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Thailand’s Inequality: Unpacking the Myths and Reality of Isan

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A local farmer’s market in Isan Credit: Tim Bewer

For decades, the ethnically and linguistically diverse people of Isan, Thailand, have been the subject of pervasive bias, often described as docile and uneducated, or as “unsophisticated peasants” who can be bought and manipulated by ambitious politicians. Bordered by Laos and the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the southeast, these 20 provinces in Thailand’s northeast have long been the country’s poorest and least fertile region. But Isan is also Thailand’s most populous region, with 22 million inhabitants, 33% of the country’s total population. It is a population that matters deeply to the country’s future prosperity.

A major new study from The Asia Foundation, Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan, sets aside these prejudices to instead offer a comprehensive understanding of a region deeply in need of development. The study, conducted from late 2017 to April 2019, explores the perceptions of the people of Isan themselves—how they see their lives today and their prospects for the future, the challenges and opportunities before them, what matters to them, and what they expect from the government. Based on a randomized survey of 1,400 households, and 160 semi-structured interviews and focus groups, Thailand’s Inequality explores public attitudes on fundamental topics such as economic status, optimism about the future, health, education, migration, and public policy.

There is good news to report. Data from the National Statistics Office shows that the number of people living below the poverty line has declined substantially, from nearly 5.7 million people in 2007 to 2.4 million people in 2016, a significant improvement for a majority of the population. Yet, people in Isan are still concerned about the overall direction of the country. When asked whether Thailand is going in the right or the wrong direction, 55% of respondents in this heavily agricultural region said the country is going in the wrong direction, citing a bad economy (74%) and poor crop prices (50%).

Looking at incomes in the region, 44% of respondents reported that their incomes have been stagnant, and 36% said that their incomes have decreased. Meanwhile, both farm and nonfarm costs are rising. Some 38% percent of all respondents said that investment costs have increased in the past year. Eighty-eight percent of all respondents said they are in debt, and 45% of all respondents said their debt is due to loans for investment in either a farm or a nonfarm business.

In the agriculture sector, rents for agricultural land, the cost of labor, and prices for pesticides and other inputs have all increased. One-third of the region’s population, 7.8 million people, are farmers, and the majority produce cash crops such as rubber, sugarcane, and cassava that are sensitive to volatile international markets. With stagnant incomes, fluctuating crop prices, and the growing cost of investment, Isan farmers are struggling to maintain their quality of life.

Although personal indebtedness has increased nationally in Thailand, debt levels in Isan are particularly troubling. The population of Isan has an average debt of about nine months of earnings, or 75% of annual income. In 1996, the average household debt was 36,204 baht. Today that indebtedness stands at 160,000 baht.

Overall, low productivity, fluctuating crop prices, stagnant incomes, and rising debt make it harder to live well in Isan. Yet, a striking aspect of Thailand’s Inequality is the portrait it paints of resilience and perseverance. Some 57% of respondents think their livelihoods will improve in the future, while just 10% think their livelihoods will get worse.

Stories of resilience come through clearly in the qualitative component of the research. For example, organic farmers in the village of Na Wang Yai, a hundred kilometers from the city of Khon Kaen, were eager to describe their efforts to rise above the level of subsistence farming. They explained why organic rice is a better crop that earns them a better price, they lamented the growing cost of investments, and they talked about new kinds of financing that financial institutions have introduced.

Interviewed shortly before the latest elections, these farmers were articulate about what they wanted from the government: better public policy. They had met all their politicians, and they were used to hearing promises that would never be kept. They didn’t want 500-baht handouts to secure their votes, they said; what they wanted from the incoming government was “water” and “technology.”

Currently, many villages have limited access to water and a small collection of agricultural equipment that everyone must share. “More of these would be better,” said one farmer, “even if the government would pay just half.”

These farmers represent the changing face of Isan, where agriculture is evolving, and aspirations are emerging for new tools and knowledge. They were outspoken and sophisticated, far from the demeaning stereotypes. Despite the widespread lack of formal education among farmers and informal workers in Isan, respondents were well-versed in the spectrum of government services. When asked about their satisfaction with the performance of 20 government programs, they spoke clearly about what these programs had been doing for them and their hopes and expectations of much more.

