By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
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Neoliberalism is not the answer to Thailand’s floods

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
Flooding in Thailand has affected millions of people, and waters are predicted to remain high for at least a month. But the response to the disaster has been held back by the political crisis that has engulfed the country since the 2006 coup.
Issue 2276

Flooding in Thailand has affected millions of people, and waters are predicted to remain high for at least a month. But the response to the disaster has been held back by the political crisis that has engulfed the country since the 2006 coup.

Homes and infrastructure have been seriously damaged. Factories and workplaces have been closed, agricultural land flooded and hundreds of thousands are temporarily unemployed. Millions of people will see their incomes drastically fall.

Yet the military, Bangkok’s conservative governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, and various officials from the authoritarian Yellow Shirt movement have dragged their feet and been extremely reluctant to cooperate with the Peua Thai government’s attempts to save the city.

Peua Thai won the general election in July this year. It is the latest incarnation of the frequently banned party built by exiled former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It is allied with the radical Red Shirt movement, which faced a brutal crackdown after occupying the centre of Bangkok in 2010.

Contrast the military’s rapid mobilisation to kill pro-democracy Red Shirt protesters then with the weeks it took to come to the help of flood victims when the current crisis started.

Sukhumbhand Paribatra, nick-named the “idiot prince”, spent his time organising a Hindu ceremony to “push the water away”, instead of coordinating with the government’s efforts. Unsurprisingly the conservative Democrat Party he belongs to and Yellow Shirts have kept up constant and vitriolic criticism of the government’s record over the floods. Yet this flooding crisis was created by a long term lack of planning, compounded by unusually heavy rainfall.

Many Red Shirts have accepted conspiracy theories about the floods. They claim that the floods have been deliberately caused by the king. Such theories flourish in a country where draconian lèse majesté laws forbid any discussion of the role of the king or the military. The theory can’t explain the fact there have been simultaneous floods in all neighbouring countries.

The longer term effects of the flood damage will become a real test for the Peua Thai government. It risks losing long-term public support.

The Democrat Party, the ruling elites and neoliberal economists have all demanded spending cuts in all areas.

In response the government has already announced a 10 percent cut across the board. It plans to raise indirect taxes like VAT, which affect the poor. It will delay the much needed increase in the minimum wage to 300 baht per day (£6). It will raise funds to help businesses. But it will leave the ordinary citizens to fend for themselves.

This is just the kind of response we experienced from the free market Democrat Party, which was in government after the 1996 Asian economic crisis. It used public money to prop up the banks and guarantee middle class savings and then told the poor to fend for themselves. Incomes fell drastically.

Then after Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won the following elections in 2001, on a platform of government spending on the poor, the Democrats shouted that this pro-poor spending on health, education and jobs was “against fiscal discipline”. What “fiscal discipline” meant in practice to the Democrats and neoliberals was shown by the massive increase in military spending under the military appointed Abhisit Vejjajiva government a few years after the 2006 coup.

A massive programme of government spending is needed to deal with the current crisis—in order to repair infrastructure, to compensate the poor for their losses and to create thousands of jobs.

In addition a major flood canal project to prevent future floods is needed.

Thaksin has suggested a water management project and estimated the cost to be around 400 billion baht (£8 billion). All this would create jobs and stimulate economic recovery, especially if the minimum wage were to be raised in all provinces, as promised in the government’s manifesto.

The government can only hope to raise the money by increasing taxes, borrowing money and making budget cuts. But the way it does this that will be a crucial test. Direct and progressive taxes should be raised on Thailand’s millionaires. That includes taxing the royals. Severe government spending cuts should be imposed on the military.

There should be a total freeze on military spending. Military salaries at the top should also be frozen or cut, while maintaining the salaries of ordinary soldiers. A total freeze on spending should be imposed for all Palace ceremonies. Not a single baht should be spent on the king’s birthday and other wasteful activities.

To achieve this the government would have to break with the royalist elites, especially the military. Thai society will never be fully democratic and equal without engaging in this necessary and highly moral task.

On its own the government is unlikely to implement the necessary programme to solve the flood crisis. The Red Shirts face an important test today. Will the movement rise to the occasion, start debates and discussions around the issue and then move to pressurise the government or will it sink into inactivity and eventual despair?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist who has been living in Britain since being charged with lèse majesté


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