Ubon and the red shirts through the eyes of the Washington Post

A few weeks ago when I was blogging regularly about the red shirt led unrest here in Ubon I was contacted by a few journalists wanting more information on the local situation and chasing photos. One of these was Andrew Higgins who works for the Washington Post. After the unrest settled down in bangkok he flew up for a few days to write an article from a local perspective. A very nice man who spent a lot of time working on telling this story. He has given me permission to reproduce it here and as always I value your feedback.

    Many Thai workers, now out of poverty, are in dissent

NONBON, THAILAND — San Silawat has three dogs, two cows and a parrot. He grows rice and spring onions on a small plot of land. But he’s hardly a pauper: He’s added a second floor to his house and built a blue-tiled patio. His son plays computer games in the front room. His daughter recently bought a Nissan pickup truck. His granddaughter studies nursing in Bangkok.

For all his relatively good fortune, however, San is certain about one thing: “Life is definitely getting worse,” said the 62-year-old farmer, grumbling about the price of gasoline, school fees and a political and economic system he sees as rigged in favor of the rich.

Last month, San and six friends from this village in northeastern Thailand piled into a pickup and drove 14 hours to join “red shirt” protests in Bangkok. During nine weeks of demonstrations, scores of other rural folk from Nonbon and nearby settlements made the same 390-mile trip.

Beneficiaries of an economic boom that, in just three decades, has cut the proportion of Thais living below the poverty line from 42 percent to about 8 percent, San and his family represent both the promise and the peril of Asia’s dizzying transformation.

From China in the north to Indonesia in the south, hundreds of millions of people are now living far better than a generation ago. But the gap that separates them from the rich has often grown wider. As their fortunes and expectations have risen, so too has their frustration. And, as recent turmoil in Thailand has shown, this can mean big trouble.

San and his neighbors rallied to the red shirts not because they are hungry, uninformed and desperate but because they are no longer any of those things. Though still very poor compared with Bangkok residents who cheered the red shirts’ defeat when government troops moved in on May 19, they are a better-off, better-informed and far more demanding voice in national affairs than their elders. San buys and reads a newspaper every day.

“Farmers in the past didn’t ask for anything. They just did their farming,” said his daughter, Tasaneeporn Boran, standing next to her brand-new black Nissan, which she bought in February.

“We now know what is going on,” she said. “We know what we want and don’t want.” What she doesn’t want most of all is a “government that only looks after the rich, instead of ordinary people.”

It is a demand that raises alarming questions not just for Thailand’s Eton- and Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, but for governments across Asia struggling to manage rising expectations amid growing, but unevenly spread, prosperity. Thailand’s protests began in March not during a recession, but as the economy recorded first-quarter growth of 12 percent, its strongest performance in 15 years.

China, meanwhile, saw its economy surge by 11.9 percent — and has since been hit by a wave of labor unrest, including a strike over wages at a Honda factory in Guangdong, one of the country’s wealthiest regions. China’s Communist Party has staked its future on a bet that economic growth will reinforce, not undermine, stability. But Thailand’s experience shows how easily such calculations can come unstuck.

Instead of political calm, growth in Thailand has brought increased tension. When the country set off the 1997 Asian financial crisis and fell into a deep slump, political stability in Thailand actually increased and then plunged as the economy took off again, according to the Worldwide Governance Indicators, compiled by experts from the Brookings Institution and the World Bank.

Over the last four decades, Thailand’s economy has grown an average of about 7 percent a year, and average real per-capita income has roughly tripled since the mid-1980s. But, according to a recent report on Thailand last year by the United Nations Development Program, the Southeast Asian nation is beset by “persistent inequality” that defies a widely accepted theory that the gap between rich and poor widens during an initial phase of development but then narrows.

Thailand’s income inequality is roughly the same as that of much poorer nations such as Uganda and Cambodia and slightly worse than that of China and the United States, both highly unequal in terms of income distribution, according to data in the United Nations 2009 Human Development Report.

Despite the income gap, the people of Nonbon have unquestionably benefited from their country’s rapid development. Tasaneeporn recalled growing up in the 1970s with no electricity, no running water and no paved roads. Only one family had a TV.

The main economic driver in the region at the time was the U.S. Air Force, which used a big airfield in the nearby city of Ubon Ratchathani to launch bombing runs over Vietnam and Cambodia. Now, a recently widened four-lane highway — dotted with convenience stores and shopping centers — connects Ubon Ratchathani, the regional capital, to farmland around Nonbon.

Tasaneeporn’s brother recently got work in the city at a new luxury hotel. The job gives him a small, steady income — and puts him in daily contact with people who have far more money.

The most vocal red shirt supporters in these parts are not the destitute — people like Sritta Sorsrisuk, a 71-year-old farmer who has seen two of his six children die. “I don’t care about politics,” he said, sitting in a tumbledown shelter next to his tiny plot of land. But others “talk about it all the time: red this, red that.”

More keen on the red shirts is Usasorn Anarat, a neighbor of San’s who traveled to Bangkok twice to join the protests. Thanks to her husband, who works in Qatar, and modest profits from a rice farm, Usasorn has a monthly income of about $1,000, far above the local average.

