Rubber Trees in Isaan


One of the ways to eradicate poverty in Thailand’s poorest region, the north-eastern area known as Isaan, has been to introduce new cash crops that can deal with the comparatively poor agricultural conditions. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh introduced the Green Isaan (Isaan kiew) policy back in 1989 which saw large areas of land cultivated with rubber trees for the first time. This policy was re-emphasised under Thai Rak Thai, which had as a central policy the redistribution of resources and eradication of poverty throughout the Kingdom. In that period, the amount of land growing rubber trees was multiplied.

Rubber is usually grown in the south of Thailand, where the higher levels of rainfall are more suitable for the trees. However, there is a lack of affordable land for expansion of rubber plantations in the south and demand for the product is increasing now that the wood is considered suitable for furniture (we have some rubber wood furniture, although I cannot remember exactly what it is – but I do remember buying it). So, the opportunity in Isaan is evident, especially when new varieties can be developed that are resistant to drought and other weather conditions traditionally unhelpful for rubber.

The reasons for expanding rubber plantations in Isaan go beyond just providing an alternative cash crop for local people and also include alternative employment opportunities and the chance of reducing flooding in the region – large-scale deforestation across Thailand has made flooding during the rainy (monsoon) season a much more dangerous undertaking since the tree roots that once held the moisture in the soil had all gone. Then, after the floods, come droughts since again the roots do not hold the water. More trees should help to reduce the problem, although monocropping (as has been tried with the fast-growing eucalyptus trees from Australia) has previously caused problem of depletion of resources within the soil.

By the way, all that stuff about koala bears being stoned on eucalyptus leaves all day long and having to cling to the trunk for dear life turns out not to be true, sadly.

The Financial Crisis and Thailand


The DG of the International Labour Organization, Juan Somavia, has observed that the emerging international financial crisis could lead to an additional 20 million people becoming unemployed – the figure around the world will rise from 190 to 210 million. Further, the number of people living in absolute poverty (less than US$1 per day) will rise by 40 million and those living in poverty (less than US$2 per day) by 100 million.

The sectors expected to be hardest hit in terms of employment include ‘construction, automotive, tourism, finance, services and real estate.’ These are all sectors which are important to Thailand – mostly it will be low-skilled, low-paid and low-value added jobs that will be lost. The tourism and related industries have recently been suffering significantly because of the PAD mob’s illegal occupation of government and the conflict on the Cambodian border. Since many jobs are informal or semi-formal in nature (e.g. family members no longer needed) it is difficult to know what effect has already been felt.

Thailand is a country suffering from what the World Bank calls the ‘middle income trap’ – that is, it emerged from non-developed into developing status through emphasizing exports and manufacturing based on low labour costs. This is successful up to a point (which has now been reached) but is not sustainable any further as rises in standard of living make low labour costs more difficult to obtain (especially because of the increased competition from China, Vietnam and India). It is also dangerous in that it renders the country very sensitive to what is happening in the rest of the world – the first thing that people do around the world when facing economic difficulties is to stop buying things and, in general, they stop buying imported goods first.

The Thai Rak Thai administration of 2001-6 attempted to deal with these issues when the painful memories of the 1997 crisis were still fresh. PM Thaksin aimed to reduce reliance on the outside world by developing domestic capitalists and empowering the poor through regional development at the village level, which also had the aim of reducing the incentives for labour migration and the social costs that entailed. Had those policies still been in force, Thailand could look at the current crisis with much more confidence. Alas, most policies were abandoned after the disastrous 2006 military coup and the current PPP government has been largely unable to implement similar policies because of the ongoing PAD protests. Indeed, courts have recently begun to decide that policies of redistribution as practiced by TRT with huge electoral mandates to do so are ‘unconstitutional.’   

