WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Events remind me of a band of monkeys in Thailand that once snatched bananas from our hands and leaped on the roof and hood of our car. But they shrank meekly away when a wizened monkey leader swaggered up the road, approached us calmly and accepted his bananas with nonchalance. Toward approaching males, he quickly bared his teeth in a hideous, scary and swift motion that sent them scurrying. Together, they might have mauled or killed him. But they could not overcome his dominance.
In Eastern Europe, the Western Sahara, Sri Lanka and too many other places around the world, similar roles are being played out. The human struggle for dominance is clothed in terms of ideology, ethnicity, religion, race, economics and national liberation. Behind it, however, often lurks the snarl, the thug and the mob.
When Soviet troops liberated Eastern Czechoslovakia from Nazi rule at the end of World War II, the collaborator police and administrators there simply threw off their jackets and within days were wearing the uniforms of the communist-installed forces.
When Chinese communists in 1949 ousted feudal landowners, the new village committees were rapidly dominated by the same outspoken, strong-willed guys who were enforcers for the old landlords, according to William Hinton's account in ''Fanshen.'' Thugs will be thugs. Top monkey still comes out on top.
In the Western Sahara, U.N. elections to end a 15-year guerrilla war will offer a choice between continued rule by Morocco's benign but authoritarian dictator-king or the Polisario guerrillas' XTC authoritarian, leftist revolutionaries. Some choice.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers exploited discrimination by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority to begin a separatist campaign in which they've killed most of their moderate Tamil rivals as well as thousands of Sinhalese. Dominant types often spend more time killing their own tribe than the enemies they claim are a threat to all.
World War II's victory over German and Japanese racism led us to believe the world would copy a key Anglo-American value: that law must protect all minorities. On the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain an equitable repression for all, papered over with multi-racial socialist-realist posters, lobotomized the ethnic issue.
But in 1982, I began to see the unraveling of the Anglo-American ideal in the world's biggest democracy -- India. The Sikhs, once India's leading agriculturists and administrators, began to cower the roadside before the swaggering of the Khalistan %o separatists led by Sant Bhindranwhale in the Golden Temple. The militants began to murder all who stood in their path and turned the prosperous heart of the Green Revolution into a war zone of hatred and fear.
''Why not accept your role as part of India as so manimmigrants have done in America?'' I asked the saffron-turbaned men with the Kalashnikovs in Amritsar and the Tamil Tigers with their cyanide necklaces in Jaffna. The answers were like nothing taught west of the Statue of Liberty. They endorsed machine guns and death for the journalists and political leaders of their own group who disagreed with them. Buses and trains were halted in Punjab and Sri Lanka and -- in a horrible re-enactment of Hitler's separation of Jews from non-Jews -- Hindus and Sinhalese were identified, separated and murdered.
The repressive crackdown by government forces that followed played right into the hands of the small group of militants: It polarized the whole ethnic group and pushed moderates into the arms of the separatists. This technique -- murder among the majority to provoke a backlash -- seems to be a textbook method for starting a guerrilla war.
Ethnic and tribal forces will grow as the world becomes more crowded, the environment deteriorates and people squabble over land, resources, space and jobs. Ethnic identification need not be destructive and can provide psychological, spiritual and social nourishment as the diverse cultures of the world encounter the technological power of Western-created science and mass communication.
We do not want to resist ethnic resurgence but only to prevent abuse by petty tyrants and estrangement between cultures that are already united geographically, economically and politically. Let those already independent and alienated, such as India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey or Israel and the Arabs, turn their backs on each other forever so long as they leave one another in peace.
But when ethnic fires erupt within a nation, the only hope to avoid violence, splintering, displacement and loss of human and political rights is to urge that laws protect all peoples. Ironically, this means to struggle against the existing privileges of caste and ethnic groups.
Some ethnic conflicts can be defused by giving a fair chance for minorities to share in government decisions and to more fairly allocate resources such as water, power, education and industry. In other cases -- such as the bitter fight over affirmative action in America and India -- efforts to consciously improve backwater groups require sacrifice.
Most important, however, is adherence to the rule of law in protecting and assisting minorities as well as resolving disputes. Otherwise vicious little dictators, waiting in the wings of every ethnic group, may turn legitimate desires for equality and cultural freedom into bloody crusades for one, narrow version of the future. By the year 2000 we could see a dozen more movements like the Tigers, Khalistanis, Khmer Rouge and Shining Path.
Ben Barber has been a foreign correspondent in Asia, the Middle East and Central Europe. He is currently a Washington journalist and consultant.