July 15, 1998


Bringing to book

PROFILE: Academic Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit has spent a lifetime conducting research and writing hard-hitting books that highlight Thailand's social and economic ills

Vasana Chinvarakorn
A rare merging of intellectual minds: Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit and husband Chris Baker have been exchanging ideas and opinions for over twenty years, so "it's become difficult to say whose ideas dominate." --Somkid Chaijitvanit

On first impression, Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit appears your typical conservative scholar. Everything about the economist seems to conform to the stereotype of a brainy professor perched in an ivory tower. The kind who churn out endless books and articles in dry, yawn-inviting language on subjects that put students to sleep.

To a certain degree, the stereotype applies here. A Cambridge alumnus, Dr Pasuk is certainly nobody's fool.

Presently the chairwoman of Chulalongkorn University's Political Economy Centre, she has produced volumes of academic work. She presides over top-end conferences with an air of authority and is also a member of a sub-committee for research at the Counter Corruption Commission (CCC).

In private interviews, Dr Pasuk chats in a smooth but detached tone even when the subject matter is dramatic and personal. Her dress code is conventional; her manners are graceful but decidedly reserved. But that's the end of the stereotypical "front" view. A look at the works done by this 52-year-old woman shows a different person underneath. Though groomed intellectually overseas, Dr Pasuk's main concern continues to be the plight of the poor.

Despite a thorough knowledge of complex econometric models - a long-revered tool for charting economic growth - the Chula professor is more inclined to talk about the lives of prostitutes, gambling den owners, and protesting villagers to illustrate the murky side of Thailand's boom years of the late '80s and early '90s. In 1982, when many economists were enthusing about the prospect of economic growth, Dr Pasuk launched a book that became a classic in its own right, From Peasant Girls to Bangkok Masseuses.

In less than 80 pages, the Chula economist demonstrated how upcountry girls are "exploited for the sake of the country's balance of payments and urban growth." A pretty bold statement at the time. In the early nineties, when Thailand was noisily roaring its aspirations to become the next Asian tiger, Dr Pasuk and her colleagues at Chula came up with research on the size of their country's underground economy that made audiences gasp.

Dr Pasuk and her band of researchers claimed the revenue from gambling, prostitution, drugs and the arms trade was equivalent to almost twenty percent of the national gross domestic product. Another research by the same band on corruption in the police force caused an instant stir. In retaliation, defamation charges were promptly brought against the academics at about 30 police stations in Bangkok. A researcher's house came under siege, office phones were bugged, mysterious faxes with pictures of bullets were sent, along with a death threat. Fortunately, Dr Pasuk's collaborations with her husband, former Cambridge History lecturer Christopher John Baker, have garnered a much gentler reception.

Through its 400-plus pages, Thailand: Economy and Politics (1995) traces a "people's history," be they farmers, Chinese immigrants, generals, bureaucrats, bankers, student radicals or politicians. The book was in stark contrast to traditional history books which focussed on the Kingdom's royalty.

Thailand's Boom (1996), and this year's timely revision, Thailand's Boom and Bust, fast became a must-read introduction for those seriously curious about what boosted and subsequently bust the Kingdom.

The longest-running marital quarrel

Chris Baker
Growing public recognition for her economic research aside, when Dr Pasuk first entered the field three decades ago, she had very little idea what it was all about.

"It was chance really," Dr Pasuk recalled. "My family wanted me to study Arts. They said it was good for young women. I wanted to be a diplomat, as this would take me around the world."

An extremely bright student, Dr Pasuk had no difficulty passing the entrance exam for Chula's Faculty of Political Sciences in 1964. One year later, she flew to Australia having won a Colombo Plan Scholarship. "I had no choice but to choose Economics as the plan offered only Economics, Engineering or Science," Dr Pasuk continued.

She was becoming bored with economic theories when a visiting professor from Cambridge, Dr Joan Robinson, gave a lecture at Monash University in Melbourne where Dr Pasuk earned her bachelor's and master's degrees.

"She said Economics is about solving the problems of the poor and the injustices in the world. I thought that was something relevant to Thailand as I grew up in a small village in Rangsit, Pathum Thani. In those days, it took a whole day to get to Bangkok by steamboat.

"My childhood made me appreciate the problems of limited development and the poor opportunities for rural people as compared to those in Bangkok. It became my dream to go to Cambridge if I had a chance to continue my Economics study."

