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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.

‘These damned people, these weeds, they’re poor and stupid and have no schooling.’ We are not like them. We are the ones who eat curry by the roadside for 20 baht (65 cents). They eat their curry on the mall’s top floor for 60 baht ($1.95).”

Many of Thailand’s upper classes — high society especially — roll their eyes at the movement’s peasants-vs.-aristocrats rhetoric. They insist the protesters were pawns paid by politicians to raise hell and hold the economy hostage. The movement was funded and goaded on by ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire mogul ousted in a 2006 army coup. His younger sister, Yingluck, now serves as prime minister.

“Obviously, someone told them to burn down the mall,” said Udaiwan Niyomseree, a Siam Paragon regular. “They are just little people fighting. But their actions affect the entire country.”

Appearance-wise, the 26-year-old embodies the hi-so: milky skin, twinkling jewelry, an auburn dye job and an educated Thai’s command of English. But she rejects the label. “The hi-so are pretty people, buying lots of stuff, never thinking of the price,” Udaiwan said. “My family is just not rich enough.”

Returning home

Above: Scenes around the Central World Mall in downtown Bangkok, Thailand. Below: Scenes from the slum of Klong Toei in Bangkok, Thailand.
(Ed Kashi/VII/GlobalPost)

Though the size of Thailand’s wealth gap mirrors that of the US, its poverty is far more raw. The brackets measuring both high and low income in Thailand are significantly lower than the brackets of high and low income, for example, in Connecticut.

Street dogs, their flesh eaten by lesions, skulk through Klong Toei’s alleys. Fetid sewage canals cut through the slum like jagged scars. After dark, by the railroad tracks, men go boozing in shacks decorated with twinkling lights and hostesses caked in rouge.

How difficult it is for Thais to navigate their way from a slum like Klong Toei to a better life on the upper end of the economic scale is a central question in comparing the inequality in Thailand to that of Connecticut.

A young woman named Jiraporn Suthaithum, from the slums of Klong Toei, was asked about this. She was born to a mother and father who were paid to wash the blood off butchered pigs in a slaughterhouse. She relied on Catholic charities to fund her boarding school tuition in Thailand. She later graduated from an American college — Methodist University in North Carolina — an almost unheard-of feat for a kid from Klong Toei. She is one of very few Klong Toei natives ever fortunate enough to have traveled overseas.

“I remember, in grade eight, telling my friend that I’m from Klong Toei. She was shocked and said, ‘I heard about the drugs. And all the fires because you’re stacked on top of each other,’” Jiraporn said. “So I knew I was poor. I just sucked it up and got used to it.”

Jiraporn’s brushes with the upper class have disabused any sense that deluxe malls and spoiled teenagers are intimidating. “Of course they buy nice cars and handbags,” she said. “Anyone with money would do the same.”

Blaming the rich for Klong Toei’s poverty is futile, Jiraporn said. The bigger enemy, she said, is the limited worldview worsened by Klong Toei teenagers’ tendency to quit school and start making money on the docks or the streets.

“People think small here. Even my own brother thinks short term. Day to day. If he has a little money, he’ll just buy a new cell phone,” she said. “I think, ‘What do I want to do in the next five years?’ Then I’ll start setting goals.”

Even many Klong Toei dwellers without her advantages are unmoved by messages of class struggle. Cambodian immigrant Tone Mana, a 38-year-old dockworker who lives near Jiraporn, could give a damn about Thailand’s never-ending protests and their angry sermonizing. Double standards are a fact of life, he said, and nothing to throw a molotov cocktail over.

“The rich and poor live on totally different levels. I never had their opportunities. Look at them, look at me, and you’ll see we have nothing in common,” Tone said. “But it doesn’t upset me.”

Despite Jiraporn’s American college degree — an achievement also unattained by many upper-class Thais — she is back where she began. Jiraporn lives with her parents in her childhood home, a wooden dwelling planted in a slum teeming with 100,000 other residents. She works up the block at the Mercy Centre, a charity offering shelter to urchins, health care to HIV-positive locals and other aid. The foundation is headed by a US-born Catholic priest, Joe Maier, who helped put Jiraporn through school. She is happy to give back.

In America, infrastructure and government aid help inoculate the poor from Bangkok-style slum ugliness. Even in Anacostia, the infamously poor quarter in Washington, DC, the sewers are not exposed and the air-conditioning is plentiful.

But Klong Toei, for all its setbacks, is not cursed with American-style gun crime and gang warfare. Most locals are reluctant to label the slum as dangerous.

Still, Jiraporn would like to relocate her parents to nicer environs. Despite her best efforts, she cannot convince her mother to leave the slum. “Her life is here,” she said. “I respect that.”

So, until she marries, she will remain among the dark alleys and bedraggled street dogs, living in a world considered hell by high society and home to her loved ones.

“Klong Toei, to me, it’s really one big family,” Jiraporn said. “Even the drug addicts are pretty nice.” 

More from GlobalPost: The Story Behind the Story: Patrick Winn on income inequality in Bangkok