When the international edition of the New York Times was delivered in Thailand on Nov. 30, the front page of the paper featured a large white blank space. In other editions, the paper featured a detailed story by staff correspondent Thomas Fuller on the growing paralysis in the Thai economy.
That white space is emblematic of both the inability of the generals to run what had been Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economy, and their desire to keep it from a country that unfortunately knows pretty well what the state of the economy is. The junta has sought to shut down any and all critical reporting and internet blogs. Asia Sentinel is regularly blocked in Thailand.
As Fuller points out, and as many Thais and western businessmen have told Asia Sentinel, the country seems suspended in time, waiting for the generals to go – and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha now says that won’t be before 2017, if then – and more importantly, perhaps, waiting for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 88, to die and for his widely disliked son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, to take over. The king has only sporadically been seen in public. He seems to spend most of his time in Siriraj Hospital, appearing almost comatose when he does arrive in public.
But the junta has the political lid screwed down so tightly that almost any expression is verboten. Three members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the opposition Red Shirts – were arrested on Nov. 30 for attempting to make their way to Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin south of Bangkok, where a scandal is said to be brewing over military construction of seven giant bronze statues of the Chakri kings that resulted in massive cost overruns and allegations that the money went into military pockets. The three were held temporarily before being told they were not to indulge in political activities.
It was expected when the generals took over Thailand in May of 2014 that they would have no idea how to run an economy. That has been proven right dramatically with the third-quarter gross domestic product results released last week. The finance ministry has cut its GDP forecast four times in 2015, blaming the global economy.
“The big risk for the military government is the weakening economy, which is indeed in a bad shape now,” a Thai banker told Asia Sentinel. The junta, he said, “has created super absolute power in one man. He is a good man fortunately but he is not that smart. The economy won’t be that bad, given Thailand’s natural attributes, but never will it be good under these kind of army – socialist policies anyway.”
Economic growth has fallen well below the 1994-2014 trend of 3.61 percent, falling to 2.9 percent annually in the third quarter. But that is relatively healthy compared with 2014, with a low of 0.9 percent for the year when political chaos brought the economy to a halt and the junta put an end to parliamentary democracy on May 22.
By all rights, Thailand should be leading the region. It sits at the hub of Southeast Asia, the country’s second-biggest population (61 million) after Indonesia and its automobile and electronics assembly industries lead the region.