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A month after the election, The Land of Smiles is still smiling
Saturday, July 30, 2011

Our Political Correspondent reports: Since before Thailand’s national elections in early July, the Australian and British embassies, among others, have painted a garish picture of life in the Kingdom that’s conflicted laughably with day-to-day reality. The Aussie website warns travelers of possible “civil unrest”, while the Brits dub the political situation “unpredictable” and “sometimes volatile”. Well, we can predict with certainty that the newly elected parliament will meet for the first time on Monday 1 August and a Speaker will be elected the following day. Meanwhile, unrest remains at bay, and volatility has been avoided so far. The Land of Smiles is still smiling from ear to ear.

This is great for residents and visitors alike, but it doesn’t deter the doomsayers. Especially during the past week, scrutiny has focused on the economic policies of PM-in-waiting, Yingluck Shinawatra, the self-styled average, ordinary lady tycoon, whose uncannily fixed smile seems to precede the rest of her by several centimeters.

In the local press and beyond, economists and other sages – many of whom your Correspondent hadn’t previously heard of – have been queuing up to warn against the minimum wage proposed by Yingluck’s new government. Apparently, THB 300 a day is way too much for the average, ordinary Thai in the street, office and sweat shop.

Inflation is already growing, though hardly by Zimbabwean standards. It’s feared that the wage hike will combine with promised spending on infrastructure to push prices up further. Closer scrutiny reveals that, because of its dependence on the export trade, the Thai economy can in fact be more susceptible to outside influence than to domestic initiatives. The Shinawatra will really hit the fan if foreign countries stop buying Thai.

Mind you, the words “spending on infrastructure” fill your Correspondent with dread. Surely, if there’s one thing Thailand needs less of, it’s new roads. Come to think of it, new shopping malls and new massage parlours are almost equally surplus to requirements.

Yingkluck’s ascent to the top job seems likely to be formalised around 10 August. Before that, the election of the Speaker may give an early indication of the lie of the land in the new parliament, dominated as it is by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and the unsubtle influence of her exiled brother, former PM Thaksin. Candidates for Speaker are Apiwan Wiriyachai, the favourite of Red Shirt MPs, and Khon Kaen MP Somsak Kiatsuranont, described as having “distanced” himself from the Reds.

Whenever the Reds are mentioned, it should quickly be added that they are a far less cohesive force than you’d have imagined from the simplistic reporting by CNN and the poor old BBC during last year’s troubles. Even to call them a “loose alliance” is flattering. There are anti-gay pockets among the Reds, as has been seen in Chiang Mai, and as could by heard – if you understand Thai – among the rhetoric broadcast on loudspeakers to the Reds’ encampment in central Bangkok last year.

But the “alliance” also includes honest folk with a justified sense of grievance, and even a few persons of the Left, which is surely good news for those of us who value diversity. After all, in Thailand, a genuine socialist is about as rare as snow.

So your Correspondent doesn’t want to dismiss the possibility of dodgy times round the corner, and foreign embassies are right to remind travelers to pack plenty of common sense with the Imodium and SPF 65. Beyond that, the trajectory of Thailand’s Happiness Quotient, like the staying power of Yingluck’s smile, remains to be seen.

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