BANGKOK Thailand's prime minister warned businesses on Wednesday not to take advantage of flooding around the country to push up prices as residents of Bangkok cleared supermarket shelves, worried that the capital could be swamped in coming days.
Yingluck Shinawatra, a novice politician who became prime minister in August, said she had asked the Ministry of Commerce to keep a close watch on retail prices.
"I'd like to beg business operators: as people are suffering, I ask businesses to sell at cost price. Raising prices will lead to hoarding, which will not help solve the problems," she told reporters at a flood crisis centre set up in Bangkok's old Don Muang airport.
At least 281 people have been killed by heavy monsoon rain, floods and mudslides since late July and 26 of Thailand's 77 provinces are inundated, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation.
The north, northeast and central plains have been badly affected and Bangkok -- which is only two metres (6.5 ft) above sea level -- is in danger as water overflows from reservoirs in the north, swelling the Chao Phraya river.
High estuary tides are due from October 13, which could push up the river level, especially if heavy rain continues.
Yingluck said the construction of flood barriers in three outer areas of Bangkok was on track to be completed on Wednesday.
Bangkok city officials say embankments and the use of canals to channel water away should prevent serious flooding but Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra has ordered all 50 districts to prepare evacuation plans, just in case.
"We're working to protect water flow from Pathum Thani. But we're not sure about the rain storm coming on October 16-18," he said.
ARMY TO THE RESCUE
The province of Pathum Thani touching the outskirts of Bangkok has seen severe flooding this week and rescue workers were rebuilding a flood wall after strong currents burst a river bank on Tuesday, flooding homes in water two metres (six feet) deep.
Pathum Thani's governor, Pirasak Hinmuangkaow, said the army had been asked to help.
"The province has now given full authority to the army to help control the flooding," he said, as workers moved to shore up defences at the Navanakorn industrial zone.
Yingluck said the government was not declaring a state of emergency at this point.
"There's no need to invoke the Emergency Act because everybody is now helping. Soldiers are in the field. If we enforced the Emergency Act, it might scare away investors and tourists," she said.
Ayutthaya, a province neighbouring Pathum Thani, is among the worst-hit areas and a huge industrial estate run by Rojana Industrial Park Pcl (ROJNA.BK) has closed after being flooded.
Among its 198 factories are a Nikon Corp (7731.T) digital SLR production site and an assembly plant of Honda Motor Co Ltd (7267.T). Honda said on Wednesday that its factory, shuttered since October 4, would remain closed until October 14 at the earliest.
Industry Minister Wannarat Channukul said the Hi-Tech Industrial Estate and Bang Pa-In Industrial Estate in the same province were being closed from Wednesday as a precautionary measure although neither was under water yet.
KCE Electronics Pcl (KCE.BK) said shortly before it had halted operations at the Hi-Tech park because power had been lost. Its shares fell nearly 10 percent.
About 1.55 million hectares (3.82 million acres) of agricultural land has suffered from flooding, the disaster department said.
Thailand is the world's biggest rice exporter and farmers were supposed to be starting the main harvest early this month. The government has cut its estimate of the crop to 21 million tonnes from 25 million because of the flooding.
Because of the damage to farming and the disruption to industry, the Finance Ministry has cut its economic growth forecast for this year to 3.7 percent from 4.0 percent.
(Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate, Viparat Jantraprap, Pracha Hariraksapitak, Kochakorn Boonlai; and Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok; and Tokyo bureau; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel)