Economy

Thailand, A Foreign Investment Paradox

Thailand saw a record of capital infusion from abroad in 2012, but the country needs critical upgrades, as it remains totally dependent on technology from outside its borders.

Bangkok's Khlong Toei port
Bangkok's Khlong Toei port
Michel De Grandi

BANGKOK — Mother Nature was merciful this year with Thailand and spared the country its usual monsoon rainfalls. The few floods north of Bangkok at the end of September were nothing compared to those that had cost the state $45 billion two years ago as factories trapped in the rising waters and affected production across the whole country.

The shock of 2011 is still on everybody’s minds, especially given that the authorities haven’t done anything since to prevent such a disaster from happening again. As a precaution, some companies that were located north of Bangkok — for instance, in the Ayutthaya province — have tried to relocate southeast of the capital, near the international airport.

Despite these risks, Thailand’s trademark policy — welcoming foreign investments — continues unabated. And there’s no sign that this is going to change, although authorities have softened their stance lately, as they look to move upmarket.

“We don’t want textile industry anymore,” explains Vasana Mututanont, deputy secretary general of the country’s Board of Investment. “We advise investors to go to Cambodia or Vietnam.”

Thailand, which is ranked 17th in industrialized output, wants to move up the list. That’s why it is specializing in food-processing — Thailand is a major rice producer — but also in the automobile industry.

Opening up Bangkok

Located southeast of Bangkok, the eastern seaboard is becoming Thailand’s new industrial center. With a free surface of 17,500 hectares (43,000 acres), this area represents 70% of the space available in the whole country. By developing it, industry is effectively opening up the region of Bangkok and simultaneously positioning itself closer to transport infrastructures such as the international airport and the deep-water port of Laem Chabang.

The whole region is organized around industrial parks or logistics centers highlighted by developers who thus offer land, factories or storage areas for rent. Hemaraj, the current leader in the field, has seven industrial parks for a total surface of 5,800 hectares (14,300 acres). It bought these vast stretches of land more than 20 years ago, when they were still used for farming.

Amata Nakorn, the No. 2 developer, owns more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres), which are home to more than 550 factories with 160,000 workers. The company is also interested in newcomers and particularly in Chinese industrials, to which it has devoted a specific area. “We already have 45 Chinese factories, all export-oriented,” explains Amata Director Viboon Kromadit.

Critical missing element

Seeing these production lines spreading almost as far as the eye can see, it looks unmistakably like Thailand’s actions don’t match its words. Officially, authorities want to transform the country into a knowledge economy. But in fact, there is no true political willingness to develop laboratories for research or to improve the education system.

With few exceptions, “Thailand remains 100% dependent on foreign technologies,” according to a businessman specializing in the automobile industry. “The country is a platform, it doesn’t own any technology.” If it is to become a regional hub, the country must upgrade its infrastructure.

In early 2013, the government announced a plan consisting of 55 projects worth a total of $75 billion to be realized by 2020. These are aimed mostly at improving the country’s railroad network by constructing high-speed rail.

In the meantime, nothing should slow down foreign investments. By welcoming $31.5 billion last year, Thailand smashed all its previous records and is expected to do so again this year. On top of its relatively central location in southeast Asia, the country also attracts foreign investment thanks to a friendly tax system. Its corporate tax now stands at 20%, and newcomers are exempted for the first eight years. But the “land of smiles” is facing tough competition with Singapore — which is already looking into biotech and microelectronics — and Malaysia, which is also looking to move upmarket.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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