In brief, the issues of “poverty” and “the poor” (depending on the definition which may vary and is related to income, resource management and budget, etc.) have existed in Thailand since before it became a nation state. They survive in all periods, whether pre-capitalist or capitalist, pre-modern or post modern, and affect various classes and/or groups that take over state power including powerful military regimes or political parties.
The issues of “poverty” and “the poor” in Thailand and the world derive from an unequal power structure; poor income distribution has led to a concentration of wealth and land and thus exacerbated inequality.
Different solutions have been applied by successive governments to tackle the issue. For a time, the market economy has been allowed to perform at full scale with minimal state invention. This rests on the assumption that as the economy grows, income distribution will spontaneously occur. However, this has never actually happened.
In other times, to address uncontrollable class conflict, the Thai state has offered social welfare policies both palliative and intensive, though there have been attempts to promote self-sufficiency at other times.
The onslaught of the global economic crisis has however impacted most on the poor. So the current administration has announced its “coupon” policy and aims to address directly problems among the poorest of the poor (those living under the poverty line). Of course, this coupon policy will entail certain administrative problems. Criteria to define who is poor have to be clarified, and the process has to rely on the participation of the poor and checks by civil society.
It is not surprising that the opposition and the anti-government coalition including the Democrat Party and People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the market economy faithful have lashed out against the coupon policy. They accuse it of being a vote-buying policy aiming to patronize people. They claim the system will simply make people indolent, just like the previous populist policies of the former Thai Rak Thai Party.
The question is, are people willing to be indolent? Will everyone, especially the poor, consent to live under a patronage system? Will the people really let themselves be led astray by the government?
Of course, the previous populist policies were simply social welfare policies aiming to scatter some crumbs among the people. But this must be entirely different from policies that are geared toward helping people to rely on themselves, making them reluctant to demand their rights and making them blame themselves for being “poor, stressed, and drunk” as a TV slogan goes. Thus the poor are supposed to exploit themselves further, work harder and accept lower pay, and continue to blame themselves for their poverty, because it is the result of their “karma from a past life” and “there is no poverty among the diligent”, and the state is not supposed to provide any help.
Do the really poor agree with these ideas? Or maybe they think it is their rights and that any government is obliged to redistribute wealth to them, even temporarily, since they are also Thai citizens and that they also have a role in managing natural resources including land, forests, water, sea, rivers and mines.
We need to ask if there has been any government that has pledged to promote social welfare policies and the redistribution of state resources, even during election campaigns.
The decision should rest with the people and whether or not they prefer this kind of campaign. Will they like this vote-buying tactic? Meanwhile, the Democrats may continue to embrace policies of non-intervention in market mechanisms and leave the poor to struggle while they maintain their indifference.
Having said that, I find this coupon populist policy still fails to address social injustice. Even though the policy sounds better than those offered by previous governments, it does not address issues at the structural level. It is not as progressive as a welfare state that imposes progressive taxation, decreases military and other wasteful government budgets, etc., to redistribute income and land. This would create a basic welfare system for people and lead to justice and equality as in many other countries in the world.
Certainly, a welfare state cannot be established as long as the Democrat Party, the People’s Power Party or any other party, including the coup-makers and those supporting bureaucratic polity are in power since such a system is an obstacle to their interests. Despite that, they may keep professing that they prefer a welfare state system to populist and coupon policies and keep up the propaganda to justify their cause.
So it continues to be the historical and inevitable task for workers, peasants, slum dwellers, traditional fisher folk, ethnic minorities, and those who fight for social justice to struggle in strong collaboration.
Amidst this political conflict, it is no surprise that the PAD comes out strongly against this coupon policy, just as they criticize other government policies to attract more support from groups to topple the government as they have pledged.
Similarly, attacks are made on the price of oil, sugar and rice, wage levels, Kaeng Suea Ten Dam, etc., even though the current government’s policies are no different from a Democrat-led government. Their actions are simply tactics to achieve political goals.
Therefore, any sincere move by any group can be made, but it should be done in a circumspect manner so that their actions are not turned into a tool of opportunistic groups.
Translated by Pipob Udomittipong