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
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