Sufficiency Economy and Sufficiency Democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Since the blood-stained Generalissimo Prayut, head of the Thai junta, has been spouting the usual rubbish about the King’s “Sufficiency Economy” at the United Nations, it might be a good idea to talk about this nasty royalist ideology.

Back in 2006, Paul Handley wrote in his book “The King Never Smiles”, that the Sufficiency Economy was just “pseudo-economics”. After the September 2006 military coup this pseudo-economics became official junta policy and was enshrined into the military constitution of 2007.

In January 2007 The Economist went one step further than Handley and described the Sufficiency Economy as “new-age waffle” with royal patronage. Naturally both publications have faced censorship in Thailand. The Economist article was criticising UNDP report which had just been published with much help from Chris Baker, economist Pasuk Pongpaichit’s partner. This UNDP report was totally infected with the Sufficiency Economy bacteria. The Economist went on to comment that “in publishing such an unbalanced report on a theory that is untried on a national level, the UNDP has abandoned all sense of objectivity. It is also lending legitimacy to a regime that took power by force. Hakan Bjorkman, the UNDP’s deputy chief in Thailand, says it wanted to provoke a debate. But no such debate is possible in Thailand, because sufficiency theory is the king’s philosophy and anything remotely critical of it could be seen as lèse-majesté, punishable with jail.”

In fact I was charged with lèse-majesté for criticizing the 2006 junta and the Sufficiency Economy in my book “A Coup for the Rich”. The following is one of the paragraphs that the military strongly disliked: “The members of the military appointed parliament received monthly salaries and benefits of almost 140,000 baht while workers on the minimum wage receive under 5000 baht per month and many poor farmers in villages live on even less. These parliamentarians often drew on multiple salaries. The government claimed to be following the King’s philosophy of “Sufficiency” and the importance of not being greedy. Apparently everyone must be content with their own level of Sufficiency, but as Orwell might have put it, some are more “Sufficient” than others. For the Palace, “Sufficiency” means owning a string of palaces and large capitalist conglomerates like the Siam Commercial Bank. For the military junta it means receiving multiple fat cat salaries and for a poor farmer it means scratching a living without modern investment in agriculture. The Finance Minister explained that Sufficiency Economics meant “not too much and not too little”: in other words, getting it just right.”

As an institution the monarchy is a business corporation, yet we were told by Thai rural anarchists, like the followers of Chatthip Nartsupa, that the King “invented” the idea of community self-sufficiency economics or Setakit Chumchon Po-piang as an alternative to global capitalism!

Sufficiency Economics is a deadly serious conservative and neo-liberal ideology, aimed at preventing redistribution of wealth and poverty alleviation. It is about trying to make people blame themselves and accept their poverty and live within their means. Both the military juntas of 2006 and 2014 have been among the strongest advocates of Sufficiency Economics and neo-liberal policies while ratcheting up military spending and lining their own pockets.

It will come as no surprise that the King was always an advocate of economic views which revealed his opposition to state social welfare for the poor and income redistribution. He is on record as opposing a welfare state. But what is worse is that as one of the richest men in the world, the king has the arrogance to lecture the poor to be sufficient in their poverty through the notion of the “Sufficiency Economy”.  His family are equally hypocritical. On 11th December 2009, at Central Plaza, in Bangkok, one of the King’s daughters showed off her pet dog, dressed in a Santa outfit with 150 million baht’s worth of diamonds sewn into the cape. Of course, we are all familiar with the wild spending sprees of the Queen and the Crown Prince.

So let us have no illusions about the Sufficiency Economy. To borrow a term from Australian academic Andrew Walker, it blends in well with the “Sufficiency Democracy”, much loved by Thailand’s military juntas.