Wednesday, 8 December 2010

My Thai Girl's a Hunter-Gatherer

This crab wandered in and paid the price.

During the rains there's frogs and fish in the rice fields.

These tiny fish are delicious deep fried.

And this was the trap that caught them.

A spicy dish of bamboo shoot is highly prized.

But it takes much time and effort to prepare it.

Rural Thailand is changing fast, often for the better, but as always there are winners and losers. For this child, change will not come fast enough and he may have little choice but to join the cohorts of cheap labour that migrate to the cities to fuel the modern economy, thus maintaining the comfortable life-style of the middle classes. The land can no longer provide a living, except for those who own substantial farms and work hard and capably.

But it was not always that way. Once there were forests and food for free.

I’ve written before about how the Surin countryside where my wife, Cat and I now live used to be bountiful and how it abundantly yielded birds and animals to eat, roots, leaves, nuts and fruits. Her childhood was spent gathering food in the countryside and her memories of that time seem to be happy ones.

The trouble is now that every available scrap of land has been made productive and almost all the forest has gone. With increasing population, farming cannot support the population and this unlimited resource of free food for the landless is no longer there. Thus the young and fit have to move away to the cities to find low paid work, often leaving their small children with Mama Papa in the village.

I’d never before thought of Thais as hunter gatherers but rather as prosperous growers of rice, so this is a new insight for me. Farmers and pastoralists wandering the world with their cows are the wealthy ones and the hunter gatherers are all but gone. One thinks only of the pygmies in the Congo, of the Punan in Borneo and the Orang Asli or Sakai in the mountainous jungles down the spine of Malaysia.

I’ve seen people in West Africa who wore nothing but leaves but even they grew crops. I’ve stayed with Dyaks several days up the Skrang river in Sarawak, sleeping under the huge bundles of human skulls tied up with rattan. They lived off the jungle and just before we went out hunting orang utan, they showed me the paws of a bear they’d killed a few days before. They also grew a few vegetables and kept pigs that ran wild in the forest around the long houses. This was fine by me but in the absence of a WC, when I headed off into the jungle to hide behind a bush, the pigs would come running. They were so keen to get up close and personal as I squatted down that they almost knocked me flying.

The only pure hunter gatherers I’ve ever met though were the Sakai in the Taman Negara national park in Malaysia. In the vastness of the jungle we were lucky to come across them sitting in low temporary shelters of palm and leaves. They were very hospitable as they showed us how they whittled the darts for the blow pipes with which they killed monkeys and showed us the roots and the honey they’d recently collected from the jungle. They were delightful people to meet, their most precious possession being the fire that they kept glowing in one of their shelters.

I now realize to my surprise that my Thai wife too is a hunter gatherer. There’s nothing she loves doing more in the village than collecting food and despite the loss of the forests, it’s still out there if you know how to find it.

And it also comes into the house too without being asked! The garage is a cool, quiet place where we’ve caught intruding crabs and frogs, rats and even a scorpion, and all of them have gone into the pot.

Then when it rains heavily at night, the frogs cry out noisily and Cat gets up and goes out in the dark and the wet hunting them. She takes a powerful head torch and a vicious looking spear and returns with several kilos of frogs and fish in a bucket.

We’ve had heavy rain recently and the fish pond overflowed and she made a fish trap of fine netting where the water runs out. This produced quantities of beautiful small fish of the kind that are used to make plaa raa, the foul smelling fermented fish that Isaan people so love.

Then Cat takes the bamboo shoots from around the fish pond and spends ages cutting it into tiny slices and boiling it up to soften it. One dish she made recently was to mix it with rice, chopped pork, various spices and a liberal quantity of plaa raa and fiery chili to render it totally uneatable by any farang. Then it was wrapped in parcels of banana leaf to make a local delicacy that was truly a labour of love.

She also collects pak ah chet, a leaf that grows on the surface of the pond. And she gathers kee lek from behind the house which is pounded to make a bitter green paste or soup, and at a certain time of the year we go out to the rice fields and climb the sadao trees to collect the young shoots that again are cooked up to make a decent curry as bitter as bile.

Then there was the trap with a blue light that accumulates a huge quantity of insects overnight that are fried up and eaten as a snack. The rice fields are full of fish and crabs, shell fish and prawns, all there for the taking, just like at the seaside, so in some ways the countryside is still nothing less than bountiful.

Nonetheless, you have to have land as there is no longer enough to sustain the whole population of rural Isaan. And that’s why the middle generation has gone off to the towns to find menial and badly paid work.

