For years Thailand was synonymous with images of paradise: it was a thriving democracy with a 1997 Constitution that enshrined protections for human rights. It was an economic powerhouse that posted some of the world's highest growth rates in the 1980s and early 1990s, withstood the late '90s Asian financial crisis, and grew by 5.3 percent in 2002 and more than 7 percent the following year, as the rebound from the crisis took shape. Investors and tourists bought into the image of a tranquil kingdom of lush beaches and mountains, welcoming people, and stable politics--a “land of smiles” so alluring, it drew more than 13 million tourists per year. Thanks in part to the “Amazing Thailand” ad campaign--featuring glittering temples and stunning women--Bangkok ranked No. 1 in readers' polls of the best cities in Asia by Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler magazines.
And now? Brand Thailand is shattered. Over the past two months, clashes in Bangkok between the security forces and protesters clad in red have killed at least 80 people, gutted some of Bangkok's most important economic institutions, including the stock exchange and the largest shopping center, and destroyed the image of peace and tranquillity. The critical tourism industry, which accounts for as much as 8 percent of GDP, is gasping, at a time when regional competitors like Cambodia and Singapore are trying to steal Thailand's visitors. Of the nations once touted as the Asian tigers, or tiger cubs, including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, only Thailand is disintegrating. Its once vibrant democracy is now widely viewed as an ungovernable and failing state. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems eager to postpone elections, and the last two elected governments were tossed out by undemocratic methods anyway. In its 2010 report, Freedom House scored Thailand as only “partly free” and ranked it among thuggish regimes like Burma for political rights. The U.S. State Department, which praised Thailand in 2000 for free elections and peaceful transfers of power, now chronicles its extrajudicial killings and its limits on freedom of speech and assembly.