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Thailand received a downward trend arrow due to the government's excessive use of force toward the insurgency in southern Thailand, the presence of security forces in mosques, and increasing pressure against the press for coverage critical of Prime Minister Thaksin.
With an eye to elections that must be called by January 2005, the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra continued to carry out the populist spending programs that had generated strong economic growth and high approval ratings in previous years. Thaksin's image as an effective CEO prime minister, however, has been tarnished by the government's incompetent handling of the outbreak of avian flu and the Muslim insurgency in the South, which had left 440 dead by the end of October. Allegations that Thaksin has used his official position to stifle critics and enrich his allies have for the first time led the administration to reverse policies in response to accusations of conflict of interest.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never colonized by a European country. Beginning with a 1932 coup that transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, the army ruled periodically for the next six decades. The military last seized power in 1991. Thailand returned to civilian rule the following year when the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Alduyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister.
Thailand's export-led economy notched up strong growth in the decade prior to 1997, before being dragged down by the regional financial crisis. Amid noisy street protests by middle class Thais in Bangkok against corruption and economic mismanagement, parliament voted no confidence in Tammany Hall-style politician Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, replaced him with Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation, and approved a reformist constitution. The new constitution created independent election and anticorruption bodies and introduced direct election of the Senate.
Criticizing the government for supposedly favoring the urban middle class over ordinary Thais, Thaksin, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the January 2001 elections. During the campaign, Thaksin pledged to help poorer Thais hurt by the financial crisis by introducing cheap health care, a debt moratorium for farmers, and investment funds for each village. Thaksin's Thai (Loves) Thai (TRT) party won 248 out of parliament's 500 seats despite a December 2000 ruling by Thailand's new National Counter-Corruption Commission that Thaksin had deliberately falsified wealth-disclosure statements in 1997 as a cabinet minister. In what critics consider a controversial move, the Constitutional Court cleared Thaksin in August 2001.
Thaksin's government has won praise from many Thais for largely sticking to its electoral promises by introducing programs to help the poor and small businesses. Low interest rates and populist spending programs have fueled a consumption-driven economic growth spurt. Wanting to portray Thailand as a well-ordered country safe for foreign investors and tourists, the government has clamped down on negative news, such as the possible presence of terrorists in Thailand. In an attempt to protect the country's poultry industry, the government had long maintained that Thailand was safe from the deadly avian flu sweeping Asia. But in February 2004, the Thaksin administration was forced to confess that 6 million chickens had been culled and numerous human cases had been confirmed. The cover-up led Japan and the EU to ban Thai chicken imports and the Thai people to question the government's willingness to protect public safety when it conflicted with powerful private interests.
Many of Thaksin's moves run counter to the reformist spirit of the country's new constitution. While the constitution requires the prime minister and cabinet members to divest themselves of all business interests, many officials have simply transferred these holdings to family members. Critics contend that Thaksin and his associates have used government power to enrich themselves. For example, Shin Satellite, a subsidiary of Shin Corporation, a company in which Thaksin's family holds a significant stake, recently won an eight-year tax holiday worth $401 million from Thailand's Board of Investment. This was the first time that this state agency, historically charged with attracting foreign investment, had offered such incentives to a Thai-owned company, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Thaksin's October 3, 2004, announcement of a new year-long war on drugs has raised fears of a new wave of extrajudicial killings. In the first three months of Thaksin's 2003 crackdown on narcotics, 2,245 people were killed, according to Amnesty International, and over 42,000 were blacklisted. Thailand has recently been deluged with methamphetamines and other narcotics from neighboring Burma, and many Thais support the government's attempt to eradicate drugs, even if they are uneasy with the means employed to do so.
Thailand's four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country's four million Muslims, erupted into violence in 2004. In January, more than 100 attackers raided a military depot, killing four soldiers and making off with 400 firearms in an operation whose meticulous planning and execution led to suspicions of outside involvement. In a series of coordinated attacks on 11 bases and checkpoints in April, insurgents killed five members of the Thai security forces, which responded with attacks that left more than 100 people dead. In October, 78 of 1,300 people arrested for demonstrating suffocated in security trucks while they were being transported to a detention center. The government declared martial law in most of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces. Many fear that the government's hard-line approach will backfire by creating fertile recruiting ground for the international terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda, both of which have past links to Thailand.
Much of Thailand's traditionally robust press encountered some type of political pressure in 2004. In such an environment, Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol, used his annual December 5 birthday speech to criticize Thaksin for his arrogance, the insurgency in the South and the government cover-up of the bird flu.
