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Chuan buries the hatchet in talks with Soros

 

Billionaire financier George Soros, who last September labelled Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ''a menace to his own country'', yesterday gave Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai a more gracious welcome at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The listeners then heard a 45-minute speech from Chuan admitting to Thailand's past mistakes and telling of his reform efforts designed to rebuild the country from the rubble.

Before the speech Chuan talked to Soros for about 15 minutes during which they discussed the financial crisis in Asia. Soros's view was that Thailand should undertake fundamental reform of the financial institutions and the financial system as a whole, while moving in timely way to ensure that Thai exporters have access to liquidity and are competitive enough in the global marketplace.

The Chuan-Soros encounter, in the eyes of the New York elite, might be symbolic of a reborn Thailand. But for a quarter of the Thai people the resentment of Soros and other currency speculators is still deep.

They are viewed as having been a menace to Thailand by laying siege to the baht in late 1996 and the first half of 1997, before finally breaking the back of the Bank of Thailand.

In hindsight, the baht was destined for collapse anyway due to a combination of the unsustainable current account deficit and the fixed exchange rate system. Supervision of the financial institutions was also dismal, not to mention the murky regulatory framework and the cumbersome bureaucracies that could not respond to the systemic crises.

But Soros and other speculators helped accelerate the currency's downfall and profited handsomely from their short-baht positions. The money war, waged from the currency dealing rooms in the offshore markets, caught Thailand completely off guard and taught a costly lesson. The spectre of the money war will continue to haunt Southeast Asia, so ill-equipped to cope with the globalisation of financial markets.

Money managers from the West are being so domineering in regional financial markets that the good they do can be offset by harmful effects. When they move money in, a market or currency goes up. When they move out -- in panic as seen in the most recent case in Asia -- they cause widespread disruption and social upheaval. And they do so by simply changing investment weightings in their gigantic portfolios.

Singapore has been caught on the tail-end of the regional contagion effect, even though its economic fundamentals remain sound. Its currency has lost 20 per cent of its value against the US dollar since the ''Asian flu'' broke out last July.

The fact that Chuan decided to meet a former foe demonstrated Thailand's willingness to swallow its pride. He would do anything to put Thailand back on a stable path of economic growth of five to six per cent.

This year's economic growth rate will fall into negative territory of minus three per cent. Nobody wants to imagine what will happen if a positive growth rate is not achieved next year.

Chuan's mission in his US trip is to appease international investors and send a clear message that Thailand is willing to play by capitalist rules. For it is a painful fact that the return of foreign capital is a precondition for Thailand's economic turnaround. Unfortunately, most of the foreign capital lies on the other side of the globe.

Thailand's chances of survival depend on the mercy of decision makers and investors in the United States, Europe and Japan. There is no better place to send out this message than the US, the epicentre of global security and financial power.

It is because of this reason that Chuan will be at full stretch in his bid to distinguish Thailand from the rest of Asia. The key is winning back confidence. He'd rather have his picture taken with Soros than with Mahathir or Indonesia's President Suharto at this point.

The emerging banking crisis in Malaysia has silenced Mahathir, who now lets Anwar Ibrahim, the finance minister, do most of the talking. The proud Mahathir has vowed that Malaysia will not kow-tow to the International Monetary Fund. Malaysia is looking like another domino ready to fall after Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea.

Indonesia is already in dire straits, and Suharto has stubbornly defied the wheel of capitalism. His re-election to another five-year term and his threat to adopt a currency board system has aroused fears that Indonesia could be put in the impossible position of being left to deal with the crisis alone.

The crisis in Indonesia and more recently in Malaysia might be of some benefit to Thailand because investors will be able to distinguish it from the rest. More importantly, Thailand has made impressive progress in its financial and economic reform as prescribed by the IMF. All the reform measures that have been announced so far address the concern of the financial markets, even though they come with a high social cost. But it is a price Thailand has to pay for its wrecked economy.

Fortunately for Thailand, Chuan has been broadly recognised as an ''honest'' politician. He is a leader that came to power by popular election. Thailand's democracy, despite some flaws and a need for further reform, guarantees political stability. And this is another key ingredient that will prevent Thailand from really going down the tubes.

BY THANONG KHANTHONG and VATCHARA CHAROONSANTIKUL

 

 

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