Sunday, October 12, 2008

Move Thailand's Capital out of Bangkok

In 2005 the military junta that runs Myanmar surprised and puzzled the world by moving the country’s administrative center from the old colonial capital of Yangon to the interior, creating a new city called Naypyitaw. The generals did not deign to explain the reasons for their mysterious move, but it is assumed that they felt safer from the threat popular demonstrations in their fortress capital than in Yangon. Perhaps they even had an eye to the coming of the 20th anniversary of the 1988 riots against the government that convulsed Yangon and left thousands dead.

It may be that the current government in Thailand should take a leaf from its neighbor and move the capital out of Bangkok; it would have a better reason for doing so than Myanmar’s rulers. For weeks now anti-democracy mobs have occupied the seats of government in Bangkok. Legislators have had to be extracted from the parliament building by helicopter. Thailand’s embattled new Prime Minister Somchai Wangsawat, has been running the country, to the extent that it is being run, from the VIP lounge at the old Don Muang Airport, while demonstrators continue their sit-down strike at Government House.

Somchai would do well to decamp, to move out of the VIP lounge, out of Bangkok entirely, and take as many of the government ministries with him as he can to a safer place. Perhaps he should set up temporary shop further north in the friendlier territory of Chiang Mai or perhaps Nakhon Savan.

Unlike Myanmar, Thailand is a democracy, or at least a democracy of sorts in between bouts of military rule. Thailand’s people have shown repeatedly that given a fair vote- and the election in December that brought the current government to power was considered fair - they choose leaders associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a 2006 coup.

The middle classe activists in Bangkok simply won’t accept this result, and so by meeting in or trying to govern from Bangkok, the major coalition partner, now called the People Power Party is, essentially operating from the heart of enemy territory.

The current PM is the brother-in-law of Thaksin, which is obviously a red-flag for the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). I think one has to be Thai or a very long-term and well-connected farang to fully understand the animus that Bangkokers (and others) hold for Thaksin and his followers. I lived there for a year and a half, and I don’t really understand it.

True, there was much to dislike about Thaksin’s administration. He may have been corrupt, he tolerated a vicious extra-judicial campaign against narcotics, and he probably inflamed rather than ameliorated the insurgency in the south. Yet it is hard to believe that people are going to the barricades now over a couple thousand dead drug dealers.

But to return to the question at hand. Thailand has had several capitals since a distinct Siamese identity emerged about 1,200 years ago. Bangkok has been the seat of government for only a little more than than 200 of those years. For that matter, occasional moves have been made to relocate the capital in the Bangkok Era as well.

For some years the King has resided more or less permanently in the coastal town of Hua Hin, about 200 km south of Bangkok, coming to Bangkok only for major ceremonial occasions. Before that he spent many years living at his palace in Chiang Mai.

There was a time, back in the 1970s I believe, when the government considered moving some of the government ministries around the country, including locating some in Hua Hin. If one drives out past the railroad tracks, you can still see where they were demarked, replaced now by housing developments.

The government might move the capital back to the heartland of old Siam, around the ancient cities of Sukhotai or Phitsanulok. Or, it could take a leaf from some other countries, such as Brazil, that have relocated their capital from the coast to the interior to spur development of impoverished regions. That might mean building an entirely new capital city in northeast, known as the Isan.

At the moment the two forces in Thailand seem to be at a stalemate. Moving the capital, or threatening to move the capital might be a game-changer (to use the current Americanism). In any case, the government would have a lot better reason to do it than the generals did in Myanmar.


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