Thailand is socially stratified.
At the top are the powerful elite, with royalty at the pinnacle. They are entitled by heredity and finances.
The next level is composed of those whose power and status are derived from accomplishments, including acquisition of control of corporations, land, or sections of the military. They automatically find positions to maximize their status.
A new level has expanded in the last ¾ of a century which is similar to the middle class in other countries. People in this class have limited political power, but they have apparent security and ability to leverage their situations to their advantage. The middle class in Thailand is divided into two ranks. The upper middle class are owners, executives, professionals, and local leaders. The lower middle class are salaried employees, securely self-employed, or bi-vocational (farming during certain seasons and also working for salaries or commissions part time, for example).
Less secure are those who are dependent on factors over which they have no control. That includes farmers whose situation depends on weather, variable crop prices, and ability to acquire additional products (such as fish or mushrooms). Day laborers in construction or factory workers and “piece workers” (such as those who are paid by the piece for sewing) are also on the brink of inadequacy. At the bottom of the social column are those totally dependent on others.
Four factors mitigate these social divisions: clan loyalty, special categories, government programs, and luck or self-destruction.
A large percentage of those who would be destitute are “taken-in” by relatives. Almost all primary families (parents and children) and extended families (2 or 3 generations living in proximity and sharing whatever is necessary) have one or more who have a salaried income. It is considered essential for adult children to provide a house for older parents. Most extended families have acquired debts, especially for vehicles or houses, which they are paying off, so their standard of living is raised somewhat precariously.
Clergy and military tend to be special categories, but they, too, are highly stratified. The strata have prescribed titles.
Government programs including nearly universal health care and education through twelfth grade also mitigate and alleviate some of the variables that used to trouble previous generations. Although government subsidies are small, elderly and disabled people receive direct assistance, as do infants to age 6.
Exceptions to the predictable functioning of society are infrequent but noticeable. Luck is given the credit for one’s winning the lottery or being wiped out by a flood. Getting into trouble through gambling or drug dealing, on the other hand, would be one’s own fault.
COVID-19 is now beginning to have an impact on Thai social structure. It’s just beginning to show up as more than a temporary anomaly which can be put up with in the short run. The pandemic is more than a catalyst and less than the cause of a realignment of social control.
As COVID-19 and its disruptions enter the second year the government is beginning to tremble. A second round of financial stimulus pay-outs is underway, without sufficient funds to do this. It’s with a shaky hand that the government is making these pay-outs and is on the way to issuing bonds to back them up. The country is enduring a major outbreak of COVID cases, with a few days of almost a thousand new cases a day. Up to now the government has prioritized protecting the country’s health by closing the borders, but it is a sign that this can’t go on much longer that everything is being relaxed even while the epidemic is spreading.
Something like a sixth of the population counts on domestic and international tourism and transportation to provide financial income. The ripples are spreading. By this time almost every economic area has turned downward, some of them sharply. Markets are impacted, some closed entirely, most only temporarily. Schools are operating “spasmodically” with classes online being really dysfunctional according to teachers trying to keep students engaged. I’m guessing that instead of 180 days in class, most grade school students were there not more than 100 days in the past year. The impact on people who provide lunches, drive school “busses” and serve as part-time teachers is collateral. When street and highway traffic is sharply reduced gas stations feel the effect immediately. Factories that employed workers in close proximity were closed a long time. Those employees often “went back home” to eat out of the family’s pot. All these things are short term effects.
At the same time something much longer-term is brewing.
The middle class is shifting and a gap between town and country is widening.
It’s been obvious for at least 4 decades that tourism cannot be sustained as a financial bedrock. The downturn we have now is never going to completely recover. Jobs are gone for which college students have prepared themselves. Young people with business degrees are scurrying around to find work as motorcycle delivery drivers and stock-boys in supermarkets. As many as one million jobs with salaries have disappeared. The generation that was expecting to escape hand-to-mouth hard manual labor is frightened.
Unlike laid-off factory workers, members of this aspiring middle class are not going to go back to remote villages and “put their hands to the plow” again. As long as they have transportation they will keep in touch with their extended families and make whatever reduced contribution they can to those who are counting on them. But their loathing of the barely-sufficient lifestyles that their grandparents thought was normal will not go away. What they will loathe in addition, is the economic system that is now working against them.
This disaffected group is a whole layer of society. When they seethe all the layers above them are bound to quiver. Nothing will ever be quite the same. We are not yet seeing a “new normal” but rather the disruption of the old normal.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.