Thai trials and tribulations: A diplomat’s assessment

The future of Thailand is largely uncertain. Canada’s former ambassador to the country outlines the factors that impact its economic and political stability, and how Canada can play a role.

By: /
February 7, 2017
A man unwraps a picture of Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn displayed for sale at a royal memorabilia shop in Bangkok, Thailand, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Recently the people of Thailand commemorated the 100th day since the passing of their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. His death, although long anticipated, caused widespread, palpable and heartfelt grief among Thais. Adding to the emotional impact were questions about the suitability of his son, now King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose character seems to pale in comparison with that of his father. 

Given the drama of the succession, it is not surprising that this issue attracted a great deal of attention, mostly transitory, from global observers. The succession, however, is not the only issue facing Thailand. It takes place against the background of several significant challenges at the dawn of the rule of the new king. 

Thailand is facing political, economic and systemic issues that have kept the country from moving forward for over a decade. Addressing these challenges will not be easy for Thailand, but this turning point is also an opportunity for Thais to seek new solutions to these endemic problems, and for Thailand to emerge stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose and leadership in the region.

Succession drama

Over his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol came to be seen by Thais as a source of strength and stability, as Thailand endured political instability, clashes, violence and a series of coups and constitutions. 

At the time of his accession the throne, the monarchy was a weak institution that was being re-invigorated in part to add credibility to the military government. Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, through hard work, trips to all parts of Thailand, projects to enhance development and strategic use of public imagery, transformed it into a power base, building fervent loyalty among the Thai people, and support from wealthy elites and the military. This also allowed the king to extend his influence beyond the formal confines of the constitutional monarchy, and to exercise considerable power and influence within the Thai political system. 

Royal succession has traditionally been complicated and often dangerous over the course of Thailand’s history. In the past, the Privy Council oversaw the process, and there was often great internal rivalry and drama — and sometimes threats of death — over who would be the next king. 

Bhumibol declared his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, as his heir many years ago, but as the king declined, speculation abounded, particularly among the foreign community, about alternative succession scenarios. 

Part of the succession speculation arose from perceptions of the personality of Vajiralongkorn, about whom there are many salacious stories in the media. His lifestyle has been very different from that of his father: many wives, a life of indulgence with little genuine engagement with the Thai people, and rumours of venal behaviour. 

All of this runs against traditional Thai concepts of the king as both dhamma-raja (righteous king), ruling through morality, and deva-raja (god-king). Bhumibol was seen as exemplifying these roles; his son is not. As crown prince, his relationship with the military — a powerful independent actor in Thai politics — was testy at best, and he was not nearly as well-respected as his father. 

Vajiralongkorn has his own, smaller network of supporters among the elites and military, but is very unlikely to be able to command the same broad respect and sense of personal loyalty that his father enjoyed among the military, the elites and the public at large. It is an open question as to how resilient the monarchy is as an institution under the new king. 

Power struggles and political conflict

The succession is just one of a number of challenges facing Thailand as it moves through this turning point in its history. Resolving ongoing political conflict, moving beyond the cycle of coups and constitutions (19 and 20 respectively since 1932), and returning to an elected government that is sustainable are all key, interwoven tasks. Political conflict has arisen out of wide gaps in society, corruption and the nature of Thai politics, where conflicts are more personal than ideological. 

A great deal of the conflict over the last decade has revolved around the politics and parties of Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic and polarizing figure who built political power by mobilizing elements of Thai society previously left out of the political process, particularly in northern Thailand. He was ousted in a coup in 2006, but support for his Pheu Thai party remained strong, and led to electoral victory under his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was also ousted by a coup in 2014.

The government of Prayuth Chan-ocha — the army chief who removed the Yingluck government in 2014 — remains in power. For a number of western governments, including Canada, a return to elected government has been a precondition for resuming high-level contacts, although some have begun to re-establish these links with the current government. 

The transition back to elected government continues to be a moving target and is now not likely to happen before 2018. This is in part due to the slow process of writing, approving and implementing a new constitution (the first draft was rejected), and then setting out organic laws to oversee an election. 

The death of King Bhumibol has also slowed down the process, and the new king has put his own stamp on the constitution, asking for changes that have required further amendment. The current government also seems increasingly convinced of its need to retain power to manage the transition. 

Even when elected government is restored, democracy will be diluted. The new constitution weakens the role of political parties, gives new authority to an appointed Senate, and reserves positions for members of the ruling junta, which retains the option of returning to power in case of an emergency. 

Economic, security and governance challenges

A second challenge is the revival of the Thai economy, which has been under-performing since 2013-2014. Many hoped for a swift economic rebound after the 2014 coup, but the military government did not prove itself to be an effective manager of the economy. This, combined with low investment inflows arising from foreign nervousness and the slowing of the economy of China, a major market, has blunted the recovery. 

