Abhisit Vejjajiva
Matt Dunham/AP
Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Thai Economy Shows Recovery, But Will Politics Get in the Way?

August 27, 2009 04:00 PM
by Liz Colville
Thailand could be impeded by political instability as the country's leaders struggle to maintain power and control in the face of a divided and at times violent public.

Recession Slowing in Thailand

Thailand's economy has "contracted at a slower pace in the second quarter," The Economist reports, "suggesting that an end is in sight to the country's first recession in over a decade." The government, led by Democratic Party leader Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has put 117 billion baht ($3.4 billion) into an economic stimulus plan, and just pledged another 1.1 trillion baht over three years for "infrastructure, healthcare and education."

But the political situation in the country could "smother Thailand's green shoots," the Economist adds. Specifically, both "supporters and opponents" of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra "have repeatedly staged massive, destabilising protests." Since April, however, the situation has been relatively under control.

But earlier in August, supporters of Thaksin, who comprise the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), petitioned the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, asking him to grant clemency to Thaksin, The Washington Post reported.

Thaksin was ousted from power in a military coup in 2006 and was later "convicted in absentia of breaching conflict of interest laws in connection with a property deal carried out by his wife." He fled Thailand prior to his trial and as a result, he was slapped with a two-year prison sentence. "He now lives in exile, stripped of his Thai passport," The Post's Tim Johnston explains.

Prime Minister Abhisit continues to govern, but has recently enforced a security law to try to quell violence at a planned protest by Thaksin's supporters, who are mostly poor and rural-dwelling, this Sunday.

"We do not forbid the rally if it is within the limit of law," Abhisit was quoted as saying by Reuters. "But we received intelligence of some third party that wants to incite unrest. That is the reason we imposed the security law," which will be in effect from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1. 

Background: Protests claim government connection to military

The global recession has increased political tension in Thailand. Abhisit, leader of the country’s Democratic Party, was in power for just three months when he faced accusations by the UDD that he was a puppet for the military, Reuters reported in March.

Thailand has been riddled with military coups in the past, so such suspicions could outdo Abhisit, the BBC suggests. But some analysts say the current rebellion is harmless.

Supporters of Thaksin accuse Abhisit and his party of “conspiring in a ‘silent coup’, together with the PAD [People’s Alliance for Democracy], the military and elements of the royalist elite, to bring down an elected government.”

As an added challenge, there is an ongoing insurgency in Thailand’s southern Malay and Muslim region. On Jan. 13, Amnesty International released a report claiming that “Thai security forces in the country’s southern provinces are systematically engaging in torture and other ill-treatment” as part of a “counter-insurgency” campaign in the region.

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Instability Stems from Short-Lived Leaderships

In recent years, Thailand has been governed by a series of short-lived cabinets while its monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, remains powerful and revered almost as if he were “divine,” according to a BBC profile of Bhumibol.

Prime Minister Abhisit’s predecessor was Samak Sundaravej, who took office in January 2008 but was ousted in December 2008 after extensive unrest that saw protesters, led by PAD, fight for his removal for several months; they also blocked him from his office for days and shut down Bangkok’s airport in November.

Samak’s rule was also marked by a poor economy and rising inflation. He came under criticism for his close ties with and support of his predecessor, Thaksin. Thaksin was charged with corruption in August 2008 and fled the country. Samak formed his People Power Party (PPP) from remnants of Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai.

Opinion & Analysis: Thailand’s constitution and the future of Abhisit

Prime Minister Abhisit was educated at Eton, the private boys’ school in England, and Oxford University. He is considered out of touch with the poorer elements of the Thai population. A Times of London profile of Abhisit notes that until his election in 2008, “the majority of Thai voters have pointedly chosen someone else whenever they have been given an opportunity.”
Abhisit “owes his new job, not to any democratic mandate, but to the support of powerful friends,” Richard Lloyd Parry wrote for The Times earlier this year. He cites these “friends” as the army, who ousted Thaksin in a bloodless coup in 2006, and PAD, the group behind 2008’s lengthy protests to oust Samak.

A December 2008 Bangkok Post editorial suggested that Thailand's oft-rewritten constitution is central to the country’s political unrest. Thailand has had 18 constitutions in the 77 years since the government shifted from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The article notes that the current constitutional charter, enacted in 2007, remains controversial because it “comes from an assembly of charter writers hand-picked by the architects of the 2006 military coup” that took out Thaksin.

The country’s King Prajadhipok Institute is now working on a study in preparation for another new charter, which is expected to take several more months to draft. A March 2009 editorial for the Bangkok Post expressed doubts as to whether Abhisit will even be in power if and when this new charter is written into law.

Most recently, an op-ed in the Bangkok Post argues that Abhisit's decision to invoke a security law "is strictly in line with the famous adage that prevention is better than cure." The author notes that Abhisit's opposition is concerned that the law will have a negative impact on the tourism industry, a necessary component to getting the country out of its current recession. But the author argues that the law is a reaction to March's protests and is likely necessary to curb violence

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