THE unrelenting stir by Thai opposition “red shirts” has begun to hurt the country’s beleaguered tourist industry although its other economic indicators are still positive. The “red shirts” supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are planning another mass rally in the capital Bangkok tomorrow to step-up pressure on the government for the dissolution of parliament.
The efforts to resolve the issue through dialogue have failed despite two rounds of the talks between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the protesters. The “red shirts” want the dissolution of the parliament within 15 days while the government is offering to do so by the end of this year, a year ahead of the original schedule.
Although the Prime Minister office is still optimistic about a peaceful resolution of the issue, the protesters have made it clear that they are not interested in more talks unless the government accepts their demand for an immediate re-election. They believe that the current government lacks legitimacy as it was installed through a “judicial coup”.
The impasse is frustrating the business and tourism sector in the country.
More than two million Thais are employed in the tourism industry, including hotels, spas, car rental and restaurants. The tourism industry is planning nationwide rallies seeking an end to the “red shirt” protests that have scared away many foreign visitors. The country’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles” has also suffered a heavy blow since late 2008 when the rival Yellow Shirts blockaded Bangkok’s two airports for nine days, stranding hordes of frustrated travellers. The industry has suffered billions of dollars of revenue losses as the tourist arrivals are down 20-30 per cent from last year.
Experts fear that the prolonged protests would also affect investor confidence and international Thai trade. They think the country would lose its opportunity to compete with its rivals as the global economy is recovering.
So far the demonstrations have remained largely peaceful. But a series of small explosions have hit politically significant sites and army buildings, injuring more than a dozen people. Owing to security fears, the Thai Cabinet on Tuesday extended a harsh security law for another week that allows the military to take control of a 50,000-strong force deployed across Bangkok and surrounding provinces to monitor rallies.
The regional and international partners of Thailand are monitoring the situation nervously. The Secretary-General of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan has called for efforts to return normalcy in Thailand. “The dissolution of the House of Representatives to end the political crisis is acceptable to all parties if it takes place under the democratic system. Personally, I want to see the political situation in Thailand return to normal as soon as possible,” he said.
The United States has also voiced support for talks to resolve the country’s political turmoil, and urged protesters to avoid violence. “We are encouraged by the recent talks between the government and opposition leaders,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters adding that the differences should be addressed through democratic institutions and not through violence.
One can still hope that the Thai leadership, across the political divide, will be able to resolve the issue through negotiations in the best interest of the country and its people.