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


David said...

Another great post. A commonly heard comment is that poor people just need to work harder, but as you have shown here they already work very hard. Poverty is a structural problem and an issue of justice. It can't be explained by merely saying that some people are lazy.

Mike said...

Andrew a great post which I really enjoyed reading. Answering your questions is however much more difficult. first however a little about PKK.

Although I live in a relatively "well off" area of the country even here in my village there are similar people to the couple you describe. Like the old lady I see in the coconut grove everyday collecting the dead fonds and stripping them to make brooms for a few Baht.

On our small soi two families besides ourselves have cars. Of one of these families the husband works for a finance company repossessing vehicles, he does a good trade.

My immediate neighbours recently had the land they rent taken from them because the land owner(a relative) was unhappy(not sure why) the field now lays fallow and my neighbour has been forced to sell her cows.

The average daily rate here is 150 Baht but such casual labour is limited (no rice crop here). Quite how some folk manage I don't know.

Sure they forage(there are plenty of free fish to be had)and fruit at times and despite their apparent poverty they do seem happy.

Medicines for most are not considered when a trip to the village shaman costs a few Baht for some herbal concoction and a bit of magic.

Right enough I'd better try to answer your questions:

No, I don't think your neighbours are poor when judged against some of my neighbours here. They have some possessions they own and get by. Judged against other countries-yes they are poor.

Powder Keg? Not sure Andrew, my limited experience of Thailand seems to suggest you accept your lot and get on with it(if you are Thai). Future generations might think differently.

Sorry for the long reply-hope it makes sense :-)

Thai Girl said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts. The details of life in your village adds usefully to the picture, Mike.

Poor or not poor is an imprecise question. "Poor" is only a word and comparisons with other countries are not the most important thing.

What really matters is comparing the 'poverty' of the countryside with middle and upper class living in Thailand and deciding whether the rural poor have a deal which is totally unacceptable.

Then something will have to shift.


Anonymous said...

Maybe a way to help would be for free uni education in relevant subjects and then the graduate having to work in the countryside amidst such people for a few years (I believe the same happens for doctors), helping them to optimise their land crops etc... if you want to see a really horrible end for old people, though, go an old persons home in the UK - legions of old ladies wearing diapers working off their past sins through near zombie states. My brother-in-law, who is seventy suggested he would be better off with a bullet in the head than being put in such a place. Things that help the family centric Thai way of surviving must be better.

Erich said...

Credit (and all that it implies) is the culprit. The older generation didn't and still don't yearn for automobiles and satellite TV, but the younger ones do. And why not?

Hobby said...

Nice post.
I think the real powder keg is the lack of justice, recognition & respect shown by the haves for the have nots, including lack of respect for their electoral votes.

Stefan said...

It may not be possible to define "poor" precisely, but I think if someone is unable to meet their basic needs, then they are poor. So if you can't feed your children properly then you are poor. If you can't afford basic medical treatment then you are poor. If you can't afford basic clothing or a place to sleep, then you are poor.

I'm not sure whether poverty alone is a powder keg though. Or indeed if it's a necessary condition for people to ask for radical change. If you look at the revolutions in eastern Europe (Poland, Germany, Checkoslovakia, Romania ...) - the people involved were not poor in the sense outlined above.

The situation might even be more explosive in case there is less poverty - people who have to fend for survival on a daily basis may not have time to do anything about the cause of their problems.

Alfred said...

Thank you very much for the absorbing description. I really enjoyed reading it, even more so because I have seen the village and the couple you are writing about.

They are poor in an economical sense to all standards I know of, but I imagine that for them it is less hard to bear than for the next generation, because they stay in their village, can mostly walk around freely and are not confronted with excessive wealth in their neighbourhood. They are integrated in the villages community and also welcome in the wealthiest home of their village.

On the other hand, I can imagine that people who live in Bangkok in very poor conditions, who may have some more money and resources than the old couple in the village, may nevertheless experience poverty in a much more unpleasant way because they are confronted with enormous differences in wealth in their immediate neighbourhood (think of construction workers in central Bangkok).

Which form of existence is better is, of course, a completely subjective matter. To me the old couple's life in the village appears more desirable than to the construction worker's existence in the city (maybe because I grew up in the countryside myself). But maybe that is because I have seen only a bit of the village life and not much of the lives of poor people in the city. I feel a deep respect for the old lady in the village who seems to be at peace with herself and the world, but I can also understand that exposure to the large differences in wealth that exist in the country can raise strong anger in the minds of the poor. Of course the government can then blame those who exploit this anger for their political means. But that does not cool down the anger, and it does not remove the root of the problem, which is poverty and inequality.

Thai Girl said...

And thanks for these further points, all of which I agree with.

Yes, easy credit is a curse and the lack of justice and disenfranchisement of the majority which denies the rural poor the full benefits of a successful economy is at the crux of the current political instabilty.

I agree that urban poverty is much worse than rural poverty but while the older generation of rural poor are indeed too busy suriving to protest, their offspring have moved to the towns and into the modern world where they can create political waves.

I hugely admire my neighbours such as the couple I profiled. It is because of their strength of character that they have preserved something of their traditional social values and dignity that the rich in the cities inevitably lose.

Sadly though, rural communities, the very essence of Thailand, are breaking up and will continue to do so unless a successful policy of regional development is concluded to bring them into the twenty first century. When all the children leave to find work, the community is diminished. What is needed is investment and incentives to bring modern evelopment and jobs to the regions.

Agriculture and silk weaving are no longer enough.

Andrew Hicks

alain mahaux said...

Allow me to signal you a really interessant post on Thai intelligence called:"The end of brand Thailand"
or how "Mismanagement and mistakes make mess for Thailand", by Kurlantzick.
About paradoxical and nonsense or "paratoxical"
A good link for your blog, Andrew?

