Date: Thu, 23 Oct 1997 04:16:16 -0400
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>
From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@ACCESS.DIGEX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: Market Woes Ricochet Into Politics (CSMonitor)
Thursday October 23, 1997 Edition
Asia's Market Woes Ricochet Into Politics
By Yvan Cohen,
in the Christian Science Monitor
23 October 1997
BANGKOK, THAILAND -- Many of Asia's once-unstoppable "tiger"
economies are losing their claws.
In Thailand, which triggered a regional crisis after a plunge in
its currency three months ago, economic woes have put the
government on the brink of collapse this week and forced Thais to
begin accepting Western-driven reforms that undercut the
once-revered Asian economic model.
As they watch their currencies plummet and
markets sag, Southeast Asian leaders like Thai Premier Chavalit
are trying to cope with the political fallout that might affect
In neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, too, leaders are scrambling
to hang on to political stability once taken for granted. The
ranks of the jobless are expected to rise. And the old ways of
financial mismanagement, corruption, and nonviable pet projects of
the elite are under tight scrutiny by nervous investors and
international financial watchdogs. American leaders worry that
many Asian nations might try to restore their economies by pumping
up exports to the United States.
Economic forecasts for Southeast Asia have slumped. Instead of 7.3
percent growth this year, gross domestic product will be between
4.9 percent and 5.7 percent, according to the Manila-based Asian
Right now, though, the regional jitters depend much on what
happens in Thailand, whose market troubles ricochet across
At the center of the Thai crisis is Prime Minister Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh, a former general who came to power last November
promising Thais they would "live well and eat well" under his
rule. His promise is now tinged with bitter irony as he fights to
stay in power and people eye tough times ahead.
"The good times are over," exclaims Puttipong Kusalaphirom, who
lost his job as a stock trader this month. Mr. Puttipong has
already put plans to buy a new car on hold and sold his Rolex to
help replace his $2,000 monthly salary.
"If you compare our economy to a car," quipped a Thai presenter as
he opened a fashion show in Bangkok. "It's like we've gone from
driving a Porsche to driving a Mini. But, hey! Things could be
worse. At least we've still got an engine in the car."
This week, thousands of middle-class protesters, toting pagers and
mobile phones, took to the streets of the Thai capital, calling
for the resignation of Prime Minister Chavalit.
They were spurred by reports that the prime minister nearly
ordered a state of emergency to retain power and the crowd vowed
yesterday to keep demonstrating until he resigned.
As rumors and counterrumors swirled, local newspapers reported
that Army Commander Gen. Chettha Thanajaro warned Chavalit in a
meeting of senior government leaders Tuesday not to impose a state
of emergency to stop protests, which have so far been peaceful.
About 500 people braving monsoon rains had gathered by midday
yesterday outside the main government buildings as news sank in of
how close Thailand had come to a return to martial law. Since
1992, Thailand has tried to end a long era of military involvement
It's not only in Thailand that "people power" has been on the
move. The economic malaise that has taken the region by surprise
has made people all over Southeast Asia restive and is likely to
have far-reaching political ramifications.
As they watch their currencies plummet and their markets sag,
Southeast Asian leaders would clearly rather blame "global
capital" than domestic mismanagement for their problems. Even so,
most recognize that now is not the time to retreat from the
"Malaysia remains committed to keeping its economy and markets
open. We are not about to put up new barriers," said Malaysia's
Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Ibrahim Anwar, in an interview
earlier this month.
The trigger for the current trouble began last July when
Thailand's central bank announced it would de-link its currency
from a dollar-dominated basket of currencies. Since then the Thai
baht has lost up to 50 percent of its value against the US dollar.
As the baht tumbled, international speculators took their cue,
launching attacks across the region. When the smoke lifted,
Malaysia's ringgit had fallen to a nine-year low, the Philippine
peso had slid around 26 percent, while Indonesia's rupiah has so
far lost approximately 40 percent of its value against the US
And it's not over yet. Worst hit, Thailand has already accepted a
rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that
will provide a $17.2 billion credit lifeline to its ailing
A measure of the damage, the Ministry of Finance has suspended the
operations of 58 of Thailand's 91 financial institutions, a move
that will see more than 10,000 finance sector workers out of a
If the IMF package has provided a lifeline, it certainly won't
provide a quick fix. Thailand's GDP growth is expected to be
little more than 2 to 3 percent this year, down from more than 7
percent last year. Analysts in Bangkok predict that recovery is at
least two years away. The Asian Development Bank's estimates that
inflation in Southeast Asia will jump up from 9 percent this year
to 11.4 percent next.
"It has been a terrible shock," says Sariwan Suetrong, who works
at a Japanese bank in Bangkok. "It has affected me a lot. I never
thought I'd be in a situation where everyone is feeling so
insecure about their careers. The atmosphere is terrible."
(Dave Herring - staff)
And as millions of Southeast Asians grapple with the reality of
the economic downturn, many are pointing their fingers at the
politicians who have been at the wheels of their economies. In
Thailand, where a free press and grass-roots democracy movements
galvanize public opinion, the message is clear: The political
system must be reformed. "I blame those who are in power. It was
their responsibility to regulate the markets," rails Mr. Sariwan.
Last month, thousands of Thais took that message to the streets in
support of a new constitution aimed at cleaning up Thailand's
political system, long overshadowed by vote buying and corruption.
"Corruption is like a sandstorm. It gets into everything,"
commented the late Kukrit Pramoj, a social critic and former Thai
Clearly cowed by the public's show of defiance, Thailand's
politicians reluctantly passed the new Constitution on Sept. 27.
"I'm voting for it, but I don't much like it," grumbled one Thai
parliamentarian as he raised his arm in favor of the new charter.
Among a number of measures to rein in political graft, the new
Constitution requires that Cabinet members declare their assets to
a special Counter Corruption Commission before taking office.
HOW Southeast Asia's politicians cope with their nations' economic
difficulties will be a crucial litmus test for their popularity in
the years to come.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the government of
Chatchai Choonhavan, the Thais joked about their government being
comprised of a "buffet cabinet," because politicians would simply
help themselves to public funds. Corruption, thought many, was
just a part of politics.
Today, most people realize that corruption and mismanagement is a
luxury they can no longer afford. Southeast Asia is dotted with
the costly but unproductive icons of its boom. In Thailand,
property developers borrowed millions of dollars to build
condominiums and hotels that now stand disused or half empty,
while investors played the stock market.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir underlined his country's
economic success by launching massive building projects. Economic
pressures have now prompted him to put some of these projects on
hold. Among his more ambitious mega-projects that are now frozen
is a proposal to build the world's longest building. More than a
mile long and 10-stories high, the structure was to have been
built over a river that runs through Kuala Lumpur.
In Indonesia, President Suharto had his own pet projects, too.
Reinforcing a pattern of letting friends and family control many
businesses and industries, he entrusted one of his sons with the
task of developing a national car. This and a plan to develop an
indigenous aircraft have become potent symbols of national pride,
so much so that Indonesia has said it will refuse an IMF aid
package if it must comply with an IMF request that it scrap these
While many Southeast Asian nations are hoping that the fall in
value of their currencies will kick-start their sagging exports,
the challenge of instituting more far-reaching political reforms
is increasingly urgent. To many, however, the future still looks
predictably bleak. "If Chavalit goes we can expect more of the
same. The new guy will just be a front for the old system,"
commented Khun Prapan, a finance executive who was among the
demonstrators calling for the prime minister's resignation on
(c) Copyright 1997 The Christian Science Publishing Society.
All rights reserved.