Tag Archives: Welfare State

Inequality is still a huge problem in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

According to Dr Anusorn Tamajai, Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Rungsit University, the Gini Coefficient for Thailand in 2015, when the last measurements were taken, stood at 0.45, a slight improvement from the figure in 2006 of 0.51 [ see https://bit.ly/2kc3KPy ]. The Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality, with the highest inequality defined as a Gini Coefficient of 1.

Dr Anusorn believes that the improvement in inequality can be explained by pro-poor policies of previous governments, especially the Yingluk government’s fairly large increase in the minimum wage level, the rice price guarantee scheme and pro-poor policies introduced by the Taksin government such as the village job creation fund and the universal health care policy. Improvements in the social insurance scheme also helped.

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However, inequality in wealth is still a huge problem given the low level of wages for workers and lack of land among poor farmers. The top 100 billionaires increased their wealth rapidly over the last 3-4 years while there was no increase in wealth among most ordinary citizens.

Thailand is among the top five unequal countries of the world with the top 1% of rich people owning 58% of the country’s wealth. Under the present military dictatorship the top 50 billionaires increased their ownership from 26% of GDP in 2014 to 30% in 2017.

None of this is unexpected since the two military juntas that have ruled Thailand since 2006 and the military appointed Democrat Party government all pursued extreme neo-liberal policies [see https://bit.ly/2kiUZSl ]. They and the middle-classes who supported the coups, hated Taksin and Yingluk’s pro-poor policies, complaining that such “Populism” was destroying fiscal discipline and ruining the country. The Democrat Party was a harsh critic of the universal health care scheme. Right-wing academics and media analysts liked to claim that pro-poor policies were just a form of corrupt vote-buying where the “uneducated poor” just used their improved economic position to buy frivolous luxuries.

coup-for-the-rich

The pro-military courts have also been used to try to punish members of the Yingluk government for the rice price guarantee scheme and also to prevent elected governments spending money on infrastructure development.

Today these neo-liberals are continually trying to erode the universal health care scheme by suggesting that citizens be made to pay for health care. The present junta also wants to enshrine neo-liberalism in the National Strategy in order to prevent pro-poor policies by future elected governments.

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Of course none of the neo-liberals ever complain about the huge amount of wasted money spent on the monarchy and the military.

The building of a welfare state, funded through progressive taxation of the rich would go a long way towards reducing inequality. It would also improve political participation by citizens as their lives became more secure. Unfortunately, none of the political parties which are hoping to contest the next election, including the Future Forward Party, are prepared to tax the rich and the corporations in order to build a welfare state. This only goes to show that Thai society needs a stronger trade union movement and a workers’ party in order to campaign for such reforms.

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The Thai State cares little about ordinary people

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Now that we have heard the good news about the successful recue of the young football team from the cave, we are in a position to draw some serious lessons from this event and also from the tragedy of the sinking of a tourist boat off the southern island of Puket, where a number of people drowned. We should also not forget the death of a Thai diver during the cave rescue operation.

There are three important lessons which I wish to discuss.

Firstly, safety standards for ordinary citizens and visitors to Thailand are extremely poor. We must not blame the football coach or the parents of the football team who got stuck in the cave. They have suffered enough and are clearly in a position to learn lessons. It is about collective responsibility in society for safety standards, not about the actions of an individual. The political situation in Thailand means that the Thai State has never given priority to the safety of citizens. There are few regulations and enforcement is lax. In the West adults who take children on outdoor activities have to be fully trained and have to follow strict guidelines. Access to places like caves which are liable to dangerous flooding would be strictly controlled.

Transport safety standards in Thailand are extremely bad. The tourist boat that sank off Puket put out to sea in storm conditions. There seems to have been little coordination between the harbour authorities and the meteorological office. There were no strict enforcement of safety standards for different sized boats and the greedy tour operators were allowed to get away with murder, literally. This is similar to the total lack of safety standards for road transport, where unacceptably high accident rates occur during public holidays due to a lack of good public transport and long working hours with few days off for many working people. Instead of the police trying to ensure safe travelling all the year round, many motorists experience being stopped by corrupt police in order to collect illegal payments.

The Thai State cares little about the safety of ordinary citizens, children, tourists, or workers in construction and manufacturing industry. It is a state which is blatantly run by and on behalf of the upper classes. It is only through pressure from trade unions and social movements that this situation can change.

