan needs about $500 million to meet the immediate needs of afflicted populations.   What have ASEAN countries donated?
  • Malaysia  - $1 million (as of Aug 8)
  • Singapore - $100 thousand (Singapore Red Cross also launched a public appeal "that will end Sept. 4")
  • Thailand - $75 thousand "initial donation" (as of Aug. 11)
  • Indonesia - no information
  • Brunei - no figure given, but Brunei residents can donate to Prime Minister's Flood Relief Fund through HSBC account number 001-690452-056.
Thailand and Singapore are the leading economies of ASEAN, yet these governments have donated only a token amount to help Pakistan.  From news reports, it's not clear that Indonesia's leaders are even aware of the disaster in Pakistan.  By contrast, Sri Lanka, a victim of the Indian Ocean tsunami, has already donated $3 million in food aid to Pakistan.  Impoverished Bangladesh has donated $2 million.   Taking into account Nigeria's $1 million donation, it's evident that the world's poorest continent has given about as much assistance to Pakistan as ASEAN.  

A region that has fresh memories of natural disaster and the generosity of the international community, ASEAN could be taking the lead today in helping the people of Pakistan.   Southeast Asians know what it's like to face a tsunami-sized natural disaster.

How to donate?  Medicins Sans Frontiers  has over 1,000 helpers on the ground in Pakistan and is setting up emergency field hospitals. You can donate to MSF online.

Thailand food price increases harbinger of global crisis?

WSJ published an alarming article on the global food supply.  The article referred to rising food prices and the risk of political instability in ASEAN countries.
Indonesia, Thailand and other nations already face higher costs for various food items, including sugar and pork, heightening concerns about a return of the civil unrest that accompanied rising food costs in 2008. 
The article also noted:
Russia is facing discontent over its handling of the disaster, and in Malaysia and Thailand there already are rumblings over food prices.

In Thailand, many consumers have been complaining about an unexpected jump in the price of sugar after the country ran low on supplies and had to import the commodity for the first time in 30 years. "Prices of food are higher in every category" since the beginning of this year, says Porntip Uthaichan, a 30-year-old coffee vendor in Bangkok. The cost of sugar, which she uses in the coffee she sells, has shot up about 45% this year, she says, while pork is about 20% more expensive than earlier this year.

Also, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is set to begin this week, when families increase their food purchases by upward of 25%.
This will be an important story to watch.

Unrest in Thailand's Northern Provinces

From a recent update to my post at ThereLive:
France 24 reports that "Along with the province of Ubon Ratchathani (its capital is of the same name), 21 other provinces (out of the country's 76) have been placed under a state of emergency. Most of them are in the northeast of the country, the heartland of the Red Shirts."

Map of clashes in Bangkok on May 19

This content of this post was extracted from a recent update to my live-blog which is posted here.

Bangkok Post produced this Google map on the clashes in the city:

Fires, shootings, chaos in Thailand

Bangkok's Central World Plaza has almost burned to the ground.

Jotman's May 19 live-blog compiles various accounts of "the day Bangkok burned" by twitter users in Thailand organized by topic.   Links to various live-blog accounts compiled here.

May 19, 2010: Major fires in Bangkok, shootings in Chang Mai

You can read my topical live-blog of the destruction of Bangkok here.

Ghosh: Working class Klong Toey residents support red shirts

Ghosh of the Straights Times:
It is true that Klong Toey is rife with criminality and weapons. An army officer friend (not involved in Bangkok operations) told me it would be very difficult for the troops if the criminal elements in the area took out their weapons and started using them.

The army was somewhat taken by surprise, he reckoned, when in throwing the blockade around the Ratchaprasong protest zone, it was challenged outside the zone itself.

Many of the Red Shirt supporters at Klong Toey, were from the area, but many were also from other areas and had been blocked by the army from getting to the main protest site.

In response, they had turned the tables by boxing the army in. At one end up Rama IV is the Sala Daeng front line where the red shirts have a huge barricade. At the other end is this new front line at Klong Toey.

The Klong Toey phenomenon also underscores the fact that this is not an urban-rural struggle. It is considerably blurred.

The Red Shirts have considerable support among the capital's working classes.
Plus of course, there are some wealthy Bangkok business families who are known to support Thaksin Shinawatra, whose name continues to be a rallying call for the Red Shirts, even as the movement has grown somewhat beyond him.
 It's worth reading Ghosh's whole report.  Other recent eyewitness accounts listed here.

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