Thailand is a country that straddles the West and East divide.
It’s the entry point and hub for much of Asia and is simultaneous well-off (the ultramodern Suvarnabhumi Airport maybe) and desperately poor (the slums of Khlong Toey for instance).
So taking everything into account: Is Thailand a third world country?
The original definition of the first world includes Western, capitalist democracies, the second world of communist countries and the third world being the rest. Using this, it would be safest to categorise Thailand as a third world country. Since the end of the Cold War, however, these terms are usually considered outdated or simply obsolete.
The term third world has now come to mean a country that is developing, has a low GDP and high rates of poverty. Thailand is a much poorer and less developed economy compared to European countries for instance but is actually wealthy for Southeast Asia.
There is no easy or quick answer to this question, unfortunately. But I’ll do my best to give as complete an overview as I can in this article.
The Definition Of ‘Third World’
The term ‘third world’ along with its counterparts ‘first world’ and ‘second world’ arose during the Cold War as an expedient heuristic to group countries in.
First World –> This group consists of the US, Western Europe and its allies across the globe, notably Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Second World –> This group consists of the communist nations like the USSR, the rest of the Soviet Bloc, China and a few others.
Third World –> This group is any country that doesn’t fit into the above two categories. These countries are largely in Africa, South and Central America and in parts of Asia.
From this definition, it’s tricky to say. Thailand was on good terms with Western allies during the Cold War period, although with its shaky constitutional democracy, numerous coups and violent responses to peaceful demonstrations it didn’t have too much in common with them.
Here’s one interpretation of how it looks on the world stage courtesy of Wikipedia. It classifies Thailand as first world, but other sources do not.
Even if there were a consensus, the reality is not this simple. Firstly, it’s not 1975 any more. Secondly, the term ‘third world’ has evolved to have something of a different meaning in the language of today.
What ‘Third World’ Means Nowadays
These days, the term ‘third world’ is shorthand for poor nations. At some point, the phrase became synonymous with undeveloped economies in pre-industrialised countries with high rates of poverty. It makes sense that countries that were not aligned with the two major powers, NATO countries or communist bloc, suffered economically.
The term doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. The lines have blurred between all the groups since the fall of the Soviet Union, where many countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe, adopted free-market economies.
Also many of the countries that were considered third world have experienced decades of rapid industrialisation and wealth creation.
South Korea is one notable example of a country that would have been referred to as third world. Poor and war-torn in the 1950s, walk around the bustling metropolis of Seoul in 2019 and you’ll be dazzled by its affluence.
Is Thailand A Third World Country?
The question that I believe needs to be answered is whether Thailand can be considered a developed or developing country. So I want to discuss a few of the economic, social and political markers that go along with that.
GDP. Thailand has a GDP of around $450 billion which puts it the 25th largest economy across the globe. That works out to a per capita of $17,900 per person which is similar to countries like Iraq, Costa Rica or Montenegro. Wealthy by SEA standards and average by global standards.
Politics. Thailand is ostensibly a constitutional monarchy that holds democratic elections. The king remains the head of state but with limited power, in much the same way as the queen does in the UK. What separates Thailand is the huge amount of influence the military has in politics, staging regular coups (12 since 1932) and running the country in place of the politicians as they are doing at the time of writing (2019). Can you consider a country that cannot form a stable democracy without military intervention as a developed country?
Infrastructure. The infrastructure in Thailand compares well with its neighbours and other formerly Third World countries. The roads are reasonably well maintained, the electricity never goes out, tap water is clean and public buildings are plentiful. On the other hand, if you compare it to Western countries there is a lot to be desired.
Corruption. Sadly, we now come to an ever-present in many walks of life in Thailand. From the roadside policeman who wants a 500฿ “fine” from the white-looking folks not wearing a helmet to widescale government subsidies aimed at convincing swathes of voters to stick with their man.
The following graph displays the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. Thailand is firmly in the red hues, if not at the darkest end.
In practical terms, Thai people enjoy prosperity that is outrageously higher than 50-70 years ago. While much of the wealth is concentrated in Bangkok and much of the poverty in the old farming communities, overall it’s a richer place. And in fact, the economy is still experiencing excellent growth, with the country enjoying around a 4% growth in GDP in recent years.
Based on all this I’d say it’s difficult to classify Thailand as a ‘third world’ country.
Is Thailand A Developing Country?
The term ‘developing country’ is useful here. It is not loaded with negative connotations and is grounded in measurable outcomes. It’s also a much more realistic way of seeing the world.
Whether or not a country is ‘developing’ or ‘developed’ varies depending on which organisation is doing the description. It comes down to measurable indicators like HDI (Human Development Index) and industrialisation.
This graphic shows the HDI, a useful shorthand for measuring quality-of-life outcomes for the people of a country. The measures it uses include life expectancy, education, per capita income.
You can see that Thailand falls into the ‘High’ bracket here along with countries such as Brazil, Mexico, China and Ukraine. It falls short of the wealthiest countries that have a HDI of ‘Very High’.
