Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker (eds)
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016. 208pp. ISBN: 978-981-4722-00-1
This is a book about the political economy of Thailand in the globalized era, focusing especially on the sensitive and much concerned issue plaguing the nation for a long time: inequality. What makes Thailand so conspicuous on this issue is the central theme of the book. The authors studied sources of money income and the social structure, which generate a kind of power that enables the privileged to be richer and more powerful while spelling an unfortunate future [End Page 161] for the working population. The book chapters are the fruits of a research project on ‘Towards a More Equitable Thailand: A study of Wealth, Power, and Reform’. In the tumultuous years during which the nation was divided into two colours of yellow and red with sharp differences in political ideologies, the authors of these chapters were moved to take a more serious look at the phenomenon of inequality in Thai society.
Unequal Thailand persuasively argues that the increase in inequality is a product of oligarchy, the rule of the few, one that involves the political system as well as the driving of economic forces creating a new and modern society in which people’s lives have improved in many ways. Yet the small elite were, and are, in control of the vision and reality of the future of the country. In this timely and much-needed book on the sensitive issue of inequality in Thailand, the authors analyse unequal practices and the policies and politics that reproduce the Thai oligarchy.
The editors of Unequal Thailand, Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit are well-known scholars of Thai political economy and political history. Their meticulous approach to the study of political economy and careful analyses of the connections between economy and politics in Thailand are evident here in the first chapter. The introductory chapter gives the volume cohesion and persuasively argues that the increase in inequality has been a product of oligarchy, the rule of the few. Based upon the Gini index (a measure of income distribution in which a higher figure means greater inequality), Thailand became one of the most unequal countries in thirty years of economic development from the 1969s to 1990s with the index rising from 0.413 to 0.536. The prominent factors which contributed to this trend included government policies that favoured capital while repressing working people, the concentration of growth mainly in and around Bangkok, the prices, profits, and salaries for some adjusted towards international levels as well as the increase in value of property as globalization enveloped Thailand. From the mid-1970s onwards, world agricultural prices fell relentlessly, bringing down farmers’ income. On top of these factors Thailand lacked strong political will to resolve this growing problem of inequality among the country’s political and bureaucratic leaders. The rest of the book has eight chapters, which make use of government data to show how inequality in economics, politics, and education is sustained in Thailand.
The second chapter by Duangmanee Laovakul on ‘Concentration of Land and Other Wealth in Thailand’ is a revelation about the main problem of equity and social justice in a country where agriculture has dominated the economy for so long. Land has been the most fundamental means of production in Thai society since at least the beginning of the formation of the Bangkok Empire under the Chakri dynasty in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Historically, the Ayutthaya king was the ‘lord of the land’ and ‘lord of people’s lives’ to whom all land in the kingdom belonged; no individual ownerships were ever granted to the nobility and phrai (commoners) of the kingdom except usufruct rights or use rights over designated land.
The fact that the researcher of the chapter accessed data from the Land Department, a first in the study of land ownership, also tells us about the nature of politics and power involving the management of land in Thailand. The study clearly shows the high concentration of titled land in the hands of the few rich and...