Patrick Brown / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
In October 2006, Thailand expanded its list of tourist attractions with one of the world’s most laid-back military coups. Tourists and local residents alike posed for photos alongside the tanks and cheerful soldiers. Thais are typically easy-going and notably their language has no word for ‘no’ – they have to say ‘not yes’. But on this occasion Bangkok residents seemed quite happy to say yes, especially when it appeared that their revered King Bhumibol – hitherto the country’s principal guardian of democracy – had acquiesced in the military takeover.
Thailand’s 60 million people have a great respect for their king, and also for their religion. More than 90 per cent are Buddhist and the country is dotted with thousands of gilded red-roofed temples as well as myriad miniature shrines in every nook and cranny. Every Thai boy is expected to have his head shaved and spend a short time as a monk.
By Asian standards, they are also culturally relatively homogenous. Certainly there are minorities: around half a million people belonging to marginalized hill peoples in the north and three million Muslim Malays live in the three provinces of the ‘deep South’. Nevertheless, culturally the majority of Thais have a great deal in common.
Economically, however, the divisions run deeper – with conflicts of interest between the rural poor and the urban middle classes. Around two-fifths of Thais make their living from farming. Indeed, the vast irrigated patchwork of paddy fields on the fertile central plains has made this the world’s largest rice exporter. But most of the new wealth has been generated elsewhere: in recent years Thailand has been catapulted into a dizzying process of modernization. Tourism now provides five per cent of GDP, with eleven million visitors per year, and more than a third of the country’s economic output is generated by manufacturing, much of which is now turning out electronic goods and cars.
A lot of this industry is concentrated in and around the sprawling capital, Bangkok, whose Thai name Krung Thep means ‘city of the angels’. Until recently it was more notorious for its diabolical traffic jams, but mercifully people can now glide above or below the car-choked streets on the Skytrain or the Metro.
Thailand’s breakneck modernization has, however, exacerbated rural-urban disparities. Families in the parched, impoverished northeast have to send their sons and daughters to the densely packed slums that house around a fifth of Bangkok’s population. The fracturing of family ties has also contributed to problems with drugs, particularly amphetamines, the ‘crazy pills’.
Most vulnerable of all are immigrants. Thailand’s booming economy has attracted more than a million Burmese to work on the farms and building sites. And Thailand is the nexus of trafficking routes for young women from Burma, Cambodia or China – lured by promises of factory jobs, but in fact destined for brothels. Child beggars are often Cambodians employed by organized gangs.
From the 1930s, Thailand had a series of military governments, but from the early 1990s the country seemed to have achieved a workable democracy. Things changed radically, however, from 2000 with the arrival of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party. Thaksin’s populist ‘action man’ approach, and especially a new system of health finance for the poor, made him popular in the countryside. But he also undermined many democratic institutions and often proved heavy handed, having around 2,000 drug offenders shot, for example, and sending in the army to crush protests in Muslim provinces in the south.
Early in 2006, following an especially dubious business deal by his family, there were mass public protests in Bangkok. Seeking a new mandate, Thaksin called a snap election but this was boycotted by the opposition and eventually annulled. The army, anticipating that in a rerun election the rural vote would simply produce another victory for Thai Rak Thai – and provoke further urban unrest – decided to oust Thaksin.
|Leader||General Sonthi Boonyaratglin.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $2,540 (Cambodia $320, Australia $26,900). Thailand’s economic growth has been export driven, first making textiles and garments and simple electrical goods, but now higher-value products such as computer disk drives and cars. But a lot of this is still assembly work: raw materials and intermediate goods account for around half of imports.|
|Main exports||Manufactured goods and rice.|
|People||64.1 million. People per square kilometre 125 (UK 245).|
|Health||Infant mortality 18 per 1,000 live births (Cambodia 97, Australia 5). A ‘30 baht’ scheme provides the right to medical treatment for the equivalent of 75 cents per visit. Thailand has addressed HIV/AIDS impressively: between 1991 and 2004 annual new infections fell from 143,000 to 19,000 and the infection rate to 1.4%.|
|Environment||Between 1998 and 2001 the proportion of land forested increased from 28% to 33%, since logging is now illegal. However, a third of agricultural land is seriously eroded. Air pollution is also a problem, though Thailand has ratified Kyoto and stabilized its output of carbon dioxide.|
|Culture||People speaking ‘tai’ languages can be found in many countries. Modern Thais who make up most of the population are probably descended from groups of those that arrived from Vietnam. There are substantial minorities: more than 10% are ethnically Chinese; there are hill peoples in the north and around three million Muslims in the south.|
|Religion||Around 95% are Theravada Buddhist. Most of the rest are Muslim.|
|Language||Schools teach standard Thai, though there are a number of related dialects. Lao is also spoken widely in the northeast and ethnic minorities speak a number of other languages. Human Development Index: 1990 0.714. Latest (2003) 0.778 (Cambodia 0.571, Australia 0.955).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Nationally the poverty rate is now down to 12%, but 18% in the north and northeast. Though poverty is mostly rural, there are a million poor people in the urban areas.|
|Literacy||93%. Primary and secondary education are free but the poor, particularly the highland ethnic groups, struggle to meet the costs of uniforms, transport and exercise books. Thailand will probably meet the Millennium Development Goal of 100% primary enrolment by 2015.|
|Life expectancy||70 years (Cambodia 57, Australia 81)|
|Freedom||Thailand’s democratic credentials have been jolted by a bloodless military coup with corresponding restrictions on press freedom.|
|Position of women||More women are now educated and have jobs outside the home, but women are under-represented in the higher reaches of employment and in parliament. They are also often subject to gender-based violence, particularly the 200,000 or so female sex workers.|
|Sexual minorities||Thais are generally very liberal about sexual preferences and even celebrate diversity with beauty pageants for transgender katoeys.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Thailand had been doing quite well, with a booming economy and steady, if uneven, progress in human development, along with a series of peaceful elections. The coup provided a reality check, with chilling implications not just for Thailand but for other countries in the region. The generals say that after introducing a new constitution and attacking corruption they will rapidly restore democracy. But many of the underlying conflicts will remain and if the generals fail to keep their promises, the outlook could be much darker|
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.