Dilemma of democracy lingers in Thailand
Published: Apr 12, 2017 08:08 PM

I spent one day in Bangkok a few days ago and saw the same fruit-juice stand near the place I stayed three years ago. The stall vendor is still the same Thai woman.

During the three years I worked in Thailand, I passed by the fruit-juice stand almost every day, and sometimes came across the woman's daughter doing her homework there. The vendor was at the stall from day to night, in windy or rainy days.

Four years have passed. New shopping malls have sprung up along the route of the Bangkok Skytrain and Galaxy S8 has replaced S4 on the advertisement screens at the busy intersection. But the woman's fruit-juice stand is still there.

The commercial center near the Erawan Shrine is even busier and filled with the festive atmosphere of the Songkran - Thai New Year's festival. Joyful floats and people parade along the streets, attracting Chinese tourists, hands full with shopping bags, to watch.

I can still remember in 2011, when I first arrived in Thailand, the district near Erawan Shrine was always filled with protests, especially during holidays. Red Shirt supporters, mostly peasants and vendors, drove their pickup trucks to the area and sang and danced along the streets. Sometimes, they also sold souvenirs with the logo of the Red Shirts to tourists.

The protests lasted for about three years and escalated into bloody conflicts, resulting in the military coup in 2014.

Perhaps only those who have lived through the turmoil will feel especially grateful for today's peace and stability. Many Thai people voted yes in the constitutional referendum last year because they want stability.

Some Western media outlets believe Thailand's shift from parliamentary elections to military rule is a regression. Obviously, this observation is made from a Western perspective.

Whether Thailand can realize sustainable stability is what concerns me the most.

I saw a new book Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power in a book store during my recent stay there. It is an anthology of articles by Thai scholars on the country's politics, economy and society.

The issues that the Thai scholars focused on are not specific to Thailand. The wealth gap mentioned in the reports is reflected in not only income, but also finance, education, tax and many other fields.

Undoubtedly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor is the main cause of Thailand's recent unrests, but the gap is primarily created by the uneven allocation of public goods and unfairness in relevant systems rather than differences in income. I'm impressed by a view expressed in the book - the more a country lacks public goods, the more likely it will see unequal allocation.

One of the political appeals of the Red Shirt movement is its advocacy for more say in elections and changes in the country's institutional structure by reforming the electoral system. But as a result, different parties and interest groups competed for votes, and this had split the society and resulted in clashes between classes and political turmoil.

Thailand is relatively stable after the military coup. The amendment to constitution, which is proposed by the junta government, gives the military more power and thus has lowered the possibility of a future military coup. It will also help curb populism.

Thailand's attempt to implement the Western electoral system has led to domestic chaos. Thus, the country's wealth gap may not be easily bridged even though the military's influence in politics has been strengthened.

Will the woman selling fruit juice be offered equal healthcare opportunities? Will her daughter get a fair chance at obtaining higher education in the near future? These are challenges for not only Thailand, but also almost all countries that are encountering the middle-income trap.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn