A nation’s inability to transform

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Arno Maierbrugger
By Arno Maierbrugger

A country so beautiful and full of warm-hearted people: Why is it that Thailand continuously tries to commit political (and, as a result, economic) suicide? What lies deep beneath the surface of the “Land of Smiles” that makes it such an ailing patient in Southeast Asia?

To answer this question one has to dig into the country’s history and look at the hidden imbalances. Never having been colonialised, there was always the myth of Thailand being a ethnic and political unity, sealed off from too much foreign influence and cultural changes from outside. Indeed, all the while civil unrest, war and dictatorships surrounded the country in the 20th century, Thailand seldom interfered and went its own way. Some say this was selfish, others say it is the nature of being “neutral” or “centered” in line with Buddhist beliefs in the quest for harmony.

Despite political volatility and a record number of military coups, things went well economically as industry and manufacturing strengthened over the past decades, mainly due to the diligence of the Thai people. However, the socioeconomic changes that came with economic growth have increasingly thrown this “harmony” out of balance.

It is a myth that Thailand is an ethnic unity, but the differences aren’t named but rather suppressed. Officially, the country boasts 75 per cent Thais, 14 per cent Thai-Chinese, 3 per cent Malays and some minority groups such as the northern hill tribes including Hmong as well as some Burmese and Khmer.

This is where the hidden rifts are. The establishment and the middle class are, like in other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, interspersed with economically successful Thai-Chinese. The embattled Shinawatra clan, for example, is an ethnic Chinese family. This is seldom articulated in Thailand, but it is a fact that ethnic Thais are underrepresented in the ruling class and among the wealthy.

Over the past two decades, this gap has deepened as the urban and suburban middle-class in Bangkok got richer and better educated than their compatriots mainly in the Northeast to an extent that the latter became rife for political exploitation. The stories of vote buying from poor northeastern farmers in favour of the ruling populist parties, not only today’s Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai party, are not just tales, this is what everyone in Thailand knows or even has experienced firsthand.

With the rise of the urban middle class and the traditionally poor education system in Thailand, the wealthier and more politically interconnected resorted to denounce the northeastern population as “uneducated” and “unaware of political affairs” but did not do anything to improve the situation in order to keep them naturally susceptible for vote buying. Populist strategies such as rice subsidies are falling on fertile grounds, a situation that has been widely exploited at times.

While Thai-Chinese and better-off Thais are representing the upper and upper middle class, the Northeast is basically perceived as an outpost of Laos, where many people even speak Lao and where culture is much more intertwined with Laos’ than with Bangkok’s. The Northeasterners, not long ago just a folk of peasants on a subsistence farming level, are also supplying the highest numbers of day labourers, sex workers and other disadvantaged groups to metropolitan Bangkok. The urban establishment glances down at these people.

What Thai politics has done so far was to increase the gap further, by dividing political pressure groups into Yellow Shirts (middle-class, students, royalists, democrats) and Red Shirts (rural folk, working class and disadvantaged) instead of embarking on an integration strategy. But while still poorer than the Bangkok elite, the Northeast has benefited from the country’s economic growth and now wants to participate instead of being governed by a minority who is feeding them with nothing much than breadcrumbs.

However, to implement an integration strategy would mean to largely equalise wealth distribution in Thailand, which is an extremely hard undertaking as the wealthier class has this nouveau-riche attitude that prohibits them from sharing. There is still a long way to go to establish a better distribution of the benefits of economic growth, and it has to start with a better education system and better job opportunities for the poorer majority. This, first of all, would need accountable leaders and a largely corruption-free environment, both of which are not in sight.

But the country somehow needs to take on the challenges of societal change unless it is happy with constantly fueling street disorder. Instead of the manifestation of political chaos and social upheavals that are the result of decades of mismanagement, the consensus of who is ruling over who needs to be turned upside down. It is obvious that this won’t work with a Shinawatra clan in power, but, frankly, there aren’t great alternatives either.

At times, somebody is just smiling because he or she is clueless about something, but this happens often in Thailand.

