Un Mediation: A Warning from Recent History

Published by The Nation (Thailand) and Daily News (Sri Lanka) on 19 March 2014




UN Endorse Thai Buddhist Economics Model

This article was published in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) on 20 March 2007

FalujahBy Kalinga Seneviratne

In the last two decades, Buddhism’s appeal has grown in the West, drawing people seeking a calm not found in the fast-paced world of Internet-driven commerce and communications. While Bhavana (Buddhist meditation), has become a form of modern psychotherapy and influenced Western lifestyles, is there anything in the religion’s 2500 year old teachings, which could influence modern economics?

According to Thailand’s much revered King and lately members of the (new military installed) government and a growing number of economists and grassroots development activists, the answer is, yes, there is. They call it ‘Sufficiency Economics’, a term coined by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the midst of Thailand’s economic meltdown in 1997. It embraces the three pillars of Buddhism – dana (giving), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation) – and is based on the Buddhist principle of the ‘Middle Path’, that is avoidance of extremes (of greed).

The Thai’s have recently got a strong endorsement of this Buddhist development strategy from the United Nation’s main development agency. In a report released in January, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) hailed Thailand’s new “Middle Path” development model as a key to fighting poverty, coping with economic risk and promoting corporate social responsibility.

The UNDP’s ‘Thailand Human Development Report 2007: Sufficiency Economy and Human Development’, a result of a year-long collaboration between Thai and international experts, is designed to bring Sufficiency Economic thinking to a wider international audience.

UNDP describes ‘Sufficiency Economics’ as a set of tools and principles that help communities, corporations and governments to manage globalisation – maximising its benefits and minimising its costs – by making wise decisions that promote sustainable development, equity, and resilience against shocks. Thus, the report says that the ‘Sufficiency Economy’ is a much needed “survival strategy” in a world of economic uncertainty and environmental threats.

“We believe that Sufficiency Economy principles are applicable around the world, especially for rapidly-developing countries that are experiencing some of the same pressures as Thailand” said Joana Merlin-Scholtes, UNDP’s Resident Representative in Thailand.

This model may perhaps offer some insights on how to tackle some of Sri Lanka’s own economic woes and development problems

UNDP report goes on to explain what Sufficiency Economics means in practice. For communities, Sufficiency Economics principles are fundamental to empowerment and building resilience, such as setting up savings groups, revolving credit lines, and local safety nets. For private business it means, “taking corporate responsibility to the next level” by using this approach as a guide to management and planning. “This approach encourages them to focus on sustainable profit, to adhere to an ethical approach to business, to pay special attention to their employees, to respect nature, to have careful risk management, and to grow where possible from internal resources” the report explains. And for the third pillar, the governments, the Sufficiency Economy is central to alleviating poverty, promoting good governance, and guiding macroeconomic policies to immunise against shocks.

UNDP believes that Sufficiency Economics is a naturally ally of human development, but it also offers two additional elements – placing greater emphasis on mental and spiritual development, and offers guidance on how to make decisions that will achieve sustainability, well-being and happiness.

Thailand plans to write into the preamble of the interim constitution that is being written right now the principles of Sufficiency Economics. The official Thai definition of the economic model drawn up in 1999 describes it as “an approach to life and conduct applicable at every level from the individual through the family and community to the management and development of the nation”.

Dr Sumet Tantivejkul, former chief of Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) and currently the secretary-general of the Chaipattana Foundation under royal patronage, argues that it is not correct to suggest that Sufficiency Economics was suitable only for the poor and grassroots communities, while everyone else follows the Western capitalist and consumerist economic model. Citing the unrelenting growth of the world’s population and global competition for natural and other resources, to match growth in consumption, which has already outgrown Mother Nature’s capacity to replenish by a ratio of 3:1, he argues the mainstream economic model could only lead us to disaster and conflict.

Dr Sumet points out that only 4 percent of the benefits of Thailand’s decades long economic growth (until 1997) has trickled down to the country’s poor who constitute 60 percent of the population, while Thailand’s middle class women are renowned for being world-class shoppers – second only to those from Hong Kong – for spending as much as US$ 1000 on designer-labelled handbag when they go shopping abroad.

Dr Sumet argues that Sufficiency Economics is what Western economists call ‘risk management’ and the Thai model sees this path as one which develops an economic policy on moderation, rationale and immunity. He cites the revival of the Siam Cement Group, which is Thailand’s largest company, as a good example of how Sufficiency Economics could be applied to risk management.

When the 1997 economic crisis hit Thailand, Siam Cement had over 200 subsidiaries and was saddled with an unprecedented huge foreign exchange debt due to the currency depreciation, and was on the brink of collapse. “The crisis exposed the perils of its excessive growth. It was monolith – way too big and too fat” noted Dr Sumet. “After several years of drastic restructuring and selling of its non-core assets, the group, now with only about 100 subsidiaries, has returned to health. It has just reported its highest profits in 35 years”.

