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26 Apr, 2009

How did Thailand Come to This?

Originally Published: 26 April 2009

When Democrat Party Spokesman, Dr Buranaj Smutharaks spoke at the Foreign Corespondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) last week, his words reflected some deep soul searching about the transformation under way in Thailand’s political scene as well its wider social and cultural psyche.

“Such is the divisiveness of politics today and one can’t help but wonder how did Thailand come to this,” said the Harvard-educated politician who began his career as an aide to former PM Chuan Leekpai. He indicated that the “process of reconciliation to bring politics back to parliament” is not going to be easy.

“Hopefully the new upcoming constitution will be one which is able to reunite the country and which will hopefully stand the test of time in the hope that the events which transpired over the past week will be a thing of the past and that Thailand can hopefully go back to what it once was, a harmonious country where people are tolerant of dissent, of different views, a model economy where you can see that an ASEAN democracy can have a booming economy with liberal democracy side by side. But probably that is still a long way to go.”

In other words, Thailand is no longer what it once was. And his usage of the words “hopefully” and “hope” four times in that 98-word comment, indicates that he sees no light at the end of this tunnel.

That question “How did Thailand come to this?” does warrant deep introspection. Truly, how could a country that warded off the worst scourges of the 20th century, colonialism and communism, become the victim of the worst new scourges of the 21st century?

How could the Rice Bowl of Asia, a trade and transport hub of the Greater Mekong Subregion, an erstwhile Asian tiger and “Amazing Thailand” in tourism terms, suddenly squander those assets and come dangerously close to becoming a failed state?

The answer may lie in how Thailand describes its character, especially in the tourist literature. True, the so-called “Land of the Free” is full of friendly, hospitable people but their laid-back “mai pen rai” attitude towards life suggests a dangerous lack of discipline and a complacent confidence in their ability to ride out anything, such as an AIDS pandemic, SARS, bird flu, tsunami, military coups, terrorism, and more.

Certainly Thailand’s state of “shock and awe” over its “internal shock” is reflected at the international level where an equivalent level of soul searching is under way about the impact of “external shocks”, now termed by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (UN ESCAP) as the triple threats of “food, fuel and financial” crises.

Although these threats will feature in discussions at the UN ESCAP 65th ministerial session starting tomorrow, they were aired during the special body on least developed and landlocked developing countries last Friday.

Comments by representatives of Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Vanuatu and Maldives and others indicated a dawning realisation that a country’s sovereignty and national security are directly related to its level of exposure to external shocks; the more a country is exposed to, and dependent on, foreign funds, food and fuel, even foreign trade, the higher the threat to its national security, particularly when times turn bad.

Landlocked Nepal said that its high level of dependence on fuel and food imports has diverted funds from poverty alleviation and infrastructure development. Bangladesh is worried about the social impact of the unemployment that will result when workers don’t get jobs abroad and remittances drop. Indonesia pointed out the critical need to carefully monitor its level of food import dependency.

The representative of Kiribati pointed out that in order to pay the higher costs of imports, it has been forced to draw upon the reserves of its national trust fund. But that fund has itself been hit as it was generated though years of prudent fiscal management and invested in foreign stock markets.

The Maldivian representative noted the over-dependence on tourism and the need to diversify its economy as well as create alternative sources of energy. High oil prices had a massive impact on transportation systems between the many scattered islands, he said.

Arjun Karki, international coordinator of an NGO called “LDC Watch” called on the governments to debate root causes of these crises and focus on “what created and perpetuated” them. He said, “In our opinion it was created somewhere else and it will affect the poorest parts of the world.” He wanted governments to focus precisely on “what went wrong” and called for a specific “paradigm shift” in coordinating the response.

If the ministers decide to fight the good fight, they will need to raise some hard questions, such as:

<> Who is really behind the speculative currency movements, the fluctuations in oil and commodity prices, the volatility in financial circles? Who are these people referred to by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed as “financial terrorists”?

<> Should we take a time-out from listening to bad advice from doctors who told us how to fix our problems after the 1997 crisis but themselves fell victims to the same sickness?

<> What role has been played by the West’s wars and military adventures in diverting money for unproductive purposes, and how much is continuing to be diverted as a result of the “war on terror”?

<> Why do we in Asia keep believing in bubbles and blindly following the herd?

<> In the search for a new world order, what alternative development models can promote greater self-reliance, and living within our means?

Asian leaders seldom pose these questions in pursuit of solutions that avoid a repetition of past mistakes because it can put them in the awkward position of pointing fingers, usually at themselves.

In her remarks, ESCAP Executive Secretary Dr Noeleen Heyzer voiced concern that countries that have nothing to do with crises fall victim to all the “risks and vulnerabilities.” She said the outcomes of the discussions will be presented at the upcoming UN General Assembly discussion on the financial crisis in June to ensure that “voices and concerns of the LDCs are heard at the global level.”

Merely providing a voice is nothing more than a talk shop. The key is to ensure that those views are heard and acted upon.