NONBON, THAILAND — San Silawat has three dogs, two cows and a parrot. He grows rice and spring onions on a small plot of land. But he’s hardly a pauper: He’s added a second floor to his house and built a blue-tiled patio. His son plays computer games in the front room. His daughter recently bought a Nissan pickup truck. His granddaughter studies nursing in Bangkok.
Out of poverty but in dissent
For all his relatively good fortune, however, San is certain about one thing: “Life is definitely getting worse,” said the 62-year-old farmer, grumbling about the price of gasoline, school fees and a political and economic system he sees as rigged in favor of the rich.
Last month, San and six friends from this village in northeastern Thailand piled into a pickup and drove 14 hours to join “red shirt” protests in Bangkok. During nine weeks of demonstrations, scores of other rural folk from Nonbon and nearby settlements made the same 390-mile trip.
Beneficiaries of an economic boom that, in just three decades, has cut the proportion of Thais living below the poverty line from 42 percent to about 8 percent, San and his family represent both the promise and the peril of Asia’s dizzying transformation.
From China in the north to Indonesia in the south, hundreds of millions of people are now living far better than a generation ago. But the gap that separates them from the rich has often grown wider. As their fortunes and expectations have risen, so too has their frustration. And, as recent turmoil in Thailand has shown, this can mean big trouble.
San and his neighbors rallied to the red shirts not because they are hungry, uninformed and desperate but because they are no longer any of those things. Though still very poor compared with Bangkok residents who cheered the red shirts’ defeat when government troops moved in on May 19, they are a better-off, better-informed and far more demanding voice in national affairs than their elders. San buys and reads a newspaper every day.
“Farmers in the past didn’t ask for anything. They just did their farming,” said his daughter, Tasaneeporn Boran, standing next to her brand-new black Nissan, which she bought in February.
“We now know what is going on,” she said. “We know what we want and don’t want.” What she doesn’t want most of all is a “government that only looks after the rich, instead of ordinary people.”
It is a demand that raises alarming questions not just for Thailand’s Eton- and Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, but for governments across Asia struggling to manage rising expectations amid growing, but unevenly spread, prosperity. Thailand’s protests began in March not during a recession, but as the economy recorded first-quarter growth of 12 percent, its strongest performance in 15 years.
China, meanwhile, saw its economy surge by 11.9 percent — and has since been hit by a wave of labor unrest, including a strike over wages at a Honda factory in Guangdong, one of the country’s wealthiest regions. China’s Communist Party has staked its future on a bet that economic growth will reinforce, not undermine, stability. But Thailand’s experience shows how easily such calculations can come unstuck.
Instead of political calm, growth in Thailand has brought increased tension. When the country set off the 1997 Asian financial crisis and fell into a deep slump, political stability in Thailand actually increased and then plunged as the economy took off again, according to the Worldwide Governance Indicators, compiled by experts from the Brookings Institution and the World Bank.
Over the last four decades, Thailand’s economy has grown an average of about 7 percent a year, and average real per-capita income has roughly tripled since the mid-1980s. But, according to a recent report on Thailand last year by the United Nations Development Program, the Southeast Asian nation is beset by “persistent inequality” that defies a widely accepted theory that the gap between rich and poor widens during an initial phase of development but then narrows.