BANGKOK, Apr 8 – If Thailand were to revert and regress from a burgeoning democracy to an entrenching military-authoritarian rule of three or four decades ago, it would not look so out of place in Southeast Asia’s mixed neighbourhood of absolutism, communism, and competitive authoritarianism.
But Southeast Asia has changed dramatically, led by Myanmar’s democratic renewal and consolidating democracies in Indonesia and even the Philippines. Just about whichever way one looks at it, Thailand is certifiably the regional laggard, just about falling off the radar screens of major capitals around the world.
Not long ago, Bangkok was at the front and centre of regional action. As communism engulfed the Indochinese states of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Bangkok became the bulwark in the global anti-communist struggle, a frontline domino that never fell.
Thailand was the centre of anti-communist military operations, refugee relief, development assistance and myriad matters that went into winning the Cold War, including the facilitation of Asean’s formation and its birthplace. Along the way, economic development set in and became entrenched. By the late 1980s, Japan-led foreign direct investment provided a crucial uplift that enabled Thailand to grow from a backwater village to a gleaming modern nation despite the 1997-98 economic setback.
Back then, many regional roads led to and through Bangkok. Diplomats who wanted to build a career went through a Bangkok posting, sometimes more than once. For journalists, Bangkok was where news bureaus were set up to cover at least the mainland countries, if not Southeast Asia in its entirety. Aid workers and humanitarian assistance missions in war-torn societies had to go through Bangkok to reach the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, as then-Burma was autarkic and the Indochina was communist. Tourism boomed, and tourists who were intent on visiting nearby mainland sights and scenes had to use Bangkok as a base. Aviation traffic made Bangkok’s international airport a top global passageway both as transit and destination. Investors in the region had few places to go in mainland Southeast Asia except Thailand. Those were the days.