A fascinating aspect of this underdeveloped region was the strong bond Isan farmers, workers, and students feel toward their hometowns. “Isan is home,” was a common refrain in the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. “We want to work closer to home.” “We want to study closer to home.”

The strong attachment of Isan people to their hometowns can be seen in the decline of worker emigration from the region. While studies through the 1990s found rates of labor migration that ranged from 38% to 68% of the population, just 25% of respondents in this study have lived elsewhere for more than a year.

The Isan region is Thailand’s poorest, and life there is tough, but this research found that Isan farmers and workers are determined. They understand the government’s safety-net programs and make the best of them. These programs play a vital role in alleviating their hardship, and what the government does significantly affects their quality of life. There is also plenty of room for these programs to improve.

Thailand’s Inequality highlights the voices, perceptions, and aspirations of the people of Isan. An honest, straightforward, and bipartisan conversation is now needed to turn this evidence into meaningful development projects and programs that will help empower residents to lift their region out of poverty and toward sustainable growth and equitable development.

Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan was funded by the government of the United Kingdom and The Asia Foundation.

Author’s note: first published with InAsia

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Southeast Asia

From October to October: Youth and politics in Thailand

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When I think of the 6th and 14th of October, I think back to my years as an elementary school child, when my parents would take my sister and I to events commemorating those days at Thammasat University. At those events, we would meet people who were trying their best to keep the stories alive, keep the history going, so that no one would forget what happened in Thailand.

October was a month that made me feel like I was living in a parallel world; outside of these events, it seemed as if the nation had completely forgot what had happened. None of my friends understood what was going on. I think I only had two history teachers ever make a comment about the 6th or 14th of October.

It was a month of great importance for my father. Every year, as we got closer to those dates, he would start talking about the events. He would give interviews, be involved in talks and lectures and projects, and yet, it seemed as if absolutely no one else in the country had any clue what was happening.

He asked us every year if any teacher or text book mentioned what had happened in October, and every year, the answer would be the same: no.

Sometimes I worried it hurt his feelings, but he never deterred. It seemed, at moments, he and his friends were speaking into an empty void. But one year, when I was in high school, a middle school student attended one of my dad’s lectures and told my father he was interested in learning more about October, and why it was important to Thailand. My dad talked about that student for days after, even encouraging me to add him as a friend on Facebook.

Years later, when I look back to that time, I realize the reason he kept on pushing was quite simple: if he could teach one young person about what happened, if he could get one person to even care about October, if he could make sure younger people kept learning about it,it would be successful in paving the way for change.

If he had ever feared that the movement would not get passed on to the younger generation, this past month has proved him wrong.

The power of young people has always been underestimated in Thailand. But there is nothing more powerful than the thought of having no say in our future, of seeing other countries move forward in ways we can’t because we haven’t faced the past. There is nothing more frustrating than asking for the chance to draw up what the future should look like for us and getting our requests shot down.

But the baton, it seems, hasnow been passed down from the time my father was speaking into the void; it just kept getting passed around without a receiver. Now, the youth are ready to take on the task of helping others face the past. We are ready to hear about what has had happened in our country’s history, and take on the demands of the youth of the past and move it forward.

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Crisis and Future of the Regime Stability in Southeast Asian Countries

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The world has encountered a crisis several times. In facing a crisis, every nation’s leader will need to strive to prevent the existing disaster from having a major impact on the country’s economy. This is because the economic crisis can have consequences for the reputation and the stability of the political regime itself.

Unlike the crises caused by unregulated economic practices such as during the Great Depression in 1929 or the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the catastrophe that the world currently confronting today is prompted by the COVID-19 virus. This new type of disease has eventually sparked into the global pandemic and already created tremendous negative disruption toward economics and businesses around the world.

Of course, the panacea for this problem is not easy since it takes the extraordinary capability of the state to bear with a load of health costs and prevailing economic burden to its society.

Most of the countries having a really hard time coping with this ‘black swan’ event. While, for some emerging economies with weak public health capacity, and slow policy process has already struggled with the socio-economic impact of the virus.

In this backdrop, although countries in Southeast Asian (SEA) regions have already made an impressive economic achievement post-Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, they have to swallow the bitter pill again as their economy agonized from this significant blow.

