Giles Ji Ungpakorn
A recent report by Credit Suisse showed that the top 1% of Thais owned 60% of the nation’s wealth. This should come as no surprise to anyone. When challenged about this, the Dictator Prayut only managed a pathetically feeble excuse, saying that it would be “very hard” to do anything about this “because people don’t trust the state”. Well, it might be true that people don’t trust the dictatorship, but that is hardly a reason for the gross inequality in Thailand. In fact, if there was a popular uprising against the dictatorship and the state, it would do much to help eradicate inequality.
The causes of Thailand’s inequality lie with the lack of democracy, the domination of the military, the extreme ideology of the monarchy and the fact that there is a serious lack of a strong labour movement with its own political party.
Despite the fact that Thailand’s GDP is 40 times smaller than that of the USA, Thailand has 3 billionaires who are among the world’s richest 85 people in the world. They are the monarchy, which is the 8th richest monarchy in the world with $44.24 billion, Dhanin Chearavanont, 58th richest man in the world with $12.6 billion and Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, 82nd richest man in the world with $10.6 billion. Taksin Shinawat is the 882nd richest man in the world and the 7th richest Thai with $ 1.7 billion. At the same time, most ordinary workers in the private sector earn a minimum wage of 300 baht per day ($9.3) and migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector earn even less.
Generalissimo Prayut’s official salary is ten times that of a qualified nurse and 16 times what ordinary workers earn. But of course that does not include all the shadowy earnings and multiple positions that many top generals enjoy, which far exceed their official salaries.
The rich, from the monarchy downwards, pay little or no tax. The majority of the tax burden being placed upon ordinary working people and the poor. Eighty percent of government tax from Thai citizens is collected in the form of regressive Value Added Tax and taxes on petrol, alcohol, cigarettes and vehicles. Only 19% is collected from income tax, which the rich avoid anyway. It has long been this way with ordinary people being forced to keep the elites in their luxurious life styles through exploitation of labour and collection of taxes. The rich are parasitic blood-suckers.
Abolition of the monarchy, down-sizing the military and introducing progressive taxation on the rich would go far towards redressing inequality.
Thailand has no welfare state. There is no universal unemployment benefit and most elderly people do not have real pensions. Yet billions are spent on the already over-rich monarchy and the bloated military. A Welfare State was proposed by the leftist revolutionary leader Pridi Panomyong just after the anti-monarchy revolution in 1932, but it was successfully and vigorously opposed by the conservative ruling class, including the monarch, Rama 7th. Pumipon was also very much against a welfare state, instead proposing the reactionary “Sufficiency Economy” ideology. In this ideology, the richest man in Thailand claimed that the poor needed to “learn” to live within their means.
The “Sufficiency Economy” dogma was enthusiastically taken up by the rest of the ruling class, especially the military dictatorships of 2006 and Prayut’s present dictatorship. As an extreme neo-liberal ideology, it fitted well with free-market beliefs and both the worship of the free-market and the “Sufficiency Economy” were written into various military sponsored constitutions, binding future governments to anti-poor policies. The yellow-shirted middle-classes loved this because they had long derided Taksin Shinawat’s Universal Health Care scheme and his weak attempts to improve the standard of living for ordinary people. The present junta are threatening to introduce “co-payments” into the healthcare scheme and have devolved the minimum wage rate in order to keep wages low. They have also tried to prosecute former Prime Minister Yingluk for her government’s rice price support scheme which helped farmers. Of course Taksin was no socialist, he tried to avoid tax, and was also committed to the free-market, although he also favoured grass-roots Keynesianism by which the state intervened to help the poor. These policies were denounced by yellow-shirted academics as “populist vote-buying”. It would be “better” for the country if the poor, who make up the majority of the population, just starved or lived short and bitter lives.
What was shocking was the way in which many NGOs lapped up the “Sufficiency Economy” ideology because of their anarchistic rejection of state welfare. Academics like Chris Baker also praised it.
Welfare states are built through the struggle of social movements, especially the trade unions. Unfortunately, a combination of Maoist rejection of the working class by Thai left-wing radicals in the past, a patronising attitude to unions by the NGOs today, and ruling class repression, has meant that both the left and the unions remain too weak. This a problem which needs to be urgently addressed if we are to build a more equal society.
Abolition of the monarchy would not only save millions of baht, which could be put to better use, it would also end the obscene crawling on the ground in front of “big shots” and would be a political and ideological blow against inequality.