new internationalist
issue 232 - June 1992

Country profile: Thailand

photo by ERIC L WHEATER Bangkok, once lauded as the 'Venice of the East' due to its canals, now has roads paved over most of its waterways and some of the world's worst traffic jams. Tourists expecting exotic, oriental scenes stand gasping rather than gazing amid swirling clouds of exhaust.

Thailand is trying to shed its image of sleaze, pollution, heroin, traffic jams and coups, but it's hard. True, the ruling junta did hold elections in March this year but Thailand lacks experience in democracy: there have been 17 coups and attempted coups since 1932. The elections may have brought fresh faces to the fore but the military retains its grip.

This country, the size of France, is at the hub of a resource-rich region which includes Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its capital, Bangkok, competes with Singapore and other Asian capitals to attract the international companies pulling out of Hong Kong as the British colony nears its 1997 retum to China's ownership. But Thailand is suffering from world recession, causing a slump in tourism and other vital industries.

This is bad enough, but the country is also facing an AIDS crisis, with an estimated 350,000 people HIV-positive. Nearly half a million men are thought to visit more than 200,000 female and male prostitutes every night throughout the country, generating about US $4 billion for the sex industry. The Government is spending millions on AIDS education.

Away from Bangkok, Thailand is trying to solve the problem of endangered animals, smuggled out of neighbouring countries with help from Thailand's drug gangs. Chained, caged or simply killed, these animals are fast disappearing from the region, being transformed into exotic pets or apbrodisiacs.

But there are challenges to the military, some from unlikely sources. A saffron-robed Buddhist monk, for example, is leading a protest against pollution, illegal logging and indiscriminate urban sprawl. He is Prachak Kuttachitto, an ecological Robin Hood, claiming his own Sherwood Forest - Dong Yai National Forest Reserve. He and a handful of monks say their faith means they must live in harmony with nature while teaching others to do the same. But it is not easy.

Conflicts, contradictions and no-win situations abound. The hill people in the opium-rich Golden Triangle were condemned by environmentalists when they switched from poppy production to cabbages, potatoes, fruit and coffee because this resulted in more land being used and caused soil erosion, deforestation and pesticide pollution.

Meanwhile, Thailand's once pristine shoreline is giving way to overbuilt towns and waste dumps and tourists are being advised to swim in hotel pools rather than risk the sewage-ridden sea water.

Richard S. Ehrlich


LEADER: King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX).
Nation Peace Keeping Council military junta leader: General Sunthom Kongsompong.
Prime Minister: General Krapayoon Suchinda.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US $1,220 (US $20,910).
Monetary unit: Baht.
Major exports are rice, rubber, tapioca, prawns, tin, sugar, integrated circuits, precious stones, textiles. Sent to EC, US, Japan and ASEAN countries (Association of South East Asian Nations).

PEOPLE: 55.7 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 26 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Thailand was never colonized, but the Japanese occupied it during World War Two. Eighty-five per cent of the people are Thai, 12 per cent Chinese and the rest hill tribe groups and others.
Religion: Ninety-five per cent Buddhist, four percent Muslim, one per cent Christian.
Language: Thai

Sources: The State of World Population 1992, The State of the World's Children 1992, Bank of Thailand and information supplied by author.

Last profiled in March 1983



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Growing gap between rich and poor; 25% live at subsistence level. Migration to cities.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
85 % in Thai. Very high primary school enrolment.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Tourism and foreign investment, helped by saleable exports.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Self-censorship by press.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Kept out of high positions of office; many poor women become prostitutes.

1983: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 years (US 76 years). Improvements from belier medical care now threatened.

1983: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]



Politics now

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Military junta with democratic face.


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