BANGKOK – With the second-largest economy in ASEAN, Thailand is one of the most dynamic countries in Southeast Asia, Inequality is one of Thailand’s greatest domestic challenges.
But over the past decade, despite reaching upper middle-income status, Thailand has faced slowing economic growth, declining foreign investment, and political instability.
Thailand’s wealthiest people have benefited the most from economic growth, and this has increased their control over financial resources, as well as the amount of land they own.
And, today, there is quite clear evidence that inequality has risen in key areas such as education, health, and political participation.
There is considerable debate about inequality in Thailand, and this includes disagreements over its severity. In 2018, the Bangkok Post labeled Thailand the most unequal country in the world, based on data from the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook.
A new study by the non-government Asia Foundation finds that nearly a third of Thailand’s 69 million people, most of them farmers, from the Northeaster Isaan region have long lagged behind the rest of the country.
Asia Foundation found that “people in Isaan still struggle to make ends meet.” The foundation says narrowing the gap between them and the rest of Thailand is key to a richer and more stable country.
Rattana Lao, lead author of the foundation’s report, “Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isaan” says “If the income is dispersed more equally among the provinces and people feel satisfied with their living standard.
They will feel empowered economically and politically, I think the feeling of being disparaged, the feeling of being uneven would be reduced.”
While ever fewer of Isaan’s residents live in poverty, there are still more of them in Isaan than in any other part of Thailand, according to government figures.
They still earn less on average, and nearly 9 in 10 of them are in debt. And while average household debt in Isaan is roughly on par with the national average, it makes up a much larger share of what they earn.
“So the gap has shrunk drastically … but it still exists and Isaan is still poorer than other regions,” Rattana said.
In the foundation’s own survey of Isan households, more of them said their earnings had fallen in recent years than those who said they had risen.
More of them also said the economic situation in their neighborhoods was getting worse than those who said it was improving.
But the survey also found that Thailand’s northeasterners, (อีสาน) prone to migrate for work, would prefer to stay put and that a large majority would welcome the arrival of more industry.
“Look at Isan as an avenue for investment, look at Isaan as an avenue for more … agricultural and industrial opportunity, because there is a sentiment that Isan people want to remain closer to home,” Rattana said. “So if there is a demand to be in Isaan, jobs should be there.”
Work on Education
She suggested the government also focus on raising the quality of education in Isan to help locals fill those jobs and on improving the delivery of public services and benefits. The foundation says its survey shows that locals are keen judges of the government welfare schemes they rely on and astute voters, puncturing the stereotypes of them as dim and docile.
Rattana said the foundation showed its findings to the National Economic and Social Development Council, which advises the prime minister and his Cabinet on social and economic policy.
Wilailak Maiwong, a policy analyst with the council, declined to comment on Isaan’s role in Thailand’s political turmoil.
She said successive governments have tried to attract more industry to Isaan but stumbled for lack of water, electricity and other infrastructure. And even when that infrastructure comes, she conceded, it can leave locals behind, citing a new rail line through Isan linking Bangkok to the Lao border in a bid to grow trade with China.
“I think many investors get benefit from this. But if you ask me in terms of people, I don’t think they will get the benefit or advantage from this infrastructure too much,” she said.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post in January, the development council’s secretary general, Thosaporn Sirisamphand, said the junta had taken many steps to tackle inequality nationwide and just set up a bespoke office for the very purpose.
But Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Isan’s Ubon Ratchathani University, said little would change in Isan or Thai politics until the country’s elite learned to respect the region’s voters.
“It’s part of the political conflict in Thailand, when they try to eliminate the underprivileged group by claiming they are not entitled to vote, or try not to include them in the political process,” he said.
“If the Thai elite and middle class change their perception, I believe that this would be one of the main things that can help to reduce tensions between … the people and the state.”