Businessmen can't escape politics' gravitational pull

opinion February 17, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

2,143 Viewed

The days of company bosses sitting on the sidelines may have to end, as our economy spirals down with the crisis

Executives of luxurious hotels meeting security officials enforcing a state of emergency could never be a comfortable sight. More disturbing is the fact that businesses supporting anti-government protests and subsequently facing threats of a clampdown has become a recurring theme. Most unsettling of all is probably the fact that you can deem some people “terrorists” on one day and work for them on another.

Names have been leaked and released. Corporates have joined movie stars and education institutions in being a lot more open about their political leanings. To deem business firms’ moves as the most significant would be playing down the courage of the artists, who rely a lot on public perception and exposure on free TV, and tough decisions by academics or heads of higher education. However, what we are seeing is a phenomenon.

Thailand may have come to a great turning point, when politics is no longer limited to politicians, their lobbyists or hardcore activists. Or the situation has become worrying. It depends on how we look at it. However, it’s one thing to back a political course and it’s another to face deportation or a state crackdown in the process.

It was the same in 2010. Government authorities back then threatened to cut off the financial “lifeline” of the red shirts’ months-long protest. Violence on May 19 that year was deplorable, but it brought the curtain down on what could have been a lengthy showdown between the authorities and certain big-money people. The subsequent general election turned the tide and led to a role reversal for many, or whatever you want to call it when Tarit Pengdit is concerned.

He lambasted red shirts’ “sponsors” and gave them all kinds of threats in 2010. Now, he’s doing the same against “sponsors” of protesters seeking to overthrow a government backed by the red shirts. What a complex legal case it could be if a current business target of Tarit went to court with video clips featuring the official’s remarks in 2010. Of course, Tarit can always claim he’s a bureaucrat who is supposed to follow any government instruction, but will that argument hold up in court?

One thing has to be made clear, though. It’s politics that is dragging businesses toward it, not the other way round. Businesses used to sit on the sidelines praying that what politicians did would not affect them too much. But business people simply can’t do that any longer. Politics has weakened Thailand’s competitiveness and preoccupied political players with expediency and survival, at the expense of key economic foundations.

Warnings have been sounded, with perhaps the most remarkable coming from ex-prime minister Anand Panyarachun. Somehow, someone has got to pull an emergency brake and put an end to the turmoil, he said. According to Anand, the political crisis is stirring economic turbulence and soon the two will feed off each other. He doesn’t have the complete answer, but insisted that everyone involved must act very quickly.

For years, the Thai economy has made do in spite of politics, not because of it. But that is getting harder and harder now, and the controversies surrounding attempts to deport an Indian businessman and or crack down on corporates backing Suthep Thaugsuban do not help. The business community used to ask how it all was going to end, but that might be considered the good old days now. With businesses getting more and more involved in politics, questions have abounded and got increasingly complex.