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YINGLUCK ONE YEAR OUT
By Gregory Poling, Research Associate, and Kathleen Bissonnette, Researcher, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
What Has Gone Wrong
The economic malaise has been compounded by troubles dogging one of the Yingluck government’s signature policies: its controversial rice-purchasing scheme. Under that program, authorities purchased rice at above market rates in an attempt to bolster the income of farmers. But the scheme is being widely criticized by economists who say it has made Thai rice uncompetitive with Indian and Vietnamese exports, saddled the government with unnecessary debt, and slowed economic recovery. It has also resulted in an estimated 10 million tons of rice sitting in storage throughout the country, which the government may have to sell off at huge losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending an investigator to Thailand to determine if the scheme creates price distortions and violates World Trade Organization rules.
Many critics accused the Yingluck government of failing to respond quickly to last year’s disaster and failing to learn its lessons since. Since the floods, the government has initiated numerous dam and levee refurbishment projects in an effort to prevent a recurrence, but many of these are currently behind schedule and critics charge that Thailand is not ready for the next flood season later this year.
A recent uptick in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces has raised concerns both among supporters and critics of the government. The Yingluck administration insists that its policies, which include a new coordination center in Bangkok, are effectively dealing with the insurgency in the south. But a series of explosions in April -- the largest coordinated bombing incident since 2008 -- injured more than 300 people and killed 14, casting a pall over the government’s approach. There is currently a debate in Bangkok to enact a curfew in the areas most affected by the violence, but the army has said the current laws are sufficient.
What Has Gone Right
The Yingluck administration made significant strides in revamping Thailand’s foreign policy, which had suffered since the 2006 coup as internal politics dominated Bangkok’s concerns. The prime minister made visits to influential countries in the region, including Japan, China, and Australia, as well as neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and hosted Myanmar’s president Thein Sein in Bangkok July 23. She also completed her first European tour July 22, focusing on economic relations.
The U.S.-Thai relationship has also enjoyed a renaissance under Yingluck, the first democratically elected leader in Thailand since the 2006 coup. U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton traveled to Thailand twice, first in 2009 prior to Yingluck’s election and again in November 2011, and the two met again at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia in July. President Obama met with her at the ASEAN Summit in Indonesia in November 2011.Yingluck is planning to travel to the United States for the UN General Assembly in September as well, indicating a steady rhythm of diplomatic interaction that has been absent in recent years. The military to military relationship remains strong, and trade has increased 21.7 percent from 2010 to 2011. Though there have been some setbacks, such as the Yingluck government’s mishandling of NASA’s request to use the Utapao airbase for a climate study, the overall relationship is steadily strengthening and its importance is again being widely recognized.
What Remains to be Done
Attempts to reform the constitution, which was written and promulgated in 2007 by the non-elected post-coup government, have been steady, if slow. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled July 13 that the government’s attempts to pave the way for a rewrite were not illegal, but would require a popular vote before moving forward. Debate continues about whether the ruling itself was even under the Court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the government has formed a committee to refine its strategy moving forward.
Inevitable change is coming to Thai politics, which raises an important question for the United States: Is the renewed momentum in U.S.-Thai relations strong enough to survive if Bangkok experiences another political upheaval? Furthermore, will Thailand itself be ready for an impending political change?
Reconciliation is necessary in order for Thailand to move forward. But whether reconciliation means burying the hatchet, bringing individuals involved in the political upheaval of 2006-2010 to justice, or some unspoken understanding between a popularly elected government and traditional elites that some sacred cows (such as that the military and the monarchy stay untouched) remains to be seen. Each scenario requires both sides of the political spectrum to forfeit some positions and the third, which best describes the current situation and is the easiest in the short run, will not address the underlying tensions between Thailand’s democratizing society and traditional elites.
Yingluck will likely survive the coming no confidence vote, and she has said she will face her critics head on as the opposition party calls her in for examination. But the question as to whether Yingluck can mend the deep wounds of Thailand’s political landscape is another matter. The United States needs to consider what Thailand is facing in the long term, and how that can impact the relationship in the future. In 2006, Thailand first coup in 15 years put U.S. relations with its oldest ally in Asia in stasis for five years. Given the growing importance of Southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular, to the United States strategically and economically, neither country can afford to have another long freeze in the relationship.
Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog
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