One of Asia's most important communist movements, the Thai Communist Party, appears to be engaged in a period of soul searching. Defections, limited support from abroad, and Thai military pressure seem to be taking their toll on the guerrilla Thai People's Liberation Army. It fields about 12,000 men.
The decline is especially important because Thailand is the "frontline" Southeast Asian state which influences the stability of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
On the surface, responsibility for the change would seem to go to the Thai Army. For weeks now, there have been newspaper accounts of Thai military assaults by foot and by helicopter gunship against insurgents. Late last month more than 2,000 troops went into action against 300 communists in central Thailand. More than 50 insurgents were reported killed.
Still, Thai sources in Bangkok report these maneuvers are something of a public-relations exercise with the results exaggerated.
What has really caused the communists problems are more fundamental changes like these, according to some sources:
1. Limited support from China for this traditionally Chinese-oriented group. China's new emphasis on seeking Thailand as an ally against Vietnam means it must restrain any temptation to give the guerrillas substantial aid.
2. Apparent internal confusion over what line to take in the bitter China-Vietnam dispute.
3. Apparent disaffection between longtime guerrillas and the bright young intellectuals who fled to join them in the jungles after anti- leftist riots at Thammasat University in 1976.
The latest well-known former student to "come in" is Thirayuth Boonmee, who is reported to have surrendered with some 54 other activists late last month. This followed the earlier surrender of the outspoken activists Seksan Prasertkul and his activist wife Jiranand. Seksan has been freed from detention and has gone to study in the United States.
To what extent these defections have been motivated by rejection of communism and Marxism is unclear. Differences of approach and personality, plus a distast e for the hardship of jungle life, may be just as important.