BANGKOK—The United States has declared Thailand’s aviation industry unsafe, striking at the heart of one of its biggest success stories: tourism. The cascade of bad news is striking even against the backdrop of a decade of political upheaval in Thailand.
The safety downgrade revealed years of official neglect and complicity. The generals who seized power last year vowed to clean up a misruled Thailand. But as problems mount on the junta’s watch, their ability to rule effectively is increasingly in doubt.
“Thailand is used to having a great image in the world. Thai food, fun people, smiles and a fairytale monarchy,” said Michael Montesano, a Thailand expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “That image is fading and it’s not clear what the image will be in the future.”
Earlier this week, government, tourism and airline officials rushed into damage control after the Federal Aviation Administration said Thailand’s aviation industry does not meet international safety standards. The demotion to “Category 2” means Thai airlines cannot increase flights to the U.S. That ruling has no immediate practical effect because no Thai airlines currently fly to North America. Europe’s aviation regulator is expected to make a similar decision this month. Thai Airways, the financially ailing flag carrier, flies to 11 European cities.
“The economy is in bad shape, political divisions have not healed since the 2014 coup, morale nationally is very low and then we get this,” Montesano said about the aviation concerns. “Tourists who are headed to the beach might not care about Thailand’s chaotic politics or corruption, but something like aviation safety is another matter.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who engineered the coup, usually bristles at criticism but this time acknowledged action was needed.
“We have to admit that Thailand’s aviation industry does not meet international standards,” Prayuth said. “We have to focus on fixing this.”
While the junta can’t be blamed for all of Thailand’s problems, it does seem at a loss on how to to fix them.
“Problems pile up all the time for any government, but the nature of a military government to handle complex issues and challenges is limited,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Meanwhile, the junta is trying to protect its own image amid a growing scandal over the military’s alleged corruption in the financing of a public park on army property that cost 1 billion baht ($28 million). The case has been a public relations disaster for the junta, which said cleaning up corruption was one of its major reasons for seizing power.
“Thailand has always been behind international standards but the gap has widened with this government,” said Thitinan. “And solutions are in short supply.”
Associated Press Writer Nattasuda Anusonadisai contributed to this report.