A few days ago one of Cat’s aunties came in to show off a new grandchild that had just been left with her by her daughter who works in Bangkok. This woman had eight children of her own but with only one of them now still with her in the village, all the others having gone away to the south. She already has two small grandsons living with her, their unmarried mothers gone far away so a third is a real burden, not to mention the cost of milk formula. From time to time her family send back small sums of money her and Papa and the children but for them it’s a poor life, living in what an only be described as a shack. They have absolutely no other income.

The new child is of course a joy, but the burden for an old woman of raising yet another baby is hard. But that’s just the way it is in rural Thailand.

The comfortable middle classes in Bangkok benefit from a vast pool of cheap labour while Isaan is a totally different world.

The village is a real community, though under threat, but it’s sad if more of the benefits of the modern economy cannot be brought to the countryside. That tension is of course what the current political turmoil in Thailand has been all about.

Meanwhile Cat has her farang and a comfortable life, but I respect her passion for living off the land and for not running a mile from the toughness of her upbringing. That’s what makes living in the village more rewarding for me as Cat’s enthusiasm for country life brings me a little closer to what remains of ‘the real Thailand’.

It still leaves the question though that the countryside has been stripped bare and is no longer capable of sustaining those with little or no land. In times of trouble there is little now for them to fall back on.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog December 2010

Friday, 29 October 2010

"Resilient Thailand" Again

Central World Plaza, the massive retail mall in Bangkok that was devastated during the political protests only a few months ago has opened once again. Comparing this picture to the scene of destruction that you will see if you scan down this blog is remarkable.

This is a tribute to the resilience of the established political and commercial powers in Thailand and to the ability of this society to bounce back following seismic tremors.

I admire these qualities very much but there is perhaps a negative side as well. If the elite that controls Thailand restores the shiny facade but fails to deal with the grey reality that lies behind, then greater problems are only stored up for the future.

The privilege of the moneyed Bangkokian to shop in cool, marble malls has been restored but it is still the rural migrants who do the construction and factory work and run the city for dismally low wages. There is little then to send home to Mama Papa who squat in the dust back home in the village.

Amazing Thailand, Resilient Thailand, a country that is admirable in so many ways. Nonetheless, for her sake I desperately hope that she can learn to adapt and change in the very near future as her essential problems will not just go away of their own accord.

Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl Blog October 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Some Sad News to Tell

'Are rural people living in Isaan truly poor' was the theme of a blog article I wrote some months ago. Rather than add more questionable generalisations to the debate, I made it a 'case study' of Cat's old auntie and uncle and I described their hard lives in detail... how that had raised seven children farming rice on a very small holding of land and eking a living digging crabs in the fields and selling noodles. (If you scan down, there are pictures of them and their home and farm.)

Now in their seventies the worst has happened. They are both fragile and as thin as sticks, but to keep body and soul together working life has to go on. They have to fend for themselves as little money seems to come in from their adult children who are far away and have many mouths to feed. The old man has continued to take his three buffaloes out to the fields every day and she to walk miles around the villages carrying heavy baskets over her shoulders with a clay barbecue to cook and sell noodles. That is how they survive from day to day.

Now he has suffered a collapse and is in hospital forty miles away in Surin. He seems to have blackouts and now is partially paralysed down one side. He has been hospitalised for several weeks and it is impossible to guess the outcome. The story that comes back to me is that as he never eats meat he doesn't have enough blood and so is very weak and they seem to be despairing of him.

She too has had a collapse, perhaps exhausted by the responsibility of managing the animals and getting into Surin to look after her husband. Now she is home but she is very much at risk.

While some of the basics of medical care are covered by the state, being ill is very expensive and I just don't know how they'll manage. In the struggle to get by, I'm sure money will be their one consuming worry.

He always has a gentle smile and is the perfect gentleman, the very best of Isaan farmers. She has enormous spirit and is the life and soul of the party but it is now terrible to see her so down.

I don't know what good luck could come their way but I only hope it does as they are among the nicest people I know.


The Thai Girl Blog October 2010

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Bangkok's World Trade Center Disaster

It is truly shocking to see a picture of Bangkok's Central World Plaza in ruins shortly after the recent disturbances in the city. Peaceful protests can so easily get hijacked and run out of control when a widespread sense of grievance is so very strong and raw.

