Class, gender, protest

20 07 2021

Eurasia ReviewIf readers haven’t already seen them, we suggest reading to recent articles at Eurasia Review, considering aspects of class and gender in Thailand in an era of virus and political protest. They are relatively long articles, so we just preview them here.

Eurasia Review’s Murray Hunter observes:

Thailand’s class divisions have dramatically widened during the Covid-19 pandemic. With students returning to the streets in protest, even with tight crowd restrictions in place, after a three-month hiatus during the pandemic, the Prayuth Chan-ocha regime is faltering in public support and perceived competence to handle a dramatic linear increase in case numbers.

He adds that:

With the prime minister and his entourage seen not obeying rules to wear masks at all times during the opening of the Phuket “sandbox”, on July 1, a scheme to bring back foreign tourists to Thailand, the covid pandemic has become the symbol of a great class divide.

Unemployment, poverty and inequality have all increased. Double standards are common:

The Prayuth government has attempted to balance economic considerations and public health in making decisions about restrictions. Large manufacturing concerns have not been under any restrictions during the pandemic, even though small and service businesses have been restricted, with many ordered to close, last year for a number of months on end. Many provincial hotels were forced to shutdown for months, with many never reopening….

The escalating pandemic in Thailand has focused attention of the double standards applicable to the elite in society and the others. This has been very evident in the vaccine rollout. The elite and privileged have been able to secure a vaccination before many of the vulnerable in society. While people have been suffering, the grounds and infrastructure of the [king’s] grand palace complex in central Bangkok has been enlarged, to become a city within a city.

The result of all of this is that “Thailand is now in a much deeper era of class division, where the poor have become poorer, over the duration of the pandemic.”

The Eurasia Review’s other piece is on feminism and protest in Thailand, authored by Wichuta Teeratanabodee. She notes that the criticism of royalism “has set this group of protestors apart from its predecessors.” It is a “youth movement” and a “network of many groups — including feminists, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and environmental activists in addition to students.” Wichuta observes:

The conspicuous roles of young women in this ongoing wave of protests have put them in the spotlight…. Unlike in previous rallies, which were often led by males, women are now taking on leadership roles to call for democracy. Simultaneously, they have shared stories of women’s struggles in Thai society, focusing particularly on women’s status in politics — which has worsened markedly since the 2014 coup…. [F]eminists in the pro-democracy protests see themselves fighting a two-front war. On one front they demand democracy and an end to the current authoritarian regime, and on another, they fight for gender equality against fellow pro-democracy protestors who do not support feminist objectives….

Feminist and non-feminist protestors in today’s Thailand have a common enemy – the authoritarian regime, which — one prominent activist scholar contends —  has shown “no signs of …willingness to negotiate with democracy”….

We recommend both articles.

Prayuth’s poverty regime

17 11 2020

A story in the Bangkok Post reports that Jinanggoon Rojananan, deputy-secretary general of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC), “11.4 million households are at risk of falling into poverty from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, with the unemployment rate rising…”.

Today, there “are 637,000 households dependent on public and private financial assistance” with 467,000 of them reporting lower incomes today. These “households work in sectors that are more prone to job losses such as tourism or self-employment.” Jinanggoon claims that poverty fell between 2018 and 2019.

That poverty is claimed to have decreased between 2018 and 2019 may not be a huge surprise as the junta poured money into “buying” votes through all kinds of programs it once lambasted as “populist” or as “policy corruption.” But Jinanggoon seems to be warning of a dire downturn in 2020.

But the story of the Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha regime over several years needs to be told. Back in March, the World Bank reported:

Between 2015 and 2018, the poverty rate in Thailand increased from 7.2 percent to 9.8 percent, and the absolute number of people living in poverty rose from 4.85 million to more than 6.7 million. The increase in poverty in 2018 was widespread – occurring in all regions and in 61 out of 77 provinces. In the Central and Northeast, the number of poor increased by over half a million in each region during the same period. The conflict-affected South became the region with the highest poverty rate for the first time in 2017.

In suggesting why these increases in poverty have occurred, the World Bank states:

The population at the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution is not sharing as well in prosperity, and in the recent period of 2015-2017, consumption and income growth in this bottom 40 percent were negative. The reversal in trend among this bottom 40 during this period is related to declines in all forms of labor incomes, including a stagnation in wage growth and declines in farm and business incomes.

