Nationalism is the last refuge of bankrupts
NATIONALISM is a recurring
theme, manifesting itself with the vicissitudes of a country. It may be played
up by a lone voice, by a group of people or by a national body, all trying to
appeal to the sentiment.
Last week Prachai
Leopairatana, the beleaguered chief executive officer of Thai Petrochemical
Industry Plc, could not help but drum up nationalist sentiment. This happened
when he realised that he was about to lose control of his debt-ridden company,
which was declared insolvent and placed under court receivership.
Prachai had been painting
his foreign creditor banks as predators. They were simply interested in chopping
his company into pieces, without taking into consideration the jobs of 2,000
Thais or the importance of the petrochemical giant to the Thai economy as a
whole. With his back against the wall, Prachai had nowhere else to turn but to
make an emotional appeal. In the process, the Leopairatana family's
petrochemical business somehow became a national asset. So it would be
unthinkable to allow this national asset to fall into foreign hands.
Just listen to what he had
to say last Friday, two days after the fateful court verdict. "The court
decision is okay with me," he said. "I will make another try. It's
good if I can make it. If not, all the assets will fall into the hands of the
foreigners. That's all," he added almost sarcastically.
Almost at the same time, a
Nation Rescuing Club emerged literally from nowhere to slam the Chuan government
for its plan to privatise the Bangkok Metropolitan Bank and the Siam City Bank.
Their message was: the country has already suffered greatly under the economic
crisis, so why do the Thais have to suffer more?
One of its chief spokesmen,
Dr Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, associate professor at Ramkhamhaeng University's
Economics Department, accused the government of selling off the country on the
cheap. The acquisition deal, he charged, was structured in such a way that
foreign banks would run virtually no risk in taking over the two Thai banks
since any future losses would be borne by taxpayers' money.
He also called for the
government to make public the details of its sale of the Nakornthon Bank to
Standard Chartered Bank of the UK and Radanasin Bank to the United Overseas Bank
of Singapore. He and his group have been periodically going on national TV to
attack the government's liberal policy, masterminded by the International
Monetary Fund, which they claimed would eventually result in foreigners taking
control over all aspects of the Thai economy. How could Thailand survive then?
But nationalism found its
staunchest voice in the Senate, whose term expired on March 21, 2000. Over the
past two years, the hawkish but powerful Senate, under the presidency of Meechai
Ruchuphan, have made the loudest claims for its stand on the national interest.
In the old days, the Senate used to be a rubber stamp for the government because
members were appointed by the prime ministers. But this Senate was no ordinary
legislative body. It represented the last bastion of Thai conservatism, although
some members were dubbed "NPL senators". Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai
had to confront them or seek compromise before getting bills passed.
At the height of the debate
on the bankruptcy and foreclosure bills in March 1999, the Senate campaigned
fiercely against the government's tough laws, which its prominent members
believed would turn Thai debtors into the slaves of foreign creditors. At that
time, nationalist sentiment reached a fever pitch. Were we about to pass laws
that would give the country away to foreigners? It was not until a compromise
was struck that the bills, significantly watered down, were passed to provide a
bankruptcy framework that would allow corporate debt restructuring to proceed.
The conservative or
nationalist voice of the Senate was concentrated in the Senate Subcommittee on
Fiscal, Banking and Financial Institutions. Between March 1998 and March 2000,
it published nine economic reports, each voicing its disagreement over the IMF-prescribed
financial and economic reform programme. Together these reports represented a
conservative manifesto of modern Thai economics. Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura was
the subcommittee's foremost intellectual. He did not see the point of sticking
to international standards when doing so would result in turning Thai assets
over to foreigners. While the government banked on a return of foreign capital
to boost the economic recovery, Virabongsa called for Thais to help themselves
or do things the Thai way because the foreigners were not coming back anyway.
With the expiration of the
Senate, the conservative mainstream has lost its voice. But nationalism is not
going away easily. It will continue to pop up as long as the economy withers
under the weight of the past policy mistakes.
BY THANONG KHANTHONG