NESDB’s secretary-general Ampon Kittiampon argues that Thailand does not need high economic growth for sustainable development, all it needs is about 4 percent growth rate that can absorb new entrants to the job market. He criticises the deposed government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (one of Thailand’s wealthiest businessmen) for using public spending to increase consumption and hence growth, and also for using government investments for helping his business cronies. Raising ethical standards for economic management and getting rid of conflicts of interest and introduce transparency are also part and parcel of Sufficiency Economics argues Ampon.

Thailand’s current push for a Sufficiency Economics development path really began in 1999 when many of Thailand’s top economists gathered to discus the King’s thinking on the economy to get the country back on its feet. They concluded that the country had clearly ignored moderation by indulging in over-consumption, which reduced the volume and savings and increased the reliance on foreign debt. Thus, Thailand needed a degree of self-reliance because they could not predict the shocks of the globalised era. However, the then Prime Minister Thaksin did not agree with such economics, which created much friction between the Palace and the Prime Minister.

The UNDP report gives many examples of how the Sufficiency Economy model has been implemented in many parts of Thailand, encouraged by models set up under royal patronage across the country. One such example is of Chumphon Cabana resort, which shows that, the benefits of the ‘Sufficiency’ approach is not just confined to the agriculture sector. In the crisis of 1997, this resort on the east coast of the peninsula suffered financial difficulties like so many other businesses. In the desperate attempt to stay afloat, the owner took inspiration from the Sufficiency approach.

As a start, she began to plant rice, vegetables, flowers and fruit trees on land within the resort project. To improve the sandy land without the cost of chemicals, she experimented with making organic fertilizer from hotel waste and other materials. She planted a local variety of rice and installed a rice mill. The husk was used in making the fertilizer and for animal feed. As the resort’s land was not enough to supply all its needs, she got the cooperation of surrounding villages to supply the deficit, and also helped train them in making fertilizer and other practices of organic farming. The employees of the resort were especially encouraged to participate.

Next she invented a just-in-time system of supply by posting the following day’s requirements of various articles on the local school’s notice board. Local production expanded beyond food to include various cleaning materials made from local materials. As production increased, these articles were also supplied to other resorts in the area. The resort benefited from low production costs and reliable supplies. Surrounding farmers had a secure market and good prices because there were no middlemen. Soon the resort gained a reputation with the result that other resort owners, farmers, NGOs, and government officials came to learn – which gave the employees a sense of pride. As the owner concluded, “I think this is a kind of development which makes everybody happy.”

In a 1998 statement on the essence of the Sufficiency Economics model, King Bhumibol said: “Sufficiency is moderation. If one is moderate in one’s desires, one will have less craving. If one has less craving, one will take less advantage of others. If all nations hold to this concept .. without being extreme or insatiable in one’s desires, the world will be a happier place”


Why Asian Tsunami Is News, But Not Falluja?

(Published in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) 9 November 2006


Two years ago, two horrific calamities took place, destroying thousands of dwellings and people. One was in Asia and the other in the Middle East. When the first year anniversary of the former dawned last year, it was big news for the global media networks with documentaries, features and news reports saturating our airwaves and the newspapers. But, the first anniversary of the other went almost unnoticed. There’s nothing to indicate that it will not be the same this year.

Why the double standards?

The one, about which we have heard a lot in the last two years is the Asian tsunami, and the one we hardly heard anything about was the man-made disaster created by the attack by US-led forces on Falluja in Iraq in November 2004. This week marks the second anniversary of this attack which was codenamed “Thanksgiving Massacre” which turned out to be remarkably prescient.

California’s Sonoma State University’s ‘Project Censored’ lists Falluja as one of the top censored stories of 2006 in the US media, when the American forces are again attacking the city’s population in the outskirts of Baghdad, in a bid to stem any Sunni uprising.

In Falluja two years ago, we saw one of the most horrendous destructions in modern history, not by nature, but planned and executed by men. But, most of the world is yet to know the real story.

Writing in New Zealand’s Pacific Media Watch after the Asian tsunami in December 2004, journalist Mike Whitney observed: “The American media has descended on the Asian tsunami with all the fervour of feral animals in a meat locker. The newspapers and TVs are plastered with bodies drifting out to sea, battered carcasses strewn along the beach and bloated babies lying in rows. Every aspect of the suffering is being scrutinized with microscopic intensity by the predatory lens of the media”.

“This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe” he noted, asking, “where was this ‘free press’ in Iraq when the death toll was skyrocketing?”

