Created: 10/18/1968

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Special Report

thailand; the present political phase





Thailand isow phase of itsUfa. Aften ten years of rule by martial law, the military leadership ia moving to legitimize its rule. ew constitution has been promulgated as the first step in this process, but the document virtually ensures that there will be no major changes, at least in the near future, in the way Thailand is governed.

The constitution does provide for the firstelections inecade. Although the elections are now less than five months away, the government so far has done little to organise itself for them. Opposition forces are also divided and rfeak, but they may prove strong enough to deny thelear-cut majority in the lower house. Whatever the outcome, the present leaders willto rule Thailand after the elections and. at least for the short term, there is not likely to be any important change in Thai domestic and foreign policies.

to Transition

Thereimelessness about modern Thai politics that is as comforting as it may be misleading. On the surface, nothing important seems to change. Forears, Thailand has been ruledight coterie ofofficers. In order to run the country, the military hasrofitable alliance with civilian politicians and bureaucrats, with whom it joined2 to bring down themonarchy* The civilians have exercised considerable influence, but the relationship has always been fundamentally one-sided. With the exceptionew short periods, the militaryhas called the tunc

Autocratic without being despotic, conservative without being reactionary, the rulinghas brought ashare of economic progress and social change to Thailand.inimum of serious it has guided the country through factional strife andoccupation, changes inand the inevitableof an evolving social system.

The promulgation onuneew and long-delayedappears to haveew phase ratherew era in rhai political life. Thewas the product of five years of gentle agitation by elements in the establishment, and the realization on the part of

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more enlightened militarythat after ten years of "martial law" the regime needed to legitimize its rule, it was not meant, nor has itharp departure from past practice* On the contrary. Thailand has hadachthe rules of the game only until new players appeared, new sides were chosen, and new rules were needed. Although nine years in the writing, there is little in the present document that distinguishes it greatly from its predecessors.

A crazy quilt of parliamentary and presidential systems, theof Prime Minister Thanom is designed to perpetuate the rule of the military-civilian It virtually ensures that the present leaders will be in power for the foreseeable The document providestrong executive appointed by the King on the advice of thehouse of the legislature, or Senate. To complete the tight circle, the Senate is appointed by the executive (with the King's blessing). The Senate was chosen shortly after promulgation and, although the body's presidentivilian,uteats are filled by military officers.

Almost all of the newheld seats in the oldassembly, whose loyalty to the government was amplyduring the nine years it spentew Any doubt about theor political complexion of the Senate, moreover, isby the presence ofprominent generals, includ-

t>age 2

ing Saiyud, who is in charge of the counterinsurgency effort; Kriangsak, from the supremeheadquarters; and, perhaps most revealing of all, General Samran, commander of the'First Army, whose troops control

The only real departure from the quasiconstitutionalunder which the late Marshal Sarit and Prime Minister Thanom set up their rule8 is the lower house, whose members will be chosen in nationwide elections early next year. It will mirror,imperfectly, long submerged political differences in theand will serve as an outlet for the expression of regional grievances. It will alsoorum for those civilianwho have been on thelooking in for the past ten years. Caughtowerful executivetacked andSenate, and without authority to vote no confidence in thethe lower house's powers under the constitution arecircumscribed.

Despite these strong elements of political continuity Thailand iseriod of transition. The ten-year interregnum is about to end,ifferent, albeit far from new, set of arrangements will follow in its wake* Against its better instincts, the military oligarchy is taking its case to the Thai people* Although there is every reason to believe the military leaders can negotiate the transitional period with their hold on power intact, the subtlethat brought them this far may takeood deal farther than tlrey are presently prepared to

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me Minister Thitnom Casts His Ballot In lite Bjnkok Municipal Electron

reat deal will depend on how ehey run the elections, and, finally, on how well they do.

Bangkok Municipal Elections

If the outcome of the municipal elections inis any sign, themay be inardor time than it anticipated in next year's elections. The Deraocratic Party, the only nationwide opposition party currently active, tookfeats in the municipal Three recognizedslatos managed to elect only two progovernment candidates. The first meaningful election in Thailand in ten years, theelection was touted as an important political barometer.

The Democrats have always been strong in Bangkok, but their

sweop comeurprise toand opponentsumber of reasons forextraordinaryone thing, Bangkok hasa party stronghold, andapparently mounted but effective The other causes,closer to the bone andimplications for next In addition totheir normal supporters, were thean vote that

stemmed from local issues.

