Will Thailand take leaf out of Asia's book of change?
May 20th, 2014
06:05 PM ET

Will Thailand take leaf out of Asia's book of change?

By Matt Stumpf, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matt Stumpf is the Washington director of Asia Society and the Asia Society Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Asia Society or the Asia Society Policy Institute.

As “change” elections and momentous transitions sweep Asia, Thailand has self-selected for stagnation. Tuesday’s action by the Thai military to declare martial law while leaving the government in place continues the perpetual crisis the country has lived with since the coup that ended Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in 2006.

Across Asia, public calls for a sea change in governance have brought to power new leaders with a wide range of views but a common imperative. From Narendra Modi in India to President Thein Sein in Myanmar, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, Indonesian presidential front-runner Joko Widodo, and even President Xi Jinping in China, today’s Asian leaders must promise to install reformed, more accountable, and effective governments in their countries. These leaders face headwinds in challenging political and economic environments, but know that public support is premised on their ability to lead more adept governments to deliver new prosperity.

There is no such voice in Thai politics, and the country is falling behind dramatically. The Wall Street Journal reports that Thai consumers are the most pessimistic about the economy that they have been in 12 years and that Thailand’s economy has shrunk 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014, compared to the fourth quarter of 2013. Even before the declaration of martial law, the Thai stock market was down 15 percent over the last year. Fitch Ratings have said that the failure to resolve the impasse by mid-2014 would lead to a downgrade of its sovereign rating. Tourism, a key driver of the Thai economy, is already off 5 percent for the year. This week’s news might even worsen the picture.

In contrast, the rest of Southeast Asia is growing. In 2013, Malaysia recorded 6 percent GDP growth, Vietnam achieved a 5.4 percent expansion, and Indonesia saw 5 percent growth.

Neither of Thailand’s major political factions has delivered a vision or commitment that offers a realistic path toward stability and growth for Thailand. At its core, the impasse is a struggle for primacy as the major centripetal force in Thai society, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ages, and it has only grown worse since 2006.

The charges of each side against the other – that the Thaksin era was beset by corruption and that the opposition Democratic Party ignores democratic processes as they seek their preferred solution – both likely bear some truth. The military learned from the widely criticized government of 2006-2007 that its administration of Thailand is also not a viable alternative.

The Thai people are left with a government of the lowest common denominator. One side won’t let the democratically elected representatives of the Thai people govern, boycotting elections they won’t win and then protesting the results. The other side has won every election since 2001, but has been unable to lead Thailand out of its impasse. The military, which has removed governments 18 times since 1932, has this week stepped in between the two sides and curbed political speech – but also does not seem to have a vision for a way forward. The only common viewpoint among the competing groups is that the others can’t be trusted to remain in charge.

Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak has said the political conflict “has become irreconcilable because both sides think that they can win.” Any impartial analysis, though, indicates that in the permanent crisis both sides – and the Thai people – are losing.

The only reasonable way out is of course elections, held at an early date. But, as part of these elections, voters should favor candidates who provide a vision for a way forward that maintains Thailand’s democratic institutions, promotes effective government and gets the economy back on track. No vote should go to candidates that refuse to abide by the results of the elections.

International urging has had limited effect on political affairs in Thailand, but it is nevertheless critical in encouraging a new era of leadership in Thailand. Scott Marciel, the senior State Department official for Southeast Asia, told a forum on Thailand at the Washington think tank CSIS last week, “We’re not saying this is how they should be resolved, but the manner in which to resolve it. It’s important that it be done constitutionally and democratically, and, of course, peacefully.” This is an essential message.

Long partnership between the United States and Thailand, dating to 1833, has created enduring ties, stretched but not broken by the crisis. The United States can help encourage a successful outcome in the next elections. By working with all sides to encourage a new vision for Thailand’s future and positioning diplomatic and economic support on shared priorities in the event that Thai leaders decide to step out of crisis, Washington can help the next government succeed where its predecessors have failed.

But the first step is Thailand’s. In Asia, new leaders of all political stripes have found a welcoming public when they’ve committed to better governance and economic results. Despite the uncertainty of a time of transition, the fundamental challenges and opportunities in Thailand are not so different from those of its neighbors. Anyone who aspires to lead Thailand next would do well to listen closely to how Asia’s leaders are defining the new era.

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Topics: Asia • Thailand

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Ferhat Balkan

    Well, Thailand was hit hard with natural disasters (2004 Tsunami & 2011 floods). Plus the recent corruption charges against former prime minister Yingluck created a political mess that took stocks tumbling.. Beyond that, China also took a huge chunk of their export partners. Thailand is in for a rough ride in the coming years.

