“Class” really does matter in Thai society

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In previous blog post I argued that without solving the real contradictions between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups. I also argued that what is needed is concrete measures to modernise the country and to drastically decrease inequality between the poor majority and the rich elites.

Merely ignoring the root causes of the political crisis and hoping to “move on” will do nothing to solve these deep underlying problems. We also need to be clear that these are “class” problems. Those who deny the importance of class in Thai society cannot hope to get to grips with the problems.

So what kind of political and social reforms would go some way to solving the crisis?

First of all it is necessary to explain that such reforms would be resisted by the conservatives in the ruling class and among the middle classes, much as Taksin’s modernisation programme was resisted.

An important issue which needs to be tackled is the gross economic inequality between the life styles of the rich and the middle classes and the rest of the population. To deal with this Thailand needs to build a well-funded welfare state, funded by progressive taxation. This would give most citizens a sense of security and make them feel that they were stakeholders in society.

Naturally, higher rates of tax for the rich and large corporations would be vigorously resisted by those who stood to lose. But strong social movements could contain such resistance. According to the book “The Spirit Level”, by Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson, even the rich would eventually benefit from a more equal society, but in the meantime they would have to bow to public opinion.

Apart from constructing a welfare state, workers’ wages need to be raised to a level where they can enjoy a decent life, rather than living from hand to mouth on the inadequate minimum wage, as many are doing today. Strengthening trade union rights would also help to improve living standards and would be a natural part of democratisation.  Small farmers need help to manage and own their own land.

The infrastructure in Thailand needs large amounts of public investment in order to build safe and efficient public transport, both in the cities, but also between cities and the rural areas. This would lower the appalling rates of road accidents and help reduce global warming. Investment also needs to be made in renewable energy generation, especially solar energy. We should be mindful that the conservative judges opposed the Yingluk governments plan to upgrade the railways. They also helped to pave the way for Prayut’s military coup.

Apart from improving the material aspect of people’s lives, the huge inequalities in status between the rich and powerful and most working people have to be significantly reduced through a process of promoting “equal citizenship”. This would involve ended the enforced grovelling to people of higher status, including the royal family. A change in the use of language, especially pronouns, to encourage equality, is also necessary. Part of this process should also involve the removal of uniforms, especially those worn by teachers and civilian civil servants. Local people should also have the right to elect representatives to run schools, hospitals and manage natural resources.

Yes, this is a big “wish list” and would take hard struggle by social movements and radical political parties of the left for it to be achieved. But for those who really want to “move on” from the crisis, it is necessary to face up to the long hard tasks of reforming Thai society, rather than just ignoring them and hoping for some kind of abstract solution.