The Courts and the Political Class


New PM Somchai Wongsawat is likely to find himself embroiled in numerous legal battles in the forthcoming months – depending on how long he can hold the coalition together. The first allegation made against him is that he owns or owned shares in CS Loxinfo – which would be contrary to the Constitution which was written by junta cronies and forced through in a referendum held under martial law.

The case against the PM was brought by senator Ruangkrai Leekijwattana – Mr Ruangkrai is an appointed senator who has brought several high-profile cases against prominent members of the democratically-elected government. For example, he was responsible for bringing down former PM Samak Sundaravej for the porklegincocacolagate scandal.

A variety of courts are involved in hearing cases brought against current and former members of government. There are types of activity involved – of course, they overlap with each other in individual cases. I am not criticizing court decisions, which would be illegal, but seek to demonstrate some of the results they will have.

The first effect is to blacken the reputation of charismatic leaders to reduce their popularity and imprison them if that is indicated by the law. This is the effect of the cases against Khun Thaksin’s wife and it is noteworthy that the judge is reported to have said, in his verdict, that she should have behaved in a more moral way because of her position.

The second effect of court cases is to prevent politicians from holding office and parties from being elected. This occurred as a result of the dissolution of Thai Rak Thai and, presumably, the future dissolution of the PPP. Here, the effect will be to remove the ability of the elected government to govern and, eventually, cause the ruling coalition to break up altogether and permit the opposition to get a foot in the door.

The third effect is to render Thai Rak Thai’s pro-poor policies illegal. This may be seen in the case concerning the rubber trees brought against the whole of the Thaksin cabinet and others (the lottery cases are similar). Here, the prosecution will seek to demonstrate that an entire policy was created and implemented with a view to enriching a political class – but more importantly, it will show that any politician who supports a pro-poor policy will be liable to personal prosecution. It will be interesting to see what kind of ‘evidence’ will be brought forth in support of allegations in this category.  

What Is Populism?


What is populism? The People’s Power Party (PPP) and its predecessor Thai Rak Thai (TRT) are regularly accused (since the term is used pejoratively) of ‘populism.’ This is usually contrasted with the politics of the (mostly right-wing) opposition, which is talked of as being in the real interests of the country and for the benefit of society as a whole.

In fact, there seem to be numerous definitions of populism, so many as to suggest that no precise, exclusive definition is possible. A brief survey of the subject seems to indicate that it is more commonly used as a term of abuse rather than of praise, although that is not always the case. Much of the contemporary understanding of populism appears to derive from its application in Latin America and its description is partly a result of how American institutions talked about it, especially during the Cold War period.

It is easy to imagine the situation: Latin American government institutes some policies to give relief to the suffering masses. American interests (through the CIA etc), suspicious that this means leaning towards Communism, argues that the policy is ‘populist’ in the sense that it is actually against the best interests of the people and that maintenance of the status quo (which favours the elites) would be better.

An example of populism as a negative policy: the USA Republican Party persuades poor and working class people to vote based on ‘moral’ grounds – i.e. the three Gs of God, gays and guns – and many people do vote this way even though it is clearly against their best interest economically (tax cuts go to the rich not the poor, whose welfare is cut) and politically (policies are decided by lobbyists and those who fund the campaign).

However, this form of ‘populism’ is not the one employed by TRT/PPP – the proposition they provide is this: a vote for the party means a vote for pro-poor policies at village and regional level. Other policies are also proposed (e.g. pro-globalisation, pro-business etc). The people have made it clear that this is what the majority want. That is the populism on offer.    

Why Exports Matter


Exports are set to be higher than forecast in 2009, according to the Department for Export Promotion. That is good, of course, since more exports means more Thai goods being sold around the world and more jobs and money coming back here. Thailand exports agricultural products (including frozen chickens, shrimps, fruit and vegetables) as well as manufactured items.

The growth of Thailand’s economy since the 1950s has been based on promoting exports, encouraging inwards foreign direct investment and some substitution of imports, as well as access to western markets, particularly the USA, as a reward for fighting against Communism. This was the growth model approved for all developing countries by the IMF and the World Bank.