    May 20, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
  2. rupert

    That's right Ferhat. I would add that they have had it rough for years. You gotta tip your hat off to these resilient people.

    May 21, 2014 at 3:08 am |
  3. John Smith

    America is a country of terror. They helped the shah and killed millions of people.
    Ba$ tards

    May 21, 2014 at 3:20 am |
  4. John Smith

    I went to poop last night. It hurt as blood came out of my rear. I cried. The doctor says that I have colon cancer. I will die in six months. I am scared.

    May 21, 2014 at 3:22 am |
  5. Mike

    SET is going up today.

    May 21, 2014 at 4:24 am |
  6. palintwit

    Everyone has their own personal hell. Mine is being locked in a room full of squeaking balloons while someone scratches their fingernails on a chalkboard and plays endless loops of Sarah Palin's speeches.

    May 21, 2014 at 10:24 am |
    • Scientists first believed

      Scientists first believed they had cloned a Palin Voter. But on further inspection it was just an amoeba.

      May 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm |
  7. chri§§y

    Todays Quirky News: Arizonans have started using goats to curb wildfires! What? You thing im kidding?

    May 21, 2014 at 7:07 pm |
  8. chri§§y

    Oops should read "think" im kid ding

    May 21, 2014 at 11:25 pm |
  9. j. von hettlingen

    Thai politics is a class struggle – between urban, upper strata of the society and the rural as well as the poor. The only solution is to find a candidate that both camps will accept. If not compromising figure is found, the military would be the ones, who benefit from the crisis.

    May 22, 2014 at 8:04 am |
  10. bobcat2u

    The devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a goat walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the goat's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the goat. "Your name is written inside the cover."

    May 22, 2014 at 11:48 am |
  11. bobcat2u

    A policeman in the big city stops a man in a car with a goat in the front seat. "What are you doing with that goat?" He exclaimed, "You should take it to the zoo." The following week, the same policeman sees the same man with the goat again in the front seat, with both of them wearing sunglasses. The policeman pulls him over. "I thought you were going to take that goat to the zoo!" The man replied, "I did. We had such a good time we are going to the beach this weekend!"

    May 22, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  12. bobcat2u

    A man takes the day off work and decides to go out golfing. He is on the second hole when he notices a billy goat standing next to the green. He thinks nothing of it and is about to shoot when he hears, "Baahh. 9 Iron" The man looks around and doesn't see anyone. " Baahh. 9 Iron."

    He looks at the billy goat and decides to prove him wrong, puts his other club away, and grabs a 9 iron. Boom! He hits it 10 inches from the cup. He is shocked.

    He says to the billy goat, "Wow that's amazing. You must be a lucky goat, eh?" The billy goat reply's " Baahh. Lucky goat."

    The man decides to take the billy goat with him to the next hole. "What do you think goat?" the man asks. " Baahh. 3 wood."

    The guy takes out a 3 wood and Boom! Hole in one. The man is befuddled and doesn't know what to say. By the end of the day, the man golfed the best game of golf in his life and asks the billy goat, "OK where to next?" The billy goat reply, " Baahh. Las Vegas."

    So, they go to "Las Vegas and the guy says, "OK goat, now what?" The billy goat says, " Baahh. Roulette." Upon approaching the roulette table, the man asks, " What do you think I should bet?" The billy goat replies, " Baahh. $3000,black 6."

    Now, this is a million to one shot to win, but after the golf game, the man figures what the heck. Boom! Tons of cash comes sliding back across the table.

    The man takes his winnings and buys the best room in the hotel. Once in the hotel room the man says "Goat, I don't know how to repay you. You've won me all this money and I am forever grateful." "Just name it and it is yours." The billy goat replies, " Baaah, Kiss Me."

    He figures why not, since after all the goat did for him, he deserves it. With a kiss, the billy goat turns into a gorgeous 15-year-old girl.

    ".... And that, your honor, is how the girl ended up in my room."

    May 22, 2014 at 11:56 am |
  13. chri§§y

    Lmao National Goat Day? Thank you Arizona! And bobcat too lmao!

    May 22, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      Hey chrissy, how you been doing ? How did you get the shadow S's ? That's pretty cool.

      May 22, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
  14. chri§§y

    Its on the symbol list in my phone. But really i got the idea from RZ. And how are you?

    May 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      Well, in spite of my daily rice krispy sounding, getting out of bed, looking in the obituaries,while I drink my coffee, to see if my name is in there, and if not I go get dressed for the day ritual, I'm doing pretty well. Thank you. It's starting to get hotter n' blazes down here.

