Asian Crisis and Change

A new Thai lexicon reflects fresh thinking

A year ago the first tremor of Asia's financial crisis began in Thailand. Since July 2, 1997, Thailand's currency (the baht) has declined in value by 60 percent and the stock market is lower now than it was 10 years ago. A country that averaged more than 8 percent economic growth for the past 20 years will see its economy shrink by 6 percent in 1998.

The Asian financial crisis, however, has gone beyond the economics of the situation. This crisis has many political dimensions to it; two of which are governance and transparency.

Language serves as a useful reflection of the Thai culture and the dramatic change that has taken place in the past year.

Before the crisis there were no Thai words for governance and transparency. In January 1998, Thirayuth Boonmee, a former student activist who 25 years ago helped topple Thailand's then military dictatorship, coined the word for good governance: "dhammarat." In launching the dhammarat drive for all of Thai society, Mr. Thirayuth sidestepped political norms and proposed a national commission staffed with credible and qualified outsiders working alongside politicians to implement a good governance program.

Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, viewed by many as the most capable prime minister in Thai history, is very supportive of Thirayuth's program. Mr. Anand has gone one step further by inventing the Thai word for transparency - "prongsai." He is leading the march to make dhammarat and prongsai household words.

But after decades of bad politics, corrupt bureaucratic systems, and the lack of public participation in political, economic, and social matters, the Thai people will need to change the way they think and behave.

Dhammarat and prongsai are terms that have been embraced by Thailand's middle class. However, these words will mean little to the average Thai citizen as long as the country's grassroots remain weak. Good governance must therefore include political equality, which is fundamental to Thailand's democratic development.

In October 1997, after vigorous debate, the people of Thailand promulgated their new Constitution which allows for greater transparency in the political process, employs gender equality, and community empowerment. This Constitution also has provisions aimed at combating endemic political corruption. But political reform will mean little if there isn't significant bureaucratic reform. Bureaucratic reform will not be sufficient without education reform. There is talk of how to introduce dhammarat and prongsai into the nation's school curriculum. This may take years to accomplish, but at least there is movement in the right direction.

While the financial crisis has caused pain and hardship, Thais should take pride in their country's efforts in trying to create a more accountable and transparent government under difficult economic conditions. Since signing an agreement last August, Thailand has strictly adhered to the conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund. The government has shut down 56 insolvent finance companies and is currently auctioning the assets of these failed institutions. In March, Thailand's parliament passed the nation's first ever bankruptcy law as well as other laws giving foreigners more liberal investment privileges in the non-financial sectors of the economy.

When compared to Indonesia, where there are no words in that country's lexicon for good governance and transparency, and whose political and economic systems are in a very fragile state, Thailand's progress one year later is impressive.

* John J. Brandon is a Southeast Asia specialist for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

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