Thais can change their government democratically, as evidenced by the August 2004 election of an opposition Democratic candidate as the governor of Bangkok. Thailand's constitution created a parliamentary system with a two-house legislature. The House of Representatives has 400 seats chosen by first-past-the-post balloting and 100 chosen by proportional representation, all directly elected for four-year terms. The Senate has 200 members, who are directly elected for six-year terms.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that official corruption is widespread, involving both bureaucrats demanding bribes in exchange for routine services and law enforcement officials being paid off to ignore trafficking and other illicit activities. Many critics allege that the nexus between politics and big business is strong and growing. Thaksin has responded to conflict-of-interest charges made by an opposition politician by filing criminal charges against him. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, many Democratic Party legislators now spend more time defending themselves in court than scrutinizing policies in parliament. Thailand was ranked 64 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Thaksin's access to state-controlled media combined with the Shin Corporation's 50 percent interest in ITV, a formerly independent television station that have been established specifically to offer an alternative to state-dominated broadcast media, has narrowed the spectrum of opinion aired on television. The outspoken Nation Group lost is contract to produce news for ITV and was further pressured with advertising boycotts and spurious asset investigations, according to the Nieman Reports. Thaksin associate and current minister of industry Suriya Jungrungeangkit purchased 30 percent of the Nation Group's shares in 2004, leading many to fear that this economic stake will be used to suppress the voice of Thailand's most outspoken media source.
The print press also came under attack, not through formal censorship but through political intimidation, libel suits, and the threat of lost corporate and government advertising revenues, a potent threat to media companies that still carry large debts from the 1997 economic crisis. In February, the editor of the Bangkok Post lost his job when government officials pressured the paper's management about publishing stories deemed too critical of Thaksin. Three editors of the Thai Post and NGO media reformer Surpinya Klangnarong are currently being sued by the Shinawatra family's Shin Corporation for alleging that it had benefited under his administration. Foreign journalists are not immune to pressure from a government that increasingly uses approval of work permit and visa renewals as leverage. Four Far Eastern Economic Review journalists were named in a lese majesty case, The Economist's annual report on Thailand was banned, and a reporter for the International Herald Tribune came under vocal attack for articles critical of Thaksin's economic programs.
Thais of all faiths have traditionally worshipped freely in this predominantly Buddhist society, although Muslims in the South have long complained of discrimination in jobs, education, and business opportunities. Recently, a heightened security interest in Islamic institutions has been deterring Muslims from visiting mosques. This discrimination is not limited to southern Thailand. Muslims in Chiang Mai province have complained that Thai security forces have been entering mosques for what locals claim are heavy-handed and religiously insensitive inspections. Professors and other educators can generally lecture and publish freely.
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice, according to the US State Department human rights report for 2004. Permits are not required for gatherings unless held on public property or organized by foreign nationals, and these are granted routinely. Thailand civil society is dense with non-governmental organizations representing farmers, laborers, women, students and human rights more broadly. Thailand is also home to many environmental groups. Private associations must register with the government and such registrations are granted routinely. With the imposition of martial law in southern Thailand, the rights of assembly and association there have been severely circumscribed.
Thai trade unions are independent, though fewer than 2 percent of Thai workers are unionized. Private employers often breach the country's poorly enforced labor laws with violations that include using child and sweatshop labor and paying workers less than the minimum wage.
Though the judiciary is generally regarded as independent, it sometimes is subject to corruption, according to anecdotal evidence. Suspects frequently spend long periods in detention before trial because of heavy case backlogs, and trials often take years to complete. Security forces have been accused of using excessive force in dealing with unrest in the South. The suffocation deaths of 78 protestors in police custody occurred because they were piled on top of one another. Coming on the heels of the 2003 war on drugs that left 2,275 dead, this incident continues a trend in which Thailand's poorly trained police often are implicated in wrongful killings of criminal suspects as well as abuse of suspects and prison inmates. According to the US State Department human rights report issued for 2004, conditions in prisons and some provincial immigration detention facilities are poor. Prolonged pretrial detention, including of aliens, is also a problem.
Attacks on civilians and government officials continue to occur almost daily, according to Amnesty International. During 2004, a number of prominent activists, including a Muslim lawyer campaigning against martial law in the South, were killed or disappeared.
Many of the estimated one million members of hill tribes have never been fully integrated into society. Reportedly, half of hill tribe members lack citizenship, rendering them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or be covered under labor laws. The government in 2000 made it easier for hill tribe members to gain citizenship, but corruption and inefficiency reportedly have slowed citizenship processing.
Reversing its long-standing policy of harboring refugees from neighboring Southeast Asian nations, in January, Thailand suspended screening of new refugee applicants from Burma by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, according to Human Rights Watch. This followed a July 2003 decision to send all of the estimated 4,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas to border camps, despite the fear of cross-border violence and political and ethnic conflict in those camps. The government, which regularly expels as many as 10,000 Burmese migrants a month, also launched a new campaign to round up and deport more of the estimated one million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Citing systemic abuses in Burma, rights groups have criticized Thailand's toughened stance toward Burmese fleeing their country who are likely to face reprisals once they return.
Some 200,000 or more Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to government and private estimates. Many prostitutes work under debt bondage, forced to repay loans by traffickers to their parents. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, local officials, and immigration officers reportedly either are involved in trafficking or take bribes to ignore it.