Lloyd said...

Link to the article mentioned by in the previous comments. A very well thought out article...

alain said...

I've always read that the three pillars of the Thailand's Kingdom are the King, the sangha and the army.But, in a constitutional monarchy with a fraternal, democratic vocation, isn't it the people, the nation trough its human ressources and represented by the two, legitimated , legislative and executive powers government wich are the three pillars of the uni- triade whose the king's the unity's guarantor and the guarantor of the everyone's free will in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not easy to achieve a constitutional monarchy, of divin right, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and democratic, (and with farangs furthermore who don't understand anything about, without to fall in a oligarchy with a democratic emblem and in a durable poverty's governing form.What a challenge!But not impossible if nobody cheat in the Holy Spirit's
unification. Then, anachronism, paradox, nonsense or oblivion of the sense of the Live? The "impasse's visit" or the fall's principle is always an infaillible test to bring our shortage of openness to light and to push us to grow.Who shall restore the mutual, the fraternal confidence if it's without the wish, the will to share and share is first to communicate.

Boonsong said...

A fascinating post with some excellent photos. Thanks for this.

All the best, Boonsong

Anonymous said...

It seems also that it is not yet in general the real political will to make the peace because "it is expensiver to make the peace than to make the war"...Is it expensiver or does it yield less? And on a long-tem basis, even "just" economically speaking? Just thinking about the big currency snake, the sinews of war as of peace, like a modern virtual phenomenalisation of the ancient mythological big plumed serpent or of the more recent two-edged sword. A currency snake so virtual become that only the explosion of its speculative buble can set the record straight concerning which is durable and which may no more last, Isaan rural poverty, between others.
About virtual, i have also read on Informa two interessant summaries of books called " Markets, media, and magic :Thailand's monarch as a "virtual deity" " by Peter Jackson and "Sacred nationalism : The Thai Monarchy and Primordial Nation" by Jack Fong (Routledge).

Alain said...

Go to read still on thai intelligent the Isaan rural perspective or his journalistic report's post about Thaksin and the Bangkok's Establishment : "Thaksin and me..." or about the "creative destruction".It gives meaning to the previous comment making think at the Shiva of the Hindu Trimurty.
Hoping it can a little widen your official source concerning him, Andrew!

Vasana said...

I moved to the states from Thailand when I was three and haven’t been back since. My mother told me of the poverty in Laos (she’s from there) and Thailand and I could only conceptual grasp “poverty” in the American sense of not being able to go to Disneyland or driving a beat up old Toyota. Thank you for opening my eyes to the difficulties that my mother fled and what so many who weren’t able to still endure on a daily basis. I’m deeply humbled.
That being said, poverty is relative although it is troubling when essential necessities that should be afforded every human being (basic medical care, food and some sort of social security for the elderly) are so hard to come by or almost nonexistent. Thailand will need to decrease the disparity between the “haves” and “haves not” if it hopes to have long-term political and economic stability – just like every other country in this world. Marginalized people will only put up with so much once they realize the privileges and possibilities given to the select few.

Vasana said...

I moved to the states from Thailand when I was three and haven’t been back since. My mother told me of the poverty in Laos (she’s from there) and Thailand and I could only conceptual grasp “poverty” in the American sense of not being able to go to Disneyland or driving a beat up old Toyota. Thank you for opening my eyes to the difficulties that my mother fled and what so many who weren’t able to still endure on a daily basis. I am deeply humbled.
That being said, poverty is relative although it is troubling when essential necessities that should be afforded every human being (basic medical care, food and some sort of social security for the elderly) are so hard to come by or almost nonexistent. Thailand will need to decrease the disparity between the “haves” and “haves not” if it hopes to have long-term political and economic stability – just like almost every other country in this world. Marginalized people will only put up with so much once they realize the privileges and possibilities given to the select few.

Thai Girl said...

Thanks so much for your very interesting comment, Vasana.

I think you put your finger on an important point... the relativity of wealth that makes poverty more painful. I think this is in part due to societies 'developing' too fast. There are winners and losers and instability is the most painful... seeing others enjoying what you will never attain.

The fear of not coping with change as prices go up and luxuries become necessities can lead to great unhappiness.

In Thailand surveys have been carried out to ascertain a 'happiness index' across its regions and significantly it's the poorest regions such as Isaan that come out the happiest. Certainly small farmers face huge stresses and change but there is still something of traditional society in place and that is worth infinitely more than the newest consumer baubles that might be achieved from an unstable urban lifestyle. Give me rural poverty over urban poverty any day.

Strangely too, Laos with its awful history of war and bombings, feels a happy place to me. While I hold no brief for an unaccountable communist regime, the very slowness of change might account for a more serene society.

Unnecessary ill-health and poor nutrition are inexcusable but at least they have not suffered the constant pressures for change that assault Thailand and that leave so many way, way behind.

Yes, narrowing that gap is essential and it might be helped by focussing more on an equitable economy than one that grows at a breakneck speed.


Anonymous said...

"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."

I have lived in Isaan for almost 4 years, and I have NEVER, EVER been asked to pay a bribe. Even when I was dead wrong, the police have ALWAYS let me go. I do not pay a bribe for my visa, I did not pay one for my drivers license... nothing - ever.

It is true that there are economic disparities here - welcome to the world. This is true everywhere. Always was, always will be. It is not the job of government to redistribute income. To think so is foolish. The issue in Thailand right now is one of disenfranchisement. The people of Isaan were finally, after about 180 years of being ignored on the fringes of the country, given a political say. In 2006 that was taken away. Once you give that to people, you can not revoke it without trouble. The next election will determine how much trouble there is going go to be.