To What Extent Is Thailand Facing Political Stagnation and Multiple Challenges?

12 juin 2024
Le point de vue de Barthélémy Courmont

Despite the hope embodied by the parliamentary elections in May 2023, the political stagnation continues in Thailand, where the shadow of authoritarianism and of the army, which took power by force in 2014, continues to loom large. While the country remains economically weakened since the Covid-19 pandemic, with the tourism sector badly hit, Thailand also faces numerous social and demographic challenges. On the diplomatic front, Bangkok continues to maintain a policy of balancing good relations with Western countries, notably France and the United States, while taking care not to offend Beijing. What analysis can be made of Thailand’s economic and social situation? What foreign policy should Bangkok adopt? Barthélémy Courmont, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Asia-Pacific Programme at IRIS, provides some answers.

With the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) and the formation of a new government last autumn, what analysis can be made of the political situation in Thailand?

The situation is rather confused, and worrying in that it does not reflect the aspirations of the Thai people. So it’s worth briefly recalling the facts. At the end of the May 2023 election, which turned the page on several years of military government (since the 2014 coup), the young Move Forward party came out on top, ahead of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai, then in exile, with the conservatives and military far behind. The two leading parties agreed on the need for a return to democracy, and in particular promised a review of the crime of lèse-majesté, an instrument enabling the military to repress dissenting voices. However, the coalition formed by the two parties was unable to form a government around the young leader of Move Forward, Pita Limjaroenrat, despite having a comfortable majority. This was due to the refusal of the Senate, whose members have been appointed by the army since 2014, to support the appointment as Prime Minister of the man who campaigned against the conservatives and the military and promised to demilitarise political life in his country. Despite several appeals, a government was appointed in August 2023 around Pheu Thai and Srettha Thavisin, who became Prime Minister following a break with his electoral ally. For almost a year now, the Thais have been ruled by a government they did not choose, which has only prolonged the political stagnation and authoritarian drift into which the country has been plunged for a decade. For his part, Thaksin has returned to the country and, after serving a symbolic prison sentence, has once again become one of the most influential men in Thailand. So, politically, Thailand remains an object of great concern and is unable to get out of the spiral that the 2014 coup d’état provoked (itself the result of other ills).

What are the economic and social challenges facing Thailand?

Although Thailand has been in a cycle of coups d’état for nearly a century, these have paradoxically served the stability of this country, which has never been colonised and was one of the engines of the South-East Asian economy in the 1960s and 1970s, with strong Western investment, and in the following decades with a strong Japanese and then South Korean presence. Although the country suffered greatly from the Asian crisis of 1997, it has remained one of the driving forces behind Asean, along with Singapore and Indonesia. However, the trend over the last two decades gives cause for concern, given the country’s inability to establish itself as a model within Asean. Added to this are the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, which are very significant in a country where over 20% of GDP depends on tourism, particularly from China. Although tourism is now picking up sharply, heralding a much-hoped-for improvement in the economy, you only have to go to places that are popular with Chinese tourists, such as the Chiang Mai region in the north of the country, to see just how slow it is for business to pick up again. Although it is not the ‘sick man’ of Asean, given the tragic situation in neighbouring Burma, Thailand is currently facing a number of economic and social challenges. It should be remembered that the country is also facing a demographic decline that could accelerate over the next few decades, with the population dropping from 70 million today to 50 or even 40 million by the end of the century. Future generations of Thais therefore face a huge challenge. A final word on the migration issue, currently fuelled by the flood of refugees from war-torn Burma – a few hundred thousand officially, 3 to 4 million according to several sources.

How has Thai foreign policy evolved in recent years? What are Bangkok’s priorities and strategic partners?

Bangkok maintains a diplomatic approach that keeps it in touch with Western democracies and China, despite the growing tensions between Beijing and Washington. In this, Thailand’s position is similar to that of other Asean countries (with the exception of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s Philippines for the time being) and rejects subservience to any one great power. Despite his authoritarian government, former Prime Minister and General Cha-O-Cha (2014-2023) managed to maintain close relations with Western countries (he was twice received at the Élysée Palace by Emmanuel Macron, for example). At the same time, Thailand is very close to Beijing (a significant proportion of the population, around 14%, is of Chinese origin, as is the case in other countries in the region where the Chinese diaspora is very large) and maintains a close economic and trade relationship, as well as not opposing China head-on, particularly in the South China Sea. However, Thailand constantly emphasises its sovereignty, including when discussing agreements with Beijing as part of the New Silk Roads. The motivation is not to alienate the great powers, but not to be too dependent on them either. It’s a difficult balancing act at times, and one that the economic and political situation can make tricky, but one that Bangkok continues to handle quite skilfully.


Translated by Deepl
Sur la même thématique