The 1997 financial crisis showed some of the weaknesses of this model. Southeast Asia as a whole has always been very open to international trade for many centuries. That has the negative effect that what happens in the rest of the world has a disproportionately strong impact on the home economy. There are other problems too: keeping exports competitive can lead to pressure to keep costs down and this has resulted in low salaries, exploitation of some workers and suppression of rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The Thai Rak Thai government of 2001 brought about some changes to the Thai economy with a view to trying to reduce the negative effects. The country was to remain open to the rest of the world but more resources would be given to domestic entrepreneurs and rural people to encourage the development of skills and create other export goods which rely on added value (i.e. something which people want because of what it is rather than just because it is cheaper than its competitors). Putting resources into rural regions also helped with poverty reduction during a difficult economic period while reducing the incentive for migration and the various social problems that caused.

The events of the next few months will be influential in determining whether this model will continue or whether it will be replaced and, if so, by what. Closing the country to international business or adopting an anti-business agenda would not be permitted by international markets but there are still many other issues to be resolved.

Policies Not Personalities – with Thai Characteristics


Former PM, as we must now refer to him, Samak Sundaravej has apparently withdrawn his name for re-nomination and hopes to stand down from leadership of the PPP. This is unfortunate, not for the sake of Khun Samak himself who can be replaced (and whose personal politics are not edifying) but because it represents another blow against the people’s clearly expressed will and gives more heart to the right wing PAD thugs, who will accept nothing less than the disenfranchisement of the rural poor and working classes.

The broad coalition established by Thaksin Shinawatra to enable electoral victory for the Thai Rak Thai party was always going to fray over the course of time – seven years of electoral success is unprecedented in Thailand and unusual for many countries. Initially, it contained policy-makers who had previously supported the Communist movement in the 1970s alongside the domestic capitalist class and representatives of the labour movement. It was inevitable that there would be internal conflict between some of these sectors over the issues of globalization, free trade agreements and privatization, among other issues. That is the very stuff of politics and (thinking optimistically) it represented opportunities for representatives of different sectors to frame their positions logically and clearly and establish new settlements for the mutual benefit of each – this is easily and often unfairly characterised as politicians just being in it for themselves and out for what they can get.

However, it is that coalition which enabled the establishment for the first time ever of a policy platform that was pro-poor and pro-redistribution in nature. It was not perfect but it was better than before and has now become a central part of Thai politics. The central political issue of the day is whether this pro-poor policy position remains in force or will be allowed to dissipate – which is what would happen with a so-called ‘government of national unity’ – or disappear forever, which is what the right-wing PAD mob is committed to achieving.

People come and go – policies are what really matter.  

The Last Decade


Ten years ago, in 1998, Thailand was still struggling with the impact of the financial crisis and what was perceived to be the do-nothing Democrat Party government. Many thousands had lost their jobs and, depending who you believe, were either received in rural heartlands thanks to the outstanding kindness of the Thai people or were forced to suffer under or full unemployment as an alternative to entering risk-taking labour – or some of both, of course.

Thailand had never had a democratically-elected government which had either ruled on its own or served a full term. Money and personality patronage politics dominated the country and the elite interests maintained a strict hand on who would be permitted to taste any amount of actual power. Economic development, based on low-labour cost manufacturing and export-oriented growth had permitted the argument that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ even when it was demonstrably clear it was doing no such thing but was ensuring a constant supply of new workers willing to work in factories and maintaining downward pressure on wages.

Apart from a few small parties, there was next to no ideological content in the manifestoes offered by the leading parties and it was difficult to fit a cigarette paper between any of them when it came to substantive issues.

