Rein in loan sharks, end debtor agony
As we look at the photo of Sangvean Raksaphet, her body engulfed in flames, we can feel her pain and agony.
It's not only the pain from the flames we can feel, but from her debt problems — the reason that made her desperate enough to douse herself in fuel and set herself alight.
Ms Sangvean, the victim of a loan shark in her hometown of Lop Buri, set herself on fire at the People's Service Centre of Government House after realising that her petition to have her unfair debt cleared would, again, go nowhere.
She is now being treated in hospital and is in critical condition.
Ms Sangvean is a typical landless farmer who is trapped in poverty.
She rents her land from a wealthy landlord in Lop Buri's Kok Samrong district.
Out of necessity, she sought a 400,000-baht loan, which exploded to over two million baht in a short period. That's why she came to Bangkok: to seek help.
News reports let us know this is not the first time Ms Sangvean had visited the centre. She had already been there six or seven times before her hope ran out altogether.
Her desperate act drew attention from the media — every newspaper put the agonising photo on its front page and television networks and radio stations scrambled to get her story.
All of a sudden, her cry for help was attended to.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, on an official trip to Italy, instructed state officials to do everything to help the woman.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda made a personal plea to all her debtors, asking them to show compassion to their poor client.
Lop Buri's governor stepped in yesterday and asked her creditor to write off the 1.5-million-baht debt. All her problems were solved within less than 24 hours.
This knee-jerk reaction by state authorities hardly surprises me.
My question is: Why do we have to wait until a woman sets herself ablaze before she gets help?
The whole issue shows us that the government People's Service Centre is just a front; it can hardly solve any problems.
It is a lot like a postman, receiving a petition and then sending it on to the relevant agencies.
We have to admit that such a structure that is reliant on bureaucratic mechanisms cannot respond to the people's problems. Not for Ms Sangvean or many other poor, landless farmers.
Loan sharks are, in fact, a major social problem that have existed for a long time, but no government, elected or non-elected, has done anything about them.
We still remember how Gen Prayut exploded in frustration when he found out how rice farmers were chased by their creditors after receiving their first much-delayed payment under the rice-pledging scheme.
He had to intervene to stop those rich creditors from exploiting the poor farmers.
Before that, there were tragic cases of farmers committing suicide from stress, after the previous government could not pay their pledged money, forcing them to rely on loan sharks.
Yet, the military regime has not done anything to weed out loan sharks. It still allows them to do business as usual.
This cannot go on.
Gen Anupong himself admitted that household debt is one of the top problems at the government People's Service Centre.
It needs to be regulated quickly because it is soaring.
The debt which accounted for 55.6% of GDP in 2008, is expected to reach 85% of GDP at the end of this year, according to Kasikorn Research Centre.
Now that Ms Sangvean's case has emerged, the minister needs to realise that more attention must be paid to this stubborn issue.
Initially, Gen Anupong set out guidelines that the state would broker talks between creditors and those in debt to find a peaceful way out and that state banks may get involved to enable those in debt to free themselves of unfair loans.
Gen Anupong and the government must take a step further if they want to create a just society: narrow the income gap. Otherwise, more cases like Ms Sangvean's will crop up to haunt them.
Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.