Against the backdrop of a longstanding enmity between the ‘yellow shirts’ and the ‘red-shirts’ full scale riots broke out in the Thai capital on April 10 after a month of protests, leaving 21 people dead, including four soldiers and a colonel and a Japanese Reuters photographer. 16 ‘red shirts’ were killed by soldiers. Thailand has effectively become a ‘no-go zone’ for both leisure and business travelers-while Pakistanis aren’t strangers to domestic conflict, the turmoil in Thailand could take a toll on Thai-Pak economic activites.
The origins of the present conflict lie in the 2006 coup d’etat that ousted controversial Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (now a fugitive on charges of corruption) and implemented martial law for over a year in the country. Thailand has seen smatterings of turmoil, bloodshed and protests ever since:
In 2008 the royalist ‘yellow shirts’ (People Alliance for Democracy, or PAD) occupied the Bangkok International Airport in the hope of ousting then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, head of a pro Thaksin government. In April last year, ‘red shirts’, or United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship, staged similar protests calling for the dissolution of parliament-they were also hoping for the ousting of the government after a court ruling had seen the previous pro-Thaksin government dissolved. Two were killed and hundreds wounded, but that pales in comparison to the current unrest.
The protestors have occupied much of Bangkok’s upscale shopping district for most of April, as well as the governor’s office in the northern city of Chiang Mai, and are calling for elections to be held immediately-elections that pro-Thaksin parties would be well-placed to win.
The current Thai government, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva is proclaiming a wish to resolve the trouble peacefully, but making no indication of acceding to the protestors demands. Mr Vejjajiva has claimed that ‘terrorists’ are behind the outbreak of violence in the capital-the old adage ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ being put perfectly into reality in the current turmoil.
A state of emergency was declared on April 7 and there is speculation as to whether the military will be more heavily involved in the coming days-with the military’s history of stepping in to quell civil unrest, anything is possible in the short term.
Thailand’s King Bhumidol, a behind the scenes political player, was at loggerheads with Thaksin, so the current protests are unlikely to garner the kings approval. While the king rarely takes an overt hand in public affairs, if the military does step in to intervene in the situation, it is without doubt that it does so with the king’s blessing, albeit an unspoken one.
In the midst of the global economic slowdown, Thailand’s already struggling economy is expected to be hit hard by the political turmoil it now finds itself in. Tourism accounts for roughly 6% of Thai GDP, and hotel vacancies in the Thai capital are now at around 70%. Flights to and from the country are being cancelled, and the CBD that abuts the shopping district occupied by the protestors remains closed. The violence is expected to hit tourism, FDI, economic growth and debt repayment especially hard.
Thailand is a significant trading partner with Pakistan, not only on a larger commercial scale, but for smaller sized import-export businesses. The current turmoil has all but put a stop to commercial activities between Thailand and most of its trading partners, including Pakistan. The Thai Pakistan Chamber of Commerce had listed more than six events held in Thailand for promoting commercial activity between the two countries, most of which will likely be cancelled due to the continuing unrest. Local business entrepreneurs in Pakistan are reconsidering their business with Thailand, looking to substitutes like Malaysia and Indonesia for continuing their business operations.
Although the short-term conduction of business is interrupted, Thai-Pakistani relations are likely to remain strong, no matter what the outcome of the political unrest in Thailand is-Thai-Pak relations have weathered many political upheavals in both countries and this latest disturbance is unlikely to incur any long-term damage politically, while a short-term economic hit will have to be absorbed.
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