The Plaza was a truly spectacular celebration of consumerism but for the huge majority of Thais their only place in it was as low paid constuction workers, cleaners and skivvies. A pretty girl from the countryside whose skin colour was light enough might aspire to sell burgers there but not much more.

Bangkok's world, it seems, is thus heating up in more ways than one.

How ironic it now is that before a substantial upgrading and rebranding a few years ago, this huge retail complex was called the World Trade Centre. While the Marriott Hotel did not change the name of its Tsunami restaurant, any possible association with a terrorist atrocity in Manhattan was clearly best avoided for Bangkok's biggest retail mall.

What befell though in Bangkok was entirely a domestic affair, the problems of a young country that has imperfectly integrated its distant provinces such as in the South and North East and since the revolution of 1932 has not fully modernised its essential polity.

Now the talk is of getting back to normal through reconciliation between the different factions. This sounds thoroughly appropriate, though it is meaningless if it simply amounts to demanding that the poor go back to their sweatshops and to ploughing the dirt without more. Unless the inequities in society are adequately addressed and a substantial shift occurs in the balance of political power between different interests, then the grievances will only become more bitter and the next conflict only be delayed.

History deems that Thailand's achievement in avoiding being colonised was a good thing. However, while it begs the question to say this, in essence its whole structure of power politics is in need of modernisation.

This cannot be attempted soon enough, though it is not in the interests of the power brokers to see it happen.

Meanwhile, though tourism is down, Thai manufacturing and exports are booming and the government's finances remain healthy. The means to promote change therefore exists and there is little real excuse for not so doing except self-interest.

As the pressures continue to build, what then can break the log jam?

Andrew Hicks The "Thai Girl" Blog July 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Cute Terrorists-Which Way Thailand Now?

A scrawled poster pasted up during the recent demonstrations in Bangkok suggests the wide popular nature of the protest. But was it, as the much criticised media coverage suggested, a genuine peoples's movement for democracy or was it in fact a power struggle by new monied interests seeking to seize power from the traditional elites? Where does the truth lie and what's next for Thailand?

The protester organisers passionately wanted to be non-violent.

Bangkok is a vibrant city that relies on armies of cheap labour.

Petty traders survive there just as they would back in the village.

Or they work on construction sites in appalling conditions.

Their salvation is finding support and community in adversity.

They are building a sleek airport rail link that they'll never use.

Getting to work means a hot bus toiling in traffic.

Or riding a smelly boat on Klong San Saeb.

Once a year at Songkhran, the Thai New Year, they have a few days off to go home to the village, fighting for a seat at Moh Chit bus station.

It strikes me that Thai politics never seems to address the key issues of the day but creates dominant personality cults and focuses solely on the politicians themselves. Which war lord is going to grab power next and what vested interests do they serve? Thus politics is not so much a contention between opposing principles and ideas but a crude struggle for power between rival patronage groupings.

Living in a village in Isaan I see this even at the local level. Elections here are always welcomed as you’ll hope to collect a few hundred baht for the promise of your vote. A candidate for a minor position in local government, orbortor or whatever, invests a considerable sum to buy his way into power but winning the post will reap a useful dividend. Nothing can ever be had without being bought.

Even a farang living in Thailand openly gets asked for bribes by officials and many times I’ve been stopped by police asking for cash before going on my way. Right up the ladder to the top, office holders use their position for their own benefit. Nobody did this better than Thaksin Shinawatra who used the government coffers to buy the favour of the ordinary voters and became unusually rich during his terms of office. As he was the first leader to make it his policy to benefit the poor farmers, his followers now do not begrudge him his questionable billions.

Every political movement or party, even a street protest, whether Yellow or Red shirted, thus needs a powerful backer dispensing patronage. Even if you are an ordinary worker sincere in your protest you cannot survive at the barricades without being paid 200 baht a day. A genuine mass movement of the rural poor can thus be hijacked and distorted by those who use it in pursuit of power.

So what of the recent disturbances in Bangkok? Were they a genuine struggle for democracy by the disenfranchised poor or something else entirely? Was it instead a power struggle in which the traditional political, bureaucratic and military elites were resisting an alliance of the newly rich and the rural poor?

Perhaps it was both, a broad populist movement which came to be bankrolled and controlled by another patronage grouping seeking power. If the Red Shirt movement was a grass roots movement of ordinary people seeking to better their lives, they soon lost control of it and it became something else entirely. Sadly, the underlying imbalances within Thai society and the sharing of political power and wealth remain unresolved.

