Light at the end of a pipeline, joy for 200 years of kings
Over 700 years ago a glorious King of Thailand declared, ''In the water there is fish, in the field there is rice. The faces of the people shine bright.''Skip to next paragraph
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Rewritten today, King Ramkhamhaeng's proclamation might read: ''In the sea there is gas, under the land there is oil. The hopes of the people shine bright.''
The first commercial flow of natural gas this year and the discovery of oil would be reason enough for hope and celebration in the ''land of smiles.''
But Thailand also pays honor in 1982 to the 200th anniversary of its capital, Bangkok, (''city of angels''), and of the Chakri monarchy, the country's longest-lasting dynasty and one of the most stabilizing left in the world.
By April 1983 Thailand might also be able to celebrate its first four years of parliamentary democracy. A year is a long time, however, in the nation's mercurial politics, and next year's elections may be dwarfed by changes now in motion.
The present government under Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, alarmed by growing income differences between urban and rural dwellers, appears serious about uplifting select pockets of poverty. About 11 million of Thailand's 48 million people are classed as ''absolutely poor.'' Most of these are in the countryside, where a majority till the land -- usually someone else's land.
The World Bank, nudging the government to take action, is worried that if nations with high economic growth, such as Thailand or Indonesia, cannot pull their poor up into the mainstream, then low-growth areas such as India or Saharan Africa have little hope.
As Asia's historic ''rice bowl,'' food-rich Thailand should appear to be well off. Indeed, since 1960 the proportion of Thailand's people classed as poor has fallen from 51 percent to 23 percent. And food exports have somewhat cushioned the blow of high oil-import bills. But the l979 oil shock and a scarcity of land for farming have almost halted progress against poverty. For instance: some 57 percent of its small children are undernourished in some degree.
''Poverty could zoom up by 1985,'' says Dr. Phisit Pakkasem, assistant secretary-general of the National Economic and Social Development Board.
In his two years in office Prime Minister Prem has been forced to seek deep changes in the economy.
For himself, the biggest change has been to step into the daily fray of economic policymaking, instead of leaving it to his ministers, who could never reach a Thai-style consensus.
Last November he had the pleasure of turning the valve for the first gush of natural gas from an offshore platform in the Gulf of Thailand. The country's light of hope could be seen at the end of that pipeline, the first of some 16 trillion cubic feet or more waiting to be tapped.
Oil was also struck onshore by a Dutch Shell rig, adding merit to speculation that Thailand might be energy independent in a decade. It now imports all its oil.
Unlike petroleum-rich Britain, Indonesia, or Nigeria, where the unearned income from oil was concentrated in government hands, the kingdom of Thailand plans to invest its new hydrocardons into producing raw materials, such as fertilizers, for the rural poor.
But that new source of wealth is at least five years away,
and the government has had to buy time by shoring up $2.5 billion a year in foreign assistance. It also is making advances on two fronts: bureaucracy and private enterprise.
Unlike some other nations' bureaucracies, Thailand's comes with an ''autocratic attitude'' derived from its origin under King Rama V a century ago. It still fills a vacuum left by a weak election process. The 1982-86 plan puts budget power under the National Economic and Social Development Board -- priorities will pass down, not up, the bureaucratic ladder.
Also, a freeze on civil-service hiring is being tried. It may thaw, however, with 3.2 million young people entering the work force each year -- a result of a pre-family-planning baby boom. Population growth has dropped from 3 percent during the 1960s to an estimated 2.1 percent today.