Thailand’s Political Crisis and the Economic Rise of its Eastern Seaboard

Thailand Regions MapNews that a Thai court had just ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to my attention yesterday just as was beginning to prepare a lecture on the politics, culture, and economy of Thailand. I immediately began to assemble a series of maps showing the geographical contours of Shinawatra’s powerbase. According to the conventional story, the populist (former) prime minister, like her brother Thaksin before her, gathers most of her support from the relatively poor and agrarian north and northeastern regions, whereas her establishment-oriented opponents find most of their support in the relatively wealthy Thai core area around Bangkok, as well as in the south and west. But when I examined the most recent economic and political maps, it quickly became apparent that story is a bit more complicated.

Thailand 2011 Election MapAs it turns out, most of the provinces in the greater Bangkok region had actually voted for Shinawarta’s Pheu Thai party or other populist parties in the most recent election (2011), although Bangkok itself did support the main opposition party, the conservative (or classically liberal) Democrat Party. The Democrat Party also performed very well in the “middle-income” southern and western regions of Thailand.

Thailand GDP by Region MapThe big surprise, however, came from the most recent map of Thailand’s per capita GDP by province, posted in the Wikipedia. As it turns out, greater Bangkok is no longer wealthiest part of the country, at least according to this metric, having been surpassed by the Eastern Region, also known as the Eastern Seaboard. The discrepancy is pronounced, with Rayong Province posting a “First World” figure of $40,277, greatly surpassing Bangkok’s $15,830. Not surprisingly, both figures dwarf those of Thailand’s Isan (or Northeastern) region, with Amnat Charoen Province registering a paltry figure of $985. As the electoral map shows, most of the prosperous Eastern Region supported the conservative Democrat Party in the most recent election, although well-off Chonburi province gave its support toPhalang Chon, a small populist party led by a former supporter of the Shinawatras.

Thaland Regional Economic GrowthThe economic rise of Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard is relatively recent, as can be seen in the graph posted here, which terminates in 2010. Since 2011, moreover, the region has continued to surge ahead in industrial development. The main reason’s for the east’s ascendency is spelled out in the Wikipedia article on the region, as are some of the trade-off involved:

The [Eastern Seaboard] region is home to many huge industrial estates. …

However, development hasn’t come without consequences. Serious problems resulting from pollution have plagued the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong, an industrial zone for petrochemical and heavy industries that has suffered from heavy metal and organophosphates poisoning. Factory workers in the region are among the highest paid in Thailand, often more than doctors in the region, but occasionally suffer physiological ailments.

Besides heavy industry, Thailand’s eastern seaboard is also noted as a tourist destination and settlement zone for well-heeled expatriates. This combination may seem odd, as petrochemical plants and tourism tend to be mutually exclusive, but the region is apparently large enough for both. The same Wikipedia article quoted above also outlines this side of the regional economy:

Other than its manufacturing and shipping industries, [the eastern Seaboard] also has a diverse service sector consisting of the tourism, construction, and retail industries. Pattaya, the major tourist city, is also located here, and is only second to Bangkok in Thailand for the number of high rises. The region is also popular as a retirement area for foreigners.

Left out of this brief discussion is Pattaya’s main draw: commercial sex. As Macao and Las Vegas are to gambling, Pattaya is to prostitution. For visual evidence, all one has to do is conduct an image search on the city. But other tourist draws exist as well, and more are coming. According to a recent article in the Pattaya Mail:

One of Pattaya’s most long awaited tourism attractions, the Cartoon Network Amazone water-park, is on schedule for a summer opening in July of this year.  Located in Bang Saray, approximately 14km from Pattaya, the project is the first internationally branded water park in Thailand and is touted to put the country on the global theme park map.

Other recent news headlines from the city include: “Drunk, broke and lovelorn, Russian arrested for stealing ‘white spirits’”; and “Miss Tiffany’s Universe Transgender Beauty Contest Held in Pattaya.” As the latter article notes:

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Tiffany’s show in Pattaya and this was the 16th Miss Tiffany Universe contest with all of the transsexual or transvestite contestants, aiming to promote human rights for the trans-gender population in Thailand.


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Pattaya Thailand: From American Troops to Russian Prostitutes

The three maps of U.S. foreign military bases posted in Geocurrents yesterday all show an American military presence in Thailand. The contingent exists but is tiny, amounting to 113 troops in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. The force is designed “not only to promote the initiatives and interests of the United States, but also to report and assess any concerns, political or otherwise, in the country.” The American military also periodically engages in joint exercises with the Royal Thai Army and Navy, most recently in 2010.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the story was different. The U.S. air war in Vietnam essentially operated out of Thailand; many more American Air Force personnel were based on Thai territory than on Vietnamese. Even then, the U.S. did not officially maintain Thai airfields. Local officers remained officially in charge, with a so-called gentleman’s agreement allowing effective American control.

U-Tapao airbase, 90 miles (140 km)southeast of Bangkok, hosted the U.S.’s B-52 Staratofortress bombers and their pilots. American servicemen found a local “rest and relaxation” center in Pattaya, a nearby fishing village with a great beach. Businesses soon sprang up to cater to their desires. Bars and brothels multiplied.

When the war ended in the mid-1970s and the Americans departed, Pattaya took an economic hit – but not for long. Civilian tourists began to flock to Thailand in the 1980s, many seeking commercial sex. Capitalizing on its go-go bars and massage parlors—as well as its transportation infrastructure and natural amenities—Pattaya became a major destination. By 2008, it was attracting a whopping 4.4 million international visitors a year: more than Cairo, Beijing, San Francisco, Tokyo, Orlando, or Vienna.

A casual perusal of the Wikipedia article on Pattaya might lead one to think that most foreign tourists come for shopping, swimming, or festivals. The author eventually allows that “Pattaya has derived part of its reputation as a tourist destination due to the sex industry and the resulting wild nightlife, and in many ways the city has become what it is now because of this.” The admission is an understatement; commercial sex is to Pattaya what gambling is to Las Vegas or Macao. To appreciate the magnitude of prostitution in Pattaya one need only search the city on the internet.

Like its clientele, Pattaya’s workforce is international. Thailand’s poor and mostly Lao-speaking Isan region in the northeast is the main source, but Pattaya also employs thousands of foreign sex-workers. Burmese and other poor Southeast Asians are found at the lower economic end of the trade, and in child prostitution; exploitation in this sector is especially severe, with human trafficking linked to the heroin and meth trade in northern Southeast Asia. At the upper end, Russian and East European women are common. Trafficking here is linked to the Russian mob.

If Russians were first attracted to Pattaya for the sex trade, they evidently found much to admire in the area. The city has become a popular winter resort for the elite, drawing more than 800,000 Russian visitors a year. Pattaya even supports a Russian circus. Russians have also been purchasing property and establishing residency. In 2008, one realtor was quoted as saying, “I think this year, Russians will account for 40 per cent of property sales in Pattaya.”

Local officials are certainly concerned about the criminal activities of the Russian mob, but they embrace Russian tourists and their money. As Pattaya People reported in October, 2010: “On Friday afternoon, at the Diana Garden Hotel, North Pattaya, the Deputy Governor of Chonburi Mr. Songpon Jampapan started the “Russian Language Training Program for Boosting Long Term Tourism,” in cooperation with Pattaya City Hall …. This training program aims to help small and medium businesses to communicate with Russian tourists, to help the tourist business, and build good relationships between the 2 countries.”

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