It wouldistake tothe importance of thesweep because it was based, in part, on local issues, however. Rising pork prices and increased bus fares may not have much impact in the countryside, but every area of Thailand has local grievances and the regime is in trouble if voters cast ballots on the basis of fixing responsibility for local ills. The low turnout in Bangkokairly good signajor voter revolt is not in the cards, but tho voting does suggest that there may be more antigovernment sentiment in the country than has been recognized heretofore.

Tho Democratic victory can also be traced to the indecisive-ness, disunity, and apparentof the government. strength wasby the fielding of three slates, and organizers failed to get out the vote of those who might be expected to back the regime. If some elements thought that last-minute chicanery might carry the day, they had not counted onpoll watchers who saw to it that tho election was one of tho country's cleanest.

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Whatever the reasons for tho Democratic sweep, it may have an important bearing on next year's legislative elections. Por the Democrats, the victorya much-needed psychological boost. Out of the limelight for ten years and weakened by the deatl: of their leading public figure, the Democrats are suddenly in the position of running, at leastthe nation's largest and most important city.

The greatest impact, however, may be on the government side. The electionajorto those elements who had hopedemocratic Party defeat in Bangkok would clear the way for any easy victory in the legislative elections. The Bangkok skirmish may prove toude but much-needed awakening for complacent Thai leadors. The election results are asign that the ruling oligarchy will have to put aside its squab* bling and marshal its considerable resources if it hopes tolear-cut victory in next year's elections.

The Government Prepares For Elections

With the opening round in the constitutional processover, with nationwideless than five months away, and with three years of planning and organising under its belt, the government still does notolitical party. Thereumber of reasons for this, including the fact that thewith the bestability in the government are precisely the ones who have

been against the start.

The major problem thefaces innified political party, however, is simply that the government itself is not unified. The prospect of elections has aroused rather than soothed long-standing factional differences within the ruling oligarchy. On the one hand, there is thesplit between civilianelements, exemplified byMinister Thanat and Minister of National Development Pote Sarasin and the old-guard military establish rent. And on the other hand, there are the more important divisions within tho military group Itself. The breakdown is roughly between Prime Minister Thanom and Deputy Prime Minister Praphat, the two men whose working relationship has kept the country stable since Marshal Sarit's death

These factional differences will have to be sorted out and some acceptable understanding reached before the government's political activity can move into high gear. Much of the responsibility for the slow progress belongs to PrimeThanom. Por all of his virtues Thanom has shown little inclination or ability to harness the ambitions of the other factional loadersa unified effort. Indecisive and colorless, the prime minister has done little during the five /ears he has at least nominally ruled Thailand to buildolitical organization responsive to him or the regime, or ain the country that can beinto political power in an election year.

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military leaders hope/ toolitical party broad enough to include all of thethat have helped rule the country for the past ten years. At the same time, they would like to bring under the party unbrella those political elements with some following in the country whose ties to Bangkok and the levers of power have been The faction associated with Prime Minister Thanom has been trying since late last year to line up former members of the National Assembly. Independents, or former members of moribund parties, they are the professional politicians with local connections whose support could provein the legislative The effort has beenand has not gonewell. One problem is that many of these politicians,flattered by theirimportance and eager to collaborate with theare confused by conflicting instructions and leadership from Bangkok. Their difficulty has been in determining who speaks for the government.

After an initial period of studied detachment. Deputy Prime Minister Praphat has movedinto the vacuum left by Thanom and his associates. Praphat is in an enviable position to grass-roots support for the regime. When he acts asof interior, Praphatan extensive andbureaucracy that stretches from provincial capitals to isolated villages, whatever its weaknesses, it is the bestin the country.

Praphat's vehicle is the Free People's League of Thailand,

a quasi-official, anti-Communist^ group set up last year by him and his crony. Director of theof Local Affairs Chamnan. The league will soonpinoff Free Peoples Party (FPP), and Praphat has already signed up an impressive array of supporters. Ironically, they include several well-known leftists such as Sang Patanothai, and Buddhist leader Phra Pi Montham, Neither Praphat nor the leftists apparentlyto let ideology stand in the way of good politics.

deputy prime minister praphat

Praphat has assured other government leaders that his Free Peoples Party will merge with the government party once the latter gets off the ground, hrewd political infighter, there is good reason to believe, as many of his opponents suspect, that Praphat intends to use the FPP to further his own ambitions.


