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Thailand flooding could last 6 weeks more, premier warns

The death toll rises to 356 as authorities try to channel floodwaters through Bangkok's canals and out to sea. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra invokes a disaster law to exert more authority.

October 22, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Streets are flooded in Pathum Thani, Thailand, near Bangkok. The death toll in three months of flooding is now more than 350.
Streets are flooded in Pathum Thani, Thailand, near Bangkok. The death… (Daniel Berehulak, Getty…)

Reporting from New Delhi — Thailand, reeling from its worst flooding in decades, received more bad news Saturday as the death toll from three months of downpours rose to 356 and the prime minister warned that the inundation could last six more weeks.

In a high-risk maneuver this weekend, authorities are trying to channel floodwaters through the canals of Bangkok and out to sea from the deluged central plains. The capital has already seen waist-high water in its northern neighborhoods, with many fearing that the heart of downtown could be next if the diversion fails.

"Bangkok must open all floodgates to allow the water through," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said in a nationwide radio address. "There is a huge volume of runoff water from the north and we can't effectively block it, but can only slow the flow."

PHOTOS: Thailand floods

The government raised the death toll to 356 from Friday's 342. Two others are missing. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced and are living in shelters. And the nation has suffered $3.3 billion in economic damage, a figure that could double if Bangkok is swamped.

Yingluck, who's been in office just two months, invoked a disaster law Friday to exert more control over squabbling ministries and contradictory information. She also warned Bangkok residents to move their belongings to higher floors and brace for water levels that could reach 3 feet.

The politician, a sister of fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, also said her government would safeguard Bangkok's palaces and other important buildings and economic zones. Critics have accused her of moving slowly and failing to recognize the scale of the problem.

"The government should've done much better than this. It's mismanaged the whole thing," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor with the Nation media group. "With their populist policies and rallies, they're much better at controlling people than water."

Flooding has affected nearly half of the country's 77 provinces in the last three months, taking a huge toll on the economy. Thailand is the world's top rice and rubber producer and a major disk-drive manufacturer; the disaster is sending jitters through the global computer industry in advance of the Christmas shopping season.

Five major industrial estates north of Bangkok, a city known as the Venice of the East, have suspended operations. Carmakers Honda and Toyota, among others, have shut down production. And two other industrial estates to the north and east are in jeopardy, putting more than 700,000 people out of work temporarily.

The focus on saving Bangkok, although economically sound, has underscored long-standing political tensions in the country between the urban elite and the relatively poor rural population, analysts said.

Bangkok saw months of street fighting and unrest last year between government forces and "red shirt" protesters made up mostly of farmers, the poor and the working class.

"The people of Bangkok thought it was an island, that you could block the water and send it to the west, east, into the main Prapa Canal," said Pitch Pongsawat, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. "In an address, the Bangkok government said they were trying to save the Bangkok people, not the rest of the country."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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