Author: Greg Raymond, ANU
Thailand became less free and more authoritarian in 2021, as the democracy movement felt the heavy hand of Thailand’s illiberal constraints on basic civil liberties. COVID-19 also devastated the Thai economy and health system, presenting additional challenges in the new year.
In 2021, the Delta strain broke Thailand’s model of containment. This model — based on a sophisticated series of community level organisations managing close-contact cases, monitoring individuals in quarantine and manning check-points — earned praise from the WHO. But with nationwide vaccination rates at a paltry 5 per cent as a consequence of overconfidence and poor worst-case planning, the Delta variant surged, especially through poorer communities. The hospital system was overwhelmed and public distress and disorder began to emerge. Photos were posted on social media showing COVID-19 patients lying in a hospital parking lot next to biohazard dumpsters.
The loss of tourism, which accounts for 11–12 per cent of Thailand’s GDP, combined with public health measures combating COVID-19, meant Thailand’s economy shrank by 6.1 per cent in 2020. The World Bank’s growth outlook for Thailand was 1 per cent in 2021, and the economy is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
Comparing tourism volumes before and after the pandemic illuminates the extent of Thailand’s economic crisis. In 2022, Thailand is predicted to welcome a total of 1.7 million tourists. Before the pandemic, Thailand received more tourists every two months from China alone.
Thailand has been able to offer more fiscal stimulus to the public than many of its neighbours, but still less than the average levels in the West (Thailand’s was less than 15% of GDP but France and Japan’s were each above 20%). Thailand lifted its debt ceiling from 60 per cent to 70 per cent of GDP to protect jobs as growth slowed. Across the country, some 100,000 restaurants vanished between January 2020 and June 2021. Even wet markets, a lifeblood for locals, closed periodically due to virus outbreaks.
In 2022, economic recovery will be slow, especially now that Omicron has delayed the restoration of tourism. In the long term, one of the worst impacts may be on the country’s youth. Bangkok closed its schools for four months in 2021, and as many as 15 per cent of students will not return, having dropped out of school entirely.
In 2020, Thai democracy activists took advantage of Thailand’s exemplary handling of the initial phases of the pandemic to express discontent with the Prayuth government, the monarchy and aspects of Thailand’s hierarchical culture. The strength, breadth and intensity of the protests shook the government and conservative establishment. In particular, unprecedented calls for monarchical reform were discussed widely in media and in parliament. A new generation of liberal-minded Thai youth, many astonishingly articulate and courageous, made their views heard.
In 2021, the conservative empire struck back. Thai authorities pursued 486 cases against 1,171 protestors. The reintroduction of lese majeste charges led to activist leaders being jailed or caught up in endless legal battles. The law allows for the prosecution of minors and up to 15 years jail time. Protests dwindled, barring the Bangkok suburb of Din Daeng, where alienated youth engaged in violent battles with police, and in the provinces, through car mob protests. But nothing as powerful as the protests of August to October re-emerged, and the space for discussion of monarchical reform dwindled.
With the Constitutional Court’s November ruling that even discussing the topic of monarchical reform was unconstitutional, the chill on public protest deepened. Meanwhile, the government moved ahead with plans to pass a bill that would force non-government and civil society organisations to register in order to continue. This law will foreclose on Thailand’s political space even further, especially if progressive think tanks like Ilaw and Prachathai are muzzled. Thai disillusionment with the political system has been expressed in a movement to emigrate. But while the Thai police and military remain loyal to the government, its hold on power is assured.
Other political developments included moves to reintroduce a two-ballot paper electoral system and some infighting in the government’s party, Phalang Pracharat. The former would advantage larger parties, such as Phalang Pracaharta and Pheu Thai, but disadvantage the Move Forward Party — the party most threatening to the conservative establishment. The latter could indicate tension between Prayuth Chan-ocha and erstwhile military colleagues, especially former Deputy Prime Minister Pravit Wongsuwan. This could mean that Prayuth’s continuance in power beyond the next election, expected in 2022, may not be assured, even if his party can overcome community anger at his government’s vaccination failure.
Gregory V Raymond is a Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.
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