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The Red Bull Heir and Inequality in Thailand



BANGKOK–  Last week, Vorayuth’s alleged crime made headlines once more when he failed to appear for an indictment hearing in Bangkok. The reason: according to his lawyer, Vorayuth had fallen ill during a business trip to nearby Singapore, and was recuperating there on doctor’s orders.

That meant that Vorayuth’s indictment was postponed for the sixth time; police now say they are seeking an arrest warrant. Still, some argue that the family’s economic and political clout will insure Vorayuth is never adequately punished. “Any ordinary suspect would have been indicted long ago,” a well-known attorney told the Bangkok Post.

Vorayuth Yoovidhya

Many Thais have taken to online forums and social media to complain about the impunity of the country’s wealthiest. Some have also pointed out that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial billionaire who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup, has himself remained abroad for several years to avoid a corruption charge that he says is politically motivated.

Despite the global economic troubles of recent years, the wealth of the world’s richest families has continued to soar, according to a report released Tuesday by UBS and the Singapore-based private-wealth consultancy Wealth-X. The richest residents of Thailand are doing particularly well: the report said that the total wealth of Thailand’s “ultra high net worth” individuals—those worth at least thirty million dollars—has increased nearly sixteen per cent in the past year, from ninety-five billion dollars to a hundred and ten billion dollars. That was the biggest gain among Southeast Asian countries.

The numbers are striking: Vorayuth’s family fortune is equal to about 2.1 per cent of Thailand’s 2012 gross domestic product. The combined wealth of Thailand’s top four families is equal to about twelve per cent of the country’s G.D.P. In a nation where the daily minimum wage was recently raised to roughly ten dollars and the average yearly income is five thousand two hundred and ten dollars, Vorayuth’s family reportedly paid more than ninety thousand dollars to the dead police officer’s siblings to prevent a civil lawsuit. And, as some commentators have noted, a Ferrari like the one Vorayuth was driving retails for at least several times that sum.

Given all this, one might read the Vorayuth episode, and the response to it, as a symbol of a growing gulf between Thailand’s wealthy and poor. (The Times described the case, in a headline, as a “Reflection of Inequality in Thailand.”) It may come as a surprise to learn that the evidence shows just the opposite: inequality is shrinking in Thailand. There is still a significant divide between rich and poor in this nation of sixty-seven million—as is the case in many countries around the world—and Thailand lags behind some of its regional peers in terms of income distribution.

One measure of inequality that economists analyze is the Gini index, in which zero represents perfect equality and a hundred reflects perfect inequality. Thailand’s Gini index was thirty-nine in 2010, according to World Bank data, making it less equal than Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but more equal than Malaysia and the Philippines. But Thailand’s level of inequality has fallen over the past couple of decades, not risen: the Gini coefficient of thirty-nine is down from forty-three in 2000.

That’s because Thailand’s steady economic growth since it emerged from the Asian financial crisis has helped reduce poverty throughout the country. In other words, the rich have been getting richer, especially in recent years, but so have many other Thais.

Over the weekend, protesters in Brazil took to the streets once again—a smaller-scale reprise of the massive June protests—to voice their anger that politicians and the rich seem to get special treatment.

In Brazil, as in Thailand, inequality has actually declined in recent years; some have suggested that the growing middle class has meant Brazilians feel more emboldened to speak out against inequality when they might have stayed quiet in the past. Decreasing inequality, in other words, means more protests against the inequality that exists. Could something like this be playing into ordinary Thais’ response to the Vorayuth incident?

Perhaps, in addition to a newly empowered Thai middle class, citizens simply have more tools at their disposal now to voice their displeasure with wayward young scions who seem to get away with their misdeeds. Had the hit-and-run taken place before the advent of the Web, it may well have been mentioned in newspapers and discussed around dinner tables. But now, with message boards and Facebook, among other outlets, their dissent is easier to quantify, and the narrative of a princeling, a silver Ferrari, and a dead policeman becomes all the more vivid. Read Full Story Click Here

by Newley Purnell

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