Yingluck can turn flood crisis into diplomacy coup

Ms Yingluck Shinawatra will join Asean leaders in Bali this week for over a dozen summits among themselves and with other dialogue partners.

The country's first woman prime minister will find out, despite her government's inefficient ways to tackle its flood crisis, that she has lots of sympathy and support from her counterparts.

Her predecessor did not have that kind of luxury. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had to earn support, while trying to manage political chaos during his 21/2-year stint.

After the landslide election in July, Ms Yingluck became Prime Minister with 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 that have already killed more than 500 people, left nearly one million unemployed and affected several millions of common folk.

The economic calamities caused by the flood waters would be even greater, and more Thais would be in dire straits in months and years to come.

In Bali, Ms Yingluck will focus on the flood crisis and its aftermath. No foreign leaders are going to blame her for what has happened in Thailand, even though she is supposed to take charge.

Therefore, her key messages must be loud and clear: convincing Asean members and dialogue partners of her government's capability in overcoming obstacles to rehabilitate wrecked economic infrastructure, and reactivating the major industrial zones, which were shut down, as soon as possible.

With almost half of the Asean members also affected by floods, the grouping should also contribute more resources to its region-wide disaster-relief operations.

Ms Yingluck will call for a stronger Asean commitment on this front.

The government has recently established two special committees to work out long-term strategies for economic recovery and a future 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 2.38-trillion-baht (S$100-billion) budget for the coming year.

Thailand can turn the crisis into opportunity, as the country will welcome foreign investments and businesses with incentives to recoup what the country has lost during the floods.

The country is an important hub of regional and global production chains, so its industrial stoppages have caused huge hiccups in computer, car and other high-tech industries. Ms Yingluck's biggest challenge is to ensure that no foreign investors abandon Thailand at this juncture.

While she is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with the leaders attending the summit, the highlight of her Bali trip will be a 30-minute meeting with United States President Barack Obama.

She skipped the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Honolulu, which immediately drew sympathy from US State Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The US has been very enthusiastic in utilising the flood crisis to rejuvenate Thai-US relations, providing 33 million baht' worth of assistance to victims and relief organisations.

Truth be told, Mrs Clinton decided to cut short her visit to the Philippines this week just to make a 17-hour stop in Bangkok today, which was not included in the itinerary. Besides meeting Ms Yingluck and giving a press conference, Mrs Clinton will also engage in activities to demonstrate US goodwill related to flood-relief operations.

Washington is focusing on the so-called new countries in Asia that used to be outside its radar - half of them are in Asean. The US is also strengthening ties with all its allies in the Asia-Pacific.

In Bali, Ms Yingluck has to connect with the leaders of Asean and dialogue partners, if she wants to lead Thailand's economic recovery. She has her work cut out, trying to salvage Thailand and her government in meetings with global movers and shakers, far away from millions of frustrated Thais.

This is an abridged version of the commentary put out by The Nation earlier this week.

Floods reach central Bangkok
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