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.)