Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
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Oct 15, 2010

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Bangkok

By Jason Szep

BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) – With its gilded temples, tuk-tuk taxis, spicy cuisine and racy nightlife, Bangkok is full of contradictions, congestion and centuries-old exotic allure.

Here are some suggestions from Reuters correspondents with local knowledge to help you make the most of a 48-hour visit:

Oct 12, 2010

Thai cabinet considers curbing inflows with bond tax

BANGKOK, Oct 12 (Reuters) – Thailand’s cabinet met on
Tuesday to consider a 15 percent withholding tax on interest
payments and capital gains earned by foreign investors on Thai
bonds, the latest bid by an emerging economy to tame its
surging currency.

From export-dependent Thailand to fast-growing China and
Brazil, governments are moving to rein in their currencies as
investors, turning their backs on low interest rates in the
developed world, pour money into higher-yielding markets.

Sep 20, 2010

Thai c.bank to relax outflows as currency surges

BANGKOK, Sept 20 (Reuters) – The Bank of Thailand said on
Monday it will unveil measures this week to spur capital
outflows but analysts doubt they can tame one of Asia’s
fastest-rising currencies as emerging markets worldwide see
huge inflows.

With speculation of further easing in the United States and
Japan, and with the European Union delaying its exit from
crisis measures, emerging markets are the destination of choice
for investors searching for yield.

Sep 16, 2010

Myanmar expands private banks with military ties

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Myanmar is expanding the number of private banks in the reclusive state ahead of November elections, a step that looks set to strengthen the hand of businessmen with close ties to the ruling generals.

The banking expansion follows signs of rising investment in the resource-rich country from neighboring China and growing trade links to Southeast Asia, but economists doubt more banks in the army-run country will boost its capital-starved industries.

Aug 31, 2010

Thai stocks, baht seen extending gains as economy rebounds

BANGKOK, Aug 31 (Reuters) – Three months after bloody
anti-government protests, Thailand’s stock market is the best
performer among Asia’s big bourses and looks poised for more
advances as foreign investors catch up with its strong economy.

Thai stocks .SETI are up 24 percent this year at a
34-month high. In contrast, the MSCI’s measure of Asian stocks
outside Japan .MIAPJ0000PUS is down around 4 percent.

Jul 22, 2010

North Korea says U.S. drills pose danger to region

HANOI (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday denounced planned U.S.-South Korean military drills as a grave danger to the region and criticized new U.S. sanctions as “hostile,” urging Washington to focus instead on restarting nuclear weapons talks.

The comments by a North Korean diplomat in Hanoi at Asia’s largest security forum came a day after the United States announced expanded sanctions against the North and two days after Seoul and Washington unveiled plans for joint military exercises.

Jul 19, 2010

N.Korea, Myanmar top agenda for Asia security meet

HANOI (Reuters) – Tension on the Korean peninsula, elections in military-ruled Myanmar and the question of whether the former Burma is developing nuclear arms will top the agenda of meetings of Asian foreign ministers this week in Vietnam.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in Hanoi on Monday to discuss regional security ahead of talks this week with counterparts from China, Japan, North and South Korea, the United States, the European Union and Russia.

Jul 19, 2010

North Korea and Myanmar top agenda for Asia security meet

HANOI (Reuters) – Tension on the Korean peninsula, elections in military-ruled Myanmar and the question of whether the former Burma is developing nuclear arms will top the agenda of meetings of Asian foreign ministers this week in Vietnam.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in Hanoi on Monday to discuss regional security ahead of talks this week with counterparts from China, Japan, North and South Korea, the United States, the European Union and Russia.

May 21, 2010

A divisive figure, Thaksin looms over Thai unrest

BANGKOK (Reuters) – To the rural masses at the heart of Thailand’s “red shirt” protest movement, he is a mold-breaking prime minister, the first leader to pay attention to the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights.

To the Thai government, the urban middle class and the royalist elite, Thaksin Shinawatra is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup and then led a movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smoldering ruins this week.

