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Thailand's economy sizzles despite chronic instability

File photo taken on May 19, 2010, shows Thai 'Red Shirt' anti-government protesters in tears as their leaders announce their surrender in downtown Bangkok.


Amid the glistening luxury hotels and megamalls of Bangkok stands one of the biggest billboard advertisements you'll see anywhere. At several stories high and half a block long, the ad for Toyota Prius is so large that you can't take it all in unless you're standing well back from the Rajprasong intersection that is the commercial heart of Thailand's capital city.

Take a few more steps back and you can see what the billboard is designed to hide: the blackened cement skeleton that was once (and everyone promises soon will be again) part of Central World, Southeast Asia's second-largest mall.

The sobering sight of Central World, with construction cranes picking at it like surgeons on a prone patient, is the lone visible reminder of the events of one year ago today, when the Thai military moved to quash a street protest by anti-government "Red Shirts" who had camped in the centre of Bangkok for two months. Ninety-one people, most of them protesters, were killed in the violence.

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While the little in the way of reconciliation has taken place over the past 12 months (a situation that likely won't be helped by an election campaign now underway that all sides expect to be a bitter one), Thailand's economy has somehow kept sizzling on, seemingly unaffected by the country's perpetual instability.

Despite predictions in the wake of last year's violence that the economy would take a severe hit, gross domestic product grew nearly 8 per cent in 2010, making it the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia.

While many of the tourists who were caught in Thailand during the violence of last May (and other demonstrations staged by various political forces since a 2006 coup d'etat) took the first tuk-tuk to the airport, they were replaced by others drawn by Thailand's unaffected charms. Overall tourism numbers hit a record 15.8 million in 2010, as Indian weddings and Chinese tour groups filled the hotel rooms vacated by spooked European and North American travelers.

So while the Red Shirts and supporters of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva - whose cabinet, naturally, claims credit for keeping the economy on track - gear up for a July 3 election painted by all sides as crucial to the country's future, you can be forgiven for wondering if Thailand needs a government at all.

"To a certain extent [Thai companies]are quite strong on their own. Certain sectors haven't asked for government assistance in a long time," said Surat Horachaikul, assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

He said it also helped that even last year's violent showdown between the army and the Red Shirts was contained to a few blocks in the centre of Bangkok. "Many tourists also know that, if you avoid certain areas, you can still enjoy life."

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