Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thailand will never be the same again

"Thailand will never be the same again,"
top 20% own 69% of the country's assets while the bottom 20% own only 1%.
less than 1% of the people own nearly half of the country's savings.

How will this political mess end? Will Thaksin Shinawatra finally return to haunt us with his bottomless greed?
Or will the old, oppressive system that perpetuates social injustice prevail to suffocate us?

Is there any way out of this madness?

Ask historian/thinker Nidhi Eeo-seewong, and his answer is a resounding no. In his latest column in Matichon newspaper, he predicted that the proxy wars between the two ruling elite groups - one led by Thaksin, and the other by the old ruling clique - will not only continue to play out on the streets, but they would also get more violent.

"Thailand will never be the same again," he wrote. "There is no use in being nostalgic. Instead, we must put our heads together to find out how to minimise the damage."

How, indeed? How can normalcy return when the root problem of extreme economic disparity remains unaddressed? How extreme? Prof Pasuk Phongpaichit did not leave room for doubt about our shamelessly unfair society in her recent keynote speech on "Towards a Fair Society" at the King Prachadhipok Institute conference. Among the glaring facts:

- The top 20% own 69% of the country's assets while the bottom 20% own only 1%.

- 42% of bank savings money comes from only 70,000 bank accounts holding more than 10 million baht. They make up only 0.09% of all bank accounts in the country. In other words, less than 1% of the people own nearly half of the country's savings.

- Among the farming families, nearly 20% of them are landless, or about 811,871 families, while 1-1.5 million farming families are tenants or struggling with insufficient land.

- 10% of land owners own more than 100 rai each, while the rest 90% own one rai or less.

- On income distribution, the top 20% enjoy more than 50% of the gross domestic product while the bottom 20% only 4%.

- The average income of the bottom 20% is the same as the poverty line at 1,443 baht per month.

- The gap between the richest and poorest family is 13 times, higher than all our neighbouring countries.

A fairer taxation system could reduce this economic disparity, she said. This can be done by expanding the base of direct taxpayers, introducing progressive land, inheritance, capital gains and interest taxes, for example. Unfortunately, the current taxation system worsens economic disparity by allowing easy tax evasion among the super rich while focusing on direct taxation which treats the poor the same as the rich. Talk about justice!

State expenditure on free education, public health welfare, a comprehensive social security system and better agricultural policies have proven elsewhere to help bridge the gap, she said.

In Thailand, however, the amount of state expenditure is not only too small, most of them benefit the cities, thus worsening the gap between the rich and the poor.

The lack of political will among the power cliques and corruption are apparently Thailand's biggest obstacles. But the decline of public trust in parliamentary/money politics is no reason to debunk it, she insists. It is still the best system to allow democracy to grow more strongly, to effect fair taxation and state spending for the public good, to fight corruption and facilitate peaceful conflict resolution. "We just need to be patient."

Last week, political scientist Seksan Prasertkul also offered his views on how to minimise Thailand's future pain. When society has become fragmented and pluralised by competing economic interests and globalisation pressures, the best damage-control strategy is to institutionalise participatory decision-making from the ground up, give political decentralisation a stronger push, and be more open to civil society voices.

As the clash of the titans looms, we should not let their cautionary advice go unheeded. No matter who wins, their priority is to strengthen their interests and power. Without participatory politics, democracy will continue to be unstable. And without fixing the stark economic disparity through fairer taxation and state expenditure, the country's prospects ahead are indeed grim.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.


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