On 9 January 2011 the Abhisit government announced its “gift” to the Thai population. In a white box with a light blue ribbon was deposited the new policy, presented under the name of Prachawiwat, or progress of the people. The neologism carried nine presents to the people, allegedly addressed to expand social and labor security to the declared 24 million workers in the “informal economy”, to moderate the growing cost of living in Thailand, to guarantee access to credit to operators of taxis and motorcycle taxis, and to address crime. The Thai PM stressed that the gift would not cost much for the Thai population.
After a few days of confusion, trying to understand what the policy actually looked like, a large debate has been sparked in the Thai media and universities. Most of this debate revolves around three questions: How is the Prachawiwat different from Thaksin’s Pratchanyom? Is this a genuine policy or just an attempt by the government to win votes before the next election? Who will pay for this and how much? Unfortunately much of this debate has not yet reached the English-speaking media but in the next days a number of articles will be published on these discussions by major international newspapers. Leaving this task to people better equipped than me, I just want to present these nine gifts (I now sound like my Sunday school teacher talking about the Magi) and to offer my personal take on them without going into the details but rather focusing on their conceptual framework.
Presentation of the gifts
Gift 1: Expansion of the social security system to 24 million Thais operating in the informal economy (nok rabob), according to the government. This scheme provides two levels of social security based on a co-payment system between the workers and the state. The first level amounts to 100 baht per month, divided between 70 baht paid by the workers and 30 baht by the state. The second one amounts to 150 baht, in a 100+50 formula. Different from the actual welfare state scheme offered to regular workers and government officials these policies cover the cost for health care, death insurance (which could be collected after a minimum of 15 years of payment), and a retirement scheme.
Gift 2: Access to credit for taxi drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and street vendors for a minimum loan of 5000 baht at an unspecified low interest rate. The government will also provide a 5 percent discount on down payment on the taxi to drivers who have been operating for more than 3 years and a special loan for those with more than 9 years of experience.
Gift 3: New registration procedure for motorcycle taxi drivers with the purpose of eliminating local mafia influence over the drivers. The government will at first re-register the drivers who were registered in 2003 by the Thaksin government and then expand the process to the new drivers who have entered the system since. This policy will be first implemented in Bangkok starting on 15 February.
Gift 4: Allocating 20,000 new areas for street vendors in Bangkok with the purpose of making these places into tourist attractions.
Gift 5: Controlling the cost of oil by lifting the price control on LPG for the industrial sector but leaving it in place for private vehicles and transportation providers.
Gift 6: Providing free electricity to an estimated 9 million households who consume less than 90 units a month by raising the cost of electricity for heavy consumers by 1 percent.
Gift 7: Cut the cost of animal feed to make the final price lower and also make the change in prices public at all times to avoid speculation. Moreover the government will introduce an experiment of conducting the egg trade in kilograms and not in pieces with the purpose of cutting the price by 5 to 10 satang per kilo.
Gift 8: Increase the diversity and transparency in the trade of agricultural product with the purpose of giving better choices and prices to consumers
Gift 9: Increasing security and crime control, especially in 200 unspecified locations, in conjunction with an upcoming police reform.
The package proposed by the Thai government does take some steps toward addressing growing problems of inequality and access in Thai society and it pushes the on-going path toward labor security in Thailand a step forward. However, in my opinion, the conceptual framework in which these steps are taken reaffirms conservative ideas about the relationship between citizens and the state, the relationship between the capital and the rest of the country, participation, and welfare schemes. These are conservative ideas that the majority of Thai society, including both the red and yellow shirts, seems to be questioning and trying to leave behind.
Let us first look at this idea of Prachawiwat, the progress of the people, as a “gift”. Anthropology, my discipline, has been long fascinated by the dynamics and implications of gifts and gift-giving. Out of the rivers of ink written on the subject two main streams of thoughts have emerged.
Firstly, the idea that gift-giving establishes or re-affirms an un-equal relationship between the givers and the receivers in which, by virtue of their giving, the former pose themselves as superiors. An example of this dynamic in international politics that left many observers puzzled, was the refusal of India, after the 2004 tsunami, to receive “economic help” from Western powers, particularly the United States. Proudly, the Indian government, worried by the position that aid will put them in, not only declined the “gift” but also offered economic aid to other affected areas, especially Sri Lanka. Despite the destroyed homes of many citizens the Indian government refused to be put in the position of a receiver and showed its strength and autonomy, framing itself as a regional power, a giver.
