Thailand's Malaise

Article excerpt

BANGKOK -- 1993 should have been a good year for Thais. In May, they marked the first anniversary of a popular uprising that chased a violent military junta from power. They did so with an elected coalition -- parties that supported the pro-democracy forces -- controlling the government. The economy continued growing steadily throughout the year. And a series of political intrigues failed to create the disruption conspirators hoped for.

But disaster has a way of dampening spirits. And Thailand suffered more than its share of unfortunate, avoidable calamities in 1993. Most were relatively minor. Two were not. On May 10, 14 days before the anniversary of the junta's collapse, 189 workers, mostly young women, perished in a terrifying factory fire. Three months later an illegally extended hotel caved in, killing more than 130 guests and employees. These tragedies forced the nation to confront a pair of fundamental social problems. Thailand does not value the lives of its people, especially its poor people. And despite their active involvement in the prodemocracy movement, impoverished Thais still lack the clout to influence policy or elite behaviour.

Life is cheap

The elected government, social activists contend, is doing little for the poor. Witoon P. Charoen, director of the Project for Ecological Recovery, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with rural poor communities, says Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's coalition and the right-wing opposition differ little on fundamental issues. Both favour wealthy business interests. That's an opinion shared by people in Bangkok's sprawling Klong Toey slum. "Life here is very cheap," says a Klong Toey woman, "No one wants to pay attention to these poor people."

Government members, naturally, dispute this. Bangkok MP Abhisit Vejjajiva, Chuan's youthful Oxford-educated spokesman, says the government is committed to uplifting the poor. Its thinking is long-term, contends Abhisit. Rural employment, the status of labour, and workplace safety are priorities.

This remains to be seen.

There are at least two ways to view Thailand today. By traditional measures, the country is prospering. In the late 1980s, the economy grew by more than 10 per cent annually, and GNP per capita continues to expand by a yearly 7 to 8 per cent. The middle class is growing. Industrial and service jobs are plentiful in cities, and a building boom in Bangkok is changing the skyline and employing thousands of men and women. The country, boosters contend, is no longer a Third World society: it is a newly industrializing country.

But Thailand's boom is not all rice and orchids. Thailand is not a rich country. It's GNP per capita matches long-stagnant Jamaica's. Pollution, prostitution, and an out-of-control AIDS epidemic are commonly cited social problems. This city's day-long traffic jams illustrate a terribly overstressed infrastructure. And Thailand's inequitable distribution of wealth is evident throughout affluent Bangkok. Disabled beggars sit in front of glitzy department stores. Shantytowns abut gleaming glass towers. A street named for the reigning monarch begins at a small slum, passes over squatters camped beneath bridges, and ends by a Ferrari dealership.

Antidote to a myth

Rather than being a model of market-driven, deregulated development, as believers in the current international development orthodoxy contend, Thailand provides Asia's best antidote to the myth that growth alone will eliminate mass poverty. According to a recent World Bank study, Thailand's "absolute poverty rate" -- a measure based on daily calorie intake -- fell by only one per cent in the 1980s, from 17 per cent to 16 per cent. By comparison, only two per cent of neighbouring, somewhat wealthier Malaysia -- where government policy favours the traditionally hardpressed ethnic Malay population -- is absolutely poor. Indonesia and China also report lower absolute poverty rates, even though Thailand's per capita GNP is 2. …