Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

4 Jul, 2011

Polarised Thailand Faces Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Pain

BANGKOK – If buyers and sellers of the Thai tourism product want to know what to do in the aftermath of the July 3 national elections, here’s some free advice: Sell Thailand by all means.

No short-term disruptions are expected. Speculation and conjecture aside, the actual outcome has made it highly unlikely for anything untoward to occur between now and December 5, 2011, when Thailand will formally mark the auspicious 84th birthday (the 7th cycle of life) of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej. The victorious Phue Thai party can ill afford to have this event disrupted. At the same time, the party will be working to deliver on its grandiose economic development plans, in which tourism will figure prominently. The real agenda will emerge in 2012, after all the ducks have been lined up. According to several analysts, that’s when the fireworks will probably begin.

Although the elections were held peacefully, and the outgoing Democrat party-led government accepted its defeat gracefully, a look at this map of the election results shows precisely how the country is now polarised. The north and northeast is almost entirely in Thaksin Shinawatra’s Phue Thai red camp while the south and west is almost entirely Democrat blue. The critical Bangkok region is still dominated by the middle-class Democrats. The remaining smaller parties are scattered around the rest of the provinces.

The contours of the looming confrontations are apparent, geographically, ideologically and politically. This sharp divide is set to make the country extremely difficult to administer. At the grassroots level, it has scarred the psyche of the Thai people and caused unprecedented rifts amongst friends, families, workplace colleagues and communities. Unless healed, it could have a serious downstream impact on travel & tourism, an industry that has taken great pride in its primary characteristics — the Thai smile, friendliness and hospitality.

Said The Nation newspaper editorial on July 4: “We are a strife-torn nation. Thai people have been hating each other for political reasons, and this is simply sad. Not everyone is hateful, and there are plenty who are able to feel love for the “other colours”, but the scale of citizen-against-citizen revulsion is a marked phenomenon. Check out the web boards or social media networks. There is enough material in them to break our hearts.”

The editorial held out hope for this animosity to fade. That will not happen any time soon. The Phue Thai feels it has won a popular mandate. While that may be true strictly speaking, the rubber will hit the road when it tries to ride that mandate to push through legal or constitutional changes to benefit its cronies and supporters. Questions abound about whether the Phue Thai party will honour its promises and democratic ideals, or whether it will become a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. It claims to favour reconciliation, but will it be able to control the many in its midst who still seek revenge?

Since Thailand’s 1932 conversion from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy, it has seen prime ministers ranging from military strongmen to technocrats to career politicians. One democratically-elected former prime minister was known for running a “buffet cabinet” at which various members of his government could help themselves to whatever dish they wished.

But Thaksin outdid his predecessors. He knew his power-base, and how to target it with the right message at the right time, effectively using the same slick marketing strategies that can make even well-educated people buy fattening hamburgers. Analysts say the ousted now in opposition Democrats need to become much better at selling their successes. For example, the public says it hates corrupt leaders but forgets that two of the cleanest democratically-elected prime ministers in recent years were both Democrats – Chuan Leekpai and the immediate past PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva. When the 1997 financial crisis hit Thailand, a Democrat-led government under respected finance minister Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda cleaned up the mess. When the 2008-09 oil price shock struck, followed by the global financial crisis, another Democrat, finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, was at the helm to keep the ship steady.

Yet, after both debacles, the Democrats got voted out. The voting public has no apparent interest in the complexity of global finance, or the difficulties of battling a storm of rising food and fuel prices. It wants someone to blame, and someone else to weigh-in with solutions of populist policies and unrealistic promises. Said one analyst, “It’s all very well for the Democrats to have done good things. They were just not very good at being seen to be doing good things.”

Analysts now say that the Phue Thai government will go out of its way to be seen to doing great things. It will trot out a huge range of mega-projects, create the image of being a government of dynamic do-gooders and then call an early election to win an even bigger mandate that will keep it in power all through this second decade of the 21st century. The instant gratification will make many people rich. Then the bill will arrive. Funding for the mega-projects will require huge borrowings (which will create debt) or further taxing of the middle class. In the event that things go wrong, the classical neoliberal fire-sale of state enterprises can always help raise funds.

It will be 1997 déjà vu.

Many other “minefields” lie ahead, according to one commentary in The Nation. For the moment, however, the Thai people are not really sure whom they have elected – Yingluck Shinawatra or her elder brother Thaksin, making this probably the world’s first election of its kind. Mrs Yingluck has been called a “clone”, a “proxy” and a “puppet.” The media asks her about her policies, but knows that the real answers lie with Thaksin. A Bangkok Post exposé goes into great detail about how Mrs Yingluck, who did not even want to stand for elections a few months ago, was persuaded to change her mind and then adroitly trained to play the part.

At the moment, her well-prepared script requires her to insist that she will be the one calling the shots. Down the road, the script will have to prepare her to take the rap if things go wrong. During his days in office, Thaksin was known for his low tolerance of dissent, whether from the media, academics, judges, businessmen or civil society. When Mrs Yingluck becomes PM, she may want things done more gently, while her brother may favour another course of action. Who defers to whom will become one of the most important determinants of the future course of this now deeply divided kingdom.