So was it a genuine populist movement or a crude struggle between opposing interest groups? Whatever view you take, as one strips away more skins of the tear stained onion of Thai politics, there is always another layer beneath.

A Comment on my previous blog article, “Thai Rural Poverty - A Powder Keg?”, recommended an article in Newsweek as a good analysis of the current situation. (See This boldly stated that of South East Asia’s modern economies, ‘only Thailand is disintegrating’ and is ‘becoming ungovernable and a failed state’.

That’s not how it feels living in Thailand though.

At the time of the troubles, if you were not in the immediate vicinity of the disturbances, life went on as normal. This does not feel anything like a failed state but is a well-managed and broadly stable society.

In the last fifty years the country has in fact made enormous strides, creating an impressive infrastructure of roads, power supply, schools and hospitals even in the remotest areas, everything managed by a clunkingly complex bureaucracy.

Through the Thaksin years and beyond, outward signs of increasing prosperity have been increasingly evident in the countryside, even if this has been partly based on inward remittances. The comprehensive powers of the police and bureaucracies and the influence of the Chinese dominated commercial sector means that the country is effectively run. Nonetheless, a deferential society such as this may allow pressures and resentment to build up if power is imposed from above and wealth is not equitably shared.

Newsweek ascribes Thailand’s relative decline to a poor education system based on rote learning and to concentrating on lower value manufacturing for foreign companies. At an early stage of its development, this approach has served Thailand well, though as Singapore realized in the eighties, lower wage economies can soon become uncompetitive and it is then necessary to gear up and go ‘hi-tech’.

Basic education that avoids critical thinking and maintaining low wages is an essential of the old approach and a cause of dissention today. Thailand’s mass labour that fuels the factories is made up of economic migrants from the countryside who passively work for poor wages, but as they become more urbanized and aware, it is they who are now protesting.

Newsweek sees a dangerous polarization between the Yellow and Red factions, though that observation states the growing problem rather than identifying solutions. In conclusion, statesmanlike leadership has been lacking, it says, and is needed to pull Thailand out of it present troubles.

Of recent prime ministers, the spatula wielding Samak, who was removed from office by the courts for hosting a TV cooking programme, was the antithesis of statesmanship. However, Thaksin himself had many leadership qualities and even occasionally talked about the rule of law. The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejajiva is a man of considerable political skill who would impress any audience for his grasp of democratic principle and who looks good on the international stage.

Yet he is in a bind that no one man could disentangle, nor would his backers want a different allocation of power and wealth. A general election is, however, due some time in 2012, so Abhisit’s task is to grimly hang onto power for as long as he can, aware that the will of the people is likely to upset the applecart and hand power back to the other side.

A further layer to the onion of Thai politics is its history. Thailand is still a young country and the democratic revolution begun in 1932 when the absolute monarchy was abolished is not yet complete. Furthermore, its far provinces are only recently integrated and then imperfectly. The northern kingdom of Lanna with its centre in Chiang Mai was substantially cut off by the mountains until recently, and the jungly scarps of the Korat plateau made Isaan, the great north east, very difficult of access from Bangkok.

Only by herculean feats of civil engineering were railways pushed through at the beginning of the twentieth century to make the nation a manageable political entity. (See “How the Trains Made Thailand”, my blog article of 31September 2010.)

On many occasions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the peoples of Isaan have resisted rule from distant Bangkok and these rebellions have been firmly put down. A major communist movement in the north east during the Cold War era was perhaps the last of these insurrections, but the tensions have not yet gone away.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist for the Bangkok Post uses the term ‘racist nationalism’ to describe the expectation of the central Thai power elite that the minorities should conform to their brand of ‘Thainess’ and be culturally assimilated. The failure of the clod-hopping Laos of Isaan to conform to that stereotype condemns them to exclusion and ridicule and to be the eternal funny men of every comedy and farce on Thai television.

Newly developing societies often progress at two speeds but the divisions in Thai society are glaring with few opportunities for the poor and minimal social mobility. The privileged seem satisfied with the status-quo. I recently read an articulate but angry rant by a highly educated Thai against the Red Shirts. She argued that the protests were risking the economy and her long running gravy train. Why couldn’t they just go back to their buffaloes was the underlying theme. After all, if Thai farmers are poor that can only be because they’re stupid.

It strikes me that educated urban Thais often seem to know or understand little of the conditions in which rural people live; or they don’t want to know. There is also a tendency to say that some of the protesters behaved badly and so the grievances of the poor should be dismissed. However, the Red Shirts do not formally represent the interests they claim to speak for and violence on the fringes of the protest in no way devalues the complaints of the poor.

