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Last updated: November 12, 2012 4:27 pm
Yingluck Shinawatra will on Tuesday become the first Thai leader in nearly two decades to meet Britain’s monarch, in an audience at Buckingham Palace seen as an endorsement of the neophyte prime minister and a country still grappling with its recent history of political violence and military coups.
Ms Yingluck’s two-day visit to London, her first official visit as prime minister, will focus on her role as a high-level “saleswoman” for Thailand as a gateway to southeast Asia.
Thailand is taking a leading position in plans by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to establish an “Asean economic community” in 2015, with schemes to invest more than Bt2,300bn ($71.5bn) in infrastructure over the next five years, including high-speed rail networks and highway connections to neighbouring countries – particularly Myanmar, to the west, and China, to the northwest.
In a speech to British business leaders on Wednesday, Ms Yingluck is expected to outline further incentives for foreign business to invest in manufacturing in Thailand and tender for large infrastructure projects. Following agreements with Myanmar last week, she is also likely to tell UK business that plans to build links from Thailand to a giant deep-sea port and industrial zone in southern Myanmar will go ahead.
The 45-year-old leader will also meet her British counterpart, David Cameron, address UK business leaders on trade and investment, and sign an agreement to establish a bilateral consultative mechanism between the two countries.
But it is the audience with Queen Elizabeth II that is the crucial meeting for Ms Yingluck. The British monarch was unavailable to meet Ms Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, on the former prime minister’s two official visits to the UK in 2002 and 2005, and also did not meet Abhisit Vejjajiva, formerly prime minister and now leader of the opposition Democrats, on his visit to London. Mr Abhisit came to power after Mr Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup – the country’s 17th.
The London visit reflects growing confidence in Ms Yingluck’s leadership after the former telecoms business executive swept to power in elections in July last year. She told the FT last week she was in “full control” of her government, and rejected accusations that her brother Mr Thaksin exercised undue influence. “Of course, he doesn’t have the chance to run the country … After one year, I have more acceptance from the people.”
Ms Yingluck’s London visit comes days before Barack Obama arrives in Thailand on a southeast Asian tour that also includes Myanmar. She will be the first foreign leader the US president will meet since his re-election last week. Both leaders will attend the East Asia summit in Cambodia next week.
Like the UK trip, the Obama visit will bolster Ms Yingluck’s credibility and shore up Thailand’s image after domestic political tension and strong criticism of the US by “red shirt” supporters of Mr Thaksin.
On the economic front, Ms Yingluck’s sales pitch for Thailand will feature some positive elements. The economy has bounced back strongly from the impact of last year’s floods, which slashed 2011 growth to zero, with government forecasts of at least 5.7 per cent growth this year.
Foreign direct investment has also surged, with the value of applications to the Thai Board of Investment – a key gauge – nearly doubling in the year to September 30 to Bt804bn from Bt407bn in the same period last year, just before the flood crisis. Central to this has been increased investment from big Japanese manufacturers including Nissan, Honda and Toyota, which are all increasing auto production from their Thai plants.
While the government has been forced to slash its forecast for export growth to nearly 7 per cent from an earlier 15 per cent, a recent boom in vehicle exports delivered Thailand’s first trade surplus of $1.15bn in September, from a deficit of $1bn in August. The increase in manufacturing is expected to further boost Thai trade figures due out this week.
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