A file image of a beggar in a Bangkok business district. The richest one percent in Thailand owns two-thirds, or 66.9 percent, of the country's wealth. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP)
Thailand enjoys the dubious distinction of being the world's most unequal nation, the deadliest country in ASEAN for road accidents, and one of the Asian nations with the highest level of gun-related murders, according to recent studies.
These highly publicized findings, although hardly surprising to long-time observers of Thailand, have further damaged the image of a country that was once touted as one of the most likely candidates in the region to achieve first-world nation status alongside Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
In the Swiss investment firm Credit Suisse's newly released Global Wealth Databook, Thailand finished on top among 40 surveyed countries for the most unequal distribution of wealth.
In a nation of 69 million, Credit Suisse says, the richest 1 percent owns two-thirds, or 66.9 per cent, of the country's wealth. In the investment bank's previous global rankings of worst wealth inequality, published in 2016, Thailand came third, behind Russia and India and followed by Indonesia and Brazil.
The new study indicates that despite significant growth in average wealth, which increased from US$3,350 per adult in 2000 to US$9,969 in 2018, millions of Thais have been mired in grinding poverty while the richest citizens have kept their stranglehold on opportunities for personal wealth creation.
"Thailand has experienced rapid growth and a structural transformation since the 1950s," says Wannaphong Durongkaveroj, a PhD candidate in economics at the Australian National University in Canberra.
"However, Thailand has also experienced growth without equity. Thailand's Gini index [a measurement of income inequality] has been above 0.40 for the last 30 years, which is high by Asian standards and makes Thailand look like China rather than Taiwan and South Korea."
Rickety shacks stand on the banks of a garbage-strewn canal in an inner-city slum in Bangkok. (ucanews.com photo)
Government officials have taken issue with the Swiss investment firm's findings, arguing that they were based on outdated data. "The ratio of income difference between the richest and the poorest fell from 29.92 times in 2006 to 19.29 times in 2017," Banyong Pongpanich, a former adviser to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, said in a statement.
However, in its own report, published in September, the World Bank notes that although poverty rates in Thailand have fallen sharply since the mid-1980s, from 67 percent in 1986 to 7.1 percent in 2015, wealth and income inequalities have remained pronounced.
"As of 2014, over 80 percent of the country's 7.1 million poor live in rural areas," the World Bank notes. "Moreover, an additional 6.7 million were living within 20 percent above the national poverty line and remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty."
Danger on the roads, gun-related homicides
Meanwhile, according to the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018 by the World Health Organization, Thailand's roads remain among the deadliest in the world.
The country's traffic death rate per 100,000 people was at 32.7 in 2016, which makes Thai roads the deadliest within ASEAN where the average rate is 20.7 deaths per 100,000. As many as 22,491 people die in road accidents, on average, around Thailand each year.
Thailand's rate makes it the eighth deadliest in the world out of 175 countries surveyed. Globally, only Venezuela and six African nations have roads with higher death rates, including Liberia, Saint Lucia, Burundi and Zimbabwe.
More than 20,000 people die each year on roads around Thailand, including thousands in the capital Bangkok, which is notorious for its seemingly endless traffic congestion. (ucanews.com photo)
Thailand, where millions of people own firearms either legally or illegally, also has one of the highest rates of gun-related homicides in Asia.
According to recent estimates, up to 4.45 people per 100,000 are shot dead each year in Thailand, which is the same rate as in the United States and several times higher than the rates in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Malaysia.
Most gun-related murders are committed during criminal activities like robberies or are crimes of passion with jilted lovers taking revenge by shooting their ex-partner dead. Trigger-happy citizens, including police officers, often resolve verbal altercations by reaching for their guns.
In mid-December an off-duty policeman, Senior Sgt. Major Kantapong Huadsri, 49, followed a 41-year-old French tourist, Malik Djamel, after a drunken quarrel to a residential building in central Bangkok where the Frenchman was staying.
Kantapong then proceeded to shoot Djamel dead in cold blood at point-blank range outside a donut shop in the lobby. The policeman fled the scene but the shooting had been captured on one of the building's CCTV cameras. He later confessed to the murder.
Both traffic accidents and gun violence remain widespread, observers say, because of lax law enforcement by police.
Traffic laws are routinely ignored by motorists, often in full view of traffic police. Hit-and-runs are common around the country, with drivers often speeding away from accidents in the hope that they will never be caught, or even sought, by police.
Crimes in Thailand invariably remain unsolved and there is endemic corruption in local police forces.
"We do our best but we lack the manpower and the resources to be more efficient," a traffic police lieutenant based in Suphan Buri province, near Bangkok, tells ucanews.com, which has decided not to name the officer to protect him from potential repercussions.
"It's undeniable that there are bad apples [in the force] who take bribes and act like criminals," he adds.