Now the Thai farmers are losing patience. Thaksin gave them a taste of what was possible for them and understandably they want more. The trouble is that conducting a peoples’ protest pure and simple is well nigh impossible in Thailand and even if they can eventually exert their power at the ballot box they will almost certainly choose the wrong leaders.

It is highly ironic who they seem to have chosen as their champion so far!

In conclusion, there are many new nations where a comprehensive corruption of power allows office holders at all levels to use their position primarily to benefit themselves, where the police can be bought and the rule of law does not operate. It is always hard to see away out.

So which way Thailand now?

There are no glib answers but the Thais do have a knack for soldiering on in adversity and slow progress towards a modern state is always possible. However, the present tensions will grumble on until the centre of gravity in Thai politics shifts quite radically against the traditional holders of power and the economy is rebalanced to allow a fairer sharing of wealth and opportunity with mass labour.

My own key idea is that a major policy of regional development should be developed to devolve factories to provincial centres, thus taking the modern economy to the rural areas. To bring jobs to the people could thus help save the essence of Thai rural society which currently is disintegrating as workers migrate to the bloated urban centres.

It won’t be easy though and it will take time.

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog June 2010.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Thai Rural Poverty-A Powder Keg?

An old couple in a Surin village smile as they prepare a meal but are they truly poor? This article examines the details of their daily lives to suggest whether Thai society runs at two speeds, for the urban elites who cream off the wealth and the country people who have been left far behind.

This picture shows a typical newly built house in our soi.

The old couple live and sleep under these grass roofs.

A small electric pump supplies them with water.

An 'iron buffalo' is expensive but is needed to till the fields.

The harvest is kept in sacks in a handsome rice barn.

Every night the buffaloes are brought back to this barn.

Every day is spent taking the animals out to find grazing.

Hot hours are spent digging crabs to glean a few mouthfuls.

This, the poorest house in our soi, looks pretty desperate.

Was it Thai rural poverty that ignited the recent upheavals and violence on the streets of Bangkok?

A yawning wealth gap can certainly cause instability and, while I’m not an economist, it seems that the gap between the rich and poor in Thailand is very wide indeed. The wealth represented by Bangkok shopping malls such as Central World Plaza and the very basic conditions in which people live in the villages are worlds apart. When a society is hierarchical and corrupt, social mobility is limited and resentment among the disenfranchised poor could light the powder keg.

So are Thai farmers poor? This question is endlessly debated and there are some obvious points to be made.

In Isaan for example there are now many more mobiles, motor bikes and pickups than a few years ago, though easy credit for buying luxuries can be a terrible trap. Furthermore, the infrastructure of roads and power is excellent and markets are well stocked.

I’ve heard corn-fed farang confidently asserting that in the countryside nobody needs to go hungry but others argue strongly that rural poverty is as grinding as it is hidden. My wife’s village in Surin where we have lived for some years is relatively well off, but even so 45% of the children in the school are under the body weight recommended by the Thai Ministry of Health. Yet they look happy enough.

During the Thaksin years money flowed into the rural regions but in changing times there are both winners and losers. You see the winners everywhere enjoying their Nokia and new Honda Dream but hunger is invisible.

Let me therefore present to you a ‘case study’ of an elderly couple in our village and then pose the question, ‘are they poor?’. Have the rural poor been left so far behind the urban middle classes that Thai society could become unstable?

The couple that I shall describe are immediate neighbours in our village. I have known them for a long time and they are delightful people. The old man is gentle and smiling and Mama is always full of fun, the life and soul of the party when she dances everyone to exhaustion. Now in their early seventies they continue to work hard as they have done all their lives. As small farmers they work 365 days a year and they have hardly ever left the village, nor ever had a holiday. The concept of a holiday just does not exist for them.

Like everyone they are rice farmers with a tiny holding of land. They live in one of the better cement block and wood houses on our lane, though they tend to live and sometimes sleep outside in a grass thatched shelter under which they burn a fire to keep warm in the cooler months.

They raised a big family of seven children all of whom have moved away to find work in the cities and factories. After minimal education, there is no way up for them. The two youngest sons are unmarried and come and go from the village as and when they can find low paid casual work elsewhere, such as cutting sugar cane. The others visit rarely such as at Songkhran, the Thai new year festival when their factories, eight hours away, close down for a few days.

