In an Economic 'Tiger' of Asia, Poor Farmers Pull Wealthy's Tail

More than 78 days after they began their camp-out in front of Thailand's parliament, most of the 20,000 poor Thai farmers have decided to go home.

For rice farmer Cheuanjai Boonphap, it was probably the first time she had come here. "We'll stay here just as long as it takes," she said two-and-a-half months ago. With pots, pans, and sleeping mats in hand, Ms. Cheuanjai was one of thousands who had converged on the Thai capital to demand answers to their problems.

Their presence was pressing evidence of Thailand's widening abyss between rich and poor. Despite record economic growth over the past decade, Thailand now ranks among the world's top five nations with the worst income distribution.

Fronted by an organization known as the Forum of the Poor, the protesters had established a makeshift "Village of the Poor" and had a list of 121 grievances they wanted the government to address.

In a meeting April 11 between Forum leaders and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, the Thai prime minister pledged to resolve their grievances. Of the original 121 grievances, only 47 issues now remain unresolved. The original list was divided into six groups: impact of dam projects, forest-land disputes, impact of government development projects, hardship of the alternative farming sector, slum-dwellers' woes, and workplace hazards.

More broadly, the marathon demonstration gave tangible expression to a growing sense of betrayal and discontent among Thailand's rural population.

"It's certainly not fair that they have cars and money in the city. If they gave us somewhere to farm, we wouldn't come here and create problems," says Sawat Boonthong, a farmhand from the north.

Though their woes are decades old, the fact that Cheuanjai and Mr. Sawat chose to voice their discontent by protesting in Bangkok is a worrying sign of the times. "If wealth doesn't trickle down to the larger masses, I think we could face a period of social unrest," warns Pravit Rojanapruk, a Thai journalist.

The protests are a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, Thailand's rural population has been a politically passive vote pool, where wealthy, urban politicians exchange cash for votes. Though recent governments have risen to power on the back of rural votes, they have given back little. In the last general elections, the winning New Aspiration Party of Mr. Chavalit won only one seat in Bangkok, largely a result, some say, of vote-buying in rural areas.

The root of the discontent, however, is less corruption than inequality. Economic growth, described by the World Bank as the highest in the world between 1984 and 1995, has generated vast wealth for only a small minority of the 60 million population. The income gap is largely mirrored by that between the town and the countryside, where the majority of the poor live. Political observers see the emergence of organized protest on the part of the rural poor as the harbinger of a new era.

"Villagers are clearly becoming more aware of their rights," says Khun Viraporn Sopha, an adviser to the Forum.

For the most part, Thailand's politicians are finding it difficult to adapt to the unprecedented burden of accountability to their constituents. "The trouble is that MPs don't see any point in visiting their constituents," continues Mr. Viraporn, who meets visitors sitting cross-legged on a mat on the sidewalk. "For them, it is a lose-lose situation. If they come, they'll have the expense of distributing food or gifts and they'll have to make promises they are not sure they can keep."

Even so, the gathering momentum of organizations like the Forum is a phenomenon that the elite find hard to ignore as the rural masses are becoming increasingly conscious of their rights - and the potential power of organized protest.

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