Thailand: Economic Change Rapid, Social Change Slow

May 24, 1992|By BEN BARBER

While troops sprayed bullets into pro-democracy crowds in Bangkok May 17 and 18, Thais asked each other in hushed tones: "Where is the King? Why doesn't he do something?"

Wednesday, after hundreds had been shot, the widely respected king appeared on television with the military-backed prime minister and the opposition leader and called for a compromise -- an end to army shooting and to demonstrations; and constitutional changes to bar any non-elected prime minister. Within hours, the king's message calmed the mobs and troops left the streets of Bangkok.

But even as the grass begins to grow lush on the blood spilled on the Sanam Luang field in front of Thamassat University -- the same site where Thai students died in 1976 and in 1973 fighting against military dictators -- it's not clear who is the victor -- and for how long.

General Suchinda Kraprayoon will likely step down in disgrace from the prime minister's post. But it may not mean the military will step down from its shadowy role in Thailand's political, economic and social life. That is part of the dark side of Thai life that is hidden from visitors by the beauty of Thai smiles and the orange-roofed temples.

Last week, the deep contradictions in Thai society, between those dark forces and the growing awareness and desire for democracy, came to the surface. The ascetic former governor of Bangkok launched a hunger strike to protest military control of politics. Hundreds of thousands of people joined his protest.

The Thai king, in a rare political intervention, asked the army not to use force. Nevertheless, armed troops and police opened fire on the civilian crowds. Rumors repeated by Thai officials who admit they are "confused" by the situation say hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed. Officials admit less than 50 dead.

Just days before the shooting began, while protests were building near Sanam Luang, the Miss Universe beauty contest went on as planned in Bangkok and was broadcast worldwide. Indeed, much of the world considers Thailand a beacon of stability and prosperity in the Third World. In 1989 the economic growth rate was 12 percent, first in the world.

When troops point guns at democracy advocates in Bangkok, it is unsettling for the whole world as well as for Thais. Yet democracy sometimes seems more alien in Thailand than the shiny fruits of prosperity that clog the roads and fill the shopping malls.

Having lived in Thailand for several years, I learned that behind the "land of smiles" image that lures three million tourists a year, there's a strong, old oligarchy at work. Modernization has only elevated a few newly-wealthy players to the narrow slice of military, upper-caste and business leaders who are calling the shots in the Southeast Asian kingdom. But it is not this traditional concentration of power that sparked the protests.

Crowds of more than 100,000 have braved the police and army guns this month near the Royal Palace because General Suchinda (Thais are addressed by their first names), a leader of the February 1991 coup, said he overthrew the civilian government to fight corruption and promised he would not remain in power. Nevertheless, he assumed the prime minister's post.

Had a corrupt general or businessman from the parliament been chosen -- one who would have been just as bad for Thailand as General Suchinda -- it's unlikely any protests would have occurred. But by his reversal of a promise not to take the premier's post, he has held up a mirror to the country that betrayed the lack of democracy and made the whole nation lose face.

In effect, General Suchinda said by his actions: "We, the top echelon of the military, my classmates from the military academy, control Thailand. All the rest of you are powerless." It was the trigger that set off an unstoppable wave of anger, much as Los Angeles erupted at the Rodney King verdict.

Thailand's 55 million people have much to be proud of: Alone in Asia, but for Japan, they were never colonized by the West. When communists defeated the U.S.-backed regimes in neighboring Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientienne in 1975, the Thais coolly reshuffled the cards. They asked the 50,000 U.S. troops to go home, launched a genuine hearts-and-minds drive to bring economic and educational development to fringe areas under communist influence and directed national policies on currency, exports, agriculture and industry to benefit the most Thais possible.

By 1989, per capita income had leaped to more than $1,000 a year; the communists surrendered under a royal amnesty; literacy was nearly universal; family size fell from six children to two; hundreds of thousands enrolled in huge open universities; Japanese and other investors opened computer and auto plants; and bilateral trade with the United States reached $9 billion.

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