- While the Southeast Asian nation has 50 billionaires – ninth in global rankings – 14.5 million people live on welfare, making wealth a hot election issue this year
It’s polo season in Thailand and teams of jodhpur-clad Argentines and moneyed Asians gallop onto the flawless field in Chonburi – the capital of Chonburi province on the country’s eastern Gulf of Thailand coast – as spectators spill from a pavilion – glasses of champagne in hand – for the final chukka.
The “Sport of Kings” has been undergoing an unlikely renewal in Thailand, one of the world’s most unequal countries, which went to the polls last month with the widening wealth gap coming into sharp focus.
Thailand boasts 50 billionaires, according to the latest rich list published by China-based researchers at the Hurun Report – the ninth-most in the world and more than France, Japan and Singapore.
Some of that money paid for the play at a recent charity event at the Thai Polo & Equestrian Club, an unexpected oasis of immaculate lawns, wood-panelled changing rooms and stables a stone’s throw from the raucous “Sin City” of Pattaya.
“Is polo elitist? Yes, you cannot deny it is a very elite sport,” says Nunthinee Tanner, the club’s convivial co-founder and doyenne of the Thai equestrian scene.
“A small group plays across the world because it’s very expensive and takes a lot of practice.”
As she speaks, Thai “HiSo” (high society) women in striking millinery and high heels pick their way over the soft turf.
Laughter peals from the Veuve Clicquot tent where men in seersucker and pink trousers have encamped for the day.
“It’s a sport of CEOs and royalty,” Nunthinee says.
On cue, billionaire Harald Link – a German-born naturalised Thai businessman and philanthropist who co-owns the club – leads the home team onto the field, mallet in hand.
The World Bank says we are a miracle of Asia … but when you look closely we perform so badly in terms of inequality
Other team patrons include Brian Xu, head of Shanghai Marco Stationery, the world’s biggest pencil-making company, while Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah had been planning to play until his sudden elevation to the Malaysian throne on January 31.
Invented by Persian warriors and codified by British imperialists, polo has long found a home in Thailand, a kingdom where royalty, wealth and elite networks are cross-hatched into the social fabric.
Most teams are top-loaded with Argentines who command huge salaries, stumped up by patrons to play alongside the best.
The late Thai duty-free tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was among the sport’s biggest spenders.
He died in a helicopter crash outside the ground of his beloved English Premier League soccer club, Leicester City, last October, leaving an estimated US$5.8 billion fortune to his heir.
Wealth was a hot election issue leading up to the March 24 polls after nearly five years of rule under the military junta.
The 2014 coup d’état installed General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader, as prime minister.
Thailand’s Election Commission has already released the final vote, which showed Phalang Pracharat, the party allied with the ruling junta, had 8.4 million votes. Pheu Thai, the opposition party allied with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra won 7.9 million votes.
However, the count was marred by concerns about voting irregularities, and official results are not expected to be certified until May 9.
All the party leaders from across the political spectrum had promised to raise incomes and address inequality.
“The top 20 per cent own 80 per cent of wealth,” Kobsak Pootrakool, spokesman for the junta-aligned Phalang Pracharat party, said ahead of the election.
“The World Bank says we are a miracle of Asia … but when you look closely we perform so badly in terms of inequality.”
The army has seized power a dozen times in under 100 years. It has done so with the support of much of the Bangkok-based elite, who underpin the kingdom’s sharp hierarchy and bristle at economic and political challenges from below.
The nation’s monarchy is among the world’s richest.
Cash also cascades down family-run businesses, whose monopolies are inoculated against competition by friends and family in politics and generous tax breaks, while generals sit on company boards.
“Big capital and the military are in the same bed,” said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the upstart, anti-junta Future Forward Party and the son of one of the country’s 50 billionaires.
“Inequality won’t be solved” unless that clot of power and money is removed, he said, warning that the wealth gap, described by a Credit Suisse study as the widest in the world, was a threat to stability in the country.
The pinch of rising living costs, debt and dipping farm incomes has been felt more keenly under the rule of unelected generals.
More than 14.5 million Thais qualify for welfare, with most of them earning less than US$1,000 a year.