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The bottom line in human terms:
‘No words to tell how we feel’


This year, some Asian countries will take a bigger hit than Mexico did during its 1995 peso crisis when its gross domestic product registered 6.2 percent negative growth. At midyear, the International Monetary Fund estimates for annual growth put gross domestic product in Indonesia at negative 15.1 percent, Thailand negative 7.2 percent and South Korea at negative 4.3 percent. Hong Kong’s gross domestic product shrank 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 1998, its worst showing in 53 years.

What do the figures mean in human terms? Thousands of small and medium-sized companies have closed. Thousands of homes and cars are being repossessed. Students are forced to leave school. Malnutrition and domestic violence are increasing, and the suicide rate is reaching new highs.

These countries have long histories of full employment, and in Asia if you don’t work you don’t eat. There is no unemployment insurance, and the only social security is your family.


Thai officials project 2.7 million to 3 million unemployed by year end, nearly 10 percent of the work force. Lost income is absorbed by other working members of multigenerational households.

Displaced workers are taking jobs in the unregulated informal sector as street vendors and food-stall cooks. When the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority opened a new open market area with around 100 stalls, more than 10,000 people made application to rent a spot. Reportedly, many taxi drivers in Bangkok are now fluent in English and hold degrees from overseas universities. About 200,000 urban workers are looking in villages for agricultural work, jobs that used to attract only illegal foreign migrant workers.


With 1.5 million workers with no jobs, South Korea has a 6.9 percent unemployment rate compared to 4.4 percent a year ago. The government expects to add 200,000 to 300,000 unemployed by the end of October. However, labor activists note that the government defines as employed any worker who completes at least one hour of work in a two-week period. The Korean Federation of Trade Unions believes as many as 4 million workers are now without jobs.

A union for day laborers reported that 64.7 percent of its members surveyed “felt their very existence threatened.” Just over 33 percent reported having no work in the month prior to the survey, and 18.1 percent report monthly incomes of less than $400. Many reported living on rice and pepper paste.


Shell-shocked and disoriented, Indonesian delegates to the Seoul Forum came ill-prepared with statistics and studies. Indeed, Indonesia may disintegrate. East Timor independence activist Jose Ramos-Horta told NCR, “We work on the principle that what is bad for our enemy is good for us.” He sees East Timor autonomy within three years.

Long and brutally repressed secessionist movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya are showing new signs of life. Activists in these regions “openly demand freedom, and the demand comes without fear from [authorities in] Jakarta,” said Nikolas Simanjuntak, a delegate from Indonesia.

Another delegate told NCR, “This is not an economic crisis. For Indonesia, this is a national crisis. We have no word in Indonesian to explain how I feel. We have a word for anger but it’s more than anger. Indignation? It’s more than indignation. We have no word.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998