Here’s H. Numan with the latest Coronanews from Thailand.
No more smiles
by H. Numan
I guess it’s about time for an update about the land of the smiles. Not that there is a lot to smile about. The corona — or as I rather refer to it: the Wuhan virus — has been gone for +100 days in Thailand. In that period no new cases developed locally. Some people had to be hospitalized, but they were repatriated citizens or foreigners. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Thailand won’t be lifting lift travel restrictions for the coming peak season (December to February). Almost certainly including the next high season (Chinese New Year in February) as well. Rumors are that restrictions will remain firmly in place until after Songkran, in April 2021.
That means that Thailand will no longer have a tourist industry to speak of when the restrictions are finally lifted. Right now I hear over and over again news that worries me sick. People have started to notice that businesses are disappearing. Famous night markets close down permanently. Beaches are completely empty. Zoos and attractions are declaring bankruptcy. Almost all elephant camps are gone. Their elephants have been released into forests. People don’t realize it, but that is the disappearing of the infrastructure.
Just think about it: many coach companies work exclusively for the tourist market. Sure, they pick up a group of Thai travelers for a wedding or a party. But that is not their core business. They can’t live on it. That means their drivers and mechanics are out of work. Same for tour leaders or staff in hotels and attractions. Those people are now doing other work. You can’t wait forever for a miracle. Not here. It may not be a high-end technical job, but you do need some experience. That experience is now disappearing.
Even if, unlikely as it may be, the government were to lift all restrictions right now, the tourist industry could recover. It will take at least several years for a complete recovery. Possibly the entire decade. Only the government isn’t going lift any restrictions. That means hotels cannot apply for loans at the bank. Nobody knows how long this is going to last. Banks do not extend loans on that premise. Smaller hotels don’t have large financial reserves. Large hotels have some, but not indefinitely.
Practically every hotel in Thailand has been closed since February. Local travel restrictions have been lifted, but that is nowhere near what hotels need to survive. Not to make a profit, but to survive.
The media and the government are insanely positive. The media report widely of the recovery of nature. The famous Maya Bay has been restored completely after a year-long closing. Tigers in wildlife parks have multiplied in larger numbers. All nature parks were and still are closed to tourists since the lockdown began. Wildlife, not surprisingly, is thriving. “See how good this is for nature? We have to focus on sustainable tourism when this is all over. This is really a blessing in disguise!”
As said by the media who don’t make their money in tourism. And by government officials who basically leech off tourism. How bad is it? Really, really bad.
So bad that a sacred institution might be axed. Everyone who has ever been to Thailand knows about double pricing. Especially government-run businesses (famous temples, nature parks, public camping grounds, etc.) have prices in English and in Thai. What you probably don’t know is that Thailand has not only its own alphabet but also Thai numerals. The prices can differ considerably. For example, the entrance fee to the Grand Palace is Bt. 250 in western numerals. The price in Thai numerals is (Bt. 20). Which tourists don’t know, because they can’t read it. Shall we say: An ignorant tourist is a happy tourist? Nobody uses those Thai numerals. It’s a bit like Roman numerals. You learn them, you can read them, but rarely use them. It’s the same here, only we do have a use for them. In double pricing.
Something that doesn’t sit well among expats. For as long as I have been in Thailand (25 years this year) tourists and expats have complained about it. Nothing was ever done about it. Always with the same excuses: you have to understand… it’s our culture… you farangs (westerners) are very rich… and so on.
Now, all of a sudden, the TAT (Tourist Authority of Thailand) wants this double pricing system abolished. It’s unfair, etc. However, not entirely. They want to save as much of it as they possibly can, by introducing an ‘expat card’. Hopefully, those nasty complaining expats will keep quiet while we screw the other farangs. The mere fact that the TAT (always supportive of double pricing) now opens the debate shows the big shots in tourism know they are really in huge trouble.
Now the difficult part. As we are blessed with the strictest lèse-majesté laws in this solar system, I have to be very careful what to write and how to write it. Hope you understand. I don’t fancy 15 years in the slammer. Lèse-majesté applies to all Thai kings and queens, both in the present and in the past. And applies to each offense separately. A man liked seven not-so-flattering pictures of the late king on Facebook, he got 7 x 15 = 105 years in jail. As he confessed, he has to serve merely 52 years. And six months.
