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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Glitz and desperation in a Bangkok divided by income

Americans think of Bangkok as embodying the rich-poor divide of the developing world, but some US areas are beginning to rival it.

vast chasm between the superrich and struggling poor shows few signs of narrowing, according to Thai economist Pasuk Phongpaichit, who wrote in a recent analysis that “inequity will continue to be Thailand’s achilles heel.”

A United Nations report on Thailand, which was officially endorsed by the Thai government, was written by researcher Gwi-Yeop Son, In the report, Son attributes the gap, in part, to “the overhang of patron-client ties, the culture of deference and inequities reinforced by the petty rituals of everyday life.”

Thailand, she contends, is a “very unequal society” with a “growing awareness that inequality lies at the root of several forms of human insecurity, including rising political conflict.”

In both America and Thailand, a national debate over this division of wealth has spilled onto the streets. Albeit with very different degrees of intensity.

The US has seen Occupy Wall Street, the ill-defined, sit-in movement that cast America’s top earners as a gluttonous “one percent.” Thailand’s self-proclaimed have-nots are the Red Shirts street faction, which contends the US-backed democracy more closely resembles a feudal serfdom lorded over by aristocrats. The Red Shirts have been involved in sustained, violent clashes against government troops which erupted two years ago, a heated conflict that seems to be simmering on a lower burner now.

In Thailand, “song matratan” — translation: double standards — has become the go-to shorthand for those who believe wealth and connections typically trump the rule of law. The phrase, popularized by the Red Shirts, has sunken into the national consciousness.

But even senior politicians with sympathies towards the protest movement are apt to belittle grumblings over “double standards,” which suggest their entire system is broken.

“This has become a way of thinking in Thai society,” said Nikom Wairatpanij, the president of Thailand’s senate. “If people see they’re losing out, they’ll say it’s ‘double standards.’ If they’re getting their way, they’ll admit there’s a single standard.”

“People probably do this everywhere,” Nikom said. “But maybe it doesn’t manifest itself as violently as it does here.”

Little people fighting

Above: The Maserati store in the upscale Siam Paragon Mall in Bangkok, Thailand. Below: Scenes from the slum of Klong Toei in Bangkok, Thailand.
(Ed Kashi/VII/GlobalPost)

From within Central World, perhaps Bangkok’s hippest mall, there is little to suggest that the complex was recently the scene of Thailand’s worst political violence in decades.

On May 19, 2010, its facade was swallowed by orange flames. The mall’s glass exterior panes exploded into shards, sprinkling the plaza below. The muzak was replaced by squealing fire alarms. Black smoke swept across the downtown skyline.

Among mall-goers, the image of this chic emporium ablaze has come to symbolize class rage run amok. “What they did, it was horrible. It was economic violence,” said Aek Wiyasak, a 27-year-old tourism officer who frequents the mall district. “The world looked on, afraid to come to our country, probably thinking Thailand is a horrible place.”

The shopping district, lined with glowing Gucci and Burberry storefronts, was the Red Shirts’ chosen site for their largest-ever protest encampment. Their faithful ringed it with razor wire and bamboo spikes and refused to leave until the government called new elections.

By the time the anti-establishment movement was finally crushed by guns-blazing infantry units, the chaos left behind nearly 100 corpses, 2,000 injuries and a series of buildings torched by arsonists widely assumed to have come from the Red Shirts’ embittered ranks.

But like the wounded limb of a starfish, the mall’s torched wing has re-grown as if never attacked. Today, after an $88 million reconstruction project, shoppers pouring in and out of Central World face few reminders of the blaze that nearly burned the mall to the ground.

Unless, of course, they come to shop during an appearance by Sawitseree Rorbruu, a 60-something Red Shirt sympathizer who occasionally sets up a public address system by the mall. She and like-minded political agitators are bent on telling shoppers that, instead of lamenting their handbag shops going up in smoke, they should still be mourning the scores of protesters killed during Thai army raids.

“These hi-so people look down at us,” Sawitseree said. “If they see us crying out, they’ll say