The year of living dangerously, Thai-style

Bangkok has just become the world's No.1 tourist destination, and it couldn't have come at a worse time - not because the capital and the country haven't earned the accolade, and not because it isn't a fun place to visit, but because Thai society is brimming with contradictions that could break into conflict at any time.

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask marches on a main road during an anti-Thaksin demonstration at a shopping centre last month. Despite relative calm under a strong government, Thai politics remains volatile. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

To the background drumbeat of militant political trends, there are endless attractions and distractions and myriad shimmering sights to see. The food is delicious, the music swings, service is supreme and there are serene temples, street snacks and tempting nightlife. Even the egotistical strutting of local politicos, and the consumerist tail-dancing of hi-so snobs can be viewed as background colour for sojourners soaking up the sun and fun and non-stop folly in the kaleidoscopic tropical wonderland.

It's tempting to give in to the lull and lure of the music as the band plays on, but the ship of state is in crisis. Coming to terms with the fractious forces that divide the nation is imperative before things crack up.

A record-breaking 22 million foreign tourists visited Thailand last year and about 16 million of them spent some time in Bangkok, which pipped London in terms of visitor numbers in a MasterCard survey. The numbers sound impressive, but it would be a challenge for Thailand to accommodate so many millions of passers-through even in the best of times. But these are troubled times. Transport and basic infrastructure are already strained at the seams. The institutionalised fleecing of tourists in places like Phuket and Pattaya - take the case of the taxi mafia for example - is outright exploitative and dysfunctional. With more and more people pouring in to ecologically damaged beaches and byways, with more and more marks to be conned, how long can the circling sharks be kept at bay?

And how many millions more tourists does it take before both travellers and Thais alike experience diminishing returns? Taking care of hordes of holiday-goers traipsing across one's native land means more than ka-ching at the cash register, it also calls for the patience of saints, good service and good administration. That means better transportation, safer streets, improved infrastructure, less social parasitism, and above of all, a fully functioning, reassuring government that can enforce rule of law and maintain political calm.

As all kinds of tourists bump elbows with all kinds of Thais, misunderstandings and mix-ups are bound to follow. Hawaiians have long had a love-hate relationship with the vast human tide of outsiders that subsidises but defiles life in paradise, and why should Thailand be any different?

As if the dynamics of the record-breaking inflow is not cause enough for stress, what happens when the fun-in-the-sun land, straining at the seams from a broken, groaning infrastructure, is hit with another tidal wave of home-grown political chaos?

Violent crime against tourists appears to be on the upswing, and while there is no neat correlation between rape, robbery, murder and the periodic political descent into vitriolic madness, Thailand has in many respects become less civil a place - and how could it not, given the soul-searing pressures being brought to bear?

The risk of tourists becoming collateral damage is real. Recent volatile events in Cairo are being monitored closely in Bangkok because of uncomfortable parallels. Thailand has more experience with electoral rituals and democracy demonstrations, but it also has more experience with coups. Both Egypt and Thailand have seen the creation of formidable political machines that win at the polls only to gobble up power, cripple the opposition and hoard the goods as ruthlessly as any strong-arm patron would. Coups, for better or worse, have come to be seen as social "reset" buttons.

Democratic or not, the talk of coups and the complex machinations of colour-coded Thai politics continues to distract the nation's lawmakers from tackling more pressing problems of poverty, crime, corruption and the "fire-in-the-South" communal violence that has claimed almost 5,000 lives.

The long and winding political struggle in parliament, and its bloody parallel struggle on the streets, with the paramount goal of securing amnesty for a billionaire fugitive is an example of how the necessary work of the day gets sidelined due to selfish political considerations. So-called "reconciliation" bills clogging the work of parliament range from the anarchic - letting every violent offender since 2006 off the hook - to the ironic, such as a proposal by coup-maker Sonthi Boonyaratglin to forgive and forget "political" offences.

Can justice be served if everyone goes scot-free? Former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva apparently thinks not. Although out of power and vulnerable as the leader of the political opposition, he says he would rather face the courts than see the guilty go free.

Meanwhile, PM Yingluck Shinawatra's absentee elder brother engages in behind-the-scenes-scheming of a sort that would make Machiavelli blush, a sample of which has emerged in the form of an audiotape documenting breezy attempts to secure a return to power.

But that's not all. Mr Abhisit recently revealed that he has been offered a deal by an unnamed political player, the gist of which was to approve an amnesty bill for his nemesis in return for having trumped up capital charges dropped against himself.

Say what one might about Mr Abhisit's privileged childhood spent mostly in England, or the disadvantages of being aloof inside the ruthless ring of political combat, but it is the rare man who insists on facing legal charges that could result in his execution.

If the backroom deal that Mr Abhisit alluded to is for real, it just goes to show that the Shinawatra don can turn on a dime.

To a certain kind of canny leader, there are no permanent friends or enemies, nor any concept of impartial justice or lasting loyalty to the foot soldiers fallen at the barricades, just maximising profits and heady opportunism at each and every turn.

What this potent political mix means for holiday-goers soaking up the sun, dancing in the moonlight and cooling in crystalline swimming pools is uncertain. But if the restless fugitive gaming the system can't overcome his seemingly heartless lust for power, Thailand loses, and all bets are off. Political strife will be rife and tourists won't be able to get to the airport fast enough.


Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics.

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Writer: Philip J Cunningham
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