Thai Youth Learn to Develop a ‘Mindful’ Economic Behaviour

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepthNews Feature

This article is the fourth in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

CHIANG MAI (IDN | Lotus News Features**) – The Mindfulness fad sweeping across the West today may be the new money-spinner for those “gurus” who charge hundreds of dollars for each session to teach its applications, often to improve one’s ability to navigate the global capitalist system to make more money for yourself. But, for the Thais it’s a 2500-year old philosophy taught by Gautama the Buddha to encourage moderation, self-reliance and contentment in your daily life.

Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol introduced mindful economic philosophy known as Sufficiency Economics to his subjects in 1997 when Thailand faced a severe economic crisis that led to many people committing suicide. In 1999 this concept became the guiding principles of Thailand’s national development policies. It has also been introduced to the national education curriculum both at primary and secondary level eight years ago.

Known as the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP), over 18,000 of the 40,000 schools in Thailand have now adopted it. But, the Ministry of Education is now trying to make it operate in a more coordinated and practical way.

“This is a training to make you think and act about everything you do in life, based on sufficiency principles that provides one with insights and virtues” Dr Priyanut Dharmapiya, Director of the Sufficiency School Centre Foundation of Virtuous Youth (SSC/FVY) told Lotus News.

An economist by training, Dr Dharmapiya is a passionate advocate of the Sufficiency Economy model for sustainable development, not only in Thailand but also in other countries in the region as well as globally. She points out that mindful thinking in economic planning is not a new phenomenon, and it is ingrained in the Buddhist philosophy and the Nobel Eight Fold Path where Right Understanding, Right Thought and Right Action are clearly spelt out.

“Sufficiency principles are based on moderation, reasonableness and prudence that creates contentment,” she points out. “We have to always think of the cause and effect of our own actions.”

Though SEP has been introduced to the Thai education system eight years ago, Dr Dharmapiya says that it has not been taught well in schools. “Just teaching is not enough, it’s about cultivating the mindset and practices to conduct our daily lives,” she argues.

Her non-governmental organization SSC/FVY was set up in 2014 to help schools that have adopted the SEP to improve the quality of their teachings and activities. The NGO is supported by the Crown Property Bureau and various Thai companies. During the year they do one national camp and a number of regional camps.

Lotus News visited a regional camp held at the Huai Hong Khrai Royal Development Study Centre near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand early March. 50 students from 5 schools in the region ranging from late primary to early secondary levels were participating along with a number of their teachers. This four-day training program was taking place during their long summer vacation that starts early March and ends mid-May.

“We are training student leaders and teacher leaders here and they will use some of the models that we practice in camp back in their schools to train others”, explained Ployphud Therdsittikul, the camp coordinator from SSC/FVY. “At the end of the camp they get a certificate and a badge to say they are SEP leaders for their school.”

“(At this camp) basic principles of moderation, reasonableness and prudence are taught, so that everyone learns to cooperate,” explained teacher Sirikwan Taola. “When students learn these principles, they can adopt these when they go back, to link to social and family activity.”

Angkhana Jaddum from Phrommasamakkhe School in Kumphangphet explained that students from her school are now involved more in out-of-classroom activity (in the afternoons) after the education ministry asked schools to change the purely classroom based education system. They have set up a farm at the school where students can adopt SEP in its operations. “Children take the vegetables from the farm and cook together for their lunch. So they see how SEP works,” noted Jaddum.

For the 12 year old student Thitinan Srathonson, the best lesson she is learning from the camp is about moderation and she believes that this should be adopted in the whole ASEAN (Southeast Asian) region. “Before I do anything, I learned that I should understand deeply what I do,” she told Lotus News. “So that when I buy something to make a toy, I should think if I could reuse it.” She added that she would also think about the effect on the environment in what she does and adopt regional cultural traditions in her social activities.

Primary student, eight-year old Worrapoj Pholtha says that he has learned from the camp that when he uses water he needs to use it in moderation because it is a precious resource that should not be wasted. He thinks he can influence his parents, who are farmers, to use water in a more mindful fashion. “I cannot tell my parents (what to do), but when I work with my parents what we learned at school (in SEP model) will be in my mind and use water carefully,” he said.

The SEP model has had its ups and down since the King mooted it in 1997.  Thailand, which currently holds the chairmanship of the Group of 77 developing countries at the United Nations, has offered the SEP model as a guiding principle for attaining sustainable development and recently held a seminar in Bangkok to introduce it to member countries.

However, Dr Dharmapiya, explained that sometimes the urban and rural people in the Kingdom have a misconception about the model. “Urban people think it is for rural people, because they (urbanites) may not want to be content, but want more material goods,” she noted. “While the rural people think they haven’t got enough, and you tell them to be self-sufficient.”

“Actually its all about defilements in our minds that stop you from practicing sufficiency,” argues the economist. “(What we are advocating) is to be more mindful about our actions, and limited resources that we have, while living together with others in the larger society.”

Looking back at the 1997 economic crisis in Thailand when many Thais, especially the urban middle classes, lost their jobs, homes, land, cars and children had to be taken out of school, and some even committed suicide, Dr Dharmapriya points out, “people over-consumed, over-invested and spent without thinking thoroughly, they didn’t have savings for protection, there was no risk management”.

She argues that the basic principle of SEP is to provide a framework for us to think and make decisions prudently. “When people are mindful they don’t think only about themselves, but think about others too. When children develop this mindset it will have an impact on their families and the society they live in.”

*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, teaching regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Please click here for the writer’s articles on IDN. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 March 2016]

**Lotus News Features cover countries and communities in Asia with a set of news values that are based on “mindful” concepts and ethics emanating from Buddhist values. Previous articles as part of the Lotus News Features can be accessed here.

Photo: Students engrossed in a lecture | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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