Thailand has taken a major step toward full civilian-run democracy and away from its tradition of military rule. Hundreds of people sang the national anthem outside Parliament Wednesday after their representatives inside had rejected an Army-backed bill to prolong the dominant role of the Army in the nation's political life.
The effort to end years of sometimes paternalistic, sometimes harsh military rule had aroused deep passions and tensions here in the days leading up to the final vote. Symbolizing this, 17 hunger strikers had been camping out in front of Parliament and students had threatened to take to the streets in mass demonstrations had the Army succeeded in getting the bill passed.
When the news of the bill's defeat (by only 10 votes) percolated out of the building, the hunger strikers went home and the demonstrations were quietly shelved. But for the Army commander in chief, Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek, who had been personally campaigning for the Army's traditional role in politics for the past two months, the bill's rejection was a humiliating defeat.
Without a new mandate, the powers of the government-appointed senate (where military men predominate) will automatically assume a more modest ''advise and consent'' role under the Constitution; and military officers will be barred from serving in the government.
Both changes represent an upset of political tradition since most of Thailand's prime ministers have been generals. Thus the ambitious General Arthit cannot become prime minister without leaving the Army or until he retires.
The Constitution which came into force four years ago was largely drawn up by military officers. But when Arthit and some of his senior commanders saw that it would remove their political role when the present parliamentary term expires in April, they moved to have it amended.
They were also anxious to cancel a clause of the Constitution designed to strengthen the larger political parties and thus to increase the likelihood of one of them emerging from the election with a governing majority.
That possibility has been increased by the denial of the Army demands which has increased the authority of Parliament and its members. Its elder statesman, former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj, who led the campaign against the proposed changes, particularly has emerged from the affair with additional prestige and popularity.
There is naturally much public uncertainty about the Army's response to the rebuff from Parliament. Will the generals accept permanent exclusion from politics?
The supreme military commander, Gen. Siyud Kerdphol, was opposed to the Army's attitude and says it is ''unlikely'' that there will be a military coup to overthrow Parliament's decision. It has been noted that he did not rule out a coup altogether. But in Thailand the suprmeme commander, because he has no military units under his direct command, does not have the power of the Army commander in chief.
The commander in chief and some of his senior commanders have said publicly that the Army has ''a duty and a legitimate right'' to intervene in politics. During the debate over the Constitution they condemned politicians as ''corrupt and inept'' and even accused some of being in the pay of ''foreign influences.''
Without the Army's grip on politics, serious instability will threaten national security, according to General Arthit. And in those circumstances, says his most senior divisional commander, the Army would have to ''stage an exercise.''
Lack of overall support from the Army and none at all from the Navy and Air Force weakens General Arthit's position, and in the eyes of well-informed observers, precludes any move at present to upset Parliament's decision.
The same observers see the testing time as coming after the election. ''If the poll produces a stable government,'' they say, ''Thailand has possibly the best chance it has ever had of establishing a genuinely democratic system.''
When General Arthit emerged as a national figure after playing a key role in defeating an abortive army coup two years ago, he said that military coups were ''out of date'' and that there would be no more of them. He has also repeatedly pledged his support for the prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. His admirers believe he will prove to be a man of his word. They also say he has the patience to wait until he takes off his uniform on retirement in 21/2 years before aspiring to be prime minister.