This New Year, it was a toss-up between Goa and Thailand to escape the harsh Delhi winter. I first visited Thailand in 1989 from Sri Lanka when I was commanding the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) South in Batticaloa. Having conducted three Sri Lankan elections in Batticaloa, I took leave and travelled to Bangkok on an official passport. Bangkok even then was swanky, at least in the downtown area. Since then, I would have come back numerous times – on conferences and vacations, at least 30 times.
The pandemic and ten years of military rule have hurt the economy, especially tourism. But that did not deter our travels, living off the land, thanks to the Oakwood Tiwanon- Ascott chain of residencies where you can recreate your home routine if you like. But groceries cost more than twice as much as in NOIDA, though sweet red guavas are available throughout the year.
After last December’s holiday, I had written about how after Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha’s 2014 coup his party misruled for a decade not without squabbling between the Generals – all three former Army Chiefs-the other two Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and Anupong Paochinda, interior minister. One more spell of military rule ended last year. But spectacular things have happened since. Real estate tycoon Strettha Thavisin has become PM. But Thais voted for Pita Limajaroenrat of the Move Forward party. The popular business magnate Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted from power in 2006 is back in Bangkok and sentenced to an eight-year prison term for sedition but a remission by Royal pardon has reduced the jail term to one year.
Currently, he is in a Police general hospital while his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who carried the Phue Thai party flag won 140 parliamentary seats, next only to Pita’s Move Forward. Pita, who campaigned for change, daringly for reforming monarchy -the untouchable royal defamation law- burnt his fingers and was suspended by the constitutional court and is being investigated for violating election law. Pheu Thai cobbled an 11-party coalition holding 314 seats in the 500-member Lower House which included Conservative military-backed parties which it previously opposed. This arrangement was put together between Thaksin when in exile, the all-powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the military and police dispensation. For Thaksin, it is defacto amnesty. The military, which has rewritten the constitution, has ensured the formation of a constitutional court and senate without whose approval no elected government can function.
My local advisor Tun (Thais, like the Chinese, have simplified their unpronounceable names) said the tenth King of the Chakri dynasty is even more powerful than his predecessors and whispered the most embellished story about his owning a hotel in Munich. Tun switched to Strettha whom he described as a fashion-maker, turning out on Christmas day wearing one green and one red sock. He has pledged to rejuvenate the economy for which he offers big ideas. Two immediate ones are to revive tourism which in 2019 pre-pandemic had scaled 39 mn tourists which accounted for 12 per cent of GDP. Strettha has taken several steps to boost tourist figures to 40 mn- reduced tax on import of alcohol, extended bar timings to 4 am, plans to raise 8 new domestic airlines and declared visa-free travel for several countries. Last year, five countries that topped tourist arrivals were Malaysia, China, South Korea, India and Russia, aggregating 28 mn.
Strettha’s most awaited reform is the digital market scheme which entails USD 290 (10,000 Thai baht) to nearly 50 million Thais to spend to boost the economy. The reform is stuck in law court and might see the light of day by May, Tun said. Meanwhile, Strettha has admitted the economy is not good and has promised to boost FDI. He calls himself a salesman PM. You could add showman, says Tun. He is talking big about deals with Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla.
Thailand is at peace with itself. No confrontation between Red and Yellow shirts or barricades in downtown Bangkok near the Asok intersection. In October, a shootout in a shopping mall killed a Chinese and wounded three others. Shootouts occur periodically, warranting new gun laws. A low-key insurgency simmers in the south as the country has its first civilian defence minister Suthai Klangsaeng. But real power is with Army’s Internal Security Operations Command which Strettha has refused to dissolve despite calls from Phue Thai. Tun said regardless of which government rules in Bangkok, what holds the country together is a monarchy-military alliance. In 2014, just before the Army’s 12th coup since 1932, the present King, then crown prince fled to London and camped across the entire fourth floor of Landmark Hotel and returned only when he had worked out a deal with the Junta. I happened to be at the Landmark for a conference and saw his royal guards in action.
So far not been so good for the economy. World Bank estimates that the Thai economy will grow 3.2 per cent though Pheu Thai had promised 5 per cent growth not reached since 2012. Until Move Forward abandons its Palace reform agenda, Pheu Thai will rule. Thaksin will likely replace Strettha with daughter Paetongtarn (his sister Yingluck was earlier PM) as Prime Minister later this year. So back to the Shinawatras and for Thais a prosperous 2024.