Thailand’s murky, muddled road ahead

Anti-Thaksin Shinawatra demonstrators stage a rally outside the Singapore embassy in Bangkok against the Shin Corp-Temasek deal in 2006. (File photo by Boonnarong Bhudhipanya)

In a new era of transformative technologies and tectonic geopolitical shifts, standing still is tantamount to falling behind. This is what Thailand is doing. Its recent news flow indicates the country is mired in a regressive holding pattern.

The issues that prevailed a decade ago are still in the headlines today. In areas where forward movements are intended, the country comes up short and empty. This rut is likely to carry over into next year until some sort of political clarity emerges on the horizon beyond the longevity of the current military regime. At that juncture, Thailand must find ways to re-emerge and regain its footing. Otherwise it may well sag into a longer-term stagnation.

After more than a decade, the controversies surrounding former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra still dominate the news. He refuses to go away as much as his adversaries are unable to put him away. They can’t win elections over his political parties, and can only seize power from his proxy governments, since 2006.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

At the other end, Thaksin is always eyeing the next election, not to win the vote but more to capture the electorate for vested benefits that come with power and high office. This is the basic Thai dilemma all along: Those who win a popular mandate cannot hold office for long and those who overthrow them in varying manners cannot win the Thai people’s confidence at the voting booth. Nothing fundamentally has changed in Thai politics for more than a decade.

The latest Thaksin-related news concerns his clan’s tax liabilities. Previously his assets that involved conflicts of interests and corruption to the tune of 46 billion baht were confiscated. The authorities are after another 16 billion baht in taxes dating back to the $1.9 billion January 2006 sale of his Shin Corp conglomerate, involving holding companies and offshore transactions that included a major local commercial bank. It was a quagmire that still takes up news space to this day.

And there are regular reports on red and yellow shirts who have featured in Thai politics over the past dozen years. The recent illegal arms cache discovered at the home of exiled red-shirt reader, Wuthipong “Kotee” Kochathamakun, has flummoxed many Thais. It is certainly conceivable that an influential and underground activist like Mr Withipong could be in possession of such heavy weaponry, including what appeared to be brand-new automatic rifles. But because the Thai authorities do not command much respect and credibility these days in view of their sloppy and shoddy investigative work, it is hard to know what to believe except to never let the authorities search homes without the owners present.

Then there was the nearly month-long Dhammakaya temple fracas that went to the brink of armed clashes. It was a huge storm in a teacup that clogged domestic news bandwidth daily but now is hardly heard about anymore. The authorities intended to arrest the former chief abbot who remains on the loose but the temple is now under government supervision. Temple disciples and followers are incensed but the saga has suddenly died down after so much huff and puff.

This is all yesterday’s news about Thailand’s conflicted past. When it comes to news about tomorrow, the near-term future appears hazy.

We don’t yet know, for example, when the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is supposed to be. Several days in late December this year were initially mentioned, only to be followed by the government’s announcement of a late-October event. From now until then, all things that matter in Thailand will move sideways and up and down in a long lull until this huge and cathartic final farewell of the Thai people comes to pass.

The road ahead is unclear partly because the election timetable is unknown. It is supposed to be next year but we don’t know when. It looks likely now to take place in the second half of 2018 but it could be delayed if unforeseen circumstances arise. An all-important event for Thailand will also be the royal coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. Whether an elected government or the current military regime organises this event remains a matter of analysis and speculation.

Other news about tomorrow and Thailand’s way forward is not encouraging. The military-led government recently wooed Jack Ma, the famous starter of China’s phenomenal tech e-commerce startup Alibaba, in an all-out effort to pursue a “Thailand 4.0” economic upgrading strategy. But Mr Ma has just made a major investment commitment to Malaysia, which makes it less likely that Thailand will be his destination of choice.

Unsurprisingly, the rankings of Thai universities continue to drop. In the latest Times Higher Education table of the top 300 Asian universities, Thailand only has 10 on the list, and six of these 10 have declined compared to last year. On the same track, Thai Mathayom 3 students, the equivalent of middle-school graduates in Western countries, have been failing their O-Net general examinations for aptitude measurement.

And then there are constant rights violations in Thailand that further depress the discouraging news flow. The most salient case is the wrongful death of Lahu activist Chaiyapoom Pasae, who was shot at a checkpoint by a soldier of the 3rd Army region, whose commander-in-chief (a lieutenant-general) said he would have done the deed with multiple shots from an automatic weapon.

The common ending for cases like this in Thailand is that they fade away from the headlines, leaving behind bereavement, anger, injustice and impunity unless future governments prosecute the case to its just ending.

More of this trend can be expected for at least one full year ahead.

Thailand will move in sideways positions in a topsy-turvy fashion. Its way forward will require a compromise and new understanding among the elites under the new reign, perhaps rooted in a collective concern and subsequent fear that Thailand risks becoming a stagnant also-ran country with entrenching sub-par economic performance, where foreign people will still like to visit but which is going nowhere far or fast.

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