The countries within the ASEAN have suffered a great economic loss due to the pandemic. According to the latest forecasting report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),the GDP growth rate of Indonesia and Laos has been contracted to minus 1 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Other nations such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been predicted to befall averagely under minus 4 percent. While the Philippines and Thailand have even major severe shocks as their economy sharply contracting in excess of minus 7 percent. Only several states such as Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, and Myanmar have performed slightly better.

This phenomenon is indeed very upsetting, especially because these countries are highly dependent on foreign investment, trade, and the tourism sector as the main engine to drive economic growth respectively.

The tricky part comes when the state cannot provide its citizen with adequate support and accountability. Apart from the debate about which ideological system is best in dealing with a pandemic, we need to understand well that political turmoil is often triggered by the inability of the state to meet the needs of its people. The public health emergency coupled with the economic crisis, and problematic policy selection can swiftly turn into unrest since the society vigorously looking for justice and protection over their wellbeing.

Compared to other ASEAN member states, Vietnam and Singapore are effectively tolerate the impact of turbulence because of their impressive management of public health systems. While other nations in the region seem to have different stories.

In Indonesia, regime stability has been affected by COVID-19. From the beginning of the outbreak, among other ASEAN member states, Indonesia was the latest one who got struck by the virus. But it turns out that Indonesia becomes a country with the largest infected cases in the region. The lack of government coordination and assistance in tackling the pandemic has made the economic condition of the country worsen. In addition, the most recent enactment of the omnibus law of job creation that predominantly in favor of businessmen and investors has triggered the wide-spread protest toward the government across the archipelago since early October.

Likewise, the Philippines also has to face the fatal economic damage caused by the pandemic as the unemployment number and poverty rates have significantly risen. Despite the government’s extreme militaristic measures to contain the pandemic, the number of infected cases and death ratio still upsurging, second only to Indonesia. Yet, this has sparked both national and international criticism on President Duterte’s repressive approach.

In Malaysia, the government must engage with the second wave of the pandemic. After generally succeed in the first attempt to tackling the outbreak, the infected rate has steadily increased particularly in Sabah, after holding local elections on 26 September. Apparently, the political upheaval began to appear when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin insist to put the country under a state of emergency. Although in the end the proposal was later rejected by Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah, the declaration to suspend the parliament was roundly condemned by opposition figures in the country and also mounted concern among Malaysians.

Amongst other countries in the SEA region, Thailand currently in the state of a serious political crisis mode provoked by a series of anti-government demonstrations. The Thai people demanding to reform the Thai constitutional monarchy and removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from his office. This situation has made Thai authorities announced the country to entered the emergency decree. Though the protester vigorously attacked the government solely for the political reform motives, the issue of the economy has virtually played a quite larger part. Previously, the country’s strategy in responding to the outbreak of the disease domestically had relatively efficacious. However, the long period of the lock-down policy has brought down deep frustration on the government since the economic inequality, poverty rate, and desperateness for the job among the young generations have ominously increased.

Conclusively, the pandemics of COVID-19 have become an interesting setting for testing the stability of the political regime in ASEAN. The virus has considerably contributed as a catalyst for the economic crisis. Clearly, the pattern of political turmoil and civil disobedience has gradually begun to appear as the countries started to be overwhelmed by the collision of the crisis.

It’s no doubt that Indonesia and the Philippines will deeply fall into another economic recession which can potentially ignite another massive civil unrest toward the regime. Malaysia similarly could face another heated political situation. Yet, the country’s capacity to handle the crisis still can make the regime to be relatively stable. While Thailand on another hand will face difficult circumstances. As the public has already tired of their flawed constitutional system, civil unrest will most likely continue to take the place. Consequently, the future political-economic outlook of Thailand in the near future will somewhat look worrisome.

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Quad, Quad Plus, and the Indo-Pacific: The Core and Periphery

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Indo-Pacific has been seen as one construct which identifies US strategy and brings in subscribers to the concept; thereby adding value to this concept. At the same time, it has been working on defining political, economic and security contours of this geo-political imagination. Indo-Pacific has defined as the fusion of two oceans -Indian and Pacific. It has brought the regional powers-India, Japan and Australia within the whole narrative. There are issues related to the Indo -pacific and how it will address security and political concerns but given the fact that Chinese aggression has brought in more countries into its fold, the idea is gaining momentum.

