Introduction to Thailand
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy under the benevolent leadership of His Majesty Bhumibol Adunyadet, King Rama IX. Thailand experienced steady economic growth of 7% or more during the ten years before 1997. This rapid economic growth broughtchanges in lifestyle for many Thai families who, with increased wealth, were able to become car owners, enjoy foreign travel and generally were able to experience a middle class lifestyle for the first time.
However, this rapid economic growth also created many problems. There was environmental destruction in many places, pollution levels and traffic congestion increased while deforestation continued despite a 1989 ban on all logging. The push to become a newly industrialized country led to an increase in the income gap between rich and poor so that Thailand now has one of the biggest gulfs between the wealthy and the impoverished in the world. Dam and golf course construction and seizure of land for commercial forestry caused suffering to many poor people in rural areas. Deforestation led to drought and soil erosion. Farmers were encouraged to turn away from sustainable land use to cash crops in the hope of gaining quick wealth.In reality many farmers became increasingly impoverished until the burden of debt forced them to leave their villages and migrate to the slums, which grew rapidly in Bangkok and all the other major cities. The period of rapid economic growth came to a sudden halt in 1997. On July the 2nd of that year the Bank of Thailand allowed the Thai currency (the baht)to float. In the following months the baht fell from a rate of exchange of 25 to the US dollar to an exchange rate of over 50 baht to the dollar.
The recession that hit Thailand in the first half of 1997 caused great suffering for poor people. Many workers lost their jobs and were struggling to survive without any unemployment benefit and without any savings to fall back on.At that time, with the government's encouragement, many of the urban poor, who had been struggling to survive in the slums, returned to their home villages. The same villages that they originally fled from to escape the grinding poverty they were experiencing. After the low point of the late nineties the economy recovered again. The government, led by Thaksin Shinawatttra, which came to power in 2001, introduced several populist measures aimed at alleviating poverty.Policies such as universal health care, did help to improve the situation of the poorest in Thailand. However, in September 2006, the military seized power, which was justified by accusations of corruption and human rights abuses against the Thaksin government. After fifteen months under a military appointed government, democracy was restored after elections in January 2008.The leading party in the coalition government is closely allied with the former Thaksin government, with veteran politician Samak Sundaravej as Prime Minister.
Neither the 'populist' policies of the Thaksin government or the 'self-sufficient' economics as promoted by the military-backed government have truly provided long-term solutions to the problems facing the poor. The number of people living in absolute poverty has declined in recent years in Thailand. However, many problems still remain and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.
Slums in Thailand
Thailand has a population of 62 million people, 10 percent of whom live in Bangkok. Nearly 20 percent of those live in slums. Other major urban centres such as Pattaya and Chiang Mai also have growing slum populations. Slums are where many poor migrants from the countryside settle when they migrate to Bangkok and the other large towns in search of work. The slum dwellers are illegally occupying land owned by others as they have no other alternative. They come impoverished to the city and they need a place to live, where they can build a ramshackle shack out of other people's waste material. Bangkok and other towns need low-paid workers and without adequate public housing it is inevitable that these workers and their families will settle in slums, which are affordable places of residence.
Klong Toey Slum where the Duang Prateep Foundation is located is Bangkok's largest slum community with some 80,000 residents. The slum is on land owned by the Port Authority of Thailand. Originally slum dwellers settled on the port land as they helped with the construction of the port in the early nineteen fifties. They then stayed to work as manual labourers at the port. Still today many Klong Toey Slum dwellers work at the Bangkok Port or for shipping companies that have their offices in the area.
Klong Toey Slum is a long-standing slum with a well-established community organization. This has enabled the slum to develop more than many other slums and now most of the wooden walkways have been replaced by concrete paths and the majority of the houses have electricity and mains water supply.
In other respects Klong Toey Slum is a typical Thai slum with a maze of narrow walkways leading away from the road. Walking around the slum the visitor is never far away from the smell of cooking, doors are open, people are sitting outside talking to neighbours. Many households prepare foods for sale and residents are almost always friendly to strangers.
Until recently, Bangkok developed without planning. Clusters of shacks built by poor migrants from the countryside grew up on waste land near a source of work. Employers had the advantage of a nearby pool of cheap labour, workers had affordable accommodation near the job. But as the city attracted more workers, the slums became more crowded and more widespread. Since they were not legally recognized, they were not provided with standard utilities. In most cases there was no adequate drainage system or refuse collection and no clean water supply. There were no roads, simply a maze of broad-walks linking the houses with the outside world. There was no play space for the children, and no schools.
In any case, many of the children had no birth certificates. This effectively barred them from going to state schools. Added to this, the slum people's houses had been built unofficially and were not registered. Legally, they could be evicted at any time. With no outside help, it eventually became clear that if slums were to be improved, they would have to be improved from within, by the people who lived in them.