May 21, 2010

Peace returns to Bangkok, but trouble looms

BANGKOK, May 20 (Reuters) – Order is returning to Bangkok after nine weeks of the worst political violence in modern Thai history, but more clashes or a larger insurrection loom ahead unless authorities quell anger at the heart of recent protests.

Without major reforms to a political system protesters claim favours an "establishment elite" over the rural masses, this week’s bloody dispersal of protesters occupying Bangkok’s commercial heart won’t end a polarising political crisis and could add fuel to the fire.

The "red shirt" protest movement’s figurehead, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup, told Reuters the army’s tough dispersal of protesters could spawn guerrilla warfare.

Analysts say he may be right.

"The suppression of the demonstrations does not in any way end the movement, or at least the sentiments and patronage networks behind it," said Duncan McCargo, a University of Leeds professor of Southeast Asian politics.

But after more than two months of unrest that has killed 81 people and wounded more than 1,800, most expect a lull in the violence as the protesters regroup. Its leadership, run by a trio calling themselves the "three stooges" — adopting a name given them by the government — has fragmented with most in custody.

In Bangkok, where their festive, flag-waving rallies in March began to win over middle classes, the red shirts are now reviled after their six-week occupation of the city’s commercial heart culminated in a night of arson that terrified the city of 15 million people and destroyed property worth millions of dollars.

Residents gasped and some cried as television footage showed Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest department store, gutted and nearly destroyed in smouldering ruins.

But in the heartlands of the north and northeast, a Thaksin stronghold home to just over half of Thailand’s 67 million people, images of Bangkok burning drew cheers — and unleashed violence that including the storming of the governor’s house in Chiang Mai, the region’s largest city.

That’s why Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his royalist backers should worry, analysts say.

"The people in the provinces aren’t likely to shed any tears for the fact that some rich punk in Bangkok can no longer shop at Central World, when dozens of people ‘like them’ lay dead at the hands of the government," said Federico Ferrara, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

"There could be a bit of a lull in their activities now, but I would expect that if the government keeps their leaders in jail, it won’t be long before this turns into another cause celebre," he added.

RURAL DISCONTENT

The high-profile arrest of the protest leaders, some accused of terrorism by the government, could embolden the movement over the longer term by playing to their argument they are victims of double standards in a society that favours the elite.

Laying siege to an area to dislodge governments has become a way of life in Thai politics. In 2008, yellow-shirted protesters who opposed Thaksin’s allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and then blockaded Bangkok’s main airport until a court expelled the government.

Instead of going to jail, one of the figures of that movement, Kasit Piromya, went on to become foreign minister.

Cases like that are at the heart of the discontent among the rural and urban poor in a country where the richest 20 percent of the population earn about 55 percent of the income while the poorest fifth get 4 percent.

"Not much has changed in terms of the support for the red shirts among parts of the population. They rioted last year and it turned into a much worse riot this year. That shows the underlying problem remains and has not been addressed by those in power," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist. "But without a strong central leadership, it’s going to be difficult for them to regroup any time soon," he said.

"The radicals will likely go underground. The organisation may keep going in the provinces led by their own regional leaders who have their own news outlets and their own views on what’s going on."

A bigger question is why this is all happening now.

While there are many factors, providing a complete answer is difficult in a country where discussions of its most powerful institution are off limits due to strict lese majeste laws.

But 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and the country’s sole unifying figure, has been hospitalised since Sept. 19, maintaining a very low profile and not commenting on the current crisis.

King Bhumibol’s son and presumed heir, 57-year-old, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not yet command his father’s popular support, raising concerns about succession in the influential Thai monarchy, a traditional source of stability.

Some political analysts say both sides in Thailand’s polarised political climate are starting to manoeuvre for position in the event of possible changes ahead. (Editing by Bill Tarrant) ((jason.szep@reuters.com; +662 648 9720; Reuters Messaging: jason.szep.reuters.com@reuters.net))

    • About Jason

      "As Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Jason Szep manages text, pictures and television news operations across 10 countries for Reuters. He has been a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief and editor since 1990 and won the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi award in 2007. He is a Boston native and has had postings with Reuters in Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Boston and Bangkok. His assignments have ranged from Kabul and Islamabad to the U.S. presidential campaign trail during the 2008 election."
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