Another day – another scandal

This is how politics works in Thailand. Whether it is a general accused of taking bribes for re-equipping the air force with Saab Gripens (although compared with the Al-Yamamah contract – loose change in a bucket) or a lowly official who bought air conditioning units that didn’t work there is always something for the Thai’s to chew on. The opposition party is the PAD (the pro-Thaksin red shirts) – Peoples Alliance for Democracy – but not democracy as we know it. In Thailand the military and the royal family have ruled the country up until about 25 years ago when the first “democratic” elections were held. So trying to compare Thailand or in fact any “new” democracy (pretty much most of the world!) with our ideas of democracy in Western society isn’t going to work! Churchill would have understood – “democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others” as he was wont to say.

Bribery, corruption and democracy are synonymous in much of the region. In Korea 67% of people polled were happy for politicians to take bribes as long as it didn’t affect them! Maybe there isn’t a phrase for “vested interests” in Korean? Unfortunately for Thaksin he was convicted, in absentia, by a military court for “abusing power”, sentenced to two years in prison and banned from all political activity for five years. The PAD have stepped up their campaign to have the sentence revoked which culminated in a series of demonstrations which shut the two main international airports in Bangkok; Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang.

The repercussions on Thailand’s tourist industry had not been thought through by the PAD and a second series of demonstrations barricaded the Parliament buildings and left the airports alone. The Government are now considering whether to charge the leaders of the PAD with international terrorism for their earlier actions. Always something controversial going on in Thai politics!

As for the economy, the shutting of the airports was a big blow to the tourist industry coming just as the high season was underway. I arrived in early January on a full Thai Airways 747. Most people book their holidays well in advance so the tour company holidays were not affected but it was noticeable that the four and five star hotels where the discretionary spend is more volatile, were much harder hit. A group of boutique hotels were actively promoting rooms at 50% off the rack rent which was galling for your correspondent who had paid a currency surcharge on top of the published tour price!

Even at 50 baht to the pound (it was 70 baht only months earlier) Thailand is not an expensive country – petrol is 40p a litre and you can eat out handsomely for the price of the tip you would pay in London. Driving from Phuket in the south to Chiang Mai in the north (where some of the best motor biking roads in the world are to be found – the road from Mae Hong Song to Chiang Mai on route 1095 has 1864 bends and I have the t-shirt and sore bum to prove it!) it is quite apparent that agriculture is still a big part of the economy. Rubber and palm oil are the two major products both of which have more than halved in dollar terms over the last six months so another blow for the Thai economy.

But better to be living in Thailand than Myanmar. We had a brief excursion across the border from Mae Sot into the “People’s Democracy” – you will be becoming aware by now that one man’s democracy is another’s dictatorship… We had the obligatory lecture by the customs official welcoming us to his country and that we could have our passports back when we returned to the checkpoint so “nothing to worry about” all said with a huge grin on his face; something the local populace tend not to sport in the same way as in Thailand. Myanmar was noticeably poorer, dirtier and considerably more threatening and as the sun rose into the midday sky we were all very keen to retrieve our passports and walk back over the bridge to smiling Thailand.

As a holiday destination it has everything – and tourism is getting to be everything for the Thais. I suggest you get out their soon before the pound sinks any further…