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Sulak Sivaraksa on the structural violence of the global economy

Sulak Sivaraksa, the 85-year-old Thai Buddhist monk, thinker and peace activist, is currently facing the prospect of a fifteen-year jail sentence, for criticising his country’s royal family and military junta. Here, he speaks on the global economy’s built-in inequities and biases. Also included is ‘Heavenly Messengers,’ an excerpt from his book, ‘The Wisdom of Sustainability.’

The Wisdom of Sustainability & Local Futures

Heavenly Messengers
An excerpt from ‘The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century
by Sulak Sivaraksa

When Prince Siddhartha—the future Buddha—left his palace at the age of twenty-nine, he encountered for the first time a sick man, an elderly man, a corpse, and a wandering monk. Despairing, he left the comforts of home and entered the holy life, determined to overcome suffering and death. Some time later, he realized that these four sights had beenheavenly messengers.

I met James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, in 1998, and he asked about Asia’s recent economic collapse that had begun in my country. (My country was known as Siam until 1939, when its name was changed to Thailand, a hybrid Anglicized word emblematic of the crisis of traditional Siamese Buddhist values. I generally refer to the country as Siam, not Thailand). I told him I thought it had been a heavenly messenger to encourage us to seek alternatives to economic globalization.

In the years following World War II, governments and individuals around the world worked enthusiastically together to try to build a better world. They established the United Nations as the first truly universal forum where small, poor countries could rub shoulders with powerful, rich ones on matters of common concern, on the basis of equality. They created the World Bank and the International Monetary fund—the Bretton Woods institutions—to generate prosperity for all. The World Bank’s mission, engraved on the walls of its Washington, D.C., headquarters, is to eradicate poverty.

The Bank’s strategy for creating wealth has been to impose deregulation, privatization, and structural adjustment on the economies of nations. Deregulation is the removal of government restrictions on business. Privatization is the transfer of ownership from the public to the private sector. Structural adjustments are requirements imposed, usually on third-world countries, in order to receive loans from the World Bank or similar lenders.

These adjustments—often deregulation and privatization—are intended to generate wealth. Although the Bretton Woods’ founders were sincere in their efforts to bring an end to poverty, in fact the institutions and instruments they created have brought about increased inequality in wealth, as well as environmental degradation and cultural deterioration. using the World Bank’s own definition of poverty, the number of poor people has increased.

Mr. Wolfensohn asked me to say more, and I told him that globalization—which really should be called free-market fundamentalism—is a demonic religion imposing materialistic values on developing as well as industrialized nations, driving individuals to try to earn more to acquire more in a never-ending cycle of greed and insecurity.

The World Bank and other Bretton Woods institutions presume the superiority of industrialization, the monetary economy, and modernity over agrarian lifestyles, subsistence economies, and indigeneity, making globalization a new form of colonialism. The term modernization is, in fact, racially coded; its precursor was Europeanization.

Capitalism’s promise to bring about emancipation through perpetual economic growth is, to use Jerry Mander’s word, insane. Nothing can grow forever. There are limits. Before we irretrievably erode the matter of our mother earth, we need to change direction and build a future based on wisdom and compassion. There are simply not enough resources for everyone to live a first-world lifestyle.


Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, my spiritual teacher, emphasized the importance of staying close to nature. He would look at the banyan tree in front of his hut and point to the plants and animals living peacefully in its shade. The first law of the natural world, he said, is interdependence.

When we are in harmony with nature, we feel nurtured and profoundly content. The Buddha called this Dharma, the natural order of things. Dharma emphasizes sentience—the alive-nature of phenomena, including our mind. As we come to understand natural Dharma, we also discover our own potential and responsibilities. At the core of Dharma is the spirit of free inquiry. After six years of intense effort, Prince Sid dhartha overcame his attachment to greed, hatred, and ignorance, and became a Buddha, “an awakened one.” He shared his insight with fellow yogis, and this event is known as “turning the Wheel of the Dharma.”


Globalization sounds value-neutral. It preaches the interdependence of nations, the mutuality of their interests, and the shared benefits of their exchanges. But during the half-century of globalization’s ascendance on the world stage, inequities between haves and have-nots—North and South, investors and workers, agribusiness and peasants—have increased exponentially, triggering the near-total dependence of so-called developing countries on developed ones. As a result of this free-market fundamentalism, environments have been destroyed and economies have collapsed.

