How a Thai family sizes up a 'most important' election

''Democracy vs. dictatorship.'' ''The generals against the elected politicians.'' The headlines describe the coming Monday (April 18) general election that way , but the issues are not like that for many of Thailand's 50 million people.

For the Chattarakul family which lives in a small town two hours south of Bangkok, the issues are jobs, cost of living, land, and depressed pineapple prices. Until two years ago they farmed land that they did not own. Even if it was for sale, they could not have persuaded the banks to lend them the money.

When they were forced off their farm, the head of the family returned to his old trade as a hairdresser. The shop is at the back of the family dwelling. His wife now sells pineapples on the Bangkok-Singapore highway, which runs through the town.

The couple has three daughters and a son. The young man has never had a permanent job. There is no unemployment relief for him or other jobless Thais. Two daughters are at school, another burden for the family budget. The eldest child, Rapeepan, is expected to contribute regularly to the household, an obligation she accepts without question as do other eldest children in Thailand.

But it is an anguishing burden in a country of low wages and high unemployment and underemployment. Rapeepan was a clerk in the local pineapple cannery until a depressed market forced cuts in staff. As there was nothing locally, she found a job in a motorcycle shop in Bangkok.

When that went out of business, she began journeying all over the country looking for work, especially desiring a government job which offers security and benefits not available elsewhere. Desperate because she found nothing, she took a job as a bartender in one of Bangkok's disreputable go-go parlors. She admits to being ashamed of working there and has not told her family. She earns about $ 250 a month, twice as much as any of her previous earnings, and sends one-third of it to her family.

She sees the difficulty she will have accepting much less pay elsewhere, but she is still anxious to get away from the seamy life before it entraps her permanently.

The kinds of problems she and her family are facing are being aired at many election meetings. Land reform that would enable families like the Chattarakuls to buy the land they work on is a policy proposal of many candidates. So is government action to narrow the wide gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor, to introduce such welfare-state benefits as free schooling and medical care, and to create more jobs.

Mr. Chattarakul is the only family member certain to vote. The others ask, ''What's the difference to us? Whoever's elected will do nothing as always.''

Twenty-five million people are eligible to vote in the election - the 13th since rule by absolute monarchy came to an end in 1932. About 60 percent of those eligible are expected to vote in the provinces, but less than 40 percent are expected to turn out in Bangkok, where cynicism about the political ''game'' and its ''players'' runs high.

Yet interest probably is higher than in any previous election. Experienced political observers say the spate of political killings is a sign of fervor and interest in the campaign. More Thais have lost their lives in the campaign than in 10 days of border fighting with the Vietnamese. Some 13 candidates and canvassers have been murdered since campaigning began three weeks ago. They have all been gunned down by men with war weapons or killed by car bombs.

Veteran politicos say it is ''the most meaningful'' election in more than 25 years. Every political ideology is represented. Even former Communist insurgents are among the candidates, not as Communist Party candidates because it is outlawed, but they are advocating Marxist policies.

One of the former insurgents who recently surrendered to the authorities is Withit Chandawonges, who is campaigning at Sakon Nakorn. His father was executed by the government in 1961 because he was suspected of being a Communist. He has since become a folk hero in the area.

At that time US forces were based nearby and a Communist invasion from neighboring Laos was expected. Today Mr. Withit holds political meetings in the field where his father was shot.

The border conflict has probably helped the Army and its civilian supporters, who want authoritarian government and a continuing political role for the top brass. Thailand's confrontation with Vietnam over Kampuchea is not an issue and is not often mentioned. One party leader has claimed that the Vietnamese would soon leave Kampuchea if he were made prime minister; another suggested that Thailand should be more neutral and less hostile to Vietnam.

In villages near the border, electioneering is going on as normal. ''How to vote'' posters have been put up beside craters made by Vietnamese shells. Villagers flock to district offices to register to vote although their gatherings make easy targets for Vietnamese guns.

Four parties will get most of the votes, but none is likely to win enough to obtain a majority in parliament. Thus another coalition government is expected - a result that will please the Army, since it would regard a one-party government with a workable majority as a threat to its power and influence. (The Army called the election three days before a change in electoral rules would have taken effect, making it more likely that a single party would gain a majority.)

One of the first big issues likely to confront the new parliament is another Army-organized attempt to amend the Constitution in ways that will maintain the parliamentary powers of the military-dominated Senate. The Army is also keen to permit military officers to hold Cabinet posts without resigning from the armed forces.

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