Much of this has changed in the last decade and while it has not all been wonderful, some of those changes are certainly worth celebrating. Irrespective of opinions about Thai Rak Thai, it is indisputable that the electoral success of the party (and the very broad coalition that initially sustained it) has changed the grounds on which parties can be elected (when elections are permitted, that is). The pro-poor and redistributive elements of Thai Rak Thai have now become the centre ground over which ideological arguments rage – the quality of the discourse is still generally low but it is possible to improve it. Increased and identifiable ideological positions are the best way to reduce the influence of money politics and vote buying.

The rural poor have been given a stake in the future of the country and seem determined to keep it, if they are permitted to do so by the same elite interests whose grasp on the throat of power has been reinforced by certain recent events.

Poverty continues to be reduced and more and more poor people have the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families – not all will be able to take those opportunities of course but they should still be provided. The sky has not fallen as a result.

The Truth behind the PPP’s Populist Policies


The PPP-led coalition government has proved itself to be true to its principles by carrying through another round of funding to 900 villages throughout the Kingdom. 900 million baht has been spent in this round and more will follow for the remaining 700 eligible villages in due course.

Investing in local communities follows the policies established by the Thai Rak Thai government of 2001-6, under PM Thaksin Shinawatra, which was ended by a military coup and a subsequent period of disastrous junta rule. The pro-poor policy was supplemented by the establishment of government agencies to promote small and medium-sized enterprises and the OTOP program, which provided marketing and distribution help for local communities to produce traditional products without moving from their homes. For decades, people have left their homes and moved to Bangkok and other cities in order to find better paying jobs. This has led to the creation of slums in the cities, pressure on public services (sewage and health, among others), depression of wages for everyone and social problems resulting from the break-up of families – imagine what can happen if married couples are split for lengthy periods with one away for work. All of these things represented serious societal problems which had not previously been seriously addressed by any government before Thai Rak Thai.

A further problem was also emerging with the signing of Free Trade Agreements with other countries – these agreements, like all capitalist events, lead to winners and losers. The losers are mostly those who are less well-educated, older and in rural communities whose previous production patterns have been affected by the arrival of cheaper competition from overseas. The signing of the agreement with China, for example, has put a lot of northern Thai garlic and onion farmers out of business. The government, pushing forward with agreements, needed to put in place some measures in order to help out these people across the country.

The success of these policies in electoral terms has been obvious and they now represent the mainstream of Thai political discourse – in economic terms, it is still being determined if this is the best way for policies to be implemented.

The Truth behind the PPP’s Populist Policies


The PPP-led coalition government has proved itself to be true to its principles by carrying through another round of funding to 900 villages throughout the Kingdom. 900 million baht has been spent in this round and more will follow for the remaining 700 eligible villages in due course.

Investing in local communities follows the policies established by the Thai Rak Thai government of 2001-6, under PM Thaksin Shinawatra, which was ended by a military coup and a subsequent period of disastrous junta rule. The pro-poor policy was supplemented by the establishment of government agencies to promote small and medium-sized enterprises and the OTOP program, which provided marketing and distribution help for local communities to produce traditional products without moving from their homes. For decades, people have left their homes and moved to Bangkok and other cities in order to find better paying jobs. This has led to the creation of slums in the cities, pressure on public services (sewage and health, among others), depression of wages for everyone and social problems resulting from the break-up of families – imagine what can happen if married couples are split for lengthy periods with one away for work. All of these things represented serious societal problems which had not previously been seriously addressed by any government before Thai Rak Thai.

A further problem was also emerging with the signing of Free Trade Agreements with other countries – these agreements, like all capitalist events, lead to winners and losers. The losers are mostly those who are less well-educated, older and in rural communities whose previous production patterns have been affected by the arrival of cheaper competition from overseas. The signing of the agreement with China, for example, has put a lot of northern Thai garlic and onion farmers out of business. The government, pushing forward with agreements, needed to put in place some measures in order to help out these people across the country.

The success of these policies in electoral terms has been obvious and they now represent the mainstream of Thai political discourse – in economic terms, it is still being determined if this is the best way for policies to be implemented.