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Floods help Thai army clean up reputation
by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 19, 2011

Central Bangkok 'safe' from floods: Thai PM
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 19, 2011 - Thailand's premier declared central Bangkok safe from the kingdom's devastating floods Saturday, as the death toll neared 600 and President Barack Obama vowed the US would give whatever help it can.

Thailand is suffering its worst flooding in half a century, and 5.4 million people are still affected around the kingdom, but Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said that inner areas of the capital were out of danger.

Yingluck met Obama on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit on the Indonesian island of Bali on Saturday -- her first face-to-face meeting with the US leader.

"It's certain that the inner zone of Bangkok will be safe from floods because the measures to hold floodwaters have been successful," she said in her weekly radio and television address.

The drainage of floodwaters in the western part of the capital was progressing slowly, she said, but she remained confident that a key road linking the city to the country's south would not be cut.

"Many feared that Rama II road may be submerged, but it's unlikely now and if it is inundated it will not be serious," she said.

Some 595 people have been killed in floods and two are still unaccounted for, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said in its daily update Saturday.

Many areas in the north and west of the capital are still underwater and full or partial evacuation orders are in force in 24 of the city's 50 districts.

Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra joined 1,000 volunteers clearing up a major road junction in the city's north on Saturday after the waters receded, and he vowed to clean up the whole city by the end of the year.

Obama congratulated Yingluck on her "inspirational" election victory in July and pledged US support in the floods crisis.

"We will extend any assistance we can," Obama said. "The US and Thailand are two of the oldest allies, with great friendship. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the victims of the flood."

Washington has promised more than $10 million to help Thailand recover from the disaster.

The meeting with Obama comes at a delicate time for Yingluck, the sister of the deeply divisive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

Yingluck, 44, who had no experience of politics before her election, has faced criticism for her handling of the flood crisis and over reports that her government had drafted a royal pardon that could allow Thaksin to return.

While Thailand's government has come under fire for its handling of the floods crisis, the military's relief efforts have restored its own reputation, analysts say -- and boosted its political clout.

The army has plunged huge resources into helping Thais cope with the kingdom's worst floods in decades: 55,000 soldiers on the ground, 5,000 vehicles clearing paths through flooded roads and 3,000 boats.

In doing so, they quietly repaired an image battered by a crackdown on political protests in Bangkok last year that ended in bloodshed.

Army chief General Prayut Chan-o-Cha has even laid on the conciliatory language in recent weeks in what -- after years of sometimes violent political struggles -- remains a deeply divided country.

"In the current situation everyone must unify to fight," he said this week. While the government of novice Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is now openly criticised for its management of the floods, the army is on the receiving end of an avalanche of compliments.

On a Facebook page set up a month ago to say "thank you" to the army, more than 70,000 followers have posted photos and heaped praise on the military for its help.

"I think there is a lot of propaganda around and somehow the propaganda is quite effective, people begin to see a better side of the military," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thailand expert at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, agreed the army chief had played a clever hand.

"He knew that this crisis would weaken Yingluck's government and the best thing to do was to give a helping hand and stay out of it."

Thailand's generals have a long record of intervening in politics. There have been 18 actual or attempted coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The last came in 2006 and deposed Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile but still enjoys strong support among the rural poor in northern Thailand.

Thailand has endured five years of clashes since then -- both political and in the streets -- between Thaksin's supporters and the Bangkok elites, who have power bases in the military, bureaucracy and judiciary, and who despise him.

Up to 100,000 pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" occupied central Bangkok for two months in 2010 to demand the resignation of the Democrat party government.

In May that year the army moved in to end the demonstrations and in total, the two-month crisis left more than 90 people dead.

Relations between the army and Yingluck's government are unsurprisingly tense. But analysts point out that army chief Prayut publicly rejected opposition calls for a state of emergency, which would have given him greater powers.

"How the army has come out of it -- looking rather well -- has somewhat offset, but not erased, the negative perception following the crackdown of April and May 2010," Thitinan said.

"The army has regained some credibility. It gives them political capital to engage in the longer term."

Paul Chambers, a researcher at Payap University in Chiang Mai, went further, saying the army had been acting increasingly autonomously from the government and was "close to establishing a parallel state" devoted to the monarchy.