They too have their families to feed and, I suspect, can only occasionally send back a few baht to help support their Mama Papa. The old couple are thus largely dependent on their own resources for food.

Their assets include their house, the land and the rot tai or ‘iron buffalo’ which is necessary to till the soil. Water is drawn from a bore hole by an old electric pump. Regular expenses include monthly payments for electricity, fuel and repairs for the rot tai, occasionally pumping out the toilet sump and paying the money contributed at parties, funerals and weddings. Medicines are a significant cost and not so long ago Mama fell ill and Papa had to sell a buffalo to pay the hospital fees. While former prime minister Thaksin introduced an element of free medicine, the locals still have to pay big money if tests, procedures and a hospital stay go beyond the minimal.

Rice cultivation keeps them busy for half the year and provides them with their staple food that they keep in their rice barn. Cultivation is not without costs though. Seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel for ploughing and bringing the rice home, labour for planting and harvesting, hiring a thresher and then milling the brown rice means that this is not food for free.

Papa keeps several buffaloes which at night are kept in a rough barn by the house. There are no enclosures for grazing cattle so every day of the year Papa takes them out on a rope to wherever he can find a few blades of grass in the dust. He sits and watches them eat and moves them on from time to time. If his three animals bring one offspring to maturity annually, he can sell perhaps one a year when they need the cash. For this almost full time daily work his annual income is thus about 15,000 baht on selling a fat buffalo.

Around the house they have a few scrawny chickens and grow mulberry leaves for the silk worms which an old lady strips from the stalks, paying them about 40 baht every few months. Coconut and banana trees occasionally yield a few more baht.

Mama has long been the entrepreneurial dynamo, selling bowls of noodles around the villages. Every day she loads up two baskets with noodles, vegetable, spices and a substantial ceramic barbecue and heads off down the lane. The baskets are extremely heavy for anyone to lift and she walks with a swinging gait, the baskets slung on a pole across her shoulders.

Walking to neighbouring villages, she keeps going until the noodles are all sold, each day taking a different route so that customers do not become bored with her food. When cycling out from our house, I’ve met her many miles from home, as cheerful as anyone could be despite the burden of earning perhaps 100 baht a day.

When not selling noodles, Mama also forages for food in the surrounding fields wherever she can find it. There are red ants eggs high in the trees, insects and grubs in the earth and tiny fish, rats, crabs and frogs if you work hard enough to find them. In the long dry season when there is no rain she looks for the holes in the parched rice fields and digs hard in the pitiless heat to find a tiny crab a foot or so down. There is no meat on them but when crushed they add calcium and a little flavour to a hot soup or som tam.

She also collects bamboo shoots and leaves from the countryside such as kilek and sadao which add a bitter flavour when pounded into a paste. Eating a few vegetables for a meal, a volcanic chili sauce of this kind is important to help the rice go down. Everyone fears eating rice with salt only, a bitter memory they don’t want to relive.

At the end of the last rainy season, several times I saw Mama up to her neck in the muddy water of our pond collecting the shoots of pak ahchet, a weed which grows on the surface in abundance. This looks to be a tough life that is enough to kill off any frail old seventy year old but she is full of spirit and has kept going thus far.

The two of them cook on the floor in the kitchen with pots and pans strewn everywhere and while, pathetically thin, they somehow manage to feed themselves.

What I have just described is typical for the people living in our soi, in the rest of the village and, so far as I can see, throughout the wider region. Yet this hard working couple have land, buffaloes and a big family to support them and so are by far from being the poorest of the poor in Isaan.

Many other old people are also burdened by having grandchildren to bring up. I think of one half blind old soul nearby whose husband is an invalid and totally dependent and who has two tiny grandchildren to raise single-handed. Sometimes babies are dumped with the old folk in this way but then the money their parents should be earning for them never arrives.

In our soi there are nine family homes. Almost all of them consist of grandparents with babies and small children while the middle generation of wage earners is almost totally absent, returning perhaps once a year for Songkhran. This separation is necessary to fill the family rice bowls, but it cannot advance the family’s fortunes who inevitably remain near the bottom of the heap. At least they are fed but it is hardly a satisfactory way to raise the children.

Other families sink even lower through taking on credit they cannot afford. Within three hundred yards of our house no fewer than three ordinary families recently bought brand new Nissan pickups on credit for a minimal down payment, hoping to earn money with them to cover the monthly payments. A superficial observer would have thought this was a wealthy soi, but within a year all three pickups had been repossessed and sold off by the finance company, perhaps at an under-value to an insider. Each family was then left with a huge outstanding debt.

