THAILAND – A TOURIST’S PARADISE OR IS IT?
WILL THERE BE STABILITY AFTER THE ELECTIONS?

8 September 2007
By Lady Olga Maitland

Thailand is a paradox.  Sit in a coconut palm grove; gaze out to sea rippling on the white sands; gasp at the burning sunset and then reach for a Chang beer as I did on the island of Koh Chang.

    Total calm and tranquillity. Wander among the street stalls, smile at the beaming massage girls and make difficult decisions about which the choice between which bewitchingly delicious restaurant fronted by an enticing boat of the fresh catch of the day.

    Go wherever you like, and the mood machine is the same; with reservations for the troubled three southern provinces.

    The public mood is evident for all to see.  It is buoyant with  people positive about themselves, proudly sporting the butter yellow shirts and blouses reflecting the King’s birthday colour.  Patriotic fervour comes lightly and easily.  The National Anthem is played every day in school. The pupils all stand to attention.   It is played at all public events. The public respond. They are proud of a country which has never been colonised or overran by a hostile force.

 They feel comfortable being lead by a King who has had a steadying hand on government for 60 years; intervening personally on about four occasions when no other options were available, and close by to general government decision making.  The King and indeed the Queen’s portraits are everywhere; public buildings yes, but more interestingly in people’s homes, shops or even the Buddhist temples which is an entirely voluntary act.   From all these vantage points the bespectacled King gazes straight ahead with an air of commitment which clearly carries an important message to his people. He is in effect the unifier.

    All of which  is reassuring.   More awkwardly however have been the politics of the last 15 months.   The Thaksin government which won an election with an overwhelming mandate in 2005 was overthrown by a military coup.

    This is not the time to examine the whys and wherefores of this decision, but to look carefully at the present government’s plans to return the country as promised to an elected civilian government.   In this they are under some pressure.  The promised year deadline has slipped but is now promised for December 23rd.

    A successfully managed election is crucial. Not only to the stakeholders - the electors who would erupt into demonstrations if the elections  were not seen to be fully free and fair, but it is also in the interests of the country itself.   A country which depends on huge tourist income and international investment and trade must be seen to be stable and secure in its management.

    For this reason returning to a fully democratic system is important. There are of course legitimate questions to be asked.   To what degree will the new constitution approved by 58% of the electorate make a significant change to the electoral process? Will it deliver a clear winner in the process or be a vehicle for coalition government with all the complexities it embraces.  A fractious coalition government can frustrate  economic dynamism and indeed hold it back.   At the latest count 40 parties are eligible to put forward candidates.

    The government thinking is that coalition government provides checks and balances.   However it cannot be ruled out that one party could be an outright winner.

    The question is – just supposing it is the newly constituted party of Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) dissolved by a Constitutional Tribunal in May but now resurrected as the People’s Power Party (PPP) with candidates from the TRT and lead by the former Mayor of Bangkok Samak Sundaravej, win by a clear majority.  Will the Office of the Election Commission uphold this?   Or would the outgoing government decide to re-run the election?

    On this crucial issue, Government officials are claiming that no matter who wins, they will abide by the outcome. 

    It has to be accepted that democracy world wide takes many shapes and forms. There is no blueprint for all.   Thailand is not western Europe. Asia has its own approach to democracy shaped very largely by the overwhelming desire for security and stability.  The horrors of war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are not lightly forgotten.   China is not a democracy. Few neighbours are in the western sense although elections are widely held.

    Therefore for Thailand to seek active participation of civil society is positive.   The role of the Election Commission is a major step forward from before. Until 1997 elections were overseen by the Ministry of Interior which by its very structure meant that political influence was unavoidable.   The Election Commission has removed that to a large degree.

    Understandably the Thai government would like the elections to be seen as free and fair, hence the decision to invite observers.  International organisations ranging from United Nations agencies to the European Union are expected to be there.   As observation missions they will be able to collect and verify information concerning the election process, they can analyze their observations and publish their findings.

    Of course international observers can never interfear with the outcome of an election.   Nor should they.   I have been an election observer myself  during the Yugoslav elections in 1997 when I went out to Belgrade with a group of fellow UK Parliamentarians.  It has to be said that the outcome was not satisfactory in this case, but then Yugoslavia as it was then known, was plunged into a crisis which bears no relation at all to Thailand.

    While it is understandable for the international community to criticise the management of the Thai elections, the transition from a military regime to a civilian one is not  that easy, as we are observing with Pakistan. 

    What is important is to accept that above all else the Thai government lead by the King, a constitutional monarch, is anxious to maintain political and economic stability and growth.   Successfully managed elections with a result which is endorsed by all, will enhance an important regional economy, and with it a return of confidence from the international community.  The generals will return to their barracks as they have done on a number of previous occasions following political intervention.

    And with it, I can return with every expectation of taking my place on the beach under the coconut palms enjoying yet another burnishing sunset.  And knowing that the thriving export industry growing at 19% a year of textiles, rice, seafood, office equipment and rubber will continue to thrive and prosper.


 

 

 

DSF Executive

 

Lady Olga Maitland                     

President

 

Rt.Hon. Lord Mayhew of Twysden         

Vice President (Biography)

 

Major General Patrick Cordingley 

Chairman (Biography)

 

Colonel Philip Howes, OBE             

Treasurer and Trustee (Biography)

 

Honorary Patrons

 

Rt. Hon Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham

Rt. Hon. Baroness Blatch CBE

Baroness Cox

Sir Ranulph Fiennes Bt

General Sir Michael Gow GCB

Rt Hon. The Earl of Lauderdale

Rt. Hon. Lord Lamont of Lerwick

Sir Alfred Sherman

Professor Norman Stone

Rt. Hon. Sir John Wheeler, JP, DL