The full report can be downloaded as a PDF. For an academic discussion of this report and its implications, another PDF is available.

Meanwhile, some of the filthy rich are doing well, with CP having a massive rise in profits.

Poverty, emergency rule and the military-backed regime

1 07 2020

No one really needs “critics” to explain the reasons for the regime has further extended its “virus crisis” emergency rule by another month.

As the military powerbrokers who have run the regime since the 2014 coup exert control over their party, they also prepare for sharing the spoils of their control of the state.

Think how much wealthier the local dark influences like convicted heroin smuggler and minister Thammanat Prompao can become as they keep the generals safe in power. Emergency rule provides the cover for the deals being done.

How’s that working out for the rest of the country? Not so well it seems, with the World Bank forecasting “it will take Thailand at least two years to resume its pre-Covid real growth level…”. But, that was “already one of the lowest in the region at 2.8% in 2019…”.

The World Bank has said the economy will contract by at least 5% this year. The Asian Development Bank  and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reckon it will be a 6.5% contraction. But the “Bank of Thailand (BOT) is more pessimistic … revis[ing] its gross domestic product (GDP) estimate downwards to a 8.1% contraction, worse than the 7.6% contraction of 1997…”.

What really matters is the impact on average people. The World Bank says the “number of those living on less than US$5.5 per day (the World Bank’s definition of ‘economically insecure’) in the kingdom has more than doubled from 4.7 million in the first quarter of 2020 to 9.7 million in the second quarter.”

Over the period of the junta, Thailand’s the poverty rate had already expanded from 7.2%  to 9.9%. Since the virus crisis lockdown, poverty has expanded from the agricultural sector. According to the World Bank, it “is now reaching to the traditional economically secure or middle-class households in services and manufacturing.”

Some estimates are that a quarter of people lost jobs or were laid-off during the shutdown.

While the regime put a number of relief programs in place, many of these support the already wealthy – even the super rich – and others are overly bureaucratic and miss many of the most vulnerable people.

It seems the regime knows that the suffering is widespread. Its response is consolidation and probably more repression.


14 10 2017

As long-time readers will know, PPT sometimes struggles with figures; none of us are mathematicians. That this post is about statistics may mean that we infringe on the data here and there, but we thought a recent story at the Bangkok Post carried a broader lesson.

The Office of Agricultural Economics is reported to have crunched some numbers and come up with a forecast that the junta’s “welfare cards for the poor scheme will generate more than 100 billion baht in value to the country’s economy.”

That the state’s dumping of a pot of money to the “poorest,”who tend to spend it, produces a boost to consumption and boosts the economy is well known to economists, and is sometimes called Keynesianism.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s government used the same kind of economic logic, so we might assume that the junta’s idea has something to do with Somkid Jatusripitak, who has worked for both Thaksin and junta.

The cost to the state is estimated to be 46 billion baht for the 2018 fiscal year. The aforementioned Office of Agricultural Economics reckons that this “return” is about “2.5 times higher than the government’s investment cost…”.

That is a useful calculation, not least for the military junta as it campaigns for its (now “promised”) “election.”

The report states that the Ministry of Finance calculates that “11.43 million people have registered as having income of less than 30,000 baht per year…”.

The surprising figure, however, is this: of this more than 11 million, “3.32 million are from the farming sector and 8.11 million from the non-farming sector.” This means that “13.37 billion baht is for the poor from the farming sector, while 32.63 billion baht goes to the poor from the non-farming sector.”

This is odd. Almost all the major agencies identify rural dwellers as the majority living below the poverty line.

For example, the World Bank states:

As of 2014, over 80% of the country’s 7.1 million poor live in rural areas. Moreover, an additional 6.7 million were living within 20% above the national poverty line and remained vulnerable to falling back into poverty.

The figures – 7.1 million vs. 11.5 million – are worth noting. The official poverty line was, in 2015, 2,644 baht per month, above the junta’s figure of 2,500 baht per month.

But even so, the junta’s registration for the poor appears to have only come up 3.3 million in the “farming sector,” when the data suggest this should be at least double that figure.

Academic Kampanat Pensupar, from Kasetsart University, notices this too, and is reported as saying that the small number of farmers “means the poor in rural areas might not be able to gain access to the scheme, or the poor in farming sectors have moved into the non-farming sector.” The latter seems unlikely, if the huge variation in the numbers are considered.

