Forum warns of dire consequences if govt does not tackle inequality

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2023

Speakers at a recent forum urged the new government to come up with efficient ways to tackle inequality in Thai society, warning that unless the problem was redressed the country could go downhill.

Hosted by Thailand Science Research and Innovation and a research centre 101 Public Policy Think Tank on Monday, the "1st Research and Policy Dialogue" brought together professionals from various sectors to share their strategies for addressing inequality in society.

The professor of history at Chiang Mai University, Attachak Satayanuruk, opened the discussion, saying that “Comprehending the problem of inequality requires more than just looking at economic figures. It also requires an understanding of its history and how it relates to the cultural aspect.”

Attachak said the inequality in the country was an inherent problem because those at the top of the social pyramid, like the elites or some government officials, had been unjustly taking advantage of those at the bottom.

He said since the reign of King Rama IV (around 1700s), elites had used religion and faith as justification for inequality, claiming that each person's merit or destiny is to blame for the disparity between their statuses.

The prominent historian reiterated the need to understand the hierarchical power between different classes to resolve the issue.

Attachak Satayanuruk (middle)

A study conducted in June by the Trade Policy and Strategy Office found that despite ongoing economic growth — gross domestic product (GDP) rose from 7.7 trillion baht in 2008 to 10.2 trillion baht in 2021 — Thailand was experiencing growing inequality, with the percentage of the impoverished still fluctuating around 6–8% of the population.

Thanasak Jenmana, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Economics, meanwhile, explained that the increase in the value of GDP during the period was mainly driven by wealthy people.

Thanasak, who is also a researcher at the World Inequality Lab, pointed out that Thailand’s lack of adequate data prevented the formulation of effective strategies to address inequality-related concerns.

He cited an example from a study of an ineffective welfare measure due to a dearth of information, saying that in 2019, merely 11.03% of Thai welfare card holders were considered to be poor.

He called on the new government to undertake additional research or studies on the subject so that suitable regulations might be developed.

Thanasak Jenmana

Thailand’s new administration has pledged to prioritise reducing social gaps. One example of this is through altering the criteria for the heritage tax.

However, Witoon Lianjamroon, an environmental rights defender and director of Bio Thai, an anti-farm chemical pressure group, said: “[I] do not see any signs [that this government] would solve the social inequality problem.”

Witoon said that the government did not even include the disparity issue in its policies when presenting them to Parliament last week.

He described corporate giant Charoen Pokphand Group's acquisition of Makro and Lotus as an example of a monopolistic approach.

The issue of inequality was not listed amongst the new administration's urgent measures, and it is not on the agenda for the first Cabinet meeting.

Witoon Lianjamroon (middle)