Inequality and Thailand

1 04 2014

A couple of days ago, PPT mentioned a new academic paper on Thailand and networks. A reader points out another recent paper, in the journal Democratization, on inequality and politics in Thailand, by Kevin Hewison of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University. The abstract states:

In Thailand, economic inequality has long been a fact of life. It is a “general inequality of condition” that can be seen to influence all aspects of social, economic, and political life. Yet inequality has not always been associated with political activism. Following the 2006 military coup, however, there has been a deliberate and politicized linking of inequality and politics. The article explores a complex of political events – elections, coup, constitution, and the political ascent of Thaksin Shinawatra – that has given rise to a relatively recent politicization of economic and political inequalities, now invoked in street politics – a rhetoric developed amongst pro-Thaksin red shirts that challenged the status quo and generates conflict over the nature of electoral democracy.

Hewison points out that inequality “has existed for a considerable period. In fact, researchers have recounted similar data to that cited above over several decades.” He says that understanding this persistence needs to be understood in terms of policies and practices (“disequalizing effects”) that have been in place for a considerable time, and which contribute to inequality and maintaining it: the role of state policy and capital and its preferences and structural power.

The article is worth reading but is again behind a pay wall, and can only be accessed with a subscription or through an institution with a subscription.

 





Updated: Snippets from the news

17 01 2014

VOA: The World Bank estimates that in 2012, Bangkok accounted for 26 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product, but it received more than 70 percent of government spending.

Bangkok Post: “Wage inequality has been encouraged to support export-driven economic growth based on cheap labour…. In 2010, the poorest 10% of the population received about 2% of Thailand’s wage….

Vocativ: The government has already given in to many of the group’s demands. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose two terms have been marred by almost constant protest, has dissolved parliament and called for new elections in February.

Bangkok Pundit: Abhisit [Vejjajiva] does not think that the protestors can topple the government and that protest leaders will have to intensify their efforts, raising the chances of violence.

Khaosod: Blue Sky TV [of the so-called Democrat Party and official TV station to the anti-democracy movement] has announced a crackdown on sales of counterfeit whistles in anti-government rally sites. The satellite channel … said on a Facebook post that sales of unauthorised whistles would no longer be tolerated…. But Blue Sky has previously complained that many vendors in PCAD rally sites have copied the special design of whistles officially adopted by the channel, which come in shapes similar to a lightning, and stated that these actions amount to copyrights infringement. The channel also sells its own “premium” lightning-shaped whistles, costing up to 999 baht per piece.

The Nation: Three armed naval officers have allegedly been found working unlawfully as guards for hardline anti-government movement Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform (STR), police said yesterday.

military at PloenchitKhaosod: Although PCAD protest sites have been targeted by drive-by shootings and bomb attacks in the past, the gunfire attack at Chalermla Bridge last night is widely seen as one of the most high-profile incidents so far, as it took place in the downtown heart of Bangkok, and in extreme proximity to Sra Pathum Palace, the official residence of Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn…. “Gen. Prayuth has ordered us to pay attention to the area surrounding Huan Chang Bridge,” Maj.Gen. Warah said, using the common name of Chalermla Bridge, “As it is very close to Sra Prathum Palace. He also asked us to reach understanding with the protesters that they must make way for royal convoy. The protesters understood that”.

Bangkok Post: Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is worried that an armed group might be behind sporadic attacks launched during the anti-government protests in Bangkok. Deputy army spokesman Winthai Suwaree said Gen Prayuth is worried about the security situation near rally sites.

The Nation: Despite the protests being small, “Since the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) launched its ‘Bangkok shutdown’ campaign on Monday, it has been spending more than Bt10 million daily to maintain its eight new rally sites – double the amount it was spending when the protest was confined to the Democracy Monument, PDRC spokesperson Akanat Promphan said…. PDRC core-leader Satit Wongnongtaey admitted that the cost of managing the protest had risen seven-fold since the “shutdown” campaign was launched, adding that the PDRC really needed donations and that it was not just a gimmick.

