Saturday, July 10, 2010

What's going on in Thailand

It was reported this week that there is such strong demand in Thailand for new compact cars that Nissan has customers on a five month waiting list for its most popular model. By emerging markets standards it's not so cheap, with a cost the equivalent of U.S.$11,600. Auto production by Nissan, Ford, and Toyota is expected to rise 60 percent this year to meet higher demand there and in neighboring countries, and auto production represents more than 10% of the nation's economy.

This is the country that we watched in serious political strife during the spring, strife that ended in what seemed to be an inconclusive way. The finance ministry there has raised its growth forecast for the economy twice in the last three months despite a still flagging tourist sector. Somehow this all seems more robust than could possibly be expected.

In trying to understand the outlook for the country, I have been working with four assumptions. First is that reading western media reports about the situation in Thailand is highly segmented and unreliable, and finding the big picture that gives an overall understanding of the country is close to impossible. Second, the political situation is centered around wealth inequality and, with the exception of a radical fringe that is inconsistent with Thai culture, is not based on any capitalist vs. communist western ideologies. It is a long term problem with the likelihood of more wrenching episodes ahead unless the government can better address the issues of the impovershished in rural areas, both in actuality and perception.

Those two assumptions are "why am I bothering to read this" obvious. The next two are guesses from afar by one with no experience in the country. The third is that the protestors may well have found out that their efforts were not necessarily well received as they returned to their provinces. Many parts of the country, not just Bangkok and coastal resorts, benefit from tourism up and down the economic spectrum. Cutting this off must have been painful to many despite their political beliefs. Shutting down auto production, with the data above considered, was almost certainly a look at the possible abyss for the rising lower middle class. Rising standards of living in emerging economies lead to rising awareness of inequalities as well, but seeing a threat to wealth accumulation, tangibly experienced, leads to pragmatism. Is this off base in relation to Thailand? The fourth assumption is that what seems to be the complete absense of any martyrdom of the "renegade general" that was killed by either the government or rival protestors is positive. It underscores his role as an opportunist and one that was likely supported and maybe funded by the exile Thaksin.

It has been said by some that despite all of his corruption and double dealing that the Thaksin government era was the most enlightened and balanced that Thailand has ever experienced. I have no idea whether that is correct or not, but Thaksin as an exile seems to be completely self dealing and toxic for the country. With all of this said, comments to enlighten would be welcome. What's going on in Thailand?


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