Thailand takes off the gloves

First, the Thai military overthrew a democracy. Now they're aiming at bigger game: Globalization

Published January 26, 2007 11:01PM (EST)

In the immediate wake of the Thai coup last September, the international financial community was remarkably good-humored. Another coup in Thailand? Not to worry -- the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra may have been beloved by the poor, but he was also widely considered corrupt and a potential destabilizing influence on the country's long-term political health. The King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is even more revered by the people, was believed to have given his backing to the coup, so why should investors in London or New York quibble? Besides, Thailand has coups all the time -- 18 since 1932 -- so what's the big deal? It's not like some latter-day Fidel Castro was taking power, threatening to expropriate the property of evil capitalists.

But that was before the technocrats installed by the new military junta began to make decisions that threatened two of the cherished perquisites of Washington Consensus-style globalists: The sanctity of intellectual property owned by multinational corporations, and the freedom of foreign investors to move their money in and out of any nation, as they please.

In November, Thailand's Ministry of Public Health announced its approval of a compulsory license allowing the Governmental Pharmaceutical Organization to break the patent on the AIDS retroviral drug, Efavirenz. Then this week, the news broke that the government would issue two more licenses for two more drugs, one for treating AIDS and one for treating heart disease.

"It's very, very worrying when companies' intellectual property rights are not supported within a country," Reuters quoted Judy Benn, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. (For the most detailed article I've seen so far on Thailand's drug policy, see the Asia Sentinel.)

At the same time, the Ministry of Finance has engaged in a series of moves aimed at restricting the flow of investor capital, in part to bolster the value of the Thai baht, and in part to limit the ability of foreigners to control Thai companies through proxies.

That's just unacceptable. The Wall Street Journal has now taken to calling the military government "incompetent" and describing its new policies as "batty." The new government may not be Castro redux, but in today's day and age, it is something that may be equally repugnant to the masters of capital: a flag-bearer for resistance to globalization.

Hard-core anti-globalization activists are thus put into the odd position of supporting an anti-democratic military takeover because the actions taken by that government jibe with their passions against greater global financial integration and the placing of intellectual property inviolateness above public health needs. Meanwhile, the international investment community is beginning to look back with longing at the pro-free trade regime of Prime Minister Thaksin. Sure, he may have been a corrupt demagogue who bought the people's love with handouts, but, darn it, he was a corrupt demagogue who believed what we believe!

It is no accident that the military government is making such decisions on both fronts. James Hookway, who has been doing great reporting on Thailand for the Wall Street Journal, traces it all back to the King.

The new government is also adopting some of King Bhumibol's long-held beliefs about promoting broader-based economic growth and better preparing Thais to withstand the buffeting that economic globalization can bring. This concept of "self-sufficiency" appears to be reflected in some of the government's recent moves, including the introduction of capital controls to prevent speculative money ramping up the value of Thailand's currency, and new measures to limit foreign shareholdings.

"Buffeting" is an interesting word. It is related to the word "buffer." King Bhumibol's great-grandfather, King Mongkut, was famous for resisting an earlier incarnation of globalization -- outright imperial conquest -- by cagily playing off Britain and France against each other, and therebye maintaining Thailand's independence as a buffer state between French holdings in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and English holdings in Burma and Malaysia. Is King Bhumibol attempting a similar feat, striving to find a way to insulate Thailand from the potential vicissitudes of economic conquest?

It's a risky game, even putting aside the question of whether more or less foreign investment is good or bad for Thailand. Already, there is talk in Bangkok of discontent with the pace at which the military government is steering the country back to democracy. King Bhumibol himself is 79, and not as fit as he used to be. A referendum of sorts on globalization is taking place in Thailand, but it's not at clear at all who is going to win when the final votes are tallied.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Intellectual Property Thailand