What about economic and political inequality?

21 08 2009

The corruption crisis in the Democrat Party-led government’s Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects sees the Bangkok Post (21 August 2009: “Revolutionary sufficiency”) make a call for more attention to sufficiency economy (SE), claiming that there are fundamental misunderstandings about the concept. However, the writer also does a little reinterpreting as well.

These claims of misinterpretation are not new. Following the 2006 coup, the military junta appointed a government led by Privy Council member General Surayud Chulanont. As might be expected from a palace acolyte and a junta and government desperate to distinguish themselves from the Thaksin Shinawatra government it threw out, SE was made  the number 1 economic priority (see the then government’s PR exercise on SE here). It was promoted with considerable fervor as an ideological weapon. At that time, there were claims that sufficiency economy was misunderstood, especially by opponents, and that it was “vital” to ensure that the “values” of SE were embedded.

Part of the embedding process saw SE given its own place in the military’s 2007 Constitution. Section 83 stated: “The State shall encourage and support an implementation of the sufficient economy philosophy.” That section is used by the Bangkok Post editorialist to warn the Abhisit Vejjajiva government: “… we should closely monitor the Abhisit government to make sure it stays true to these constitutional mandates, that it does not just pay lip service to the moderation principle or abuse it for political gain – which, sadly, is what is happening with the scandalous Sufficiency Community Project.” Royalism is used to attack a royalist and his royalist government. Hence: “we should push the government to fulfil its constitutional obligations to create an equal playing field for the citizenry.”

The editorial writer claims that “moderation is the cure for excessive consumerism and materialism which is threatening the survival of humankind” and says that moderation should be “the norm in public policies and our everyday life, instead of harbouring cynicism.”

Then comes the interpretation of SE as a “radical” idea.

Thailand is said to be a “society marked by outrageous inequalities…”. This means that “the pursuit of moderation is indeed a radical move. It implies a comprehensive, systematic reform to undo power monopoly of the few by ensuring equitable distribution of resources for the majority. These resources include land ownership, food security, education, healthcare, welfare, rights, access to credit, to life opportunities and to decision-making at all levels.” This requires “the sharing of information which is crucial to curb excessive power at the top. This sharing of information is a check-and-balance tool to moderate information and power monopoly, without which democracy will never have a chance to grow.” The writer adds that this requires “sharing,” noting that “sufficiency or moderation is … a moral principle.” Embedding moderation however requires “supportive public policies. They wilt when families and individuals must struggle in society’s rat-race without an adequate social safety net.”

The editorial writer proclaims that “sufficiency or moderation philosophy is a powerful political tool to redress the excesses of the powerful. Instead of crippling ourselves with cynicism and allowing the government to target only the poor, we should see the potential of the sufficiency philosophy and use it to effect change.”

PPT can agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this statement, but calls attention to their contextualization. Is SE about fairness and equality? Does it promote democracy and social welfare? We think not.

While using conservative ideas as a context for raising more “difficult” questions is not an unusual political strategy, in the case of SE it leaves unchallenged the conservative and royalist philosophical underpinnings that are the essence of political and economic inequality in Thailand. Exactly why such options such as welfare and fairness should be difficult to discuss is a question that should not delay us here, except to point out that the current royal family has repeatedly opposed both in his practice, lifestyle and philosophy. Indeed, promoting SE is one way to oppose such inequalities.

As the editorialist notes, SE calls on people “to define happiness differently by going back to the basic values of family togetherness, food security, community cohesiveness, and spiritual growth.” This is not radical. In fact, it is the opposite, being the essence of conservative moral and political philosophy.

The real cynicism associated with SE is in the fact that it is promoted by the most obscenely wealthy as a way to keep the poor and disenfranchized in their place.