Another useful graphic comes from the IMF’s measure of economies. This one includes developing economies, countries that have graduated to developed economies and newly industrialised economies. Thailand falls into that last category, with countries like China and Mexico, implying that progress is being made towards ‘developed country’ status but it has not been reached yet.
Based on this evidence, it seems best to conclude that Thailand is still a developing country but well on its way to becoming an advanced economy. Another point against the idea that Thailand might be a ‘third world’ country.
How Wealthy Is Thailand Compared To Its Neighbours?
It comes as a shock to tourists that wander around Bangkok’s crumbling streets and corrugated iron-roofed houses, but Thailand is actually considered something of the rich man of the region.
ASEAN, which is the equivalent of the EU for Southeast Asia, contains the ten countries of the region. Excluding the wealthy but small states of Singapore and Brunei, only Malaysia boasts a larger economy than Thailand in per capita terms.
Southeast Asia has been an impoverished part of the globe for centuries.
The ex and currently communist countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are particularly badly off. They have suffered from the devastating effects of the Vietnam war (not just waged against Vietnam) and a stultifying economic system. Even a horrendous genocide, in Cambodia’s case.
To the West of Thailand we have Myanmar, which equally has experienced stifled growth as the result of a military that wields too much power and an unwillingness to move to a democratic political system and a free markets based economy.
Migrant workers from these countries often come to Thailand in search of a better salary to take back to their own country, as people like to do all over the world.
Walk past any building site in Bangkok (and there’s plenty to choose from) and you’ll notice the lilt of the language spoken start to change. That’s just the most visible example. Migrant workers are used extensively in the fishing industry and in factories (where they are, sadly, ripe for exploitation and human trafficking).
The point is,… if you’re a poor dude just scraping by in this corner of the world, Thailand is where you go to earn a bit of coin and get a headstart in life. It’s hard to describe somewhere as third world when it’s such a desirable destination for so many in the nearby area to make a living.
Why Is Thailand Better Off Than Other Formerly ‘Third World’ Countries?
The Southeast Asia region is one of the poorest in the world, with Thailand being seen as a big fish in a small pond, so to speak. So how did this come about?
As many Thais will be happy to tell you, it began with the Siamese kingdom escaping the clutches of colonialism back in the 19th century. In an age where the world was being plundered for manpower and resources by the Western powers, through a combination of tactful diplomacy and westernisation (and being a handy buffer state between French Indochina and British India/Burma), Siam remained an independent nation.
The conversion to Western ideals and standards brought with it a democratic political system and a free-market economy. This allowed Thailand (as it became known in 1939) to leap ahead of its peers economically. The gap widened as a result of much of the war and infighting and political turmoil that dogged many ex-Third World countries who spent the post-war period fighting for independence while Thailand experienced relative peace.
Take Vietnam for instance. A country that was similar to Thailand but had to endure a 20-year war which decimated its country, its people and even to this day it has not recovered from. You can point to Latin America for more examples of countries that would have benefitted from a 20th century with a little less conflict.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are countries that were considered third world that now are as wealthy as any first world nation. I mentioned South Korea’s impressive rise, and you can throw Singapore and (possibly) Hong Kong in with that. Thailand still lags behind these economic powerhouses.
The Difference Between Bangkok And The Rest Of Thailand
Bangkok is a prominent example of a primate city. This means that much of the wealth, population, jobs and infrastructure is centred in one place, leaving the surrounding areas lacking. London and Paris are similar examples.
This is important for this discussion because whether you can call Thailand ‘third world’ or not hinges on what you look at. Poor farming communities in Isaan or the country’s hotspot of wealth.
Bangkok is a bustling metropolis filled with hundreds of skyscrapers, thousands of cars and millions of people. It’s the heart of the country’s commerce and tourism and it’s a very different place to the rest of the country.
While it’s true that there are several minor cities or towns in Thailand, you will not find anything remotely similar in size or influence to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai may have busy roads, but it’s a fraction of the size of the capiral and you will be hard-pressed to find a building over 5 stories high. Pattaya is more developed but is so small you can fly around town in a songthaew for a few baht a time.
Venture further afield and the difference becomes even more stark. Millions live on rice farms, breaking their backs just to keep food on the table. Life in these areas would remind you more of Medieval serfdom than modern-day life.
So while Bangkok may have the veneer of a modern city with modern amenities, and you can wander around its busy streets thinking it ain’t so different to back home, it’s not really a fair reflection of the country as a whole.
Why We Shouldn’t Use ‘Third World’
I’ve tried my best to answer this question without being derogatory or disparaging. The term ‘third world’ brings to mind starving children, shantytowns, rivers full of sewage and other such things. It’s kinda like a certain president using the term ‘shithole countries’. It’s casually insulting and just not a nice thing to say.
These days, it’s more appropriate to say ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, which is more what I’ve tried to answer.