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In Bali, at least, shoulders for PM to cry on

Nov 14. 2011
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By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

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When Yingluck Shinawatra joins leaders from Asean and the group's dialogue partners for over a dozen meetings in Bali this week, she will likely discover that despite her government's inefficient tackling of the flood crisis, Thailand will receive lots of


With the Pheu Thai Party’s landslide election win in July, Yingluck became prime minister after a 49-day political campaign. She did not expect that her leadership’s first major challenge would be the most devastating floods in five decades, which have already killed more than 500 people, left nearly one million unemployed and affected several million common folks. The economic calamities caused by the prolonged flood water will only grow, leaving even more Thais in dire straits, in the months and years to come
In Bali, Thailand will focus on the flood crisis and its aftermath. No foreign leaders are going to blame her for what has happened in the Kingdom, even though she is the prime minister and supposed to take charge. 
Therefore, her key messages must be loud and clear – convincing the Asean members and dialogue partners of the government’s ability to overcome obstacles to rehabilitating the wrecked economic infrastructure, and to revive the major industrial zones as soon as possible. 
With almost half of Asean’s members also suffering from flooding, the grouping should contribute more resources to region-wide disaster-relief operations. Yingluck will call for a stronger Asean commitment on this front. 
The government has established two special committees to work out long-term strategies for economic recovery and developing a water-management system – the Strategic Committee for Reconstruction and Future Development and the Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management. 
The government has already approved a Bt2.38 trillion budget for the coming year.
This means Thailand can really turn this crisis into an opportunity, stripping the economy back to the bone and welcoming foreign investment and businesses with incentives to recoup what the country has lost during the floods. 
As an important hub for regional and global production chains, Thailand’s industrial stoppages have caused huge disruptions in the computer, automobile and other high-tech industries. Yingluck’s biggest challenge is to ensure that no foreign investors abandon the country.
While she is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with each of the leaders attending the summit, the highlight of her Bali trip will be the 30-minute meeting with US President Barack Obama. This is of huge importance; the prime minister will have to choose her words very carefully when she expresses views on how to promote Thai-US relations. She skipped the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Honolulu on Friday, which immediately drew sympathy from US State Secretary Hilary Clinton. The US has been very enthusiastic in utilising the flood crisis to rejuvenate Thai-US relations, providing Bt33 million worth of assistance to victims and relief organisations.
US assistance has included satellite-feed photos of inundated areas, the dispatching of the Marine Corps’ Humanitarian Assessment Survey Team (HAST) and aerial monitoring by two Sea Hawk helicopters. In fact, Clinton decided to cut short her visit to the Philippines this week just to make a 17-hour pit stop in Bangkok on Wednesday, which was not included in the original itinerary. Besides meeting with Yingluck and giving a press conference, Clinton will also engage in activities to demonstrate the US’ good will.
In Honolulu, Clinton underscored the importance of Thai-US relations, saying the US will consult with Thai officials on future plans to assist Thailand and increase its capacity to deal with natural disasters. 
HAST is working on a report that will suggest ways the two countries can work together to increase Thailand’s disaster resilience. Since the 2004 tsunami, the US has been using Thailand as the hub for rescue and relief operations. The Thai-US coalition on humanitarian assistance would serve as a new platform for the US presence and outreach in the region, which no longer relies on permanent structures as in the past. 
Next year’s Cobra Gold, the annual Thai-US joint military exercise, will give special emphasis to rescue and relief operations in recognition of the fact that countries in the region face unpredictable natural disasters caused directly or indirectly by climate change.
Washington is focusing particular attention on certain countries in Asia – half of them are in Asean – including Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand. The move comes amid a general US effort to strengthen ties with existing allies in Asia-Pacific. 
More US efforts are visible now in the case of the Philippines and Thailand, which have not always been given full attention by the US in recent years due to their perceived lack of consistency in fulfilling treaty obligations. Changes in the post Cold War environment, coupled with the US’ “enemy deprivation” in the region, mean that Thailand has become a development partner of the US almost by default – a far cry from the strategic alliance of the Vietnam War days.
Also high on the agenda will be the follow-up on the “Asean connectivity” push initiated by the Abhisit government and approved by Asean leaders last October in Hanoi. Despite the Yingluck government’s reluctance to credit her predecessor, Foreign Ministry officials preparing for the Bali summit reiterated that this is a Thai initiative, therefore Thailand will continue to play a leading role in implementing the master plan, which will link all aspects of Asean members and beyond. Asean-plus-three countries (China, Japan and South Korea) are now part of the broader connectivity plan.
In Bali, Yingluck must connect with the leaders of Asean and its dialogue partners if she wants to lead Thailand’s economic recovery. 
The task of trying to shore up the image of Thailand and her government among global movers and shakers will doubtless come almost as a relief, far away from millions of frustrated Thais.

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