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25 - The Political Economy of Thailand's Middle-Income Peasants

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

Andrew Walker
Affiliation:
Australian National University
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Summary

Military force, mass arrests and emergency rule succeeded in crushing the Red Shirt protests that paralysed parts of Bangkok in 2010, but the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was nevertheless destined to fail in its attempt to hold back the course of Thailand's history. Over the past five decades, as Thailand has developed into a middle-income country, economic and social aspirations have outrun the nation's elitefocused political institutions. The pressures from this seismic mismatch have been building for some time, erupting in murderous confrontations between protestors and security forces in 1973, 1976, 1992 and now 2010. When units of the Thai Army closed in on the Red Shirt protest site in the heart of Bangkok on 19 May 2010, the Thai government easily won another bloody battle, but it had already lost the war. In order to understand the social transformations that gave rise to the country's crisis of April and May 2010 it is necessary to turn away from Bangkok and towards Thailand's rural hinterland, where about two-thirds of the population live and where support for the Red Shirts is strongest.

Many of the changes that have occurred in rural Thailand during recent decades have been very positive indeed. Half a century ago, 96 per cent of Thailand's farmers were living in poverty. This figure has now plummeted to only 13 per cent. Life expectancy has increased, infant mortality is close to First World standards, and primary schooling is near universal. Thailand has achieved most of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals well ahead of target. The rural population in Thailand can now be described as a “middle-income peasantry” in which subsistence rice farming, commercial agriculture and extensive offfarm employment are combined to produce levels of household income and consumption unthinkable a few decades ago. In the northern Thai village where I have been undertaking ethnographic research for the past eight years, 130 households own a total of 134 televisions, 129 refrigerators, 169 motor-bikes, 134 mobile phones, 75 fixed phone lines, 81 tape or compact disk players, 26 cars or pick-up trucks and 29 computers. For most people in rural Thailand, economic growth has meant that absolute poverty is no longer a predominant concern.

This rural prosperity has been seized upon by some critics of the Red Shirt protestors to undermine their claims of disadvantage, as if only abject poverty is a legitimate basis for political mobilization.

Type
Chapter
Information
Bangkok, May 2010
Perspectives on a Divided Thailand
, pp. 323 - 332
Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2012

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