EVENTS surrounding last week's abbreviated coup in Thailand paradoxically suggest that that country has actually made considerable progress in recent years, though substantial problems remain. Since the late 1970s the bulk of the military and civilian bureaucracy has jointly run Thailand, in a government more open and democratic than those previously run by the military alone. The retired military men who engineered the coup evidently opposed this trend, but proved to have little popular or military support. The quick collapse of their effort points to a government that is relatively stable, despite the nation's past frequent coups.
Yet Thailand today faces two major problems -- security and economy. Both require international understanding and assistance.
Thailand feels threatened by Vietnam. Thailand's Army is no larger than the number of Vietnamese troops stationed in Kampuchea (Cambodia). Vietnamese troops have made several deep incursions into Thailand while pursuing opposing Kampuchean forces.
Some Thai officials favor closer ties with China, as one means of trying to neutralize the threat of the Soviet-backed Vietnamese. Coup leaders may have objected to this closer China connection. They are believed to have opposed a successful Thai program of providing amnesty to communists who turn themselves in.
Thailand is now trying to modernize its military to meet the external Vietnamese threat. It is up to the United States and other friendly nations to aid this effort.
The US and other creditor nations also need to be understanding of Thailand's complex economic position. As in many other developing countries, the economy is sagging; although servicing foreign debt is not yet a problem, concern about future debt servicing is beginning to grow. The difficulty is typical of developing nations: Prices have declined for commodities that make up the bulk of exports -- rice, tin, and rubber. Exports from the expanding light manufacturing industries of textiles and electroni cs are running into increased competition, plus rising protectionism in some nations and the prospect of protectionism in others.
Yet the Thai economy is basically sound, far stronger than those of most other third-world countries. Thailand's populace is better educated, and its military is more willing to permit civilians a stronger role in government. These assets provide strength if not outright stability to the nation.