Return to Indochina; Thailand: the domino that didn't fall
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Unity is something that distinguishes Thailand in many of its aspects, particularly in comparison with Vietnam. This unity may help to explain why Thailand, of all the states in Southeast Asia, was the only one not to come under colonial rule.Skip to next paragraph
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Unity seems to be even more important in some respects than a strong Army. Vietnam has more than a million men under arms. Its Army is among the best in the world, its infantry among the most experienced. But the Vietnamese are still badly divided.
When it comes to tolerating diversity in the interest of unity, the Vietnamese could perhaps learn a lesson or two from the Thais. It is the military who are in charge these days in Thailand. But the military men rule with a relatively benevolent hand.
Within a month of the April coup, some of the Young Turk officers were being given amnesty. The only casualty of the coup was a bystander who was shot by accident. But the military leadership is split into factions. Another coup could occur if certain reforms are not carried out. The Young Turk colonels were concerned about corruption in high places, among other things.
But despite its coups, Thailand's foreign and domestic policies remain fairly steady. Radical change, one way or the other, seems to be ruled out for some time to come. Pragmatism, not ideology, rules. Despite a surface instability, there has long been a consensus as to how to get things done.
The Thais tend to be tolerant of their governments and their governments tend to be tolerant of them. When this reporter covered a Thai military takeover in 1971, the popular saying was ''mai pen rai,'' which can be translated ''never mind.'
'But a ''never mind'' attitude will not help Thailand cope with long-range problems, either at home or abroad.On the home front, the government is going to concentrate less over the next four years on achieving economic growth and more on overcoming some of the inequities in Thai society, Thai economic planners say.
According to a World Bank report, Thailand's draft economic plan for 1982-86 represents a ''significant shift' in policy in the direction of making the distribution of the country's wealth more equitable, particularly in the rural areas.
Thai agriculture had long been able to absorb a growing labor force, but that situation is changing. Bringing forest reserve lands under cultivation is, in theory at least, no longer permitted. The Thais can no longer count so heavily on agriculture to get them through. They must develop their light industries and their nonagricultural exports.
Compared with many other Asian nations, Thailand has been a land of plenty. While there has been poverty, there has been little starvation or malnutrition.But now the Thais must learn to cultivate more intensively, and more intelligently, the rich land with which they have been blessed.
The Thai economic system also faces great difficulties when it comes to deficits, rising prices for oil, a balance of payments problem, and worsened terms of trade.
But these problems may prove to be relatively modest in scope when they are compared with some of the potentially explosive political problems that confront the country.
David Morell, a Princeton University political scientist who has written extensively on Thai politics, thinks that Thailand's political system faces four crises in the 1980s:
* A crisis of legitimacy, which raises questions about the future of the Thai monarchy.