Myths and reality of Isan inequality

Commuters board a train from the northeastern province of Nong Khai to Bangkok after the end of Songkran holiday in 2015. A new study has found that labour migration from the Northeast has fallen from the rate in the 1990s. WICHAN CHAROENKIARTPAKUN

For decades, the ethnically and linguistically diverse people of Isan, Thailand, have been the subject of pervasive bias, often described as docile and uneducated, or as "unsophisticated peasants" who can be bought and manipulated by ambitious politicians.

Bordered by Laos and the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the southeast, these 20 provinces in Thailand's northeast have long been the country's poorest and least fertile region. But Isan is also Thailand's most populous region, with 22 million inhabitants, 33% of the country's total population. It is a population that matters deeply to the country's future prosperity.

A major new study from The Asia Foundation, "Thailand's Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan", sets aside these prejudices to instead offer a comprehensive understanding of a region deeply in need of development. The study, conducted from late 2017 to April 2019, explores the perceptions of the people of Isan themselves -- how they see their lives today and their prospects for the future, the challenges and opportunities before them, what matters to them, and what they expect from the government. Based on a randomised survey of 1,400 households, and 160 semi-structured interviews and focus groups, the study explores public attitudes on fundamental topics such as economic status, optimism about the future, health, education, migration, and public policy.

There is good news to report. Data from the National Statistics Office shows that the number of people living below the poverty line in the Northeast has declined substantially, from nearly 5.7 million people in 2007 to 2.4 million people in 2016, a significant improvement for a majority of the population. Yet, people in Isan are still concerned about the overall direction of the country. When asked whether Thailand is going in the right or the wrong direction, 55% of respondents in this heavily agricultural region said the country is going in the wrong direction, citing a bad economy (74%) and poor crop prices (50%).

Looking at incomes in the region, 44% of respondents reported that their incomes have been stagnant, and 36% said that their incomes have decreased. Meanwhile, both farm and non-farm costs are rising. Some 38% of all respondents said that investment costs have increased in the past year. Eighty-eight percent of all respondents said they are in debt, and 45% of all respondents said their debt is due to loans for investment in either a farm or a non-farm business.

In the agriculture sector, rents for agricultural land, the cost of labour, and prices for pesticides and other inputs have all increased. One-third of the region's population, 7.8 million people, are farmers, and the majority produce cash crops, such as rubber, sugarcane and cassava, that are sensitive to volatile international markets. With stagnant incomes, fluctuating crop prices, and the growing cost of investment, Isan farmers are struggling to maintain their quality of life.

Although personal indebtedness has increased nationally in Thailand, debt levels in Isan are particularly troubling. The population of Isan has an average debt of about nine months of earnings, or 75% of annual income. In 1996, the average household debt was 36,204 baht. Today that indebtedness stands at 160,000 baht.

Overall, low productivity, fluctuating crop prices, stagnant incomes, and rising debt make it harder to live well in Isan. Yet, a striking aspect of "Thailand's Inequality" is the portrait it paints of resilience and perseverance. Some 57% of respondents think their livelihoods will improve in the future, while just 10% think their livelihoods will get worse.

Stories of resilience come through clearly in the qualitative component of the research. For example, organic farmers in the village of Na Wang Yai, a hundred kilometres from the city of Khon Kaen, were eager to describe their efforts to rise above the level of subsistence farming. They explained why organic rice is a better crop that earns them a better price, they lamented the growing cost of investment, and they talked about new kinds of financing that financial institutions have introduced.

Interviewed shortly before the latest elections, these farmers were articulate about what they wanted from the government: better public policy. They had met all their politicians, and they were used hearing promises that would never be kept. They didn't want 500-baht handouts to secure their votes, they said; what they wanted from the incoming government was "water" and "technology".

Currently, the village has limited access to water and a small collection of agricultural equipment that everyone must share. "More of these would be better," said one farmer, "even if the government would pay just half."

These farmers represent the changing face of Isan, where agriculture is evolving, and aspirations are emerging for new tools and knowledge. They were outspoken and sophisticated, far from the demeaning stereotypes. Despite the widespread lack of formal education among farmers and informal workers in Isan, respondents were well-versed in the spectrum of government services. When asked about their satisfaction with the performance of 20 government programmes, they spoke clearly about what these programmes had been doing for them and their hopes and expectations of much more.

A fascinating aspect of this underdeveloped region was the strong bond Isan farmers, workers, and students feel toward their hometowns. "Isan is home," was a common refrain in the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. "We want to work closer to home." "We want to study closer to home."

The strong attachment of Isan people to their hometowns can be seen in the decline of worker emigration from the region. While studies through the 1990s found rates of labour migration that ranged from 38% to 68% of the population, just 25% of respondents in this study have lived elsewhere for more than a year.

The Isan region is Thailand's poorest, and life there is tough, but this research found that Isan farmers and workers are determined. They understand the government's safety-net programmes and make the best of them. These programmes play a vital role in alleviating their hardship, and what the government does significantly affects their quality of life. They also have plenty of room for improvement.

"Thailand's Inequality" highlights the voices, perceptions, and aspirations of the people of Isan. An honest, straightforward, and bipartisan conversation is now needed to turn this evidence into meaningful development projects and programmes that will help empower residents to lift their region out of poverty and toward sustainable growth and equitable development.


Rattana Lao is a senior programme officer for policy and research for The Asia Foundation in Thailand. She can be reached at rattana.lao@asiafoundation.org. This article originally published in InAsia, a blog of the Asia Foundation.

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