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Thai elite look the other way as masses struggle

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the country's staggering inequality into sharp relief

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Updated: April 22, 2020 04:18 AM GMT
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Thai elite look the other way as masses struggle

A tuk-tuk driver takes a break in Bangkok. Millions of informal workers in Thailand have lost their income because of the coronavirus pandemic, and most are unlikely to receive any government support. (Photo: Pixabay)

It’s not as if most Thais needed confirmation that when disaster struck they were on their own, but their country’s government has provided it just the same yet again.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a massive blow to Thailand’s already faltering economy, putting millions of locals out of a job and driving them to the edge of dire poverty.

There have been reports of some people committing suicide over their seemingly hopeless financial situation or turning to crime to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Even when the outbreak is over and Thailand returns to normality, or at least a semblance of it, millions of citizens will continue to suffer from the financial effects of the pandemic.

The country’s devastated tourism industry will take years to recover and its similarly vital service industry, too, will take time to rebound. In the meantime, many low-skilled Thais will remain jobless or be forced to work for a pittance in grueling or degrading conditions.

And the Thai government’s response to this unfolding economic calamity? A fair bit of dithering and proposed half-measures that will do little to ease the financial pain for most Thais on low incomes.

In one initiative, the Social Security Office has started out handing out compensation payments to formal workers who have lost their jobs or have seen their employment suspended in the wake of a countrywide lockdown that has been instituted to arrest the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

As of April 20, a mere 8,000 people had reportedly received a payment which amounts to 62 percent of their daily wages. More will join their ranks in the coming days and weeks, to be sure, but only a fraction of the estimated 11 million people who are eligible for such a handout will likely receive it.

Several leaders of labor unions have slammed what they said was an inadequate payment to too few people. 

Ever worse off are people in Thailand’s vast informal economy. Many millions are now languishing without any income at all with no savings to fall back on. Day laborers, taxi drivers, sex workers — they have all fallen on hard times as public places, entertainment venues and tourism sites have been shuttered. No help from their government will be forthcoming any time soon for most of them.

The problem isn’t the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s the persisting state of affairs in Thailand. Despite its myriad of glitzy shopping malls, five-star hotels and world-class amenities, the likes of which would be the pride of any nation, Thailand has remained a third world country in many ways. Rank social and economic inequalities continue to beset the nation, as do rampant corruption and severely wanting rule of law.

Even as a few hundred well-connected families have become extremely rich through business monopolies and exploitation of laborers, millions of Thais live in abject poverty. Upward mobility, such as it is, for millions of locals from the impoverished rural countryside consists of migrating from the farm to Bangkok’s slums to work as maids, cleaners, sex workers, construction workers and taxi drivers. Their lot is to toil for long hours every day for subsistence wages with no job or social security.

In one of Southeast Asia’s richest nations, their plight has persisted not by accident but by design. In recent decades, several politicians who have sought to enfranchise the impoverished masses through targeted financial schemes have found themselves booted from office either via dubious judicial means or, when that failed, through military coups.

The country’s military-allied ruling elite have been fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo whereby they can continue to enrich themselves at the expense of marginalized millions. Thailand leads the world in economic inequality, with a mere 1 percent of the population owning nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. The rich and powerful can lord it over the masses with impunity. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has merely thrown this sad state of affairs into sharp relief.

Needless to say, Thailand is hardly alone in this in Southeast Asia. In neighboring Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, a similar situation has prevailed. Most countries in the region have remained stuck in autocratic systems of governance that benefit the rich and further disenfranchise the poor.

It is a sickness that is far worse and longer-lasting than Covid-19 could ever be.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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