Update: The latest press release from the anti-democrats relates to the funding issue above:

PDRC spokesperson slams Chalerm Yubamrung for discrediting the public; thanks citizens for their goodwill and support

Akanat Promphan, spokesperson for the PDRC, rebuked caretaker Labor Minister Chalerm Yubamrung today for maliciously slandering innocent citizens donating cash and provisions to the PDRC. Chalerm’s accusations of public “redonations” of money from PDRC secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban to the public, then back to Suthep were groundless, said Akanat, as all monies were given wholeheartedly to support Ratchadamnoen and now Pathumwan kitchen. “Help comes in all forms and denominations. Is Chalerm really accusing the toddlers and schoolchildren handing us 5-and-10-baht coins of deceit?” he asked.

Spokesperson Akanat also highlighted the PDRC’s gratitude to the public for giving so much and so freely. “All of our operations are publicly and voluntarily funded by the goodwill of citizens who are determined to eradicate the Thaksin regime, unseat his proxy government, and undertake critical reforms before the next election. Any assistance by the PDRC to help the public achieve its objectives are also freely provided, such as food, medical attention, and security. The caretaker government is fully aware of this yet continues to attempt to discredit the PDRC and innocent protesters,” criticized Akanat. “Its efforts would be better spent on finding those responsible for violently attacking peaceful and law-abiding citizens. In particular, those responsible for the injuries and deaths at Ramkhamhaeng University, Thai-Japanese Youth Center/Din Daeng, and the anti-government protest sites are still at large.”

A couple of points: Is the anti-democrat movement really taking money from toddlers? More seriously, the claim that all operations are “publicly and voluntarily funded by the goodwill of citizens” seems to be negated by the report in The Nation above which suggests that Suthep Thaugsuban and others have been kicking in substantial funds. There’s plenty of other business funding to the movement, and this has been consistent since 2005.

Finally, Akanat showed an example of a recent attempt in social media to discredit the PDRC by forging pricing announcements for PDRC services (pictured in the attached image: a banner charging each vehicle 200 baht for PDRC security services near Chatuchuk/Lat Prao stage). He reiterated that the PDRC has always operated and will continue to operate free of charge for the public good.





Rich richer

15 09 2013

There are several measures of wealth around. There are also measures of poverty, but these are less likely to generate media stories unless associated with political strife.

There have been several media accounts of a report by Wealth-X, which each year delineates the really, really rich around the world. PPT uses a Wall Street Journal story that appeared at Wealth-X’s website. It begins: “In Southeast Asia, the rich are getting richer.”moneybags

The WSJ says:

Every country in the region tracked by the [Wealth-X] report – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam – saw their population of ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNW), defined as those with assets of US$30 million and up, grow over the past year.

These UHNWs have done pretty nicely in the past year, for Thailand:

boasted the biggest growth of this specific group of wealthy, with its ultra-high net worth population up 15.2% to 720 individuals this year, compared to 625 in 2012. The wealth pool of these millionaires in Thailand has also grown, and they now control US$110 billion in assets, up from US$95 billion a year ago.

That’s about $150 million each for the 720.

Of course, US$150 million is a drop in the bucket when compared with, say, the announced royal wealth for Thailand, which is far in excess of $30 billion. And that doesn’t even include the taxpayer slug of US$436 million for making sure the royals are safe, secure and posterior polished. With the rich getting richer, we would expect the Crown Property Bureau’s assets and personal royal wealth to have at least kept pace in recent years.

Thailand, which has actually seen tiny improvements in its Gini Index and increases is incomes for the poorest in recent years. Even so, the National Statistical Office’s 2011 household survey revealed that the national average monthly income was 22,236 baht (US$741). The national average per capita income for the poorest 10% of the population was just 1,896 baht (US$63) per month.





Inequality and the rich

2 07 2013

Over the past couple of weeks, PPT has posted several stories related to inequality, growth and politics (here, here and here).

Interestingly, The Nation has a brief report on a TDRI researcher commenting on inequality. In the report are some of the reasons why inequality remains stubbornly high in Thailand over the past several decades.

The TDRI study appears to have mainly been about savings:

Among five groups in 2009, the richest reported savings of Bt6,300 per person per month, while the poorest had no savings, reflecting inequality in education…. In 2009, 94 per cent of the poorest households held financial assets of no more than Bt50,000, while 30 per cent of the richest held financial assets of more than Bt100,000.moneybags

These figures sound remarkably low for the wealthy, but then the really, really rich seldom take part in such surveys or report their wealth to anyone. That the poor are broke will surprise no-one. Yet the point remains that the rich are doing pretty darn well, still.

The report states:

… the government should attempt to add to the tax rolls high-income earners who have not paid taxes yet or have not paid according to their ability to pay….

