Sunday, 30 May 2010

Thailand article Kent on Sunday today

An article published in Kent on Sunday today, page 27:

Talking Thailand

Tim Garbutt discusses this week’s events in Bangkok.

As I write this the Thai Prime Minister has been impeached and the previous Prime Minister accused of terrorism. The Thai military have removed the Redshirt protestors in central Bangkok and imposed a curfew and the central shopping area has been burned down in protest.

It certainly makes British politics seem rather dull - but a deeply sad situation as my wife is Thai and many of our family live in Bangkok. It’s surreal to see armed troops and rioters in central Bangkok around many of the places I know and consider my home away from Kent.

Living in Kent – a county not known for its ethnic diversity – it always surprises me how interested people are in Thailand. It may be that good food loosens the tongue as my wife owns the Surin Thai restaurant ( – try the sea bass!) or fond memories of holidays to the Serene Kingdom.

The conflict between Redshirts and Yellowshirts in Thailand is puzzling at first – and recently overshadowed by similar unrest in Greece - yet it seems not dissimilar to England at the time of the Jarrow March almost 100 years ago. Redshirts are from the impoverished North East of Thailand wanting social reform and the Yellowshirts are a mix of the far wealthier military and political elite.

The Redshirt protests that started as political rivalry with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (a kind of Thai Bill Gates) and the military’s choice of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – not the first Eton-educated Prime Minister to struggle with elections - has now spread to much greater demands for deeper democracy, a fairer society and less involvement of the military in politics.

The Asian Century is coming to pass and Thailand unlike many Asian nations - Burma, China, Vietnam and Indonesia in particular - has managed to establish a strong democracy. Yet only now is it able to untangle the last vestiges of military involvement.

Asian values too often trade economic growth with a failure to establish a wider civil society and extricate the generals. Thailand is world-class in its tourism approach with over 6% of GDP and hosts over 800,000 UK tourists alone each year - while Bangkok has all the trappings of Western consumerism where it’s possible to shop at Boots and Tesco.

The current conflict and 85 deaths in two months will – at such a cost in blood and treasure - yield greater democratic consensus for what is one of the world’s safest nations.

And even with the current disputes the Thai economy holds steady with only a 2% fall, so I would forecast tourism will likely return for the Xmas peak whether it be via Bangkok or direct flights to Phuket and the West Coast islands. Indeed one reason for the end of the protests – at what is the low tourism season – was the imminent monsoon rains and many Redshirts returning to their farms to prepare the crops.

Bangkok represents the urban face of a hidden Thailand that is over 80% rural – my wife’s Surin Charity for example works with Kent schools to build schools in the poorest regions of the world.

Thailand has some of the world’s best hospitals and strong medical tourism industry yet a rudimentary NHS has only just been created. While education has only recently been extended to age 16 and schoolbooks let alone computers in rural schools are still a rarity, and civil service and police corruption can be endemic.

Yet in the countryside there is still real poverty and compared to England almost no libraries, swimming pools or civic or sports groups that form the weft and weave of civilisation. As here growth seems to result in ribbons of roads connecting ever more shopping malls ands urban sprawl.

And Kent? Well, the similarities with Thailand are noticeable. A rural and agricultural economy, small market towns, ever warmer climate, a reliance on tourism and green industries. Yes but what about Kent you say. Indeed.

Perhaps the greatest impact here in Kent will be the loss of inbound language tourism business from Asia for our language schools and universities.

If Kent still relies on a post-industrial economy of road-building and construction then Thailand certainly indicates how solar energy, local markets, the food and drink sector, heritage focus, crafts and artisan industries and tourism can lead prosperity.

While Kent should be able to market its public service ethos in education, governance, policing and so on to Asia. More could be done on trade tariffs to encourage UK-Thai trade: only 2% of Thai exports reach the EU.

Bangkok, as a massive urban hub, is the price that has been paid for a dizzying pace of development with the ancient canals of what was the Venice of the East filled in for congested motorways and pollution and the almost no planning restrictions ensuring the lowest ratio of urban parks in the world.

A price we seem to be willing to continue to pay in Kent – while future generations will pick up the bill.

Yet here the UK Parliament still has to highlight the scale of over 50,000 UK deaths from air pollution and 39,000 from shipping pollution – a death toll equivalent to the annual death toll from cigarettes. We have a stable and democratic society yet the silent killer in Kent is the failure to curb kerbside pollution for the future.

Certainly Asia has far more quickly embraced the real dangers of Climate Change while, shockingly, even broadband and wifi are far more accessible in most Thai towns than Kent.

Kent faces stagnation with persistent under-performing of the coast – in contrast to the tourism development of the Eastern Thai seaboard and peninsula - whether it be Margate, Medway or Dover and persistent under-investment in green technologies and modern utilities such as broadband and wifi.

Thailand, now Greece - only a year or two ago unrest in Hungary and Latvia - recently Iran and Kyrgyzstan, Burma and the failed coups in Philippines are all instantly visible on the Web and TV – again a harbinger of Asia’s booming and excellent film, TV, web and advertising industries is this weeks Cannes prize for the Thai film “Uncle Boonmee”.

Kent doesn’t yet face becoming a mirror of Hong Kong as an entrepot off the EurAsia continent but the signs are there.

Thailand is not alone with most of Asia in less than a generation of lifting itself out of what was thought of as endemic poverty. and now greater social freedoms are required.

Without such reforms the Asian Century will falter – while the Redshirts call for UN oversight perhaps heralds the first signs of a UN Century of social justice, democracy and environmental protection – the UN Millennium Goals and Responsibility to Protect provide the first real calls for effective global governance.

I hope you have the chance to visit Thailand as soon as possible and over the Xmas peak. Like the national symbol of the Garuda bird central Bangkok will rise phoenix-like from the current dispute within weeks.

While, with Climate Change and the pressures on the Kent environment, there’s much more we should be doing here to preserve and improve our way of life.

Tim Garbutt is Managing Director of Sincerity Agency the East Kent green and ethical advertising agency:

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