Although Thailand is one of the region’s wealthiest states and has been cited as a success story of modernization and development, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Thailand is placed in the world’s top inequitable countries, in terms of wealth and income distribution.
According to a recent Credit Suisse study, one percent of the population holds 66.9 percent of the nation’s wealth, with 36 percent of equity held by only 500 people. According to the World Bank, poverty has grown from 7.21 percent in 2015 to 9.85 percent in 2018.
The onset of the Covid-19 crisis has delivered a drastic economic slowdown, if not an almost complete shutdown of commerce related to travel and tourism. Business bankruptcies, and unemployment have risen across the country in 2020, with a second phase of selective virus restrictions this month.
As the economy has contracted, poverty is drastically increasing. Average household debt has risen to its highest level in 12 years, to around THB480,000 (US$15,970)per household, according to a survey undertaken by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
While more Thais are struggling to make ends meet, sections of Thailand’s elite class have been increasing their wealth. A survey by Money and Banking Magazine with the Faculty of Commerce and Accountancy at Chulalongkorn University using Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) data, found that Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, the founder of Thai Beverage and chairman of the TCC Group, Vonnarat Tangkaravakoon, chairman of TOA Paints, and Khunying Wanna Sirivadhanabhakdi, chairperson of Sangsom Group and Beerthip Brewery, had actually increased their wealth during the pandemic.
Control by Small Elite
Thailand is economically dominated and ruled by a small close-knit elite composed of the monarchy, the military, and a small number of families who control Thailand’s major businesses. This small group is interrelated through family ties, intermarriage and long-held relationships. The hierarchical structure of Thai society is not limited to the top echelons in Bangkok. Social hierarchy filters down to the provincial and village levels across the nation.
Society has traditionally been organized along a hierarchy of upper, middle, and lower classes, defined by the stature and influence of traditional families throughout the country. Patriarchal connections, wealth and land and asset holdings, positions within government administrations, the military and police, all define status. A growing middle class consisting of educated professionals, business people and mid-ranking civil servants defines a growing middle class, while the rural and urban poor form the lower echelons.
The Thai elite have traditionally been very leary of the existential threat the mass population presents to its hold on power. Many who identify with the elite hold the lower rural class in total distain. Farmers and rural folk of Isan as the northeast of the country is known, are seen as backward, uneducated and without a clue about what is best for Thai society.
Suthep Thaugsuban’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which initiated mass protests to bring down then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, leading to the coup of former Army general Prayuth Chan-ocha, pushed the narrative that Thailand should be run by a non-elected royal council rather than a popularly elected government.
Thailand’s recent history is full of cases where activists, politicians, and movements which threatened the status quo of the elite have been met with sometimes brutal suppression through forceful crackdowns, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, exiles, and military coups. Today, Thailand has a constitution in place which greatly favours military influence over who can exercise executive government power.
Elite’s Growing Clout
Over the past 70 years, the influence of the elite has steadily grown through various state institutions. Civil governance has been built up across all provinces into the most remote rural areas. A provincial-based elite has developed based on business wealth, political connections and control over provincial and local government positions. The results of the first provincial elections last December indicated that local warlord influence was powerful enough to hold off an electoral challenge by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s young, urban Future Forward movement, and that feudal politics at the provincial and local level is strongly embedded within Thai society.
Right-wing political groups with monarchist ideologies developed, representing the elite. The elite classes were boosted with ethnic Chinese business families, civil leadership developed at both provincial and local levels, and military personnel. Nationalism and monarchy became more important than democracy, a doctrine which has been espoused to maintain the establishment grip on power beyond question. This espoused cultural-political concept of ‘Thainess’ totally encapsulates the need to maintain status quo of the position of the elite within politics and society.
There were numerous campaigns and programs to impose Thai culture on ethnic groups across the country. This was passively resisted by some ethnic groups like the Lizu, in northern Thailand. The Thainization programs in the deep south were met with overt resistance by Malay Muslim groups, who see the region as their own land.
Thailand’s elite establishment is by means monolithic and has changed dynamics over the decades, where the balance of power shifts. The late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, together with his late sister Princess Galyani Vadhana, worked skilfully to stem the influence of the military over government affairs, sometimes in despair. The military had used the monarchy as a symbol to sustain and build military legitimacy within the Thai political arena by building it into a quasi-religious institution.
