Thailand's Elections Marked by Voter Indifference

For many former student radicals, accommodation is a pattern during the country's economic boom years - a letter from Bangkok

PROUDLY, Weng Tojirakarn recalls the massive student protests of his youth and his six years as a political fugitive in Thai jungles.

Today, politics takes a back seat to the more compelling demands of family, his medical practice, and a computer assembly company run by his wife, Tida, also a former jungle activist.

"This is not a real democracy," Dr. Weng says wistfully, remembering his part in the student tumult of the 1970s, which set the stage for the military ouster of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. "But at least it's better than a dictatorship."

In the aftermath of Sunday's election, which was marked by voter indifference and big-money politics, Thailand seems poised for yet another government dominated by the military.

With three parties either created or courted by the ruling military junta capturing a narrow parliamentary majority, armed forces chief Suchinda Kraprayoon is the controversial front-runner to become prime minister, Thai and Western analysts say.

Still, the general who plotted last year's military takeover faces a restive opposition because he is unelected. That, along with bitter factionalism within the armed forces, means the new government will be short-lived, observers say.

"The Thai people have yet to show they can accept the responsibilities of democracy," says the popular outgoing Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, himself a government caretaker appointed last year by the junta.

Senee Tawonsath agrees. Not unlike America's Vietnam war protesters who became more career-minded in the 1980s, many former student radicals in Thailand are now part of the country's booming economic mainstream.

Mr. Senee, once a student leader and now head of Thailand's major producer of computer parts, admits he has mellowed.

"How can you be against them [the military]?" he asks, adding that he hopes to reenter politics one day. "If a coup happens, do you want to risk your life to yell on the street? You have to find a more subtle way."

Many Thais say accommodation is part of the country's political legacy, even more so during the economic boom of recent years.

Student leaders who fled to the jungle to join the Communist Party of Thailand later accepted a government offer of amnesty.

"The people who ran away to the jungle with dreams of revolution, they feel that time was wasted because they can't get jobs and aren't accepted by their families," Senee says. "So they are bitter."

Yet some former activists insist that revolutionary sparks remain. Last December, when a military-proposed constitution was debated in Parliament, thousands joined a demonstration. Local newspapers mused about whether Thailand was returning to the turbulent 1970s when rampant military corruption, rising prices, and anti-American and anti-Japanese feeling fueled student outrage.

"It is said that Thai people are easy-going and compromising and don't take politics seriously," says Thirayut Toonmi, a student organizer turned university lecturer and political leader. "I don't think so. We can be very shrewd in working out a compromise. But when it comes to a certain point, we are able to react in a very determined way."

Despite the country's political growing pains, some activists feel they made a difference.

"The military knows that it can't establish electoral tyranny anymore," Weng says.

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