Former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Prof Surakiart Sathirathai, who is also chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, spoke on "Thailand's Reforms" at an international conference "Thailand is Back" co-organised by the Federatio
This international conference, bringing together key stakeholders in the economic well-being of Thailand from around the region and many parts of the world, is being held at a critical juncture in Thai history.
Against an international backdrop of a world slowly emerging from the financial upheavals of 2008-09, of a rising and revived China, of a pivot of US naval forces and strategic interest towards East Asia, and renewed geo-political tensions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, as well as the East China Sea and South China Sea, a military intervention took place in Thailand two months ago. In principle, I am not an advocate of military intervention. But it has to be conceded that the actions taken by the Thai military two months ago most likely avoided hundreds of deaths that could have resulted from impending violent clashes among opposing groups of demonstrators. The increasingly strident confrontations between the two unyielding forces had threatened to tear the nation apart. By all recognised indicators, the actions of the interim administration over the past two months have brought a respite and have received broad popular support throughout the country.
Reform is now in the air. After the protracted political conflicts of the eight months before May 22, which had retarded Thailand’s economy and created social and domestic regional divisions, Thailand is now back to business with public and private sectors joining hands to move the country forward through economic restructuring and national reform.
Despite their differences, all parties to the political conflict and also those not party to the conflict, were agreed that Thailand is in serious need of comprehensive reform. In the on-going process of reform, not only are the public and private sectors involved, but also over
77 civil society and business organidations with first-hand experience in many areas of reform who have joined together to establish a network for reform – the Reform Now Network or RNN – which will be able to support the National Reform Assembly soon to be established in October under the new interim Constitution.
Although democracy advocates in Thailand and some foreign friends might be uncomfortable with the way the political bottleneck was removed, yet the majority would agree that a window of opportunity has now presented itself for serious reforms to be undertaken.
Already, without the burden of limited authority of the previous caretaker government, and the legal entanglements created by parties to the conflict in the past year, the interim administration has been able to tackle pressing issues. Debts of over Bt90 billion owed to farmers for over eight months under the rice-pledging scheme has been paid back; long-awaited factory licences for several hundred plants have been granted; long-awaited projects under promotional privileges from the Board of Investment worth Bt200 billion have been approved, with a further aboutBt400 billion worth of projects in the pipeline. The interim administration has laid down strategies and plans to participate actively in the Asean Economic Community that is to come into being at the end of 2015. It has adopted measures to attract more tourists; reviewed major infrastructure projects to create transparency in order to move ahead for implementation, including a commitment to invest in infrastructure worth Bt2.4 trillion between 2015-22. With the scheduled formation of an interim government by September, it is expected that speedy decisions can be taken in other areas such as energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, and sustainable use of natural resources.
These economic measures and packages have not been pulled out from thin air. They are contained in the 11th National Economic and Social Development plan that had been developed by technocrats after intensive public hearings and focus groups. Not only the consumers, the industrial sector’s confidence has also increased significantly as indicated by the recently released Federation of Thai Industries Index. The projected GDP growth from the Bank of Thailand and the Finance Ministry sees a marked improvement, with a growth forecast of 3.4 per cent to 3.5 per cent in the second half of this year compared to a shrinking of 0.5 per cent in the first half. Growth next year is now projected by the BOT at 5.5 per cent. The economic growth story of Thailand is once more unfolding, and the hope and dream of peace, prosperity and well-being once again seems to be achievable. Thailand is also an active member of other economic groupings with her neighbours in the Mekong region namely Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in the areas of transport linkages, logistics, tourism, trade, investment, agriculture and agro-business, including the deep-sea port and industrialisation projects in Dawei, Myanmar.
A new and exciting regional economic landscape is taking shape. The private sector, both Thai and foreign, stand to gain.