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Thailand free -- just barely

If all soldiers could be leaders, I've often heard, the world would be a much simpler place. And if all the soldiers in the world who thought they could lead became leaders, we'd all be dead. Most revolutions fail because the revolutionary tries to run the nation like he ran the war, full of vitriolic propaganda and rigid discipline at a time when people want food, free choice, and political power. Governments in Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, and Ortega's Nicaragua failed in this way, and fell victim to the same post-revolutionary collapse. Still, it seems, the military leadership of some nations is trying to diversify, at the cost of overpowering the legitimate civilian government.

Recently, Thailand's prime minister, Chatichai Choonhaven, had the gall to defy the orders of his military chief of staff, General Sunthorn Kongsompong, to remove members of the cabinet who had offended the military leadership of the country. Such a move, given Thailand's history of 16 coups in the last 58 years, is nothing short of messianic. Chatichai correctly asserted that his government would lose credibility if it blindly followed the orders of the military. Thailand's prime minister is bold and wise. Unfortunately, he'll probably be dead soon.

In the United States, the armed forces seem to know their place and not question it. For some reason, they neither want nor would accept the job of running the country. To the credit of the American armed forces and the public and politicians that keep tabs on them, the United States has been spared of the kind of factional splits which can tear a country apart. During France's Algerian crisis, a band of creative-minded paratroopers attempted to overthrow the French government. Even in the tightest situations in this country during which the armed forces were mobilized, they followed orders, and never seized cities or seats of government, claiming to have a better idea how to run things.

In the United States, and many other nations as well, the political culture just lacks a Bonapartist tendency. While occasional officers, like General McArthur and Oliver North, pushed the limit on the military's role in politics, most of the armed forces, who in this country are reservists, are happier sticking to their daily lives. When needed, they serve. When their job is done, they go home.

What's in store for nations that aren't so lucky? If the legitimate civilian government gains enough popular support, the army's authority will be discredited. If not, the army may seize power. The military rule may either eventually be overthrown by a new civilian government (or upstart soldier), or, in the worst case, the army may manage to keep the country under its thumb (Cuba, Panama, Argentina . . .). The odds that a military dictator will receive the full faith and support of his people are slim, but possible nonetheless. In nations wavering between these extremes, a cycle tends to develop. Left-sounding rebellions become right, prompting new revolutions. People die and little gets accomplished, except that maybe the trains start to run on time.

What should the interested parties in Thailand do? Chatichai should stand firm. The generals, if they want to play politics, should resign and seek political office. If what they have to say is as wise as they believe, they should have no problem convincing the voters in an election. If they hope to control the government at gunpoint, they must be prepared to be replaced, by the civilian leader or the next bunch of revolutionaries that comes along.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is an associate opinion editor of The Tech.

Thailand's prime minister is bold and wise. Unfortunately, he'll probably be dead soon.

Most revolutions fail because the revolutionary tries to run the nation like he ran the war.