The forum on Thailand dealt with the happenings in Thailand and what could be expected in the foreseeable future. The overall tone set by all three panelists was that the situation in Thailand, with an aging king, a new government to be elected at the year’s end and rising discontent, would invariably worsen and an outbreak of violence would not be surprising.
Nirmal Ghosh started the discussion with an overview of the present situation in Thailand. He explained that the typical form of political governance of the country was a cycle of civilian and military governments interspersed with coups. As such, Western liberal democracy could not have been said to exist in Thailand, despite its fervent claims of wanting democratic governance and the incumbent pressure to bring about such a process through the drafting of a new constitution.
The interim government now headed by Surayud Chulanont, in turn being controlled by the coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, thus exemplifies the Thai political cycle. In Thailand, political power is firmly in the grip of the Bangkok elite which comprises different networks and factions from the royalists to the bureaucrats to the military and last but not least the political parties and civil society. These groups or factions of elite in Bangkok compete for power and stability is usually achieved when no one group is over-dominant. With power firmly placed within the hands of those in Bangkok, democracy has not filtered down to the common Thai citizen, especially the rural farming community.
Ghosh explained that the rural people’s idea of democracy was basic and they were often accused of being easily bought off by the rich and powerful politicians. This perception is widely acknowledged and has been voiced by the democratic movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). With regard to the current drafting of the constitution to bring about democracy in Thailand, Ghosh reiterated that given the simplistic understanding by the people, the move for democratic reform would not succeed. It would be the democracy as dictated by the rich and powerful, and not of the people’s voice. Nonetheless, incumbent PM Surayud is well-known for his moderate stance and is insistent on democratic reform and the abolition of money politics.
Going on to discuss the speculation of who would likely be the next prime minister to win the upcoming elections, Ghosh felt that everybody would have a fair chance, be it the current head of the Thai Rak Thai party (Chaturon Chaisaeng), head of the Democrat party (Abhisit Vejajiva), or even Gen. Sonthi, who has said that he would “do his duty” for the country if need be. That said there is talk that the TRT and Democrat parties will soon be dissolved due to electoral irregularities. As to whether ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra would come back, Ghosh felt that this would be quite a difficult feat. This was because while support for Thaksin was still strong, his power structure was severely disrupted given the crackdown on his cronies by the junta. Nonetheless there were high hopes that Thaksin would come “floating down the Mekong” any day now. Speculation was rife in Thailand over what would happen next and Ghosh did not rule out the possibility of a counter-coup. Indeed, there were all sorts of political rumours being disseminated across Thailand, especially Bangkok.
The situation in Thailand is worsening so much so that Ghosh felt a “tightening of screws” by the junta to retain its power in light of the people’s displeasure and rising opposition. The bombings in Thailand and heightened security measures like the suggestion to impose a state of emergency in Bangkok to prevent anti-coup demonstrations highlighted the desperation of the junta. To balance its draconian tactics, however, the junta has repeatedly given public assurances that democratic reforms are underway.
To give a picture of the extreme tension in Thai society today, Ghosh pinpointed that there has been “unprecedented criticism of Prem” and the accusation that he masterminded the September 19, 2006 coup. This is unheard of as given Prem’s position as the monarch’s proxy, criticism of Prem is tantamount to criticising the revered Thai king. If this should continue, it might herald the advent of a new phase of Thai politics and open the floodgates for a new Thai polity. There has also been increasing criticism of the junta, such as the furore over Gen. Saprang’s expensive visit to Germany to learn its airports’ best practices.
Turning to the violence-fraught South, Ghosh elaborated that the situation had turned very bad, so much so that now women and children have become involved in stand-offs with security personnel, refusing them entry to the villages. Compounding the problem is the secrecy of the movement. The militants are extremely shadowy and autonomous, acting upon ideology and not on the dictates of leaders. It also remained unknown if indeed these insurgent cells have a distinct leadership structure. Ghosh surmised that it worked to the cells’ advantage to remain unknown so as to avoid crackdowns by the government.
The second panelist, Leslie Lopez, carried on from Ghosh’s delivery on the political and social impact to focus on the economic conditions after the coup. He reaffirmed that Thailand was at risk of losing its reputation as a vibrant and friendly place for foreign businesses. Ever since the coup, Thailand’s competitiveness rating has slipped even further from the political stalemate during Thaksin’s time. Economic growth for 2007 is projected to be about 4% or lower, and all aspects of the economy whether in job creation, export volume and investments have dwindled.
No solution is in sight given the present economic outlook of the junta. Lopez stressed that Thailand was on an atypical economic trajectory from other developing countries under the leadership of the junta. Instead of trying its best to attract foreign investments, it has been on a rampant course of nationalization in trying to force foreigners to sell down their assets.