Secondly, the Thai State has neglected the creation of rescue organisations and other types of infrastructure to protect citizens. Thailand needs a properly organised emergency service throughout the country, including rescue teams. The use of soldiers, who are not properly trained for such duties, is just not good enough. These teams need to be locally based, properly funded and they need to be civilian organisations run by experienced permanent crew. Instead, we still see emergency ambulances, where they exist, stuck in traffic with no one clearing the way for them. In contrast, we see much police activity to clear the way for various royals and big-shots when they want to travel.

The neglect by the Thai State of the rights of citizens to enjoy high standards of safety and decent government services is due to decades of military rule and/or rule by the elites, with little political input from below. The Left and the trade unions are still too weak. This is why Thailand still does not have a welfare state funded by progressive taxation of the rich and large corporations.

Many have rightly praised the role of the governor of Chiang Rai. But the elite and hierarchical nature of society meant that he had to start his press statement by praising the king and the fact that the royals had somehow shown great concern for the safety of the football team. The genuine concern shown by millions of people in Thailand and other countries was just ignored. It should be emphasised repeatedly that the efforts of hundreds of ordinary volunteers was crucial. Needless to say, the king did not fly in and roll up his sleeves to help with the rescue work!

Thirdly, there is the role of Nationalism in Thai society, fostered by the elites. The “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” ideology is constantly used to exclude people and to enforce obedience towards the upper classes. This has resulted in many racist comments in social media about the drowned Chinese tourists and the Chinese tour operator. Ordinary Thai citizens may count for nothing as far as the Thai State is concerned, but foreigners count for even less as far as the racists are concerned. [See https://bit.ly/1JaeTJY  ]. In addition to this, there are thought to be a million or more stateless people living in Thailand. The Thai government has refused to grant them citizenship. Some of these stateless people were among the members of football team stuck in the cave. One of them was the one with the best language skills who was able to communicate with the British divers. We need to demand that all stateless people be granted citizenship.

Those who support the junta and its plan for Guided Democracy have said that the spirit of cooperation shown in the rescue of the football team proves that Thais can unite across political differences and no doubt forget the destruction of democracy. But for me, the spirit of cooperation shown during the cave rescue shows the potential to build a new and inclusive society in Thailand based upon democracy, equality and socialism.

“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.

Let them eat cake!!

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Generalissimo Prayut has been frothing at the mouth about the poor. The junta’s idea about dealing with poverty was to make poor people go through the demeaning process of registering themselves as “poor” in order to receive small miserable payments. This year about 13 million people registered. At the same time, the junta has made attempts to cut the minimum wage and cut spending on health and education.

Millionaire dictator Prayut (worth 129 million baht three years ago) helped himself to state funded salaries by seizing power in a military coup. Top Thai generals grab much more than their military salaries by giving themselves multiple paid positions and creaming off percentages from arms purchases and other under the table activities.

Yet Prayut had the gall to give a lecture to the poor. The poor, he said, need to change their life-styles and stop being “lazy”. He ranted that the country could not afford to look after the poor. This is at a time when the junta’s cronies have been helping themselves to salaries for doing nothing, while never attending meetings. No doubt they have been “hard at work” lining their own pockets with various corrupt business dealings and state paid foreign shopping trips.

In the same week megalomaniac Prayut ranted about nurses. Thousands of nurses have been protesting because they are sick and tired of their temporary contracts and low pay. Their main demand is to be appointed as permanent state employees. At the same time, two thousand temporary staff at the Ministry of Justice are facing uncertainty about their futures.

Prayut harangued the nurses, asking them if they thought they were the only people who worked hard. He shouted that the country couldn’t afford to give everyone permanent jobs. The military then announced that they were in the process of buying some more tanks. This is after huge sums were spent on buying Chinese submarines. The junta are also spending millions on the late king’s funeral and the new king is enjoying himself flitting around in his own state funded airliner between his palace in Germany and royal palaces in Thailand.

Over the last three years since Prayut’s coup, military spending has sky-rocketed, increasing every year by huge amounts. Currently the military budget stands at 222 billion baht, more than the government spends on public health.

After the nurses protested, the Ministry of Health promised to gradually appoint some of them to permanent posts over a period of 3 years. This falls short of the nurses’ demands, but it does show that mass protests are effective and still possible if people have the determination.

