Back in early September – well before the coup and subsequent events began reshaping Thai politics – I wrote two short posts on growing opposition to the expansion agenda of Tesco and other foreign-owned “supercentres”. Tesco is an easy and obvious target for commercial (and, to some extent, popular) resentment: for anybody who is aggrieved by a whole raft of disparate economic and social changes. The hardline anti-Tesco forces are, to the best of my knowledge, marshaled by other retail interests who can’t stomach the success of the Lotuses and Carrefours of the world.
My first post on this topic, titled “Thais Love Tesco“, garnered a number of interesting comments. They are worth reading to help plot the evolution of the ongoing backlash. For further clarification it might also be worth revisiting a related post-coup piece on “Tesco, the coup and the retail revolution“.
Back then I wrote:
But would this [organised opposition] be the death rattle for the nation’s love affair with air-conditioned mega-stores, whether foreign or locally owned?
I doubt it, I really do.
Tesco, and all the rest, have now outwitted, outplayed and outlasted both the Chuan and Thaksin governments. One would imagine they will outlive the military junta as well. Thais still love Tesco, even if Thaksin is on the nose. The retail revolution has been underway for almost a decade. It would take some unusual political will, and the risk of a popular backlash, to stand in its way.
For some time now, other events have dominated coverage of Thailand and Tesco has been largely off the news radar. Today an article in The Times brings the Tesco issue back and highlights its currency in the new legislative climate.
In part, it reports that:
The company has enjoyed huge success in Thailand where it operates 189 Express outlets mainly in Bangkok, 24 Supercentres in the capital and a further 32 in the provinces but has faced repeated criticism over “unfair” competition to local small operators.
Under the Thaksin government the Commerce Ministry had postponed a ban on Tecso’s expansion but since the coup, pressure for action has been building from groups such as the Opposition to Multinational Business Union. Co-ordinator Panthep Suleesatira, says “the invasion” by foreign retailers had destroyed communities.
Tesco’s future is expected to be considered next week when the junta-controlled government also votes on amendments to the Foreign Business Act, which could force thousands of international companies to change their shareholding structure.
A warning from the President of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Bangkok concludes The Times‘ interesting overview.
The relatively critical tone of this report contrasts sharply with something I dug up from the archives of The Times. In an article headlined “Thailand without Tescos“, Ginny McGrath recently wrote, with indignation, that:
There’s a Tesco in Ko Samui, that palm-fringed isle in the Gulf of Thailand. In fact, there are over 200 Tescos in Thailand. In my book that’s paradise lost, but scratch the surface and the supermarket giant hasn’t completely swamped the slender south east Asian country. In fact just a few miles from Thailand’s most touristy resorts, sunburn, sarongs and supermarkets subside, makeshift cafes line the road and rural Thailand still flourishes.
Ginny proceeds to give an account of her holiday organised, my emphasis added, by “a British company that specialises in Thailand offering tailor-made holidays focussing on authentic experiences and interaction with hosts”.
…But I digress…
With increasingly pugnacious comments emanating from the junta over the past few weeks, and some uncertain responses to recent events, is Tesco just the spark to start re-uniting the people behind the military and the coup-lords?
Foreign-owned and aligned businesses are often an easy target for fearful administrations. If the junta really goes after Tesco, and all the rest, a whole new chapter of Thai social and political history may be about to begin.
Back in September, I speculated on this point:
In the context of their many other “tough love” measures, it would make sense if the military regime was to now clamp down on foreign retailers, including Tesco. Bigger, better and more extravagant shopping ”experiences” may even, in some (soldierly) eyes, symbolise the excesses and waste of the Thaksin era.
As we continue to learn more about the coup, its backers and the powerful elites that are driving political events, I wonder how much some of my original thoughts on the anti-Tesco agenda need to be revised and updated.
Your comments on this lightening rod issue are, as always, very welcome.