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.''

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.

High on the priorities is opening the economy to private enterprise. A previous Prem Cabinet included an ''economic czar,'' Boonchu Rojanasthien, who had helped build up Southeast Asia's largest bank, Bangkok Bank, and wanted the nation to become known as ''Thailand Inc.''

Mr. Boonchu is out now, but the ideas of the first businessman in Thailand's military-bureaucratic government echo on.

In the past business had been the arena for Thailand's Chinese community, whose commercial flair has given the Thai economy a certain resiliency. But educated Thais now form a large professional middle class. In a few months the prime minister is expected to make changes in the board of investment that now limits entrants into various markets and virtually creates oligopolies. Other government departments have been told to withdraw many rules restricting business.

Without a freer climate for private business, Thai officials know that agriculture will never develop beyond export of raw food into processed foods.

''In the last year, we have been making up for lost time,'' says Phaichitr Uathavikul, deputy finance minister. ''Since the oil shocks Thailand has pretended that if we didn't do anything, problems would go away.''

One problem that did not go away was communist insurgency in the rural poor areas. Thus, attacking poverty has a strong political purpose.

Agriculture still drives the economy, with industry playing a supportive role. Long-term neglect of rural development is now catching up with Thailand, as world demand for its products slips in a recession. Harvests are at a record, but prices are low.

Rice prices have fallen 40 percent, pushing the Prem government toward political trouble. His coalition Cabinet has the support of Thailand's largest party, the Social Action Party, which had originated a price-support program for rice farmers. The program has driven up deficits, but altering it could bring down the government.

Last year's fizzled coup attempt by youthful elements in the military may reflect the Thai people's yearning for stable government -- and also public respect for Prem, whom many consider a weak but honest leader.

With steady 6 to 8 percent economic growth and inflation possibly dipping to single digits this year, the prime minister's present popularity may return him to office next April -- if he runs. One stabilizing factor is a novel $150 million World Bank loan supporting the five-year plan. Future governments would be obligated to continue present goals.

If Thailand can last to a 1988 election without another coup, officials here believe voters will begin to elect better members of Parliament and a democratic tradition will take hold. Ever since King Rama VII volunteered to work under a constitution in 1932, nothing has quite filled the power vacuum in Thailand. The military presence, especially in state-run corporations, is still quite strong.

''We have to build a society on the emerging middle class,'' says a Thai businessman.

If the new petroleum wealth does not create inflation, bring on new corruption, or subsidize Bangkok services, Thailand could transform itself from an agricultural to an industrialized nation. Tying government budgets to petrodollars, rather than using the energy for new industries, could cause trouble. A cabinet decision last December to seek 46 to 65 percent of total earnings from new petroleum concessions shows temptations are strong to ease budget woes.

''Natural gas and oil would not solve our problems. They would just change them,'' says Dr. Phaichitr.

With Vietnam on its doorstep, Thailand knows it can take no chances. But history is full of cases of Thailand fending off invasions, and a Vietnam invasion now seems unlikely.

As one of the few Asian nations without a history of colonization, Thailand feels secure in a nationhood that goes back 2,000 years to the exodus of Thai people from China. The people's Buddhist religion, desire for national unity, and love of independence could make Thailand one of Asia's stronger economic dragons within a few years.

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