THE King of Thailand recently turned 60 years old, and the country joined in the colorful festivities - including processions by royal barge to glittering, gold-leaf- and tile-covered temples where saffron-robed monks chanted and lighted incense. Millions of Thais celebrated the birthday, auspicious in Buddhist numerology, of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who came to the throne 41 years ago. He is a member of the Chakri Dynasty, whose 19th-century King Mongkut was made famous in the West through ``The King and I.'' This modern king is deservedly popular; he is responsible in large part for the steady movement toward parliamentary rule of this country of 51 million. Thailand, which was once known as much for its military coups as for its stunning Buddhist temples, appears to be turning a corner to democracy. ``We have been able to break the vicious cycle of coup, elections, writing constitutions, and coup again,'' says Surin Pitsuwan, a government member of Parliament from the largest party, the Democrats, and secretary to the Speaker of the House. He cautioned, however, ``The element of threat is still there.''
The past eight years has been the longest period without a military coup since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was replaced by constitutional government. The military views itself as the upholder of the monarchy, and in the past the king did not interfere with coup attempts - there have been at least 15 - but in the 1980s he has made his opposition to military adventurism clear. Thus, known coup plots in 1981 and '85 were aborted, and several others were stopped as late as last year without public awareness.
It is a major shift since 1976, when hundreds of students were killed during protests, several thousand were arrested, and many others fled to the jungle to join the Communist Party of Thailand. It was a low ebb for human rights, with detentions and even executions without trial. But the government was ousted by a coup in 1979, and a second coup brought Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda to power. He called elections for 1980, was named prime minister, and presided over the abolition of many repressive laws and a beginning shift of power to the elected Parliament.
Supatra Masdit, a Democratic party member of Parliament, is not convinced the military has adopted the democratic ethic, but she said, ``The military wants people to accept them. Before, they just pulled a gun, but they can't think that way anymore.''
Army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyuth has indicated he will resign next year, organize a political party, and seek the top job - through elections.
The change has come about for many reasons. Society is more complex. Though 70 percent of the work force are still farmers, the business sector has become increasingly important. Last year, for the first time, manufactured goods were more than 50 percent of exports.
Since the mid-1970s, rapid development of education and the news media, along with the economy, has created a middle class that demands a share of political power. Finally, Army factionalism has prevented any one group from gaining sufficient support for a coup.
``A coup is still possible, but the military realize they can't sustain it,'' said Mr. Surin. ``A few infantry can take Bangkok, but how do they run things?''
As a result, the Army has changed its tactics. Military leaders work Parliament like politicians, lobbying, appearing publicly to defend their budgets, supporting candidates, and leaning on opponents.
Their power is based on an efficient military bureaucracy and influence over voters achieved through rural mass organizations, development programs, and even its own radio established in the 1970s to combat the communists. And the military holds a whip hand over the House through its control of the Senate, appointed by the prime minister, which can block or delay legislation.
The power to sandbag the government in effect allows the military to choose the prime minister, who does not have to be a member of Parliament. ``The House has to agree on the person in theory,'' said Surin, ``but in reality it's a display of military influence.'' Negotiations with the military precede the ruling coalition's announcement of its choice. Though the Democrats are the largest party, the Army refused to accept their leader as prime minister.
In September, the military showed its decisive power when the Senate forced the House to drop a new press law that would have given a council with press representatives authority to overrule a police chief's closure of newspapers in time of emergency.
The military last spring also defeated a House attempt to pare its budget. ``They got the budget, but we got some money for rural development,'' said Ms. Supatra. The military has failed, however, to persuade the House to amend the Constitution to allow active military officers to serve as prime ministers or Cabinet members.
The chief problem for Thai democracy now is that the political parties have no broad, institutional foundations. They are based not on platforms, but on personalities and on interests so narrow that liquor, sugar, real estate, banking, textile, and rice milling groups may find themselves in different parties. Parties have no mass memberships. And with no party enjoying a majority, the military confronts only weak coalition governments.
Nevertheless, the Parliament is growing in strength and prestige.
``The military is still running most of everything,'' acknowledged Surin, ``but at least they're forced to stay behind the scenes and weave their interests or desires into the political structure. They don't have the absolute power they used to have.''
For Thais, that is something to celebrate.
Lucy Komisar is author of ``Corazon Aquino: The Story of a Revolution,'' published by George Braziller.