What Ails Thailand? Looking Security through a Traveller’s Perspective

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The country that boasts of welcoming more than 14 million visitors each year and its tourism industry that accounts for at least six to seven percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is today struggling to revive its tourism industry.

According to the World Bank’s latest ‘Global Economic Prospects 2011 report, Thailand’s economy in 2011 is projected to expand by only 3.2 per cent, the lowest level in Asia in the past five years, dropping from last year, in which the economy grew by 7.5 per cent. Even though economic growth in 2010 marked the highest level in Asia, GDP in the third and fourth quarters of last year gradually declined.

The impact of the international financial crisis, swine flu scare, natural disasters, unrest arising out of political succession and insurgency problems continue to obstruct tourist inflow into the country.

Government efforts to woo visitors in the form of slashing hotel prices, improving holiday packages, charm driving, increasing air connectivity, liberalising visa norms, implementating the national security act, undertaking expansion work of Suvarnabhumi Airport and the efforts in the direction of developing a high-speed rail link with China, are yet to make any significant improvement in the situation.

The reality is that Thailand’s most visible tourism industry contributes less than other service industries, and even less than its manufacturing industry, but given the situation, declining tourist inflow will further aggravate the economic condition.

Continuing Geopolitical Uncertainty and Security Vulnerability

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is expected to call national elections before June and the election season is likely to be intense. Opponents of the government may foment political violence, further aggravating the nation’s ongoing political crisis, which has been growing since 2005.

Political disruptions are imminent in the coming days especially in the areas surrounding the parliament building on Ratchadamnoen Nok Road, Sanam Luang park near the Royal Palace, Government House, the democracy monument near Khao San Road, and the central shopping district of Ratchaprasong.

Despite appeals by business establishments, protesters continue forcible closure of retail and residential establishments.

Recently, at least 20 hotels in Bangkok temporarily closed their operations and over 500 hotel employees wore white shirts, in a desperate attempt to seek government’s assistance. Political unrest has also caused job insecurity for over 30,661 workers, especially in Bangkok in the recent past.

The military has always been a potential force in national politics. The country has witnessed at least 18 attempted military coups since 1932 following the end of absolute monarchy, nine of which were successful. The last one was the removal of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006.

Recent developments speak for themselves in the deteriorating security situation, which is a major concern for travellers.

Those security issues include:

The ongoing anti-government campaign by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’

  • Clashes between the Thai and Cambodian armies near the disputed bordering Preah Vihear province that forced at least 15,000 Thai villagers to flee their homes despite recent ceasefire agreement between the two
  • Tensions along the Thailand-Myanmar border due to crisis in Myanmar
  • Targeting of Buddhist villagers at a crowded hotel in the Panare district in the southern province of Pattani allegedly by suspected Islamic rebels
  • Robbing of a German national in the Bang Lamung district of Chonburi province
  • The recent robbery of a German business traveller reminds us of a previous incident in January last year, in which another German national was killed, apparently over a traffic dispute in Phuket. Rash driving and road rage incidents are common in Thailand and statistics show that on average, 38 people die each day in motorcycle accidents.

    The `Golden Triangle’ in the northern part continues to earn the dubious distinction of being a drug trafficking hub. Banditry continues to be a significant concern along the Cambodian border. Safe and sustainable refugee repatriation is still a dream, due to the crisis in Myanmar. Thailand is host to the largest protracted refugee situation in South East Asia. Secessionist demands in the Muslim-dominated southern province and the undercurrent influence of Islamic militant groups in the region have always been a concern for the government. The southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, and the districts of Songkhla province continue to be under martial law.

    There is no denying the fact that due to severe government crackdown on Islamic rebels, especially in southern provinces, groups are lying low at the moment. Owing allegiance to the al-Qaida network, militant group Jemaah Islamiyah still remains a significant threat in the country. Although subversive activities are primarily confined to the southern region, the national capital Bangkok is not completely immune. The city had a series of bomb explosions, especially in 2007.

    Factors directly affecting travellers

    There were reports in the past in which criminals posing as ‘free guides’ tried to deceive travellers by directing them to blacklisted gemstone dealers and illegal gambling sessions. Some travellers were reportededly falsely implicated for shoplifting at the duty-free store inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in an attempt to extort money. Reports also indicate that some travellers were the victims of credit card fraud as criminals befriending the travellers managed to clone their cards and take out money.

    Women travellers in the past were reportedly harassed for entering bars and pubs alone. As per the country’s law which was amended in February 2002, female members need to be accompanied by a male counterpart. There were incidents of harassment against expat female travellers especially in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and beach resorts. In 2009, six British women were reportedly assaulted in separate incidents. Considering the security situation, travellers are expected to carry photo identification at all times which is also required under the country’s law.

    Maitreya Samantaray writes about intelligence mining and compilation, risk reporting, content processing operations, public policy, political analysis, terrorism and security.