News analysis

Thai PM Prayut's appeal to billionaires to help ease Covid-19 pain highlights big business privileges

BANGKOK - Speculation is rife about who among Thailand's billionaires will be called up by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha after he announced he would invite the kingdom's 20 richest people to join his government in easing pandemic-induced hardship.

The abrupt conscription, first announced on television last Friday (April 17), was met with ridicule and contempt, with the government bearing the brunt of criticisms.

To critics, it was an admission that the government had run out of money, or ideas - or both. To analysts, it was a glaring example of the special treatment accorded to Thailand's biggest conglomerates, which are expected to weather the looming recession far better than millions of struggling small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

"The biggest message he sent was that the government gives more importance to big business. That is a dangerous message because SMEs are suffering more," said Thammasat University associate professor of international business Pavida Pananond.

"It raises the issue of cronyism, of the government granting direct access to companies that already talk to the government," she told The Straits Times. "This is basically giving cronyism some steroids."

Even though it came from a former army chief and coup-maker, the appeal to Thailand's super rich seemed unusually blunt. Speaking to the press on Tuesday, Mr Prayut denied the government was asking for money.

"I know you have done many things so far, but I just want to know what else you can do. It's up to you. There's no competition, no compulsion or exchange of favours," he said. "Apart from these 20, I am willing to take advice from other people."

Thai social media erupted in outrage. If ideas were what the government wanted, they asked, why wasn't the government turning to its own elected members of Parliament?

On the medical front, Bangkok appears to be gaining control of the coronavirus outbreak. As Thailand enters its fourth week under the state of emergency, daily incidence of new Covid-19 infections have steadied at around 30 or fewer. There have not been any new cases in about half of the country in the past two weeks.

 
 
 

But like elsewhere in the world, the improvement has come at incredible cost. Bereft of tourism income, Thailand's economy is expected to shrink 6.7 per cent this year, making it the worst performer in Asean, according to the International Monetary Fund. On the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the authorities have intervened to control the crowds of newly jobless who mass instantly at venues where free food and groceries are being handed out.

Inequality, a nagging issue flagged by the World Bank in March, looks set to widen, observes Dr Pavida.

The country's biggest retailers are getting restless. Central Group, which runs a chain of shopping malls that have been largely shuttered across the country, is preparing its tenants for a possible May 1 reopening.

The emergency decree expires on April 30. Bangkok, which was initially criticised for being too slow to close its borders, now has to figure out how to release the brakes slowly enough to dodge a second wave of infections.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat says the coalition government will lose legitimacy if it chooses to extend the state of emergency. "Prayut needs a consensus with big business," he says. "He really needs to seek their approval for his next measures."

Thailand's tycoons have a longstanding symbiotic relationship with the ruling establishment. Many of the richest people, who built their wealth on the back of government concessions, similarly flourished under the previous military government, also headed by Mr Prayut.

The Charoen Pokphand (CP) group, owned by the Chearavanont brothers who top the Forbes' country wealth charts with US$27.3 billion (S$39 billion), was part of a consortium that snagged the rights to develop the 225 billion baht (S$9.9 billion) high speed railway linking three major airports in Thailand.

 
 
 

CP's senior chairman Dhanin Cheeravanont last week urged the government to do more to save businesses.

Mr Prayut's unusual roll call could prove his government's undoing in the future if the tycoons feel they have been cornered into making too many concessions, say analysts.

With diversified sources of wealth, many among Thailand's business elite no longer rely on central government patronage for survival, says Chulalongkorn University historian Wasana Wongsurawat.

"If there is another coup by some other group in the military or a popular uprising, they might very well opt to support the new regime," she said.