Like San, Tasaneeporn and nearly everyone in the villages around here, she’s a huge fan of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister who was ousted by the military in 2006 and is now wanted for “terrorism” under a Thai warrant. Thaksin, Usasorn said, “loves the country, won elections, and they chased him away.”

Thaksin, a billionaire, regularly visited the Thai countryside and launched a raft of programs to help rural residents, including cheap health care, easy credit and handouts of about $30,000 to each village head. He even stopped off in the village next to Nonbon.

“Nobody had done that before,” said Tasaneeporn. Her father managed to shake Thaksin’s hand. He now has a picture of Thaksin pinned on his living room wall, along with photographs of Thailand’s king.

After Thaksin and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 82 and hospitalized, the most popular person around here is Phichet Thabbudda, a rabble-rousing radio announcer known as “DJ Toy.”

He founded and ran the “Voice of the People,” a shoestring local radio station that won a big following with fiery denunciations of the government and the well-to-do. He also organized convoys of vehicles bound for Bangkok

Echoing the rhetoric of red shirt leaders in Bangkok, DJ Toy spoke of Thailand as a nation divided between hard-working but impoverished “serfs” and an oppressive, greedy “aristocracy.” This played well in Nonbon and in other villages across northern Thailand. But Jamnong Jitnivat, a longtime local campaigner for farmers’ rights, said it distorts reality. The real issue, he said, is a government bureaucracy out of touch with an increasingly well-informed and better-off population that now “demands much more than before.”

When troops moved in to dislodge protesters in Bangkok on May 19, DJ Toy’s radio station thundered against the crackdown and called on listeners to show their anger. Protesters burned down city hall in Ubon Ratchathani. The following day, police and soldiers arrested DJ Toy at his home, raided his studio and hauled away his antenna.

San, the rice farmer, said he misses his broadcasts but still keeps up with events by reading the newspaper and watching TV. “We all know what is happening,” he said. “We know who is good and who is bad.”

12 responses to “Ubon and the red shirts through the eyes of the Washington Post

  1. Pity he didn’t spend a little more time here, then he could have done a more accurate portrait of Thaksin, maybe mentioned the graft, the repression of the media, placing family in high places etc.

  2. Not a good article at all. He missed the whole point of the protests which was Thaksin and his corrupt friends using humble good people to protest. Just look at how much money was withdrawn by the 84 big shots.

    If Thaksin and the other big shots were not behind the red shirts I would support the red shirt campaign in several areas. But to support a corrupt businessman?

    And Thaksin didn’t regularly visit the countryside. No more than other ex Prime Ministers.

    I am sorry Memock, but Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post has written a very poor story. He is completely uninformed as to the real motives behind the Red Shirt movement. Their destruction and burning of businesses and civic centres destroyed many livelihoods

    • No need to say sorry to me Michael, I have deliberately stayed neutral throughout this entire debate. As a person Mr Higgins is someone I could spend a lot of time with, as for his article, I printed it to see what response it would get from readers.

  3. The article portrays a pretty accurate picture of what is happening – comments previous about Thaksin however valid, are obviously not intent of the article, nor the protests that fortunately have come to a halt. The real genesis of the article, and the whole point of the unrest that continues in the country is the urban/rural divide. It is a classic debate and one that is NOT unique to Thailand.

  4. After being in Thailand since 1974, I don’t believe at all it is a urban/rural divide. One of the major problems is the election from the rural areas (northeast Thailand in particular) of corrupt-construction type MPs who rip off their own people. If only the rural people got a chance to elect decent representatives, without vote buying, then maybe they would be better off in the long-term.

  5. I don’t know much about the politics, but the article accurately portrays the rural Thai as not really poor at all and keenly aware of the divide between Issan and Bangkok.

  6. For the point of the story it’s well written although lacks depth, a good “filler” story enough to skim over the more indepth issues yet bring some general interest to a complex topic.

    Its interesting to read just how many keep harping on about Thaksin blaiming him and his ilk for every problem. Thailand’s nepotism is at the root of most of the issues people are unhappy with, for both the so called middle class and poor. Thaksin is simply one of many who have enriched themselves and their families and friends through corruption however he is not the only person and certainly not the last.

    People seem to forget the damage done to Thailand by the closure of the international airports and that the fact that nobody has been charged or imprisoned which is just as much, if not more so, nepotism and a crime as the graft and corruption perpetuated by past governments. I have no doubt that there is not a person on this planet that can honestly say, and provide documented evidence, that the Coup d’état, subsequent administration that was appointed and political changes brought about by the yellow shirted protesters has not feather the pockets of those involved. It’s all a case of “tit for tat”!

  7. The Silawat could well be more financially well off than my BKK-based family. I think the description given by the journalist proves that struggle really has little to do with “class”, and is actually more regional.

  8. James Stent’s piece on Thailand is easily the most objective I’ve read, an excellent article

  9. I agree wholeheartedly Bulldog. Here is the link to the article for other readers.


    I don’t know if I will see the changes take place in my lifetime in Thailand. The upper-classes will resist them.

  10. Typical western journalism on the UDD, shallow and ill-conceived from the start. I feel sorry for the thousands of genuinely poor Thais being used as tools for a political movement that has absolutely nothing to do with democracy, justice or economic equality, led by cynical elites who are the very people most responsible for the wealth gap in the countryside.

  11. I think great post as well, It is healpfull for information. Thanks for kindly help.

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