Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Poorest Thais See No Turn in Economy

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Poorest Thais See No Turn in Economy

Article excerpt

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The two children come home from school hungry in the late afternoon. A makeshift wooden bridge quakes as they scramble down to their tiny shack built inches above a fly-ridden, soursmelling swamp.

"Nothing to eat unless you go to your grandmother's," Sagna To-ea tells her daughter, Nisa, 13, and son, Somchai, 11.

It's two years since Sagna had to turn to her mother, a masseuse, to feed her family. Two years since Thailand's economy, once the world's fastest growing, crashed.

On July 2, 1997, Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was forced to float Thailand's currency after a futile defense against the weakness of Thailand's currency, the baht, on the international market. The baht nose-dived and the Thai financial system quickly collapsed.

Meltdowns followed in Asia's other once-vaunted economies and eventually spread to emerging markets from Russia to Latin America.

The new government claims recovery is around the corner. But upticks in the stock market and relative currency calm have not trickled down to millions of ordinary Thais whose lives were shattered.

For them, the shakeout continues.

These are the stories of one driven to the stupor of severe depression, and one who found new opportunity in an old business.

INCOME AT ZERO

Boonchu To-ea was one of the little people, who benefited in a little way, from Thailand's economic boom.

For six years, Boonchu was a driver for the executive director of the Nava Thanakit finance company. His wife, Sagna, was a maid there.

Together, they took home 8,500 baht a month, or about $275 -- typical pay for Thailand's unskilled urban workers. For the To-ea family, it meant enough to eat and holiday treats for the children.

After July 2, 1997, the financial system was exposed as bankrupt. Within months, more than half the country's finance companies and a third of its banks had been shut down or gone into government receivership.

Nava Thanakit was closed. The To-ea family's income was reduced to zero overnight. There was no family home in the countryside -- a traditional social safety net in Thailand -- to go to.

The swampy slum they live in is a garbage-strewn, mosquitoinfested home to 500 families set incongruously among spacious, leafy estates in the wealthy Sukhumvit area of Bangkok. Never pleasant, it has become menacing since the crisis began because of rising drug use.

Boonchu barely notices. Since losing his job, he has suffered depression that occasionally turns suicidal. He hears someone talking in his head, blaming him for his family's poverty.

Paying no attention to a visitor, he spends most of the time staring into the distance, occasionally murmuring about death.

"These are tough times," says Sagna, 38. "It's even worse when the economic crisis turns my good man into someone mentally ill. …

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