"If Prayut is able to appear as the sole source of stability amidst intensifying political squabbling, then if the Yingluck government is somehow felled either by the judiciary or censure, he could help to fashion a new government favoured by the palace," Chambers told AFP.

Last week, army expert Wassana Nanuam wrote in the Bangkok Post daily that Prayut's position had not changed with the floods.

"He does not like the Red Shirts or Thaksin. He is determined to protect the monarchy and lives with the motto... 'country above all'. His moves will be worth watching from now on," she wrote.

Rumours that the government is preparing a prisoner amnesty that would allow Thaksin to come back could heat up the debate further.

If the former telecoms tycoon returns to the kingdom, Pavin said, the general may find it hard to keep his counsel -- and the army's newly polished reputation could quickly tarnish.

"The real colour of the military is to be a ruthless agency with its own political agenda," he said.

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Clinton asks flood-hit Thais to keep hope
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 17, 2011 - Offering a hearty smile and traditional greetings, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comforted Thais displaced by massive floods Thursday as she urged the long-divided nation to pull together.

Hoping to put a human face on US support for one of its oldest allies, Clinton toured a stadium in Bangkok where some 1,400 people are sleeping on mats after escaping floods that have affected millions around the kingdom.

Clinton grinned and pressed her hands together in a Thai "wai" greeting as she inquired about the health and conditions of survivors and their children, who ran around a floor cluttered by plastic bags full of salvaged belongings.

"Did you get a shot? Yes? Good," Clinton said to one middle-aged man in a T-shirt, who bowed to the ground in front of her in a sign of respect.

Clinton later recorded an interview with a popular Thai daytime talk show in which she declared: "I love Thailand and I love the Thai people."

"I want to tell you that we will be with you, not just now, but in years to come, because we believe in Thailand. We value greatly the Thai culture and the alliance and partnership we've had over so many years," she said.

Clinton, not known for her skill in foreign languages, was later persuaded by the show's hosts to chant with them a phrase in Thai -- "Susukha," which translates as "Be strong".

Despite the severity of the floods, the shelter -- which is run by volunteers and does not receive US assistance -- appeared to be in good shape, offering its residents comfortable air-conditioning and regular meals.

Clinton called the Rajamangala Stadium a "bright, cheerful complex" and said she was impressed to see volunteers helping in relief efforts, including women who offered free haircuts and babysitting.

While Clinton's visit to the shelter was brief and partly designed for media coverage, she also offered substantive help to Thailand, announcing Wednesday that Washington would commit up to $10 million in aid after teams from a US warship assess needs.

Clinton also threw support behind Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand has been riven by years of sometimes violent political unrest, worrying the United States as it hopes to work with allies as part of a renewed focus on fast-growing Asia.

Yingluck is the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup and remains a deeply divisive figure. Yingluck's cabinet has reportedly approved a pardon that would allow Thaksin to return.

Clinton, speaking at a news conference with Yingluck late Wednesday, encouraged Thailand to move ahead with political reconciliation and said she was reassured of the premier's commitment to democracy.

"It is certainly up to the government and people of Thailand to determine exactly how to proceed, but we are encouraging it and quite heartened at the steps we have seen taken," she said.

In the interview on Thursday with the talk show "Puying Teung Puying," which is hosted by four women, Clinton also praised Yingluck for becoming Thailand's first female prime minister after elections in July.

"I'm very proud of her, because, boy, she came into office and -- wham -- just really faced a big set of challenges," Clinton said.

"It's hard for men or women, but -- let's face it -- women are held to a different, double standard."

"We feel like we have to work even harder, do even more, to prove ourselves," said Clinton, who narrowly lost a bid to to be the first female US president and has made women's rights a major focus in her role as the top US diplomat.

Since becoming secretary of state in 2009, Clinton has put a priority on holding public events which she hopes can help improve the global image of the United States which sunk to lows under former president George W. Bush.


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Clinton asks flood-hit Thais to keep hope
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 17, 2011
Offering a hearty smile and traditional greetings, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comforted Thais displaced by massive floods Thursday as she urged the long-divided nation to pull together. Hoping to put a human face on US support for one of its oldest allies, Clinton toured a stadium in Bangkok where some 1,400 people are sleeping on mats after escaping floods that have affected mill ... read more

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