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The Opposition

The ruling group is going into the elections divided andeader who can, on his own, coitsnand much support in the country. The regime's de-ficiences, however, must be weighed against the fact that it still has far more resources at its disposal than do its opponents and thatariety of reasons they are hardlyomfortable position to take advantage of their opportunities.

The Democratic Party is the

only opposition group that comes out of the ten-year hiatusedicatedmall but loyal following,trong sense of identity. The party is the oldest in Thailand. 6roup of former followers of leftist leader Pridi Phanomyong, the Democrats are conservativewith strong ties to the royal family. The party has been an important factor in every Thai election, and although its strength is concentrated in Bangkok, it has some backing in both the northeast and the north. Even the party's most optimisticdo not believe it can muster much more than one third of the seats in the lower house. It is possible, however, that the Democrats and otherparties of tho center and the left can together win enough seats to deny the governmentlear majority.

The Left

Of all the political groups that are now surfacing innone faces the upcomingmore dispirited, fragmented, or with slighter hopes than the Thai left. Harassed by theand associated in the public mind with foreignthere is good reason to question whether once-influential leftist figures and parties can pull themselves together in time toactor in theumber of the more prominent leftists, including some who have spent long years inprisons for allegedactivities, will joinforces in the near future. Other leftists, like Thep Chotinu-chit, leader of the socialist United Front, are keeping the faith. Thep has been working with old-time politicians and socialists, particularly in the northeast, in an effort to get the Economist Party ready for the elections. By all accounts, he hasard time getting financial support, andefforts on behalf of the party are making little progress.

It is possible, however, that the left may do better in next year's elections than its current strength would suggest. Most of the leftist politicians come from the northeast, where regional identity is strongest in Thailand, and have managed through the years to identify themselves with the region's aspirations. Some of these politiciansigh personal price duringorthe northeast's grievances in Bangkok. It is entirelythat they will reap their reward at the polls next year.

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the position of former prime minister pridi phanomyong, last of the promoters of2 coup, is one additional factor on the left that could conceivably have some bearing on next year's despite the fact he has spent the pastears exiled in coscrnist china, pridi isame that has to be reckoned with in thailand. as thebest-known leftist, and the founder of its leading university, pridi has become somethingegendary figure amongcircles in the capital. the amount of pro-pridi sentiment in the countryhole isto determine, but judging by the regime's refusal to permit him to return to thailand, it may stillolitical factor. the revival of political activity in the country nay give freshto pridi'a periodic thoughts of leaving china* if he gets out, even if only to western europe, the weight of his voice and activities onof opposition elements may exert some influence on the way the voting goes.

amorphous center

it is still too early to determine how many political parties will field candidates in the upcoming election* the government's political party law prohibits independent candidates, however, and therefore between now and the elections there nayroliferation of smallwith little ideological standing and few direct ties to the past. in addition, there uayumber of second-echelon

politicians with past connections to pro-phibun and pro-saritwho, notome in the government's party, strike out on their own in the hope they canetter deal after the elections. the electoral fortunes of these elements will depend on the local appeal of their despite an electoral law that minimizes the influences of local-based politicians, splinter parties will probably manage toew lower house

the issues

the way the thai voter casts his ballot next year is likely to be determined more by theof the candidates and the impact of local or regionalthan by anything else. if past elections are any guide, theof substantive issues will be all but lost as the voting moves from bangkok into the villages. thai political parties have never managed to generate issuesense of dissatisfaction with the status quo that couldoter rebellion in thethere is no indication, at this stage of the game at least, that they will be more successful this time.

this estimate, however, is not as firmly based as it may umber ofif not revolutionary changes in the countryside have taken place in the ten years since thailand's last election. new roads have opened up isolated areas, new markets have been created, mass communications methods have been introduced,

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new patterns of living and perhaps of desires have been created in the villages. Even though the impact of these changes on the substance of rural life should not be overstated, there is little doubt that some of the insularity of the average Thai villager has been worn away in the past ten years.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that although and local interests will still be the most importantin the voting, next year's election is likely to be morethan any in the past. And the opposition, whether or not it is able to exploit them, has several reasonably good By all odds, the most damaging to the government will be corruption. No one issue seems toore universal and deeply felt response among the Thai people than that of corrupt practices of Thai Young or old, villager or urbanite, educated oreverybody is againstand everybody thinks thethe wayward constable to the venal cabinetriddled with it.

