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SE Asia Worries Thailand's Unrest Could Spread

Thailand's neighbors are watching the political unrest in Bangkok with growing concern. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has said the protests there could spread economic and political instability throughout the region.

ASEAN has called on the Thai government and the anti-government demonstrators to exercise restraint and to seek a settlement through dialogue and reconciliation. The foreign ministers of Singapore and Indonesia have made similar statements.

Since March, 26 people have been killed and almost 1,000 injured in bomb blasts and confrontations between police and anti-government protesters in Bangkok known as red shirts. The red shirts, made up mostly of rural and urban poor, demand new elections. The demonstrations have disrupted businesses and tourism in the country.

Protests Could Affect Investments

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah says he is concerned that instability in Thailand could lead to a repeat of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Then, the collapse of the Thai baht hurt investor confidence in the region.

"Well its rather too early to assess what would be the direct impact of the development in Thailand on the economy, but we did hope actually that it would not create similar situations [like] in the '90's when the contagion effect of the economic meltdown was felt in our region," said Faizasyah. "But hopefully this is a very isolated case but we are also very hopeful that with our efforts together then we can resolve the situation in a peaceful way."

Michael Montesano with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs says right now most foreign investors see the crisis as specific to Thailand only. But, he says, as the protests continue investment in the region could be affected.

"The only effect that we need to be afraid of is those people on the outside of the region who see the region as a whole, and who have their antenna up to instability and political crisis in Southeast Asia, and who, when they see crisis in one country become skittish about how to deal with investment and the economy and other activities in the region as a whole," said Montesano.

Neighbors Offer Assistance

Thailand's political divisions have built steadily over the past several years, since a military coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

Although Thailand's urban middle class and elite consider him corrupt, he remains very popular among farmers and the poor, because of his anti-poverty programs. His supporters consider the current government to be illegitimate because it came to power in a parliamentary deal after courts ousted two pro-Thaksin elected governments in 2008.

Singapore and Indonesia have offered help to resolve the crisis in Thailand but Faizasyah says it would only be useful if both sides request it.

"We are not interfering in our neighboring issues actually," said Faizasyah. "It must be very clear if there is anyway we can assist in the dialogue, at the request of the government or other parties in this situation then certainly we will be, we are there to provide any assistance available at our disposal."

Montesano says ASEAN's tradition of non-interference in members' affairs and the Thai government's unwillingness to ask for help, will stifle any regional mediation effort. What Thailand's neighbors can do to prevent similar protest movements from spreading, he says, is to address the concerns of the poor and disenfranchised in their own countries.

"I think that other countries in the region would do well to look at the deep roots of Thailand's crisis, and to ask themselves whether their economies and their societies aren't also subject to similar crises," said Montesano.

Apart from that, he says, Thailand's neighbors and the rest of the world can only watch to see how the crisis plays out.