A new study of Thailand’s poor and populous northeast hopes to focus the government’s attention on helping a corner of the country that has played an outsized role in the past several years of political turmoil.
Home to nearly a third of Thailand’s 69 million people, most of them farmers, Isan has long lagged behind the rest of the country. Dry and underdeveloped, it has shared in relatively little of the breakneck growth that has transformed Thailand into Southeast Asia’s second largest economy.
A recent survey of northeastern households by the non-government Asia Foundation found that “people in Isan still struggle to make ends meet.” The foundation says narrowing the gap between them and the rest of Thailand is key to a richer and more stable country.
Populous and populist
As Thailand’s most populous region, Isan also has the most eligible voters. And together with the far north it consistently voted in populist governments between 2001 and 2011 led by or linked to telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, upending the political control of Thailand’s middle-class, royalist, pro-military elite.
The power struggle has fueled rounds of bloody protest and two military coups unseating first Thaksin and then, in 2014, his sister. A new constitution then drafted by the junta helped return a pro-military government to power after general elections earlier this year, raising fears of more unrest to come.
“Research [has] shown that one of the leading indicators that pushed people toward political turmoil and protest is the fact that they are not satisfied with their economic condition and [the] uneven treatment ... that they receive,” said Rattana Lao, lead author of the foundation’s report, “Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan.”
“If the income is dispersed more equally among the provinces and people feel satisfied with their living standard, feel ... empowered economically and politically, I think the feeling of being disparaged, the feeling of being uneven would be reduced,” she said.
While ever fewer of Isan’s residents live in poverty, there are still more of them in Isan than in any other part of Thailand, according to government figures. They still earn less on average, and nearly 9 in 10 of them are in debt. And while average household debt in Isan is roughly on par with the national average, it makes up a much larger share of what they earn.
“So the gap has shrunk drastically ... but it still exists and Isan is still poorer than other regions,” Rattana said.
In the foundation’s own survey of Isan households, more of them said their earnings had fallen in recent years than those who said they had risen. More of them also said the economic situation in their neighborhoods was getting worse than those who said it was improving.
But the survey also found that Thailand’s northeasterners, prone to migrate for work, would prefer to stay put and that a large majority would welcome the arrival of more industry.
“Look at Isan as an avenue for investment, look at Isan as an avenue for more ... agricultural and industrial opportunity, because there is a sentiment that Isan people want to remain closer to home,” Rattana said. “So if there is a demand to be in Isan, jobs should be there.”
Work on education
She suggested the government also focus on raising the quality of education in Isan to help locals fill those jobs and on improving the delivery of public services and benefits. The foundation says its survey shows that locals are keen judges of the government welfare schemes they rely on and astute voters, puncturing the stereotypes of them as dim and docile.
Rattana said the foundation showed its findings to the National Economic and Social Development Council, which advises the prime minister and his Cabinet on social and economic policy.
Wilailak Maiwong, a policy analyst with the council, declined to comment on Isan’s role in Thailand’s political turmoil.
She said successive governments have tried to attract more industry to Isan but stumbled for lack of water, electricity and other infrastructure. And even when that infrastructure comes, she conceded, it can leave locals behind, citing a new rail line through Isan linking Bangkok to the Lao border in a bid to grow trade with China.
“I think many investors get benefit from this. But if you ask me in terms of people, I don’t think they will get the benefit or advantage from this infrastructure too much,” she said.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post in January, the development council’s secretary general, Thosaporn Sirisamphand, said the junta had taken many steps to tackle inequality nationwide and just set up a bespoke office for the very purpose.
But Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Isan’s Ubon Ratchathani University, said little would change in Isan or Thai politics until the country’s elite learned to respect the region’s voters.
“It’s part of the political conflict in Thailand, when they try to eliminate the underprivileged group by claiming they are not entitled to vote, or try not to include them in the political process,” he said.
“If the Thai elite and middle class change their perception, I believe that this would be one of the main things that can help to reduce tensions between ... the people and the state.”