Thailand's Capitalism in Stark Opposition to Buddhist Principles

By Suriya Green, Mathaba, July 31, 2007

Thailand's telecoms giant and mobile phone operator AIS makes billions of baht in profits, but has clearly not conducted an internal audit to see where these profits are coming from, and to evaluate the principles of its business practices.

Bangkok, Thailand -- Thailand's telecoms giant and mobile phone operator AIS, is a prime example of modern-day Thai capitalism. Taking advantage of Thai cultural politeness not to complain and step out of line, the company makes billions of dollars profit, much of it from clear unambigious theft from its customers.

Stealing from both poor and rich alike the company made a billionaire out of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in refuge on the other side of the world in London. It can thus be argued that it was in great part AIS profits that laid the foundation for much of the current political conflict in Thailand.

There are some states that attempt to match economic, social and political systems with national culture and religious ethics, and attract great venom from those opposed to any place of moral values in politics and economics: one leading current example of that dynamic is Venezuela. There are others who are very far removed from those principles, one leading current example is Thailand - with the notable exceptions of the Royal Family and many small businesses.

With a King who is revered in Thailand and even worldwide as the very example of the embodiment of national, cultural, moral, ethical and religious principles, it is rather suprising that capitalism in Thailand has developed to be so devoid of moral principle. This can only be explained by the new generation of Thai capitalists for whom money is the goal, and for whom Buddhism is an irrelevant tradition.

There is surely no other way to explain to anyone from outside Thailand looking in on this nation, because even a cursory glance at the basic principles of Buddhism reveals that greed is considered one of the three main evils to be avoided. And yet, greed, is the only way to describe the "business" practices of Thailand's giant AIS telco. In keeping with modern crass and unbridled capitalism, the customer is always wrong and to be exploited, and any mistake of the company systems must also be paid for by the customers.

Millions of dollars of illicit profits are made by AIS each year in what can only be termed "stolen" money - customers pay for services that are not delivered. Customers are bombarded by SMS messages day and night exorting to call numbers for additional "free" services, and this author raised this issue with senior company personnel one year ago and was thanked for bringing it to their attention: yet, nothing changed.

From being charged high prices for international calls that are not connected, to being charged for services that are not used, the company refuses to refund its customers in such cases. Any very hard headed customer who is profoundly concerned with justice and trying to hold a company to the most basic of Buddhist principles will fail - much money will be expended in endless calls.

The very best that has ever been obtained in the experience of this writer after spending several hours in calls to the company over the years on numerous occasions to warn its management of unprincipled practices in the hope that the information would be taken with grace and ammends made, has been refunds of less than 10% of losses. AIS is not even willing to allow customers to be credited back with funds thus "stolen" so that the money can be spent back with the company.

Normally such business practices were the tradition in communist Eastern Europe, where the customer was always to be exploited by the state and dare not complain. However, in Thailand, you will find these very same practices in the absence of western (largely American) traditions of customer service, and which were at one time also exemplified by state organs in India during the time of the great Mahatma Gandhi.

What is the moral example that companies like AIS are offering Thai youth? The messages being sent loud and clear are several:

  • Misrepresent your services by false advertising, because no one will, or can, take you to court
  • Give back a few cents with great fanfare, but make sure to steal several dollars at the same time
  • Charge your customers for calls to customer service and avoid at all costs one thing: refunds
  • Do not consider your long-term clients as valuable, because what counts is profit today, not tomorrow
  • Smile and even laugh at anyone who holds to million-year old principles and ethical principles
  • If your long-term client has a problem, send them away, let them find a different supplier

AIS makes billions of baht in profits, but has clearly not conducted an internal audit to see where these profits are coming from, and to evaluate the principles of its business practices. Had it done so, it would not have so many accusations of theft from its users after several years of having received good advice.

AIS need not worry. It knows that it need only change once there is pressure of customers really leaving them for alternatives, and then, they will change in time to avoid the flight. The new owners in Singapore have clearly been very happy with the complacent attitude of customers being ripped off day and night, and must have been pleasently surprised as such activities would not last a day in Singapore. Or, do they really not know?

In the excellent compilation which should be read by all major corporation executives who wish to claim even a mild concern for social responsibility and business ethics - "Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy" edited by Paul F. Knitter and Chandra Muzaffar - in the section written by a buddhist, it is noted that it is almost an impossibility for owners of corporations who live geographically removed from their companies, to have any feeling of genuine concern and care.

Consequently, there is a world wide movement rising and reaching a crescendo pitch that will inevitably clash with these corporations: that of the masses, universally in opposition to so-called globablisation and its subservience to multinational capitalist corporations. That movement was largely neutralised by a clever Thaksin who bought peace with his people after stealing from them secretly with one hand he gave back some of the money with much public fanfare into great health and economic initiatives, particularly in the northern rural areas of Thailand, while neglecting the south of the country.

This good will which was partially bought has now long since expired. Thanks to AIS and other companies with the same lack of principles, the "new Thai capitalism" embodied by AIS will only hasten to bring about a revolt due to the increasing disparity of wealth between those doing the stealing, and those stolen from. With this will come the search for a genuinely nationalistic, cultural and democratic solution to the problems facing the nation.