New govt must act on inequality

New govt must act on inequality

As the 19 parties in the coalition under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha fine-tune their policy package ahead of its declaration to parliament, they have come to agree that the priority should be addressing social disparities. This seems to be good news.

Sontirat Sontijirawong, secretary-general of Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and incoming energy minister, told the media of this after discussions with coalition partners last week as they worked to formulate a policy package. They had agreed to focus on bread and butter matters, he said. The first cabinet meeting is to take place on Thursday with the policy statement declaration due later this month.

Former commerce minister Mr Sontirat resigned from the coup-installed cabinet earlier this year to help prepare the newly formed PPRP for the March 24 poll. He has recently been tasked with political bargaining to form the coalition. Three other cabinet ministers, Uttama Savanayana, Kobsak Pootrakul and Suwit Maesincee, have joined forces with him in this political endeavour.

It's a welcome sign that politicians recognise the problem. Thailand, according to a report last year by Credit Suisse, a global financial services company, is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and there are few signs of the situation improving.

Statistics collected by the National Economic and Social Development Council, the country's central planning agency, showed a steady increase in average income per person per month over the past two decades but the disparity remains wide. Income inequality in Thailand has not improved over the past 30 years.

According to the council, the average income per person per month, which was 1,100 baht in 1988, increased threefold to 3,400 baht in 2000. The average monthly income jumped another threefold to 9,400 baht in 2017. This data was cited by academic Worawan Chandoevwit of Khon Kaen University in her research on disparity. She is also an adviser for the Thailand Development and Research Institute.

The researcher highlighted the health disparity which is evident in the healthcare double standards between government officials and the general public. Her study found that for the treatment of the same illness, retired government officials, given their special privileges under the state healthcare scheme, have twice as much money spent on their care compared to patients under the universal healthcare system.

However, it's clear that ending disparity is easier said than done. Most if not all politicians prefer the easier option of stoking their popularity through headline-grabbing giveaways in their political strongholds.

It needs a staunch commitment on the part of the state to tackle inequality, and that means doing more than offering cash handouts as part of populist policies which do little to permanently alleviate the problem. Indeed, politicians, elected or not, have a preference for such populism as they tend to reap the greatest political benefits.

Gen Prayut, who used to scold politicians for expensive populist policies, invested several billion baht in his Pracharath public and private partnership scheme, a close namesake of the military-leaning party, especially in the last year of his administration as the country headed toward an election. This heavy spending was widely seen as foul play ahead of the national vote.

But there will be no real departure from populist policies, no matter how expensive they are, without an overhaul in certain laws concerning the distribution of natural resources. It's necessary that all kinds of discrimination that perpetuate inequality must be terminated.

It is unfortunate that Gen Prayut, when running the military regime over the past five years, was not serious enough about eradicating inequality. A prime example is the law on land and property tax, proposed by then finance minister Sommai Phasi as a measure to bridge the wealth gap by requiring those owning unused land to relinquish their property. However, it turned out that the final draft was tremendously watered down when it went through the regime-installed National Legislative Assembly.

Moreover, even though the military pledged to adhere to sustainable development, several of its policies do not reflect that. Worse, some policies are actively biased against the poor. Among them is the policy to reclaim forest cover from local people without considering community history. This has led to evictions as well as some villagers being thrown into jail.

The new government, with elected politicians who must represent the people, must review such drastic policy, as well as many others that are unfair, if they really want to eliminate disparity, rather than just paying lip service to the idea. Only with such drastic changes can the country can achieve sustainability.

If not, they will have to face up to the fact that they are but another group of politicians responsible for the ongoing climate of political resentment.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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