After threatening to shut down Facebook unless they censored articles and pictures which the junta do not like, Prayut gave a TV lecture on the need for Thai people to “think outside the box”. He claimed that the government was doing all that it could to develop the use of the internet! In reality anyone daring to think outside the junta’s box faces being dragged off for “attitude changing sessions” in secret military camps and also being imprisoned under the draconian lèse-majesté law. Merely asking in public about the missing 1932 revolution plaque, or attempting to commemorate Prayut’s massacre of Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstrators in 2010, has resulted in arrests.

This is indeed a lying, corrupt and hypocritical authoritarian regime.

Thailand is a grossly unequal society

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.

Thai-Rut newspaper cartoonist, "Sia", drew this to expose inequality. In the past he has been summonsed to an "attitude" changing session by the junta.
Thai-Rut newspaper cartoonist, “Sia”, drew this to expose inequality. In the past he has been summonsed to an “attitude” changing session by the junta.

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.

Diamond-studded "Santa" outfit for one of the Princess' dogs.
Diamond-studded “Santa” outfit for one of the Princess’ dogs.

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.

Puey Ungphakorn

It is soon going to be the 100th anniversary year of my father Puey Ungphakorn. Unfortunately the Thai military junta and its creatures are busy trying to gain false legitimacy from taking part in public meetings about Puey. This is no surprise since the lying and double standards in Thailand today knows no limits. General Prayut, self-appointed junta leader claims that Thailand is not a dictatorship and the collection of anti-democrats who are busy crafting “guided democracy” are claiming that they are conducting a process of “political reform”.

Puey Ungpakorn was an economics graduate from the London School of Economics. He joined the Free Thai movement during the Second World War and was captured in Thailand. He studied in Britain on a Thai government scholarship and thus returned to work in the Thai civil service. Eventually he became governor of the Bank of Thailand. Puey’s economic views were more or less mainstream. He worked with the World Bank and IMF. But in those days mainstream economics was more about a “mixed economy” rather than free-market ideology. Puey was also a supporter of the Welfare State and he wrote a short article about this.  He was in favour of progressive taxation of the rich to fund such a Welfare State. His ideas were similar to those of Pridi Panomyong, the leader of the People’s Party which staged the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy. Pridi was older and he was my father’s mentor.

Of course the conservative elites opposed these ideas and Pridi was forced into exile by the military and the royalists. He died in France. Much later, Puey was also forced into exile after the 6th October 1976 massacre at Thammasart University. Puey was hounded out of Thailand by the military and the right-wing who accused him of wanting to abolish the monarchy. They also accused him of being a communist, which he was not. A year later Puey suffered a serious stroke and never spoke or wrote anything again. He remained living in London until he died, although, unlike Pridi, he was able to visit Thailand on a number of occasions.

At the time of the 6th October massacre Puey was no longer working at the Bank of Thailand. He had become rector of Thammasart University and decided to dedicate more time to teaching and to building up a team of graduate volunteers for rural development.

There is myth perpetuated by supporters of the military that Puey would have “understood” the need for the military to stage coups against the elected governments of Yingluk and Taksin. One among those who is perpetuating this myth is scientist Yongyut Yuttawong, who is a junta deputy Prime Minisiter. Yongyut also served in the 2006 military junta. He is also my cousin. What is quite appalling is that Yongyut has staked a claim to speak as a representative of Puey’s ideas on more than one public occasion.

My father was a staunch supporter of democracy and wrote and spoke out against the 6th October 1976 massacre. He also openly criticised the Sarit and Tanom military dictatorships, especially on the issue of corruption and authoritarianism. Pueys’ belief in democracy and opposition to military rule meant that he regarded King Pumipon with contempt because Pumipon never stood up to the military and allowed himself to be used by various dictatorships. In our house at Soi Aree, where I  was born and grew up, there was never a picture of the King or even a Buddha image. On the King and Queen’s birthdays no flags or lights were ever displayed at the front of the house. Puey was not necessarily a republican. He was just indifferent to the monarchy.

At Thammasart University Rungsit campus there is grotesque statue of Puey. A Malaysian socialist friend of mine once said that it looked like a statue of Chairman Mao. It is grotesque because in Thailand statues of people are deified. It is also grotesque because the rector of Thammasrt University, a creature of two military juntas, has just sacked ajarn Somsak Jeamteerasakun for going into enforced exile. Somsak stands to lose his pension as a result.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn