Inside Cover: 19 Apr 2010

Inside Cover: 19 Apr 2010

BANGKOK – It is sad to witness the unrest on the streets of this city, but even sadder to see how Thailand’s “fraternal” ASEAN partners are trying to exploit its troubles.

Consider Vietnam. Its ruling Communist Party is openly using the political crisis in democratic Thailand to shore up ebbing support for its own authoritarian one-party regime.

Journalists in Hanoi confirm that the government-controlled press has been instructed to give prominent coverage to the protests in Thailand.

As well, the Vietnamese media have been told to play up the notion that foreign businesses will now be more inclined to invest in Vietnam than in turbulent Thailand.

“It would be logical to say that foreign investors would move their investment from Thailand to Vietnam,” Pham Chien Khu, director of the Research Institute for Social Opinion, part of the Communist Party’s Commission of Propaganda, told the German press agency DPA.

Well, yes, they may. On the other hand, if they are savvy businessmen who take the trouble to do a little due diligence, they may not. Vietnam is far from being an attractive location and is way behind Thailand on every parameter an investor would evaluate.

In the World Bank’s 2010 rankings, Vietnam is 93rd out of 183 countries in terms of ease of doing business. Thailand is 12th.

Indeed, despite all its social volatility, Thailand has notched up three decades of steady growth and remains ASEAN’s second-largest economy and the region’s manufacturing hub. Its balance of payments, national reserves and currency remain strong – in contrast to the endemically weak dong, depleted reserves and burgeoning trade deficit in Vietnam.

And given Vietnam’s double-digit inflation, restless labour force and lamentable infrastructure, it beggars belief that the party apparatchiks could suggest that businessmen might favour them over Thailand.

Wishful thinking, comrades. It is not going to happen. Look at your own figures.

Last year, foreign direct investment in Vietnam fell 70 percent to US$21.5 billion from $71.7 billion in 2008.

Endemic corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, and fearsome red tape are among the hurdles to foreign investment. Officials in Hanoi routinely announce schemes to fight corruption, but they always peter out when journalists are detained for reporting bribery scandals.

The situation, wholly due to the ossified political makeup of the country, will only get worse in the short term as officials jockey for posts ahead of the Communist Party’s 11th national congress in January next year. This internal volatility will have a far greater impact on Vietnam’s economy than the far-off protests in Bangkok.

Besides, Vietnam is hardly free of its own social unrest. There has been a rising number of strikes, protests and land disputes in recent years, often affecting foreign businesses.

On April 5, the strikers gathered on National Highway 1, causing massive traffic jams and when the police arrived and arrested one striker, his colleagues surrounded the police officers and forced them to release the man.

Sound a bit like the Red Shirts? And bear in mind there have been more than 330 similar strikes in the past six months in Vietnam.

And do not be sucked in by those who say Vietnam is no longer a real Communist regime. Last month, the Communist Party’s key decision-making body, the Central Committee, ended its plenary session with a loud public call for more socialism in the coming decade.

Until the party dinosaurs find some direction and loosen up their rigid political and economic controls, Vietnam will never catch up with Thailand.

Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.