That could boost the government’s revenue for use to improve welfare for the poor and the economically and socially disadvantaged…

While pro-Thaksin Shinawatra governments since 2000 have introduced many policies that aim to boost the income of the poor – we expect that the 300 baht a day wage will impact inequality a bit – and have added several important elements of a social welfare program, they have not tackled tax reform in any serious way.

A government of the people, owing its election to the votes it gets mainly from the less well-off, needs to have the policy guts to take on real reform, introduce progressive taxes and tax the still untaxable at the top of the wealth structure. That way it can both pay for social welfare and redistribute income.

After all, the rich in Thailand have had it easy for a very long time and have become fabulously wealthy. That’s why they oppose elected governments. They want it all – wealth and political power -  and they protect their assets with violent force.





Inequality and politics

19 06 2013

In a recent PPT post, we commented on an academic’s account of the politics of inequality. In this post, we look at a Reuters report on how politics is impacting inequality in potentially a different way.

The report notes that:

Growth in Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, has begun to slow, but the economy of the northeast is in the grip of a boom. The economic renaissance of “Isaan,” Thailand’s poorest and most populous region, has coincided with expansionary policies—from wage increases to farm subsidies—that are enriching an area at the heart of a “red shirt” protest movement that backed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a 2011 election. As a new middle class emerges, investors and companies are taking note.

While much of the economic potential “may never be realized if a crucial 2.2 trillion baht ($71 billion) infrastructure program becomes a casualty of the feuding between Yingluck’s ruling Puea Thai Party and its opponents,” the poor and long-neglected northeast has seen change under this government and other pro-Thaksin Shinawatra administrations.

Incomes are said to have risen dramatically and investment is shooting up, although much of it is said to be “concentrated in property—from high-rise condominiums to town houses and shopping plazas.”

The report states: “Politics explains part of what is going on.” It observes that the 300 baht minimum wage rise was a huge boost; it refers to earlier Thaksin-era policies as contributing, and it mentions “subsidizing agricultural products such as rice, tapioca and rubber.” Business executives are cited saying that the “political calm [that] has returned since Yingluck’s election win” also makes a difference.

So did the floods of 2011, which sent businesses scurrying to higher ground:

… Thai manufacturers such as CP All Pcl, Thai Beverage Pcl and Siam Cement , plus foreign firms with Thai plants such as Panasonic Corp, Kraft Foods Group Inc and Fraser and Neave Ltd are gravitating toward the northeast.

Politics matters for the people of the northeast and it potentially impacts inequality.





Inequality and flexible oligarchy

18 06 2013

Pasuk Phongpaichit has had a long career taking on tough topics. As a professor of Economics at Chulalongkorn University, she’s written on Thaksin Shinawatra, corruption, gender and much more. In a short op-ed at the Bangkok Post, she takes on inequality, and area she has been researching for several years.

PPT isn’t about to summarize the academic’s article. However, we will highlight a few of the significant points.Income inequality We also reproduce a graphic from The Economist from several months ago.

Pasuk begins:

For a long time, many commentators in Thailand argued that the massive inequalities in our society did not matter. That has changed. Our fierce political conflict has done that. Why is disparity worse here [than in neighboring countries], and why is it so persistent? The answer lies in our politics.

One of her answers is telling:

… real power still lies in the hands of small groups of people who run things in the dim background. It’s a kind of oligarchy (rule by the few) or at least an oligarchic tendency in our institutions.

She argues that this oligarchy has developed institutions and social networks that renew and reinvigorate this oligarchy as it adapts to a rapidly changing political economy.

One finding is that decentralization has been captured by elites that may be local but that also have “a network that stretches from Bangkok down to the locality, with influence in national politics, provincial officialdom and local government. This pattern is emerging in province after province.” This networking suggests that the rural-urban dichotomy so common in considering recent politics may need to be re-worked.

Another result  of the research is about another networking through military, business and parliamentary training institutes that creates “alumni” of influential people connected across the country where “alumni are bound to help one another.”

Pasuk concludes:

Our oligarchy is sustained by these creative forms of innovation in business, politics and education. The disparities in our society are diminishing very slowly, and in part that is due to the entrenched oligarchic tendency and its extraordinary flexibility in the face of change.

It is very difficult, for example, to think of a progressive property tax or capital gains tax being adopted because of the strong resistance from the groups at the apex of the political structure.

