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Thai economy, and spirits are sagging

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The front page of the International New York Times has a blank space at the center of its front page today in Bangkok, Thailand. The printer of the International New York Times in Thailand refused to print the article posted here, portraying a gloomy outlook for the country, leaving in its place a large blank space at the center of today’s front page.

BANGKOK >> Do not be fooled by the throngs of Chinese tourists clogging the entrance to the gilded Grand Palace, the roads buzzing with traffic or the plastic smiles of hostesses greeting the business lunch crowd at luxury hotels.

Thailand is in a rut.

The economy is moribund and Thai households are among the most indebted in Asia.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the epoxy of a fractured nation who commands divine-like reverence and turns 88 next month, is ailing and has not been seen in public since September.

A military government that seized power last year is showing no haste in handing back power to politicians who have spent the past decade in often violent conflict.

Robberies and other property crimes have risen more than 60 percent this year.

“No one feels like smiling anymore,” said Sompetch Pimsri, a merchant at a fruit and vegetable market behind the Temple of Dawn, a tourist landmark along the Chao Phraya River. “Life is so stressful. I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels like nothing is working in Thailand anymore.”

Thailand was once the torchbearer of freedom and prosperity in Southeast Asia — a center of commerce for Indochina, a bastion of free expression and a home for refugees from neighboring countries, which for years Thais saw as war-ravaged basket cases.

But these days when Thais look to their neighbors, they feel envy, not pity.

To the west, there are signs of a blossoming democracy in Myanmar after the victory of the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over the military establishment that oppressed her for years. To the east the economies of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are showing signs of vigor and luring foreign investors away from Thailand.

“We are moving backward, and they are running ahead of us,” said Samorn Thurapan, a 51-year-old noodle seller who roams the streets of Bangkok on a motor scooter attached to a food cart.

A popular Thai radio host recently told his listeners that the only way to feel better about the country was to leave it. Take a vacation abroad, said Vera Theerapat, the host.

Vera said he sought “sage advice” about the country’s straits from the smartest people he knew. “They all shake their heads,” he said.

“I am not sure if I can take it anymore,” he said on his program, adding that he was considering emigrating.

By no means is Thailand lifeless. The wealthy parts of Bangkok, including the main shopping and business districts, are still jammed, with Thais and tourists. The well-heeled and well-entrenched elites are insulated from the downturn and on some nights still fill restaurants with laughter and cheer. But gone is the notion of a Teflon Thailand, the country that could continue to prosper despite political dysfunction.

The deputy prime minister, a marketing specialist appointed by the junta in August as part of an effort to revive the economy, acknowledges the country’s sour mood.

“People feel dismal,” the minister, Somkid Jatusripitak, said at a conference this month. He compared the country to “a sick person standing in a cold wind.”

Thailand’s malaise set in after nearly a decade of political turmoil. In late 2013, a protest movement led by the country’s elites took to the streets to demand the suspension of electoral democracy. The military obliged, taking power from an elected government in May 2014.

Immediately after the coup, Thais of various political persuasions said they felt a sense of relief that months of protests and street violence were over.

But military rule now seems indefinite and the army seems mostly preoccupied by its critics, detaining professors, politicians, journalists and students and subjecting them to what the junta calls “attitude adjustment,” which often entails signing an agreement that allows the military to seize assets if the detainee criticizes the junta.

The leader of the junta, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, stunned many Thais when he said in a nationally televised address in October that he might be forced to “close the country.” He retracted the comment after an outcry by Thais and puzzlement by foreign businesses.

Around the same time, the Thai news media reported that the government had approved plans to route all Internet traffic in and out of the country through a “single gateway,” effectively giving the military government control over the flow. After another outcry, the junta played down the plan, but it has not rescinded it.

On social media, Thais lament that the country feels directionless. But privately they also report being fearful. At least three people arrested on the criminal charge of insulting the monarchy have died in custody since the junta came to power. The government has given only oblique accounts of these deaths, saying the men died from suicide or illness. In each case, the body was cremated before an inquest could take place.

Some of those who died had connections to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is much less popular than his father, the ailing king. The mysterious deaths have only added to apprehensions about the looming succession.

Thais are also increasingly fearful of crime. Military rule has somewhat paradoxically coincided with a surge in thefts, burglaries and robberies. The national police recorded more than 75,557 thefts and other property crimes in the fiscal year that ended in September, 63 percent higher than the previous year.

Violent crime was up 17 percent during the same period.

Samorn Thurapan, the noodle seller, says the bad economy has made people more hot-tempered. “People are quick to start fights,” he said. “Buddhist teachings are not restraining them anymore. The bad economy has turned everything upside down.”

The economy more than perhaps anything else is a daily preoccupation, especially among the traders and unregistered workers, a group that economists call the “informal” sector and that makes up two-thirds of the workforce. At the fruit and vegetable market, vendors say their customers are not in the mood to spend anymore.

“This is the topic we discuss every morning — how things are so bad,” said Rasami Sidamat, 49, who sells green papaya salad and grilled chicken. “It’s terrible, terrible, terrible.”

Loan sharks charging interest rates of 20 percent a month walk through the market each morning to collect debts.

Yet even the loan sharks are complaining. One, who gave his name as K. Singh, said the poor economy meant people borrow and cannot pay back.

“They close their shops and say bye-bye,” he said. “And we are never able to find them.”

In a wholesale clothing district of Bangkok, many shops are for sale or going out of business, says Thongyoy Phaesuwan, 29, the owner of a clothing business. Her buyers have become cautious and frugal.

“It’s as if people are swarming to eat the tiny bits of meat left on a fish bone,” she said. “It used to be a big fish, but today there are only scraps left.”

The military has been focused on bringing order to a famously disordered society. But Thongyoy faults the junta for its management of the economy.

“I am not dreaming about an ideal government,” she said. “We just want to survive.”

____

Note:

BANGKOK >> The printer of the International New York Times in Thailand refused to print an article above portraying a gloomy outlook for the country, leaving in its place a large blank space at the center of today’s front page.

The printing company called the story too “sensitive” but declined to specify the offending material.

The article, titled “Thai spirits sagging with the economy” in the paper’s other Asian editions, described a moribund economy, pessimism after years of political turmoil and concern about the royal succession. The military took power in a May 2014 coup, and elections that were promised have been put off until at least 2017.

Discussion of the monarchy has always been a delicate matter in Thailand, where strict laws limit frank discussion of the royal family. But freedom of speech has been constricted even further under the military government, prompting many publications and reporters to self-censor to avoid offending the junta.

There was no indication that the government was involved in the decision not to print the story.

An official at Eastern Printing Co. overseeing the newspaper’s account said the printer decided not to publish the article because it was “inappropriate,” without elaborating.

In place of the article was a two-line note that said: “The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand. The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal.”

“It’s sensitive,” said the official, who declined to give her name for that reason. “The printing company has the right to deny printing articles that touch upon inappropriate issues, according to the contract.”

Beyond highlighting a general sour mood among Thais, the article touches on the eventual succession of the ailing 87-year-old king. Insulting the monarchy is punishable by three to 15 years in prison.

Another blank space appeared on page 6, where the rest of the article was to run. However, the article was still available online to readers in Thailand.

This is the second time in three months that the newspaper’s local printer has blocked publication of a piece about Thailand. The printer decided not to publish the entire Sept. 22 edition because it contained an article about the future of the Thai monarchy that it also called “too sensitive to print.”

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, said it was notified about the printer’s decision, but that the newspaper played no role in it.

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