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Arno Maierbrugger

A country so beautiful and full of warm-hearted people: Why is it that Thailand continuously tries to commit political (and, as a result, economic) suicide? What lies deep beneath the surface of the “Land of Smiles” that makes it such an ailing patient in Southeast Asia?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Arno Maierbrugger
By Arno Maierbrugger

A country so beautiful and full of warm-hearted people: Why is it that Thailand continuously tries to commit political (and, as a result, economic) suicide? What lies deep beneath the surface of the “Land of Smiles” that makes it such an ailing patient in Southeast Asia?

To answer this question one has to dig into the country’s history and look at the hidden imbalances. Never having been colonialised, there was always the myth of Thailand being a ethnic and political unity, sealed off from too much foreign influence and cultural changes from outside. Indeed, all the while civil unrest, war and dictatorships surrounded the country in the 20th century, Thailand seldom interfered and went its own way. Some say this was selfish, others say it is the nature of being “neutral” or “centered” in line with Buddhist beliefs in the quest for harmony.

Despite political volatility and a record number of military coups, things went well economically as industry and manufacturing strengthened over the past decades, mainly due to the diligence of the Thai people. However, the socioeconomic changes that came with economic growth have increasingly thrown this “harmony” out of balance.

It is a myth that Thailand is an ethnic unity, but the differences aren’t named but rather suppressed. Officially, the country boasts 75 per cent Thais, 14 per cent Thai-Chinese, 3 per cent Malays and some minority groups such as the northern hill tribes including Hmong as well as some Burmese and Khmer.

This is where the hidden rifts are. The establishment and the middle class are, like in other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, interspersed with economically successful Thai-Chinese. The embattled Shinawatra clan, for example, is an ethnic Chinese family. This is seldom articulated in Thailand, but it is a fact that ethnic Thais are underrepresented in the ruling class and among the wealthy.

Over the past two decades, this gap has deepened as the urban and suburban middle-class in Bangkok got richer and better educated than their compatriots mainly in the Northeast to an extent that the latter became rife for political exploitation. The stories of vote buying from poor northeastern farmers in favour of the ruling populist parties, not only today’s Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai party, are not just tales, this is what everyone in Thailand knows or even has experienced firsthand.

With the rise of the urban middle class and the traditionally poor education system in Thailand, the wealthier and more politically interconnected resorted to denounce the northeastern population as “uneducated” and “unaware of political affairs” but did not do anything to improve the situation in order to keep them naturally susceptible for vote buying. Populist strategies such as rice subsidies are falling on fertile grounds, a situation that has been widely exploited at times.

While Thai-Chinese and better-off Thais are representing the upper and upper middle class, the Northeast is basically perceived as an outpost of Laos, where many people even speak Lao and where culture is much more intertwined with Laos’ than with Bangkok’s. The Northeasterners, not long ago just a folk of peasants on a subsistence farming level, are also supplying the highest numbers of day labourers, sex workers and other disadvantaged groups to metropolitan Bangkok. The urban establishment glances down at these people.

What Thai politics has done so far was to increase the gap further, by dividing political pressure groups into Yellow Shirts (middle-class, students, royalists, democrats) and Red Shirts (rural folk, working class and disadvantaged) instead of embarking on an integration strategy. But while still poorer than the Bangkok elite, the Northeast has benefited from the country’s economic growth and now wants to participate instead of being governed by a minority who is feeding them with nothing much than breadcrumbs.

However, to implement an integration strategy would mean to largely equalise wealth distribution in Thailand, which is an extremely hard undertaking as the wealthier class has this nouveau-riche attitude that prohibits them from sharing. There is still a long way to go to establish a better distribution of the benefits of economic growth, and it has to start with a better education system and better job opportunities for the poorer majority. This, first of all, would need accountable leaders and a largely corruption-free environment, both of which are not in sight.

But the country somehow needs to take on the challenges of societal change unless it is happy with constantly fueling street disorder. Instead of the manifestation of political chaos and social upheavals that are the result of decades of mismanagement, the consensus of who is ruling over who needs to be turned upside down. It is obvious that this won’t work with a Shinawatra clan in power, but, frankly, there aren’t great alternatives either.

At times, somebody is just smiling because he or she is clueless about something, but this happens often in Thailand.

Do you like this post?
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