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Indiana Chaowarin and The Temple of Gloom

April 18, 2001

In the belated spirit of April Fools' Day, Thanong Khanthong goes behind the scenes to report how people in high places reacted to the treasure of the century.

It was April Fools' Day. Senator Chaowarin Latthasaksiri woke up in high spirits, apparently believing that he was Indiana Jones. In a matter of days, he would go down in history as the immortal hero who unearthed long-lost wartime booty and saved Thailand from doom. Songkran had never been so joyful.

It became a defining moment not only for Chaowarin but also for the Thaksin government. In recent months, Chaowarin had abandoned all of his trivial Senate duties to concentrate on digging up the treasure. The hoard, left over by Japanese soldiers in the Lijia Cave in Kanchanaburi during World War II, included tonnes of gold and 250 US Federal Reserve bonds dated 1934 with a total face value of US$25 billion (Bt113 billion).

This staggering amount would pay off the national debt in a swoop. There would be enough money left to pay for the health-care programme, the village development fund, the national AMC and the farmers' debt moratorium.

Naturally, spies from the Japanese embassy in Bangkok were everywhere. From the outset, the Mori government had been keeping a close watch for any news of the booty. It, too, wanted the money to pay off its debts. If the treasure were to be found, it would claim sole ownership. That would be its official stand. Mori could cling to his premiership.

At worst, Japan could cut a deal with Thailand to share the booty evenly. Yet at least one Japanese official wondered: "If Japan had that huge treasure to leave behind, why did we lose the war?"

Paul O'Neill, the US treasury secretary, almost fell off his chair when he heard the news about the recovery of the US bonds. He wondered how the bonds could have survived after being lost in the Far East. Surely they would have been eaten by termites, he thought. Everybody knows that termites in Thailand are dangerous.

O'Neill also wondered why the Bush administration should pay for the bonds issued in the middle of the Great Depression by Franklin D Roosevelt, the Democrat president? By the way, the US won World War II.

O'Neill quickly called Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, and asked him whether he knew anything about the bonds. Greenspan was not very helpful. "I don't recall whether the federal government had issued these bonds. At that time I was only 8 years old," he said. Greenspan was born in 1926. In 1934 he was just beginning to learn to play tennis.

Anyway, Greenspan said, "I still could not understand why Donald Regan, who served in the Reagan administration in 1980s, had his signature on the bonds that were reported to have been recovered in Thailand. When did Regan defect to the Democrat Party?"

Back in Thailand, the mood had become hysterical. Everybody expected to get a piece of the action.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra got so excited that he cancelled his trip to London. He was supposed to spend his Songkran holiday there with his wife and two daughters. But the business of the country was more important.

After talking it over with Chaowarin, Thaksin flew to Lijia Cave to personally commission the dig. He ordered a satellite search for the exact location of the treasure. His critics would be silenced forever about where his government would get the money to finance his populist policies.

The first thing Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak would do with the treasure after the holiday would be to call Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's. The two US credit-rating agencies would be told to upgrade the country's sovereign debt from junk status to triple-A.

As Chaowarin had declared, the baht would become the strongest currency in the world, backed by massive foreign exchange reserves. Add $25 billion to the Bank of Thailand's $32 billion in reserves, and central bank governor MR Chatu Mongol Sonakul would have $57 billion at his disposal to prop up the baht.

But after the Lijia Cave was opened and nothing was found, everybody began to backtrack.

Chaowarin said he had never claimed he had actually seen the loot. The whole episode was meant as a wild Songkran tale to help the people of Thailand cool off a bit.

Well, Chaowarin has just splashed the Thai people with murky Songkran water from his Bt20 plastic bucket

By Thanong Khanthong





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