BANGKOK — After each major Bangkok street protest finally fizzles, a fresh damage tab is drawn for the torched city buses, seized airports, tour group cancellations and even mangled shrubbery at the often-seized prime minister’s compound.
But there’s a less tangible price, business leaders say, extracted each time CNN beams out footage of wild clashes in Thailand’s capital. The unrest confuses and generally freaks out foreign investors — at a time when Thailand needs them more than ever.
When it comes to ease of doing business, Thailand is actually growing more competitive, said Judy Benn, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.
“But this has really been overlooked by foreign investors. All they see are burning buses, OK? And riots in the street,” she said. “How do investors tell their boards back in New Jersey, Ohio or Texas that Thailand is a safe place to do business?”
Thailand remains mired in a political crisis fractured along class and regional lines. The past year’s tit-for-tat protests in Bangkok — waged by pro-establishment crowds wearing canary yellow or anti-government crowds in fire-truck red — have produced must-see visuals for international TV crews.
When protests peak, Bangkok can resemble the Gaza Strip on air, even though deaths are extremely rare and the ruckus is generally confined to a few blocks. That’s very hard to convey to American businesses, Benn said. “This just doesn’t happen in America. You don’t have groups taking over the White House and camping out.”
Political turmoil is a staple of Thailand, which has seen 18 coups since the royal family ceded absolute control in 1932. Despite the revolving door of politicians and military rulers, Thailand’s economy has boomed — growing its GDP an average of more than 6 percent per year since 1952.
That’s because Thailand’s real backbone is a “strong bureaucracy that’s small and market-oriented,” said Kirida Bhaopichitr, senior country economist for the World Bank.
Thailand’s “technocrats” — or highly specialized bureaucrats — are slowly pushing ahead with reforms to make Thailand more foreign business friendly, she said. But they’re not necessarily taking cues from politicians or the political mobs that protest on their behalf.
“Politicians come and go,” Kirida said. “But I see the public sector continuing with reforms. If the government changes, it doesn’t mean they’ll stop reforms.”
Thailand placed 13th — two spots higher than the previous year — in the most-recent World Bank analysis of foreign business friendliness. The study measures bureaucratic delays, contract enforcement and other barriers.
It’s also more competitive for foreign business than India or South Korea, according to the 2009 World Competitiveness Yearbook, put out by Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development.
The institute bumped up Thailand one ranking to 26th this year in its measure of economic performance, quality of life, government efficiency and other factors. Current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — who came to power in December in the wake of raucous street protests — has publicly pledged to improve this ranking.
Business leaders pay attention to these rankings, said Greg Watkins, director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. But they also recoil at BBC footage of Bangkok’s main airport swarmed and shut down by protesters with clubs and iron bars.
“There tends to be a superficial knowledge of Thailand, certainly in business,” Watkins said. “The senior management that’s engaging actively in Thailand, and working the deals, has to persuade his board that Thailand is a good place to invest. Even when they see airport closures.”
Likewise, American execs in Bangkok spend “very long nights” on the phone with their boards back home each time a new protest flares up, Benn said. This compounds the greater problem in Thailand: an economic slowdown that has seen industrial production drop for the past eight months. The kingdom, which relies on exports for roughly 60 percent of GDP, is suffering from the Western world’s diminished orders of automobiles, electronics and rice.
Thailand’s rurally backed, anti-government opposition movement is still sporadically protesting in Bangkok, though with much less intensity than their April melee which required an army crackdown.
But perhaps foreign business heads shouldn’t fret so much about political turnover.
When a British businessman planning a massive investment wanted the lowdown on the opposing faction’s take on foreign business — just in case — Watkins set up a private talk with a senior opposition party leader.
“It was very interesting,” Watkins said. “Their views on (foreign business) were basically the same as the current government.”