      May 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm |
  15. chri§§y

    Lmao @ bobcat...rice krispy sound? Do tell lol. And yea its hit and miss her. We hit 90 one day 47 the next and now weve been steady 70s, which is *purr~fect* lol.

    May 22, 2014 at 3:16 pm |
  16. chri§§y

    Todays Quirky News: Skywatchers in Amerillo spotted an aircraft shaped like a dorito! Bet its headed towards the big dipper!

    May 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm |
  17. chri§§y

    And forgive me texans if i spelled your city wrong. 😉

    May 22, 2014 at 5:13 pm |
  18. bobcat2u

    And speaking of aircraft,

    An airliner is coming into land at an airport obscured by fog. Visibility is practically nil, the ILS system is on the blink, so the pilot has to land on wits alone. "Flaps, check," he says to the copilot, "Landing Gear, check. Alt itude, check. Right, we're going in. Hold on." The plane lands and comes to a screeching, grinding halt; just short of the edge of the runway. "Holy Cow!" exclaims the pilot, "This must be the shortest runway I've ever landed on!" The copilot looks left and right and says "Yeah, and about the widest, too ..."

    May 22, 2014 at 5:31 pm |
  19. bobcat2u

    Speaking of airports in Germany, the one servicing the Hamburg area is known to be staffed by a rather snooty ground control crew. They expect you to know exactly where to go and what to do, which may lead to frustration on the part of aircraft captains new to the route. This is the account of one such flight in particular, concerning a senior captain ...

    "Tower, British Airways one-seven, completed rollout, awaiting further instructions."

    "British Airways one-seven, this is Hamburg ground, clear to taxi to Gate Seven."

    "Roger, Hamburg ground, request directions to Gate Seven."

    "British Airways one-seven, have you never been to Hamburg before?"

    "Yes, a number of times, Hamburg ground, in 1944, but we did not stop!"

    May 22, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
  20. chri§§y

    Cute @ bobcat lol.

    May 22, 2014 at 5:53 pm |
  21. chri§§y

    Hey @ bobcat...a must see for you...The Carbonaro Effect! Its awesome lol and right up your alley!

    May 22, 2014 at 6:20 pm |
  22. Matt

    Best to stay out of the Ronin that protected the protesters in 2010 are the military. So the military can split into factions easily. Last time they traded Bout for the massacre of red shirts, we held out via psy-ops and bluff for 2 weeks after the Ronin had deserted the protesters. Which meant the Arab Spring had to rely on arms caches be broken open instead of controlled delivery via Viktor who had agreed to work for us and the ambassadors daughter being thrown off a roof in NY. It really messed with the pivot bogging us down longer in the mid east.

    May 23, 2014 at 10:10 am |
  23. Anonymous

    Thailand must calmly listen to the King's wise words and get eliminate the corrupt politicians who have gotten Thailand into this mess.

    I, for one, welcome the military. They are the strong fence that has kept Thailand safe and stable for decades. This fence has been peed on by the dogs one time too many!

    This country needs discipline and unity to move forward, and now we're finally going to get it.

    May 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
    • SGnPinoy

      I feel the same. As it is, the political divide is so deep and wide that both sides are now blind to what really matters to the future of this lovely country. While a military coup is normally something to be frown upon, and the common people will suffer violence and oppression under the hands of the military rulers, it is NOT the case here. I see it with my own eyes as it is happening. The situation is actual better than before – just < 2 months ago.

      The Original Article say,
      "he Thai people are left with a government of the lowest common denominator. One side won’t let the democratically elected representatives of the Thai people govern, boycotting elections they won’t win and then protesting the results. The other side has won every election since 2001, but has been unable to lead Thailand out of its impasse. The military, which has removed governments 18 times since 1932, has this week stepped in between the two sides and curbed political speech – but also does not seem to have a vision for a way forward. The only common viewpoint among the competing groups is that the others can’t be trusted to remain in charge." is as close to reality as can be, except there has been important updates NOT reported on CNN (and BBC, an perhaps other foreign news too).

      Yes, the military had not given their vision of the way forward at the eime when they took over, and I see this as they really did not want to and had not been planning this coup for long time for this. But on 31 May 2014, General Prayuth laid out his plans – describing a 3 phase approach, with even a targeted timeline for Elect. He did say this deadline depends on how the situation progress, and that is fair. For the 1st times in years, I hear a leader pointing the way forward, looking towards a better future for the country. If he keeps his word, I can't see a better way forward.

      Am I for military rule? No, definietly not in the long term. But as it is now, it looks like the least of 3 evils. See this CNN iPreport (http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1136073)

      June 8, 2014 at 12:41 am |
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