Our conclusion is that the junta is engaged in political campaigning. It is seeking to use the funds in areas where it will likely produce an “electoral” dividend.

Our second thought was about the difference between this program and the rice pledging project that resulted in a five year jail sentence for Yingluck Shinawatra.

On the one hand, the rice program was blunt in targeting, but did seek to have funds flow to farmers – recognized as those most likely to be relatively poor. The junta’s poverty program is not doing that.

On the other hand, we wonder if the Office of Agricultural Economics is crunched the numbers on the rice pledging project in the same way it has for the junta’s program? We can’t help thinking that the same multipliers would have applied to a program that better targeted the poor in rural areas.

Updated: Rubber ain’t rice (or is it?)

14 01 2016

This is a tale of two commodities that have political connotations.

Rice, long a staple of the Thai diet and defining of basics like what food is and how it is eaten, has been associated with the political parties of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, their political bases in the north, northeast and central regions. Rice farmers were once consider the backbone of the nation. They have long been exploited and whatever way you look at it, poverty data show that being a smallholder or tenant rice farmer in the regions mentioned is not a bad indicator of the likelihood of a family living in poverty.

Rubber has long been associated with the farmers of the mid-south. On average, the poverty data shows that farming in this region has produced higher than average incomes. The Democrat Party has, in recent years, dominated the region, aided by organizers like the godfather figures like Suthep Thaugsuban. People from the region were the backbone (and muscle) of Suthep’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha led his 2014 military coup in part based on a setiment that the the Puea Thai Party government’s rice subsidy scheme was “corrupt.” Indeed, the courts are still dealing with a case that could see Yingluck jailed and fined a huge amount of money.

Now that rubber prices have plummeted and southerners are becoming agitated, how does The Dictator respond?

A Bangkok Post report a few days ago reported rubber growers calling on Prayuth “to invoke Section 44 of the interim charter to speed up the release of 300,000 tonnes of stockpiled state rubber to build roads.”

It seems Article 44 is considered a miracle political drug. It can be used to bail out political allies.

The Rubber Growers Federation of Thailand asked for still more: “speeding up the disbursement of a 12-billion-baht assistance fund to support rubber farmers suffering from tumbling prices and helping promote rubber processing.” Essentially, the “rubber growers want the government to intervene and maintain rubber prices in addition to the financial subsidy programme.”

Initially, The Dictator brushed these calls aside, crying poor. The Bangkok Post reported that Prayuth “vowed … to stand firm against growing pressure from rubber growers demanding government intervention to stem falling rubber prices as farmers threatened a protest…”.

Protest?! That’s a red rag to a military bull: “He warned farmers to brace for legal consequences if they stage a protest.”

The Bangkok Post reports that rubber farmers weren’t taking a backward step, threatening not just a major rally but a hunger strike. Sounding very PDRC, one leader declared that “the hunger strike will continue until we achieve victory…”. The junta was warned: “If the government ignores … demands, the network will discuss the possibility of raising the pressure to a higher level…”.

In the same report, junta spokesperson Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd said The Dictator “has ordered eight ministries — Transport, Interior, Education, Public Health, Defence, Industry, Commerce and Agriculture — to use their own budgets to buy rubber to boost domestic use of the product.”

A Prachatai report disclosed that the military had then “summoned the leaders of southern rubber farmers…”. That means they required “attitude adjustment.” Some 50 leaders were required to report. The military thugs demanded that the farmers not rally.

The Dictator was losing patience and was quoted as blaring: “Where are we going to find money to lift [the price], answer! If you want me to lift [the price] like this then go find me the money…”.

He was responding to Suthep who “suggested that the government should concede to the rubber farmers’ demand and subsidize rubber at 60 baht per kilogramme.”

Suthep was taking a backward step either. He declared: “This is not an elected government…. It arose from special circumstances and this is the time to exercise its special power to help people.” Anti-democrats do love dictatorships but Prayuth took up the challenge huffing and puffing: “Where’s the money? We’re building a new system. You don’t want a system, do you? You want the government to intervene in every crop, do you? Get me the money.” Suthep was warned not to join the rally by farmers.