Well they were not there either when the first anniversary of the attack was observed last year nor would they be there this year. The anniversary last year, coincided with the admission by the US forces in Iraq that they used burning phosphorus weapons during their assault on Falluja a year ago. That itself would have been a good ‘news peg’ for the international media to revisit Falluja, but they didn’t.

Perhaps, you may ask, why should they be there?

It is because Falluja is a city of over 300,000 people, and the US sources have claimed that some 6000 insurgents were holed out in the city, and in order to flush them out they destroyed the whole city. Hundreds of civilians were killed, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes and US forces used white phosphorous – a substance that burn down to the bone – as a weapon.

Falluja’s compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 houses have been destroyed, along with 8,400 shops, 60 nurseries and schools, and 65 mosques and shrines.

Didn’t the big waves which hit Aceh or the southern coast of Thailand and Sri Lanka, do the same? Well we know all about it and I don’t need to say more here. But, why should we be kept in the dark about what man-made calamities could do to communities?

Especially now that it has been admitted by the US that they used chemical weapons in the attack, which can melt through skin and clothes, a substance banned for use in civilian areas by international conventions, and ironically the very reason the US claimed they had to overthrow Saddam Hussein so that he will not use chemical weapons against the people of Iraq again.

“Falluja is a place name that has become a symbol of unconscionable brutality” noted Mike Marqusee, co-founder of ‘Iraq Occupation Focus’ writing in London’s ‘Guardian’ on the first anniversary of the Falluja attack last year. Guardian – considered as a “left-leaning” newspaper in Britain – was among a handful of western media organizations to mark this anniversary.

“As the war in Iraq claims more lives, we need to ensure that this atrocity – so recent, so easily erased from public memory – is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised” he added.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in January 2005 that 300,000 people have fled during the attack and 40 percent of the city’s population was living on charity. They estimated that 40 percent of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed, and the rest had significant damage, while three of the city’s water purification plants have been completely destroyed.

In one of the rare reports on the anniversary of the attacks, BBC’s Andrew North reporting from Falluja last November said that getting basic services like water, electricity, telephone and sewage are still a problem and though US$ 100 million have been pledged for the reconstruction of the city, people are only then beginning to get the compensation money they have been promised.

This is the type of story, which has been told over and over again by western journalists visiting tsunami devastated areas of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India during last year’s first anniversary.

Shouldn’t they also be investigating the same of Falluja’s population? Where are they now? What are they doing? Who are helping them now and how are they trying to rebuild their lives?

For the international media, it is much more easier to point fingers at corrupt Asian officials, inefficient local relief agencies, and praise the “compassionate” western donors and relief workers. That fits in well with their western news values. But, the problem is these news values also infect the Asian media who have hardly heard about Falluja.

Last week the AP news agency reported that 3 bodyguards of Falluja’s mayor, has been arrested by US marines on suspicions of attacking US troops. They were among a group of 8 Iraqi’s rounded up for allegedly throwing hand grenades at US troops. The report said: “With the Sunni insurgency again growing bolder, attacks on US troops in the area have increased steadily over recent weeks”.

With US casualties rising rapidly in Iraq are we seeing another ‘Operation Thanksgiving Massacre’ in the offing? But don’t count on the international media to inform us about it.




Leftish Victories in Latin America reflects growing disenchantment with n

Published in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) 19 February 2007


Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

While over 3000 American soldiers have died in President George W Bush’s war to “bring democracy “ to Iraq since 2003, a democratic revolution sweeping across Latin America during the same period has elected leftwing leaders who have no faith in the United States (US) prescribed neo-liberal “free market” economic model which has been imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the past 30 years.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who started the whole leftwing drift in America’s backyard more than 7 years ago, said to red flag waving supporters after being re-elected for a third time on a landslide in December: “No one should fear socialism. Socialism is human. Socialism is love. We need a new world”.

And the latest left wing elect President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said after being sworn in on January 14th that the “long neo-liberal night is coming to an end” adding that the derelict “moulding clay” democracy is over and “a sovereign, dignified, just and socialist Latin America is beginning to rise”.

Even President Ronald Reagan’s nemesis Nicaragua’s Sandanista leader Daniel Ortago, who fought US-backed Contra terrorists as President in the 1980s and was pushed out of power by a Washington backed opposition in 1990, swept back to power through the ballot box on November 8th and immediately spoke to President Chavez who has promised cheap oil and other aid to lift Nicaraua’s ailing economy after years of corruption scandals and misrule by three US-backed governments.

Latin America’s leftist parties, whom Washington ruthlessly suppressed throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the help of military dictators, are now making huge gains through the ballot box, which has put Washington in a quandary.

