Thailand's prospects and risks in 2020s
Notwithstanding recent worldwide celebrations to mark the arrival of 2020, Thailand should be seen as having entered not just a new year but a new decade. Since World War II, Thailand's journey over the ensuing decades meandered through ebbs and flows, overcoming critical bumps and barriers along the way. When 2030 arrives, this country of 70 million predominantly happy-go-lucky people will have faced a prolonged reckoning. While its near-term prospects are likely to worsen, Thailand's long-term future will be either better compared to the past two decades or bad for the long term.
Entering the 1950s, Thailand found itself remarkably unscathed from the war-related death and destruction that ravaged much of Europe and elsewhere in Asia in the previous decade. Years of internal squabbling between civilian and military leaders who led the constitutional movement to replace the absolute monarchy in 1932 had given way to a coup in 1947, ushering in a quarter century of military dictatorship alternating between two army cliques. The Thai economy was largely agrarian, its monarchy still at a low point, the bureaucracy outdated, and the Thai masses largely excluded from the cut-and-thrust of politics in Bangkok.
The 1960s were different. Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seized power and installed himself as prime minister until his death in 1963. It was subsequently discovered that the military strongman had amassed an ill-gotten fortune and a bunch of mistresses. But while in power, Filed Marshal Sarit appointed a clutch of technocrats and policy experts and gave them latitude and political protection to undertake structural reforms to overhaul economic management and bureaucratic capacity, laying the ground for Thailand's long upward growth trajectory of 6% a year on average from 1960 to 1997. The first National Economic Plan was launched, and economic planning agencies, such as the Fiscal Policy Office, were instituted, while the authority and operations at the central bank and National Economic Development Board were upgraded.
The 1970s were Thailand's most turbulent period in the contemporary era. The fruits of growth and modernisation eventually led to the demise of Field Marshal Sarit's successor regime, under Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, whose military government was ousted by a student-led uprising in 1973. Three years later, a military-led conservative backlash extinguished the student movement, driving it underground and into exile. At the end of the decade, Thailand appeared bloodied, damaged and polarised.
Thailand's internal dynamics must always be viewed in relation to external challenges. This country has always been in search of a moving equilibrium and a workable balance among competing forces between civilian and political leaders, between elected and unelected centres and sources of power, between shades of democracy and dictatorship.
In the 1950s-70s, communist expansionism was a critical determinant of domestic politics during the Cold War. From the Sarit and Thanom years through the 1970s, the fight against communism began in earnest after Thailand signed the Manila Pact in 1954 and joined the United States-led anti-communist camp. The monarchy and military symbiotically fused to form the core of the Thai state. From a low point in the 1940s, the monarchy became the apex of Thai society by the 1980s, under the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great's immense moral authority from public works projects and from developmental efforts around the country. From the 1940s to the 1980s, the coup-prone and often-factionalised military was subsumed under the monarchy's aura and popularity.
As the Cold War wound down, the 1980s became Thailand's new equilibrium, semi-democratic and semi-authoritarian on two sides of the same coin. Led by the unelected General Prem Tinsulanonda, who empowered and protected technocrats much like Field Marshal Sarit, this 1980-88 period was characterised by three elections, two failed coups, and an amnesty to heal the conflict of 1976. A civil-military power-sharing arrangement yielded some cabinet portfolios to elected politicians while Gen Prem reserved ministries dealing with internal and external security and the macro-economy. This period was the last time Thai politics had some balance. Despite coup attempts and contentious coalition governments, the Prem years were as peaceful and stable as Thailand could be.
When 1989 came, Gen Prem had had enough. Chatichai Choonhavan, a retired army general, became the first elected leader since the mid-1970s. It was an exuberant time as Prime Minister Chatichai and his young cosmopolitan advisers aimed to turn Indochina from battlefields into markets after the Cold War ended, with Thailand as a regional hub. Thanks to economic reforms under Gen Prem, Thailand's economy boomed, registering double-digit annual growth in 1988-90. But Chatichai was soon overthrown in a coup in 1991.
The 1990s were supposed to be Thailand's deliverance as a consolidated democracy. Despite a devastating economic crisis in the same year, the 1997 constitution, which was organically drafted in reaction to the military-perpetrated violence in 1992, established new agencies to promote transparency and accountability. Thailand was seen as a leader and an example for struggling democracies elsewhere.
When 1999 turned to 2000, Thaksin Shinawatra had set up his Thai Rak Thai Party. It won both the 2001 and 2005 elections with innovative policy ideas, such as the 30-baht healthcare. On foreign relations, the Thai Rak Thai-led government leveraged Thailand's gifted geography and regional role into the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, and a range of bilateral trade agreements, shifting the regional centre of gravity towards Bangkok. This period was the last time it felt like Thailand was moving ahead in a competitive world. Naturally, the underbelly of the Thaksin era was rampant with conflicts of interest and graft allegations that led to street protests from 2005. As Thaksin was consequently ousted, so were his successors over the ensuing years.
Since then Thailand has been stuck. Two coups in 2006 and 2014 and two new constitutions in 2007 and 2017 made matters worse by shifting power and authority in this country not to the centre for sharing and bargaining but to the right for a winner-takes-all strategy. Dissolution of political parties, suppression of street demonstrations, the stifling of dissent, and violations of basic rights and freedoms have been the new norm.
At the outset of the 2020s, another party, this time named Future Forward, is on the chopping block facing another dissolution, potentially disenfranchising millions of Thai voters again. The same wheel of injustice and double standards, underpinned by military-backed coercion and manipulation of political processes, now has to spin harder to contain widening dissent and dissatisfaction, while the shock absorbers of the previous reign are not readily available.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Thailand's political situation will have to get worse before it can get better, possibly in a cathartic fashion. External challenges are less existential than during the Cold War but internal risks are mounting without a ceiling. The imbalance between civilian and military leaders, between democracy and authoritarianism, between the popular will and autocratic preferences, just seems untenable. At issue is whether Thailand will end up in a better place by the eve of 2030 after internal tensions exacerbate or whether this great country that has done so well in the past will profoundly lose its bearings for the long term.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.