One family was taken to court in Surin town and had their home sold from under their feet, while another stripped and sold every piece of wood and corrugated iron from their house and, in the face of threats from debt collectors, went into hiding. I haven’t seen them since.

Farmers often have to borrow to cover the up-front costs of cultivation and when the harvest fails are then left with impossible debts. There is often no way out unless they have a pretty young daughter who will make the inevitable sacrifice in the bars of Bangkok and Pattaya.

Much of the apparent wealth in the villages, such as vehicles and house improvements, is that of salaried government servants such as police and teachers, while most of the rest comes in from outside. Construction or factory work in Bangkok is not well paid and the best wages are earned in Taiwan and Korea, while good money can be made in the girlie bars and, what’s more, by marrying a farang.

So that concludes the brief story of my neighbours and how they live, exemplified by the old couple who are the ones I know best.

But what is my take on all this?

Since the seventies, I have lived in and travelled through much of Africa, India, China and South East Asia and visited some of the poorest of countries such as Burkina Faso and Nepal. I have seen peoples who are poorer, but I still would describe my neighbours as poor, indeed starkly poorer than the urban elites.

The old couple I’ve told you about will not be the ones to go to the barricades, but the next generation of poor farmers may not be able to restrain their anger.

So, in conclusion, do you think my neighbours are unduly poor?

If this represents widespread rural poverty, could it ignite the powder keg?

Andrew Hicks The “ThaiGirl” Blog May 2010

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bangkok Burning-Why?

Central World Plaza, to the left, has been on a civil war footing.

It was cleverly linked to a sky walk and the Skytrain.

The King gazes benevolently down and is widely revered.

And Bangkok has been booming with upmarket construction.

Ordinary people, often rural migrants, have to shop in markets like this that are just like the ones in the villages.

But the rich won't be shopping here any more.

It’s hard to believe that Central World Plaza, the biggest shopping mall in Asia is now a smouldering ruin. It must have taken some skill to torch it as it is a series of vast open spaces. Shops like Asia Books that I have visited so many times would have plenty of combustible material, but to destroy the whole place is truly remarkable and shocking.

Ironically it used to be called the World Trade Centre but presumably to remove the association with a complex that collapsed in flames, the name was changed. It was then given an elaborate face lift and was upgraded to become one of the glitziest malls in Bangkok and indeed the world.

So where do the rights and wrongs of all these violent protests lie?

We have been rightly warned against regarding the Red Shirt movement as a romantic crusade of the poor and oppressed to achieve democracy. See A complex situation requires deeper analysis and peeling off each layer of the onion skin of Thai politics always induces tears and often leads to misunderstandings and confusion.

Yet there is clear justification in the Red Shirt demands for an election to be called immediately and not at some later date. A charismatic but young and inexperienced old-Etonian prime minister came to power as leader of a party without a full electorate mandate and is struggling to hold together a coalition of disparate interests. This could describe either Britain or Thailand, but the difference is that in Britain the majority of the electorate has not been repeatedly deprived of its franchise by military and judicial coups, as in Thailand.

Yet one cannot simply characterize the confrontation in terms of goodies and baddies. Prime minister Abhisit is as liberal and decent a leader as Thailand is ever likely to get, even if now swimming in a tank of sharks. He does not have presidential powers to make decisions as he would wish and has little scope for real action. On the other side, Thaksin, the man who has hijacked the cause of the poor, is the biggest self-serving kleptocrat of them all. Once again the rural poor are being exploited in a way that is totally cynical by him setting himself up as their champion.

A few months back I went to a press conference at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondants Club of Thailand) given by the leaders of the Red Shirts who were explaining the aims of their proposed protests. They were, frankly, unimpressive, though to be fair they are not a formal political party with a manifesto and party membership but a loose collecting point for a range of interests and views. It was clear that theirs was not a united or cohesive movement and it was inevitable that they would have little if any control over the way the protest developed, even though their desire for non-violence seemed sincere.

After so many years of frustration, ‘protest and be damned’ would be understandable as a philosophy. Nothing else would achieve the changes they seek as reason and dialogue with those monopolizing power had already reached the end of a long road.

So what are those changes?

Essentially what is sought is a complete shift in how political power is shared in Thailand and perhaps Central World Plaza epitomizes the fundamental divide in Thai society.

