National Geographic : 2014 Sep
130 national geographic • september 2014 T he allure of money can loosen the grip of tradition, and it was this force that began shaking Thailand’s old social order some three decades ago. Dur- ing the economic boom that began in the 1980s, wealth poured into the country at such a pace that per capita income tripled within one generation. Bangkok, the nation’s capital, was transformed into a high-rise metropolis where shopping malls competed for space with Buddhist tem- ples. Country people flocked to the big city for jobs, pulling apart traditional family structures and discovering new ways of seeing the world. About 10 percent of Thailand’s population of 67 million now lives in Bangkok, a figure that rises when the several million migrant workers from rural areas are counted. With paved roads, electricity, motorbikes, and television sets, Thai- land’s villagers have become some of the most affluent poor people in the world, acquiring the academic label “middle-income peasants.” This rise in well-being has also brought dissat- isfaction with the glaring gulfs between rich and poor. As a result Thai society has been undergo- ing a historic realignment in which the poorer classes, encouraged by ambitious politicians, have been seeking their share of the prosperity and clout that have always been beyond their reach. An alliance of Thailand’s old political institutions—with the palace, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military at their core—has been pushing back, defending the privileges of a hierarchical system that governs both public and private life. These dynamics came to a dramatic head on May 22, when the military seized power in a coup following seven months of increasing ten- sion. Officials imposed a nighttime curfew and severely restricted free speech and the press. Leaders of the ousted government were seized or went into hiding. Journalists, politicians, and outspoken academics were ordered to surrender. Among those arrested was Chaturon Chai- sang, the ousted education minister. “If anyone thinks that the coup will stop all the conflict and the turmoil, or violence, they would be wrong,” he said, before being led away by armed soldiers. As I write this, just days after the coup, it is impossible to predict where Thailand is heading or even how the situation will stand when this magazine goes to press. “ The underlying forces are ultimately in favor of the demands for distribution of wealth and power,” said Chris Baker, a British historian based in Thailand. “But it will only come gradually, and not in straight lines.” The rising underclass forms by far the largest By Seth Mydans Photographs by James Nachtwey Seth Mydans covered Thailand for the New York Times for more than a decade. James Nachtwey was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize for a career revealing the human cost of war.