Familiar Challenges in Thailand’s New COVID-19 Reality

09.16.2020 | Evan Shilling

Frustration at Thailand’s government is boiling over. The country’s leaders are censoring their critics and targeting opposition parties, limiting even the narrow space normally available for democratic involvement in governing.

Now, adding fuel to that fire, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the country with a  whirlwind of new challenges even as it exacerbates existing ones. Near the beginning of the year, the emergence of the novel coronavirus was accompanied by the dissolution of the opposition progressive Future Forward Party (FFP). The subsequent lockdown measures and the economic hardship that has been created for ordinary Thais makes the future uncertain for the country’s millions of small businesses. Also, the past is no haven: in May, democracy activists observed the ten-year anniversary of the Red Shirt protests and highlighted that their government has failed to condemn those responsible for the deaths of protesters.

With the resignations of multiple cabinet members of the ruling Palang Pracharath party putting the spotlight on the government’s political instability, a parliamentary reshuffling is expected by the end of the summer. Despite the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Thailand’s most pressing issues are following patterns familiar to Thais.

Thailand is experienced at suppressing democratic voices of change. The tenacity of Thai activists’ calls for government reform are as present today as they were ten years ago. The anniversary of the Red Shirt protests earlier this year served as a reminder to Thai people of just how little democratic progression has occurred since bloody rallies engulfed the streets of Bangkok a decade ago.

From March to May 2010, Thailand experienced a level of violent confrontations with protesters that hadn’t been seen for almost 20 years. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, a.k.a. the “Red Shirts” movement, launched a series of protests advocating for new elections and an end to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, which had taken power after the judiciary disbanded the largest (and pro-opposition) party.

The Red Shirts’ brutal confrontations with security forces resulted in the deaths of more than 90 people and wounded some 2,000. Accurate information regarding the motivations and accountability for violence experienced during the protests has been suppressed from the public, although investigations have highlighted unnecessary and excessive lethal force used by security forces. With May 19, 2020 marking the 10-year anniversary of these protests, protest leaders and activists still emphasize that the security forces responsible for civilian deaths have not been charged.

The public is still demanding democratic change and parliamentary dissolution. On July 18, 2020, thousands of protestors across Bangkok and Chiang Mai set to the streets to rally against the ruling Palang Pracharath party and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Chan-o-cha led the military coup of 2014 and governed as Thailand’s unelected leader until the general election in 2019, where his premiership became official after an election characterized as “highly flawed.” His junta is also responsible for the 2017 constitution, which gives the military sole authority to appoint the Senate. These July 2020 protests were the largest rallies held since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lead by the Free Youth Group and the Student Union of Thailand, these protests demanded that amendments be made to the constitution to reflect a more democratic system, the dissolution of parliament, and an end to human rights abuses as well as the harassment of government critics. Critics claim that emergency powers granted to Chan-o-cha to enforce curfews and prevent social gatherings are being used as a pretext to crack down on opposition and have been extended past an appropriate time frame.

Democracy activists and protesters have hit the streets as they have little hope for victory through the legislature. Thailand’s most progressive political party to date was prevented from growing into a voice of change in the country’s notoriously rigid parliament. The Future Forward Party was dissolved by the Thai Constitutional Court in February 2020, banning party leader Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit and party executives from politics for 10 years. The court found that funds donated by Juangroongruangkit to the FFP to exceed the allowable limit imposed by the Political Parties Act. The dissolution was conveniently timed to disrupt the opposition ahead of several censure debates.

Founded in 2018, the FFP’s policies prioritized the decentralization of bureaucratic systems, increasing social equality, ending economic monopolies, supporting a welfare state, free education, free allowance for children up to age 6, extended maternity leave time, pension for retirees, and the downsizing of the military. Juangroongruangkit’s FFP looked to compensate for the prior “lost decade” by creating a new political narrative focusing on the promotion of democracy, repairing the ailing economy, constructing a high-tech society, and creating a space for LGBTI groups. This ideological foundation drove FFP to challenge the monopolies supporting the dominance of big businesses and to ensure access to financial support for small businesses while promoting the strict enforcement of free competition. With the dissolution of the FFP, small businesses find themselves in a familiar state of disadvantage while also dealing with the economically crippling impacts of coronavirus.

Thailand’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has received praise for having, as of August, only 58 deaths and approximately 3,300 confirmed cases of the virus. However, the economic conditions of the country can be seen as the worst in Southeast Asia. The government  forecasts a 5.3 percent contraction in the economy while the International Monetary Fund estimates a 6.7 percent drop in GDP.  The country’s vast number of SMEs have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and the shutdown of the 60 billion dollar tourism industry has exacerbated the inequality experienced by the bottom 50% of the Thai workforce.

In response to economic hardships imposed by the pandemic, the government issued stimulus checks worth 5,000-Baht ($160) to informal workers for three months which ended in June, reaching 15.1 million people. Previously, a 400 billion Baht ($12.8 billion) social rehabilitation scheme was approved by Prayut Chan-o-cha as part of the 1.9-trillion Baht ($61.2 billion) relief package for the country. However, the ruling Palang Pracharath party is currently experiencing a cabinet reshuffle with numerous resignations of ministers this summer – the most recent Finance Minister lasted just one month and the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking expressed concern over this inability to set the social rehabilitation package into motion. As Thailand’s third quarter approaches, a World Bank estimate predicts that 21.7% of the Thai workforce is at risk of unemployment or reduced income. With the pending parliamentary shuffle, Thailand’s economy continues to wait for further execution on COVID-19 recovery.

In Thailand there are approximately three million companies that are classified as SMEs. These SMEs account for 14 million jobs, about 86% of total employment. The SME contribution to Thailand’s GDP is around 45% but their presence in international trade and global value chains is significantly lacking. With the setbacks presented by COVID-19, SMEs are experiencing even more difficulty to be a part of these global value chains. If the current struggles faced by SMEs continues to the end of the year, it is expected that they will lose more than $110 million in revenue. This calls for continued evaluation and action from the government to address the economic setbacks tormenting SMEs across the country. The government can do a better job of digital capabilities and easing access to commercial bank credit, which would help SMEs. A platform for SMEs to develop post-pandemic recovery strategies is crucial to planning for the future of Thailand’s economy.

Thailand’s economy will remain in a fragile state until sustainable measures are implemented. The fight for parliamentary dissolution continues among young Thai activists, and they fear that the government could use the COVID-19 pandemic virus as a reason to sideline the country’s requests political change.

Parliamentary reshuffling has delayed the progress of sustainable recovery plans to address the future of Thailand’s prosperity. The massive decline of tourism in the country has severely damaged the economy and the SME-heavy workforce is in dire need of restoration and continued support. To chart a successful future, the Thai government must find the political will to end censorship and repression of civil society, allowing for the full breadth of society to voice their needs.