Lopez also said that the present economic jitters are similar to the despairing Thai psyche in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. He added that the Thais have in a way facilitated the huge amount of foreign ownership in the country. After the Asian economic meltdown, there was naturally a lot of bargain hunting by foreigners. Thai people helped these foreigners circumvent laws preventing foreign ownership by setting up complex nominee systems, of which the Temasek Holdings-Shin Corp sale is now embroiled in. Strong nationalist sentiment and aversion to foreign ownership sparked off from the huge tax-free gains of about US$2b which former PM Thaksin pocketed thus coalesced the various disparate groups that began the movement to oust him. The economic situation looked set to worsen given the contradictory and inept policies that the present administration is setting out.
Simon Tay gave a political analysis of the situation in Thailand from an academic’s viewpoint, especially from the position of Singapore. He felt that people had already lowered their expectations of the junta and interim government. The post-coup euphoria had died down and been replaced by a sense of gloom. He spoke of the events in the southern provinces, saying that there had been a sharp escalation in violence ever since the fresh outbreaks in early 2004 such that presently the situation seems intractable.
Nonetheless, Tay felt that Malaysia’s offer to cooperate in curbing the insurgency was very uplifting, especially for the southerners. During the Thaksin administration, bilateral relations between Thailand and Malaysia were dismal. Now cordial relations are back on track and Malaysia is very keen to assist Thailand in bringing peace to the South. It is widely hoped that the socio-economic measures being discussed will bring peace to the region. However, given the rampant nationalism and insistence of resolving it domestically, this may not materialized soon enough.
As to Singapore-Thailand bilateral ties, Tay opined that the problem did not lie so much with the city-state as with the kingdom. Presently Thailand was having a bad time and Singapore, especially given the Temasek-Shin Corp deal, stood to bear the brunt of its displeasure. Tay felt that the belligerent attitude towards Singapore was not as much what Singapore did but that Thailand was “having a bad day”. In any case, Tay felt that Singapore should in all scenarios remain neutral and continue to be patient and build regional relationships. Whenever neighbourly relations sour, there should never be the degeneration into a tit-for-tat spat.
In the Q & A segment, the question of whether the junta would abstain from the next government. Ghosh answered with a simple “no” –that while the military men would make it seem so, the reality would be that they would act by proxy behind the scenes. To the question whether tourism in Bangkok had been affected by the coup, Ghosh noted that Bangkok continued to buzz with tourists but tourism in the south has declined because of the violence.
A Thai embassy official asked for clarification regarding the present economic situation, nationalism and the Thai anger over the Shin Corp deal as spoken of during the forum. The panelists answered that the anger over the unpaid taxes by Thaksin Shinawatra had agitated the different power factions and caused an unlikely coalition of erstwhile rivals to be formed. This had then led to his eventual downfall. As to the networking capitalism and politics, Ghosh felt that while Thaksin had not paid his taxes on the sale, if he had donated generously to public causes, there would not have been so much public backlash and his opponents would not have as easily been able to garner support and oust him from office. With respect to whether Thai-Singapore relations can be swiftly mended, Tay reiterated that in light of the overt nationalist fervour in Thailand, all Singapore can do on its part is to regularly reaffirm its bilateral friendship with Thailand and maintain a neutral position in ASEAN.
As to what the chances of a countercoup were, Ghosh replied that rumours were rife, and anything was possible given the tense situation in Bangkok. Moreover the TRT party is redoubling its efforts to make a comeback using multi-pronged tactics –working the ground as well as trying to re-establish its power base and structures.
There were also several economic questions posed. One wondered why the Thai stock market continued to rise despite all the political uncertainty and if the upward trend could be sustained. Lopez answered that the surge in the stock market was due to bargain hunting after the share prices had plummeted due to the political uncertainties. This phase would not last very long. As to the climbing baht, Lopez explained that this was due to the current account surplus where the exports were not met by import growth. However, the government is seeking to rectify the imbalance through capital controls and once those measures kick in, the baht will fall again.
As to the future form of the Thai polity, the panelists agreed that the cycle of coups was a messy process. Ultimately, the Bangkok elite are afraid and unwilling to use the rule of law that is why they resort to forceful ousters. Thailand is still an immature democracy where the grassroots movements are not developed so as to afford the rural dwellers a voice. This is why Bangkok ultimately holds all political power. On the issue of whether the king would intervene to quell the instability, the panelists feel that this will probably not happen as the king is not in the habit of public intervention. As it stands, the king is at the zenith of his powers and is revered in all quarters. There was also the question of the laws of succession of the Thai monarchy, whether the popular princess will be given the throne instead of the less popular and seemingly aloof Crown Prince. To this, the answer was negative.
On the issue of South Thailand, Ghosh reiterated that the complexities of the situation. The insurgents are fighting for a cause and perhaps do not feel the need for leadership within a big organization, preferring to work within shadowy and disparate cells. As to whether discussions will be held with the Thai government, as former Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamed has already attempted and how the “old guard” insurgent group PULO has voiced the idea of self-rule, Ghosh feels that this will probably not happen. Not only because the leadership of the insurgent groups is unknown, but that anything tabled at the discussions will stall because of competing priorities and interests of the various participants.
The forum concluded with the panelists and chair affirming that 2007 was a year to observe closely the political changes in Thailand, as well as the social and economic upheavals that are likely to occur.