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16 Jan, 2014

Awaiting Santi Claus: Can Thailand Walk the Talk of Its Tourism Slogans?

Bangkok – The Tourism Authority of Thailand last year launched a new two-part slogan “Amazing Thailand: It Begins with the People.” The “Amazing Thailand” part was launched in 1998. The add-on part, “It Begins With the People,” is confusing those watching the political drama on the streets of Bangkok and some provincial cities. The question is no longer how it begins but when and how it will end.

Non-Thai readers of this article may wonder about the supposed spelling mistake in the headline. It’s not. “Santi” is the Thai word for “peace“, which, if the national tourism slogans are to be believed, imbues all elements of Thai society. Given the circumstances, Thailand appears to be badly in need of a “Santi Claus“. The nationwide polarisation is eroding the credibility of the tourism slogans. As there is no apparent end in sight, the Thai people, always seen as being friendly, hospitable, easy-going and relaxed, with a deep spiritual and cultural heritage traceable back to their Buddhist faith, now face the challenge of walking the talk.

Millions of people who have visited Thailand can vouch for accuracy of the tourism slogans. For them, the perplexing question is “How could this happen in Thailand?” Were they misled? Or has the Thai tourism industry become the master of the overstatement? As these problems had long simmered under the surface, was it a mistake to coin such a slogan in the first place? “Amazing Thailand,” certainly. But “It Begins With the People” now carries a huge burden of proof.

The power struggle under way in Thailand is an inherent part of the turbulence underpinning the Rise of the Asian Century and the global tsunamis of geopolitical, political, economic, social and cultural change. For years, Thailand enjoyed the advantage of key assets: A great Buddhist tradition, the impeccable and benevolent leadership of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, a unique geographical location, a fertile land nourished by a lush annual monsoon, a strong economic foundation comprising of agriculture, industry and tourism, and a literate, adaptable and well-educated manpower base. The population, too, is well within manageable levels.

These assets, which many other countries would love to have, make Thailand a very strategically important country. No surprise, then, that controlling the leadership and future direction of Thailand is critical towards influencing the future of ASEAN and Greater Mekong Subregion. Behind the scenes, multinational corporations and countries such as the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, China and increasingly Israel and India are playing a major role in determining what happens next.

In 1932, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in order to promote democracy.  However, whenever politicians began squabbling, the military simply ousted them, and ran the country until the next round of elections. For years, that cycle repeated itself. It began to run out of steam in 1992 following a bloody confrontation between the military and the emerging Thai middle-class armed with the first generation of mobile phones. It finally ran out of steam 15 years later, in 2006, with a military coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Today, the military can no longer move at will although it is asserting its right to do so should the situation worsen. The fear of a foreign economic, diplomatic and political backlash does figure highly as a restraining factor.

The Thais were never really fond of military dictators, but they soon discovered that a monetary dictator was also a perilous proposition, especially if “elected”. The story of how a junior-rank police officer named Thaksin Shinawatra so quickly amassed such a monumental telecommunications fortune has not yet fully been told. That wealth was a critical factor in helping Mr Thaksin score his first election victory in 2001, by promising populist policies to the poorer Northeast parts of Thailand. Several smaller political parties merged with or backed Mr Thaksin’s party, making him the undisputed boss of a thumping parliamentary majority, and giving him the democratic mandate to make whatever changes he saw fit.

He publicly professed his desire to run the country like a corporate CEO. Picking up on that mantra, his shareholders, supporters and backers too wanted their returns on investment, often on unacceptable terms. It did not take long for power to corrupt, and for absolute power to corrupt absolutely. A string of political and economic policies, projects and actions set off the alarm bells. When the opposition became vocal, the press was gagged. But not in the traditional way. While military dictators would simply shut down the media by invoking national security, the Thaksin administration would exercise its democratically-mandated right to withdraw all government advertising, such as the lucrative tenders, from media not toeing the line.

It was under a Thaksin government that the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s first female governor came under investigation by US authorities as part of an alleged bribery case. That scandal caused immense damage to the image of the TAT.

Mr Thaksin’s party won every election it contested, thanks to its unmatched “purchasing power”, both on the field and off. A monetary dictatorship even proved to be a threat to the military; attempts were made to influence the military hierarchy. Anyone in government or politics could be bought and sold, transferred or terminated. This also extended to Thai Airways International. It did not take much to see the looming danger. If it worked in Thailand, the same formula could be expanded by Mr Thaksin’s local and foreign backers right across Southeast Asia where the pickings are equally rich and similar political transitions are under way.

Pro-Thaksin backers assert that a democratic election is a democratic election and must be accepted, warts and all. His opponents scoff at that view. In 2006, when Mr. Thaksin’s democratic mandate began to venture into uncharted waters, he was ousted by the military, with the full support of a motley coalition of royalists, academics, politicians, business groups, media, bureaucrats and civil society groups. He returned home for a brief period, only to flee again to escape a guilty court verdict in 2008. Since then, the confrontation has worsened as personal, professional and political interests battle it out. In March 2009, his opponents forced a shutdown of Suvarnabhumi airport for 10 days. In 2010, his supporters hit back by shutting down the Bangkok CBD for seven weeks. The battle goes on. In the absence of a Santi Claus, a peacemaker acceptable to both sides, negotiating a balanced settlement is becoming as complex as negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine.

Currently, Mr. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, is the prime minister. Her opponents claim she is merely a mouthpiece for her brother. She has called fresh elections on February 2 but the anti-government groups say nothing will change; those with “purchasing power” will win again. And so it goes, with one major difference. As Thailand’s first female prime minister, Mrs Yingluck is conscious of her place in history. She is adamant that she will not issue any “shoot to kill” orders. So far, the best thing that has happened is that nothing has happened. But the situation is extremely flammable. If it ignites, the military will be back.

In line with its Buddhist traditions, Thailand is in search of a middle path beyond military and monetary dictators. Conscious of a transition soon to come at the highest levels, several eminent people with unblemished public track records, are coalescing to present various proposals to chart the middle path. That will require the people to first and foremost heed the teachings of their deep Buddhist faith and the words of wisdom of the 86-year-old King. They will also have to live up to the character portrayed in the tourism slogans. If it works, the “Amazing Thailand” part will prove true; if it doesn’t, the “It Begins With the People” part will lose lustre big-time.

One of the most important learning curves for the Asian Century is growing wariness of business leaders and their direct and indirect attempts to assume political and economic control. This is becoming an Asia-wide issue. Contesting elections is an expensive business. The cash has to come from somewhere. Businesses who bankroll political parties naturally expect a return on investment. Cronyism, corruption and nepotism make a comeback, and the cycle repeats itself. The desire to break out of this is growing; witness recent developments in India for example.

The future of the Asian Century is unfolding on the streets of Bangkok. What happens next will determine what could happen next in many other Asian countries. The outcome has to be good. It will take time, but it will get there. That is for sure.