Like many countries, Thailand has a stark and deep divide between those who are wealthy and those who are not.
No real surprise there you may say. The difference is that in Thailand there seems to be an overwhelming sense that the poor somehow deserve it.
The perceived moral worth of a person is linked directly to how much money they have and there are some very good reasons as to why.
Reason 1: Buddhism.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation and devoutly so. My drive to work is always punctuated by the sight of everyday Thai folk kowtowing to saffron-robed monks and offering up alms in return for a blessing. It is seen as a way of making merit, paying into a cosmic Paypal account of good karma.
To most westerners, Buddhism is a happy go lucky faith, not like the doom and gloom misery of the Abrahamic religions. The persistent view is that it somehow makes everyone nice to each other and that in turn, is basically a good thing. I agree with the expected outcome, but not the methodology.
Intrinsic to the concept of Karma is an appreciation of cosmic judgement. That judgement leads to you being placed within society based on how good a person you were in your past life. If you’re placed as a poor person, you should have been a better person on your previous go. I won’t help you now because you deserve it. Keep your head down, don’t ask too many questions and perhaps, perhaps next time you’ll come back in a more wealthy family.
Reason 2: Lack of Social Interaction
Thai culture is a very hierarchical one; status and position in society are entirely dependent on money (with the exception of monks). Honestly, trying to explain the British class structure to a Thai person is a nightmare. “What, so they’re poor but they are a lord so they have a higher status? That doesn’t make sense.” To be fair they have a point.
As such, the wealthy do not, other then to shout at the maid, interact with poor people. Your typical hi-so girl is unlikely to actually converse with anyone who is actually poor. That would undermine their status and anyway, poor people are sooo icky. I mean, haven’t they even heard of, like, soap? Cocooned in silken wealth the poor become visual noise, safely relegated to the background of attention.
Reason 3: Politics
Thailand was, until the coup, a democracy. This should, in most nations, mean that due to the massive amount of poor people relative to the amount of rich people, poor people would collectively hold an enormous amount of political power. Surely, the party that figures this out first and provides an incrementally better life for the poor (say, hypothetically, with cheap healthcare) will win every single election. Ever.
And Thailand (which is not as distinct as some people would have you believe) is no different, the Pheu Thai party under Taksin did exactly that. And won every single election. Ever.
Unsurprisingly, the wealthy didn’t really like this. So they shut down the centre of Bangkok for months on end in a bid to oust a democratically elected government. And it worked. Cue army take over and amusing diktats about soap operas.
Reason 4: A Deep seated belief that the poor are workshy and kind of making it up.
See below. No one was outraged by this.
It seems unlikely that this will change any time soon. The idea of a liberal-socialist agenda being set out by a government is frankly laughable and any efforts to improve the lot of the large number of peasants is often derided (possibly fairly) as a shallow attempt to win votes.
One of the main differences between Thailand and the west (and one that westerners struggle to understand) is that Thailand is not a pluralist nation where differing concepts of religion, political allegiance, cultural identity and social status are accepted as being part of living in a cosmopolitan society. Some of these things are tolerated, sure, but only in the name of pragmatism. To change the lot of the poor would be to make the holders of political power, whomsoever they are at the time, accept and act on the views of a wide spectrum of people, even if those opinions directly contradict their own. Thailand, however, is a society in which there is one way. My way.
And when you’ve got bags of money – that’s generally the way that wins.