Young Laotians eye Thai election’s potential for stability, higher migrant wages

Last weekend’s Thai election has been a source of chatter – online and offline – in neighboring Laos, where many merchants rely on a stable Thai baht, and people took note of the reform-minded policies that won a majority of votes.

“I see people talk about it through Facebook as soon as I scroll down on my Facebook account,” a Vientiane woman told Radio Free Asia, speaking anonymously to protect her personal security. “I observed that people cheered the Move Forward Party and I cheered for it, too.”

Thailand’s two largest opposition parties – Move Forward and Pheu Thai – dealt a resounding defeat to the country’s pro-military establishment in the May 14 election.

The result signaled an appetite not just for a change of government, but also political reform after nearly two decades of military dominance that included two coups, in 2006 and 2014.

Several people in Laos told RFA that they hoped political stability in Thailand would bring more tourism from Thailand, as well as a more favorable exchange rate between the Lao kip and the Thai baht. The kip has been steadily weakening against the baht, making imports from Thailand of raw materials and foods more expensive.

That and surging inflation have dealt heavy blows to Laos’ already impoverished economy.

“Particularly, the business people closely observe the election,” a Lao citizen in Luang Prabang told RFA. “It is important because if the political situation in Thailand is not stable, we will not see many tourists from Thailand.”

Migrant workers see hope

Many young Laotians have crossed the border to find work in Thailand. One woman who has worked in Thailand for five years told RFA that she has followed the election news since the beginning of the campaign and strongly believes that under Move Forward, migrant workers will see higher wages.

Currently, she earns a minimum wage of slightly over 300 baht (US$9) per day. But under Move Forward’s policies, she hopes that will change to 450 (US$13) baht per day, she said.

College students in Vientiane have also been talking to each other about the Thai election – mostly because of the draw of a potentially higher salary in Thailand, one young college student told RFA this week.

“It is a hot trend,” he said. “We just talk about it and share something about it on social media.”

A Lao activist who lives in France, Joseph Akaravong, said he has also seen a lot of online talk about the Thai election.

“The Lao people can compare and they have their own imagination of a better political system with multiple parties,” he said. “The young people are also interested in a better future in terms of economy and freedom of expression, as it is very limited in Laos.”

Watching from Cambodia

The results must have gotten the attention of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, according to Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a Khmer-speaking Spanish environmental activist who founded the Cambodian NGO Mother Nature.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and others in the government have worked to co-opt, arrest or intimidate opposition party figures in recent months. Earlier this week, the National Election Committee ruled that the leading opposition party, the Candlelight Party, couldn’t appear on the July 23 parliamentary election ballot, citing inadequate paperwork.

But Hun Sen must be afraid that a resurgence of democracy in Thailand could still have influence in Cambodia, said Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in 2015 for environmental activism.

“It is an unstoppable wave that demands a chance to get away from the military, monarchy and an unjust society to become a democratic country that respects human rights for the sake of the people, not for individual and family benefit,” he said on an RFA call-in show on Tuesday.

Political analyst Seng Sary also noted that the way recent elections were conducted in Thailand and Malaysia could have a regional impact.

“It gives hope for politicians who are in favor of democracy,” he said on the same call-in show. “I believe Hun Sen and his strategists understand.”

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