Bangkok Protests Roil The Thai Economy

Jan 15, 2014
Originally published on January 15, 2014 7:44 pm
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Protests have also blocked much of the center of Bangkok. Demonstrators want Thailand's caretaker prime minister to step down, to be replaced with an unelected people's council. Nonetheless, the prime minister says she plans to go ahead with elections slated for next month. As Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, the political turmoil is affecting the local economy.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The protests haven't had the desired effect of bringing Bangkok to a halt. In fact, there's money to be made in and around the protest sites. Just ask 39-year-old Nang(ph) selling shutdown-Bangkok, restart-Thailand T-shirts on the sidewalk at the Asok protest venue. She's moving a lot of T-shirts at 150 baht, about five bucks a pop. How many?

NANG: I'm not sure, 200 or 300.

SULLIVAN: Three hundred T-shirts a day?

NANG: Yes.

SULLIVAN: This protest is good for you.


NANG: Good.

SULLIVAN: She won't say which side she supports, only that she's making far more here on a daily basis than she makes at her usual stall a half mile down the road. Sidewalk food vendors in the protest areas are doing well, too. And tourism, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the province's GDP, that's another story.

YUTHASIL SILAPASORN: My name is Yuthasil Silapasorn. I'm the general manager of the iCheck Inn group.

SULLIVAN: Yuthasil's group runs 10 hotels in Bangkok, including the one we're sitting in. It's a midrange hotel chain that's almost always full or close to it. But occupancy now is a problem.

SILAPASORN: Maybe look from tomorrow until the end of this month, it's not over 50 percent.

SULLIVAN: He says high-end hotels that cater to business travelers and upmarket tourists are doing even worse since the protests intensified. That's a lot of cash during high season, but Thailand's tourism authority continues to put on a happy face in the land of smiles, insisting the country is open for business as usual. Tell that to travel agent Ratia Tontonlan(ph) whose business has dropped by more than two-thirds.

RATIA TONTONLAN: Seventy percent, 70 percent, because there have been nothing, even this week also.

SULLIVAN: But you know what, she doesn't care if the protests manage to get rid of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, deposed and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But she says Yingluck and her brother have perverted Thai politics and taken corruption to a new level.

TONTONLAN: Even I know corruption every country, but this is too big, too big. Even - OK, someone say, 50-50, OK. I don't mind 50-50, but this is 80 and 20.


SULLIVAN: Eighty percent skimmed off the top is just a little too much for Ratia, and she's not alone in her pessimism. Thailand's stock market has lost about 10 percent since the protests began two months ago. And don't forget the Thai baht, now at its lowest level in more than three years.

Back at the CitiChic hotel, the staff is a perfect mirror of the current political divide. A woman who works at reception is vitriolic in her hatred of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin, and she wants both gone from Thai politics for good. She is middle class and she's a city girl. But one of her colleagues from the countryside is a firm supporter of Yingluck and her party and sees the opposition effort to create an unelected people's council as an effort to deny him his right to vote.

And this is pretty much the problem here: two sides, neither willing to compromise, says general manager Yuthasil. And it scares him because so far, Yingluck's power base among the rural and urban poor, the so-called red shirts, have been remarkably restrained.

SILAPASORN: I worry because if no one can call a meeting to compromise or to stop this problem, where shall we come?

SULLIVAN: And that, almost everyone agrees, is a recipe for disaster. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.