Viewpoint: David Lyman
My family has lived in Thailand since May 1949 and I have been practicing law here since 1967 – that’s 50 years now. Thus, I see Thailand from the perspective of a long-term foreign permanent resident. Let’s take the military coup of May 2014; it’s the 13th coup I have witnessed. It and its predecessors all have much in common: all were conducted, it is said, in order to protect and restore the rights, lives and fortunes of the Thai people, and save them from abuse and injustice. All justified themselves through promises to build democracy, Thai-style, and curb rampant corruption.
Since 1932 Thailand has had 20 constitutions, the most recent of which was adopted in April 2017. Thailand has had 29 prime ministers/governments in the past 85 years, with the average life span of a Thai government, either civilian and military, being just under three years. All had a fairly common agenda; their differentiation lay in the personalities, abilities and dedication of their leaders, and the implementation and attention to the declared objectives of these revolutions.
To those outside of Thailand it appears that the country is occasionally bathed in instability, political infighting, jockeying for power and lack of direction. But as a long-of-tooth insider, my view is that the country of Thailand, with its diverse yet commonly united population of 68m, is like a deep ocean. What one sees in press reports are storms of varying intensity on the surface of that ocean, but in the depths of the ocean is the inherent stability of this country, guided quietly by a caring, intelligent and revered monarchy.
From a business perspective, aside from a few adjustments, coups are not a problem in Thailand. I like to say, “Whatever happens in and to Thailand, given trial and error, the country always lands on its feet.” A common characteristic of the past military and civilian governments was being business friendly, the present government included. Occasionally, the Thai and foreign business communities have been at odds, but these days these communities largely function as one.
Another commonality, or some might say an anomaly, is that the government operates on one level and the private sector runs on another level. Most of the time these levels coexist parallel to one another, but not always. Each can almost work independently. Except for the financial crises of 1997 and 2008, which were caused by private sectors around the world, these days, thanks to the private sector, Thailand can thrive and maintain its viable economic balance despite any shortcomings. Credit must also be given to the conservative approach of the Thai fiscal authorities for managing government, domestic and external debt most of the time. Low inflation and low unemployment are strengths; but highly leveraged household debt is a problem, with the current debt burden at 80% of GDP.
Both public sector and private sector investments are needed to deal with short- and long-term demands of the changing world within and without Thailand. A sign of the change I have experienced is the rapid growth of social media. It is estimated that there are more than 90m mobile phones in use in this country, of which over 50m are smartphones. It is reported that there are 41m Facebook users in Thailand out of a population of 68m, with a literacy rate of 94%. Those numbers speak for themselves: Thailand is plugged into the internet and e-commerce worlds. Young stakeholders coming into the workforce look for technological sophistication in employers, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and cybersecurity. Fortunately, Thailand’s people, especially the youth, are also waking up to the immense environmental crises facing the nation and the world, and their roles in dealing with them. The preservation of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and curbing the trafficking thereof – not to mention the trafficking of people – and heeding the cry for efficient and sustainable waste management are all capturing their attention and invoking corrective actions. I am bullish about this country, and I think it is on the right path. Thailand always lands on its feet. That’s the Thai way.
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