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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

Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.

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After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.

As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.

Déjà vu 1988

Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.

It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.

Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.

Absence of a political consensus

Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.

Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.

When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability

The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.

Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.

At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.

Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.

The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history

With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.

As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.

Regional voices and the road to peace

Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.

Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.

Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.

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Australia’s churn in the Indo-Pacific with India and Indonesia

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The shared vision for a free, open, rules-based, and inclusive Indo-Pacific brings Australia, India, and Indonesia together. Being democracies and maritime powers with overwhelmingly large coastlines, the three countries are natural partners. Australia and India have just inaugurated a ‘2+2’ Dialogue of foreign and defence ministers on September 11. Meanwhile, Indonesia and Australia have conducted seven ‘2+2’ ministerials so far since 2012.

***

The mutual interaction between these countries has improved over the years. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton are on a visit to New Delhi, the Indian capital, from 10-12 September 2021, with the main point of agenda being the commencement of the annual ministerial-level consultations, taking the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to the next level. They are on a four-country Indo-Pacific tour, spread over two weeks that began on September 9, with their first leg being Jakarta, the Indonesian capital where the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also located. The Australian minister-duo will be heading to South Korea and the United States after concluding their India visit.

Looking back on Australia-India ties

2021 has been the fourth year since India and Australia recalibrated their ties in the second avatar of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad 2.0 that came into being in 2017. Last year witnessed several landmark moments in India-Australia relations. Australian PM Scott Morrison and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi held a virtual summit in June, followed by the elevation of bilateral ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and the signing of a naval interoperability pact called the ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’ (MLSA) to access each other’s bases and reciprocal use of each other’s military facilities, including refuelling and repair. Both leaders also agreed on a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ in 2020. The year also saw Australia returning to Exercise Malabar after 13 years, accepting India’s invitation, and both countries participated in the drills for two consecutive years – 2020 and 2021 – along with Japan and the United States. Shared concerns on the disruptive rise of China in the past few years have also brought Australia closer to India.

Australia and India have joined hands with Japan for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) last year for the diversification of supply chain risks across a group of supplying nations instead of being dependent on just one or a few and for ensuring the free flow of goods, apparently with China in mind, with which both countries have deep-rooted economic and trade links. Both India and Australia are victims of Beijing’s bullying in different arenas. If territorial disputes with China form a major part of Indian security concerns, for Australia it is the trade and tariffs-related tensions. Both countries are also apprehensive of Chinese telecom companies and their technological edge, particularly regarding 5G trials and rollout.

Australia was the first country in the world to ban Chinese firms of next-generation technology Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials due to the alleged links of these companies with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which if allowed could’ve been used against Australia’s national security interests one day, capitalising on increased tensions between the two countries. Under Chinese law, companies that operate in Chinese territory are obligated to co-operate with the country’s intelligence services. With China upping the ante in the Himalayan frontiers with India that resulted in a bloody skirmish in eastern Ladakh in June last year, New Delhi has also taken similar steps like the banning of Chinese mobile applications and not permitting Chinese firms from participating in the 5G trials in India.

In a subtle reference to China while addressing an event organised by an Indian think-tank during the recently-concluded visit to India, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that Canberra seeks a region in which the rights of all states, large and small, are respected with a strategic balance, in which ‘no single dominant power dictates outcomes for others’. Today, India-Australia ties cover a wide range of areas that goes beyond maritime security and defence cooperation such as science and technology research, economic and multilateral cooperation, innovation and entrepreneurship, agriculture and water resources management, education, culture, tourism and people-to-people ties.

Looking back on Australia-Indonesia ties

The Indonesian archipelago lies to the north and northwest of Australia. Both countries are immediate maritime neighbours and touch upon both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The governments of Indonesia and Australia have held seven ‘2+2’ Ministerial Dialogues so far. In the recently concluded such dialogue, issues that were discussed include defence cooperation, the pandemic, the situation in Myanmar, an ASEAN member-nation, and also the regime change in Afghanistan.

