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An iron hand on the scales of wealth

Dec 11. 2018
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By The Nation

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Shocking inequality has been fuelled by elitist junta rule; rival parties must offer alternative visions ahead of election 

Rather than dismissing a report of shocking inequality in Thai society, the junta and its supporters have a duty to show voters how they will tackle the problem as they prepare for the election. 

The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018 indicates that Thailand is the world’s most unequal country, with the richest 1 per cent holding 66.9 per cent of the wealth.

In second place is Russia (57.1 per cent), followed by Turkey (54.4 per cent) and India (51.5 per cent). Thailand ranked third in the 2016 Wealth Report, behind Russia and India. 

Government Spokesman Puttipong Punnakanta promptly rejected the report, saying it was based on obsolete data from 2006. The gap between the rich and the poor in the country had declined since then, he added. 

A few days later, the spokesman piped up again to say Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was worried the report was being used to discredit his government. It’s good to know the junta chief has taken note that inequality is a major problem in Thailand, but sad to see the method he has chosen to address the issue. 

Concerned at the plight of the 11 million Thais on low incomes, the government has employed measures to help, he said, including allocating them 317,000 rai of land in 61 provinces.

Land ownership is a good reflection of inequality in Thai society. While the junta government claimed it managed to allocate more than 300,000 rai to the poorest citizens, Prayut failed to mention that one family alone holds more than 600,000 rai of Thai land. It is also important to note that, despite enjoying absolute power for the past four years, the junta has failed tackle the vast wealth imbalance.

In fact, a covert objective of the military when it took power in 2014 was to centralise power and wealth. Control of both by a narrow elite was duly achieved, consolidating a structure of inequality that locked the poor in poverty and dependence. Politically speaking, this structure enables the elite to rule the country effectively.

 One tool to achieve this is the government’s so-called “People’s State” (Pracharat) welfare project, which uses national budget to strengthen a few big conglomerates and state enterprises. Through it, the government simply offers money to the poor to buy from the rich owners of corporations. The state welfare card, for example, cannot be used to purchase goods from street vendors. Those who hold the card can use it only at state-designated shops – mostly 

convenience stores run by big conglomerates. The SIM card for the poor does the same job, transferring national budget through low-income users to pay telephone bills to one of the few operators in the country. 

This circulation of money in the system back to the wealthy does nothing to change the structure of inequality. Under the Pracharat project, the rich stay rich while the poor are left to fend for themselves with little opportunity to access national wealth, which remains under the control of the elite. 

Solving the problem of inequality requires not only clear vision but also a strong political will to change the 

socio-economic structure.

The junta has demonstrated it has no such vision or will. The military elite simply staged a coup to topple an elected civilian government, then sat in power overseeing a structure that maintains huge wealth imbalance. A strikingly small elite has thus managed to control political power and sustain what amounts to an economic monopoly. 

With an election on the horizon, however, it is now the turn of political parties to put forward rival visions, determination and concrete plans to tackle the gross inequality. In so doing they can offer a brighter future and greater social 

justice for us all.

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