SINGAPORE: As Thailand looks to the eventual end of its battle with COVID-19, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has written to 20 of the country’s richest tycoons for help in addressing the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.
His letters to these billionaires do not request financial contributions to the government. Rather, Prayut asks that they propose projects to support Thai people’s livelihoods and then undertake those projects with their own and their companies’ resources.
Proposals are due in the government’s hands within the week.
THE ONLINE BACKLASH
Directly after Prayut first mentioned his intention to enlist his wealthiest compatriots to work toward the country’s recovery from the coronavirus, the online edition of the leading Thai newspaper Matichon conducted a survey of readers’ reaction to the prime minister’s plan through Facebook and Twitter.
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More than 80 per cent of those who responded through Facebook and nearly three quarters of those who responded via Twitter opposed it. Among Twitter users, two reasons for opposition to the recruitment of tycoons to assist in recovery from the pandemic predominated.
First, readers tweeted to Matichon Online to attack the government for its administrative incompetence.
Some asked why Prayut and his Cabinet could not steer the country’s recovery from the coronavirus themselves. And, if they needed the help of outsiders such as these tycoons, Prayut and the Cabinet should resign and let capable people take charge.
Critical tweets in response to an unsystematic online survey are of course not necessarily representative of broader public opinion. Nevertheless, Matichon Online readers’ calls for the resignation of the Prayut government point to differing domestic and international assessments of that government’s performance in confronting the coronavirus pandemic.
International observers have cited Prayut’s decisiveness in issuing an emergency decree, locking the country down and cancelling public celebrations of the Songkran water festival.
In contrast, many Thais believe that his government has operated essentially without a real plan, that its communications regarding COVID-19 have been unclear and its priorities confused.
Perhaps the only point of consensus between international and Thai perspectives lies in admiration for Thailand’s medical profession and its capabilities.
SCEPTICISM OF BIG BUSINESS
The second reason for Matichon Online readers’ criticism of Prayut’s recourse to Thailand’s billionaires was grounded in scepticism of big business and of its ability to act in the public good.
Tweets argued that steps taken by tycoons in response to the prime minister’s call for help would serve those tycoons’ interests.
The tycoons would approach what they did as businessmen whose only skill was in making money from other Thais, the argument went. They had enjoyed a “golden time” since early in Prayut’s term as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) military government that seized power in 2014, one Twitter user wrote.
The tycoons’ character was such that they would turn Prayut’s invitation to help their fellow Thais to their own selfish advantage, according to another netizen.
Still another reader tweeted that the years since the coup had already seen Thai big business setting government policies. What was curious, the reader remarked sardonically, was that this role was now made public.
THE POLITICS OF BUSINESS
Commentators seeking to understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economies of affected countries argue that it will enhance the dominance of large and powerful firms at the expense of smaller, weaker players.
Those bigger firms have access to capital, strong credit ratings, wide profit margins and the ability to invest, to acquire other firms and to gain market share in the aftermath of a crisis.
These factors may lead to a reconfiguration of many countries’ economies, with greater concentration in a range of sectors.
In the Thai context, the possibility that the coronavirus crisis will deepen the dominance of major business concerns has particular resonance.
For a decade and half, public dissatisfaction with the market power of those concerns — such as the Central Group in retail, the diversified Charoen Pokphand or “CP” conglomerate, TCC and its affiliate the brewer ThaiBev, and the duty-free operator King Power — has mounted in Thailand.
The electoral platform of the Future Forward Party, whose appeal to young voters saw it take 80 parliament seats in the March 2019 elections, called for curbing the role of monopolistic firms in the Thai economy and diminishing their influence over Thai society.
Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party in February. Observers have attributed the Thai establishment’s determination to kill Future Forward off largely to the party’s opposition to military domination of the country’s post-coup order.
But the party’s criticism of monopoly power in the Thai economy represented another serious challenge to that order.
BIG BUSINESS A MATTER OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
Unlike economies in which the greater dominance of large firms is a probable consequence of the coronavirus crisis, in Thailand that dominance has actually been a matter of government policy. Two major NCPO initiatives reflected that policy.
While in power, the NCPO introduced the Pracharat initiative, designed to entrench the power of large firms in various economic sectors. In partnership with the state, the initiative called for those firms to forge a regime that Thai scholars have labelled “hierarchical capitalism”.
It gave license to major metropolitan conglomerates to organise and dominate small businesses, above all in provincial Thailand. Those conglomerates would in effect integrate provincial undertakings into their operations and subordinate them to their own interests. The initiative sought to introduce such hierarchies into sectors as diverse as agriculture and tourism.
Similarly, the NCPO’s legally binding 2018-2037 National Strategy also lays a foundation for big business’s domination of a subordinated and politically neutered Thai countryside.
It presents a vision of provincial society made up of depoliticised “communities”, rather than of voters who turn to political parties as vehicles for the expression of their interests or of dissent against the prevailing economic order.
The National Strategy proposes a restructuring of the countryside to open up commercial opportunities ready for big business and its allies to exploit but beyond the practical reach of most provincial enterprises. In this regard it complements the Pracharat initiative like hand and glove.
Both the National Strategy and the Pracharat initiative fly in the face of the Thai public’s longstanding dissatisfaction with the role of large domestic conglomerates in their country — the same sentiment that Twitter users voiced in their responses to Matichon Online’s survey on Prayut’s plan to enlist Thai tycoons’ assistance and that accounted for much of Future Forward’s electoral appeal in 2019.
THE NCPO’S VISION FOR THAILAND’S ECONOMY REMAINS INTACT
International media have expressed alarm that Prayut Chan-o-cha may be using Thailand’s COVID-19 emergency as a pretext to crack down on opposition and curtail civil liberties.
But this analysis overlooks another important part of what is now going on in Thailand. Having retained the premiership after last year’s elections, the former NCPO leader remains faithful to the military government’s vision for the Thai economy.
His decision to use the current crisis to empower Thai big business even more makes that clear. This is the significance of his recent letters to Thailand’s richest tycoons.
In mid-April, the week before Prime Minister Prayut sent those letters, he directed the National Economic and Social Development Council to revise Thailand’s 20-year National Strategy to take the impact of COVID-19 and the challenging state of the global economy into account. The revision is due to be completed by September.
Observers of Thailand’s politics and economy must scrutinise that revision for indications that it will further promote the market power of the country’s biggest business concerns through the reinforcement of non-competitive, monopolistic hierarchical capitalism.
Dr Michael J Montesano is Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.