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Pandemic widens chasm between rich and poor in Thailand

As millions of Thais have been plunged into penury, the country’s 50 richest tycoons have seen their fortunes balloon

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: July 13, 2021 07:15 AM GMT

Updated: July 13, 2021 07:21 AM GMT

Pandemic widens chasm between rich and poor in Thailand

A homeless man sleeps beside a canal under an expressway in central Bangkok (Photo: UCA News)

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has wrecked Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy, has further widened the gap between rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal nations.

Even as millions of Thais have been plunged into penury without any steady income for months or even a year, the country’s 50 richest tycoons have seen their combined worth grow by a whopping US$28 billion over the past year, according to Forbes magazine in its latest rankings of billionaires worldwide.

Thailand’s richest 50 people, who have seen their collective wealth balloon by 20 percent during the pandemic, own around $160 billion worth of assets, according to estimates.

At the same time, millions of low-income earners across Thailand have lost their livelihoods in the tourism-dependent economy, with many Thais heavily in debt and barely able to make ends meet.

Hardly a day goes by without new images appearing on social media showing destitute locals engaged in humiliating rigmaroles like queuing up for handouts of free food in formerly thriving tourist destinations such as the resort town of Pattaya, where most businesses have been shuttered for well over a year.

The number of homeless people has visibly increased across the capital, with many people sleeping rough on the street under pedestrian overpasses and other places they have found shelter.

The other day I saw an old man shuffle by with a cane, pulling a bag on wheels with his possessions. He looked too despondent even to beg

“There are several rough sleepers outside the 7-Eleven near my place [in central Bangkok],” James Watson, a retired British expatriate who lives in Thailand, told UCA News.

“There’s more and more every week. The other day I saw an old man shuffle by with a cane, pulling a bag on wheels with his possessions. He looked too despondent even to beg,” Watson said.

Since the pandemic began in March last year, the rate of suicides across Thailand has increased markedly, with economic hardship a primary reason for the spike, according to experts.

Several heart-rending accounts have been shared in local media in recent days about people who decided to end their lives out of desperation over their financial situation and the toll the pandemic has taken on their lives.

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In one case, a young woman, desperate over losing her job as a singer and all her income with it during prolonged lockdowns, jumped to her death in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Bangkok, her suicide captured on CCTV cameras.

In another incident, an 84-year-old man committed suicide in Bangkok by jumping off a building after his 57-year-old daughter died of Covid-19 at their home. 

Frequent lockdowns and restrictions, instituted by the government with little success to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have also ruined numerous small family-owned businesses and led to record high unemployment across the country, which has Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

As a new two-week comprehensive lockdown with a nighttime curfew took effect in Bangkok and its environs on July 12, local businesses, including restaurants and stores, are set to suffer further financial losses in the coming weeks.

However, Thailand’s richest families, who own shopping malls, convenience store chains and other high-value-assets, appear to have weathered the pandemic well by boosting their wealth in the process, according to the listings published by Forbes.

The top five richest men in Thailand have reportedly increased their wealth by a combined $13.6 billion over the past year in one of the world’s most unequal countries where the wealthiest 1 percent of the population in a nation of 69 million own more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth.

People in my community are starving. Our situation seems hopeless. I don’t know what we should do

Although Thailand made significant progress in rolling back endemic poverty in recent decades, the trend began to be reversed after 2014 when a repressive military junta ousted an elected government in a coup. The rate of poverty has since been on the rise again, according to the World Bank.

“Between 2015 and 2018, the poverty rate in Thailand grew from 7.21 percent to 9.85 percent and the absolute number of people living in poverty increased from 4.85 million to more than 6.7 million,” the World Bank noted in a report in March last year, right before the pandemic.

Since the report was published, the rate of poverty has likely increased greatly, partly as a result of ill-advised policies by the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who spearheaded the coup in 2014.

Even as Prayut’s government has ordered often haphazard and financially ruinous lockdowns to contain the spikes in new Covid-19 cases and related deaths since April, his administration has failed to deliver on its promise to vaccinate the vast majority of Thais in a timely manner.

A chronic shortage of vaccines caused by a flawed procurement policy has meant that only around 5 percent of locals have so far been fully vaccinated and many of them with Sinovac, a Chinese vaccine that has been proven to offer only partial immunity.

As millions of Thais continue waiting for their jabs, their economic prospects will continue to remain bleak.

“People in my community are starving,” Boonrak Boonma, a woman who worked as a cleaner in a Bangkok hotel before the pandemic and lives in an inner-city slum, told UCA News.

“Our situation seems hopeless. I don’t know what we should do.”

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