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Thailand’s Year of Contrasts as 2024 Beckons

Fireworks explode over the Grand Palace during the New Year celebrations, in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 1, 2024.
Fireworks explode over the Grand Palace during the New Year celebrations, in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 1, 2024.

Thailand has seen an eventful year filled with twists and turns that has reshaped the country’s political and societal landscape.

A new government has ended nearly a decade of military rule, but the wishes of Thai people remain unfulfilled.

Thailand saw a return to power for the Pheu Thai party, now led by real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, following the May general elections.

Pheu Thai’s pathway to government meant they had to form a coalition including pro-military parties after election winners the Move Forward Party were blocked by the Thai Senate.

But the return of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra following 15 years of exile could boost optimism towards Pheu Thai. Party founder Thaksin had been sentenced to eight years in prison upon his return but was given a royal pardon slashing the sentence to just one year.

That leniency, and his popularity, have raised questions about how Thaksin’s influence will affect Thailand’s political landscape in the future.

Economic focus

Prime Minister Srettha has pledged to focus on improving Thailand’s economy.

“The so-called holiday period for the Srettha administration is likely over now and the public will expect more results in how the government will spur economic growth following lackluster economic performance for nearly a decade under the military and semi-military regime,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist and analyst told VOA.

The World Bank estimates Thailand’s economy will grow by about 3.2% in 2024. Thailand’s growth rate was considered lackluster in 2023, reaching the lower end of its previously forecasted range of 2.5% - 3.0%.

Srettha’s main pledge is the promise of a digital wallet handout of $290 (10,000 Thai baht) to 50 million Thais in 2024 to boost the local economy. But observers are skeptical of Thailand’s 30th prime minister’s ability to accelerate the economy.

One way could be through further foreign investment.

Srettha has met with U.S. President Joe Biden, and sought investment from tech giants Google and Microsoft. He has courted China leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to boost trade and tourism. Srettha has avoided taking sides on global political tensions but wants the world to know that Thailand is open for business.

Tourism returns

One of the most crucial industries for business in Thailand is tourism. In 2019 more than 39 million visitors arrived in the country, contributing 12% of Thailand’s gross domestic product.

Since taking office, Srettha has tried to boost tourism by loosening visa restrictions for visitors from big markets such as China, Russia and India. Thailand now expects 27 million international visitors by this year's end.

Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst, believes Thailand will be pleased with the number of arrivals this year, but the country will need to evolve to remain competitive.

“Tourism in Southeast Asia in 2024 will be highly competitive and destinations must diversify their travel offerings, engagement strategies and inbound market mixes to cater to both short-stay visitors and travelers wanting to explore more of the country over an extended period of time. Finding that balance will be challenging,” he told VOA.

But tourism could be affected should officials not find a solution for Thailand’s sporadic mass shootings. Thailand suffered its third mass shooting in as many years at the popular shopping mall in downtown Bangkok in October, when a Thai minor killed at least three people, including one Chinese national. The killing saw thousands of concerned Chinese tourists cancel their trips to Thailand.

Thai officials still insist Thailand is a safe destination and have predicted 35 – 40 million international arrivals in 2024.

But the shootings have also prompted government officials to look at Thailand’s gun laws, some of the most lenient in Asia.

Tourism could also be hampered if Thailand sees a return of street protests and political unrest.

Despite winning the most votes in the 2023 general elections, and being backed by millions of Thai youths, the Move Forward Party’s future is uncertain over its calls to amend Thailand’s royal defamation law.

Next year Thailand’s Constitutional Court will rule whether the party’s controversial pledge undermined the monarchy.

If they agree that it does, the party risks being dissolved. Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, once a president-elect, also faces political disqualification in 2024 over allegations of having shares in a media company prohibited by Thai law.

“For the meantime, the agenda for monarchy reform, a key aspiration among many young politically alert voters remain unfulfilled as Move Forward Party is the only party pledging for the reform. Come January the party could be disbanded by the Constitutional Court if found to have acted unconstitutionally by making the electoral pledge to reform the controversial lèse-majesté law and its former leader Pita Limjaroenrat who pushed for the policy banned from politics for 10 years. Thus, uncertainties loom large in January 2024,” Pravit added.

Digital rights declining

According to an annual report released in October by the Manuysha Foundation, in partnership with Freedom House, Thai authorities continue to persecute dissident and opposition voices online.

Emilie Palamy Pradicihit, founder of Manuysha, says addressing online persecution is “crucial” for the new government.

“The pervasive use of surveillance technologies against political activists further compounds these challenges. Looking ahead to 2024, addressing these issues is crucial for fostering a more open and inclusive internet environment,” she told VOA.

Marriage equality bill

Thailand is progressing in its effort to pass a marriage equality bill. If the law is passed, Thailand would be the first country in Southeast Asian to allow same-sex marriage.

Mookdapa Yangyuenpradorn, a Thailand human rights associate at Fortify Rights, hopes the law will pass.

“The parliament’s decision is a monumental step for Thailand to provide full and equal rights for LGBTI+ people. We mostly hope to see the bill gets passed, at least in the parliament house before June, so that we can celebrate in Pride,” she said.

Cannabis policy

In June 2022 Thailand's Food and Drug Administration officially delisted cannabis from the country's narcotics list, which has sparked thousands of cannabis stores, and pop-up stalls to open throughout Thailand.

But Srettha told U.S. media in September that Thailand would seek a law to allow cannabis use only for medical reasons.

The comments have Thailand’s cannabis community concerned. But Kitty Chopaka, a cannabis activist in Bangkok, insists cannabis is here to stay.

“Going back is not an option no matter what our PM said. The only way forward is to regulate,” she told VOA.