FOCUS / THAI SOCIETY
Critics question value of sufficiency economy
Some argue it is a convenient tool which allows the elite to do nothing for the poor
By ACHARA ASHAYAGACHAT
Apart from ''reconciliation'', another buzzword that has prevailed in Thai society over the past few years is ''sufficiency''.
But how applicable is the philosophy, coined by His Majesty the King, to the current state of the country's economy and lifestyle choices?
While the 2006 coup-makers and coup-installed government of Surayud Chulanont readily adopted the royal philosophy as a policy guideline, some academics argued that overt emphasis on the ideology was more a political manoeuvre by the powers-that-be and the elite within Thai society than a viable economic model.
At a panel discussion on the sufficiency theory, Peter Bell, from State University of New York, said the principle was not a coherent and viable economic theory and the United Nations Development Programme's recommendation that other countries adopt an approach similar to Thailand's sufficiency concept was not relevant.
''The concept is simply a strong critique of Thai capitalist development. It comes with a sense of anti-globalisation, in light of the financial crisis in 1997,'' Mr Bell said.
He added that the village-sufficiency model, if there is such an example currently in existence anywhere in Thailand, is not a system that can logically be expanded into a larger or national economic management system.
''After all, every single aspect of the Thai rural and urban economy is fully integrated with the global economy. Talking about a sufficiency economy is an utopia and could not provide any alternative economic debate at all,'' he said.
Viewed in this light, Mr Bell concluded the sufficiency economy theory was a class response to the crisis of the past decade and arose out of the contradictions in the development path under the regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Although the sufficiency concept strikes a chord with a large portion of the Thai people, as it is essentially an outgrowth of Buddhist living codes, Andrew Walker, from Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, said the royal-sponsored vision misrepresented the nature of the rural livelihoods in contemporary Thailand.
Mr Walker cited his research in Chiang Mai's Ban Thiem village as an example. It showed that demographic changes in the rural North combined with limited land productivity meant natural resources could no longer support the rural population.
At Ban Thiem, he said, perhaps only 10% of their economy was from rice, 10% from farm-based labour, 5-10% from money sent from outside, including from abroad, 30% from other cash crops and some 40% from government spending/employment, which was most vivid during the Thaksin administrations.
''The King's sufficiency economy recommendation that external linkages could only be developed once there was a foundation in local sufficiency was not consistent with the economically diversified livelihood strategies pursued by rural Thai people,'' said the Australian academic.
Failing to address the people's real economic needs, the sufficiency economy has become an ideological tool used by the elite to take the pressure off themselves to address any serious redistribution of income or resources, Mr Walker said.
Indeed, Soren Ivarsson, from University of Copenhagen's history department, went so far as to allege that the term ''sufficiency economy'' was used in the post-coup government to whitewash the regime and reaffirm that it was a guardian of ethics and the monarchy.
However, Charles Keyes, University of Washington's professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies, said northeastern Thailand is where the King's sufficiency theory and capitalist development can be seen to co-exist.
The villagers have unequivocally embraced capitalist development but have also been tempered by values rooted in the Buddhist culture, he said.
''Thai rural society is one that combines capitalist [rational choice] and sufficiency-based [moral choice] stances,'' said Mr Keyes, in his keynote speech to the conference which ended yesterday.
While the philosophy requires certain conditions to thrive, such as a strong community welfare system or high morality, Thai society seems to have gone beyond these factors, said Voravidh Charoenlert, of Chiang Mai University's faculty of economics.
For example, he said, the principle was not applicable in the labour sector, because workers had no control over their means of subsistence, including land use and bargaining power.
Jonathan Rigg, from Durham University in Britain, agreed.
He cited his research with Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute, which found that provinces in central Thailand, such as Ayutthya, offered strong evidence of erosion of community, communal ideals and the social covenant which seems to constitute the basic infrastructure for the sufficiency economy.
Many of the elemental, constitutive elements of ''the village'' had either disappeared or been radically reworked in many Thai rural areas, Mr Rigg said.