Economy, Government, Business in Thailand

Thailand's economy has always been very much based on decentralized free enterprise, and the laws are very similar to those in the free economies of the West. Sectors like telecommunications, energy and other infrastructure have been more like the European quasi-monopolies than American deregulation.

Thailand's infrastructure is excellent, especially the freeways, all over the country. Power, telephones and internet are all good. Thailand enjoys one of the best ratios of quality infrastructure to GNP per capita.

Thailand's economy was one of the fastest growing in the world in the 1980s and early 1990s (in terms of percent of GNP annually), but the 1997 Asia economic crash was the end to that. It is currently growing at approximately 4 to 5% per year.

Extreme poverty is low, and you don't see many hungry beggars on the street.

There are some key restrictions to foreigners, such as owning companies and property, as discussed in the "Working, Business" section of this website. Changes in the near future are unlikely. Nonetheless, there are various workarounds and these issues are not major barriers to most foreigners who have legitimate business to do in Thailand.

Despite Thailand's large size, the language and culture are fairly uniform, with no significant ethnic clashes. Civil unrest is practically nonexistent, except with some fringe Muslim separatists in the far south near the border with Malaysia (and of the Muslims in that region, onl a very small minority are separatist). Periodic problems along the border with Burma are usually related to suppression or control of the illicit drug trade. Inside Thailand, regional differences are quite minor.

Historically, Thailand was an Absolute Monarchy from the late 13th century until 1932, when it became a Constitutional Monarchy with an elected parliament. The monarchy has nonetheless played a leading role in society, though only occasionally and always briefly in politics, by the new tradition.

Between 1932 and 1992, Thailand's government alternated between democracy and dictatorships, sometimes with bloody clashes, the last of which in 1992 finally led to the end of any chance of another military takeover. A new "people's constitution" in 1997 significantly refined the checks and balances system and added some political stability.

Thailand's government civil service has been the most stabilizing force over the decades, with most of it operating more or less the same regardless of who was in power.

Prime Minister Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra
and the
Thai Rak Thai Party

The current Prime Minister is Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra, a rags-to-riches businessman turned politician. Best known as "Thaksin" (pronounced close to "Taksin"), he is different from previous prime ministers in that he is by far the most modern, forward-thinking and business-competent prime minister in Thailand's history. Definitely not "old guard", nor easily manipulated by other powerful figures, Thaksin is a true leader, not a follower.

After growing up in the countryside in northwest Thailand, Thaksin got married as a young adult to his wife Pojamarn, a very smart yet modest lady. Thaksin is a devoted family man, and Pojamarn is much of the brains in this partnership. This marriage has a lot of similarities to Bill and Hillary Clinton with one big exception -- Thaksin is 100% faithful to his wife (in contrast to many other powerful Thai men).

Despite all their wealth and power, Pojamarn has a very modest disposition who does not flash her wealth or power, instead preferring to stay out of the limelight. She is nice and warm to good people, and if you didn't know better then you may not realize that she's the wife of the Prime Minister. Yet, when it comes to decisions, she is a brilliant analyst and Thaksin depends upon her for many decisions. Pojamarn was not enthusiastic about Thaksin going into politics in the first place, but compromised on that issue. She has self-confidence but no need to have her ego massaged and prefers to make her place in the world without unnecessary celebrity hassles, and safety first.

Thaksin actually started his career in the government civil service as a policeman. However, he quickly became impatient with the system and ventured out into the entrepreneurial world with his new wife (at the time) by starting a computer business in Thailand in 1983 (when the PC was very new in the U.S., and this is Thailand!). They made a lot of money.

With their first small fortune, the Shinawatras then started a cellular phone business in the early 1990s (again, ahead of his time), and a telecommunications satellite company in the mid-1990s which exports services from outer space to many countries. These are Advanced Info Service (AIS) and Shin Satellite aka ThaiCom.

"Committed to progress and your faith in us"

"Your turnkey satellite operator"

Pojamarn Shinawatra is heavily invested in property and myriad other businesses, though you'd never know it from the business signs and storefronts around Bangkok and Thailand.

In the mid-1990s, Thaksin developed a small political party (Palang Dharma, "righteous"), then became Foreign Minister briefly under another Prime Minister, and in the year 2000 applied much of his vast fortune to start a new political party, Thai Rak Thai ("Thai love Thai"), which won the election in a landslide that year.

With a commanding lead in Parliament, a popular agenda, impressive people in key positions, and an improving and fairly strong economy, Dr. Shinawatra will apparently lead Thailand well into the future, as long as he can avoid harm's way.

Prime Minister Thaksin is a dominating leader in the current political system, and to look at Thailand's future, you must understand Dr. Shinawatra's leadership thrusts.

Many of Dr. Shinawatra's successful policies and results don't make it into the news, but you will read about some of the controversial policies and critical views of perceived results.

One is his effort to help the poor with cheap health care, which has created substantial financial burdens on the government hospital infrastructure (but does not affect the countless private hospitals). It is rumored that the Shinawatra family is investing in private hospitals, too.

Another is his war against drugs, which brought special attention from international human rights organizations due to the number of "extrajudicial" shooting deaths of people allegedly related to drug trafficking and informants, as well as heavy pressure and even assassination plots against Prime Minister Thaksin from powerful mafia people both inside and outside Thailand. Without doubt, drug supply has been dramatically curtailed and street prices have shot up ... at the current time.

Other efforts include "new social order" campaigns to reduce vice, and pressures to squeeze out "dark influential" people from relationships with government officials. The "new social order" has riled both owners of late night entertainment venues nationwide, and a lot of foreigners who enjoy coming to Thailand's sex industry hot spots (which have hardly been affected by the "new social order" except around the extremes).

On the other hand, there were pressures on the free press early in the administration, and some political opponents were harrassed by some government officials, but those seem to have largely subsided, fortunately. A controlled or intimidated press is not in the best interests of any country. Notably, the local TV and radio stations were already controlled by the previous governments, more or less, whereas the newspapers and magazines are more free and diverse.

Dr. Shinawatra's government stands up well for Thailand in the world, and does not easily bow to pressure from foreign powers, including the U.S. and the U.N. While most of its positions are seen in a positive light by foreigners, especially by businessmen, some political positions aren't seen the same way by the foreign press (often sensationalized and quoted out of context), though they are usually quite understandable if you are Thai and looking out for your own best interests. In order for any foreigner to understand or predict the current Thai government's positions, it is important to be able to see things through the eyes of a smart, experienced and independent thinking Thai leader who has more allegiance to his nation's best interests than to the western viewpoint.

There is no perfect leader in the world, nor is there in Thailand. There are limited alternatives. If you understand the realities of the world fairly thoroughly, then you might appreciate Prime Minister Thaksin more than the ordinary observer usually does. All considered, Dr. Shinawatra seems to be the best leader available for charting Thailand's course into the never certain future, in my opinion.

On the other hand, the checks and balances system should be protected, including rabid editors who prefer to criticize others than to create solutions themselves.

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