BANGKOK – Earlier in the week Thailand’s military leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was in the spotlight after it was revealed that he was a millionaire, a fact that likely didn’t surprise anyone familiar with the monopolistic subterranean game of Thai politics. Also revealed in the same National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) report were the assets of 33 Cabinet ministers, 25 of whom were also dollar millionaires. Prayuth was reticent when asked about his investments and assets. Khaosod news reported that when asked about a 600 million baht (US$18,248,174) land sale in May 2013, he replied, “I don’t know. I don’t remember. I am not a businessman. Please don’t ask me about this.”
Members of the reform committee did not have to disclose their assets, it was ruled by the NACC, as their job was purely “academic”.
Prayuth lags way behind Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn Devekula in terms of wealth. Pridiyathorn was reported as having US$42.3 million of declared assets, which were “mostly stocks, other financial investments and land.” The alleged political miscreants that the good regime ousted, Yingluck Shinawattra and her deputy PM Pongthep Thepkanchana, were also no strangers to wealth, with reportedly combined assets of over US$110 million.
While it might seem somewhat disconcerting to some discerning members of the Thai public that political leaders working towards social progress (Prayuth’s favored lexicon “happiness to the people”) and income equality are mostly all incredibly minted, we can hardly condemn political leaders for making money if it is done transparently, and business opportunities are not conferred on the leaders by means of exploiting their position of power and influence. Prayuth has actually vowed to put an end to political nepotism and cronyism, and has promised crackdowns on corruption.
Last month in a report in The Nation headlined ‘Prayuth declares battle against inequality’, the Premier was quoted as saying, “The disparity is a big challenge to the government. We have to create jobs and income for people and solve the corruption problem.”
This will be a struggle of great magnitude for the leader and his privileged cabinet. In a Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report Thailand was ranked 6th in an income distribution index of the ‘share of wealth held the by the richest 10%’, which was reported as 75% percent.
Inequality: A case in point
Social inequality, such as the country’s expanding parvenu or members of Thailand’s club of elite circumventing the law, is quietly, begrudgingly, accepted as normal practice in Thailand. Social equality will be a hard sell to the hoi polloi.
One of the richest families in the country, the Yoovidhya family, who made their billions flogging the Red Bull energy drink, have wealth estimated at 2.1 per cent of Thailand’s 2012 gross domestic product. The heir to the family fortune, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, aka The Boss, allegedly killed a policeman while speeding in his Ferrari on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, September 2012, while allegedly high on alcohol and cocaine. He faces a maximum ten year sentence for the alleged crime, and according to one report, any normal person would have been charged, but not The Boss; not yet at least. The case became a depressing cause celebre for a lot of Thai people, many of whom pointed out on social media how this case illustrated quite starkly Thailand’s pitiful system of justice that determinably favors the rich. A Thai song entitled ‘Amnat Khong Ngern’ (The Power of Money) illustrates this point, and how it is normalized in the Thai collective consciousness.
The family was reported as giving US$97,000 to the family of the deceased. Vorayuth was arrested by police, but after a series of postponed trials due to the suspect not being present – reportedly he left Thailand to watch the F1 race. It was then reported that his lawyers said he had become sick in Singapore and that’s why he couldn’t return for the trial. That was in 2013. The current progress of the case is unknown to me, as well as to several Thai and foreign journalists I asked.
This outstanding mole on Thailand’s unshapely face is surely a matter of grave concern to the Premier as he embraces and espouses equality for the people. In the eyes of the people, and in relation to the happiness of the country, this should be a stand-out case; a platform, at least, where new acts of equality can be dramatically displayed to a once desensitized audience.
Here are some of the lyrics contained in Prayuth’s moving ballad entitled ‘Return to Happiness’:
We’ll bring love back [to the Nation] no matter how long it takes.
Can you please wait…for the conflict to pass?
The conflict, arguably, is not inherently political; it is economic, and it is intertwined in how individuals perceive the way they are treated, which is based on income equality, or how fair the system is in which they toil. It is not, as most national news continues to demonstrate, a drama of big people against other big people, it is a conflict between the mostly underprivileged people against every political entity: red, yellow, or invisible.
But when single individuals have amassed millions of times more wealth than the average person, how can this “love” and “happiness” be brought back – if it ever existed at all outside of Thai mythology – to the nation? I’m not sure a fervently nationalistic musical ode to the good times, or instilled core value coded patriotism in classrooms pertaining to ethics that emphasize “seniority”, rather than critical thinking, will do the trick. Maybe Prayuth’s 12 core values are a worthy expedient to progress, but only as long as they are analyzed, and not blindly followed. Because the writing is on the walls; Facebook walls mostly. The nation has grown up; it’s deconstructed some of the foundations of Thainess, which in itself has been intrinsically inequitable, if history, the parts not rubbed out, is anything to go by.
A fair and equitable system of justice is something which might be more applicable to current reform, while distributing wealth more evenly is a problem far more complex and perplexing that I am qualified to comment on. A genesis of some sort of how Thailand became the (unfair, unjust, unequal) state it is in might be a worthwhile study for students; perhaps an excavation of some of the old mysticism that created big and small people might be in order – and also those blessed with seeming impunity lose access to their get-out-of-jail (likely not free) cards. Then at least a realistic, believable, plan of action can be made in order to progress as a society and bring more happiness to the people.
By James Austin is a British national who has been based in Thailand for 15 years. He was the former editor of Chiang Mai City News. Author of Angry Birds