HIGHLIGHTS

  • He was elected as governor of Bangkok on an election campaign that put moral issues at the center, emphasizing clean elections and the rejection of political contributions. Against the odds, he won.
  • Chamlong cleaned up and put order not only in the city’s streets and public markets but also in the government’s transactions, getting rid of corruption which meant more money for city services. He improved life for the city’s poorest. Refusing his salary and turning his back on other perquisites of office, Chamlong set the example himself for public service. He lived simply.
  • In 1992, Chamlong’s Palang Dharma (“Moral Force”) party won 32 of Bangkok’s 35 seats in Thailand’s parliament, making him a national force. He pitted his moral authority against the chief military commander upon his assumption of the position of prime minister. Chamlong acted in a non-violent protest that prompted his arrest. Thailand’s king intervened personally to effect his release and to foster a peaceful resolution to the crisis favoring greater democracy for Thailand.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his exemplary governorship of Bangkok and his fervent insistence that elections are the sole legitimate path to political power in Thailand.”

 CITATION

In Asia, we realize, the trappings of democracy must often come before the substance of democracy. This has certainly been the experience of Southeast Asia, where elected officials have long occupied a conspicuous place on the national stage, but where real power often lies with others who stand well beyond the reach of voters.

The process of achieving democracy can be painfully slow in such circumstances, and is easily frustrated. And since few political actors are wholly immune to intrigues, or to greed and power-seeking, sometimes it is the behavior of elected officials themselves that discredits the democratic alternative. Yet, if elected leaders are no better than military strongmen or domineering party bosses, why should people take the risk of insisting on democracy?

As the elected governor of Bangkok and a champion of democratic reforms in Thailand, CHAMLONG SRIMUANG has renewed hope among Thais that the risk is worth taking.

Son of an immigrant Chinese fish vendor, CHAMLONG rose in life by dint of discipline and ambition. He worked his way through high school and achieved admission to the Royal Thai Military Academy, graduating in 1960. As a military officer he served in Laos and Vietnam, and at the Armed Forces Supreme Command in Thailand. He studied management abroad. Chosen in 1980 to become executive secretary to Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond, he stepped down a year later to oppose an impending law that he disapproved of on moral grounds; but he remained with the army and was promoted to major general. In 1985, when constitutional reforms made the governorship of Bangkok an elected post, he resigned and launched his first political campaign.

Drawing on the teachings of an austere sect of Buddhism which he practices, CHAMLONG placed moral issues at the center of his election campaign. No vote buying. No smearing of rivals. No compromising political contributions. He mobilized his followers into a new party which he later named Palang Dharma, or Moral Force. And, against the odds, he won.

As governor, CHAMLONG brought order and cleanliness to Bangkok’s streets, canals, and public markets. He tackled the city’s crippling floods and traffic. He improved life for the city’s poorest. Saying, “a selfish person throws garbage everywhere,” he exhorted Bangkok’s six million citizens to make sacrifices for the common good. He taught them that small human actions, if practiced widely by citizens, can have a huge public impact. Refusing his salary and turning his back on other perquisites of office, CHAMLONG set the example himself. He lived simply, dressed simply, and ate only one vegetarian meal a day. To make a point, he took up a broom and swept the streets.

CHAMLONG swept his government clean too. Less corruption meant more money for city services. So did vigorous tax collection. “I suggest sincerity and hard work,” he said, and practiced what he preached. This astonished his constituents who re-elected him in a landslide victory in 1990.

In March 1992 CHAMLONG’s Palang Dharma party won 32 of Bangkok’s 35 seats in Thailand’s parliament, making him a national force. When, a few months later, the country’s chief military commander assumed the office of prime minister, 57-year-old CHAMLONG pitted his moral authority against the brute strength of the state. With a stunning act of non-violent protest that prompted his arrest, he galvanized the public to reject the unelected leader. Thailand’s King intervened personally to effect his release and to foster a peaceful resolution to the crisis favoring greater democracy for Thailand.

In electing CHAMLONG SRIMUANG to receive the 1992 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his exemplary governorship of Bangkok and his fervent insistence that elections are the sole legitimate path to political power in Thailand.

 RESPONSE

It is indeed a great honor for me to be selected and invited to receive the Magsaysay Award today.

President Magsaysay was a very a courageous person who worked with great honesty and devotion for the Philippines all his life. This foundation has established this award in the name of this great president of the Philippines not only to honor him but to remind everyone of his magnificent performance as a public servant. This award inspires great determination and willpower among professionals to follow in his footsteps, and work with honesty and devotion toward the growth and development of the nations in this region. So I am deeply pleased to have succeeded in his ideal of working for one’s country with great dedication.

I never expected to become a reputable politician or to pursue popularity and fame. I work with the sense of responsibility of an ordinary man being a member of the community who serves the public in order to create a better society.

My success in performing my duties and responsibilities as the governor of Bangkok derives from the remarkable cooperation of the officials of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the citizens of Bangkok Metropolis. They deserve all the credit for this award. No development project can succeed without the cooperation of the public. The public must do its part from the beginning to the end of each project. I am just a part of the development process.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation board of trustees and everyone who had a hand in giving me this great honor. Once again, I confirm my determination to serve the public with great honesty and devotion in order to create a better society for the future.

 BIOGRAPHY

Chamlong Srimuang remembers almost nothing about his father. A fishmonger who migrated to Bangkok from Swatow (Shantou), China, he died just a year or two after Chamlong was born on 5 July 1935. Chamlong’s mother, Sae Tia, was also of Chinese descent but she was born in Thailand and was assimilated to Thai ways. She bore two sons. Chamlong’s elder brother was sent to live with his grandmother in China and died there as a boy. As a result, Chamlong and his mother formed a family circle of two.

Theirs was a difficult life. When Chamlong was very little, Sae Tia earned a daily subsistence by buying fruits and betel leaves from gardeners in Thonburi, where they lived, and selling them in Phranakorn on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Later, she and her small son moved into the home of a retired naval officer where Sae Tia worked as a servant and Chamlong helped with the chores. Mrs. Lamoon Tangsubutr, the lady of the house, warmed to the little boy and often took him along when she went about her errands. After leaving Mrs. Lamoon’s household a few years later, Sae Tia and her son went to lodge with her aunt and engaged in a home industry. Using a pedal-operated machine, they spun jute fiber purchased from local farmers into thread to sell to nearby jute sack factories. A year or two later, mother and son switched to hand plaiting banana-leaf food containers, a skill at which Chamlong became so adept that he could do it without looking while studying his school lessons.

When Chamlong was twelve, his mother remarried. Chote Srimuang was a postman and Chamlong remembers him as a “very, very good father.” But the family remained poor, and Chamlong was never freed from the need to work.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)