The leftist drift in US’s backyard started in 1999 with the election of the charismatic former paratrooper Chavez as the president of Venezuela. Seven years later it had become an avalanche with leftwing leaders in office in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile. While Peru’s left wing candidate Ollanta Humala won the fist round of balloting for the presidency, he failed to win the presidency in the run off last year in the midst of a lavish US-funded campaign by his right wing opponent. In July, Mexico’s left wing candidate for the presidency Lopez Obrador lost the election by a margin of less than 1 percent to his conservative opponent, and his supporters have so far refused to accept the results claiming the count was rigged with the support of the US administration.

Today’s domination of the continent’s political landscape by left-wing presidents is a far cry from the 1980s when almost all the countries were ruled by right wing (mainly military) dictators with strong backing from the US government. In addition to Chavez in Venezuela, Ortago in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador, there is former union leader Lula da Silva in Brazil, outspoken IMF-critic Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay, US installed military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s former prisoner Dr Michelle Bachelet in Chile and staunchly anti-American indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Lately, President Bush’s neo-conservative supporters have become alarmed by these democratic victories in their own backyard, because it is throwing a serious challenge to neo-liberal economics promoted by US-controlled agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, as well as “free trade” agreements which benefits rich business and exploits poor labour.

Grassroots people in their millions right across Latin America are saying that these free trade agreements and neo-liberal economics are not working for them. They see President Chavez’s populist “Bolivarian Revolution” which rejects corporate-led globalisation, and instead promotes grassroots political participation and economic self-sufficiency, as the role model for a global movement to alleviate poverty and injustice. As if to pus the point right up to its doorstep, President Chavez has launched an aggressive campaign to export his “Pink Revolution” to poverty-stricken communities in the US, offering free or discounted gas to America’s poorest citizens through CITGO, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company. He has saved a popular street festival Fiesta Boricua, last year by a US$100,000 donation from CITGO and has also offered to fly poor Americans without health cover to Cuba for medical treatment.

Thus, he’s winning followers especially among America’s Hispanics, as well as the impoverished Black communities. Last year, the Miami Herald, reported that fifteen “Bolivarian Circles” — the grassroots groups that form the basis of President Chavez’s social revolution in Venezuela — have sprung up in U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

In February last year in congressional testimony, Secretary of State Condelezza Rice said a “policy of inoculation” was necessary to diplomatically contain Chavez’s influence in the region.

“I don’t think social processes are exportable if discontent doesn’t exist in the first place” Venezuelan born Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian at the Pomona College in California told America’s AlterNet news service recently, adding. “throughout the continent, there is a great level of social discontent that’s the product of 20 years of (failed) neo-liberal policy.”

But, American neo-conservatives are not impressed by that argument. After Ecuador’s President Correa announced in his first budget on February 1st a reduction of US$ 1 billion in foreign debt repayments, and channelled this money to double social benefits – such as education and healthcare – to more than a million of the country’s poorest, Stephen Johnson a senior policy analyst for the neo-conservative American think-tank The Heritage Foundation suggested that US should develop a policy to “counter incoming armies of Cuban doctors and Venezuelan security advisors”.

He argues that the US should “augment support for civil society groups while the opportunity exists and ramp up public diplomacy efforts to strengthen local voices proposing independent solutions to Ecuador’s poverty and governance troubles”.

But, its not only the Cuban and Venezuelans the Americans have to worry about, in recent months, the Bush administration has been showing increasing signs of getting rattled by China’s penetration into its backyard as well.

China has developed close economic relations with Latin America’s giant Brazil since President Lula da Silva came to power three years ago. So much so that Mandarin classes have become a growth industry in its most populous city Sao Paulo. Chinese and Brazilians have been building commuter jets together, exchanging military hardware and trading in a variety of other goods.

In 2005, China and Venezuela signed 17 bilateral agreements, among them deals for Chinese companies to explore for oil in Venezuela, which President Chavez described as “bilateral strategic partnership of common development”. Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil producer, and Chavez claimed last year that they have the world’s largest oil reserves.

Policy makers in Washington have finally woken up to the spectre of encroaching China and leftist victories in the region. Republican Congressman Dan Burton told the BBC late last year that they are concerned about the leftist governments’ dealings with China, whom he described as a “potential enemy of the US becoming a dominant force in this part of the world”. But, they are yet to admit that the root of the problem is the failure of the US-imposed neo-economics model to uplift the economic situation of the poor across the continent, and they are the one’s who have finally found a voice through the ballot box and are turning up in droves at polling booths to drive away from power corrupt, rich and failed conservative leaders. The dilemma for the US establishment is that these people are exercising the exact path the Americans have been preaching to the people in developing countries on how to get rid of repressive rulers – “put your faith in democracy and the ballot box”.