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7 Jan, 2007

10 Years After 1997 Crisis, Have Any Lessons Been Learnt?

Originally Published: 7 Jan 2007

In spite of all the prayers and hopes, 2007 has already gotten off to a less an auspicious start and promises to get worse, both at home and abroad.

However, a number of important anniversaries this year offer an opportunity to reflect on the fact that many, if not all, our present problems are carry-ons from unresolved problems of the past and proof of the continuing human propensity to never learn from the past in pondering the future.

2007 will mark 10 years since 1997 economic crisis, 40 years since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, 80 years since the birth of His Majesty the King, 200 years since the abolition of slavery in U.K. and, if looked at from another calendar entirely, 2550 years since the birth of Buddhism.

Those events cover an entire spectrum of issues — social, cultural, political, economic and religious. Think about them:

<> In 1997, Thailand fell victim to the “greed is good’ and “get rich quick” gold rush. As a result, financial terrorists attacked the baht, triggering an Asia-wide slump, prompting much hand-wringing and soul-searching about how the Asian Tigers could have collapsed so dramatically.

Many “initiatives” were launched to ensure that such a debacle would fall into the “never again” category, to draw a phrase from the Jewish Holocaust. International institutions like the ADB and IMF were involved in the effort to set up early warning systems.

And yet, last month, it was nearly déjà vu again, for nearly the same reasons and largely under the same circumstances as 1997. So, what had we learned, and of what use were those “early warning systems?”

<> In June 1967, the six-day Arab-Israeli war led to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Although the Sinai has been returned to Egypt, the rest of the occupation continues to defy resolution and brings out the worst in peoples who are theoretically followers of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Of what use are those religions, if they only spawn problems instead of solutions?

<> 80 years since the birth of H.M. the King: There is little doubt that the King would like to see the country progress in accordance with the policies and philosophies enunciated in his many annual birthday comments.  But if the state of the nation today was to be compared against a check-list of his wish-list, how would it fare? I suspect pretty poorly.

If that is to be changed, what needs to be done next?  One thing for sure, a time soon will come when soul-searching will convulse the nation about why more was not done to heed His Majesty’s advice when we had a chance to. Unfortunately, it will be too late by then.

<> 200 years since the Abolition of Slavery Act in the UK: The people of India, once colonised by the British, may be familiar with this event about which more can be read here: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Lslavery07.htm

I once asked some colleagues if they knew why they were so many ethnic Indians in places like Fiji, Malaysia, the Caribbean and many parts of Africa.  They did not. It was because Indians were uprooted to work in the sugar-cane plantations of the former British colonies, similar to the African slaves shipped to the cotton-fields of pre-independence United States, also a former British colony, by the way.

What was known as “slavery” then is known euphemistically as “labour costs” today. For the vast majority of the peoples of Asia and Africa, nothing has really changed.  Millions still live on less than US$1 a day, while Wall Street investment bankers pull in millions of dollars in bonuses for doing nothing more backbreaking than arranging corporate mergers and acquisitions.

<> 2550 years since the birth of Buddhism: Many occasions will be devoted to pondering this event all year, especially on those special days for contemplation and meditative thinking.  Like all religions that came before or after it, Buddhism sought to create the most important infrastructure of all — a moral and ethical foundation for the people upon which strong communities, societies and economies could be built.

These days, there are many ways to measure income, wealth and economic progress, all of which are rooted in purely monetary considerations. And yet, there is no way of “measuring” a nation’s “moral” position in terms of justice, honesty, community spirit, etc.

However, the good news is that this issue is gaining strength on the radar screen, and will continue to do so.

Between January 26-28, 2007, the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre will be the venue of the 2nd National Moral Marketplace and Assembly [www.moralcenter.or.th] organised by the Center for the Promotion of National Strength on Moral Ethics and Values.

The aim is “to raise awareness of morality, integrity and principles living in the spirit of Thailand’s ongoing transformation into a learning society,” according to a statement by the president of the organizing committee Privy Councillor Prof. Dr. Kasem Wattanachai.

Incorporating H.M. the King’s working philosophy, the three main principles to be discussed are:

1. Making human development the first priority, instead of material advancement, cultivating national growth from within, in line with fostering a new paradigm for the people based on self-dependency:

2. Following the King’s self-sufficiency philosophy by acting in line with the country’s geographical and social context, by going step by step in the simplest way and trying to trace solutions to our roots by learning from nature, and;

3. Adhering to the self-sufficiency economic concept through learning, loving and unity so that we love whatever we set out do and invite others to join us in committing to good deeds aimed at benefiting the majority.

The people of India, like the people of Thailand, are lucky in that they have had two leaders renowned for their devotion to justice, peace and non-violence – H.M. the King and Mahatma Gandhi.

Our only problem is, we hear but we don’t listen. And this year is sure to prove the error of those ways.