A hard tusk

Thai politicians and companies are on the move abroad…as illegal ivory is on the move to Thailand

On Monday, the World Wide Fund for Nature published its ‘Wildlife Crime Scorecard’, showing the worst global offenders in the illegal trade in animals. Thailand didn’t exactly record a chart-topping performance. Nor did its Asian neighbours. The WWF said “tens of thousands of African elephants are being killed by poachers each year for their tusks, and China and Thailand are top destinations for illegal African ivory.” The Fund said the main Thai problem was a unique law that allowed the legal trade in ivory from domesticated elephants. This internal issue complicates the problems over buying illegal African elephant and rhino tusks and horns for the domestic markets.

Bangkok has a long-standing interest in African products. Thai state-controlled company PTT wants to get involved in continent’s resources market and looks set to buy Cove Energy, which has a stake in Mozambique’s huge Rovuma gas field. This is a new move, but the overall picture has already been established; PTT’s likely purchase of Cove just reinforces the links that Thailand has already built across Africa. From Liberia to Kenya, Thailand and African nations are working together, in industries as varied as poultry businesses (such as Charoen Pokphard Foods) to web ventures (such as sanook.com).

China recently pledged $20bn in loans for nations across Africa, to support infrastructural and agricultural development. Thailand is keen to follow Beijing into the resources market in the African forests and cities, whipping out the chequebook in return for shiploads of oil and other resources back across the Indian Ocean. But the export of illegal ivory is a real problem and one which is a sure way to make enemies back in Africa – as well as in other regions of the world. Getting oil out of Africa is all well and good but the amount of ivory that follows it – destined for the markets of Bangkok and Beijing – must be dealt with at home swiftly if Thailand is to continue to be a regional leader.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has just got back from her first official visit to Europe as her country’s premier. She was in Germany from 18-19 July and then went across the French border for a visit to the other major EU nation at the end of last week. There were quite a few dishes on the menu for discussion with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president. But among the nudges about the uneasy political situation back home in South East Asia, the Thais were keen to get chatting about the economy.

There is much to boast about on a trip to the embattled eurozone. The World Bank estimates Thailand’s GDP at around $345bn and the IMF has forecast a tasty 7.5% rate of growth for 2013 in the Asian state. 73 business leaders were on Ms Shinawatra’s European tour, hoping to cash in on any hints of investment from Berlin and Paris.

PM Shinawatra was back in her home country yesterday (Monday 23) in time for a meeting with Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, whose awakening nation will also witness a $3bn investment from PTT, as sanctions begin to ease. Thailand is a major player at home in the Association of South East Asian Nations as well, and, along with its African ambitions and recent European promotion, is showing itself to be one of the focus countries for the immediate future. But, as the WWF report demonstrates, there are still problems at home which can translate out onto the world stage and draw frowns from abroad where open hands might have been expected.

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