THE golden-spired city of Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and the new crossroads of the Orient, a meeting place, as one traveler described it, of the world and of the ages. Twenty-five international airlines put down at Don Muang Airport among a patchwork of green rice fields on the rich Menam Plain. Almost every day the observation gallery has a complement of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, shading their shaven heads from the tropical sun with faded umbrellas and watching with curiosity the cosmopolitan crowd below.

To this gay and colorful airport scene this fall was added the more somber presence of a large number of U.S. Army transport planes and their crews, a reminder not only of the crises that have enveloped all of Thailand’s neighbors but of Bangkok’s other role: SEATO headquarters and the free world’s capital in Southeast Asia.

Created ten years ago to keep the peace in Southeast Asia and to halt the advance of militant Communism, SEATO has never achieved the spectacular and only rarely essayed the successful. But its choice of Bangkok for its headquarters was felicitous.

At the first SEATO council meeting in 1955 laborers armed with spray pumps paraded through the city’s run-down hotels to asphyxiate the mosquitoes, if not the guests, with clouds of acrid smoke. Dogcatchers seized thousands of Asia’s mangiest specimens in the streets. And special guides politely tried to divert delegates’ automobiles along roads that were only moderately rutted. Today Bangkok’s modern hotels proliferate. Concrete roads run where once there were malodorous canals. New blocks of office buildings reflect an ever-increasing prosperity. And Thailand itself remains the stoutest friend and ally of the United States in all Southeast Asia.

Indicators of stability

Muong Thai, or Thailand, means simply Land of the Free. Alone among the countries of Southeast Asia it was never a colony. Spared, therefore, from much of the inner turmoil and the struggles for independence that have convulsed its neighbors since the end of World War II, it has long been accustomed to the task of self-government and has no residual resentment against the West for real or imagined colonial wrongs.

By Asian standards it is rich, and rich in potential. The peasantry is not vulnerable to Communist promises of land reform: 80 percent of all farmers own their own land. Though its people now number twenty-nine million, and are increasing rapidly, there is no pressure of population on resources. In fact, Thailand could comfortably support a population several times its present size. Rice production runs to more than eight million tons and earns close to $100 million a year in export. Rubber, tin, and teak are other important sources of export revenue, and the economy generally has been growing at more than 7 percent a year.

These are all healthy indicators of stability, and Thailand has been the most stable of all Southeast Asian countries. Yet, as the Thais have become uncomfortably aware, the problems of survival are constantly growing more difficult.

The recent offer of twenty-five scholarships to Thai students by a friendly government provided a striking illustration of one internal weakness. The scholarships were competitive: twenty-three of the successful applicants were Chinese and only two Thais. Of Bangkok’s population of two million about half are Chinese. They dominate the country’s commerce, and by their wealth and industry they are a potent force behind government. They are also more prone to Communist subversion than the native-born and easygoing Buddhist Thais.

Ripe for subversion

Even more serious minority problems exist in the fifteen northeastern provinces, where about eight million inhabitants are Laos, not Thais. They speak the Lao dialect and in the past have felt that they have more in common with their kin across the Mekong than they have with Bangkok, which for years turned its back on the northeast. Dissident northeastern leaders have habitually looked to their Lao cousins for support. During the days of the shortlived Laotian revolt against the returning French in 1946. northeastern Thailand became a sanctuary for Prince Souphanouvong and other Lao leaders, Communist and non-Communist.

In more recent times, the Communist Pathet Lao has been active in the northeast. Its agents can move across the 1000-mile border with impunity. Since the government’s administrative apparatus does not get below the district level, and the villages, in effect, govern themselves, Pathet Lao agents have encountered few obstacles in their subversive path. One police officer and two men, with no means of transport other than their own feet, are often responsible for twenty or more villages in the northeast. For months at a time the monsoons prevent them from making even routine inspections. Since there are no telephones and no means of radio communication, the Communists could take over a whole series of villages and Bangkok might never learn of it.

A small Vietnamese minority, which plays in the northeast the same economic role as the Chinese in Bangkok, has been whittled down to about 35,000 by compulsory migration to North Vietnam. Enough remain, however, to cause trouble.

It was among these people in this region that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese Communist leader, began his revolutionary activities in Southeast Asia more than thirty years ago. He is still very much of a hero to his expatriate countrymen. Thai intelligence in the area is patchy, but there appears to be enough hard evidence to confirm the report that at least two small guerrilla forces are training in the mountains of the northeast.

A similar situation exists on Thailand’s southern border. Most of the inhabitants of the four southernmost provinces, with a population of about a million, are Muslim Malays, with an urban crust of Chinese. Ten years ago the central executive committee of the Malayan Communist Party, at that time hardpressed in its unsuccessful attempt to take over Malaya by armed force, sought sanctuary in southern Thailand near the town of Betong. There, unmolested, the Malays have lived ever since.

Their relations with the loca population are excellent. Now five hundred strong, they have won friends by paying for their food and other goods and have launched what appears to be an effective propaganda campaign among the Malays, promising that the inhabitants of the four provinces will be joined with their Muslim brothers in Malaya as soon as Malaysia has been crushed by Indonesia. While there is no indication that these Communist dissidents, either in the northeast or in the south, have any immediate plans for moving from subversion to insurgency, the potential exists.

