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Bangkok, May 2010 Bangkok, May 2010
Perspectives on a Divided Thailand

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18 - Thailand in Trouble: Revolt of the Downtrodden or Conflict among Elites?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

Pasuk Phongpaichit
Affiliation:
Chulalongkorn University
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Summary

Among academics, journalists, and other commentators on Thailand, there are two very different views of the conflict that has steadily grown over the last six years. The first argues that this is an uprising of the downtrodden, especially farmers from the poorer Northeast and far North, demanding a better deal, and being fiercely resisted by an elite, jealous of its power and privilege; underlying this uprising is a great division in income, wealth, power, and opportunity in the society. The second interpretation argues that the social division is illusory or unimportant, and that this is a battle among elites, essentially between former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his enemies, with ordinary people being used as paid pawns in the struggle.

We want to argue that it is both — both a real social movement, and a battle between elite figures and groups. These two historical processes are inextricably intertwined, and that is why the resolution is so complex.

The first section discusses the socioeconomic background, and why a social movement of this force should have appeared at this point in history. The second examines how an elite conflict has developed into competitive mass mobilizations, and a fierce ideological debate.

RISING ASPIRATIONS, GATHERING RESENTMENTS

The press has tended to describe the Red Shirts as the “rural poor”. While that description has a kernel of truth, it is also quite misleading. Many of the movement's supporters are well off. Even the poorer ones are not as poor as they were a few years ago. Behind the upsurge, there are two forces. One is a revolution of rising aspirations, driven by increasing prosperity. The other is an outbreak of gathering resentment, driven by ever-widening and more obvious inequality in the distribution of income, wealth, power, and public goods.

Figure 18.1 shows Thailand's economic growth since 1950, expressed in terms of real per capita income. This is one of the best records of any country in the world. The 1997 crisis was a setback, but only temporary. Most strikingly, over the past generation, since around 1980, average real per capita income has tripled. Most Thais are much better off than their parents were. Poverty has declined from around 40 per cent in 1980 to 6 per cent today. But growing prosperity has other results. People have more assets to protect, more interests to pursue. They have more aspirations for themselves and their children.

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Bangkok, May 2010
Perspectives on a Divided Thailand
, pp. 214 - 229
Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2012

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