As the economy is turning sour, people start grumbling. Not a lot, and not that many. Yet. But the rumblings are there. The good old emergency decree is back in full force. Which gives the government some leeway on how to manage grumbling. That government is the same government that committed the last coup in 2014. They simply resigned from the army, and are retired generals now. The new constitution, the 26th, to be exact, allows the military to appoint 30 generals in the parliament, with veto powers. To protect and preserve the
This does not sit well with a lot of people. There aren’t any mass demonstrations, but that is mainly because mass demonstrations are highly illegal under the emergency decree. Especially the Thammasat students are getting more and more vocal about two items: the restoration of democracy and less influence for the monarchy. They especially want to see those lèse-majesté laws gone.
Where does the king of Thailand live? In Bangkok, you think? You’d be wrong. The king lives in Munich, Bavaria. He travels to Thailand often to perform some of his royal duties, for as short a time as possible. He has a huge problem, as his father was a veritable royal giant. Not only did king Bhumibol rule for an exceptionally long time (70 years), he also did it very well. It’s next to impossible to step into his shoes. I don’t think anyone even expects that. But permanently living abroad is not helping him to gain popularity.
Apart from the harsh lèse-majesté laws we have a near divine king principle. No Thai king ever did anything wrong. Not even in Sukhothai or Ayutthaya. Anything untoward was blamed or caused by the nobility. Never the king himself. We expats joke sometimes about the difference between the divine emperor of Japan and the king of Thailand. The Japanese emperor publicly said he was not divine. No Thai king ever said that, so the people give him the benefit of the doubt. That divine kingship principle is prevalent in South East Asia. Thailand inherited it from the Khmer period. In Cambodia it’s not very different from Thailand nowadays. And Burma wasn’t that much different when they had kings.
Not surprisingly, Thai students aren’t very keen on learning history. Studying a telephone directory is more fun. At least you learn something useful. However, this extreme nationalism is a double edged sword. Even divine kings have to obey some sort of rules.
At this moment the police moved, very quietly, about 9,000 extra police officers into Bangkok to monitor expected demonstrations of students on Sunday.
So far I haven’t seen any demonstration, or spoken with any student. It’s not really a topic you would discuss with strangers. As I am Dutch, where we also have a king: imagine if king William Alexander were to live permanently in Argentina. Only fly home if he really has to. Fly back the very second he can. Quite a lot of people would start asking questions.
That’s something impossible to avoid, whether in The Netherlands or anywhere else. There are also extreme royalists who have beaten up demonstrators. Those royalists have held a few rallies themselves but with almost no public. That to me is a clear sign they haven’t much popular support. Another clear sign is the lack of royal portraits in houses and shops. During king Bhumibol’s reign you saw even in humble market stalls a portrait of him. I haven’t seen any of his successor. None at all. His portrait is only to be seen in large department stores, government offices or along the road. As this is a developing situation, I’ll try to keep you informed.
To end on a brighter note: Thailand is reducing its ties with China a bit. For centuries the Kra Canal has been a dream project that never materialized. It cannot, as the cost is prohibitive. In itself not a problem (the Suez and Panama canals cost more), but not having through sail through the straight of Malacca cannot offset the costs. That’s were the Suez and Panama canals make their profit from. Either you pay the +$100.00 fee, or sail around Africa or South America. The Strait of Malacca is not in that league. One needs a +$ 100.00 fee to make it profitable, but <$10.00 is the most you can charge.
All of a sudden China wants to build it. Why? They can’t build it any more cheaply or make it profitable. The Chinese idea was to loan the money to Thailand (debt trap policy) and gain a significant strategic advantage. All sea commerce coming from Europe, Arabia and India has to pass through the Strait of Malacca. Having a canal nearby would be a strategic advantage well worth the cost for China. The Thai government came to the very wise decision not to build it. ASEAN partners (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia) wouldn’t like it, to say the least. India, America and Australia even less. The Thai government realized the Chinese would collect the benefits, while Thailand would carry the burden. And, like some walls, have to pay for it. Through the nose. The interest China charges on their loans is more commonly charged by sharks.
The Thai government now proposes an alternative: we build two ports on each end of the peninsula, and connect them by rail. Which is not going to happen, either, but it does save face. That is all that matters.
— H. Numan