Thursday, May 9, 2013

Before the Levy Breaks: No Stability Without Inclusion

Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand
I've been reading The Flood, an earlier book by Ian Rankin.  In this story there is a minister who means to understand and help the people in his town who he views as hard as nails, but also bitter and lost.  The winds of the economy had shifted, but these people didn't.  Combined with their old superstitions, these people are unable to adapt to the new world they find outside of their town.  This story, and my own observations have got me thinking about the question of what Marx called:  'the opiate of the people'.  While Marx was speaking of religion, I think the metaphor can be extended.  I'm not going to do a detailed examination of Marxism here, but I would like to address the matter in the broadest and briefest strokes.
A Thai worker beneath campaign posters

Two days of the week I work in a government compound on the outskirts of the city.  As the underground is being extended out that way, and as much of my commute takes me through areas with many working poor, I often find my thoughts drawn to these matters.

The question most on my mind now is regarding the education of these people, their world-view and their aspirations.  I've heard it said by many educated people in this country that those members of the working poor "have nothing in their heads".  I've attacked this line a number of times in courses I've taken.  I once said to a graduate student at my university that I think that is a hypothesis which he would need to test before he starts saying it in an economic setting.

I'd also like to say that if it is true, than who should be blamed for that?  These people often have very little education.  Their children do not have the same access to education, even from the "public" system.  They sit in hot, non airconditioned classrooms in 40 degree weather with 50 students in a single class.  Their teachers are often overwhelmed, living on a poverty wage and working with very few materials.

These people spend all day (and in many cases all night) working to build structures which they will never be able to afford to enjoy.  They are often sinewy and underweight as they cannot afford to eat well.

The WHO Country Strategy on Thailand states that around 77% of Thai people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables.  There is also a significant iodine deficiency among these groups.  Iodine deficiency results in irreversible brain damage in adults and children.

When they do get to go home, they are blasted with absolutely banal television that teaches them to be silly and not to take things seriously.  They are told to accept their fate and wait for it to get better in the next life.  They drink cheap alcohol and  often use stimulants to stay awake the next day.

So, if they don't have anything in their heads, who do you blame for that?  Fill her full of opium until she can't see straight and then blame her for not walking the line?  Keep them docile, sleepy and unconscious that they are mere commodities.  They have no clue...there is nothing in their head.  Healthcare, education?  They don't understand that stuff.  Right?
Electrolux Workers on Strike
I may be verging on hyperbole, but I don't think so.  And, I don't think this plan is working too well.  Since the 70's there has been an undercurrent of left-wing farmer/labourer discontent.  In the 70's the official Marxist groups were driven out of all influence.  But, they form a significant section of Thailand's so called "red shirts".

I am no Thaksin supporter.  I think he bribed the working classes and filled them with propaganda to win their support.  But, at least he did pay attention to them.

These people are not going to go away.  They are going to want those flashy little items they see others carrying.  They are going to want clean rooms.  They are going to want to enjoy some of the fruits of their labour.  All political parties in this country have to recognize this and start listening to these people before they decide, once again that they are going to take what they need.

Let a few streams flow, or watch the levy break and drown us all.

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