Growth has improved in recent years, but remains low, in comparison with most ASEAN neighbours, at 3.1 percent for 2016 and about the same projected for 2017. Foreign direct investment has dropped significantly as investors continue to have concerns about political stability.  

The Thai economy also faces a number of structural challenges. Productivity is low, particularly in the agriculture sector, which comprises about 40 percent of the population and produces only 10 percent of the GDP — figures out of sync with a typical upper middle-income country. The agriculture sector also faces more problems as Thai society ages. In addition, infrastructure bottlenecks have been an obstacle to economic development. Rising wages also make Thailand's manufacturing sector less competitive than that of its neighbours, who are moving swiftly up global value chains. 

Thailand agriculture
Two truck drivers wait to deliver the sugar cane harvest at a sugar mill in Ratchaburi province, Thailand. The El Nino has played havoc with crops across Southeast Asia and beyond. March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Dealing with all this will require greater attention to innovation. This, in turn, requires substantial reform of Thailand’s education sector, which as it stands is underfunded, over-managed and stuck with a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the 21st century. 

The Thai government is aware of these challenges, which experts have been highlighting for years. Infrastructure projects, after a slow start, are finally moving ahead. But education reform, debated for more than a decade, has been superficial, and some proposed reforms have been overridden by political concerns. Real change requires a significant re-thinking of curricula and goals, as well as much more investment. Even so, it will take time before the effects are apparent.

Domestic security also remains an unresolved and growing issue. Thailand’s three southern provinces, which are Malay-speaking and predominantly Muslim, are home to the longest-running insurgency in Asia. Conflicts in the region, with insurgents seeking independence, have led to thousands of deaths. While bombings and shootings have usually been confined to these southern provinces, recent bombings in Pattaya and other places suggest the conflict is moving north. 

Other bombings in Thailand have links to external issues: the August 2015 bombing of a shrine in Bangkok was a result of Thailand’s decision to return to China Uighurs from western China seeking transit to Turkey. Thailand’s police forces are poorly trained and have been widely criticized for their handling of such incidents.  

The conflict in Thailand’s south does not have a military solution, but governments are slow or reluctant to realize this. Without solutions addressing the root issue of identity, it is hard to see how Thailand will move out of this cycle of conflict. 

Thailand faces other governance challenges as well. Corruption continues to be widespread, although the military government is making attempts to address this. Violations of human rights have increased under the military government. There also continue to be strong restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, and human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to charges from the government, or military, of defamation and sedition. 

The role for Canada, the U.S. and Asia in Thai affairs

Traditionally, Thailand has been adept at balancing relations with neighbours and world powers, in particular keeping strong ties with the U.S. that included extensive military cooperation. The 2014 coup, however, led to negative reactions and reduced engagement from many western countries, including the U.S.  

In response, Thailand has signalled that it is leaning more toward China’s orbit, during a time when China’s influence in the region continues to grow apace. Given the long history of cooperation and the key strategic role of Thailand in the Pacific, it is unlikely that Thailand would have a major break with the U.S. But Thailand has also, for the first time, had joint military exercises with China. A Trump administration, less concerned with issues of human rights, could see a return to full American engagement, but at this point, Trump’s approach to Asia is unclear and contradictory at best.  

From the perspective of regional trade, Thailand is a member of the ASEAN Economic Community, which is incrementally reducing barriers among its members. It is also participating in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a China-led free trade initiative that should be completed this year — one which gains weight with the likelihood of a cancelled Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Thailand was not a member.

As Thailand navigates its future, Canada has a role to play. We have interests in the country: it’s our second largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, and Canadian investment in the country is around $4.5 billion. 

Since the 2014 coup there has been no engagement at the minister level or above, but restricting senior-level dialogue has had little effect in pushing Thailand to return to elected government. Canada is positioned to play a more important role. While continuing to advocate and support capacity building on human rights and governance concerns — an area of Canadian leadership — the Canadian government should also be actively supporting more high-level contacts, both with government and the private sector.

This would strengthen our capacity to advocate on business, political and human rights concerns. It would help better position Canadian companies to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Thailand’s infrastructure, energy and agricultural development, and better promote more Thai investment in Canada. 

More cooperation on governance (especially in promoting our experience in language of government, minority issues and centre-region relations), in police training and security cooperation, and in supporting a significant program of scholarships to connect with Thailand’s future leaders would give added weight to our engagement, and thus also added weight to our concerns. With renewed investment in the relationship, Canada is well placed, as an internationalist middle power, to play a constructive role in Thailand’s difficult transition.

This piece was adapted from a lecture given to the Victoria branch of the Canadian International Council on January 18.