Dec 27, 2013

    Thai power struggle pits old middle class against new

    LISTEN closely enough to the talk in Bangkok and it would seem like Thailand is in the throes of yet another class war.

    Lined up on one side are royalists, old money, the urban middle class, supporters of the pro-establishment Democrat Party as well as academics who provide the intellectual ballast to a campaign that is intent on forestalling Thailand's snap election on Feb 2.

    Their ground troops are blockading the election-registration venue because, if the polls go ahead, the rural masses will most certainly return to power the Puea Thai party and the attendant clan of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, is now the caretaker prime minister.

    Thaksin, they argue, is guilty of bribing the poor with easy money and inflated prices for their rice, and these ill-thought-out policies will destroy Thailand in the long run.

    Some prominent scholars have lent weight to the protesters' demand to suspend elections, pending comprehensive political reforms by a "people's council".

    Some believe that Thailand is still not ready for the one-man, one-vote system typical of democracies around the world.

    Veteran political scientist Chaichana Inkawat of Ramkhamhaeng University told The Straits Times: "These people will accept quick money...because they don't think about the future of the country. But the middle class will think because they have more education. They think much more than the poor."

    But the poor in popular imagination do not seem to square with reality. In 2011, just 13.2 per cent of the population lived below the national poverty line.

    Erstwhile farmers have taken on farm-manager-type roles, say scholars. They keep up to date with contemporary ideas through technology, or children who work in Bangkok or big cities around the world. Those in the informal sector, like taxi drivers and street vendors, sometimes make more than the average white-collar worker in Bangkok.

    The difference, however, is that they are shut out from formal welfare benefits, and therefore remain loyal to Thaksin for policies like the 30-baht universal health-care scheme he introduced when he was premier more than 10 years ago.

    According to Chualongkorn University political scientist Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, the "established" middle class, located in Bangkok as well as other urban areas, were the first to benefit from mass education, but have since become disheartened by the growing gap between them and the top earners in society. They are also upset by the caretaker government's transfer policies, like the rice-pledging scheme that pays farmers about 50 per cent more than the market price.

    Their aspirations are squared against those of the new middle class emerging from rural Thailand, who have learnt about the power of their vote through recent political decentralisation.

    These Thais, who form the core of the pro-Puea Thai "red shirt" movement, have largely stayed in the background while anti-government protests escalated in Bangkok over the past two months. They are expected to turn out in droves to defend their right to vote should a military coup take place, or should the election be stalled, which would raise the risk of violent confrontations.

    This unrest has pitted Thailand's "emerging middle class" against the "upper middle class", said Dr Kanokrat. "Both sides are just as politically aware."

    Despite all the government transfers, public expenditure remains decidedly lopsided.

    World Bank figures show that Bangkok, which accounts for about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product and 17 per cent of its population, received 72 per cent of total public expenditure in 2010. In contrast, the north-eastern region, which accounts for one third of the population, got only 6 per cent of government expenditure that year.

    Seen in this light, the vitriol directed at Puea Thai and Thaksin for corruption is, perhaps, just a sideshow to the bigger issue at hand: As Thailand tries to navigate through an uncertain global climate, who will get a greater share of the proverbial pie?