Forces are aligning against the Yingluck led government. On Monday, the protest movement that destabilised the country at the end of last year will return to the streets to ‘shut-down’ Bangkok. At the same time, the military has failed to commit to the protection of forthcoming elections scheduled for 2 February, and official bodies such as the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission are doing little to dampen fears they are about to kibosh the vote.
All of this puts Thailand in a precarious position, but one that threatens more than just its democratic system. At stake is the international reputation upon which the country has built half a century of economic growth and a future in which it is relevant to the world within which it now exists.
Despite nearly a decade of political protest and violence Thailand’s reputation among the international community has remained remarkably resilient. Take for example tourists, a group who have often been directly affected by the turmoil. In 2008, when anti-government protesters shut down Suwannaphum airport, tourists were left stranded in some cases for weeks as international flights had to be cancelled. Then, in April 2010, violence at Democracy Monument spilled-over perilously close to Khao San Road, the centre of Thailand’s transient backpacking community. In May of the same year, a live fire zone was set up in Bangkok’s principal commercial and leisure district putting it conspicuously off limits to international visitors.
Yet, despite the risks, tourists have continued to flock to the country. Tourism makes up 7% of Thailand’s GDP and in 2013 the credit card company Mastercard predicted that Bangkok would become the world’s most visited global city. Earlier this year, before the current protests began, the Tourist Authority of Thailand set the eye-watering target of 28.01 million international tourist arrivals in 2014. That figure has now been revised down, but industry officials remain confident that once stability returns, international arrivals will continue to increase.
The reason for such confidence is a successful marketing campaign that began in the late 1950s and which sold Thailand as a haven for international visitors. Publicity material produced by the then newly established Tourist Authority of Thailand combined reassurances about the country’s modern standard of living for those with wealth with strong assertions about the integrity of Thailand’s traditional and largely rural culture. From then until now, Thai society has been repeatedly presented as an inherently stable society that is embedded in existing cultural norms made evident through the persistence of a uniquely Thai ‘way of life.’
It is important however, to recognise the context within which this branding emerged. Following the Second World War, decolonization meant that most Asian communities remained suspicious toward the global super-powers and, despite the pressure to choose sides in the emergent Cold War, they often resisted out-right alliances with one side or another.
In Thailand, however, the lack of a colonial occupier reduced internal anxieties about the forming of a close but subservient partnership with the United States and its principal Asian ally, Japan. On a continent defined during the period by violent upheavals and communist insurrection, Thailand’s status as a safe haven for foreigners was in many ways, therefore, well founded. As the American travel writer James Michener remarked in 1953, Thailand was to be viewed as a ‘sanctuary in a troubled world,’ the ‘air-conditioned room in hell,’ the ‘padded cell in the insane asylum.’
Ultimately, however, the creation of this Thai brand was about more than driving a tourist boom. It was also about reassuring the international community that Thailand was not only a safe place to visit, but to invest. The proclamation of a harmonious society, free from class politics due to an inherent commitment to hierarchy, bolstered international confidence in Thailand’s political stability and its ability to resist Communism. It also drew attention to the country’s plentiful supply of cheap labour.
Foreign investment and U.S. aid flooded into the country, enriching the elite urban classes and fuelling the rapid development of infrastructure intended to directly connect the country with the economic world into which it was now integrated. New roads were built into the provinces to facilitate the extraction of agricultural produce and Bangkok quickly emerged as a regional hub for international air and sea transportation.
Until now, Thailand’s hub status has remained intact. Secured ideologically through the supreme importance placed upon the tourist industry, it has also been protected by new construction projects that have continued to make the country a natural centre for regional political and economic activity. Nevertheless, the resilience of the model upon which Thailand has developed is already in desperate need of revision in recognition of the changing circumstances not only of the internal population but also to the international situation.
It is certainly the case that America and Japan remain important trading partners, but the contracting markets and declining influence of these old allies in a post-Cold War world remains a trend that is set to continue. At the same time there lies the reality of a rising China and the ongoing integration of the Southeast Asian economy as regional bloc. Just as in the 1950s, when Thailand’s urban society and elected officials had to deal with the politics of the emergent Cold War and the collapse of the old imperial dominated order, this changing international environment makes it imperative that Thai society is able to engage in a debate about how to meet the future.
This is all the more the true when it is recognised that Thailand is already at a disadvantage when compared to her ‘less developed’ competitors. Since 2000, GDP per capita has almost doubled, and in 2012, 46% of the population went through tertiary education. Life expectancy is going up, currently standing at 74.5 years and by 2033 the country is predicted to have a population where 1 in 4 is over 60. Unlike neighbouring countries like Cambodia, Burma or Vietnam, Thailand is thus lacking the cheap young workforce it would need to compete in an economy based purely on access to labour. Moreover, with such large numbers now going through higher education, it is easy to understand why new entrants to the job market are increasingly unwilling to accept the low wages their parents might have been happy to work for.
At the same time, Thailand’s hub status is also threatened by its international transport links that were built to serve the old American centred order, but which fail to account for the rise of Chinese economic interests in the region. It is no coincidence that the proposed high speed rail links, which would potentially connect Bangkok with Shanghai and Singapore, have been planned in cooperation with the Chinese, and would be largely funded with Chinese secured loans. The railway is a key part of China’s strategic expansion into the region and putting a halt to the project now would undoubtedly have serious repercussions for Sino-Thai relations. Whilst there is every reason this should be discussed openly, it should be done with a clear focus on the reasons why this is an issue now and the stark economic choices the rail link represents.
The thing that most endangers Thailand’s economic future, however, are the political choices of those power brokers currently threatening democratic government in the country. During the 1960s, authoritarian government was legitimised through the promotion of modernisation for those who aspired to a better standard of life. But it was also guaranteed through close relations with the United States which saw the exploitation of cheap labour as a catapult to secure Thai development and which saw the conservatisation of Thai culture as a key way to defend the Thai population psychologically from communism.
During this time, ‘Thainess’ was repeatedly defined through evidencing the fulfilment of ordinary Thai people in basic, menial ways of life. Work in the fields, or on the floating market was romanticised as traditional and valuable. But in doing so it was also fetishized as the commodity of an elite urban culture that sought to enjoy Thailand in the same way as their international arrivals.
Whilst conservative forces might like to return to such pleasant days, they fail to account for the fact that without international partners to support the ideology it will quickly disintegrate. The time has come therefore, to recognise the tourist myth as the excellent marketing campaign that it is and to stop using it to determine the destiny of the country. Otherwise, the myth will collapse not because sensible men and women have recognised the violence implicit in its logic but because of the genuine conflict that will erupt once the changing international context forces a resolution.
Matthew Phillips is a lecturer in Modern Asian History at Aberystwyth University, specialising in the culture of the Cold War in Thailand.