For good measure Prayuth threatened farmers: “I’ll keep doing my job. Just don’t cause trouble…”.

All that threat and bluster then disappeared. The Bangkok Post reported that the “government has agreed to buy 100,000 tonnes of all types of rubber products directly from growers at an above-market price in an attempt to ease pressure on rubber farmers.” And on the junta from a group that feels it is owed some payback for it political support.

Pointedly, Prayuth did not “reveal the purchase price but said it would be higher than the current 35 baht a kilogramme for latex.” So the cost is unknown.

More assistance to rubber growers is planned, and set out in the article. The state is putting aside a budget of at least 12 billion baht. The real cost is likely to be several times this amount especially if the market price stays low.

That’s quite a payment for PDRC and southern political support. Remember all the claims about rice and policy corruption? Yingluck must be watching with considerable interest.

Update: Remember when the PDRC violently campaigned against state banks funding subsidies to rice farmers? According to the Bangkok Post, there are no such qualms or barriers for pretty much the same proces shoveling funds to rubber growers. It reports that the “Finance Ministry has given two state-controlled banks approval to extend a 4.5 billion-baht interest-free loan to the Public Warehouse Organization (PWO) to buy 100,000 tonnes of rubber in an effort to shore up the commodity’s sinking price… The Government Savings Bank (GSB) and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) will be the loan’s sponsors.” The subsidy scheme awaits approval by the junta’s cabinet.


24 09 2014

Winners in the economic stakes usually also win in political world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Thailand, where the country’s economic and political power is monopolized by the ruling elite.

The extent of the elite’s economic control is set out in a report at The Nation. Almost a quarter of Thais in 2012 – almost 16 million people – were classified by the National Economics and Social Development Board as living in poverty. More than 8 million people were regarded as being so poor that they had “insufficient food and necessities.”moneybags

At the top end, 0.1 per cent was “so rich they own nearly half (46.5 per cent) of the country’s total assets…”.

The top 20 per cent, possessed 326 times more land than the poor.  According to the report, the “rich own nearly 80 per cent of the land obtainable via ownership documents, while the bottom 20 per cent of owners have only 0.3 per cent of available land.”

The bottom 10 per cent earn just 1.6 per cent of income.

PPT calculates that the Crown Property Bureau’s assets in 2012 were more than 12 million times greater than per capita GDP in constant 200 prices. We know comparing assets with income is a bit screwy, but just imagine how many times more income the CPB generates each year. How much greater would it be if compared with the meager incomes of the poor?

Korn on class

19 08 2010

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij was recently interviewed in Newsweek. Pretty mundane stuff, but two selections caught PPT’s eye.

Towards the end of the interview, Korn is asked: “How will your government address the underlying social and economic problems brought to light by the so-called red-shirt protesters?”

He responds, stating inter alia: “A second approach is addressing the issues that were raised: social inequality and poverty, issues that the government takes very seriously. For instance, we are working to refinance all loan-shark debt, which has been a cancer in our system. We’ve refinanced over 400,000 individual accounts. We need to do more of this and make people realize the government makes them a priority. They don’t need to protest.”

He seems to be saying that people protested because of economic issues – poverty, inequality, loan sharking. But then the interviewer asks: “The Western narrative of the protests this spring was that it was a class struggle between urban and rural Thais. Is this accurate?” Confusing given Korn’s statement above, he answers this racist question by saying: “I don’t believe the Western narrative is correct. There is a genuine income-distribution gap. There are genuine differences in people’s access to resources. All of these need to be addressed as quickly as we can. Arguably this government has done more for the poor than any recent government [sic.]. The big truth is these inequalities do exist, but the big lie was that this was what the conflict was about. It wasn’t. The conflict was really [deposed prime minister] Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters wanting to regain power, wanting to overturn the corruption conviction against him, and wanting to get back his ill-gotten assets.”

So why did Korn initially say that inequality, poverty and so on were economic issues “that were raised” by the red shirt protests? He seems to have is argument confused. But he gets back on the royalist track when when he adds: “What we’re really facing is a small group of instigators trying to overthrow the core pillars of Thailand.” PPT presumes he means the monarchy. Or does the Democrat Party now rank as a “core pillar”?

Racism: PPT calls this a racist question because there’s nothing peculiarly Western about the discussion of class struggle in Thailand. Making it a “Western” construction is demeaning of Thais (amongst others). Worse, Korn unambiguously accepts the racist construction when he knows that many Thais, including some close to his government, have had the same narrative. He says it himself, before backtracking.

Fighting the working class

26 06 2010

Patrick Winn in the Global Post has a useful take on recent events in Thailand. He notes that the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is “now struggling — and failing — to find common ground with a mobilized, largely working-class faction that detests them.”

That government has worked hard to argue that there has been no class basis to recent political events, not least because the huge demonstration of working class support for the red shirt protesters scared the pants off the capitalist and middle class supporters of the government. Those classes are more used to ordering the working class about and exploiting their labor than facing rebellion.

The organization of the working class has been prevented, smashed and demeaned by a string of governments for decades. Whenever the working class shows any militancy, the ruling class moves quickly to squash it, and they have done it again in 2010.

Journalist Winn has been talking with Peter Warr, an economics professor at the Australian National University. Warr is a pretty much straight up and down neoclassical economist with an interest in poverty reduction. He’s done considerable work for the World Bank on Thailand, including studies of incomes and poverty. A recent publication by Warr on poverty in Asia can be downloaded here.

Winn says that Warr believes the Thai government and its opponents have “overlooked” the impact of the “U.S.-born global economic crisis has played … in prodding disaffected Thais to join anti-government demonstrations…”.

Warr argues that the Thai economy is remarkably reliant on exports. Most of these are now manufactured goods, and “in recent years these have been hit “by dwindling foreign demand.” This has resulted in “waves of layoffs and slashed hours” for the country’s workers. He believes that it is the workers in export-oriented industries who are mostly “unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast,” who are the “very people who are the support base for the ‘Red Shirts’.”

Government data confirms this general assessment, with economists showing that there has been a sharp deterioration for workers and a shift of income to capital. All of the productivity gains made by workers have essentially gone to business owners through very high rates of profit. The share of income now accruing to workers is at an unprecedented low rate.

The red shirt rhetoric was attractive to the workers who see, feel and know that they are worse off. The call to join a fight against the “governing ‘aristocrats’ who’ve long shafted ‘the commoners’,” was eagerly taken up.

Warr sees the protests as “… attractive to those wounded by the economy and seeking a vehicle for their frustration…”. Under the Abhisit government, Warr asserts, “they’ve lost out. And they’re right…. They don’t know why. But it’s easy to portray their deteriorating circumstances as being caused by the government.”

Winn observes that: “Many among the Red Shirts faithful claim grievances that run deeper than electoral or economic cycles. They insist they’re shut out of a hierarchy of strings and connections that keeps nearly 70 percent of Thailand’s assets in the hands of its wealthiest 20 percent.” His article cites several examples of grim tales from the laid-off in a faltering export and consumer economy.

In fact, inequality is worse than this, for wealth, income, assets and property are all highly skewed to the richest.

Economist Warr is no fan of Thaksin and tends to view him as a populist who came to power in an expanding economy – albeit slower than before the economic crisis of 1997-98 – and discounts the political aspects of Thaksin’s economic policies targeting the poor.

Poor rich boy and finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, makes the now well-rehearsed Democrat Party lament that claims the red shirts “have distorted economic facts to rile up followers.” He says the current regime has advanced “Thailand’s largest-ever stimulus package, a $44-billion bundle of infrastructure and social welfare projects aimed in large part at Thailand’s poor.” He claims that the government “hasn’t received enough credit…”. In the northeast, the Democrat Party has “very little popularity, very little understanding…”.

Like most in his party, born of privilege and wealth, Korn finds it impossible to conceive that Thaksin somehow found and released a political groundswell of support that relies more on political opportunity than on money spent. There’s an ideological block, because yellow shirts like Korn believe that Thaksin’s support is all bought.

While Korn might have been educated in the elite schools and universities of the U.K., it is unlikely that he understands the full historical and contemporary significance of the comparison he makes to relatively poorer Scotland and voting patterns in the U.K.

Arguments by the government that portray the red shirt uprising as anything but a class struggle are seriously misguided. But that’s what one would expect of the government of those who benefit most from the current ownership of the country. Despite everything, in relative terms, they are doing better than ever. The rich exploiters can continue while their government, backed by the military, remains in power. All they have to do is to continue to come up with ways to keep it in office.

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