Monday, April 7, 2014

The fallout from Bangkok’s crisis

Thousands of supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra are massing in a Bangkok suburb, ready to march to defend the embattled prime minister.

The next few days could see tension in the Thai capital surge once again following an interlude of relative calm. The last wave of street protests almost shut down Bangkok early this year as anti-Shinawatra rallyists tried to block the holding of parliamentary elections. This time it’s the Red Shirts, as her followers are known, who are threatening to take to the streets.

Shinawatra faces two major legal crises that could loosen her grip on power. She is scheduled to appear before Thailand’s Constitutional Court, where she stands accused of abuse of power. At the same time, Yingluck has been indicted before the National Anti-Corruption Commission in connection with a graft-infested rice subsidy program.

The Red Shirts are vowing to stop authorities from arresting her if she is convicted. “This will be the final fight,” one Red Shirt leader has proclaimed.

Thailand has seen its share of political turmoil, and in recent years more than twenty people have died in clashes between rival protest groups or between demonstrators and police. Another violent episode could rock Bangkok if the Red Shirts make good on their threat. And its repercussions could spread beyond Thailand’s borders.

Like the Philippines, Thailand is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean. Formed in 1967, the 10-nation grouping has since grown into a formidable economic bloc. Six of its members – the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam – posted growths of between 5.7 percent and 6.4 percent in 2011-2012. According to one estimate, Asean posted a combined nominal GDP of $2 trillion in 2012, the ninth biggest in the world.

At a summit in 1997, the region’s leaders made a firm commitment to establish an Asean Economic Community (AEC) by 2015. The objective: to convert the association into a single, market-driven economy, much along the lines of the European Union.

The AEC will be guided by five core elements: Free flow of goods, free flow of services, free flow of investment, free flow of skilled labor and freer flow of capital within the region.

Like a building under construction, the AEC is taking shape. Some of the components are already in place, while the others still need to be installed. But the optimism is high that the structure would be finished by next year.

Political upheavals within Asean could however upset the timetable for AEC. One such hiccup is the current crisis gripping Thailand. With the parliament dissolved, the country is technically without a working government. Yingluck is basically a caretaker leader whose ouster could create a power vacuum that would be difficult to fill because of legal ramifications. It is a recipe for chaos.

In the past, Thailand’s military had stepped in to stop the country from sliding into anarchy. In 2006 royalist generals ousted Yingluck’s brother Thaksin in a coup following days of clashes between his supporters and opponents. There are so far no indications that the military will intervene this time.

Fortunately, through the decades, Thailand’s political crises have not disrupted the country’s business and industrial life very much.

Nevertheless the success of the AEC hinges on political stability in each of the Asean member countries.

Developments in Thailand bear close watching.


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