Thailand just dodged a big fat bullet. With Parliament set to reopen Wednesday, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra wisely decided to shelve consideration of two pieces of legislation that threatened to upset the country’s tenuous political stability. Now it needs to take steps to promote comity and ensure continued economic progress.
With growth this year of more than 5 percent and surging foreign investment, Thailand is a relative bright spot on the economic horizon. As Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its September issue, the country has spawned world-class enterprises with global reach.
Looming over that success, however, are Thailand’s fractious politics. Roiled by 18 coup attempts over the past eight decades, Thailand’s political arena is not for the faint of heart. Protests in 2010 led to arson attacks, military assaults and more than 90 deaths.
Their proximate cause is the fate of Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 military coup and living in self-imposed exile after his 2008 sentencing for helping his then-wife purchase property from the government. Since his ouster, Thaksin’s supporters and opponents have battled for political control in Thailand’s streets, courts and Parliament.
As part of that struggle, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party was pushing two contentious parliamentary initiatives. One was a rewrite of Thailand’s most recent constitution, which was drafted at the military’s behest and is the country’s 17th since 1932. The other was a bill that would effectively grant amnesty to Thaksin and pave the way for his return. He also stands to regain some $1.5 billion in confiscated assets.
Peacefully resolving the fate of Thaksin, who remains popular and whose allies have won the last five elections, is critical to Thailand’s political stability. And given the current constitution’s tainted provenance and anti-democratic provisions reducing the clout of elected legislators, it merits revisiting.
But these are challenges for another day. Yingluck’s decision to set them aside is especially appropriate given the frail health of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in whose defense the military claimed to act in removing Thaksin. Indeed, the king’s waning presence puts Thai politics at a particularly delicate juncture.
Any accommodation between Yingluck’s party and its Thaksin-hating opponents will be slow. Yingluck, however, could take the high road in two important ways:
First, she could support reforms to the country’s strict lese majeste laws, instead of expanding their reach in cyberspace to curry favor with the military and the monarchy -- a tactic that has led to curbs on free speech.
Second, she could put Thailand on a more sustainable growth track by forgoing short-term populist gimmicks in favor of investing in education and increasing worker productivity. Fuel subsidies, minimum wage increases and rice price guarantees may win votes, but they won’t ultimately help the poorest or ease regional disparities and the country’s persistent income inequality, much less swell the ranks of the new corporate champions that are putting Thailand on the map.
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