Her ambition was quickly realised.

In 1973 she won another scholarship from Chulalongkorn University which took her to the renowned seat of learning.

A few days after she left the country, university students and protesters took to the streets and, following bloodshed, toppled the military-dominated regime.

At Cambridge, Dr Pasuk not only studied and taught part-time, she also met Chris John Baker. In 1979, the same year she earned her PhD, she started a rather unique partnership.

"This is a true story," Dr Baker said, recalling how the pair met. "The two people who introduced us invited us to their house. They both fell asleep while the pair of us just kept on talking. We've been arguing constantly for over 20 years, and so it's difficult to say whose ideas dominate."

Although the couple do not have children of their own, their "dialectic" companionship has borne fruits in a more intellectual way.

Whereas Dr Pasuk is a Thai female economist seriously tied up with academia, Dr Baker is a farang male with background in History who has, since his departure from Cambridge, been working in business circles. The writing of Thailand: Economy and Politics came out of this rare merging of minds.

"It [the book] was the strangest, longest marital quarrel," Dr Baker confided. "We wrote most of it at Cha-am or Hua Hin over weekends for about three years. We'd walk down the beach and argue, very fiercely, about everything.

"No, it doesn't strain our relationship. I think I'm quite lucky to have someone I can talk to with that intensity over long periods of time."

Like any young Thai-farang couple settling in Thailand, Doctors Pasuk and Baker have encountered a few mini-episodes of misunderstanding. These have ranged from humorous remarks to plain condescension.

"When we walked down the street, taxi drivers would call out to us and ask if we wanted a ride to a motel," Dr Pasuk reminisced.

"I remember once a vendor on the roadside gave me a look that sent a chill down my spine. It was as if she was questioning how I dare become a farang's girlfriend. Another time, one bar girl pulled me aside and asked 'Where did you pick him up? He's kinda cute.' "

'One of those girls looking for a job'

The above was not the only misunderstanding. As a young acharn with long hair, T-shirt and blue jeans doing research into massage girls, Dr Pasuk was often mistaken as "one of those girls looking for a job."

"I simply played along. But when I became friendly with some of them and they invited me to their house, they'd ask me what I did exactly. During conversation they often found me too interested, so I told them I taught at university. They asked me not to forget to greet them if we came across each other in the street because at that time the divisions [in society] were much greater."

The prostitution research opened a new world to Dr Pasuk. She found the flesh trade deeply embedded in Thai society, condoned and promoted by quite a few government officers.

"In one case, we found a village headman running a whore house. So how can you expect poor farming families to think differently about selling their daughters?"

Personal encounters with government officers engaging in the illegal economy led Dr Pasuk a few years later into areas where very few scholars dare to tread.

"I also did some work on the 'proper' economy too, but there was nothing special about that. With the research into the illegal economy, however, I unearthed new information. I try to position it in the overall political economic structure, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, rather than treating it as a special issue on its own."

Dr Pasuk was one of a few members at Chula's Faculty of Economics to revive the activities of its Political Economy Centre.

By the late '70s and early '80s, the centre had earned a reputation as the hub of Thailand's leftist intellectuals.

By the late 1980s, however, the centre went through a lacklustre phase. Certain core members left for the business sector, and some even joined the ranks of the Chatichai coalition government in 1988 as advisers.

At that time, Dr Pasuk was engaged in "conventional" research for several prestigious organisations. She was working for the International Labour Office, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, and helping draft the sixth plan for the National Social and Economic Development Board (NSEDB).

This was to change in 1990 when Dr Pasuk became director of the centre, a position she held until 1994. Together with junior lecturers, most notably Sangsidh Piriyarangsan and Nualnoi Treerat, she embarked on a series of studies that attempted to expose the extent of government corruption and the underground world of the Thai economy.

With Dr Sangsidh's flair for creating publicity, the studies caught the attention of both local and international audiences.

Instantly, the topic was on everybody's lips. The World Bank even flew Dr Pasuk in March this year to talk on the subject at an international forum in Mexico.

Unfortunately, the project also caught the attention of the Thai police and intimidation followed.

(Ironically, Dr Sangsidh is presently an adviser to Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, who oversees the police department. Dr Pasuk simply laughed mildly and declined to comment on this twist of fate.)

