Do current events in Thailand foreshadow happenings in our own country in the not-too-distant future?
Yes, they might. Thailand and the Philippines are the most unequal—and so potentially the most unstable—of East Asia’s emerging economies. (They have also been the hosts to Southeast Asia’s most enduring communist insurgencies.)
The World Bank in 2010 ranked the Philippines as “having the most unequally distributed income among the East Asian middle-income countries.”
In the Bank’s view, this high degree of income inequality “has the effect of rendering poverty less responsive to increases in economic growth, thus slowing down the poverty reduction process.”
In 2011, the 40 richest Philippine families accounted for 76% of our country’s gross national income. The two richest families alone held 6% of our entire economy between them (Cielito Habito, February 2013).
The Bank ranked Thailand second, and Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam well behind.
Societies where the rich and the poor have separated politically, economically and culturally make classic settings for populism—for mass politics that voice the grievances of the poor and espouse the preferences of everyday people.
In Bangkok, months of protests by the royalist elite and the middle class have triggered yet another military coup that has brought down yet another government loyal to the exiled populist leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. As the New York Times noted on June 20, “a dominant minority has once again brought down a government elected by a clear majority.”
Twice in the last generation, the Metro Manila middle class has done much the same thing. In February 1986, urban demonstrators stiffened by mutinous military officers, the political opposition and the Catholic bishops drove into exile the strongman Ferdinand Marcos, and replaced his 13-year authoritarian regime with a revolutionary government headed by the widow of his political nemesis, Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr.
In January 2001, a second wave of middle-class protests on iconic Edsa highway, abetted by both the general staff and the Senate as a constitutional impeachment court, expelled the populist Joseph “Erap” Estrada barely 30 months in his presidency.
On May Day of that same year, a riotous counter-demonstration—this time by Estrada partisans from Manila’s poor districts—broke up short of the gates of the presidential palace, by then occupied by Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
A style and not an ideology
In Thailand, as in Latin America, populism is an ideology subversive of the established order. In the Philippines, it is still little more than a political style that has raised TV and film entertainers, champion athletes, and other sympathetic media personalities to high office.
A January 2010 official study found that Filipino voters do not choose their local leaders “on the basis of good government, platform or issues.” Nor does any mainstream politician ever speak of redistributing land and wealth, or of raising workers’ wage—the Latin-American populist battle cries.
That has been left to religious visionaries like the Central Luzon mystic, Apung Ipe (Felipe Salvador, active in 1890-1906), to speak of brotherhood, community and a future that includes fair land distribution.
Between spasms of millenarian rebellion, the Filipino poor remain staunch supporters of the social system. “The poorer socio-economic groups, the less educated, and rural people tend simply to voice approval for the system and for authority-figures in it,” notes the Jesuit sociologist John J. Carroll.
Indeed political partisans often exhibit extreme loyalty to their factional leaders. One congressman famously won two successive terms while in jail serving two life sentences—for raping a child.
No Filipino leader—not even the archetypal President Ramon Magsaysay (1953-57)—used populist politics as effectively as the unlikely billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, has done—to stir up Thailand’s impoverished north and northeast regions during his six years as prime minister (2001-06).
In essence, Thaksin empowered rural Thais politically. His policies have enabled them to gain a sense of individual mastery over their lives.
Through his “Thais Love Thais” party and its various reincarnations, he has made them feel they were electing a government that, for the first time, represented their interests and not those of a distant and uncaring Bangkok establishment.
Our passive poor
Why are the Thai poor rebellious and the Filipino poor passive? The answer may lie in that inequality becomes the more destabilizing the more the local economy awakens—opening the eyes of the relatively poor to the possibilities of life they’ve been missing.
I think it significant that growth during this last generation has wiped out absolute poverty in Thailand, while far too many Filipinos still subsist on incomes of less than $ 2 daily—the United Nations standard for “absolutely poverty.”
Meanwhile, return on equity for our economy’s 1000 top corporations during this last decade has averaged 15.5%, which doubles its value in roughly five years.
But workers’ wages continue to decline—partly because of the globalization of production, but largely because we have such a large army of the unemployed.
Practising “macro-economic populism,” the State subsidizes crucial basic services—such as diesel for Metro Manila’s jeepneys and fare tickets for its mass transit system. But its low tax take (12.5 %) limits the extent of its generosity.