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ASEAN ANALYSIS  13  August 2010

Asean’s coming challenge

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   13 August 2010

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The current firestorm going on in Thailand over the nationalistic demands of its National Telecommunications Commission as to ownership and staffing of telecoms may prove an early signal of things to come during the next four years as the Asean Economic Community (AEC) approaches in 2015 or it may not.

The AEC will not be a full-fledged common market like the European Union but an extension of the free trade area allowing a drop in import duties between the countries and a freer flow of labor, minimizing some of the barriers to trade that exist between the participating 10 countries.

However, one can imagine there will be a resistance to this liberalization in certain countries as is now the case in Thailand, depending on the character of each country. Thailand prides itself on being a country never occupied by a foreign country and there is a significant element of nationalism in its political life.

During the country’s struggle to develop a democracy dating back to 1932, the military has played a significant role. Even the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been propped up through recent military intervention and the 2006 coup. Most Thais did not expect to ever experience a military coup but surprise, in 2006 they did.

There are right-wing elements in every country and the Asean countries are no exception. The AEC will allow liberalization in many sectors of the economy, for example, in the service sector, that are restrained by individual countries current laws.

In 2015, those restrictions will largely be removed as an avenue to improving the economies of each country. The game will change and the game plans of companies operating with in each country will have to adapt. The most successful countries will be those adapting most quickly. Thailand must decide what it wants to do.

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