Corruption research:

They all turned me down In fact, Dr Pasuk's reason for heading the corruption team in the early '90s was partly to groom young researchers.

But despite the furore caused by the project's findings, researcher recruitment remains rather low.

"I tried to get my master's students to take up case studies but they all turned me down," Dr Pasuk said, explaining her predicament. "They know what's going on [in their offices]. It would be difficult for ordinary students to collect similar data. But they've all shied away because of the potential danger and possible repercussions when they return to office positions.

"I was pretty scared myself. During the flare-up we were told to be careful when driving alone at night, as we might accidentally get bumped off. The police finally lodged complaints against Acharn Sangsidh who was the only male member of the team. They may have thought it unmanly for them to pick on women," Dr Pasuk continued, summing up the excitement of the time.

As a member of the CCC's sub-committee on research, Dr Pasuk has set up prizes for research into corruption in an attempt to foster interest.

The Senior Researcher Award she received from the Thailand Research Fund last year should have helped Dr Pasuk recruit students in her anti-corruption campaign.

So far, however, the Chula professor has managed to recruit only one master's student who has expressed an interest in exploring the gambling issue.

"It takes time to make people change their views because corruption is a cultural and structural problem," Dr Pasuk explained. But it would appear that translating research results into policies and legislation is an even harder task than recruiting researchers.

When asked how the CCC has responded to her work so far, Dr Pasuk went silent before giving this carefully-worded reply.

"They liked what I did, but they were very cautious about it. I've tried to suggest that they focus their research on problems in the Customs Department, those informal 'taxes,' in order to understand the mechanisms and help design ways to counter the practices. But resources are limited, especially now."

The recent iTV expose of bribery within the police force could be regarded as a sequel to work carried out by Dr Pasuk's team five years ago. However, Dr Pasuk cautions that removing "a few bad people" will not solve the problems in the long run.

"The problem is structural. The police force is badly-paid, top-heavy, poorly-trained, over-militarised. It needs a big change in structure, recruitment, training, and culture. Much the same can be said of the forestry department, customs, and some other offices."

Control your own destiny

The problems of society's constraints on an individual has been a recurring theme in Dr Pasuk's work, be it about rural girls forced into prostitution or government officials having to accept corrupt practices.

And now the same issue has popped up again, but this time at an international level.

Doctors Pasuk and Baker have come out and criticised the IMF's austerity programmes which, they believe, loom over and dictate the direction of Thailand's current national policies.

Worse, they state, the international body's one-size-fits-all approach has heightened the severity of the situation.

"The programme was designed for completely the opposite situation. It's supposed to be for countries with large government debts, prone to high inflation, and with substantial government budget deficits. But we did not have those problems.

"Our group at the Political Economy Centre went to see then-prime minister Chavalit at the beginning of the IMF programme to tell him we disagreed with the conditions and we should renegotiate. But Khun Chavalit simply said he already tried that, unsuccessfully, over the telephone."

In the couple's opinion, the present resistance to the sale of state enterprises and other national assets to foreign interests is not xenophobic nationalism, but rather shrewd practicality.

"The West interprets this [resistance] as cronyism; they have missed the point. This is simply business negotiations," Dr Pasuk said.

On an international level, Dr Pasuk supports the idea of regional alliance, particularly among countries affected by similar problems. Unfortunately, she has not seen any such initiatives among the country's leaders.

On the other hand, on the local front, the couple have noticed a rise in ordinary people determined to take destiny into their own hands. As a matter of fact, they plan to investigate the grass-roots movements in Thai society as their next joint venture.

Accordingly, the intellectual pair view the current economic downturn as a valuable mistake that should prompt people to question, and try to stop, a path of development that has long gone awry.

"Perhaps I'm pessimistic, but over the last 10-20 years I have not seen any real economic development. The increase in per capita income was an illusion," Dr Pasuk said.

While the Chula scholar is concerned the current crisis will bring a lot of pain to the poor and worsen the country's illegal economy, she does not want recovery to come too soon.

"If the crisis picks up too fast, we will lose momentum for change. In a way, the prolonged crisis is a blessing in disguise.

It will enable us to think more deeply about our future, instead of following other people's advice and direction ... hopefully," Dr Pasuk concluded optimistically, while displaying a rare hint of uncertainty.




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Last Modified: Wed, Jul 15, 1998
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