This month and year mark important dates in Thailand. For one, it is the 200 th anniversary of the beginning of the Rattanakosin Era and it commemorates the founding of the present reigning dynasty. In 1782 the first monarch of the Chakkri dynasty also selected Bangkok as the capital of his new kingdom. This historical event is being celebrated by the Thai government and people throughout 1982 with many impressive displays and ceremonies.
This bicentennial is likewise a significant milestone in Thailand's political development. By coincidence it is the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the absolute monarchy and a reminder of the political progress which has taken place since June 25, 1932. On this date a small group of Western-educated civilian and military leaders seized power and launched their country toward a constitutional form of government.
Democracy has not come easily for the Thai people during the past half-century. The absolutism of the monarchial tradition was replaced for a time by a rigid authoritarianism that was imposed by military leaders. Changes of government took place by coup d'etat rather than the free choice of the people at the ballot box. The time-honored system of a tightly centralized authority combined with the widespread apathy induced by Theravada Buddhism discouraged the development of a genuine constitutional government.
Yet the rapid economic and social progress during the past three decades and extensive exposure to Western influences have increased diversification and created new sources of political power. The formation of modern industrial and commercial enterprises and the achievement of higher educational standards have eroded the concentration of authority in the military and the government bureaucracy.
Military leaders continue to wield a strong influence on the Thai government. The present prime minister is Gen. Prem Tinsul-anonda who heads a large faction in the Royal Thai Army. Powerful ministries such as Defense and Interior are consistently controlled by army generals, and several additional cabinet posts are held by high-ranking military officers. The bureaucratic structure is still highly centralized and key government departments in Bangkok exercise a firm control over local administration throughout the kingdom.
Yet important progress has been made toward democracy and individual freedom. The present constitution provides for a bicameral legislature with a 225-member Senate appointed by the government and a 301-member House of Representatives elected by the people. This evolving form of political institutionalization has required the prime minister and his cabinet to base their power on both the armed forces and the major political parties in the elected lower house. The foundation of political power, in effect, has broadened from the military to civilian-led and popularly-elected political organizations. An especially encouraging develnpment is the growing practice of retired or politically ambitious military officers to seek elected seats in the national legislature.
In addition to the gradual democratization of the executive and legislative branches, the courts continue to exert a steady and stabilizing role in protecting human rights. A growing number of interest groups are exercising more influence on public policy. Labor unions have succeeded in obtaining minimum wage laws, and peasant groups have forced Bangkok officials to provide larger government assistance to rural development. Within limits the press exerts an important check on official corruption and administrative inefficiency.
The Thai political system today is an admixture of tradition and modernization which the Thai people themselves have forged from both indigenous and foreign influences. It is not a Western-style democracy nor is it a non-Western dictatorship. It is a form of government seeking a judicious balance according to Thai values between individual freedom and the needs of national security.
This is a notable achievement in view of the turbulence and tragedy which have taken place in nearby Indochina and the uncertainty which exists elsewhere in Asia. Hopefully it will open the way for democratic government and individual rights to become even more fully established in Thailand in the future.