In Thailand, oligarchic political structures have not been eroded by t”democratisation, decentralisation and the works of social movements,” but have adapted to these circumstances and have been able to maintain their control.





Stories worth reading

24 08 2012

There are a few media stories currently available that are worthy of attention. PPT doesn’t have time to put each out in separate posts, so we are listing them here with brief comments, all from the Bangkok Post:

Impeaching Suthep

The new Speaker of the Senate Nikom Wairatchapanich has put the impeachment of Democrat Party MP, former deputy prime minister and signatory to sniper letters Suthep Thaugsuban on the senate agenda for Monday, Nikom’s very first day on the job. The charge from the National Anti-Corruption Commission is relatively minor, but these rules were set in place by those attacking pro-Thaksin Shinawatra parties, not thinking that silly rules will turn and bite them. PT would far prefer to see Suthep axed for his deliberate decisions to have anti-government protesters killed.

Suthep

More state blacklists

As is well known from the War on Drugs, when the state puts together lists of “suspects,” the so-called suspects need to be very, very frightened, for the state’s tendency, through the police and military, is simply to conduct extrajudicial killings or to lock people up, often without a shred of evidence. Hence, it is very scary to learn that lists

… including politicians, school heads and local religious leaders, have been named as part of the southern insurgency network in a newly launched army handbook…. The blacklisted names are listed in two books which together are called The Order of Battle…. The second handbook identifies the names of leaders and their forces in each village, tambon and district of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and in four districts of Songkhla. The 500-page book lists 9,692 people as being involved in the insurgency network.

The Army has such a poor record, regularly killing its own citizens, that such a list of names constitutes a serious threat to each and every one of these persons.

Prayuth

The magic wand

The GT200 story just won’t go away, mainly because the fools who purchased the useless things, often at inflated prices, and who continue to defend them (an example being Army boss General Prayuth Chan-ocha) are also trying to charge the sellers. Sure, the sellers were frauds, but what about the dopes who bought the supposedly magic toys. Maybe investigators should look at the incompetence amongst the so-called security agencies.

We want it all!

The cry of the rich as they such up all the wealth, land and other resources! While PPT is not convinced that the reporting in the Bangkok Post editorial is entirely accurate, the basic point holds. We noted this: “For juristic persons, the biggest land owner has more than 2.8 million rai…”. PPT thought readers might wonder if this owner was royal. It seems that this might not be the case. The chapter on the Crown Property Bureau in the semi-official King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work, states that the CPB holds 41,300 rai (p. 283). Could it be the armed forces? Or one of the big farmers like CP? If readers have any ideas, let us know.

Army good, protesters bad

Who could possibly be surprised when Thawil Pliensri defends the Army’s murderous assault on red shirt protesters in 2010. After all, Thawil was secretary-general of the National Security Council at the time of the sniper orders and secretary of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations set up by the Abhisit Vejjajiva government to crush the protests by the red shirts. He says that “the operation to retake areas in Bangkok occupied by the protesters was a legitimate one.” Of course he does. He claims that “[s]ome information has been distorted and tampered with,” but seems to provide no evidence. Ultra-royalists will believe him. He, like the Army boss, declares: “state officials who risked their lives to disperse unlawful protesters deserved praise and should not be accused of killing people.” What causes Thawil to defend murder with statements that are so ludicrous as to make him look like a lying fool is his fear that he may not enjoy the impunity that he currently enjoys.





Publications of interest II

21 07 2012

Following from our earlier post on interesting reading, another reader has suggested that the site whereisthailand.info is worth a visit. PPT recommends some of the analysis at the site, particularly its post on the regional expenditure of government budget. There’s a brief English summary of the data here.

The associated chart (below) explains the situation pretty well:





Democracy vs. the monarchy’s ruling class

1 07 2012

PPT enjoyed the Bangkok Post‘s discussion with historian Charnvit Kasetsiri on the 1932 Revolution and contemporary politics. We certainly agree with his observation that:

throughout the past 80 years, conservative forces have retained a lot of their influence, making democracy unstable. It is more like “transient democracy”, not a permanent one as long as citizens’ rights and equality are not achieved concretely.

