Poverty and economic disparity are enduring problems. In 2004, there were 8.8 million poor people or 14.4% of the whole population. Average household debt was 104,571 baht per family.1 The 20% of the population with the lowest income made 982 baht per person per month, and their total income was 4.54% of all income. the 20% of the population with the highest income made 11,874 baht per person per month, and their total income was 54.86% of all income.2
These problems need urgent solutions; otherwise they will undermine economic development and threaten national security.3
Let's take a look at how the junta-installed government, which has always cited the security issue, has handled the issue of poverty.
Gen Surayud Chulanont's government declared in Parliament that it would adhere to the principles of the sufficiency economic, resulting in projects like the Happy Living Project and Community Development Project under the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy. The Centre of Poverty Eradication set up during the Thaksin administration was transformed into the Centre of Poverty Eradication under the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy.
The Happy Living Project rushed to deplete its budget before the charter referendum, and showed signs of corruption among local bureaucrats who conspired with companies, for example, that sell water pumps or livestock.
The Centre of Poverty Eradication under the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy mostly makes use of the bureaucratic mechanisms of various ministries and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) with no real intent to eradicate the poverty. "Through the past year, the centre has been just facilitating negotiations to delay the outbreak of problems, or to contain grassroots movements."4
The implementation that the people can see for certain is training programmes, seminars, large billboards, posters, banners, print media, radio and TV ads, all attempting to convince them to follow the sufficiency economy.
In the meantime, problems of the people suffering from government policies have not been truly taken care of, such as cases of workers who were laid off.
Or in the case of the Pak Mun dam, "the Cabinet has the authority but passes the problem to the Centre of Poverty Eradication under the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy. Although the centre eventually yielded and opened the sluice gates, who knows, to drain the water or to solve the problem, it was too late. By then the stream was very strong and the fishers could barely catch the fish. The problem was not solved at all."5
Furthermore, only 3.6% of the 2008 budget is allocated for poverty eradication compared to 13.2% for the national security.6
And the government and the National Legislative Assembly have pushed for a number of laws that just go against the sufficiency economy like the National Park Bill, Community Forest Bill, Water Bill, Fertilizer Bill, Fresh Water Fishery Bill, and Privatization Bill, all set to deprive people and communities of their natural resources for the sake of unthinking conservation or to serve industry. How can the people live sufficiently without resources?
All this shows that:
1. The government just blames the people for their poverty; hence the heavy advertising telling them to live their lives with sufficiency.
The struggles of the poor, from the farmer rebellions in the North and Northeast during the Absolute Monarchy, the Communist Party of Thailand, to the Assembly of the Poor, all result from resources being snatched from the people through numerous development projects. The poor have been made poor.
In other words, the government deliberately plays down the struggles of the poor as a problem of not adhering to the principles of sufficiency.
2. The government and the junta see the poor as mere masses who must be converted from their support from Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai; therefore, their sufficiency economic policies are just populist policies that are ostensibly presented as different from those of Thaksin, but with the same goal; that is, to garner popularity among the poor and protect their own elitist interests.
3. The government and the junta pay no attention to solving the poverty problem resulting from unjust and unequal structures such as the law, the tax system, or the system of land tenure, which benefit the rich.
The junta just wants to maintain the power and the interests of the elite minus Thaksin.
Free education and health care and housing are guaranteed in the 2007 constitution and it is claimed that these show concern for the poor and offer much more than Thaksin did with his populist policies. But these were selling points to win the referendum, while the budgets for these welfare programmes seem set to come from increased taxes on liquor, cigarettes and consumption or VAT, taxing the poor to help the poor.
So the welfare provided in the 2007 constitution has nothing to do with eradicating poverty or reducing economic disparities.
The poor and the public should be aware that on the one hand they have to be wary of consumerism, and on the other hand they must not be stuck in the sufficiency trap as economic disparity and poverty will remain as long as the rich are allowed to seize resources from the poor, no matter what economic policy the government declares, liberalism or sufficiency.
The grassroots movements have to join forces to push for key issues such as constitutional amendments, community rights to resource management, a more thoroughgoing welfare system, decentralization of power, land reform, a fair tax system, etc.
1 Thida Thavoraset, Analysis of Thai Society: Thai Poor, Udommakarn (Bangkok, 2005), 3-10
2 TDRI report No 40, Economic Disparity and Social Conflicts: Theory, Experience and Reconciliation (Bangkok, 2006)
3 Nikom Jantarawithoon, Thailand: From Economic Boom to Social Crisis (Bangkok: Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 1998), 97
4 Interview with Nivas Kotejanteuk, sub-committee member on land issues of Centre of Poverty Eradication under the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy
5 Interview with Nantachote Chairat, Advisor to the Assembly of the Poor
6 Sept 19 Anti-coup Network, No to Charter, No to Coup