Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, editors, Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016)
Reviewed by T.F. Rhoden
Does Thailand have an oligarchy? If so, how do we define it? And most importantly for this collection of essays, what is the proof of its existence in contemporary Thailand?
These are some of the main questions that pervade Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Translated and reworked from a Thai-language edition, Su sangkom thai samoe na [Towards a More Equitable Thailand] published in 2014 by Matichon, this volume is a timely and useful review of some of the political economy issues facing Thailand today.
With nine chapters by Thai scholars and technocrats, the aim of the book is to provide up-to-date data and analysis on those material foundations that have fostered a growth in inequality and a strengthening of oligarchy in recent years. Some chapters do this better than others, but all provide insight into these issues.
In terms of raw empirical analysis, all of the research essays are a success, particularly the second chapter on land distribution as an indicator of both inequality and oligarchy. For those interested in the possible material foundations of recent turmoil in Thai political society, this volume is an absolute gem and is more than worth adding to one’s library.
Theoretically speaking, the introductory chapter by the editors utilises very recent publications on inequality and oligarchy to frame the research-based chapters that follow. Noteworthy out of this list are Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and Jeffery Winters’ comparative political economy treatise Oligarchy (2011).
Those familiar with either of Piketty’s or Winters’ thinking on these topics will find evidence for both within the volume. Regarding the latter’s theory of oligarchy, however, the editors seem to have undervalued the analytic nuance of Winters’ repositioning toward the term’s original Aristotelian meaning–one that highlights the unique power position of material wealth without falling into the structural (or teleological) constraints of Marxist historical materialism.
In its place, the editors create the moniker “flexible oligarchy”, to mean any group of elites (whether they be military, political, bureaucratic, royal, business or so on) that network to “rule” the nation. This is frustrating, as insights on how wealth is defended, why oligarchs fight, and what this means for a political society are consequently lost.
At best oligarchy then means any “network” of individuals that are somehow more powerful or more influential than the average Thai person. There are networks in Thailand, but to ignore the difference between an oligarch and an elite is to misunderstand the challenge that inequality and oligarchy in Thailand pose.
Misgivings regarding theory aside, all of the follow-up chapters present new and crucial research.
The most startling for the volume is the initial analysis by Duangmanee Laovakul in the second chapter on land title documents (chanot) provided by the Land Department. This has never been done before in a private publication. Traditionally, the Land Department does not publish this information for those outside of government.
The results are as fascinating as they are somewhat depressing. Gini Index numbers for Thailand for yearly income, hovering around 0.50 for the last decade, pale in comparison to the Gini Index number of 0.89 for inequality in nationwide titled land distribution.
The landholding analysis is also broken down by region via Thai rai (14.4 million hectares) and by MPs via declared value. In the past, the best resource a researcher had for measuring a Thai oligarch’s net worth were the annual Forbes “Thailand 50 Richest” articles.
With the addition of landholding data, a more detailed picture of the distribution of assets beyond that of just publically traded companies is presented. The greatest strength of this analysis–and the reason it was likely trusted to the scholar in the first place–is also its greatest weakness: the landholding data are completely anonymous.
Granted, one can make educated guesses about who some of these owners are, but for a political economy analysis in a nation where over a third of the population work in agriculture, knowing who owns what parcel of land is of utmost importance. I am still waiting for a day when one can see a map of Thailand, or at least of Bangkok, delimiting who owns what exactly.
Factor into this the complication of how much land the Crown Property Bureau of the Thai monarch does or does not own and these seemingly economic issues of inequality take on a decidedly more political tone of oligarchy. Hence, the importance of a theoretically robust theory of oligarchy beyond that of just “network” becomes even more significant.
Another compelling research article from this important volume is the fifth chapter by Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichaka on elite networking via special executive courses.
The interviews with course attendees are of great value for understanding how it is that specific policies benefiting the oligarchy come to fruition. The inclusion of members of “billion families” into the courses brings to light some of the behind-the-scene mechanics of how an oligarch can connect with those in the parliament, military, bureaucracy, university sector, or the media.
Public-sector courses have been offered by the National Security Academy for Government and Private Sector (Po Ro Or), the Office of the Judiciary, the King Prajadhipok Institute, and the Election Commission. Two private-sector courses include the Capital Market Academy by the Stock Exchange of Thailand one by the Chamber of Commerce. In a political society where scholars have argued there is limited social capital, these executive courses take on a greater meaning. As in other chapters in this volume, the authors deepen the theoretical discussion begun by the editors in the introductory chapter.
Overall, this is an engaging and well-crafted volume that delivers much-needed new empirical research on the challenges of inequality and oligarchy in Thailand. This book represents some of the best minds from Thailand on the state of the country’s current political economy.
This volume will be of interest to scholars and students of Southeast Asian political economy as well as researchers examining how inequality and oligarchy can vary across the globe.
T.F. Rhoden is a PhD Candidate at Northern Illinois University. His most recent peer-reviewed publication is “Oligarchy in Thailand?”, in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, vol. 34, no. 1 (2015).