The city embraces visitors with a blanket of smells, from the most wonderful scents of herbs and spices and flowers from street vendors, to the horrific stink of the sewers just a few meters away. Bangkok has always had a special place in my heart, ever since my first visit over 20 years ago. Walking the alleyways of this metropolis is a distinct experience of contrast and division – between poverty and prosperity, between power and powerlessness, highs and lows, old and new, and the fiery hot chilies and smooth, sweet coconut milk of Tom Kha Kai soup. Still, unity and harmony prevails, at least for now.
Your occasional correspondent is not the only one succumbing to the allure of this ancient kingdom of contrasts: Thailand had over 30 million visitors last year. This number is expected to rise despite glaring news reports of tourists being both raped and murdered, but mostly killed in traffic accidents (83 tourists died in Thailand last year, unsurprisingly, just under half due to traffic). More interestingly, no one seems to think twice about the fact that it is a military dictatorship; including people who travel here, myself included. I have never heard anyone of my colleagues in Singapore or friends in Sweden who go to Thailand ever mention politics. Most seem to have heard about the military being in charge, that there is or at least was martial law, and that there is a king in the mix somewhere. So people know of it, but seem to ignore it. For good reason probably, because really, what difference does it make to tourists? As long as political stability remains, shopping and sunbathing can evidently continue. “It just seems to work”, as one friend put it.
So what is actually going on? A military coup ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and another one ousted his sister Yingluck in 2014. The latter junta is still in power under the leadership of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a military hardliner, former commander in chief and loyal to the royals. A general election has been promised for mid-2017. In the meantime, the interim constitution put in place as a result of the coup, gives Prayuth unlimited power. Without oversight or checks and balances, whatever he does essentially becomes legal. No wonder he is reluctant to facilitate the adoption of a new constitution, which he had promised as a step in the process toward democratic leadership and elections. But those who hope for a basic law in line with international democratic standards should not hold their breath – the new draft constitution presented this February restricts academic freedom and freedom of expression. It also makes it the state’s duty to protect buddhism, rather than promoting religious harmony. Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar, summarises the draft constitution as follows: ”Economic growth is the priority so rights and liberties are considered an annoyance. Environmental protection must go. Dissent is not welcome. Academics are suspected of instigating the younger generation to rebel against the establishment so they shall be suppressed too.” (Asia Pacific ANU)
The kingdom is, if not thriving, so at least managing under the junta’s leadership. Thailand is no stranger to military rule since becoming a constitutional (rather than absolute) monarchy in 1932, and has lived through most of its time as a nation under authoritarian rule. Even though two military coups in one decade has tarnished the country’s status as investor’s darling, with liberal economic policies, strategic location and a relatively skilled workforce, it is still the second largest economy in South East Asia (after Indonesia) (Reuters). The poverty rate has gone down significantly over the past few decades, but at a very uneven rate. The Gini coefficient (measuring inequality) is consistently high (over 0.45). Poverty exists predominantly in rural areas, especially in the deep south and north east, and especially among minority groups. Currently, around 10% of population live in poverty (just over 7 million) and 80% of them in rural areas. 60% of the poor live in the north and north east. Water and sanitation, as well as primary health care, is nearly universally accessible also for the poor. Universal primary school is accessible as well, but enrollment rate decreases with poverty. (World Bank; ADB)
All things considered, Thailand’s international status seems to be dwindling somewhat. The type of tourists the country attracts has changed – there’s an increasing proportion of visitors from lower-spending countries such as Russia and China, rather than Europe and North America, making it overall a lower-tier destination. Moreover, Thailand is losing its hub status. Travellers to South East Asia no longer have to touch down in Bangkok before exploring the region; even the pricier Singapore is increasingly used as a regional hub for travellers. Furthermore, Thailand is no longer the beacon of democratic hope in a sea of socialist countries, and no longer a welcoming haven for correspondents, aid workers and refugees. News agencies and aid agencies are increasingly moving to other regional centres or to field postings closer to their area of operation. As is reflected in Bangkok’s charmingly dated skyline, the heyday of economic and social development dates back to the 80s and early 90s. In this ‘golden decade’ (from 1988-96) the ratio of the population living in poverty nearly halved from 65% to 35%. This was also a time of experimental democracy and for the most part non-military rule. Then the Asian economic crisis hit, and the country seems to have still not yet fully recovered. This halt gave neighbouring countries an chance to catch up and Thailand the chance to get itself into a seemingly consistent state of political instability.
The country is deemed to be deeply divided. Some observers fear that a return to full blown democracy will also surface these underlying divisions among the population. The predominantly rural north supporting the ousted PM Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin before her, whereas the Bangkok-based military establishment has more support in the south (Reuters). And for those of you who don’t remember the color of the shirts, the red ones are for the Shinawatras, the yellow ones are pro-junta. The royal family plays a key part in maintaining national unity, also under the current junta. Coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has been described as an ultraroyalist, and defaming the royal family could lead to up to 15 years imprisonment. This lese majeste law is also being used to stifle anti-junta dissent and crack down on corruption in the circles surrounding the heir to the throne Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn
(The Diplomat) and allegedly protects also the royal pets from slander (BBC.) The monarchy is weakened by a succession conundrum; the ailing king and the junta has to choose between a crown prince with questionable lifestyle choices or denouncing his heir apparent and allow female succession. However, rocking the boat to this extent could cause outrage in different stratas of society under already sensitive political circumstances (Japan Times).
The challenge ahead is thus a smooth royal succession for maintained national unity, while at the same time holding democratic elections next year to allow for inclusiveness and dissent to be heard. However, the people may have limited expectations for a more inclusive political life soon, with Prayuth believing that his country “…has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy.” (International Policy Digest) With this analysis from the top, what might the future bring?
Asia Pacific ANU http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2016/02/05/liberties-and-rights-lost-under-thailands-2016-constitution/
International Policy Digest http://intpolicydigest.org/2015/06/09/thailand-s-quiet-dictatorship/
Japan Times http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/07/03/commentary/world-commentary/thai-monarchy-verge-dramatic-change/#.VrhKkmR95hA
The Diplomat http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/battling-thailands-lese-majeste-crackdown/
World Bank http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview