If the future looked bleak for Thai youths before the coronavirus pandemic, they are now about to become a lost generation. In February and March, before coronavirus infection case numbers began spiking in the middle of last month, a national crisis was looming in the form of student protests. On campuses across Bangkok, students demanded change from the current government, a civilian-military hybrid that came to power in a military coup in 2014 and was provided a gilding of legitimacy in a stacked election last year. Even one of the regime’s claquers calls it a “democratic dictatorship,” a revealing contradiction.
Student protests have a sordid history in Thailand; the national memory is shaped by the Thammasat University massacre in 1976 and the Black May protests of 1992, both major events against past military dictatorships.
This time around, the litany of youthful angst extends beyond an immovable political system. The anti-establishment song “Prathet Ku Mee” by Rap Against Dictatorship became something of an anthem and a rather useful go-to manuscript for public complaints: political turmoil, dictatorship, unsolvable corruption, conservative social values, air pollution, and so forth. A Thai born in 1990 has now experienced three economic crises (the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 global recession, and the current coronavirus-induced crisis), two military coups, and countless constitutional changes.
Such events would be enough to make the average person apathetic (the ideal state of the citizenry for autocrats), though recent events in Thailand show this history has produced the opposite effect. Never forget that the politics of Southeast Asia take on many dialectics; the urban versus rural; rich against poor. But the one dominating divide across the region is generational politics. As academics Pavida Pananond and Thitinan Pongsudhirak put in an op-ed published by Bangkok Post on April 10, “flash mobs led by a youth movement to reclaim Thailand’s squandered future had threatened the government’s longevity.”
Linger on the phrase “squandered future.” Youth was already being squandered long before the coronavirus outbreak. As the Economist noted in an article earlier this month (which is well worth a read), between 2009 and 2019 Thailand’s economy grew, on average, by only 3.6 percent each year. Vietnam’s, by comparison, grew at around 6.5 percent annually. Even richer Malaysia saw average annual GDP growth of around 5.3 percent for that period. In 2019, Thailand’s GDP growth slumped to just 2.5 percent.
Thailand’s young faced the worst of this slump. In 2018, then-Deputy Minister for Education Udom Kachinthorn said 72 percent of university graduates could either be unemployed or working in jobs unrelated to their degrees because of automation by 2030. That year, some 17 percent of degree-holders were unemployed, compared to just 4.7 percent of other youths without a university education. By one estimate, half of all Thais aged between 18 and 24 are in debt, and that figure is growing. Wages are stalling. Costs of living are rising. At the same time, the one political party that seemed to offer some hope to the young, the Future Forward party, founded in 2018 by 41-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and which came in a respectable third at last year’s tainted general election, was unceremoniously dissolved by the courts in February on the laughable charge of accepting an illegal donation.
If there was a pinhole possibility of improvement, it has now been dashed by the coronavirus crisis. Thailand’s central bank reckons the economy will contract by 5.3 percent for the year, the worst forecast for any Southeast Asian state. The World Bank says about the same. Don’t expect Thailand to rebound like some of its neighbors. Maybe the tourists will return to pre-coronavirus numbers sometime next year, but the sector, which contributes roughly a quarter of the country’s GDP, will be dashed for several years. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs will become rarer. The American car giant General Motors began pulling out of Thailand in February; Japanese firm Mazda relocated its SUV manufacturing back home in December. Whichever way you look at it, Thailand’s economy was failing long before the coronavirus epidemic, which has unveiled the country’s bare fragility.
Taking charge of Thailand’s economic recovery is military dictator-cum-civilian Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who already named himself head of the Council of Economic Ministers last year despite having more aptitude for cracking heads than counting numbers. At the time of his self-promotion last year, writing in The Diplomat I characterized Prayutism as “economic populism and a boot in the face, at best. And still the boot in the face and a little less money in the pocket, if things don’t go to plan.” With few fresh ideas, Prayut said last week that he would write to the country’s 20 richest people for their ideas of how to kickstart the economy. Critics, as could have been expected, took to social media to deride it as a “beggar government.”
In the short term, the government has offered up a lavish bailout and stimulus package, which might prevent economic implosion. And maybe it will prop up the economy for a few months. But then what? The 1.9 trillion baht ($58 billion) worth of bailouts pledged so far is worth around a tenth of Thailand’s GDP, and is approximately equal to the 1.8 trillion baht debt the Prayut regime incurred between 2014 and 2019. By one estimate, public debt will now rise from 40 percent to 57 percent of GDP, close to the legal limit of 60 percent.
“COVID-19 is now our national agenda,” Prayut said earlier this month. “I’ll be stringent about how we spend, and that the spending is done most effectively.” But there is nothing stopping Prayut from exceeding the 60 percent national debt to GDP limit. In fact, it seems almost certain as the government will need to borrow even more heavily if it is to at least try to spur recovery next year. If so, expect the national debt to climb ever higher.
The same youths who already sense a blighted future for themselves will inherit this debt. It will be their taxes – which will have to rise in the coming years – that will fund the austerity programs almost certain to be imposed within a few years to bring debt down to manageable levels, and they will be the ones who will have to suffer as the state will, at some point in the coming decade, have to cut back on social security investment.
If student protests rocked the Prayut regime before the coronavirus crisis could they now topple it, given that the entire country is about to be engulfed in an economic and political crisis of magnitudes not known in decades? “You see this is a perfect storm. You have the people’s anger for all types of causes,” Juangroongruangkit said at a press event last month in Bangkok. “Look at the failure of this government in management of the macro-economy. Look at the failure when it comes to management of the coronavirus.”
Knowing this, the already repressive regime will tighten its political chokehold. Now, new “state of emergency” laws and application of existing laws are further restricting civil liberties. “Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.” Yet it begs the question: is it possible for the civilian-cum-military regime to cling onto power only through fear and repression? Put differently, can the Prayut regime survive an economic crisis through intimidation? The likely answer is no. But it will certainly try.