By Molly Reiner
April 3, 2014
Recent months have brought continuous political unrest in Thailand where anti-government protesters have taken to the streets to protest various acts of corruption. The ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has come under much scrutiny for nepotism and the perceived mishandling of funds. Accusations include movements to bring Shinawatra’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, back to Thailand with impunity, despite being ousted in a 2006 coup for various counts of corruption. A governmental decision to grant the brother amnesty highlights worries. Citizens are concerned that the current government is acting with the same corrupt intentions as the last, and such suspicion has fueled the protests in recent weeks.
Though protests have been largely peaceful in the past, violence has broken out among the current dissenters causing various domestic economic problems for the Southeast Asian nation. Tourism, which comprises a significant portion of Thailand’s economy, has suffered from travel warnings issued in response to the turmoil. In a recent example of the economic toll of the protests, stocks fell in January due to dissent specifically from rice farmers, whose promised rice subsidy is nowhere to be found; such economic shortcomings on the part of the Thai government has sparked a downturn in investor confidence in Thai markets. Such negative economic activity may trigger a greater crisis in neighboring nations such as Cambodia, themselves no strangers to political difficulties. The clash turned deadly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, on the third day of this year, where police killed at least three garment factory workers and injured at least a dozen more calling for higher wages.
Political dissent fueled by economic woes is a disturbing trend manifesting itself in multiple forms in Southeast Asia. The region has recently been involved in a degree of economic optimism, especially as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has outlined a plan to sign a free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2015, an agreement that would include economic powerhouses China and Japan. However, such instability in countries facing political unrest will undoubtedly increase volatility and lower investor confidence, greatly reducing the optimism surrounding the ASEAN region in recent years. Volatility in Southeast Asia follows closely possible economic stagnation in neighboring China, a trend with negative implications not only for the region, but also for the world at large.
In light of the problems facing many nations in the Southeast Asian region, the question arises: which came first, political or economic difficulties? In general, it seems at this point that each is fueling the negative trend of the other. In Thailand at least, economic improvements will hopefully lead to an improvement in the political climate.