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Thailand: The case for optimism

A clean, elected, non-Thaksin Thailand government might be able to walk a narrow path by pursuing more progressive social and economic policy without offending the powerful elites.

A night market in Bangkok, April 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Aotaro)
A night market in Bangkok, April 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Aotaro)
Published 25 Jul 2017   Follow @GregoryVRaymond

My ANU colleague Nicholas Farrelly's recent Lowy Institute Analysis 'Thailand's Triple Threat' is a sombre look at Thailand's future. He canvasses bleak scenarios, including the long-term entrenching of authoritarianism or, worse, the break-up of the kingdom. Thailand's current juncture is worrisome and his paper is a good prod for policymakers. But in the spirit of scholarly debate I'd like to put forward some points for optimism on Thailand's future.

It's easy to forget how far Thailand has come, especially since the Cold War. In the late 1970s and early 1980s communist forces both inside and outside threatened to dismember the country. South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had all fallen under communist control and a similar fate beckoned for Thailand. The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) controlled Thailand's north and northeast with a combat force of between 10,000 and 14,000 troops. The CPT had national and regional organisations for administration and war planning, grew its own food, earned money from logging concessions, and had its own relations with Laos, Vietnam and China. After 1979, Thailand faced not only the CPT, but also Vietnam, who had invaded Cambodia and was occupying that country with more troops than Thailand possessed in its entire army. But Thailand defeated the communist insurgency, partly through its own counterinsurgency efforts and partly by exploiting changes in geopolitics, especially the Sino-Soviet split.

Thailand is no longer that country on the brink. With a strong agricultural sector, a willing labour force and the assistance of US and Japanese investment in both human and physical infrastructure, Thailand emerged from the Cold War as an Asian Tiger. Joining the integrated supply chains crisscrossing Asia, its eastern seaboard became a gigantic industrial zone, making Thailand a leading car manufacturer – the Detroit of Asia. Consequently its per capita GDP by 2015 was US$5820, 42 times what it had been in 1965. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar still lag well behind this level of prosperity, and it shows, both in the countryside and in the cities, in the quality of housing, abundance of food and transport infrastructure.

Much of this has been possible because Thailand has had an educated workforce, both in its bureaucracies and its private sector. Many workers carry multiple degrees from overseas universities, and are experts in technical fields like banking, engineering and agriculture. It is this quiet diligent workforce which continues to stabilise the country through the interminable and noisy turbulence and theatre of its politics. Can they do this forever? Thailand's prosperity ameliorates but doesn't solve the bitterness that has arisen since the military toppled the most popular Prime Minister in Thai history, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006, and then killed red-shirt protestors in 2010.

The military government of Prayuth Chan-Ocha, despite a slogan of 'returning happiness to the Thai people', has made little progress in healing these wounds. This was made clear when, despite pressure on local government officials, only 59% of the population turned out to vote in the 2016 constitutional referendum. Of these, about 40% rejected the draft. Twenty-two provinces rejected the constitution, including provinces in the north and northeast as well as three southern border provinces. At the same time, the government's repression of freedom of speech in both public and private spheres such as Facebook has fostered a climate of increasing discomfort. Despite justifying the removal of the popularly elected Yingluck Shinawatra on the grounds that her government's rice-subsidy scheme was corrupt, according to Transparency International corruption in Thailand has got worse under Prayuth.

The military has probably never been naïve enough to believe that simply repressing social discontent would solve it. It is possible its real aims were mainly to assure a stable royal transition, as the ailing and charismatic Bhumibol Adulyadej finished his 70-year reign and his son Vajiralongkorn took over. This occurred on 13 October last year, when King Bhumibol passed away – however, just as the arrival of the Y2K was not accompanied by any millennial disaster, so has the beginning of the new reign commenced with generally little change for the lives of most Thais, save for those who work directly for the new King or who follow the daily affairs of the royals through the evening television news round-up.

To a large extent, the affairs of the Thai monarchy are a kind of theatre that I would argue matter far less than in previous eras. The role of the Thai monarchy in providing a symbolic centre was important in the Cold War. Thai social planners in the Ministry of Interior and Internal Security Operations, working with US advisers, devised a range of development programs to engage with groups outside Bangkok, from farmers in the Northeast to hill tribe peoples in border areas. All programs portrayed a benevolent, caring monarch, and were supported in practical ways by visits from members of the Thai royal family. These efforts helped reduce the attraction of communist ideology. Towards the end of the Bhumibol's reign, there was tremendous gratitude for the role that he played in that period.

Whether the new monarch has any interest in fulfilling a similar role is doubtful. But more importantly, whether it matters is also not certain. After all, Thailand had 16 years of having a non-resident monarch between the abdication of Rama VIII in 1935 and Rama IX ascending to the throne in 1946 following his education in Switzerland and the conclusion of World War II. The country did not implode or fragment. The hyper-royalism of the latter part of Bhumibol's reign is not necessarily Thailand's natural state.

What is more important is whether Thailand can return to a form of electoral democracy that satisfies the aspirations of its north and northeast provinces without affronting the sensibilities and proprieties of its bureaucratic Bangkok-based elites. This might be easier than it first appears. The demise of the Yingluck Shinawatra government was not inevitable; had it not made the ill-advised attempt to grant amnesty to Yingluck's brother Thaksin in 2013, it might have survived. The new constitution does entrench an unelected senate, which in a joint sitting could easily engineer the removal of a prime minister or government deemed unsuitable. It also incorporates six parliamentary seats for the military, although this has a sunset clause of five years and is just six seats in a 750-seat bicameral parliament. This distinguishes it from Myanmar, where the military holds one quarter of the parliamentary votes and does so permanently. But in the future, a clean, elected, non-Thaksin government might be able to walk a narrow path by pursuing more progressive social and economic policies without offending powerful elites. After all, there has been broad conservative acceptance of many aspects of Thaksin's social policy agenda, including free health care, a minimum wage and social safety nets.

The southern border problem is probably more intractable than Thai governance overall. But, even here, there are some grounds for guarded optimism. First, the incidence of violent death has been trending downward since a peak in 2007. Second, there does now seem to be a long-term commitment to a peace process by both parties. Though questions remain about the degree to which Mara Pattani controls the insurgents, it is encouraging that following the 2014 coup the Prayuth military government did not cease the negotiations commenced by the Yingluck government in 2013. Certainly there is a preparedness for a very long and very slow negotiation – in Chiang Mai last week via Skype, Mara Pattani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim said that his side was prepared for a two-decade process, as occurred with Timor-Leste, Myanmar, Aceh and Mindanao.

So while we certainly should be, as Farrelly suggests in his paper, concerned about what the future holds for Thailand, we should also not underestimate this country's oft-demonstrated resilence.

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