With a branding effort rivaling that of Tommy Hilfiger, Thailand
prepared to receive delegates last weekend to the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok. The welcome mat took many
forms, from roadside billboards to headrest protectors on Thai
Airways. But like many ad campaigns, Thailand's efforts call
attention to its own insecurities.
U.S. and Thai business leaders anxiously awaited the announcement
made Monday of the beginning of negotiations for a free trade
agreement between the two countries. Coinciding with President
Bush's visit to Bangkok, the agreement serves as a natural next step
in an increasingly prosperous trade relationship and deepening
Enthusiasm for the free trade agreement stems not only from the
trade relationship but also from the Bush administration's
commitment to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
It also merges with Thailand's desire to promote itself as a hub in
a region of economic and political uncertainty.
The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has kept to
its economic recovery plan designed to address concerns raised by
the 1997 economic crisis. Mandatory education through the 12th
grade, extension of health care benefits and support for rural
farmers have all proved popular and helped to present a picture of
Thailand as an oasis of stability as it convened the APEC
But the Thai ``comeback'' has had a flip-side: increasing debt,
which has attracted quiet criticism from both business and
pro-democracy forces. Activists say the government is in a slow
slide to unmanageable debt (presently 54 percent of gross domestic
product, while the business community views the rural development
plan as an example of unsustainable handouts and no help for future
The government's detractors also cite the painfully slow growth
of public participation in Thailand's democratic institutions. The
rise in violence, especially a spate of extra-judicial killings tied
to authorities' efforts to combat drugs, has raised eyebrows around
the world. Many observers worry that, far from a comeback, Thailand
may be on the brink of an economic and social collapse.
Many of the government's detractors say that Thailand may not be
ready for real democracy. In the United States, opponents of the
trade agreement can be expected to echo this sentiment, saying we
have no business throwing open our markets to a country that has yet
to prove itself in this arena. But as many Thais I met on a recent
visit observed, democracy is like a marriage: If the two parties
hold out for perfection, the union never takes place. The same can
be said for trade agreements.
FRANCA GARGIULO of San Francisco is the Western region
representative for the United States Council for International
Business. She wrote this column for the Mercury News.