Development for the northeast

Under the firm hand of the late Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, and with encouragement and assistance from the United States and other of Thailand’s SEATO allies, a development program for the northeast began belatedly to make up for some past neglect. The United States is now extending the Friendship Highway, which begins in the Menam Plain and runs east to Korat. It will run north to the Laotian border and service a network of feeder roads.

Good results have already been achieved with crop diversification, and there are plans to spend about $200 million in a general northeastern development program. Water storage and reticulation power generation, the creation of agricultural services and improvement units, and, where necessary, a land-reform program are all planned. The aim is to raise the living standard of the northeast to a level comparable with that in other regions, and to give its people a sense of identity with and loyalty to Thailand.

With unlimited time and external aid, this might prove practicable. Under present circumstances, the best that Bangkok can really hope for is to show its goodwill and intention. Backward as the living conditions of the northeasterners may be, they are much better than those in most Laotian villages.

For a long time northeasterners visiting Laos (without any formalities of passports and customs) put their cousins’ lack of amenities down to the inadequacies of French colonialism. Today, those who have seen the glitter of Bangkok — and the Thai government has sponsored many visits — seem to appreciate that Thailand does have more to offer than does any arrangement they might enter into with Laos. This attitude may well be strengthened if Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who took power on Sarit’s death, succeeds with his proposed constitutional reforms and ends the more unpopular aspects of military rule, including the unashamed use of power for personal gain.

New leadership

Sarit gave Thailand its most effective government since the end of World War II. Taking over at a time when Thailand’s loyalty to the free world was in doubt, he cut the growing links with China and restored confidence in the American alliance. As a means of strengthening the consciousness of a Thai identity, he helped, with the willing cooperation of shy but witty King Phumiphon and the exquisitely beautiful Queen Sirikit, to rekindle the affections of the people for the monarchy.

Sarit modernized Bangkok and inspired much of the work in outlying provinces, especially the critical northeast. But he had his hand in the till and indulged his lascivious tastes in a way that stunned the easygoing Thais when it was revealed at his death. By the most conservative estimate he left an estate worth $100 million, all of it put together by influence or graft.

He also left an array of second wives and concubines unmatched in Thailand during the past century.

Thanom, now fifty-three, was a loyal lieutenant to Sarit, though he is well known for his personal integrity. If he shared few of the Marshal’s weaknesses, he also had few of his strengths. His interests have always been more professional than political or commercial. He does not have Sarit’s ambition and drive. But he believes that the country cannot afford a repetition of the Sarit scandal.

Thanom survived his first three months in office partly because it was considered unseemly to indulge in power manipulations while Sarit awaited cremation in his golden urn. Subsequently, the Sarit disclosures served to lessen the chances of the strongest of his rivals, General Praphas Charasathien, Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, whose reputation for profit making was exceeded only by that of Sarit.

Unable to marshal the support he needed for a coup d’etat, Praphas currently appears content to exercise power behind the scenes, at the same time taking care to ensure that other aspirants for power, notably the commander of the First Army, General Kris Sivara, are restrained by appropriate checks and balances. While this situation persists, Thanom appears secure.

He is sincere in his belief that the time has come to end martial law. At his direction Prince Wan, an uncle of the King and former President of the U.N. General Assembly, has accelerated work on the new constitution, which is based largely on British procedure.

Under its proposed terms, there will be an elected lower house of about 200 members and a somewhat smaller upper house, which will have veto rights but no power to initiate legislation. The Prime Minister will be appointed by the Kingafter consultation with the leaders of the two houses. If all goes well, the first elections under the new constitution will be held next year.

Wanted: assurances

Unfortunately, all is not going well elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and there are many Thai military men who feel that their country’s fate should not be entrusted at this time to elected civilians. They fear that elections will reflect neutralist tendencies and that Buddhist political ambitions, given the chance, will follow the undesirable example of Ceylon and South Vietnam.

There have been times when members even of the present Thai government have expressed some qualified doubts about Thailand’s close military tie-up with the West. They were sorely disappointed with SEATO’s restraint on the Laotian situation. They also disapproved of the 1962 Geneva Agreement on Laos, signing it with reluctance only after extracting from the United States an assurance that SEATO would impose individual as well as collective responsibilities on its members and that these responsibilities would be met by the United States if Thailand were threatened.

“Neutralization is not a solution but rather a temporary expedient, or at best a moratorium, before ultimate surrender and subjection takes place,” wrote Thanat Khoman, the Foreign Minister, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. But Thanat himself is among those who have used neutralization as a half threat in the past to press acceptance of a Thai point of view. With the deterioration in Laos and South Vietnam, Thailand again sought assurances from Washington, and from other allies, that it would not be left in the lurch. “We know all about the falling dominoes theory,” said one cabinet minister. “If you’ll look at the map you’ll see that Thailand and Malaysia are about the only Southeast Asian dominoes left.” U.S. military aircraft on the tarmac at Don Muang are one assurance, but the specific guarantees which the Thais would like have not been spelled out.

During the summer there was no panic. General Maxwell Taylor’s appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam seemed a genuine pledge of U.S. intention. By the beginning of fall, however, when it had become apparent that Taylor’s presence in Saigon worked no particular magic with its generals and politicians, there were signs that despite Thanom’s good intentions, the maintenance of Bangkok’s role as the stable capital of the free world in Southeast Asia might ultimately need not only the fullest and frankest assurances but, if the South Vietnam decline continued, even more of a physical American presence.