Thailand's hour of decision

In Thailand, rice is used for elections as it is for weddings in America. A lot of it gets thrown around. Example: Thai voters in two districts recently discovered packages showing up in rice shops displaying emblems of political parties. The hidden message: the right vote at the voting booth guarantees a full rice bowl in the future.

Rice is the stuff of politics in Thailand - where most people still work in rice paddies, where most urban-dwellers eat rice at every meal, and where the nation's economy depends on rice exports.

The practice of rice politics comes to a full harvest as the lower house of the Thai Parliament finishes a full four-year term by April, and the nation heads for an election, scheduled for June.

That is no idle achievement in the kingdom once known as Siam. For the first time in 26 years, the nation's elected body will complete a term without the government resigning or being overthrown by a military coup. And Prem Tinsulanonda will be the first Thai prime minister in a decade to have kept his post for three years.

The coming election, therefore, will be a landmark. It will bring the country very close to full democracy.

That is . . . if the military does not interfere.

Bangkok vs. the farmers

In Thailand, the King reigns, generals rule, and bureaucrats run day-to-day government. What is interesting about the coming election is that at least 15 political parties have begun active campaigning, and more may yet organize themselves for the contest.

And what has been called ''the mightiest political party of all,'' the military, will not formally take part. Yet its influence again will be paramount , since no political groups can hold power for long without the generals' approval.

The second most powerful group influencing the elections is city voters.

Thai governments typically have been afraid of giving rice farmers a better deal because of the inevitable effect upon urban consumers - higher rice prices. Bangkok has only 14 percent of the country's 49 million population but the weight that national leaders give it indicates that the capital has the lion's share of political influence.

Rice would become an even bigger election issue if consumers had to pay realistic prices for it. (When the government of Kukrit Pramoj raised rice prices in 1976, it fell.)

At present, large numbers of dissatisfied rice farmers in rural areas have little capability to force the government to put forward a more equitable farm policy.

Although the government has failed to come up with a workable farm price support system, the farmers have not become a unified national force. Except in a few isolated areas, they have little political influence.

Two months ago farmers in a major rice-growing area did, however, score a victory over the government. Threatening demonstrations in Bangkok, they induced the government to lift the support price from $130 to $143 a metric ton, though this is well short of their original demand of $163 per ton. Even so, few farmers benefited because there are neither government funds nor storage space for the support program to function.

Because of these constrictions, the government cannot purchase even 10 percent of the rice grown. All it can do is use the program from time to time to dampen down sudden outbursts of dissatisfaction in the countryside.

For the most part, farmers must accept the middleman's prices, which because of depressed world prices are below production costs.

Academics call the situation ''the tragedy of Thai politics.''

Student activism revived?

A resurgence of more influential activists in Thailand, however, is raising the political temperature.

Students and workers, renewing old links, recently forced the government to cancel an increase in Bangkok bus fares and to abandon plans for higher railroad charges.

Large numbers of students have also opposed the reappointment of a university rector. The government was obliged to intervene to have the reappointment rescinded.

The students' actions, however, were met with counter demonstrations by right-wing groups allegedly organized by government officials. That incident is seen by some as a prelude to violence before the election, and it produced a warning from the government for officials to ''stay neutral.''

Moving a step closer to full democracy

Most Thais have come to accept that a behind-the-scenes exercise of power is a legitimate role for the military, which has dominated Thai politics since 1932 . The generals have promised no more coups and that they will devote themselves to national defense and internal security.

There seems no reason to doubt this. The most powerful of the military men, Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek not only favors elections on schedule, but has promised to support Prime Minister Prem, an ex-general recently retired from the military. General Arthit added that he himself did not wish to be prime minister.

The royal family and politics

General Prem is favored to retain his position after the election. He is not running himself, preferring to be ''neutral and above politics,'' but he can still remain leader of the government if he has majority support in Parliament. (The Constitution requires neither the prime minister nor other members of the Cabinet to hold elected offices.)

That is likely because no political party is expected to win an overall majority. As a retired general he can depend on military support, and he also enjoys friendly links with the royal family.

Those links were strengthened during critical days in April 1981 when Prem fled with King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX) and Queen Sirikit to the provinces after a disgruntled general briefly took control of Bangkok.

The King, who reigns with limited power but is very highly revered in this Buddhist nation of mainly peasants, helped end the coup attempt with public appeals. Prem's identification with the monarchy enabled him quickly to reassert his authority. Beyond elections, Thailand's future is tied to a monarchy which binds almost all Thais together. The present monarch has held the throne since 1950.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is the natural heir, but either of his younger sisters could succeed to the throne. Recent constitutional amendments make a female monarch possible for the first time in history. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the elder of the princesses, is immensely popular, and nobody doubts that she has the wisdom, devotion, and energy required of a monarch.

Queen Sirikit, in a unique interview two years ago with a Texas newspaper, helped caused some speculation about the Prince's future by describing him as ''a little bit of a Don Juan.'' She added: ''But the people of Thailand like him very much, and he is a good student and a good boy.''

He has been obliged to spend long periods outside Thailand for education and military training. He is regarded as a dedicated officer, possessing wide experience in the Army and Air Force. He is at present attending an advanced flying course in the United States.

In a land where corruption has been a problem, General Prem's honesty and decency have impressed all sections of society up to the royal family. Under his leadership Thailand has achieved a fair degree of political equilibrium.

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