That situation is not one that has gone uncontested over those eight decades, but it has to be said that it has been the palace, supported by the post-1957 military and the US in the 1960s and 1970s, that has established hegemony. Charnvit points out that:

Initially, Khanarassadorn wanted to adopt the phrase ‘Monarchy under Constitution’, but acceded to King Prachadhiphok’s wish for ‘Constitutional Monarchy’. It was changed after Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat’s … [1957] coup with the emergence of ‘Thai-style democracy’ and ‘Democracy with the Monarch as head of state’. It has been a long struggle….

In his reported comments, Charnvit seems to forget that this has not been an uncontested fight. There have been struggles by the People’s Party remnants, by communists and socialists, by students and workers and farmers. The royalist military has been vicious in its responses, repressing and murdering virtually non-stop during the years since 1957.

The hegemony of the royalist elite has had particular impacts beyond repression and murder. Without mentioning the vast and obscene wealth of the monarchy itself, Charnvit observes that: “Wealth is still concentrated…. If people accept their station in life, the status quo can be maintained.”

Charnvit points out that:

since the time of Field Marshall Sarit, the monarchy has been used as a tool to discredit and destroy political opponents, starting from communism and now the attempt to amend Section 112. Those who advocate change were and are lumped together as disloyal to the monarchy.

The problem is that this old regime is under attack and it is the monarchy that is the “tool to destroy the opposition.”

Charvit is correct to note that “people don’t accept their fate anymore.” Like others, he points out that the “rural poor are not without resources or knowledge and they no longer accept injustice.”

The current political struggles seem to be, as Charnvit has it, between:

the absolute power of the monarch, the so-called “Devaraja” as practised in Ayutthaya and the first half of the Chakri dynasty or the democratic principles espoused by Khanarassadorn who toppled the monarch in 1932.

We do not think that this is the case. Charnvit is essentially speaking of ideology. PPT thinks that the struggle is about the rights and voice that are limited and controlled by a class that rules through violence, threat of violence and its great wealth. The monarchy is not just the ideological hub of the current regime of power but is the country’s largest Sino-Thai conglomerate.

Hence, when Charnvit speaks of the need to “amend the constitution resulting from the 2006 coup … [and] amending the lese majeste law,” he is concentrating on important nodes that are part of a broader struggle. He gets to that struggle when he says the “problem is about inequality…”. He asks, “why can’t political parties solve it?”

The answer, Charnvit said:

politicians are not the people’s representatives – they represent their own social class. The class that Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra belongs to is no different from that of Abhisit Vejjajiva or Korn Chatikavanij.

For him, this means that the red shirts must split from Thaksin once they “realise that Thaksin’s group is not theirs.” The link between the masses and Thaksin is not of his own making and has never been entirely stable.

Thaksin has been electorally popular because he provided – probably unintentionally – an  opportunity for people to have some voice. They realized that elections could have an impact. If the backward-looking elite, including Yingluck and Thaksin, can’t maintain that, then they are politically useless and electoral democracy is lost to them as a means of broad political compromise.





Government and red shirts

5 05 2012

Headline writers at the Bangkok Post’s website have deliberately and politically misrepresented an important story that deserves attention.

At the front page of the site, the Post has a story headlined, “Voters’ remorse surfaces,” while the story itself has the headline, “Pheu Thai failed us, say red shirts.” The story itself begins:

Despite their loyalty to the Pheu Thai Party-led government, red shirts in the northeastern provinces are increasingly grumbling about low commodity prices, high production costs and the rising cost of living which are making their lives increasingly miserable.

Leaving aside the manipulation of the story by the headline writers, the story is one that should not be ignored, not least by the bosses of the Puea Thai government.

One point that comes out clearly is that some villagers in the Northeast feel forgotten:

The villagers also felt neglected as they were waiting for the populist policies promised by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra during her political campaign.

They believe that the policies being implemented are being directed to urbanites.

These villagers haven’t ditched the government, but their support cannot be taken for granted:

Our morale is diminishing. We supported Pheu Thai and put up banners of Thaksin Shinawatra with love but we are suffering as no one has reached out their hand to us….

That is the point that the Puea Thai Party and its government need to understand. The government was elected by voters with affinities for the red shirt movement.

Yingluck’s government cannot take this support for granted and nor can it trample over the issues that were significant for red shirts: inequality, double standards, injustice. Cosying up to the amart, keeping red shirts in prison and ignoring rural concerns is not the way to repay the enormous support provided to Thaksin and his parties through years of repression and conflict.








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