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Can the protests fix Thailand's inequality?

The events unfolding in Bangkok have all the elements of a slow-motion finale to Thailand's political drama: The civil court has banned the caretaker government from dispersing street protesters who have been targeted by armed men.

Angry rice farmers are demanding overdue payments from a government that cannot sell stockpiled rice fast enough. And Premier Yingluck Shinawatra stands to be relieved of her duties after an unusually snappy investigation into her alleged negligence.

Protest leaders tout this as an uprising by the muan mahaprachachon, the people, against her brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who calls the shots for the ruling Pheu Thai party from abroad. A comparatively silent swathe of Thailand's population sees it as a veiled effort by elites to impose their views on the electoral majority.

The intriguing part of this divisive landscape is that everyone agrees Thailand seriously needs reform. Asean's second largest economy is one of the most unequal societies in Asia. In 2011, the most recent year for which official figures are available, its Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of inequality, stood at 0.484. This was lower than Hong Kong's 0.537 that year, but higher than the United States' 0.475. The Gini yardstick ranges from zero to one, with higher values meaning more inequality. Singapore's Gini coefficient last year was 0.463.

Chulalongkorn University economist Pasuk Phongpaichit laid bare more figures in a forum last month: About 100,000 bank accounts, each with more than US$300,000, account for nearly half the value of all bank deposits in the country. Yet these accounted for just 0.5 per cent of the total number of bank accounts. The top 10 per cent of landowners own 61 per cent of total title land, she noted.

Land that is not put to commercial use is subject to negligible taxes but there have been no serious attempts to raise them because most politicians are among the top landowners, said Pasuk.

Respected economist Ammar Siamwalla said that people fixated with the idea of a class war tend to forget that politicians themselves form "a very deep important class". "These guys are very expensive to maintain, and there are so many of them."

According to latest figures filed with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, Yingluck is worth Bt603 million ($18 million), while Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has assets worth Bt54 million. Protest spokesman Akanat Promphan, a former Democrat legislator, has net assets of Bt101 million and drives a 4.4-million-baht car.

Very unequal societies, say academics, are prone to populism because such policies give quick relief to a broad base of low-income earners. Hence the Pheu Thai government's two-year-old programme to buy rice from farmers at overly inflated prices, or its tax rebates for first-car buyers.

But these ailments are not exclusively associated with any particular political party. And they have bred a deep cynicism among Thais about the state of the country's politics, a cynicism that has helped to swell the ranks of protesters.

Last month, 50-year-old Wanvipa Chokmongkol was among the tens of thousands who flooded Bangkok to "shut down" the city. She declared: "I don't want elections; they have never given us a good government."

She did not vote in the last election in 2011, because she did not think any party was good enough.

This view is fairly typical among the first-time protesters interviewed by the Straits Times. Sick of politicians, they had joined the whistle-blowing crowds in the hope of overhauling the entire system.

While they did not entirely trust protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban - a former Democrat tainted by graft allegations - they had warmed to his vow to give up politics after forcing Yingluck out. To them, Suthep was somewhat less repugnant than ousted former premier Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to evade a jail sentence for corruption.

Seasoned observers of Thailand's political upheavals say the crisis is simply part of the growing pains of a young democracy.

Tos Chirathivat, the chief executive of the Central retail and hotel group whose flagship CentralWorld mall in downtown Bangkok was torched during the last bout of protests in 2010, hopes it will create more accountability. In the long term, "the people will be better in terms of choosing the candidates and the candidates will be better in terms of serving the people", he says.

How Thailand eventually gets there is the question. Reversing inequality takes years if not decades, and the steady hand of a government with a genuine mandate. With the February 2 polls sabotaged by the protesters, Yingluck being hounded out of her temporary office, and a slew of names for a "credible" unelected replacement being increasingly bandied about, the fear is that genuine reform will once again be held hostage to politics.


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