Bangkok Tourist Scene Update

Filed in Gather News Channel by on December 3, 2008 0 Comments

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This will be my last update on the Thai political situation, barring a serious change in the protest dynamics which currently seem to be lessening. This post also include some commentary from the Nelson Report on Thailand and recent events here.

How rapidly things return to normal. In just a day things here in the tourist enclave of Bangkok, a narrow warren of guest houses, souvenir shops, Seven-11s, tailors and places to do one’s laundry have reverted to their pre-airport crisis normality. Taxi cabs and tuk-tuks have proliferated. Tourist are beginning to fill up the guest house I am staying in again and all the stragglers have already left or are sighing in relief as they will make their pre-planned flights home. There are more tourists on the streets as well, mostly backpackers, as all the stranded older package tourists have disappeared.

But I do wonder about the rest of the city and the country. The current government has been dissolved. There will be elections at some point. Will the current government reconstitute itself and win again, based largely on the rural majority which is its core of support? And if so, what happens then? Will PAD resurrect itself and begin the protests all over again?

Several interesting thoughts to pass on, which were passed on to me from knowledgeable people on the scene. Please note these cannot be confirmed. I’ve been told by many that the PPP’s wins have come from the fact that they hand out a substantial amount of cash for folks to vote. I’ve also been told that the PAD was largely funded by the queen or at the very least some of her proxies on the privy council. There is a very real divide between the rural population of Thailand and the middle classes in and around Bangkok and other major cities. The middle classes made up much of the PAD’s support, as well as portions of the security apparatus of Thailand and some royalists. Thaksin, it should be noted, is very much like a Thai version of Silvio Berlusconi. He’s a media tycoon, controlling on of Thailand’s TV channels and owning a telecom company. And the party he represented and its successor the PPP were both seen as deeply corrupt. He’s also on the lam, rumored to be in Dubai, or maybe elsewhere.

Many ex-pats who live in Thailand despise the PAD, considering them a bunch of thugs, who illegally occupied the airports and drove the economy into a ditch. Others are more ambivalent. One fellow told me, “the corruption here under Thaksin was out of control and the PAD has done some good bringing it to people’s attention. Maybe Thailand isn’t ready for democracy? I don’t know.”

I don’t know what all this means and I am certainly no expert. I’m just passing on what I consider to be reasonably reliable information and interesting tidbits of commentary.

Anyone with experience here in Thailand and more, or better ideas please feel free to jump in and correct or confirm many of the assumptions I’ve made here.

One last note, Paul Watson of the LA Times has what I consider to be the best, most nuanced and complete body of work on Thailand. Seek out his articles at the LA Times for excellent background on the issues facing Thailand.

From the Nelson Report:

THAILAND…here’s how a worried friend and close observer put it this morning, following the dismissal of the government, the end of the airport sit-ins, and the postponement of the ASEAN Summit:

Next near-term event will be the King’s speech on Thursday in advance of his Dec. 5 birthday. Unfortunately, miracles seem to be in short supply in Thailand.

There is no leadership and Thailand suffers.

It is not a good advertisement for either democracy or globalization as Thailand is clearly struggling with both at warp speed.

In trying to get a handle on the crisis in Bangkok, Samuels International’s Managing Director, Andy Durant, outlined how he sees the questions, and in tonite’s Perspective, former Amb. to Thailand Will Itoh, a consultant with McLarty & Associates, kindly takes on the task of responding.

Here’s how Andy cited his concerns:

It seems to me that from an economic perspective, what’s happened in Thailand is actually more harmful than what’s happened in India. In Thailand the political elites are taking extra-legal steps to try and throw out a democratically elected party based in poor rural areas.

Thaksin rode to power promising things to rural voters like cheaper medicines and development, and largely made good on his promises. As a result, his brand (whatever the party or coalition) is quite strong. Rather than try to chip away at this support by making promises of their own to these voters, the PAD (elites) have resorted to sit ins, protests, etc. Thankfully, until yesterday at least, there were no fatalities.

The military has declined to intervene – undoubtedly a good thing. Police haven’t acted and are quite weak. The courts – a tool for the elites? – can disenfranchise and call new elections, but it’s likely the results will be the same. So, now the airports will start functioning again, and things will get back to normal.

But what is the long term damage to FDI, tourism, political risk? Will air carriers look to move their maintenance and hubs to other locales, such as Singapore or Hong Kong?

The crisis cause hasn’t been resolved, and a resolution can only come from the King (if then), getting on in years and with no popular successor in the wings.

PERSPECTIVE: Amb. Will Itoh, a consultant now for McLarty & Associates, was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Thailand, and has stayed “up” on all things related, including ASEAN, Burma, etc.

At our request, Will prepared this analysis on the current situation in Thailand. After he sent it over came news that ASEAN has postponed until March next week’s scheduled Summit…clearly hoping Bangkok will have settled down enough by then to play out its role as Chair:

Chris:

The Constitutional Court’s decision today to ban the PPP from politics and force the resignation of PM Somchai Wongsawat may be seen as a victory for the elites and anti-Thaksin forces but at what cost?

After the court decision the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) declared an end to the occupation of both Bangkok airports, following their withdrawal from Government House last week. PAD hailed the court’s decision which ended the short tenure of Somchai (Thaksin’s brother in law) as prime minister, but warned that if the “anti-democratic” forces continue in power they will return to the streets.

The mis-named PAD, which has rejected the concept of one man, one vote as the basis of parliamentary government, thus continues to threaten mass demonstrations to advance their political aims.

Meanwhile, the members of the PPP not banned from politics (i.e. all but the 59 members of the party’s executive committee) will regroup under the banner of the Puea Thai party and will try to create a new government. Parliament may reconvene next week to try to reconstitute itself and elect a new prime minister.

If these attempts fail, new elections will follow but not for at least 60 days (MPs must be members of their political party for at least 60 days before taking their seats).

In today’s Constitutional Court decision, the elites have again succeeded in bringing about change, this time using the courts to remove a prime minister associated with Thaksin (PM Samak, Somchai’s predecessor, was forced to resign over corruption charges).

In the political drama of the past few weeks the military have remained on the sidelines, hoping to avoid further damage to the army’s reputation following the 2006 coup. The police have been either unwilling or incapable of removing the protestors, underscoring the perception that PAD could do what it wanted where it wanted, and highlighting the weaknesses of the government.

The drama will continue as parliament seeks to reconstitute itself. All will look to the King’s birthday speech on Friday for inspiration if not guidance and direction.

In the meantime Thailand’s reputation has suffered immeasurably. The occupation of the airports which stranded over 300,000 travelers has generated incredible media coverage. Thailand’s reputation as a stable and economically prosperous country which welcomes tourists, businessmen and students has been severely damaged.

I recall the haze from the forest fires in Indonesia in 1998 which reached Phuket. A single photo in the New York Times resulted in the cancellations of thousands of tourist bookings. I can only imagine what the impact of the recent media coverage will have on the Thai economy.

All the best, Will

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I'm taking a year long road trip across the globe. I started in Singapore and will end in Austin, Texas sometime in late 2009. There are only two rules: no flying and I must see Penguins in the Antarctic.

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