This week’s piece by Suthon Sukphisit is about the Isan region – he uses the cuisine of the region as a prism through which to consider economic and social issues, albeit in the somewhat superficial way that is forced upon him by the limited space available to him. He falls into the sentimental-romantic-orientalist trap so common to the right here of wanting to preserve Isan life without it being ‘contaminated’ by materialism, preferring to see them as some kind of happy peasants content to live like noble savages forever.
He also says that redistribution of revenue to the provinces took place 40 years ago to deter labour migration and wonders why it has not been tried again. This explains the title for this post as Khun Suthon seems to have slept through the entire Thai Rak Thai administration. Just to rehearse history one more time: the 1997 financial crisis revealed the limits of the East Asian Economic Model for promoting further growth in Thailand: the EAEM is based on export-oriented low labour cost manufacturing with low labour costs enforced by suppression of workers’ rights and expanding the workforce to draw in more people from the agricultural sector. This is supported by a two-tier education system aimed at producing factory-fodder from the masses and managers among the children of the elite (social mobility is also discouraged). This model had successfully enabled Thailand to move from a low income country to a middle income country but, as the examples of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan among others have shown, it will not bring a country to high-income status.
So, measures had to be taken to develop the regions of Thailand so that they too can purchase goods and services (reducing reliance on exports) while still maintaining an open stance towards globalisation – Thailand almost uniquely relies on a combination of exports, tourism and imports of oil and gas at low cost and closing the country in any way would mean economic disaster within days.
At the same time, the increasing economic threat of China clearly indicated that low-cost low-value added manufacturing was no longer sustainable or profitable for the country.
This is the reason for the development of villages through million baht funds, the OTOP scheme, low cost health care and the other measures intended to promote economic growth across the country; this in turn would force business executives to find new and more sophisticated business models than just filling factories full of oppressed, low cost workers.
If we ever return to democracy here, that is the approach which will again be followed, no matter how much the right-owned media bleat about ‘populism’ and the lie of ‘policy corruption.’