Even in the midst of a global economic meltdown, neoliberal ideologues continue to push to remove trade barriers and restructure economies. Their faith in the emancipatory power of the free market must be based on unmitigated greed. These are intelligent individuals; they cannot be this blind or naïve. Neoliberals regard modernity as is its own justification, and permit it to devour all other social and cultural beliefs and aspirations.

We need to intensify our criticism and redefine globalization’s contours and content. In Siam, consumer culture, through the mass media, has replaced Buddhist virtues. To overcome these false values promoted in the name of economic development, we need to return to our spiritual roots.


A monk asked the Buddha, “I have been meditating for many years to be able to walk on water.” The Buddha replied, “It would be better to hire a boatman.”

Another religious leader asked the Buddha, “What practices do your monks follow?”

The Buddha answered, “They walk, stand, lie down, sit, eat, and drink.”

“What is special about that?” the man asked.

The Buddha explained, “While walking, they know that they are walking. When standing, they know that they are standing. When lying down, they know that they are lying down. …”

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, the miracle is to walk on the earth mindfully, to touch the depth and sacred presence of each moment. Meditation helps us see the traits that dominate our consciousness—hatred and love, ignorance and wisdom, fear and courage. When we acknowledge the full range of qualities within us, our ignorance begins to fade, and wisdom and compassion arise naturally. The practice of mindful breathing restructures our consciousness and helps us develop critical self-awareness. We become more able to see the structural violence in ourselves and the world.


Structural violence is a term coined in the 1960s by Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies as an academic discipline. It refers to systematic ways a society’s resources are distributed unequally and unfairly, preventing people from meeting their basic needs. Structural violence includes elitism, ethnocentrism, classism, racism, sexism, nationalism, heterosexism, and ageism.

Structural violence may be political, repressive, economic, or exploitative. unequal access to resources, power, education, health care, or legal standing are forms of structural violence. When inner-city children attend inadequate schools while others do not, when laborers work in inhumane conditions, structural violence exists.

Social structures are not permanent or natural phenomena. They evolve—through political and historical developments—and usually refer to organizations, institutions, laws, and ideologies. Social structures influence action by creating frameworks of propriety that govern those within the structures.

Social structures pressure us to adopt desired dogma, establishing what is then regarded as normative. Each structure creates boundaries to what is acceptable, speakable, and thinkable. These boundaries define “the truth.” They describe our worldview, and we accept it without question. We become spectators, even cheerleaders. When our mind gives rise to an idea that is “outside the box,” we feel too afraid to seek the truth.

The power of social structures is enormous. They influence our thoughts, actions, attitudes, desires, and even our bodies. When we accept this canon, we enjoy a privileged status. When we challenge or reject it, we become marginalized. We have to see the relationships between social structures, self-surveillance, and self-censorship.

To enforce social constructions, institutions intimidate us. Modern medicine fills us with the fear of illness, aging, and even ugliness. Religions might deceive us; Buddhist temples in my country have become terribly rich from donations people make in order to gain merit and thus ensure for themselves an auspicious rebirth.

Governments control us through fear: fear of jail or even execution. “National security,” “private property,” and “free-market capitalism” are social structures. By showcasing these and other structures, our education system teaches students to be subser vient to power and accept the status quo rather than work to overturn injustice.

The central operating concept of the global economy is “private property.” The West invented this, and we Asians dutifully have followed their lead. Recently the government in India declared that (literally) every drop of rain in Rajasthan belongs to them, and they will, in turn, provide concessions to private companies to buy and sell this rainwater. The media—almost all are for-profit corporations—are expert in legitimizing the actions of those in power. It is essential that we learn to analyze structural violence and social structures.

In this age of extreme modernism, a time of terror, we need to understand how our systems of thought have been crafted, so when a heavenly messenger awakens us, we will know what is true.


Why Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa could go to jail over a history lesson
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The prominent socially engaged Buddhist and Siamese intellectual, Sulak Sivaraksa, was taken by police on Monday to face a military tribunal preparing a criminal case against him. Sulak was released the same day and was told that military prosecutors will decide by December 7 whether or not they will proceed with the case. The 85-year-old Sulak is accused of lèse-majesté—defaming the monarchy—by questioning whether 16th-century Thai king Naresuan really led his soldiers to victory in a historical elephant battle. The crime of lèse-majesté forbids criticism of the king, queen, crown prince, or regent, and in Thailand earns a fifteen-year prison sentence.

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