It would be no exaggeration to say that Thailand is a country in deep distress.
Its economy, though not exactly bad, is sluggish. The Thai population is among the fastest aging on earth, hence the disappearing workforce and more demand for healthcare services (these are real first-world problems, yet Thailand remains classified as an upper middle-income country). The toxic smog is worsening, which most likely accounts for the surge in lung cancer cases in certain regions of the country.
Public anxiety has been further heightened by the normalization of gun violence, as evidenced by last month’s Siam Paragon Mall shooting and this month’s clash between vocational school students, which killed an innocent teacher. Then there is the waning trust in law enforcement agencies. Military modernization, meanwhile, stands at the crossroads between budget cuts in favor of enhanced social security benefits and budget hikes to defend against growing threats in the alarmingly fractured geopolitical landscape. The list goes on and on.
Remedying these structural challenges in times of uncertainty is by no means easy and would require good strategic communications, with clear objectives and actions that match well with words. But politicians are constantly under pressure to do something, which often results in careless communication. That is certainly the case for the ruling government led by CEO-turned-prime minister Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party.
Take Pheu Thai’s flagship “digital wallet” policy, for example. From the get-go, the scheme to boost consumption by handing out 10,000 baht ($280) in digital money to every eligible Thai citizen has lacked clarity, and the burning question has been “how in heaven’s name is this going to be funded?” Pheu Thai indicated during the election that its mega money giveaway would be funded from the annual budget, not loans, thus sparing taxpayers from massive future debt burdens.
Nevertheless, after some sixty days in office, the loan bill to secure 500 billion baht ($14 billion) in funding has come into the picture. The baht’s weakened state also points to the discouraging prospect of the government borrowing at higher interest rates. The ensuing discontent, particularly among those deemed “too rich” to receive the money, yet still burdened with the national debt, is just inevitable.
Srettha, who concurrently serves as finance minister, has many questions to answer before the loan request gets the thumbs up. So far, he has not said much beyond amplifying the rhetoric that Thailand’s economy is in crisis to justify the urgency to borrow. At the same time, however, his government is seeking to ramp up investments, aiming to woo over 100 leading firms to create over 10,000 jobs within four years. Well, a country grappling with an economic crisis is probably not ideal for investors.
It is also worth paying attention to Srettha’s remark that the borrowing was recommended by the governor of the Bank of Thailand (BOT), Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput. That is an eyebrow-raising statement, considering that the hawkish BOT governor has consistently voiced his opposition to the grand stimulus plan. More problematically, the statement does nothing to bolster Srettha’s envisioned image as Thailand’s visionary economic savior. As observed by Michael Montesano of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Srettha’s competence as Thailand’s finance minister is already doubtful to begin with, given his “background in real estate development rather than economic policy-making.” And, by apparently pointing the finger at the BOT governor, Srettha has laid bare his own lack of credibility.
Security-wise, there are at least two instances of poor strategic communication. The first involves the now-scrapped proposal to establish joint patrols with Chinese police on Thai streets in the name of boosting Chinese tourists’ confidence, which has diminished due to the Paragon shooting and human trafficking incidents in Southeast Asia more broadly. This idea was brought up by Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Thapanee Kiatphaibool following her meeting with Srettha on November 12. The second case, first raised by Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang late last month, concerns the replacement of the problematic Chinese S-26T submarine with the pricier Type 054A frigate that has anti-submarine capability.
While both initiatives reflect the government’s effort to think outside the box, they are very shortsighted and risk sending the wrong messages. The idea of outsourcing security maintenance to foreign police is not only putting Thai sovereignty in danger but is also a slap in the face to the Thai police. The outright rejection of the said plan by Thailand’s national police chief Torsak Sukvimol is hardly surprising.
As for the sub-frigate swap, anyone remotely familiar with naval affairs would know that the submarine’s stealth and versatility cannot be replaced. Besides, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) already owns an advanced frigate – the HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej – capable of carrying out anti-submarine operations and is ordering a few more. The addition of the Chinese-made Type 054A frigate would therefore not benefit the RTN as much as the submarine. Worse still, the RTN’s 2023 white paper emphasizes commonality in military equipment, but the frigate in question uses weapon systems that are vastly different from what the RTN currently has. And if the submarine procurement is suspended, what is the use of the HTMS Chang – delivered to the RTN earlier this year – that is supposed to serve as a submarine tender?
These decisions ultimately raise more questions than answers about Thailand’s long-term goals, and people are fed up with the miscommunication excuse coming from officials. For the country’s new government, better strategic communication is imperative.