Just a few days before mobs in Thailand forced the humiliating collapse of an Asian summit and the hasty evacuation from a Thai beach resort of a host of important regional leaders, the people of Indonesia voted, mostly peacefully across more than 10,000 islands, for a new parliament. This week, as an embattled Thai prime minister had to call in armed troops to restore order in Bangkok, the president of Indonesia was at work negotiating political coalitions in Jakarta. Is Southeast Asia turning upside down?
While Thailand may not be on the road to perennial ungovernability, and Indonesia still has a long way to go to recover from the decades of Suharto’s dictatorship, there is at this moment in Jakarta more hope of peace and prosperity in the years ahead than Bangkok can promise. And Vietnam, despite its problems with corruption and a sclerotic bureaucracy, is another stable, rising power in the region increasingly able to challenge Thailand on several fronts.
Both Indonesia and Vietnam share most of Thailand’s development plusses: high literacy, steady income growth, oil and gas resources, relatively strong agricultural sectors and developed export markets–though exports have taken a hit during this financial turndown. Culturally, the Indonesians and Vietnamese have much to offer; in the arts and design they surpass the Thais. In tourism, which is how most Westerners know the region, the Indonesians and Vietnamese can now rival the Thais in sophisticated hotels, palm trees, flowers, good beaches and even massages.
A couple of years ago Vietnam built an expansive new international terminal at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City, which handled 13 million passengers last year. The government now plans to open a huge new hub, Long Thanh International Airport, northeast of the Saigon area, nearly equidistant to the booming seacoast oil town of Vung Tau. There is already speculation that between the new Vietnamese hub, which will handle 20 million passengers, and the gold-standard Changi airport in Singapore, Thailand will find it hard to compete as a crossroads for business and leisure travel in Asia.
Whatever the economic and political future of Southeast Asia ultimately turns out to be, it seems evident that the region is in transformation, and Thailand no longer stands out as the magic kingdom. Across the world governments are issuing warnings or cautions against travel to Thailand, a deterrent with a long shelf life. Investment ratings are also slipping.