Prime Minister Thanomeputation for being an honest man, but in going to the country, the Thanom government will be also judged by the unsavoryof Deputy Prime Minister Praphat and his followers. Thereeneral consensus that the deputy prime minister has gone too far. The Bangkok municipal election results are anbut pointed illustration

of the risk tho ruling group runs if it is unable to dissociatefrom the unsavory reputation of some of its membership.

There arcumber of domestic issues relating to the allocation of economic resources and tho establishment of priorities that may provide grist for the opposition's mill* Although Thailand has made considerable economic progress under the military regime, and its growth rate compareswith that of other nations, the fact remains that its per capita income is still extremely low. There are some people in Thailand, although they are few in number and exercise onlyinfluence, who are asking whether the country's economic gains are being made In the right areas and are reaching the right people. It seems likely that some of the opposition politicians will try to make profit in next year's election by suggesting that there is more to economic progressuilding boom in Bangkok,

The opposition will almost certainly argue the economicalong the long-standing bat* tie lints separating Bangkok and the central plain from the other major regions. As arule, the farther one gets from Bangkok, the easier itto translate differences in economic policies intoquarrels. Regionaland attitudes appear to have yielded only grudgingly, if at all, to the considerable changes that have taken place in


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the countryside since the last election.

In the south, for example, observers have noted that local politicians, businessmen, and teachers--precisely the kind of people who normally would back thegrowing increasingly bitter over what they regard as Bangkok'sand neglect. ecline in the price ofxainstay of the south'snot helped matters, nor has theof Bangkok's relativelyinterest in the northeast sat particularly well. Even in the northeast, where Bangkok has mounted its strongesteffort over the past five years, there it little reason for believing that the area's strong sense of regional identity will notarge factor in the lower house elections.

Foreign Policy and the US

Despite the fact thatis on the periphery of the Vietnam war, that its bases have been used for bombing attacks against North Vietnam, and that both Hanoi and Peking have backed an insurgent movement in the to underline warnings about the consequences ofclose relations with the US, Bangkok's foreign policy will probably not come under close scrutiny during the election campaign. The reasons for this are that tho major opposition groups are in general agreement with the direction of the regime's foreign policy, and morebecause they probably

calculate that there is not much political mileage in the foreign policy issue. This does not mean, however, that the ruling group's relations with the US will fail to generate debate or interest in the upcoming elections.

Close0 US military personnel have been moved to bases in Thailand in the relatively short period of three years. This has ledrowingover what the Thai regard as the unfortunate by-products of the American presence. The sense of cultural shock,strongeople who take pride in their independence and who simply have not come intowith large numbers ofbefore, has been felt throughout tho society, including the ruling group itself.

The publicationitter anti-US diatribe in one ofmost respected newspapers, the tongue-lashing US officials recently received from young Thai newspapermen, and exaggerated stories of the offenses of US soldiers, all pointascent anti-American sentiment in the country. Although difficult to gauge, such sentiment does not appear to be sufficiently strong or widespread toajor.on the elections, but it is likely that even conservativegroups, like thewill argue that theestablishment has gone too far in accommodating the US and has not been sufficientlyof Thai interests.

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The government may well fail tolear-cut majority in the lower house* Certainly, the record of legislative in past years, and the slow progress the government has made organizing for the upcoming one, suggest that the military group may have to settle for something less. The failure to win aofower house seats will make the government's job sooewhat noro difficult- but with all of the considerableof both friendly andpersuasion at theirthe military leaders should have little trouble patchinga working parliamentary majority from among fragmented and, in all likelihood,opposition elements.

Even if such an arrangement is not forthcoming or there is some major surprise in theresults, it is not likely that the lower house will prove

overly obstreperous. Whatever their other traits, the opposition politicians currently on the scene are neither idealistic enough to push for fundamental changes in the way the country is ruled, nor foolish enough to think that they could possibly succeed.

Although they may not enjoy quite as much freedom of choice as they once did, the present leaders will continue to rule Thailand after the elections and. at least for the short term, in pretty much the same way. The new constitution and the elections, then, are not likely to bring any important changes in Thai domestic or foreign policies in the near future. The larger question, which cannot yet be answered, is whether the new constitutional arrangment proves toirst step toward fundamental change in the power system that has been in forcer only more of the same. Only time will tell.

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