The pronouncements made by the UK, France and Germany as their approach towards Indo-Pacific shows that there is synergy which might emerge between the Euro- Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did propose that Indo-Pacific should become an inclusive concept and opened a window for China to be included into the configuration. However, this was never reiterated by Modi in the subsequent speeches and it seems that the bon homie between the two Asian powers dissipated because of Chinese aggressive moves in the Indian borders.

The evolution of Quad 1.0 which gave heft to Malabar exercises, and involvement of Singapore and Australia into larger scheme of things dissipated as the Australian government withdrew in later editions after succumbing to Chinese angst. The Quad 2.0 which gained steam in the early 2018 has now come a full circle with Australia again joining the Malabar exercises scheduled to be held later this year in the Indian Ocean. The latest approach has brought strategic momentum. The Quad 2.0 has outlined few of the larger objectives during the Tokyo submit earlier in October, and it is seen that in terms maritime security, space, cyber and encrypted communication networks there are possibilities between the four countries. India has already signed the BECA agreement and there is a possibility of greater understanding in technology sharing and intelligence domain between the four partners.

The Quad 2.0 is seen as having teething problems because of the changing political dispensation in Japan and the US while India and Australia are steadfastly showing their commitment to the cause. However, the Quad needs a blueprint and also a joint status paper which should outline the utility and purpose of this formation. With ASEAN the question of centrality has been resonating and even the former Singapore Permanent secretary has stated that Laos and Cambodia are unnecessary baggage in the ASEAN homogeneity and consensus as the two countries has been acting as surrogates of China. The problem of placing ASEAN centrality in larger objectives of Quad and Indo-Pacific would grow in future.

There have also been proposals of Quad plus which should include South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand for the purpose of expanding the logistics and support network, and undertake concerted measures for protecting maritime commerce and build institutional linkages. While Quad Plus identifies the new players into this circuit but it fails to recognize Indonesia and other such regional players which might be useful in meeting the long-term objectives.

One of the aspects which has been highlighted that Indo-Pacific should work in the field of economic integration and bring about various regions such as South Asia, Southeast Asia into one umbrella of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor. While digital and scientific cooperation has been envisaged but concerted plan of action for building resilient supply chains among the subscribers of the Indo-pacific might be a good initiative.

Along with Quad and Quad plus there are many trilaterals which have been taking shape and have made a unique strategic matrix. The trilaterals which have been taking shape include France, Australia and India. The other two trilaterals are Track II -Australia, Japan and India, as well as India, Australia and Indonesia, thereby expanding the expanse of the trilaterals acting as nodes in the overall edifice. Therefore, if Quad plus expands and Indo-pacific geographic outlines remains as envisaged then there would be a structural overlap between the two. India within its Ministry of External Affairs has already commissioned a new Oceania division which would look into the work of divisions such as ASEAN, Indo-Pacific and the Southern Asia. 

The need of the hour is to develop the priority areas for the Quad.  One of the areas that Quad can develop capacities is developing maritime security architecture with willing subscribers and logistics providers. Cyber is another area where Quad can develop joint partnerships and also support building better digital architecture. The important aspect is that within maritime security architecture Quad need to develop Quad grid which should integrate ports with facility for the navies of Quad countries to congregate, work out interoperability, and develop cooperation in maritime domain. This should include maritime theatre awareness and conducting joint Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. The maritime Quad grid can comprise of Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Andaman, Darwin, Guam and Okinawa-the big ‘W’ in the Indo-Pacific. Also, developing cooperative mechanisms in sectors such as rare earths, interlinking defence research networks and securing channels of communication through sharing of satellite data would give required teeth to the Quad.

As already discussed, it is likely that Quad plus and Indo-Pacific would run parallel and even develop symbiotic relationship which might expand in political, economic and strategic domains. Quad would address defence and strategic requirements while a possible Indo-Pacific Regional Cooperation institution would address political coherence. In economic field the inclusion of India in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) would help in transition of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation. While these propositions are there on the table but the realization would be critical to make these ideas and geopolitical imaginations get a concrete shape.

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