Thai business leaders carry on despite violence

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Bangkok after a few weeks of relative peace, Sunday saw hundreds of anti-government protesters gather and demand early elections. That's despite a state of emergency that's been in place since mid-May when some 90 people died in an outbreak of violence. But despite this, and two bombs that went off in Bangkok last week, some business leaders are trying to project an image of business as usual. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports.

DAVID BARON: Two recent bombings in Bangkok have raised tensions again in Thailand. The country had already been on edge for years. And demonstrations spiraled into political violence this past spring. The protests pitted the so-called ?Red Shirts,? supporters of the ousted Thai prime minister, against the current government. The crisis hurt Thailand's reputation as an attractive destination for tourists and investors. Still, The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports that some business leaders in Bangkok are sending out the message that all is well in Thailand.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: You don't have to tell Boonprong Pinthukanok how much the Thai economy has taken a hit from the recent unrest. Her street stall, selling spicy Thai salads, sits on the edge of the park that the Red Shirts occupied.

THAI SPEAKING

MAGISTAD: She says, she had to stay away for two months. Two months when she had no income. She had to hock her jewelry to pay the rent. She hopes it doesn't all pick up again, because at age 61, she says, it's hard to keep starting over. Just down the road at an open-air restaurant, owner Chai Ingkapatana is also glum. Are you worried about there maybe being more violence in the future?

CHAI INGKAPATANA: Of course.

MAGISTAD: Why?

INGKAPATANA: Why? Because the big boss not give up.

MAGISTAD: The ?big boss? is billionaire and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup four years ago. He was the hero of the Red Shirt movement, and it's believed he helped finance the protests. But for all the pessimism on the street level in Bangkok, up on the penthouse floor of a nearby office building, a panel of businessmen talked up Thailand's future. Bill Heinecke runs the tourism company Minor International.

BILL HEINECKE: I think we've seen travelers to Thailand becoming much savvier than they used to be. And understand the risks of these recent events. And often, despite sensationalized media coverage, they'll still come to Thailand.

MAGISTAD: Actually, hotel occupancy rates plunged below 20% just after the protests, and are only 40% now. That's still way below normal. Dusit Nantanakorn, the Chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, says tourism in Thailand has unquestionably taken a hit. But he says it accounts for just 7% of the Thai economy, and other sectors like manufacturing, have been bouncing back. The problem, he says, is that the political uncertainty has new investors thinking twice before coming in.

DUSIT NANTANAKORN: Ten years ago, this is the heaven. This is paradise. You don't have any problems. Everything is so nice. You enjoy working in this country. You enjoy working a high skilled laborers. You can enjoy your nightlife here really well, and you can play golf every weekend.

MAGISTAD: But now, he says, the situation has changed a lot. The current state of emergency may not be doing much to soothe investor and tourist anxieties, but Dusit believes it's best left in place until the government is sure it can maintain public order. Still, the expat businessmen on the panel blamed the media for tarnishing Thailand's image. Nonder von der Luehe chairs the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand.

NONDER VON DER LUEHE: For those people who have seen those negative pictures going around, with negative press going around, it's very, very difficult to make a decision and put their money here to Thailand.

MAGISTAD: Tourism company head Bill Heinecke says despite the occasional bomb in Bangkok, he thinks it's as safe as anywhere.

HEINECKE: Yes, there was an explosion that took place 500 meters from here, and for that, I think everyone is probably very sad to see what happened. But how many people died from drunk driving last night? Would you care to comment? How many ran the risk of being killed by a drunk driver?

MAGISTAD: There's a certain amount of risk in living life, he says, so tourists should keep on coming. But back out on the street, restaurant owner Chai Ingkapatana isn't so keen about the risks he and his business face, if the Red Shirts take to the street again.

INGKAPATANA: Because Thai economy not so good. If they have problem, everyone has, too. The business not so good. I think it's getting worse. Getting worse.

MAGISTAD: Ground realities in Bangkok don't always match the view from the Penthouse. But down here, on the fringes of Lumpini Park, is where small businesses felt it worst and where they may feel it first, if a new wave of unrest strikes again. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Bangkok.