Giles Ji Ungpakorn
A recent analysis of the state of the Thai economy from the research department of Phatra Capital indicated two important structural problems. Firstly, continuing economic inequality means that any GDP growth at the present rates does not translate into increased well-being for the majority of the population. Secondly, Thai rates of productivity are too low to compete on the world market which is still growing slowly due to the long recession since 2008. A big factor here is that most industrial companies are still relying on cheap labour rather than trying to invest in modern technology and a higher skilled labour force. The cheap labour today comes from migrant workers from neighbouring countries. In rural areas productivity among small agricultural producers remains too low to raise people out of poverty. Where agriculture has a higher productivity it is among the agribusiness conglomerates.
This is exactly the same problem which faced the Thai economy just before the 1997 economic crisis. For this reason Taksin Shinawat and his newly formed Thai Rak Thai party set out to modernise Thailand, develop a higher skilled work force, increase productivity and raise the general standard of living of most working people, both in rural areas and in the city.
Thai Rak Thai called this a “dual track” policy, mixing grass-roots Keynesian state investment with promotion of the free-market at a national level. Among the policies initiated by Taksin’s government were universal health care for all, job creation at village level through cheap loans, measures to reduce farmers’ debt and increased investment in education and the promotion of digital skills. The Yingluck government’s rice price subsidy scheme was part of this kind of policy.
Taksin’s policies did not wipe out poverty or bring in economic equality. He denied that he wanted to build a welfare state, which would have been a vast improvement, and he was totally opposed to raising taxes on the rich. However, the policies did raise the living standards of most citizens and gave them hope for the future. This is why millions voted for his parties in elections without Taksin having to spend millions in buying votes like political parties in the past.
Yet the conservatives and neo-liberals derided these policies. The Democrat Party, the conservative bureaucrats, the right-wing academics and the middle classes called it “Populism”. Some foreign academics have gone along with this kind of right-wing discourse. For all these people, supporting the poor and the majority of the population was “bad for the country”. They wanted to return to the bad old days when the poor knew their place, state spending was concentrated on the military and the elites and elections were nothing to do with real policies.
In the end the conservatives and neo-liberals got their way with military and judicial coups. They are now ensuring that in any future elections, governments will not be allowed to support the poor, bring about modernisation or lower inequality.
In terms of the structural problems in the Thai economy, we are back to Square One.
But if we look at Taksin’s side, he and his party were reluctant in mobilising the mass of the population against the military and the conservatives. They have deliberately destroyed the pro-democracy red shirt movement. This is because they feared the results of any future mass uprising more than they feared the continued dominance of the military and the conservatives. We could even say that Taksin’s attempts to drag Thai society into the modern world and solve the problems of inequality were just half-hearted.
This reminds me of Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx’s theories of Permanent Revolution. The theory of Permanent Revolution argues that in less developed countries the modern capitalists and the conservative monarchists will seek compromise with each other and real progress towards a modern and equal society will need to be led by the working class and a working class based revolutionary party. This holds true for Thailand today. Taksin’s capitalist party attempted to carry out half-hearted modernisation, while always seeking to find ways to compromise with the conservatives and hold back the mass movement, and this has ended in the destruction of democracy and the fossilisation of society.