Notwithstanding recent worldwide celebrations to mark the arrival of 2020, Thailand should be seen as having entered not just a new year but a new decade. Since World War II, Thailand’s journey over the ensuing decades meandered through ebbs and flows, overcoming critical bumps and barriers along the way. When 2030 arrives, this country of 70 million predominantly happy-go-lucky people will have faced a prolonged reckoning. While its near-term prospects are likely to worsen, Thailand’s long-term future will be either better compared to the past two decades or bad for the long term.
Entering the 1950s, Thailand found itself remarkably unscathed from the war-related death and destruction that ravaged much of Europe and elsewhere in Asia in the previous decade. Years of internal squabbling between civilian and military leaders who led the constitutional movement to replace the absolute monarchy in 1932 had given way to a coup in 1947, ushering in a quarter century of military dictatorship alternating between two army cliques. The Thai economy was largely agrarian, its monarchy still at a low point, the bureaucracy outdated, and the Thai masses largely excluded from the cut-and-thrust of politics in Bangkok.