Humans do not develop by buying mobile phones and BMWs, argues Thai environmentalist Sulak Sivaraksa, who believes a sustainable future requires a little bit of spiritual enlightenment. Chris Bunting reports
Sulak Sivaraksa's expression is the most active thing in the restaurant. What does he think of George W. Bush, for instance? His face seems to fold in on itself as the cheeks expand outwards, the mouth puckers and the eyebrows crash down like a portcullis. Sivaraksa starts gesticulating vigorously. He looks like a man who has just taken a taste of a very, very bitter lemon.
"I'm sure he is a very nice man butI" The sentence is left hanging, presumably because it is perfectly visually expressed on his face.
Tony Blair? The expression is suddenly calm and a short pause as a precise formulation is decided: "Tony Blair is a very nice man in my opinion, but I do not think he lives in the real world. He wants to make the UK powerful. He wants to sit with the US."
The mouth puckers briefly.
Mention World Bank president James Wolfensohn and you get a wide-eyed look of utter bewilderment, as if Sivaraksa had seen with his own eyes a fantastical beast with the head of a crocodile and the hind of a hippopotamus. "James Wolfensohn is an arrogant man, a very arrogant man, but he is a deeply spiritual person in the Jewish tradition."
It is the closest Sivaraksa, who has met with Wolfensohn to discuss ethical issues surrounding economic development, gets to a favourable assessment of someone in what he calls the "mainstream".
"The mainstream will not listen to us. They cannot stand me," he says with a grin so broad that it forces his eyes to close.
Sivaraksa - a small, stockily built man who claims to be 69 but appears younger - has been tormenting the mainstream in his native Thailand since the early 1960s, earning for himself recognition as the country's leading intellectual and social activist.
Educated in Britain at St David's College, Lampeter, and London's Middle Temple, Sivaraksa began a remarkably eclectic intellectual career in 1961 when he returned to his home country to set up an intellectual journal, the Social Science Review . It was a huge success, quickly establishing itself as the country's most prominent intellectual publication.
Working under a military dictatorship but with powerful sponsors in the Thai royal family, Sivaraksa developed a highly independent and critical editorial line in the journal while also organising discussion groups to foster free thought among readers and contributors. Many of the leaders of the student uprising that overthrew the military regime in 1973 had been active members of Sivaraksa's groups. Fortunately for him, he was out of the country during the murderous return to dictatorship in 1976.
That close shave and Thailand's subsequent vacillations between democracy and dictatorship have done nothing to lessen Sivaraksa's unflinching demand for good government in his country. In 1991, shortly after Thailand had plunged into another period of military rule, he delivered a coruscating speech at Thamasat University, publicly accusing the two most powerful military leaders of corruption, destroying democracy, harming the monarchy and being irreligious. He again escaped into exile.
A staunch monarchist, he has twice been arrested for defaming the king. He is credited with helping to create much of Thai civil society, helping to set up dozens of non-governmental organisations dealing with everything from social welfare issues to spiritual education and then a series of umbrella organisations to integrate their work. He is currently on bail for helping to organise protests obstructing the building of a gas pipeline between Burma and Thailand that he considers environmentally destructive and supportive of a murderous Burmese regime.
His activism has earned Sivaraksa deep emnity from much of the Thai ruling elite and acclaim throughout the international rights community. But it is not his status as a big fish in the Thai pond that has attracted the interest of international figures such as Wolfensohn. As world leaders slowly turn towards seriously addressing issues of sustainable development on the eve of the Johannesburg summit, some have found in Sivaraksa a profound critic of old assumptions.
"The mainstream leaders talk about economic growth to help the poor," says Sivaraksa, sucking on a lemon. "But I have never seen them talking to the poor. I live with the poor. There are villages in Thailand that were once surrounded by forest. The people were living off the environment self-sufficiently, and according to the figures they were very poor because they were going to the market. Now there is no forest and there are new buildings everywhere and everybody is very much richer according to the figures - except it doesn't look like that when you meet the people who are starving, who have to spend a day's earnings to buy a can of fizzy drink."
The son of a family of Sino-Thai businessmen, whom he describes as part of the "oppressing" class, Sivaraksa is a complex thinker, at once culturally conservative - insisting on the need for Thais to return to their Buddhist and monarchist roots - and socially progressive - loudly committed, for instance, to women's rights and welfare issues. He is as critical of traditional socialist models of economic improvement, which sacrificed human goals to impersonal production targets, as he is of capitalist models, which he says do much the same in their drive for increased gross domestic product and market value. The basic message of his brand of "engaged Buddhism", however, is simple: humans do not develop by buying mobile phones and BMWs.
In his own country, he sees the process of "westernisation" since the coerced opening of the country to foreign trade by the British in the 1850s as a steady destruction of its culture and independence. Poor people have become poorer. Daughters of farmers who have lost their land have been sold into prostitution, and the supposed beneficiaries of a fundamentally violent social structure, Sivaraksa says, have themselves become slaves to the capitalist system's relentless need for them to consume.
"It is a kind of religion, a kind of sacrament. Department stores have become the temples for people. Buddhism is no more than a ritual for them," he says. "The Buddhist argument is that this assumption of endless material development is an illusion. Obviously, if every Chinese person has a car, then the world won't be able to cope. But also we have to ask what we mean by development. In the Buddhist concept, development means development of the human being. That doesn't just mean material development. In fact, that can get in the way. We need to have a balance between spiritual, social and environmental development."
Sivaraksa's most recent projects have focused on building alternatives to the consumerist model. A grassroots leadership programme has been teaching a "critical understanding of the present socioeconomic structures" and alternative development strategies such as micro-credit unions and resource-sharing schemes to leaders of marginalised traditional communities in Thailand since 1996.
Plans are also afoot for a Southeast Asia Learning Centre for Sustainable Communities running courses of up to two years. Participants would spend half their time in the classroom learning about sustainable development and half their time setting up projects in their own communities.
But for Sivaraksa, any genuinely sustainable development of society will require a rediscovery of spiritual values. In Thailand, that means a return to Buddhist roots, but in other countries, he says, other traditions will need to be revisited: "There is tremendous richness in Christianity that your countries must rediscover. The Muslim religion is the same. We need to come together, atheists and agnostics as well, and we need to look beyond the materialistic.
"The corporations that run the world now have the latest technology - they employ the best brains. But they lack ethical strength, and that is what defeats all human organisations in the end. Without an ethical basis, nothing will last. I remember very well how George Orwell said 50 years ago that the Soviet Union would not last. Nobody believed him. At that time, the British left looked at the Soviet Union as the answer, just as people (now) seem to think the only way forward is this market fundamentalism. They even ignored Stalin's atrocities at that time, just as they are ignoring what companies are doing now.
"But Orwell was right in predicting the end of that regime because they had no moral legitimacy - and these corporations cannot last because they have none either."
For once, Sivaraksa's face is expressionless.