Still far from under control, bird flu is sweeping menacingly through south east Asia. Along with its neighbours, Thailand faces a crisis not just for its poultry industry but also for public health. Paul French investigates whether bird flu might just be the final nail in the coffin of a regime already under threat.

Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is currently facing his toughest political test in the three years since he came to power. Bird flu The political problems now emerging in the country raise the issue of just how authoritarian the Bangkok government has become despite being able to deliver renewed economic growth that makes Thailand one of the best performing South East Asian economies last year.

The new crop of problems prime minister Thaksin is faced with come at a time when Thailand is starting to think about upcoming elections in 2004 (including a general election in late 2004 or early 2005) and when any member of parliament (MP) defections from Thaksin's ThaiRakThai (Thai Love Thai) party could weaken his coalition government. At present Thaksin's coalition controls 364 of the Thai parliament's 500 seats. Though it is one of the strongest coalition governments Thailand has seen for some time it is not invulnerable if defections occur.

Thaksinomics threatened

Despite having largely been praised for engineering Thailand's economic turnaround with a strong-growth domestic economy that has resurged after the low point of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, this growth has largely been powered by additional rural spending.

At present Thaksin is facing a crisis in the rural economy that threatens to lead to growing discontent with his government in the countryside as well as threatening the real, but somewhat fragile, economic resurgence. Thaksin's major problem now is the deadly bird flu outbreak in the region that has centred on Vietnam but threatens to engulf the whole of South East Asia and beyond.

Bad timing for bird flu

Bird flu has surfaced in Thailand at just the wrong time for Thaksin. After largely emerging unscathed from the 2003 SARS crisis, this time Thailand appears to be a major hot spot in the outbreak of bird flu. Additionally, the bid flu crisis follows on swiftly from some recent deadly attacks in Thailand's southern provinces that indicate that despite government pledges to combat rural crime it is still persisting, and from the still controversial anti-drugs campaign in 2003 that led to attacks on the government by human rights campaigners who saw the crack down on drug dealers and users as overly harsh and deadly. At the same time problems persist in key sectors of the economy with a downturn in visitor and tourist arrivals to the country and problems attracting foreign inward investment.

It now appears that Thaksin learnt little from the experiences of SARS in other regional countries, notably China. After clearly seeing the additional problems covering up SARS caused for Beijing last year, Thaksin is now in trouble for having himself initially covered up the extent of the bird flu outbreak in Thailand. Only last Friday, after the outbreak had caused alarm in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan, did the government come clean on the situation in Thailand. In the short term the outbreak of bird flu will impact severely economically on the country's poultry farmers as well as restaurants, food stores, distribution companies and other rural workers as well as causing public disquiet over government transparency and food safety in the Kingdom. Chicken consumption has effectively been completely curtailed with the public concerned now that they have not been told the truth about the extent or virulence of the outbreak. Several key groups of workers affected by the outbreak - butchers, retailers and distributors - are seeking compensation for losses during the crisis.

Analysts believe that Thaksin was concerned that a major outbreak of bird flu could erode his support in the rural areas of the country. This year Thaksin will have to call a general election, which is most likely to be held in the early part of 2005. However, over the next year there are a variety of local elections to be held including the crucial and usually hard fought election for Bangkok's mayor in August 2004. Any major downturn in the rural economy that may have major repercussions for the whole country would put a dampener on the reputation of Thaksin's economic policy - the so-called strategy of Thaksinomics. While Thaksin may retain support in the cities this is problematic as the large number of rural migrants in the cities as well as the fact that a large percentage of Thailand's urban dwellers are only one generation away from the countryside means that rural issues can very easily turn into national issues at election time.

A major plank of Thaksinomics was an empowering of Thailand's rural poor through the introduction of micro-lending schemes to kick start thousands of small-scale economic initiatives throughout the countryside. However, the failure of the government to come clean over the bird flu outbreak and advise farmers has led to massive deaths among the chicken population angering farmers who were not advised how to deal with the situation and argue that better information at an earlier date could have prevented the spread of the outbreak with strategic culling and quarantine measures.

Dead poultry & dying politicians

The numbers involved in the poultry industry are not insignificant (apart from the fact that chicken is a major component of the national diet) and the country has approximately 30,000 chicken farms, most being small-scale and many not likely to survive financially if the crisis is prolonged or compensation delayed or even not forthcoming. As yet no compensation package has been announced.

Naturally the owners and workers of these 30,000 farms are voters and it is the rural MPs who are now threatening to revolt unless the government takes a more pro-active stance in fighting the outbreak of bird flu and instituting some sort of realistic compensation package. While a large part of Thaksin's political constituency is based in the rural areas his cabinet is seen as largely representing big business and not always in tune with the needs of smaller businessmen. Thaksin himself is extremely wealthy and effectively controls Thailand's telecommunications system.

At present most MPs are remaining with the Thaksin led coalition though there have been increasing calls for the deputy agriculture minister Newin Chidchob to resign. The deputy minister was the politician who most vocally and publicly denied accusations that bird flu had spread to Thailand. Additionally, Thaksin is under increasing attack from the press who have seen the failure to be open on the bird flu question as further evidence that the government is increasingly authoritarian. The press was highly critical of the authoritarian crack down on drug dealing and use last year and sees the bird flu issue as another example of corporatism in the government. This loss of press support is a major sea change for Thaksin, who is himself a media owner and has generally been treated kindly by the press since his election.

Just how Thaksin will respond to these new challenges is unclear at present. Clearly the prime minister will not wish to enter the election season with an angry and oppositionist press and rural discontent simmering. Therefore most analysts expect that the government will eventually put together a compensation package for the affected rural communities and attempt to portray itself as a more listening administration. It also seems likely that in the political fall out over the next few weeks several senior ministers may find themselves unemployed.

Paul French is the Shanghai-based Publishing & Marketing Director of research publisher and business information supplier Access Asia. He is co-author of the book 'One Billion Shoppers - Accessing Asia's Consuming Passions After the Meltdown' (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1998, London). You can contact the author at paul@accessasia.co.uk.

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