Confusing and conflicting reports are not only showing the authorities in poor light but also aggravating the situation
Plodprasob Surassawadee deserved sympathy. But again, he should have known better. Some political heat has been turned up on the science minister, who has been tasked with overseeing flood-relief operations, after his statement on TV on Thursday evening caused widespread panic among Bangkokians. People scrambled to move things out of their homes, phone networks were overloaded and the social media went into a wild frenzy.
To be fair to Plodprasob, everyone has already been jumpy, especially Bangkokians who have been spared the suffering largely at the expense of some neighbouring or nearby northern provinces. When he said flood waters as high as one metre could be heading towards several northern Bangkok districts, it was like pressing the panic button. It turned out that Plodprasob was jumping the gun a little bit. The repair work on the Ban Prao floodgate in the Sam Kok district of Pathum Thani was not going as fast as he wished, and some gushing water apparently prompted him to throw caution to the wind. When he made a statement that people in those districts should start moving their belongings, it was quickly picked up by Twitter and Facebook users. The rest is history.
The whole government came under fire. Justice Minister Pracha Promnok, placed above Plodprasob in the anti-flood chain of command, had to come out to repair the damage. He told the media that no evacuation order had been issued, or even suggested. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also came out in defence of her science minister. Although she said that Plodprasob had “good intentions”, the government conspicuously stated that public announcements concerning the flooding were to come from Pracha alone in the future. To add to the tension between the government and the media, the Information and Communications Technology Ministry warned that rumour-mongers could face a jail term. There was even talk that press releases must have Pracha’s signature on them.
It doesn’t matter that Plodprasob was acting in good faith. Something needs to be done when it comes to the way the government communicates with the Thai public over the high-tension, fast-changing flood situation. In just two weeks, we have seen public communications responsibility shift from Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit to Plodprasob, and then to Justice Minister Pracha. The prime minister herself did not look comfortable or convincing when she addressed the nation about the flood disaster on TV. Then there is the issue of Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who has not quite sung the same tune as the government.
The governor, who is from the Democrat Party, was apparently so upset by Plodprasob’s action on Thursday evening that he told Bangkokians to listen to flood updates concerning the capital only from him. Whether the government’s “Listen to Pracha only” policy will create jurisdictional or political problems remains to be seen, although, technically, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is supposed to be a part of the government’s anti-flood command.
Apart from the Plodprasob misfortune, there are accidents waiting to happen. The government’s flood management has flown in the face of leaders of many local communities who have been pressured by their people unhappy with how Bangkokians are having it easy at their expense. These local officials, too, have been talking to the media and many times their information has clashed with that of the government.
Yingluck’s second in command in this crisis, as of now, seems to be Pracha. He is anything but a big-picture flood expert. Plodprasob was supposed to be the best she had, but the situation proved to be overwhelming, as it had been for Yongyuth before him.
Can Pracha cut it? His first test came immediately. On Friday, confusion reigned following what appeared to be a statement from the command centre that 17 Bangkok districts are now classified as “disaster areas”. Pracha denied knowledge of the statement, making the situation all the more unsettling. It could be yet another misunderstanding, but for Thais already on edge, it only meant continued anxiety and stress.