2016 was a tumultuous and emotional year for Thailand.
Without a doubt, the passing of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the most significant development this year and in modern Thai history. What followed was the peaceful ascension of the Crown Prince, despite speculation of a disruption. In an environment of national mourning, political maneuvering is also unlikely. Under the administration of a military government, dissent continued to be suppressed under the pretext of national security. The junta justifies tightening its grip on civil liberties with stability, which has allowed appointed technocrats to deliver, to some extent, on economic promises. The army’s hold on the legislative gives a clear indication of how draft laws that will impact public policy and foreign affairs for Thailand in the next few years.
A series of key events this year informs how key decisions will be made in Thailand. The most significant of these legal developments was Thailand’s 20th constitution. The draft charter was accepted in a national referendum in August and is slated to come into force early next year. The constitution paves the way for general elections, but also creates a 250-member Senate, wholly appointed by the junta. A supporting law on political parties is currently being drafted and will clip the wings of larger parties with tighter requirements, limiting political participation.
Lawmakers at the National Legislative Assembly unanimously passed amendments to the 2007 Computer Crimes Act despite staunch opposition from local and international civil groups. The private sector, typically quiet on these matters, also voiced concerns about the powers the CCA gave to authorities. The CCA allows authorities to monitor and invade privacy. Offenses that fall into the broad definition could lead to 15 years of prison. Next year, a cyber security bill will be pushed through the assembly, bringing more limitations to freedom of expression and dissent. The newly appointed Digital Economy Minister defended the act, stating that concerns were due to a misunderstanding. This pattern of events is indicative of how the Thai government will function. The junta will deepen its military’s control of Thailand through legal mechanisms, while a civilian bureaucracy implements and defend the government’s initiatives.
Geopolitics of Business
Domestic politics have had considerable impact on foreign relations and businesses. Western democracies such as the United States have distanced their engagement with Thailand. Missteps by U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies did not help. One particular incident occurred during an awkward press conference earlier in March. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, a seasoned diplomat, was visibly upset when the ambassador read a prepared statement criticizing Thailand, rather than what was discussed in an earlier meeting. This prompted the Minister to make direct clarifications with the press corps. A wave of criticism from former Thai diplomats and officials followed the next day against the ambassador.
Sentiments like this forced Thailand to deepen its relationship with other partners. Ties between Thailand and China have expanded from high-speed rail infrastructure to a military facility. Notably, on December 12, 2016, Premier Li Keqiang received Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, also the junta’s second in command, and Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak where they discussed building military production facilities in Thailand. However, Thailand does not want to overinvest. Its diplomacy still seeks to be multilateral where possible; such as a successful chairmanship of the Group of 77.
There is a similar narrative in business. In one example, Alibaba have been adept in cozying up with the government. Jack Ma’s attendance at the Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Bangkok led to a series of MoUs between Thailand and Alibaba, moving the tech giant into the Thai e-commerce and e-payments space. Meanwhile, some American firms are struggling to manage issues in their purview. Facebook, which tried to launch a market place in Thailand earlier this year, recently issued a false security report indicating that an explosion went off in Bangkok last week causing panic. This mistakes allows the junta to further push its cyber security agenda. It was also a platform for massive copyright infringement and allowed pirated material to circulate rapidly and widely across Thailand, nearly bankrupting a local entertainment company and disappointing artists.
This also further damaged Thailand’s weak intellectual property environment. The Thai government wants to boost domestic consumption through e-commerce, but not through a single platform, but many; just as it wants to expand diplomatic engagement.
In 2017, the junta government is expected to be in power until next year, at least up to after the King’s coronation later in 2017. After elections, they will still maintain a high degree of influence, given the new constitution. A thawing of the relationship would be beneficial to Thailand and its friends and allies. Thailand does not want to be boxed in, but its domestic circumstances have not given it much choice. As such, diplomacy and corporate affairs needs to understand nuance and sensitivities. It is possible to cooperate with the Thai government on issues based on shared value such as humanitarian relief, financial literacy, and education. Constructive engagement in this way can help enhance relationships, increase trust, and allow for Thai society to manage its transition to the Tenth Reign of the Chakri Dynasty.
Chayut Setboonsarng is a strategic consultant and political analyst based in Bangkok.