Sick economy upsets Thai middle class Thousands protest in Bangkok, demand premier's resignation


BANGKOK, Thailand -- Like many other middle class Thais these days, Nam Ruangvuthi looked lost, puzzled, worried - and angry. On a recent morning, he knelt at a shrine of one of Thailand's past royalty and prayed for fortune in finding a new job.

From there, he walked over to a street in front of Government House and joined several thousand people who were shouting and thrusting fists in the air to demand that Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resign.

Nam lost his job recently as a manager at one of the dozens of finance companies that have collapsed during these past few months of Thailand's worst-ever economic crisis.

"I lost everything. There are so many people like me," said Nam, who had no Thai smiles to offer when I spoke with him.

Nam, 54, has to support three children; one just graduated from college but cannot find a job.

Often criticized by democracy activists as complacent and uninterested in politics, the Bangkok middle class is rising up again as their pocketbooks and livelihoods are squeezed like never before. Thousands protested on Oct. 20 in front of the Bangkok Bank headquarters on Silom Road, a main business thoroughfare; it was the biggest demonstration by the middle class since its May 1992 uprising toppled a pro-military government.

Bankers, traders, travel agents and office secretaries jammed the street, forcing it closed to traffic. Using the prime minister's // nickname, they chanted "Big Jiew, Resign!" while waving small Thai flags.

Some executives sat on the bare pavement, ties loosened and constantly-ringing mobile phones strapped to their waists. Other smaller demonstrations continue at Government House and at the Royal Field, by Bangkok's famed ancient Buddhist temples.

Last Sunday, the middle class-led Confederation for Democracy began a daily rally to pressure Chavalit to quickly enact laws that would put a new constitution into effect so a new election could be held. Their cause was boosted by the revered constitutional mon-arch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who made the same suggestion to Chavalit.

The middle class will not be satisfied with the ouster of Chavalit, whose bungling of the economy has badly hurt foreign investor confidence despite a $17.2 billion financial rescue package Thailand secured from the International Monetary Fund, Japan and other sources in August.

"It's not just Chavalit. They are of low education and short-sighted, the whole group," Nam said, pointing to Government House. "We will change everything, the government, the Senate, everything."

That is no longer just a dream. Thais can expect economic gloom for the next two to three years or longer, and fundamental change of the political system appears inevitable.

In late September, the Parliament approved the new draft constitution, which is designed to halt vote-buying and corruption and encourage better people to enter government. Many legislators and ministers, including Chavalit, initially opposed the draft since it would hurt the money-patronage system that built their political careers. But they relented at the last moment under intense pressure from the middle class, the news media and other groups. On the eve of the vote in Parliament, thousands of businessmen and office workers rallied Silom Road in support of the draft.

Chavalit reshuffled his Cabinet recently, including the finance and commerce portfolios, in an effort to calm the clamor for his resignation. He promised an election by early next year.

That election, to be held under the new constitution, may give the middle class what they want: a government led by the Democrat Party of former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. The Democrats, the main opposition party, are considered the party least tainted by vote-buying and corruption and with the most respected stable of economic experts.

What's certain is that any future government will come under sustained pressure from the business community and the middle class. In the 1980s, these groups ignored the military coup attempts and political games because profits kept pouring in, government economic policies remained constant and XTC Thailand's "economic fundamentals" kept improving. But as Thailand became increasingly dependent on the global economy for export markets and financing, profits slumped in 1991 and 1992 because of the world's distaste for the military coup and crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Then the fundamentals started changing.

Exports, the engine of the Thai economy, fell last year as Thai leaders failed to prepare the nation for new skills, technology and competition from other emerging markets. Overly dependent on short-term foreign capital, the highly speculative real estate market and the stock market crashed, dragging finance companies with them. It became increasingly clear to business people that Thailand's litany of unstable, inefficient, corrupt governments cannot be allowed to continue because they greatly damage economic development.

The crisis has hurt the middle class severely. Their savings in the stock market vanished. Their small businesses collapsed. They were laid off from finance, real estate, tourism, advertising, media and other companies. Thai currency has depreciated more than 40 percent since it was cut loose from its U.S. dollar peg in July. This, along with new taxes on a wide range of goods that the government imposed to meet IMF requirements, has meant that a middle class obsessed with consumption has to hold back on travel, dining, cars, cosmetics, cameras and all other imported goods.

Suthorn Soontrapa, 48, a manager of a property company with cash-flow problems, protested by Government House in blue jeans, beige loafers, a miniature Thai flag sticking up from his collar, and a T-shirt with a caricature of Chavalit with the word "UNWANTED" above it. He agreed that a basic shift in Thai

attitudes has occurred.

"These are all businessmen," he said, sweeping his hand across the crowd of protesters, "and they are all talking politics. Before they were not interested because they were not affected."

And the middle class increasingly has been able to turn their demands into reality. The middle class expanded dramatically as Thailand's real per capita income doubled this past decade. Before the recent crashes, the stock market and real estate booms created new bourgeoise not only in Bangkok but in all the major towns, including Thailand's traditional rice heartlands.

One estimate says the middle class make up a fifth of the population of 60 million. The middle class realized its power during the 1992 uprising, when its sheer numbers and noise on the streets ousted a government backed by the Parliament, the bureaucracy and soldiers who opened fire. Since then, the middle class has largely set the political agenda and put Chavalit and the other old-style politicians and generals increasingly on the defensive.

In a speech in September, Chavalit accused the Bangkok middle class of trying to topple the administration and urged peasants from his political base, the poor rural Northeast, to "rise up to protect our country." He was widely criticized for the comments.

On Oct. 21, as hundreds of people demonstrated outside his office, Chavalit proposed to declare a state of emergency to silence the clamor. Knowing times have changed and the public reaction could be devastating, the army chief and other officials successfully opposed the idea, Thai newspapers reported.

Peter Eng, a free-lance writer and former Associated Press correspondent, has covered Southeast Asia for more than a decade.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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