By Greg Raymond*
For Thailand, 2022 was marked by two critical trends: the revival of the economy and, paradoxically, the decline of the government political party, Palang Pracharat (PPRP). Revelations concerning transnational Chinese gangsters colluding with Thai bureaucrats and politicians, the horrific mass slaying of school children in Thailand’s northeast, and the rise of a new political leader with prime ministerial potential were also significant news.
In 2022, Thailand reopened to tourism without conditions for vaccinated travellers and saw a significant rebound in economic growth. Tourist numbers are expected to top 10 million over the year, after less than half a million in 2021. This represents a significant shot in the arm for the tourism-dependent economy, which was decimated by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
Economic growth is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels of around 3 per cent. This is still lower than other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, reflecting structural problems in education, agriculture and competition policy. The October decision to allow mobile phone company True Corporation, part-owned by powerful conglomerate CP Group, to merge with former rival Total Access Communication (DTAC), is an example of the latter. It also explains why many observers see oligarchy in Thailand’s politics and economy.
The recovery of the Thai economy has been paralleled by PPRP’s declining popularity and apparent disintegration — all coming ahead of national elections to be held by May 2023. PPRP’s performance in the Bangkok gubernatorial poll in May suggested a clear loss of appeal: the party gained only two seats in the 50-seat Bangkok council.
PPRP’s then prime ministerial nominee, General Prayuth Cha-ocha, suffered a blow when the Thai Constitutional Court suspended him from duties as it considered a legal suit alleging he had reached the eight-year term limit under the 2017 constitution, given he took power in the May 2014 coup. While the Court’s decision that Prayuth’s term began with the promulgation of the 2017 constitution allowed his reinstatement, he has been wounded politically — perhaps fatally. The verdict means even a victory in the 2023 election would only allow him to serve two more years.
But the most serious sign of PPRP rot is the apparent rift between Prayuth and Deputy Prime Minister Pravit Wongsuwan. As ambitious fellow members of the Thai army’s 21st infantry regiment, known as the ‘Queen’s Tiger Guards’, Pravit assisted Prayuth’s rise. But their relations appear to have soured irretrievably over the treatment of a Pravit protégé, Thammanat Prompao. Prayuth has now officially hitched his fading star to a new party. If PPRP fades as a force, it will fit the historical pattern of junta proxy parties, which generally lack the institutionalisation and party discipline to endure.
On the corruption front, 2022 has finished with troubling suggestions that Thai politicians and bureaucrats have been offering protection to transnational Chinese businesspersons involved in a range of illicit enterprises on Thai soil. These encompass acquiring false Thai citizenship and identity documents as well as laundering the proceeds of crime, including drug trafficking, through investments in property and other businesses.
The warning signs have been flashing since 2020 when the Thai Public Broadcasting Service reported on a Department of Special Investigation discovery of so-called ‘Chinese grey capital’ flooding into the country via a series of networks of companies, many registered using false Thai identity documents. The reports named well-connected individuals and expatriate Chinese businesspeople who have nonetheless remained active, despite the severity of the allegations, suggesting they have connections of influence. This affair has already added to PPRP’s woes. The PPRP accepted a 3 million Thai baht (US$86,243) donation from a Chinese businessman running an illegal nightclub in Pattaya. The scandal may further damage the party if former PPRP minister Thammanat Prompao faces investigation for his links to Chinese ‘grey money’.
Outside of politics, Thailand was rocked in October when former police officer Panya Khamrab hacked 24 children to death with a machete in a massacre at a child-care centre in Nong Bua Lam Phu in Thailand’s northeast. Panya, whose methylamphetamine addiction led to his dismissal from the police, was the second person with a background in the Thai security forces to go on a rampage in as many years, after Jakrapanth Thomma, a non-commissioned officer in the army, went on a similar killing spree in Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020. While the cases have important differences, both cases have highlighted issues beyond drugs, including corruption in the armed forces and a shortage of mental health support.
If there was a bright spot other than Thailand’s economic recovery, it may have been the rise of a clean and capable politician, Chadchart Sittipunt. A former minister in the Yingluck Shinawatra Pheu Thai government, he is now a formidable politician in his own right, after convincingly winning the Bangkok governor position in May and setting new standards in transparency and accountability. While his popularity has now fallen from its peak, due in part to criticism during recent floods, he retains strong support and is seen as a potential future candidate for prime minister.
*About the author: Greg Raymond is a Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum