N.2010.06.09 - Thai workers out of poverty

Many Thai workers, now out of poverty, are in dissent

By Andrew Higgins
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NONBON, THAILAND -- San Silawat has three dogs, two cows and a parrot. He grows rice and spring onions on a small plot of land. But he's hardly a pauper: He's added a second floor to his house and built a blue-tiled patio. His son plays computer games in the front room. His daughter recently bought a Nissan pickup truck. His granddaughter studies nursing in Bangkok.

For all his relatively good fortune, however, San is certain about one thing: "Life is definitely getting worse," said the 62-year-old farmer, grumbling about the price of gasoline, school fees and a political and economic system he sees as rigged in favor of the rich.

Last month, San and six friends from this village in northeastern Thailand piled into a pickup and drove 14 hours to join "red shirt" protests in Bangkok. During nine weeks of demonstrations, scores of other rural folk from Nonbon and nearby settlements made the same 390-mile trip.

Beneficiaries of an economic boom that, in just three decades, has cut the proportion of Thais living below the poverty line from 42 percent to about 8 percent, San and his family represent both the promise and the peril of Asia's dizzying transformation.

From China in the north to Indonesia in the south, hundreds of millions of people are now living far better than a generation ago. But the gap that separates them from the rich has often grown wider. As their fortunes and expectations have risen, so too has their frustration. And, as recent turmoil in Thailand has shown, this can mean big trouble.

San and his neighbors rallied to the red shirts not because they are hungry, uninformed and desperate but because they are no longer any of those things. Though still very poor compared with Bangkok residents who cheered the red shirts' defeat when government troops moved in on May 19, they are a better-off, better-informed and far more demanding voice in national affairs than their elders. San buys and reads a newspaper every day.

"Farmers in the past didn't ask for anything. They just did their farming," said his daughter, Tasaneeporn Boran, standing next to her brand-new black Nissan, which she bought in February.

"We now know what is going on," she said. "We know what we want and don't want." What she doesn't want most of all is a "government that only looks after the rich, instead of ordinary people."

Continental divide

It is a demand that raises alarming questions not just for Thailand's Eton- and Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, but for governments across Asia struggling to manage rising expectations amid growing, but unevenly spread, prosperity. Thailand's protests began in March not during a recession, but as the economy recorded first-quarter growth of 12 percent, its strongest performance in 15 years.

China, meanwhile, saw its economy surge by 11.9 percent -- and has since been hit by a wave of labor unrest, including a strike over wages at a Honda factory in Guangdong, one of the country's wealthiest regions. China's Communist Party has staked its future on a bet that economic growth will reinforce, not undermine, stability. But Thailand's experience shows how easily such calculations can come unstuck.

Instead of political calm, growth in Thailand has brought increased tension. When the country set off the 1997 Asian financial crisis and fell into a deep slump, political stability in Thailand actually increased and then plunged as the economy took off again, according to the Worldwide Governance Indicators, compiled by experts from the Brookings Institution and the World Bank.

Over the last four decades, Thailand's economy has grown an average of about 7 percent a year, and average real per-capita income has roughly tripled since the mid-1980s. But, according to a recent report on Thailand last year by the United Nations Development Program, the Southeast Asian nation is beset by "persistent inequality" that defies a widely accepted theory that the gap between rich and poor widens during an initial phase of development but then narrows.

Thailand's income inequality is roughly the same as that of much poorer nations such as Uganda and Cambodia and slightly worse than that of China and the United States, both highly unequal in terms of income distribution, according to data in the United Nations 2009 Human Development Report.

Despite the income gap, the people of Nonbon have unquestionably benefited from their country's rapid development. Tasaneeporn recalled growing up in the 1970s with no electricity, no running water and no paved roads. Only one family had a TV.

The main economic driver in the region at the time was the U.S. Air Force, which used a big airfield in the nearby city of Ubon Ratchathani to launch bombing runs over Vietnam and Cambodia. Now, a recently widened four-lane highway -- dotted with convenience stores and shopping centers -- connects Ubon Ratchathani, the regional capital, to farmland around Nonbon.

Tasaneeporn's brother recently got work in the city at a new luxury hotel. The job gives him a small, steady income -- and puts him in daily contact with people who have far more money.

'Voice of the People'

The most vocal red shirt supporters in these parts are not the destitute -- people like Sritta Sorsrisuk, a 71-year-old farmer who has seen two of his six children die. "I don't care about politics," he said, sitting in a tumbledown shelter next to his tiny plot of land. But others "talk about it all the time: red this, red that."

More keen on the red shirts is Usasorn Anarat, a neighbor of San's who traveled to Bangkok twice to join the protests. Thanks to her husband, who works in Qatar, and modest profits from a rice farm, Usasorn has a monthly income of about $1,000, far above the local average.

Like San, Tasaneeporn and nearly everyone in the villages around here, she's a huge fan of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister who was ousted by the military in 2006 and is now wanted for "terrorism" under a Thai warrant. Thaksin, Usasorn said, "loves the country, won elections, and they chased him away."

Thaksin, a billionaire, regularly visited the Thai countryside and launched a raft of programs to help rural residents, including cheap health care, easy credit and handouts of about $30,000 to each village head. He even stopped off in the village next to Nonbon.

"Nobody had done that before," said Tasaneeporn. Her father managed to shake Thaksin's hand. He now has a picture of Thaksin pinned on his living room wall, along with photographs of Thailand's king.

After Thaksin and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 82 and hospitalized, the most popular person around here is Phichet Thabbudda, a rabble-rousing radio announcer known as "DJ Toy."

He founded and ran the "Voice of the People," a shoestring local radio station that won a big following with fiery denunciations of the government and the well-to-do. He also organized convoys of vehicles bound for Bangkok

Echoing the rhetoric of red shirt leaders in Bangkok, DJ Toy spoke of Thailand as a nation divided between hard-working but impoverished "serfs" and an oppressive, greedy "aristocracy." This played well in Nonbon and in other villages across northern Thailand. But Jamnong Jitnivat, a longtime local campaigner for farmers' rights, said it distorts reality. The real issue, he said, is a government bureaucracy out of touch with an increasingly well-informed and better-off population that now "demands much more than before."

When troops moved in to dislodge protesters in Bangkok on May 19, DJ Toy's radio station thundered against the crackdown and called on listeners to show their anger. Protesters burned down city hall in Ubon Ratchathani. The following day, police and soldiers arrested DJ Toy at his home, raided his studio and hauled away his antenna.

San, the rice farmer, said he misses his broadcasts but still keeps up with events by reading the newspaper and watching TV. "We all know what is happening," he said. "We know who is good and who is bad."

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