While various experts, from the IMF to government economists, are claiming that the Thai economic crisis is over, the reality of the situation is quite different. If measured by the share price index or perhaps the exchange rate, things might not appear so bad, but these are hardly reliable indices of real economic growth. A much better measure of whether or not the crisis is over, in terms of mainstream economics, is investment levels, export earnings and domestic consumption. Figures for these factors are yet to show significant growth. But what is much more important is how the crisis is effecting the lives of ordinary working people (something that mainstream economists never take into account).
Some estimates put the level of unemployment at 3-4 million. But because there is no unemployment benefit and only a rudimentary social security system for a small proportion of the workforce, numbers of unemployed are usually meaningless. What is more significant is the decline in the quality and income from working. This is because when there is no unemployment benefit people are forced to do any low paid casual jobs they can find. There has been a serious decline in the quality of employment in both rural and urban areas, but especially in urban areas. This has resulted in more children dropping out of school as their parents can no longer afford to support them.
Before the crisis, Thailand was the 5th most unequal society in the world. The crisis has only made income distribution worse. It is not difficult to see why. The government has nationalised most of the private debt accumulated by rich individuals who gambled on the stock markets and in real estate. Non-performing loans accumulated in the banking system have been taken over using public money. Because the rich hardly pay any tax and the taxation burden falls upon ordinary working people, the rich have essentially transfered their debts to the poor. What is more, the government, with the help of the IMF is attempting to restructure the Thai economy. "Restructuring" here means destroying employment security and employment standards by privatisation of state enterprises and civil service "reform". Naturally, bosses in the private sector are also talking about the need to reduce wage costs.
The tragedy is that there has been little or no response from the Left. Traditionally the left in Thailand has been dominated by nationalistic and class-collaborationist ideas inherited from the stalinist Communist Party of Thailand. With the collapse of the Berlin wall, the traditional left and the Non-government organisation movement have capitulated to right-wing ideas. There is much talk of the importance of the middle class and civil society. There is much talk of nationalism and the need to reduce the role of the state along neo-liberal lines. Gone is any belief in class divisions. Instead activists are advocating a "return" to rural sustainable community economics. This turns out to be merely a proposal for villagers to set up small businesses. None of these ideas address the needs of the 60% of the Thai population who are either urban workers (blue and white collar) or poor landless peasants.
What is needed is the rebuilding a Marxist current which can address the issues of class and lead an urban working class struggle. This task has already started among a small group of working class based activists around the newspaper "Workers Democracy". There are also pockets of ex-communist party members who have been reactivated by the crisis and are trying to find a way forward.
In terms of open class struggle there has been very little happening in Thailand over the past two years. This is quite normal in periods of economic crisis when people are afraid of losing their jobs. However, a small industrial dispute at the Triumph underwear factory shows a spark of what could be achieved in the Thai working class. For the first time in many years an industrial dispute took place where there were no NGO outside helpers or "nannies" . High level union officials and NGO activists were excluded from the strike committee. Rank and file workers ran their own dispute in a democratic manner from the bottom up. Although the dispute did not achieve all that the workers wanted, these women still won a 6% pay increase and had an obvious effect upon various government officials. One top policeman was heard to remark that "this was a professionally run dispute, they must have had someone behind them". The Thai ruling class despise workers. It never occurrs to them that ordinary rank and file workers, especially women, could possibly run a strike themselves.
August 23. 1999
Ji Giles Ungpakorn, Bangkok, Thailand
To all interested in Asia and/or in a discussion about world wide
class struggle we strongly recommend:
Ji Giles Ungpakorn
Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis
Published in 1999 by Asia Monitor Resource Center,
8B, 444 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong
120 Pages, US$ 20
A webpage of WELT IN UMWÄLZUNG (World in Transformation) Mannheim-Ludwigshafen, Germany