Notably, both countries have enhanced their military-level cooperation in the recent ‘2+2’ meet with the joint decision to renew the defence cooperation arrangement (DCA) that was agreed in 2012. With a new framework, Indonesian defence personnel will be trained in Australian military academies, along with their Australian counterparts, for the very first time. Soon, it is expected that both militaries would conduct joint military exercises in Australian soil, along with maritime drills.

Indonesia and Australia have crossed the milestone of 70 years of diplomatic ties just last year and their cooperation in counter-terrorism operations have improved considerably from the early 2000s, particularly in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings that also included Australian victims, but it followed a brief period of strained ties owing to Indonesia’s intervention in East Timor and its alleged military excesses and spying.

In 2006, both countries signed the landmark Lombok Treaty, named after an Indonesian island lying east of Bali, which set out a ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’ that covered both traditional and non-traditional challenges to security. This commitment was reiterated in 2014 with the signing of a Joint Understanding on a code of conduct on the same between the two countries. Even though there have been ups and downs on their ties, both countries have been conducting ‘2+2’ ministerial-level consultations annually since 2012. Indonesia and Australia have signed a Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation in 2017 that took their ties to the next level, and in the following year it was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

While Indonesia represents the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ that distances itself from great power rivalries, Australia is one of the four partners in the Quad, which accepts the centrality of ASEAN as essential for their conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific. Even though balancing Chinese assertion is one of the non-explicit objectives of the Quad in which Australia is part of, as evident from Exercise Malabar, Indonesia seems least concerned with antagonizing China. In fact, Jakarta is a key participant of China-sponsored Maritime Silk Road, a key component of Beijing’s trillion-dollar project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, these differences have not prevented the both countries from cooperating in the realms of military, diplomatic, economic and maritime cooperation. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said in the latest ‘2+2’ Dialogue with her Indonesian counterpart that Canberra welcomes a ‘healthy competition’ based on rules and norms, on a ‘level-playing field’, rather than the one that risks sliding into a conflict. However, she played down the need for direct ASEAN-Quad consultations.

An emerging trilateral and the way ahead

The emerging Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral sheds light on the Asia-Pacific’s evolving mini-lateralism and a multipolar order that has its beginnings in 2017 with the Senior Officials’ Strategic Dialogue held in Bogor, Indonesia, with the three countries participating. Further such meetings were followed in Canberra in 2018 and New Delhi in 2019. As the US-China great power rivalry continues to take a new shape, this trilateral of the three maritime middle-powers would further enrich multilateralism and the overall regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Common interests that bind Australia, India, and Indonesia include a rules-based, free, and inclusive maritime order in the region, and the respect for international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral could also complement the Quad and other trilaterals and minilaterals in the region such as the Australia-India-Japan and the Australia-France-India groupings. India’s ‘Act East’ policy, Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy, and Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ policy are well-capable of effectively finding strategic convergence with each other.

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Southeast Asia

The G7 Ministerial Meeting: The Three “Firsts” for the Indo-Pacific

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In the run-up to the upcoming G7 Summit in June, foreign ministers of the seven wealthiest nations, met in London to discuss on a wide variety of issues for collective deliberation at the top leadership level next month. But unlike the past, the recent G7 foreign ministerial meeting placed Indo-Pacific as a new strategic focus this year ⸺  a move that showcased the grouping’s increasingly unequivocal position in dealing with the issues related to China today. As stipulated in the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Communique (or the Comminique), there are three “firsts” when comes to the group’s position on the Indo-Pacific region.

First and foremost, all the G7 foreign ministers pledged to support ASEAN’s centrality with an eye toward building concrete cooperation with the Southeast Asian bloc in the coming years. For the first time in G7’s history, ASEAN’s participants are invited to the May ministerial meeting in London. Apart from the ASEAN Chair which is represented by Brunei in the G7’s ministerial meeting, the Southeast Asian bloc’s Secretary-General also attended the event as another participant alongside foreign ministers of Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa. With such importance attached to ASEAN by the G7 foreign ministers, all eyes are looking to see if there will be any Southeast Asian representative invited to the G7 Summit slated to be held in Cornwall (UK) next month.

