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March 8, 2012

The Fire Next Time In Bangkok

BANGKOK, Thailand— Last October, the flood came. Cresting the banks of the swollen Chao Phraya River, runoff rolled through Thailand’s central plain, killing nearly 400 and displacing millions in the costliest natural disaster in the nation’s history.

As the waters rose around this ancient city, the governor of Bangkok—the grandson of one of Thailand’s great monarchs—rushed to protect the low-lying capital with sandbags and soldiers.  Using dikes to divert the floodwaters, his team largely succeeded. But in sparing the capital, they sacrificed the countryside. Provinces downstream were largely submerged, causing billions of dollars of damage.

The worst part of it, writes Singapore scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, is that while the provinces were flooded, “Bangkok residents never expressed their concern, or sympathy, regarding the situation in those affected provinces. It seemed that is was all right for those provinces and people to suffer, as long as Bangkok was preserved.” It was the latest manifestation of a rift that has existed ever since the Bangkok elite conquered, absorbed and then ignored the north and northeastern parts of the country, starting in the 19th Century.

Thailand’s new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra—sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the most populist Prime Minister in recent Thai history—didn’t help matters when she toured the flood-ravaged areas wearing Burberry boots. The symbolism couldn’t have been clearer:  Bangkok should worry less about the rising water level, and more about rising levels of inequality.

The reality is that Thailand’s urban and rural poor have been drowning for decades. And if the muddy waters didn’t cleanse the country, at least they brought clarity. International investors and Thailand’s elite fretted that the shuttered factories of Apple and Toyota have disrupted global supply chains. Meanwhile, the displaced people of the provinces began picking up the pieces of their lives, reapplying for bank loans few can repay. Already a fragmented nation, when it comes to bridging its social and economic gulf, Thailand is a country with few ties.

Despite the political upheaval of the past decade, Forbes calculated that Thailand’s 40 wealthiest citizens have increased their combined wealth by a staggering 46 percent. Their cumulative wealth–$36.5 billion—is just a few billion higher than that of Thailand’s revered, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s richest monarch.

Yet Thailand’s growing affluence has not trickled down to the masses. Recently, the Thailand Development Research Institute found that the country’s richest 20 percent earns almost 60 percent of Thailand’s income, while the poorest fifth earn just four percent—a level of inequality far exceeding  that of neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Over the last decade, while real GDP increased 70 percent and real average per capita income grew by almost a half, the minimum wage for poor agricultural and urban workers—who make up 80 percent of the workforce—fell 1.6 percent.

These trends are not new, but thanks to the growing penetration of technology in rural areas, impoverished Thais can now easily see how the other fifth lives. Villages are “plugged into the rest of Thailand by television, radio, and the Internet. Traveling to other provinces is routine, and every family has a motorcycle or pickup truck.” This newfound connectivity and mobility has profoundly altered the way rural Thais see themselves and their place in society.

When they travel now, their battered trucks pass luxury vehicles costing more than their villages make in a year. When they go online, they read about the son of a wealthy Thai businessman and nephew of a powerful police officer who floored his Mercedes in a fit of road rage into a crowd of poor Thai, killing a woman while badly injuring many others—a crime for which he is out on bond and driving again. When they listen to the radio, they hear about outrages like the five-star Bangkok hotel that offered guests a private jet visit to a poor village, followed by a 10-course, $300,000 meal prepared by Michelin-starred chefs— a promotion so disgraceful that several French chefs boycotted it.

Every day, they bear witness to social and economic inequality in action, and this bottom fifth will not stay quiet much longer. “The Thailand of today is not quite the France of 1789,” the journalist Tom Fuller tells me. “But more than ever Thailand’s underprivileged are less inclined to quietly accept their station in life.” Already, the political battles—between exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin’s Red Shirts and the royalist Yellow Shirts—have broken down along class lines, with both sides taking to the streets.

As long as 70 percent of Thailand remains poor, Thailand will never be all that it aspires to be. Income disparity is not the only thing Thailand shares with the United States today: opponents of the populist Yingluck, like Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, have opposed her policies from day one, fighting her attempts to empower poor Thais every step of the way.

But the people of Thailand could do a great deal of good by forcefully advocating for reasonable policies—supported by organizations like the Asian Development Bank and Thai CEOs alike—to expand opportunity. Specifically, they could call for greater investment in education for lower-income students, incentives for major businesses to relocate and invest in the provinces, and enhanced infrastructure in rural areas.

As the King Prajadhipok’s Institute observed after a visit to northeast Thailand, “Both the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts see the need for politics to change in Thailand so that power is devolved to the masses and double standards are eradicated.”

In other words, many Thais would probably agree with the young gardener from Bangkok whose house filled with waist-deep water during the flood. “We should share the hardship,” he said as the waters rose. “We couldn’t bear it any longer. We have been telling them for weeks to open the gate, but no one listened.”

It’s time for Thailand to start listening and open the gates of opportunity to all. Or else, in the foreboding words of an old spiritual, “no more water, the fire next time.”