Thailand in July?

June 27, 2011

Thailand goes to the polls on July 3 and no one can predict the precise outcome of the country’s divisive political battle. How carefully should business travellers tread, pre- and post-election?

Since populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a military coup in September 2006, the world has watched Thailand and its capital Bangkok – a long-stable travel and business hub – grapple with political and civil conflict.

Though this is a country pulled passionately, occasionally violently, between the warring urban, middle-class, royalist, anti-Thaksin, ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ yellow-shirts; and the pro-Puea Thai party, Thaksin-enfranchised, rural, working-class red-shirts (each side has myriad internal divisions and many Thais find favour and fault with both), travellers and in-country expatriates tend not to be much put off by the frisson.

It’s hard to pin down why this is. I was based in Bangkok between 2000 and 2007; the biggest inconvenience I suffered during the 2006 coup was a sudden dearth of taxis to take me home from an amateur dramatics production I was rehearsing the night it was called; three years later, between March and May 2010, my friends’ Facebook status updates complained of a slightly more complicated school run to avoid the besieged central areas of Bangkok held to ransom by red-shirt protesters. At least 91 people lost their lives during this mayhem; blocks away it was business as usual.

In November 2008, yellow-shirt demonstrators, still furious that the People’s Power Party (PPP, made up of Thaksin’s allies) had won the post-coup elections in December 2007, forced the closure of Bangkok’s two airports for eight days, and hence access to much of Indochina. The airport stunt actually worked; PPP was banned, the Democrats took office.

Though the airport closure inflamed travellers’ tempers – especially Americans, who in a real-world twist to the film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, ended up missing Thanksgiving, no one was terrified for their lives. Thailand’s tourist arrivals only dipped by 3 percent in 2009 to 14.14 million and enjoyed a record 15.84 million in 2010.

Why don’t jitters run higher? Is it because we imagine, rightly or wrongly, that the Thais are exceedingly pragmatic, peaceable people? Has the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Amazing Thailand” branding campaign cajoled us into viewing and experiencing the country through a fairytale-world prism; or does the cryptic layout of the vast and gridlocked Bangkok conurbation create the necessary distance and delays that even when hundreds of thousands of people protest outside Government House, the city centre sees chaotic business as usual?

Analysts suggest that if Puea Thai wins, outright or as part of a coalition – the yellows, the army and the courts may all rise up in protest or coup (though Puea Thai’s leader, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, may cut a deal with the army). A coup and its probable retaliation by red-shirts may paralyse downtown Bangkok like it did in spring 2010. If the Democrats maintain control despite a Puea Thai election win due to political/legal complications, the reds’ simmering anger may well boil over. An outright Democrat win is unlikely according to recent polls.

It’s a hard one to call. I discussed the situation with Mick Sharp, Regional Security Director Asia Pacific, Travel Security Services at International SOS to get his take, and began by asking if it’s business as usual in Thailand in the week leading up to the election?

“There’s certainly no rising panic… people are certainly not heading for the exits; they are generally comfortable to stay and manage the scenario,” says Sharp, adding that regular travellers understand that that the Thai government and the military are very keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s standoff. He points out though that despite a calm lead-up, companies will be carefully keeping abreast of any developments in the election’s aftermath.

“If they’re cobbling together a coalition, this can drag on for some time, but I don’t think it’s a given that we’ll see political violence to any great extent.”

What’s Sharp’s advice? “Clarity of information is key, both in a preparatory sense – we ensure that clients are well briefed about both the state of play and how we think the situation is going to unfold. Also, ensuring they have those lines of communication throughout the scenario. In the scenarios we envisage, and with the nature of the threat, typically stand-fast is the best option.”

He went to explain that travellers should avoid sites that are prone to a quick spike in protest action post-election, i.e. government offices, national broadcasters etc. If travellers are planning to be in the wider region in early July, on a tropical Thai island or small Indochinese city, for example, and transiting through Bangkok, make sure to keep abreast of the situation on the ground.

I asked Sharp what he feels is the worst-case scenario from the business traveller’s perspective? “Access to the CBD, airport. In a broader sense, involvement of the military – but that’s not something we’re forecasting. To avoid a similar standoff to last year, the government may need to implement a firm security response which in itself could cause a flashpoint, depending on the outcome of the election and the nature of protest.”

Travel Security Services have a range of options up their sleeve should clients need evacuating, and can make use of commercial airlines or charter widebody aircraft, using the main airport, military airports/landing strips or external airports in nearby Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos.

Caption to main image: Anti-government ”red shirt” protesters hold signs as they gather at Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok’s shopping district June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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