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A return to the Land of Smiles

A return to the Land of Smiles

It has been hot in Bangkok recently. The average temperature last month was 40.1C, and all living beings, including plants, pariah dogs and prostitutes, seemed to droop into a drowsy, semi-hibernatory state.

Well, not quite everyone. In a strange echo of the warming weather, the government also became hot – not in a physical sense, of course, but in terms of its popularity with the masses.

Last week, Rajabhat University’s respected Suan Dusit Poll revealed that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s approval rating had risen to 60.4 per cent across the nation.

Approaching one year in the job, Yingluck enjoys the kind of popularity that leaders from Malaysia’s Najib Razak to America’s Barack Obama would die for.

It is not difficult to explain, for she is far from being just a pretty proxy for her fugitive elder brother and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.

As Chulalongkorn University’s trenchant political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak recently noted, Yingluck is “equipped not with a formidable intellect, but an immense charm and common sense”.

They are qualities that few other Thai politicians or analysts, almost all male, appear to even comprehend, let alone possess.

While they sneered, it was Yingluck’s common sense last month that inspired her to pay a New Year courtesy call on the 2006 coup backer and Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda.

Both smiled and chatted amiably. The Thai public was happy.

And Yingluck cannily made peace with the epitome of the royalist establishment, while continuing to seek an amnesty for Thaksin.

So it is little surprise that of the 7,000 Suan Dusit survey respondents, more than two-thirds applauded Yingluck’s performance as PM.

Overall, her government had a 56.8 per cent approval rating and its policies for national unity 50.4 per cent – a stunning figure given the deep divisions exposed in Thai society in recent years.

If that feel-good result were not enough to hearten Yingluck and her colleagues, Thailand’s Consumer Confidence Index brought more cheer when it rose in April for the fifth consecutive month.

Hitting 77.6 points, it soared to the euphoric levels registered after Yingluck’s election victory last July and before widespread floods later devastated the country’s industrial heartland.

In essence, the steady but sure rise of consumer confidence indicated that Thais are buying more and helping boost an ongoing economic expansion.

It is only necessary to travel on the capital’s modern, but already over-crowded Skytrain system to view that expansion in the form of major construction projects on almost every block.

And it is not just new hotels, shopping malls and condominiums going up, but new factories and assembly plants in the hinterland.

Last week, for example, Toshiba Thailand confirmed that despite being hit hard by the floods, it would go ahead with a US$65-million expansion of its electrical appliance operations.

With other firms doing the same, Thailand’s stock market has taken off on a bull run and the country’s overall growth is now forecast at about 6 per cent this year.

Perhaps the most relevant factor contributing to the upsurge has been the sense of political stability engendered by the election of the Yingluck government.

That in itself is astounding, coming after the occupation of the airports by Yellow Shirt terrorists in 2008, the wild counter actions of the Red Shirts two years later, and the massive floods last year.

It is even more admirable in light of the way Bangkok’s mainstream media attacks the Yingluck government at every opportunity and slants its news coverage in favour of the opposition.

Of course, there are still huge problems, not the least of which are freedom of expression restrictions and a long-simmering civil insurgency in the country’s three Muslim-majority southern provinces.

And, yes, there is still the unresolved issue of how to facilitate Thaksin’s inevitable return home, but for the moment things are looking very good in Thailand.

Contact our regional insider Roger Mittion at [email protected]