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U.S. Economic Crisis Recalls Shared Sacrifice and Compromise in Thailand’s Past

August 10, 2011

Watching the debt-ceiling debate unfold in Washington, D.C., in recent weeks reminded me of another financial crisis, the one in Thailand, which started the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. That crisis had a devastating impact on the Thai people. Economic growth fell from 6.5 percent to negative 10 percent, inflation rose, unemployment increased, the Thai baht depreciated precipitously, and the country lost much of its $37 billion in reserves in a futile attempt to defend its currency.

During the time of the crisis and its aftermath, the venerable Thai monk, Luangta Maha Bua, launched a charitable effort to save the Thai economy. He died earlier this year at the age of 97. Luangta Maha Bua raised more than 12 tonnes of gold bars valued at more than $500 million plus $10 million in cash which he then gave to the Bank of Thailand. He called his fundraising drive “Buddhist Robes Helping the Nation.” Shortly after Luangta Maha Bua’s death, a former Central Bank governor and current members of the Bank of Thailand submitted an application to the Guinness Book of World Records asking that the late abbot be recognized as the individual who has donated the largest number of gold bars to a government. The request is currently undergoing Guinness’ verification process.

Whether Luangta Maha Bua becomes a Guinness World Book record holder is unimportant. But what is important is that Luangta Maha Bua encouraged the Thai people to focus on the causes of the economic crisis and to change their own behavior to help prevent a similar event occurring in the future.

Like the United States, Thailand has its political cleavages; indeed, a strong argument can be made that cleavages in Thailand run more deeply. Nonetheless, Luangta Maha Bua’s example encouraged shared sacrifice and compromise, something as Americans we need to exhibit more of as we contend with precarious economic times.

John J. Brandon is the director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. From 1978-1981, he taught English in Bangkok and Songkhla, Thailand, and visits the country regularly. Brandon can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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