'Their tragedy - and the world's - is that they don't make news, nobody does anything for most of them, there is little enough indication that many even care.' This is how veteran Western journalist, diplomat and Parliamentarian Colin Mason saw and recorded the condition of the poor of Thailand more than a decade ago in his classic study of Eastern societies titled, "A Short History of Asia".
Well, the poor of Thailand are not only 'making news' currently but are doing so in the most explosive fashion and even if their ground-breaking rebellion in downtown Bangkok would go down in the contemporary history of Thailand as yet another political convulsion which failed in its aims, the protagonists of the unprecedented political drama could lay claim to having driven their message home to their ruling classes in the most shattering terms. That is, the desperately poor are no longer prepared to patiently bear their unenviable lot. They are endowed with the resolve to not only rebel against their condition but to take on the might of the state, paying the supreme price in the process.
A 'class war' in Thailand, of all South-east Asian states, is something the world would find difficult to come to terms with and quite understandably so. For, Thailand and many others in the ASEAN fold, were at one time touted as 'Miracle Economies, by particularly the West, its development agencies and think tanks. That is, Thailand was considered as being among the most dynamic of Asia's industrializing economies and not even the Asian currency crisis of the late nineties, which originated in Thailand, was seen as capable of rolling back its substantial material gains, garnered mainly through an export-led 'development' strategy.
However, we have it on the authority of Colin Mason that while the Thai 'economic miracle' was resplendently unfolding, the income gap between the rich and the poor of the country was widening alarmingly. For instance, he records that two percent of the population was gaining 80 percent of the GDP. Thus is the chimerical basis of the Thai 'economic miracle' fully bared. The truth is that while the overwhelming majority of the country's population wilted and died in poverty, a microscopic minority was growing 'obscenely rich'. Small wonder, Thailand's pauperized majority, having been increasingly driven to the margins, has decided to take the issue into the streets of glittery Bangkok, the haven of billionaires and bullion-managers, who were credited with having triggered the infamous currency cataclysm of the nineties.
There are abundant lessons here for the proponents of growth at any cost and even the 'development' planners of Sri Lanka may have to take heed. The creation of a Ministry of Economic Development by Sri Lanka, for instance, underscores the importance the country places on 'development' but it needs to be borne in mind that what should be aimed at is, basically, growth with equity. Mega development initiatives, featuring prestige projects, which would enable the unscrupulous to luxuriate in ill-gotten gains, could never translate into development. All sections of the people would need to be fully empowered for the claim to be made that development is indeed a reality.
The convulsions in Thailand should compel some rethinking on the part of all who claim that they are cruising smoothly towards prosperity. Who is really prospering, should be the point to ponder. If a glitterati is consolidating itself in the upper reaches of the national power structure and if skyscrapers are permitted to exist alongside slums, this situation could be the ideal recipe for a Thailand-type inferno.
The poor, then, who are 'invisible' to the eyes of power-wielders, are the proverbial exposed flank of the 'Miracle Economies' of the Third World. And there is more than meets the eye too. China, with a reputation of having successfully implemented market reforms, is one such country to be watched. That growing prosperity among some, is triggering social discontent is proved by the current murderous attacks on nursery and primary schools in China, by the deranged. 'Prosperity' and skewed development is bringing its own discontents and there is no better exemplar of this than China today. China needs to rethink its development strategy to ensure a more equitable distribution of its wealth, lest many more of the discontented decide to take the law into their hands.
For the time being, the 'law and order machinery' seems to have won the day in Thailand. Putting down the rebellion in downtown Bangkok would have proved a relatively easy task for the Thai military, given its long- nurtured deftness in handling situations of this kind over the years. After all, Thailand has been convulsed by some 17 military coups over the past 60 years.
But it should be plain to see that a strong and politically active military has not brought for Thailand the desired social stability and harmony. This is proof that there could be no trade-offs between development, correctly understood, and domestic stability. Only development or the equal empowerment of all sections of a citizenry could bring a society the peace it desires and not huge well-equipped armies whose coercive capability is progressively bolstered by ballooning military budgets. This applies to all Third World states which have a fixation with huge war machines, and not only Thailand.
As often observed, these monstrous mechanisms of coercion are used by governments against their own publics. Thailand has just proved it but these shows of brute force by states are replicated all over the Third World almost daily. The use by states of their military muscle seems to be highly disproportionate to their perceptions of threats to national security.
Unfortunately, governments of the Third World are preferring to overlook these anomalies of governance. It should not come as a surprise if the fora of developing countries talk of anything but democratic development. It did not happen to any noticeable degree in Bhutan, where the SAARC Eight met recently, or in Tehran, where the G-15 conferred a couple of days ago. Clearly, what is in vogue is people-unfriendly 'development'.
- The Island/Asia News Network