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Region shares underlying Thailand problems

Analysts say neighboring nations suffer similar conditions to those fueling the political crisis in downtown Bangkok, although they've generally managed to keep them in better check.

May 20, 2010|By Mark Magnier and My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi and Bangkok, Thailand —

Recent images of Thai army snipers shooting at anti-government protesters in front of a Louis Vuitton outlet during Bangkok street battles have shocked a world accustomed to postcard scenes of sandy beaches and splashing elephants.

Yet even as the spotlight glares harshly on Thailand, analysts say neighboring nations suffer conditions similar to those that have fueled the political crisis in downtown Bangkok, although they've generally managed to keep them in better check and prevent them from becoming as combustible.

"Many of the underlying concerns are the same throughout the region, including slower growth, poor investment in human capital and skewed income," said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

It wasn't too long ago that Thailand was viewed as an economic and political beacon offering lessons on the path to democracy for Southeast Asia. But its political instability in recent years, capped by the occupation of central Bangkok since March by thousands of "Red Shirts," as the protesters are called, has made Thailand more of a model in reverse for neighboring nations.

"What other countries take away from this crisis is that the Thai model is not one they'll try and replicate," said Nicholas Farrelly, an associate lecturer with the Australian National University's department of political and social change. "And dictatorships in the region, the most extreme being the Burmese in Naypyidaw, will now be quite satisfied with themselves."

Perhaps the most obvious lesson from Thailand, one heavily underlined by the anti-government protesters, is the growing gap between haves and have-nots: those who have benefited from globalization's riches and those left behind.

"The government has to see what we are doing," said Walangkana Tina, 48, a Bangkok protester chopping papayas in the capital's protest zone. "We are not just sitting in air-conditioned rooms. We are sleeping in the middle of the sun and the rain."

Poverty is hardly new to Southeast Asia. But the expectations of the poor have been raised by the media and opportunistic politicians, some argue, with limited policy follow-through, even as opportunities for those at the bottom have foundered, the rich have become more ostentatious and neighboring China powers ahead.

An earlier generation of rising Asian economies — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore —saw many poor farmers find well-paying factory jobs in the cities, as have millions recently in China, but most such people in Southeast Asia have never gotten that opportunity.

Economies in Southeast Asia are smaller, and most governments failed to use a rush of foreign investment before the 1997 Asian financial crisis to jump-start education, upgrade skills and leapfrog beyond cheap-labor economies.

Now, as China booms ahead with higher efficiency and plentiful investment capital, many Southeast Asian nations find themselves increasingly squeezed, leaving those at the bottom with low-paying jobs in tourism and related service sectors.

All the while, the poor are watching a privileged nouveau riche class in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila driving flashy cars, traveling abroad and doing increasingly well.

Fanning the flames of resentment are corruption, weak institutional reform, political intransigence and use of the courts to frustrate upward political mobility.

This has led to the Red Shirts in Thailand, "people power" in the Philippines and, a little farther afield, the Maoists in Nepal. Feelings that the system is rigged can be sparked by one leader's ability to raise expectations, as seen in Thailand with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Whether Thaksin's administration fully delivered on his promise to help the poor is a matter of debate, but he changed the political conversation, giving many poor and disenfranchised Thais hope of a better life.

His ouster in 2006 in a military coup amid corruption charges, followed by crushing court decisions against two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments, only fueled suspicion among Thaksin supporters of heavy-handed string-pulling by an elite clique.

"There is a stereotype that we are poor and uneducated," said Red Shirt spokesman Sean Boonpracong. "But we are made up of people who can think for themselves."

Similarly, Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organization has been accused of manipulating the courts for political gain in a bid to safeguard power and stem a populist tide backing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Adding to the resentment is the role of the business elite, in a region that has long seen the biggest deals going to a few politicians, tycoons or military brass able to procure government contracts, with small businesses left struggling.

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