A Controversial King
Since the late king’s son Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne in 2016, much more care has been put into ensuring royalists are slotted into the top positions within the military, especially since the death of Privy Council Chair Prem Tinsulanond, who yielded great influence on the selection of officers to top military positions. In addition, two army units, the 11th Infantry Regiment and 4th Cavalry Battalion based in Bangkok have been reorganized to direct royal command, rather than the chief of the army. These units along with others are being organized into the Royal Guard Task Force 904, which is becoming a formidable force alongside the other armed services. The Bangkok region is where all coups have originated, thus the power of the army to instigate another coup without the support of the monarch is now questionable.
Thailand’s 13 successful coups since the Siamese Revolution of 1932, which abolished absolute monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy and elected civil administration, are symbolic of the struggle for power between the military and Thai civilian aristocracy which formed and organized most political parties.
Taksin Shakes up Politics
It wasn’t until 2001 that the Thai establishment was challenged politically, by former policeman and businessman, Taksin Shinawatra, who rode to electoral victory with his populist Thai Rak Thai Party. Taksin had pragmatically formed political alliances with influential political groups across the country and advocated populist policies to garner wide community support. He won another landslide victory in 2005, but was disposed by a military coup in 2006 over accusations of corruption and republicanism. Taksin’s sister, who led a reincarnated Pheu Thai Party, after Thai Rak Thai was disqualified by the Constitutional Court, was herself disposed by another political coup in 2014, led by Prayuth.
Today under a constitution that Prayuth pushed through in a referendum without public debate, the military is almost guaranteed of dominating the parliamentary system. The lower house of 500 members is popularly elected, but the Senate consisting of 250 members are appointees of the military. The position of prime minister is selected by a joint sitting of both houses, where numbers are stacked in favor of the military.
In addition, the Constitutional Court uses the electoral laws to eliminate any political figures and parties that pose a threat to the establishment. The Thai Raksa Chat Party, the vehicle of some former Taksin supporters, was banned before the 2019 election on the premise they tried to bring the monarchy into politics by nominating former princess Ubolratana as their candidate for prime minister. This deeply crippled the electoral prospects of pro-Taksin forces before the election was even held.
Suppressing the Youth
Another example of the establishment eliminating any opposition was the banning from politics of Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn, along with other leaders, for five years. Thanathorn had harnessed support from Thailand’s youth, winning 80 seats in the parliament, the third largest representation after Prayuth’s powerbase, the Palang Pracharath Party and the Taksin surrogate Pheu Thai Party.
The hypothesis that Thailand is ethnically, culturally, and socially homogenous is a myth propagated by the establishment’s ‘nation building’ narrative. There are major tears to this façade. The escape of the Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhaya from justice over the manslaughter of a policeman as a result of a motor-vehicle accident is deeply controversial in regards to the implementation of double standards of the law.
The conviction for the murder of two British backpackers on Koh Tao by two Myanmar nationals is seen by many as a ‘whitewash’ to protect powerful local Thai families. The arrests of more than 50 students and charging them under the draconian Lese Majeste law, which is subjective and difficult to legally defend, shows the establishment’s determination to quash growing student opposition to the current status of the monarchy, executive government and current constitution.
The revival of the practice of other cultures in Thailand is beginning to threaten the institutional view of ‘Thainess’. Muslim Malays in Thailand’s deep south are asserting their own language, culture, and religion, much stronger and on a grander scale than a decade ago.
There is a kaleidoscope of alternative narratives to the institutionalized concept of ‘Thainess’ today. The transition from Rama IX to Rama X has destroyed the high esteem for the throne that King Bhumibol built up over his seven-decade reign. The military now faces open public criticism from the student movement, which it had successfully suppressed for six years, following the 2014 coup.
Open criticism of the monarchy, calls for the prime minister to resign, and a declining and mismanaged economy putting more people into hardship are presenting challenges to the establishment that are not easy to deflect. The Constitutional Court dissolving the Future Forward Party and banning Thanathorn didn’t put an end to his popular support for reform. Rather, the banning spurred students to take their grievances into their own hands and turn to the streets in protest.
The recent outbreak of new Covid-19 cases over the last few weeks has given the government some breathing space as the students have temporarily retreated due to potential health risks. The government is trying to weed out the leaders and charge them under various criminal offences and emergency decrees. Meanwhile, the students are reassessing the effectiveness of their protest strategies which appeared to lose some direction and effectiveness last month.
A continuing economic downturn, growing community hardship, with many more people losing their income sources with little government assistance, could easily turn sentiment against the government. Old red shirt activists are re-awakening. Any presence of ultra-royalists on the streets of Bangkok again, may spur a reaction by those who feel deeply aggrieved from the government crackdown on the red shirts back in 2010. This year will be a testing one for the establishment, which may end up in savage repression of dissent.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel