Writing dangerously. A Canadian expat — who is using a nom de plume for reasons of safety – gives everythingzoomer.com an exclusive account of her experiences living in Asia. Here, Laura Fearn on how democracy in Thailand often amounts to no more than empty words.
The natives are restless everywhere and no less so in Thailand. Here, democracy has been sold as a people power based on a unique and variably defined “Thainess.” The basis of this concept is the pride Thais have in being the only country in south-east Asia that has never been colonized. But, arguably, this is not correct. Thai history and its modern ramifications smack of neo-colonialism.
Since the Amity Treaties of the early 19th century, Thailand has been forced by threat of gunboat diplomacy to accede to British, American and other foreigners’ demands for trade liberalization. Successive monarchs have astutely practised “bending with the wind”: in exchange for keeping their culture and control over their internal affairs, Thais have had to grant the overbearing foreigners a form of free trade and extraterritoriality exemption from Thai law for their expatriates. Although many of these privileges were lost in the military coup of 1932, foreign control of much of the economy has survived. A closed club of both foreign and national business oligarchs continues to extract outsize profits both legitimately or through systemic corruption. (Transparency International ranks Thailand 60th most corrupt out of 180 countries.)
So, although Thailand is commonly (and in error) translated as “land of the free,” pragmatically, this may be true only for the two to three per cent of the population that controls 70 per cent of the country’s wealth. In a population of about 69 million, that leaves a lot of unhappy citizens with unrequited high expectations. Now, the discontent is a burgeoning class divide demanding redress.
Democracy is a volatile concept when it amounts to no more than empty words. To the common worker, it means hope in a land of entrenched inequality. During the troubles of 2010 that led to 93 official deaths, the power split was simplistically portrayed as being an inequality between the rich and the poor, between rural and urban populations. The reality is more constructively expressed as a dichotomy in power between the oligarchs of big business on the one hand and the small- and medium-sized business owners on the other. So, business is good for Bangkok’s new Rolls-Royce dealership, which sells Phantom Drophead coupes for B39Million ($1,303,770).
Not going so well are the lives of ordinary Thais. The National Statistics Office reports two out of three families were in debt in 2012, and the situation is worsening. This plays out in real terms as a population so drastically affected by high inflation that 49 per cent of respondents to a May 2012 Bangkok Post survey said they did not have enough money to pay their children’s school fees for the new term. The situation is such that Thais belie their national advertising slogan and openly state that they are “not smiling” any longer.
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