The mistreatment of Thai workers in Taiwan has kicked up a bit of a storm in society, as well as attracted the attention of the governments of both countries. A few days ago, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called on Thais to stay home and find work there instead of suffering unfair treatment abroad. Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) has expressed her apologies for the incident, saying that it has tarnished the international reputation of Taiwan, a country that prides itself on practicing human rights.
Thaksin's comments were made for a good reason. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party that he founded in July 1998 swept to power within three years of its establishment. Its appeal came both from Thaksin's own charisma and leadership style, and the way the party embraced nationalism and populism. This formula won it majority support in rural areas.
Most of the Thais who have come to work in Taiwan are from the north and northeast of Thailand, areas which are both the poorest of the country and a stronghold of support for Thaksin. Therefore, when Thai workers complained about mistreatment here, Thaksin had to put on a show for his electorate and issue a strong protest to appeal to nationalist feeling. In addition, Thai Rak Thai won a decisive victory in elections earlier this year and Thaksin is still riding the wave of this victory, giving due reason for his call for Thais to return home to find employment.
But is Thailand really in a position to offer jobs to all its workers overseas, should they return? I believe that it can.
Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Thailand implemented major political and financial reforms. Economic recovery was slow and the country went through a difficult period, but now Thailand is in a phase of vigorous development. The Thai government was able to pay back an IMF loan of US$12 billion -- borrowed during the Asian financial crisis -- in 2003, a year ahead of schedule.
A great deal of major construction projects put on hold during the crisis have been started up again. Over the past year or two, many new projects have been started in Bangkok, including large shopping and commercial centers such as the new World Trade Center, as well as the construction of a new airport. All of these projects will need a large number of workers and I believe that this demand will accommodate Thais returning from working abroad. The kingdom's economic recovery is one of the major reasons behind Thaksin's strong protest.
But will the riot and Thaksin's strong comments affect Taiwan-Thailand relations?
As a fourth-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants, Thaksin naturally feels a certain attachment to China. Thailand is also geographically so close to China that the two nations enjoy a close relationship. Thaksin is one of Thailand's wealthiest people, making his money through Shinawatra Corp Public Co, which he and his wife started in 1982. As a businessperson, economic interests are Thaksin's first concern. Although Taiwan is the third-largest foreign investor in Thailand, I believe that Thaksin is willing to abandon Taiwan for business opportunities in China, be it for the overall development of the nation or the benefits to his own conglomerate.
Nonetheless, the Thai are a people who really care about face. As long as you give them face, they are sure to reciprocate accordingly. For instance, although Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) could not hold bilateral talks with Thaksin when he attended an APEC summit in Bangkok as Taiwan's representative a few years ago, Thaksin still phoned the restaurant offering to pick up the tab after Lee wined and dined Taiwan's APEC delegation and some Taiwanese expatriates. According to the Thai way of thinking, as long as you show the respect due to the host and observe the taboos and rules of their society, he or she will also react favorably to you.
A few years ago, Council of Labor Affairs Chairwoman Chen Chu (陳菊) was denied a visa to visit Thailand, and early last year, a delegation planning to promote last year's referendum to Taiwanese expatriates in Thailand were also refused entry into the kingdom. These two incidents were the result of a failure to show proper respect for the leader of Thailand, which has had a negative impact on Taipei-Bangkok relations.
How is Taiwan going to engage with Thaksin's administration under the current circumstances? It is actually very simple, for as long as we respect the Thais, they will react accordingly. Therefore, we have to genuinely respect the rights of Thai workers and demonstrate more flexibility in dealing with the Thai government.
The authorities in Taiwan should deal carefully with last week's riot to avoid worsening already sour relations.
Chen Shang-mao is a doctoral candidate in political science at National Chengchi University, specializing in Thai studies.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Daniel Cheng
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