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Thailand: Spiralling downwards?

Updated On: Feb 02, 2007

Even with the public relations blitz that the Thai authorities are putting on and the accelerated action against corruption, Thailand moves alarmingly toward more violence and uncertainty, especially in the South.

Just this week, the Islamic affairs ministers from QatarKuwait and Saudi Arabia invited to Pattani to chair a graduation ceremony at an Islamic college “narrowly escaped a bomb attack” as Thai Interior Minister Aree Wongsearaya led them toward Prince Songkla University’s Pattani campus, the Straits Times noted.

This surely is an embarrassment to Thailand which is trying its best to improve its standing internationally, and especially with the Muslim world with regard to the Southern conflict. Last week, the Thailand hosted a three-day meeting involving “security agencies and Thailand's ambassadors and Consul-Generals to the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) countries” in Bangkok.

According to the Bernama, the Thai Foreign Ministry’s director-general (Department of South Asian, Middle-East and African Affairs), Tharit Charungvat, reiterated that “there was no evidence to show that foreign militants were involved in the ongoing insurgency in the country's Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat”. He added that while “the ministry would investigate if there were any foreign groups channeling money for the separatists who are waging war against the central government to seek independence for the three provinces”, it would not be “easy to pinpoint which funds are going to the separatists as lot of money comes into Thailand”.

In a further bid to reassure the “OIC members that the situation there is getting better with the new policies laid down by [PM Surayud]”, Thailand intends to “invite OIC leaders to visit the country and get first hand information.” Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (incumbent OIC chairman), will visit PM Surayud from February 11-13 to discuss the situation, according to the Bangkok Post.

Malaysia has been very concerned over the Thai South with which it shares borders and former Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamad has been very vocal on this issue. According to the Nation, “Mahathir helped facilitate a series of meetings between the old guard and senior Thai officials on the island of Langkawi from October 2005 to February 2006”. Now he has come out to urge the Thai government for the resumption of “dialogue with exiled leaders from the Malay-speaking region in the country's South, [that] it would be a mistake to sideline the long-standing groups, including the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), and the Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP)”.

Mahathir claimed that the Southerners have voiced their desire for equal treatment in development, economy, education and employment –in the knowledge that they cannot expect independence or autonomy. Mahathir also urged the Thai government to speak with the “old generation” of militants as this could “help convince the new generation of militants” to revise their agenda. Nonetheless, he cautioned that “there will always be young leaders and extreme leaders on the fringes” who will refuse to be co-opted.

Although the interim government is keen on a soft approach to tackling the crisis, Council for National Security (CNS) chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin has ordered surveillance of “southern rebel group operatives who have infiltrated state universities”, the Bangkok Post reported. Gen. Montri Sangkhasap, secretary-general of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), said, “Gen Sonthi said that as more and more insurgents now get their grounding in universities, ISOC is duty-bound to instil nationalism into young minds to prevent brainwashing by rebel groups.”

All this uncertainty bodes ill for Thailand as it tries to regain its economic bearings. As it is, Thailand is struggling with its current account surplus and a rising baht. Moreover, its much-vaunted sufficiency-economy philosophy advocated by the King is being misunderstood by the Thai public and international community. According to the Nation, Privy Councillor Kasem Wattanachai said in a public seminar, “Now Westerners have misconceptions because somebody wants them to get it wrong, through paid-to-write articles that attack the principle and compare it with Thaksinomics… The royally initiated concept is not critical of wealth and prosperity… The sufficiency economy aims to strike a balance in everyday life, in business, in national trade.”

After policy flip-flopping and confusion over laws of foreign investment, Thailand may stand to lose considerably as investor confidence plummets. According to the Straits Times, “Ford Motor became the first major foreign firm to suggest that it may scrap investment plans worth as much as US$1 billion (S$1.5 billion) because of the uncertain business landscape”. Ford's Washington-based vice-president for international government affairs Steve Biegun told the media the “sense of turmoil” made “it extremely difficult to do business in a globally competitive environment” as what business needed was “predictability”. Another heavy blow came when the “influential Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro) pegged Thailand last in positive business sentiment for Japanese firms among the five major ASEAN nations for the third consecutive month”.

It is hard to give Thailand a good economic forecast given the above scenario. It seems that despite repeated assurances of non-protectionism and investment-friendliness, the investors are taking a wait-and-see attitude, or else are moving away. (01/2/07)

Sources:

Thai uncertainty may force Ford to scrap $1.5b investment plans (Straits Times, 1 February 2007)

Malaysian PM to visit Thailand (Bangkok Post, 1 February 2007)

Update: South hit by three bombs (Bangkok Post, 1 February 2007)

Mahathir: Talk with exiled South leaders (Nation, 1 February 2007)

Security watch ordered on varsity infiltrators (Bangkok Post, 1 February 2007)

Bomb just misses Arab ministers (Straits Times, 29 January 2007)

Thailand Says No Foreigners Involved In Southern Insurgency (Bernama 26 January 2007)

Sufficiency 'misinterpreted' (Nation, 1 February 2007)