Who were the men who laboured in terrible temperatures to build the place and the rest of Bangkok’s consumer palaces, living in appalling conditions for low wages? Who are the cleaners and other skivvies that then run it from day to day? Who drive the taxis, clean the streets and do all the menial tasks that keep Bangkok running?

It is the children of the rural poor who have to leave their villages to find work as agriculture no longer provides a living. And their sweated wages are hardly enough to feed their children and ageing parents back in the villages.

And who enjoys the benefit of Thailand’s evident prosperity, achieved by the low wage slaves of factory and field? It is the urban elites, government employees and middle classes of the cities… the ones who could shop at Central World Plaza and enjoy the dream and comfort of a rich consumer society.

Like looking for good guys and bad guys, this thesis may seem simplistic but it is essentially true. Too much of Thailand’s wealth and political control has been held in too few hands for too long. My neighbours in the rural North East are truly poor and there is no way upwards. In a hierarchical society of deference where the poor do not complain, there comes a time when their patience and tolerance comes to an end. That is when they run amok.

Had the government called an immediate election a few months ago, all of this might have been avoided. It is hard now to see how further chaos can be avoided. How sad that Abhisit took the poisoned chalice of prime minster when he did, rather than wait for a more secure mandate. How sad that Thaksin so badly betrayed the trust of the Thai people in the two clear electoral mandates that they entrusted to him.

His was the best ever opportunity for Thailand to make political and economic progress but his self-serving greed created the mayhem on the streets that we have seen in the last few days. I hope he does not emerge the winner from all this and that the poor can ultimately find a new champion who can more fairly shift the sharing of power and resources in Thailand.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog May 2010

Monday, 10 May 2010

A Day in the New Kunming

One of the stories in Jack Reynolds' wonderful book, "Daughters of an Ancient Race", which is about his experiences in China in the late forties with the Friends Ambulance Unit, is called "A Day in the New Chungking". What was new at the time was that the communists had just arrived.

I first visited China from Hong Kong in 1978, in the eighties, in 1994 and again two months ago, this time from Thailand. Each time the change has been remarkable, but in particular I can hardly believe the material progess in the new Kunming. It is material progress on the scale of a new Singapore and they have built a truly beautiful city.

The old rural China is still there but so too are the sweeping freeways, the consumer society that a surprisingly large proportion of the people can enjoy and of course displays of the most prestigious branded goods.

The size of China's population and its problems are truly awesome but in a park in Kunming the essential humanity and individualty of its people is always so very evident. A little girl, angelic with pink wings riding a stone lion, a mother and child on a park bench, an elderly couple taking the air, all enjoying a break from the eternal treadmill of work during the Chinese Spring Festival remind one that the teeming millions have a human face.

The park is busy and vibrant, a daily festival of people expressing themselves with drama and music by the water. While she knits, he plays his violin and the old men enjoy their small orchestra of traditional instruments.

The communist revolution is now but a distant memory and the old traditions and internal struggles will mean something very different to the new generation. If a regime can deliver stability and prosperity even without political reform that is what will satisfy their pragmatic view.

And prosperity there certainly is. In the towns there are top of the range cars everywhere and the fat cats are very apparent. While the traditional subsists with the new and the older generation readily embraces progress, somehow I doubt though that China will allow itself to be truly coca-colonised. It may take some trinkets from the West but it is too big, too much of a 'middle kingdom' to allow its own culture to be submerged.

The old Kunming has almost been swept away in the face of a tide of modern development. The old university campus is an oasis of calm but elsewhere there is no stopping the twenty first century. Run down streets are closed and quickly demolished. While in smaller towns the new may be rebuilt as a pastiche of the old style there is no sentimentality about slums and they have to go.

This is a new dawn and the new year celebration in the park is the place to see it writ large. Kunming is 'the city of eternal spring' and in mid-February the temperature was perfect, the tulips in full bloom and with cameras and mobiles in abundance to record them. Big lenses record the chubby single child of recent policy who can move confidently into a future that offers so much more than her parents could ever have hoped for.

Meanwhile the expressways flow fast and the tower blocks soar skywards. This extraordinary place where more than six decades ago Jack Reynolds landed after a rough flight over 'The Hump' would be totally unrecognisable to him. He and his colleagues in the Friends Ambulance Unit who faced the daunting task of moving medical supplies across impossible roads and who confronted oceans of suffering would be truly amazed. The part each one of them played at that difficult time was truly heroic.

(Jack was born Emrys Reynolds Jones and was known at the time as Jack Jones. He wrote under the pseudonym, Jack Reynolds.)