That said, such importance attached to ASEAN, does not describe the whole picture of the G7 foreign ministerial meeting. The core remained to be G7’s support for ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific region. To be specific, it entailed harmonizing G7’s Indo-Pacific normative position (norms, rules and values) with that of ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook through concrete cooperation between the two. Aside from pandemic recovery and climate change that are outlined in the Communique, improvisation of regional connectivity is another area of which it is particularly relevant to ASEAN member countries. As the Southeast Asian bloc is set along the course of economic integration, quality infrastructure development and projects ⸺ as highlighted by the Communique ⸺ are undoubtedly important for ASEAN countries to achieve sustainable development in the long-term.

Second, the G7 foreign ministers also included Taiwan in their overall position toward China. Just like the inclusion of ASEAN’s centrality into the Communique, the inclusion of Taiwan within the official document, is a departure from the cautious position adopted in the previous communiques. While the G7 foreign ministers failed to meet in 2020 and only issued a statement on the imposition of national security law in Hong Kong, the 2019 communique also conveniently avoided the Taiwan issue in their collective position toward China. From the May meeting, however, the G7 foreign ministers made it absolutely clear that they are supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organization (WHO) forums and World Health Assembly (WHA) in line with the spirit of inclusiveness within all international organizations. Furthermore, the G7 foreign ministers also highlighted Taiwan’s success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic as another rationale that should be given strong consideration as countries around the world can learn from the Taiwanese experiences on this particular area.

Finally, the G7 foreign ministers also layered the Taiwan Strait issue within their collective position on both the East and South China Seas. Deviating from the 2019 communique that sidestepped the Taiwan Strait issue, the latest Communique emphasized the G7’s call for maintaining peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, the first ever such articulation is made in the ministerial meeting. Without singling China in their follow-up statement, the G7 foreign ministers urged both Beijing and Taipei to resolve the cross-Strait disputes peacefully and not to resort to unilateral actions that would destabilize the region and the international rules-based order.

The interesting part, however, is the layering of the Taiwan Strait issue within the G7’s statement on the East and South China Seas. For certain, such maneuver brought Taiwan into the same page with the other two territorial disputes, namely, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ dispute (East China Sea) and Spratly Islands’ dispute (South China Sea). This effectively elevated the Taiwan Strait into an international issue on par with the two territorial disputes and with that, sought to neutralize China’s long-standing discourse of insulating Taiwan from the world through its “one-China” principle.    

Notwithstanding the three “firsts” from the recent G7 foreign ministerial meeting, the overarching question will be on how these collective positions can be translated into tangible actions on the ground. For instance, on G7’s support for ASEAN’s centrality, the major challenges stem from the two aspects: Can the G7 nations operationalize its cooperation with the Southeast Asian bloc as a collective institution? How significant these wealthy countries can contribute to ASEAN’s integration in a way that they become the indispensable partners for the Southeast Asian bloc as a whole?

Similarly, the G7’s increasingly unequivocal position on the two Taiwan-related issues reverberate another follow-up question: Will China play with the G7’s playbook or at least, adjust its “one-China” principle to reduce any external pressure on its non-negotiable position toward Taiwan? From the recent statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, it seemed Beijing has no interest to alter the status quo as far as its position on Taiwan is concerned. Besides reiterating China’s position to handle Taiwan’s international participation based on the “one-China” principle, Wang also criticized G7 for what he sees as an interference to the Chinese internal affairs in an array of issues that included the contentious East and South China Seas. As such, it will be hard to imagine China adjusting its long-held position on Taiwan despite the increasingly unequivocal position adopted by the G7 foreign ministers on issues related to the island.

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