Secondly, the framing of a “gift” as an invitation to reciprocity, an act that puts the received in debt and therefore calls for another gift, to re-balance the exchange and further the social relationship. Examples of this are constantly visible in contemporary Thailand where small gift-giving is an essential part of daily life, office work, and new acquaintances. More than once I came across the story of a foreigner failing to fulfill this call to reciprocity be seen as “rude” or not “generous”.
In the context of the Prachawiwat scheme both aspects give government’s “gift” an eerie tone. Framing this policy as a present takes the functioning of a government out of the political arena. Withdrawing from an expanding discussion in the Thai political landscape over rights and duties, access and taxation, the actions of the state are pushed back into the realm of paternalistic politics. As a motorcycle taxi driver put it to me “I receive a gift paid by my taxes and I should also thank them.” In this realm an established benevolent and superior entity, the state, offers a present to a structurally lower receiver, the population. This relation, framed in the language of the patronage system, brings us into the second aspect of this gift-giving: what reciprocity is the government seeking? Often, forms of reciprocity between governments and population, or between clients and patrons, are based on “gifts” in exchange for “support”, meaning in this case electoral support or, at least, silent acceptance. This “gift-giving”, smilingly presented by an excited Abhisit as a cheap present, in many ways condense the conceptual problems with Prachawiwat and represent a major step back in terms of the conceptual framing of the relationship between the Thai state and its citizens. In this sense Thaksin’s Prachaniyom, if not framed in the language of rights, was indeed predicated on questions of access, access to a state-controlled capitalist system of capital, loans, and investments under the mantra of “transforming assets into capital”, but access nonetheless. With this new policy we are back to square one. This in general seems to me the biggest mistake for a policy that was presented as having its strength in participation and equality.
The second point of concern in relation to this new package is its disproportionate attention to urban areas, especially Bangkok. The government has pointed out that the reform will start from Bangkok and then be expanded to the rest of the country, without specifying when this is supposed to happen. Moreover, if we stop to analyze the nine gifts it becomes clear that few of them are oriented to a rural constituency. Some of them (2, 3, and 4) are obviously directed to urban workers and even the schemes connected to agricultural products focuses mostly on transparency and price control for consumers, without really addressing the problem from the perspective of the producers, who are increasingly squeezed between the raising production prices and the low selling prices. For these rural producers these policies will hardly do anything. In term of the social security scheme, the pearl of these gifts, from the direct admission of Ajarn Sungsidh, the head advisor to Abhisit on Prachawiwat, the proposed welfare scheme is will not affect agricultural workers, who represent the large majority of the 24 million informal workers presented as the beneficiaries of the new policies. At most, it will benefit 5.2 million urban informal workers. This disproportionate focus on the city – even though it is not surprising for government opponents such as a motorcycle taxi driver friend who promptly told me “Claudio, this is nothing new. These people have been convinced that the whole of Thailand is Bangkok for a long time” – seems at least short-sighted and at most suicidal, especially given the new movements and discourses that populate the broad Thai political landscape.
The third point is that the offers of Prachawiwat which are great when seen from afar are greatly scaled down when analyzed in detail. The social security scheme, presented by the Thai government as a visionary and unprecedented expansion of the welfare state to the informal economy, is, in fact, NOT a welfare scheme. The conceptual foundations of a welfare scheme are normally a holistic approach to labor security, education, health, retirement as well as its extension to the family of the assisted. Both elements are lacking in the case of Prachawiwat. What the Abhisit government is offering – undoubtedly a step forward in terms of labor security for informal workers – is a so-called “social insurance” scheme, meaning a system of co-payment between the private payer, and only the private payer, and the state with the purpose of guaranteeing health insurance, life insurance, and retirement money, based on a 3 percent interest rate accumulated over the years. No service is offered to the family of the assisted. This scheme offers nothing more than other private insurance would offer, apart from the co-payment help.
In conclusion, the package developed with the help of think tank that was offered a meager five weeks to come up with a policy theoretically effecting more than a third of Thai population, seems to me to offer, in practice, some interesting steps toward a re-conceptualization of the role of the informal economy in Thai society but without framing them in a solid and substantial plan toward guarantying access, rights, and responsibilities to the actors involved.