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Return to Indochina; Thailand: the domino that didn't fall

By Daniel SoutherlandStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 1982

Bangkok, Thailand;The writer, who is the Monitor's diplomatic correspondent, reported from Indochina for the Monitor from 1970 to 1975 and recently returned to the area for a three-week visit.

The joke used to be that if the Vietnamese wanted to invade Thailand, the only thing that would stop them would be a Bangkok traffic jam.

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As it is, Vietnam has had more than enough trouble at home, and in Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Thailand has become the domino that didn't fall.

But in the spring of 1975, when Kampuchea fell to the Khmer Rouge and South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese, a number of foreign observers thought that Thailand would have to accommodate.

The Thais were famous for shifting with the prevailing wind. The bamboo, it was said, might not break but it would have to bend.

Some foreigners thought Thailand was in for such bad times that they sold their companies at fire-sale prices. Foreign investment in this nation at the geopolitical heart of Southeast Asia plummeted. Americans had once been told by their leaders that Thailand would fall if its Indochina neighbors went communist , and they had done so.

''A recurring nightmare these days of both foreign investors and local VIPs is that some years hence they may be kicking each other in the face in a desperate struggle to board the final evacuation helicopters lifting off from Bangkok,'' wrote Jeffrey Race, an American scholar, for the Institute of Current World Affairs, in April 1976. He predicted this would not happen, and he was right.

A reporter returns to Thailand after a six-year absence to find that this nation of some 48 million people is in many ways doing well.

The old problems are still there, however: corruption and injustices, the rich-poor gap, and the Bangkok-countryside gap. Or as a Thai newspaper headline once put it: ''Bangkok vs. Thailand.''

A crowded, polluted, hectic city of 6 million, Bangkok is out of control. But it lives better than the rest of the country, and it makes most of the decisions for the rest of the country.

The days when Bangkok's canals earned it the title ''Venice of the East'' are long gone. Most of the canals have been filled in and the boats replaced by some of the noisiest pollution-producing vehicles in the region. Bangkok's madcap taxi drivers seem bent on self-destruction. Crime and violence are major problems.

Thailand has long been much less crowded than most Asian countries. But in recent years, land has been growing scarce. In central and northern Thailand, some farmers have gone deeply into debt and lost their land. Some have moved into Bangkok's ever-expanding slums.

The country's farmers, who made Thailand the major food exporter that it is, have always deserved a better break from landowners, moneylenders, and middlemen - and from the city of Bangkok. Rice prices are kept artifically low just to make life easier for residents of the capital.

Nonetheless, when one compares Thailand with some other countries in the region, it is clear that much is going well. Thailand has maintained impressive economic growth rates of 7 to 8 percent, in real terms, for more than a decade. Real per capita income has been rising on the average at a rate of 4 to 5 percent a year. Over the past few years, the Thais have made tapioca, a once negligible crop here, into a major export product. Indeed, Thailand is a rarity among developing countries in being a major food exporter.

In contrast with the Vietnamese, who have tended to view the ethnic Chinese of Vietnam as a problem, the Thais have tended to consider the Chinese in Thailand to be an asset. It is clear that much of Thailand's business dynamism is the result of a successful integration of a sizable Chinese population into Thai society. Intermarriage among Thai and Chinese elites is welcomed rather than looked down upon. At the same time, the country is getting a grip on its population problem, having reduced the annual birthrate to about 2 percent.