Time out for old divisions and delusions

14 June 2010

In Abhisit's road map announced last week, the second point declared "a commitment to solve structural problems related to inequality and division in society - matters which have arisen because they are a source of resentment in the minds of the majority of people, and have been raised in the demonstrations."

In the recent budget bill, there is an allocation for addressing inequality. Last week, the heads of the peak business associations requested a meeting with the prime minister to discuss inequality. This is a breakthrough of sorts - the first time that a government or prime minister has given inequality this kind of priority, the first time there has been a budget allocation for this specific purpose, the first time that the business associations have publicly paid such attention to a big social concern.

Ever since Thaksin took the populist road, and especially after the clashes of Songkran last year, there has been a barrage of denial that social inequality has anything to do with these troubles. Journalists have penned articles and editorials denying that Thailand has any serious social division, or anything that resembles classes. Foreign academics, who have borrowed rose-tinted spectacles from the comfortable elite of a generation ago, have waffled on about Thailand still being a happy, united society. A Chula professor unveiled survey research showing that the poor are really happy. Some resident farangs have waded in, pointing out (quite rightly) that everyone in Thailand has become much better-off over the last generation so there should be no reason for resentment. But it is precisely growing prosperity driving rising aspirations combined with growing inequality driving gathering resentment that underlies red-shirt politics. No amount of strenuous, self-deluding argument will make the anger disappear.

Abhisit's commitment on inequality follows a trend in mainstream opinion. The major think-tank, the Thailand Development Research Institute, made income inequality the focus of its flagship annual conference over two years ago. The major mainstream political research outfit, King Prajadhiphok Institute, highlighted the issue too. Several leading enlightened conservatives, including Anand Panyarachun, have spoken on inequality recently. Many newspapers have followed this trend. After seeing the scale and intensity of political resentment during Red March, more people are realizing that there are big risks in trying to delude themselves and others any longer.

But Abhisit's commitment on inequality may be a milestone without any practical significance. The government is prepared to address income inequality but has no concrete plans. Besides, inequality in income may not be the main issue, or the right issue to tackle, since it may be a product of the unbalanced distribution of power. Parliament is monopolised by the rich. The bureaucracy and judiciary can be influenced by money and status. It is not by chance that "double standards" has become the watchword of the red-shirt movement, or that their main demand is simply to hold an election. People have realised that the vote can be a powerful tool for change. Abhisit is saying: we recognise there are problems and we can fix them. This is the old paternalism, and it no longer appeals. The announcement of the road map should have been Abhisit's heroic moment, but it fell as flat as the Chao Phya plain, overshadowed in the news by the Khao Yai road, squabbles in DSI, the approach of the World Cup, and other momentous events. Political change is the priority.

Inequality is also an issue of social attitudes. In early May, groups of Bangkokians went down to Sala Daeng to hold up pictures of buffaloes and shout abuse at the demonstrators. On social networking websites, there was an explosion of similar invective. Of course, not all Bangkokians share these attitudes, but some do, and have no embarrassment about displaying them. Over a century ago, the Siamese elite called the peoples of the far north and northeast as "Lao," and described them as inferior in civilisation. Some remnants of these attitudes still linger. Recent surveys have shown that a feeling of being looked down upon is a powerful element in the red politicisation. These old "Lao" regions are the heartland of the red-shirt movement.

Such attitudes can be difficult to shift. Yet it is striking how fast the denial of economic inequality has crumbled over the past year. Maybe there is some cause for hope.

On the day after the killing and burning of May 19, the leading poet, Chiranan Pitpreecha, wrote a poem called "Time Out" that has been set to music by Ad Carabao. This translation captures the meaning, but not the beauty of the Thai original.

The poem has not only anguish but also hope that terrible events will force people to open their hearts and minds, rather than the opposite.

Time out, out of time
Different colours, credos no longer have meaning

Time out, the value of humanity has been shattered
This is the last image, the dead end of the road

Time out, out of time for laying blame
Time out for hatred, fury, cruelty

Everything you struggle for, you kill for
Disappears under a pall of smoke; our world ends

Stop it, end it, halt right here
Don't let this go on for another day

Clear a broad new space in the Thai heart
Douse the flames, sow understanding, let wisdom bloom

Let silent tears within water seeds of compassion
So together in time we help Thailand rise again

Let tears douse the flames, compassion clear the smoke
So there may be a tomorrow for love, for Thailand.