News / Asia

In Thailand, No Shortage of Support for Reform

Anti-government protesters march in a rally in central Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
Anti-government protesters march in a rally in central Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
Ron Corben
Thailand’s political protests have been marked by vague demands for government reform.  Economists also say the country’s future growth depends on passing significant political and institutional reforms, but neither the ruling party, nor the opposition are likely to implement them.
 
Thailand has enjoyed a remarkable economic rise in recent decades largely from free-trade policies and foreign investment that used the country’s cheap labor to build products for export.
 
In 1988, more than 40 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. By 2010, that had fallen to less than 8 percent.
 
This growth led to dramatic political changes in rural Thailand, as wealthier voters deepened their engagement in the country’s political process. The ruling Pheu Thai party has leveraged the trend for a string of victories at the polls. Their opponents, the Democrats, backed by voters in Bangkok and southern Thailand, continue to lose ground.
 
"In the north and North East and other parts of the country general elections and democratization brings more tax money to their locality - so they want to continue with the one-man, one-vote system," said Pasuk Pongpaichit, an economist at Chulalongkorn University and co-author of a new Asia Foundation report on Thailand’s economy.

"Whereas these people [in Bangkok] are saying that 'we don't want a government that comes from a one-man, one-vote [system] - we want an alternative which would allow us to have bigger representation - and this is part of the big problem," she added.
 
The rural-urban split is frequently used to explain Thailand’s political divisions. But economists say there is also an income disparity that persists despite the country’s impressive economic growth.
 
"The underlying problem is that we are a highly unequal society and the people on the top have been so used to being able to reap all kinds of benefits from the government expenditure and policies," the economist said. "So that created a reaction when democracy started to work. This paper is only an attempt to address how economic inequality leads to other kinds of inequality and which could affect economic growth adversely, particularly on the quality of education and on the issue of wages."
 
  • Anti-government protesters march during a rally in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
  • An anti-government protester wears a mask during a rally in central Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
  • Soldiers stand guard inside the Thai Defense Ministry in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014.
  • Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban addresses anti-government protesters occupying a major intersection in central Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
  • Anti-government protesters with national flags gather for a rally in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
  • Anti-government protesters with national flags gather for a rally at Asok intersection in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
  • Anti-government protestors participate in a sit-in outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok, Jan. 14, 2014.
  • Anti-government protesters gather outside the Central World mall in the shopping district in central Bangkok, Jan. 13, 2014.
  • An anti-government protester stands behind a barricade in a major intersection in central Bangkok, Jan. 13, 2014.

Thailand’s ruling party has been heavily criticized for a rice pledging scheme that guarantees high prices to farmers, costing the government billions of dollars. But most government funds are still spent in the capital.
 
The World Bank estimates that in 2012, Bangkok accounted for 26 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product, but it received more than 70 percent of government spending.
 
The Asia Foundation's chief economist, Veronique Salze-Lozac'h, says decentralizing power and spending funds more wisely on core needs like education will require political reforms.
 
"The economic reforms that need to be taken up are pretty well known," she noted. "But it's not happening mainly because of some political blockages. It's really how to integrate different actors of the economy in the decision-making process."
 
Since Thailand’s recent protests erupted, a wide range of groups, including the prime minister, have proposed reform measures. Some proposals, such as greater government transparency and a crackdown on vote buying, appear to have broad public support. 
 
But economist Adam Burke says deeper structural reforms, such as decentralizing power and giving more independence to local governments, face resistance in both the ruling party and their opponents, which continue to be controlled by small groups of wealthy backers.
 
He says the influence of these groups is felt in the current protests gripping Bangkok.
 
"It's awfully polarized into these two patronage groups with very, very narrow elites in charge on both sides," Burke said. "And while at the moment no side is interested and has inclinations towards being violent, that can shift fast and things could get very nasty, very rapidly."
 
No matter how Thailand’s current political impasse gets resolved, economists say reforming the power structure of Thailand’s political parties will be key to building a wealthier and more inclusive society.

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Comments
     
by: Nutthapol from: Bangkok
January 15, 2014 10:28 AM
I don’t think that your reporter understands what is happening here in Thailand. Corruptions by politicians is the major cause that dragging our country. If you see that your government is taking 20% of your tax in their pockets, you will understand our feeling. The politicians (government side) were trying to pass an amnesty bill, let go so many corruption cases & giving the money back to the court proven criminal. We need to stop them. We want a political reform but not by the politician. That’s why you see so many educated people on the street.

In Response

by: Nomi from: BKK
January 16, 2014 8:33 PM
Yes, we saw that all govts so far, and also in the forseeable future, will be looting 20% of Thailand tax coffers. So Pre-thaksin, Thaksin, post-thaksin etc are all corrupt. And future ones too, if they are made up of yhe same old same old.

What we want is for a government that will pledge to reduce spending on Bangkok from the current 70%, to no more than 50% , given Bangkok only contributed 26%

But I can see why Bangkokians are unwilling to be fair and just in terms of sharing national wealth in this case.

In Response

by: Andrew from: Bangkok
January 15, 2014 4:16 PM
The amnesty bill has been laid to rest and no longer the issue. Yingluck pulled the bill and desolved the parliament for a new election in February. It should be enough to qual these issues. Instead, you still have people protesting in the street and demanding her resignation. This is not true democracy. If this is true democracy than let the people be heard. If she wins again in February than she is obviously the people's choice. Can't always have it your way..right or wrong. btw, I'm an educated Thai and I think this is wrong than these protesters are pulling down Thailand's economy by protesting.


by: Joseph Effiong from: Calabar - Nigeria
January 15, 2014 10:02 AM
Dialogue lead to peace will violence leads to destruction and dead.

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