A familiar picture reappeared on the Asian scene recently as Thailand's dictator-Premier, Pibul Songgram, took action to halt criticism of his government by suppression of public gatherings and threats to arrest critical newspaper editors. The action followed increased agitation for the abandonment of Thailand's pro-Western policies, a return to pre-1950 neutralism, and for parliamentary reform. Marshal Pibul charges that the attacks are the work of communist subversives who are "plunging the nation into chaos."
Pibul's fear of chaos comes from first hand experience. Until 1950-51, although Thailand had good relations with most foreign nations, chaos was the normal state of internal affairs. In the five years following the war, no less than eight attempts to overthrow the regime in power--usually Pibul's--were made. Civilian opposition to Pibul's military clique finally collapsed in 1948 after its leader, the strongest of the Marshal's opponents, Pridi Panamyong, was forced into exile in Red China. A series of conflicts with would-be rivals in the army and navy ended in June, 1951, when Pibul's army joined forces with the police of his ex-rival, General Phao Sriyanandh, to put down a naval revolt. A bloodless coup d'etat the following November was used as an excuse for Pibul to appoint 51 per cent of Thailand's single House.
Since 1951, Pibul has used his control of the legislature to consolidate and strengthen his forces in fear of Pridi's possible return to power with the aid of neighboring Chinese and Indo-China communists a la Ho Chi Minh. Pibul's cause has been considerably helped by U.S. economic and military aid which he secured after February 1950 by abandoning Thailand's traditional neutralism to recognize Bao Dai's Viet Nam government. With well over $50 million in U.S. military aid, he has built up a trained army of slightly over 50,000 men. Meanwhile, General Phao's police force has been built up into a corps of 54,000 men, fully equipped with helicopters and armored cars.
Police Outnumber Army
The fact that Thailand's police force is larger than its army indicates that the government is more afraid of internal subversion than of external attack. Paradoxically, Phao's police partially support the subversion which they are meant to oppose because communists justify their attacks on government "oppression" by pointing to the force's size. In return, Phao maintains that these subversive attacks make the large number of police necessary. Actually, most observers believe Phao maintains his corps chiefly to insure his position.
Up to the present, prosperous Thailand has tolerated this type of personal government and its corruption. Unlike most Asian countries, she is not yet threatened by overpopulation (although her population has tripled since 1900), and after World War II she was able to corner the world rice market, the crop which provides a livelihood for almost 70 per cent of her population. But now that other Asian rice producers have regained their feet, she is losing her monopoly. For the last three years, sales have declined until now she exports only 50 per cent of her surplus crops. Despite severe import restrictions, the balance of payments have been negative since 1953.
Regime Called Incompetent
A commission of business representatives from Thailand, Japan, England, the United States, and India last March placed the blame for the situation on the "slowness and incompetence of government services." The commission criticized the government's failure to realize that Thailand no longer was in a position to dictate terms to the buyers. It deplored the widespread practice of bribing government agents, and recommended that Pibul's government give up its monopoly on the job as middleman for rice-growers.
The government's mis-management of the rice situation is just one--though probably the most important--of many soft spots open to communist attack. Another is how taxes collected in the provinces seem to be spent almost exclusively on Bangkok. Pibul, however, has been able to retain power in a country where, according to French sources, 500 people out of a total population of 19 million receive 15 per cent of the national income. With no colonial exploitation, there has still been enough rice left over to provide the rest of the population with a living standard above that of most of their Asian neighbors. As a result, the peasants have been relatively indifferent to Communist agitation.
In Crisis, Pridi Benefits
This situation could change in the event of an economic crisis. The only link between Pibul's Bangkok and the peasantry is a bureaucracy of civil servants for whom Pridi was a trusted leader and a defender of their interests against Pibul's military clique. Pridi is now in Red China, preparing, many believe, for a return. In a crisis, the bureaucracy would probably be the first to support his return, and they, if anyone, would be the ones to direct any possible awakening of the peasants from their political apathy.
The communists realize this and have been quick to capitalize on any discontent, especially in the bureaucracy. Pibul realizes the danger and has begun to prevent or prepare for such an eventuality. His failure would probably mean the loss of the West's most certainally in the Far East to the communist firmament.