Contestations and conflicts over the meaning of disaster justice during the 2011 Bangkok floods

Dr Danny Marks, Assistant Professor at Dublin City University

[This piece is abridged from a journal article originally published by the author in Asia Pacific Viewpoint, entitled “Contested notions of disaster justice during the 2011 Bangkok floods: Unequal risk, unrest and claims to the city”]


An elderly woman in a low-income Bangkok community stated during an interview: “The government unfairly divided people [during the floods]. People in the inner city are big people and big rich companies but they did not protect the small people.”

In this quotation, a victim of the 2011 Bangkok floods, like many others on the outskirts of the city, felt that the state’s governance of the flood was unfair because her neighbourhood was badly flooded whereas others were protected. During the floods, some died, became injured or sick, while others experienced financial and emotional distress. Still others were barely affected while those who lived in the inner city were spared. This article examines different perceptions of disaster justice in a non-western context where a complex range of cultural and modern issues interplay and explores the ways in which these perceptions affect vulnerability to and conflicts related to disasters.

The Thailand state’s response to the floods followed a hierarchical approach to justice, which resulted in some people and places, according to their position in national society, being protected at the expense of others, independent of geographical factors. This approach stemmed from the country’s historical social ranking system, royal nationalism and socioeconomic inequality.

However, various Bangkok residents subscribed to a more egalitarian notion of disaster justice, where people should share burdens and have equitable access to decision-making over the distribution of risk. Friction between these two views led to contestations during the floods

People gather around a barrier made of sandbags as floods advance in Bangkok October 22, 2011. Image: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

For example, the Thai government, who ascribed to the hierarchical notion of justice, sought to keep the inner districts, deemed the most elite space in the city and home to the palace, Parliament House, luxurious shopping malls, and the most-respected temples,  completely free from flooding, even though that meant the outskirts of Bangkok, where the majority of low-income communities reside, bore the brunt of the flooding. The decision to protect the inner city caused hardship and suffering for these residents. Sandbag walls caused the floodwater to rise and pond, and the water became stagnant, dirty, and full of mosquitoes. As this situation lasted over two months, residents of these communities were affected in various ways. Businesses were disrupted and some community members became ill and even died.

Protecting the inner city generated significant discontent among residents in the city’s outskirts.  They felt that the government’s actors were unfair. In various flooded districts, communities collectively organized to contest the governance of the floods. Overall, 85 flood-related protests occurred in Bangkok.  During some of these protests, protesters broke down sandbag walls to reduce levels of flooding, improve water quality, and improve access to aid. For example, in one community in northern Bangkok, participants rode on boats to the wall and held a public hearing and a symbolic unanimous vote to remove the sandbags since the government did not consult them before placing the wall. They also chanted “We are quality citizens of Bangkok too”, demanding that the government recognise them as equal citizens of Bangkok. They demanded that the government respect their constitutional and human rights, including the right of movement (since the wall blocked transportation), the right to their livelihoods (since the wall blocked them from receiving food supplies, and reduced employment possibilities), and the right to a public hearing. After the government had failed to respond positively, protesters broke down the sandbag wall outside their community.

Overall, these protests show that the elite no longer had a monopoly on approaches to justice. Ordinary citizens and local leaders, affected by the social, economic and environmental effects of the floodwalls, contested the meaning of justice. They articulated the importance of equality, inclusive citizenship, and state culpability for mismanagement to contest the destructive inequity of the government’s flood management decision-making. Counter-notions of justice emphasised that vulnerability to floods should be more equitable and the right to the city shared by all. While proponents of these alternative notions had only limited successes, these successes offered hope and pointed a way forward for reforming the governance of flooding, and thus of the city.

Dr Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy in the School of Law and Government of Dublin City University. His research interests are political ecology, environmental justice, climate governance, disaster risk reduction, with a focus on Southeast Asia.

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