Building the Great Wall of Bangkok
The paddy farmers are closing in. A few weeks ago, the protests about rice support prices were way out there in Nakhon Sawan and Ang Thong. Then they moved to Ayutthaya. And now to Nonthaburi. Right there among the collapsed housing projects.
Defending the city is getting more difficult. During UnctadX, the authorities headed off the Invasion of the Sugar Trucks at the very last moment by agreeing a deal on price. Just before that the cassava farmers promised to present the city with a bonfire of cassava roots (very fragrant), and were dissuaded by a similar concession. Further back, the dairy farmers set off from Pak Chong towards Bangkok with a herd of cows (even more fragrant) but turned back after one died. At the end of 1998, when the rubber planters threatened to turn nasty, the government gave them 4 billion baht in price support.
We can now see that the Asia crisis has had two contradictory effects on Thailand. First, it has made the urban economy much more open, more international, more integrated with the world. A large chunk of the financial industry—banks, brokerages, insurance—has been transferred to foreign ownership. Foreign investment has flooded in five to seven times faster than ever before, and all to buy over local companies. You can laugh over this or cry over this. Opinions are pretty divided. But you cannot deny that it has happened. More than ever before, the urban economy is exposed to the tastes, prejudices, money flows, inputs, assistance, and demands coming from the world outside. It’s suddenly become fashionable to talk about the "dollar zone" of the Thai economy.
The second impact of the crisis is that the countryside has got more fed up. It bore a lot of the brunt of the downturn. The highest unemployment and biggest income falls have been in the rural northeast, because the only welfare cushion available to the laid-off migrant worker was the village. The farmers have been squeezed between the rising baht costs of imported inputs, and the fall in world prices for crops. The crisis also took away a lot of the mystique of the city as modern, progressive, and superior.
In the past, the city could rely on the countryside to provide cheap labour, cheap food, sites to generate the power the city needs, and places to dump its rubbish. Now this is not so certain. Of course the migrant labour will come flooding back as soon as there are jobs. But just about every new project for a dam, power plant, or waste disposal site now faces local protests. And the vanguard of the price protests has reached the suburbs.
Many in Bangkok welcome the greater internationalisation of the economy. It will bring in technology, make things more efficient, increase consumer welfare, speed up the march towards modernity. The old project to build a local capitalism through "development policy" is dead. It was doomed since the collapse of the cold war meant the western powers no longer found any political use in building such local capitalisms. Thailand, the argument goes, will now prosper by being a good host for multinational companies. That’s why the national agenda has switched to the reforms in education, legal systems, and environment which Thailand needs to compete as a host for multinationals. The model for this strategy is Singapore. Already Rajprasong is metamorphosing into Orchard Road. Recently BMA officials went to Singapore to learn how they make the city green and pleasant.
But Singapore has worked this hosting strategy so successfully for several reasons, not just greening the city. First, it set up the most elaborate welfare system in the world to make sure that everyone shared in the benefits, not only those directly involved in the "dollar zone". Second, it managed its "democracy" very carefully. Third, it gave away its rural hinterland—to Malaysia.
The last point was crucial. Chang Noi was in Singapore in the late 1980s when the economy (and especially construction) went through a low arc of the cycle. The government simply threw out the thousands of illegal Thai labourers who had provided the cheap labour during the previous upswing. Later, when things improved, it eased open the backdoor again, but this time to let in Indonesians because they had become the cheapest available. A thin strip of water, and nationality laws, are great tools for managing the urban labour market. And much else besides. Singapore has never had paddy farmers with i-taen staging protests among the HDB blocks in Woodlands or Ang Mo Kio.
For Bangkok, the options are not so easy. The government is not likely to give away the old "Lao provinces" in Lanna and Isan to Laos or anyone else. But at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any strategy for handling this, other than negotiating price support deals on the kerbsides of major highways. In the absence of any other strategy there will eventually be only one logical conclusion: build the Great Wall of Bangkok to keep the countryside out.
In his recently announced election programme, Thaksin Shinawatra included a three-year moratorium for farmers’ debts. The proposal brought a howl of dismay from his opponents, and from much of the Bangkok press. It’s impractical, they said. It would cost too much.
There is a reason to worry about such a moratorium. Other countries have found that in the long term nobody wants to lend to farmers. But the real reasons for the howl of dismay are deeper. Thaksins’s proposal is actually giving the farmers something they have asked for. It just might win him the election. And, most important of all, it brings a rural issue into the heart of national politics. It might give the farmers the bad idea that they could use their vote for real benefit, rather than selling it cheap. Quick! Build the Wall!