News / Asia

Thailand Floods Foster Unity in Divided Country

Volunteer relief workers prepare supplies at the Don Muang Airport, Thailand, October 15, 2011.
Volunteer relief workers prepare supplies at the Don Muang Airport, Thailand, October 15, 2011.
Ron Corben

Relief efforts are being stepped up as Thailand copes with its worst flooding in 50 years. Thais working at a key relief center say the disaster has helped foster a sense of national unity absent from the country’s recent years of political turbulence.

Thai officials remained confident Sunday that flood walls protecting Bangkok would hold.  

But the floods, the worst in five decades, continue to take their toll. On Sunday, another major industrial estate in nearby Ayutthaya province was inundated with the loss of 60,000 jobs. This takes the toll to five estates to fall to the rising waters. Economists say the floods may cost the economy $5 billion and lower economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Country-wide, the flooding has claimed some 300 lives and is affecting millions of people across more than 30 provinces.

At the main relief center at the former international airport of Don Muang, 25 kilometers from Bangkok city, thousands of volunteer relief workers combine to pack supplies to be sent to flood-bound communities.   

Janya, from the northern province of Lampung, where floods have passed their peak, says she wanted to help rather than wait for floodwaters to fully recede.

“It’s Lampung, it’s in the north; but it is safer than Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani - all the provinces around Bangkok," she said. "So I don’t know what to do. So being in the room [and] keep watching TV [I’m] stressed out so better to help people here. I think most Thai people we are sad, we are sad for this situation. This is very bad.

As trolleys laden with large bags of donated rice pass, the volunteer crowds cheer.  Tanawat, a dentist from nearby Don Muang town, spoke of his pride how the Thai community has come together after recent years of political conflict.

“Very proud, very proud; the Thai people are very proud. Everyone sad with the situation but we have the power of mind to help everyone," he said. "You see this flood in Thailand is the most severe in my life, ever seen in the 50 years. This is very, in 50 years, the most severe situation.”

Among the overseas volunteers arriving at the center was a group of 40 high school students and staff from the Faith Academy in Manila, the Philippines. They are visiting Bangkok for a high school choir competition. Staff member American Kim Johnson said the group wanted to help after hearing about the disaster.

“It’s really sad. We were even debating whether to come [to Thailand] because of the tragedy," said Johnson. "We had to fly but we pushed through and they said no, come, and we’re glad to be here and helping because unfortunately, the kids really haven’t seen the flood because we’ve been in the center of Bangkok, but they wanted to help in some way. So I think it just been a great opportunity to come here and help.”

The choir then gave an impromptu concert, widely appreciated by the hundreds of volunteers.

The United States has joined relief efforts.  A special U.S. Marines’ humanitarian aid team has arrived along with officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development to assist local efforts in distributing aid to tens of thousands of people isolated by floodwaters.

U.S. assistance includes six Seahawk helicopters to airlift heavy construction materials.  Other foreign assistance has come from Japan and Australia, while China’s military offered help to the Thai defense forces in the form of 24 boats and diesel-fuel generators.

Thai government officials have called for greater cooperation and unity despite some conflicts between residents in flooded areas. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra saying the needs of the people are her top priority.

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