Thailand – Asian tiger prowling

By Jonathan Power

Dateline: Bangkok

“Thai politics is a cross between Venezuela and Italy”, observed my Thai journalist friend. “Chavez and Berlusconi rolled into one is what we have.”

Deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile in Dubai, still manages to pull many of the strings of Thai politics- as does Berlusconi when not actually in office. His sister, Yingluck, is now prime minister and she provides the Chavez-style charisma for the family. Young, energetic and attractive she has wooed the voters to her side in a less divisive way than her brother.

Thailand is the only country in south-east Asia to have never experienced colonial rule. Buddhism, the monarchy and the military have been the principal shapers of its evolution from peasant society to a modern industrial power house that has seen its economy almost in continuous boom (with a a big collapse in 1997 and short pause 3 years ago) for two generations. Between 1985 and 1996 it was the world’s fastest growing economy, averaging a phenomenal 12% a year. It is expected to be 7.5% this year, the same as China.

Democracy is relatively new to Thailand. The military governed on and off between 1947 and 1992, a period dominated by coups, coup attempts and much popular protest. Then Thaksin, an enormously rich telecommunications magnate, won the 2001 election and stayed prime minister for five years.

But in 2006 the military stepped into power again when they deposed Thaksin who they considered was anti the urban elites and the military. Liberals were caught in the middle, favouring his social policies on behalf poor but appalled by his alleged use of death squads in the countryside which he maintained were fighting drug traffickers.

Eighteen months later Thaksin’s allies were returned to power. But opposition protests and Constitutional Court rulings led to their overthrow.

The country became the site of near permanent clashes of rival demonstrators- the pro-Thaksin “red shirts”, drawn mainly from the poor rural areas which Thaksin had greatly helped, reducing poverty significantly, joined by students and left wing activists. On the other side were the middle class, anti-Thaksin, yellow-shirts who resisted his dictatorial ways.

Violence erupted in Bangkok. There were clashes with troops. The demonstrators went home only to re-form in March 2010. In April the protesters clashed again with the army. The red-shirts managed to shut down the commercial heart of the city for a few weeks. On 19th May the army once again moved against the red-shirts and its leaders arrested. 92 people were killed.

In the end the military called a poll which elected Thaksin’s sister by a landslide. However, she has felt unable to encourage him to return to the country. A previous jail sentence hangs over her brother if he returns.

Meanwhile, the Muslim insurgency in the south is being savagely repressed by the army which was first deployed on a large scale by Thaksin. Observers today say the repression is probably encouraging Islamist militants to enter the fray. However, two weeks ago the government signed an agreement with the Islamic National Revolution Front which is meant to pave the way for talks.

Thaksin’s sister continues to ride a popular tide. But a fully open society remains elusive. The government and the military control the six main TV stations. Use of lèse-majesté laws (the king is greatly revered here) are used against journalists, activists, academics and opposition politicians, albeit less than before.

It is somewhat amazing that despite all the political turbulence the economy has performed so well for so long. Poverty has fallen in recent years, reports the World Bank, from 21% of the population to 9%. Child mortality has fallen sharply and more than 97% of the population has clean water and sanitation.

Age old problems continue. There are terrible working conditions in some of its factories. Human trafficking laws have now been enacted but enforcement is uneven. Hopefully, the government’s most recent legislation will enable illegal migrants to emerge out of the shadows by giving them temporary papers and proper registration.

The sex trade, which provides 2.7% of national income and consumes 10% of tourist spending, was given its initial momentum by US soldiers during the Vietnam war and it continues to blot the country’s reputation. However, in all my criss-crossing of the city I didn’t see one prostitute. Prostitution has been confined to one area – which I didn’t visit – and the government is clamping down on child prostitution. Corruption – a Thai disease – slows compliance. Foreign child sex tourists are being prosecuted both here and in their home countries.

One hopes, but cannot be sure, that Thailand is putting its political turbulence behind it. Thaksin, with his constant use of Skype, still calls many of the shots. The army distrusts him but accepts his sister. Nobody knows Thailand’s future.

© 2013 Jonathan Power.

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