While troops sprayed bullets into pro-democracy crowds in Bangkok May 17 and 18, Thais asked each other in hushed tones: "Where is the King? Why doesn't he do something?"
Wednesday, after hundreds had been shot, the widely respected king appeared on television with the military-backed prime minister and the opposition leader and called for a compromise -- an end to army shooting and to demonstrations; and constitutional changes to bar any non-elected prime minister. Within hours, the king's message calmed the mobs and troops left the streets of Bangkok.
But even as the grass begins to grow lush on the blood spilled on the Sanam Luang field in front of Thamassat University -- the same site where Thai students died in 1976 and in 1973 fighting against military dictators -- it's not clear who is the victor -- and for how long.
General Suchinda Kraprayoon will likely step down in disgrace from the prime minister's post. But it may not mean the military will step down from its shadowy role in Thailand's political, economic and social life. That is part of the dark side of Thai life that is hidden from visitors by the beauty of Thai smiles and the orange-roofed temples.
Last week, the deep contradictions in Thai society, between those dark forces and the growing awareness and desire for democracy, came to the surface. The ascetic former governor of Bangkok launched a hunger strike to protest military control of politics. Hundreds of thousands of people joined his protest.
The Thai king, in a rare political intervention, asked the army not to use force. Nevertheless, armed troops and police opened fire on the civilian crowds. Rumors repeated by Thai officials who admit they are "confused" by the situation say hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed. Officials admit less than 50 dead.
Just days before the shooting began, while protests were building near Sanam Luang, the Miss Universe beauty contest went on as planned in Bangkok and was broadcast worldwide. Indeed, much of the world considers Thailand a beacon of stability and prosperity in the Third World. In 1989 the economic growth rate was 12 percent, first in the world.
When troops point guns at democracy advocates in Bangkok, it is unsettling for the whole world as well as for Thais. Yet democracy sometimes seems more alien in Thailand than the shiny fruits of prosperity that clog the roads and fill the shopping malls.
Having lived in Thailand for several years, I learned that behind the "land of smiles" image that lures three million tourists a year, there's a strong, old oligarchy at work. Modernization has only elevated a few newly-wealthy players to the narrow slice of military, upper-caste and business leaders who are calling the shots in the Southeast Asian kingdom. But it is not this traditional concentration of power that sparked the protests.
Crowds of more than 100,000 have braved the police and army guns this month near the Royal Palace because General Suchinda (Thais are addressed by their first names), a leader of the February 1991 coup, said he overthrew the civilian government to fight corruption and promised he would not remain in power. Nevertheless, he assumed the prime minister's post.
Had a corrupt general or businessman from the parliament been chosen -- one who would have been just as bad for Thailand as General Suchinda -- it's unlikely any protests would have occurred. But by his reversal of a promise not to take the premier's post, he has held up a mirror to the country that betrayed the lack of democracy and made the whole nation lose face.
In effect, General Suchinda said by his actions: "We, the top echelon of the military, my classmates from the military academy, control Thailand. All the rest of you are powerless." It was the trigger that set off an unstoppable wave of anger, much as Los Angeles erupted at the Rodney King verdict.
Thailand's 55 million people have much to be proud of: Alone in Asia, but for Japan, they were never colonized by the West. When communists defeated the U.S.-backed regimes in neighboring Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientienne in 1975, the Thais coolly reshuffled the cards. They asked the 50,000 U.S. troops to go home, launched a genuine hearts-and-minds drive to bring economic and educational development to fringe areas under communist influence and directed national policies on currency, exports, agriculture and industry to benefit the most Thais possible.
By 1989, per capita income had leaped to more than $1,000 a year; the communists surrendered under a royal amnesty; literacy was nearly universal; family size fell from six children to two; hundreds of thousands enrolled in huge open universities; Japanese and other investors opened computer and auto plants; and bilateral trade with the United States reached $9 billion.
Yet the system had its warts. Influential gangsters from the smallest "soi" or alley up to the highest level of government proved more powerful than any law; national forests were logged; copyright pirates and heroin smugglers prospered; and rampant prostitution allowed AIDS to proliferate.
At its heart, Thailand remained far from the idea of democracy that Westerners know. The military, royal family and civilian politicians formed a delicate balance at the top. That group has been responsive to the needs of the vast majority at the bottom. But decisions and power were kept in the hands of a few.
Behind the shiny airports, hotels and sweet smiles, there is an ongoing influence of the military and a lack of basic security in the countryside, where police are often controlled by corrupt politicians or dishonest business leaders. Individuals who publicly object to corruption, smuggling or illegal logging can be beaten or murdered by hired thugs for a hundred dollars.
Prosperity, education and knowledge of the outside world have changed many Thais in superficial ways, but deep inside much remains as it was for generations. The inability of Western democracy to replace the system of respect for the powerful -- and concern by the powerful for the lowly -- is the explanation for the dozens of coups in recent years. And for the fact that after each coup, life generally improves.
The ascetic former Bangkok Governor Chamlong Srimuang provided a uniquely Thai way to vent its displeasure with this system. When I met him several years ago at a diplomatic reception, he would neither eat not drink while the rest of us downed whiskeys, sodas and smoked fish on biscuits. Chamlong, who had once studied at an American war college, wore a blue cotton peasant shirt and said he ate one meal a day.
Chamlong is a charismatic person whose lifestyle is admired by many but imitated by very few in the fun-loving, sensual Thailand. He is easily the most popular politician in the capital, although he is less well known upcountry -- perhaps due to
government control of broadcast media. Chamlong asked Suchinda to step down, saying that a prime minister should come from Parliament. He also said Suchinda had promised he did not stage the 1991 coup to assume personal power.
If Suchinda gives up the premiership, the replacement drawn from the elected parliament will likely be backed by the same upper caste/military alliance that backed Suchinda. And the people he appoints to the interior ministry and provincial governorships will continue to be people of the same ilk. These officials, when charged with corruption, are virtually never prosecuted. Instead they are transferred to another province.
However, so long as they leave enough for people to prosper -- to send the kids to school in clean uniforms and buy the motorbikes, refrigerators and TVs that have uplifted Thai lives the past 10 years -- any real change in Thailand's unique non-democracy is unlikely.
Even Thais who study in the West and return to provide top-level administrators, bankers, teachers, doctors and engineers, quickly return to a world in which, as soon as you open your mouth, you state what level of society you belong to. When I asked a Thai recently for the Thai word for "husband," I was hTC asked "Do you want the lower class word, the upper class word or the upper-upper class word?"
This stratification dominates Thai social life. Because it is so interwoven with language, culture and economy, Thais have until recently rarely considered it as injustice. And had Suchinda not been so blatant in his grasping at the reins of power, after promising not to do so, things would have remained as they were -- the vast majority of Thais knowing they were slaves a couple of generations ago and expecting to obtain a better life gradually without challenging the upper class.
Will the awakened people who braved death to overthrow a dictator remain together at the end of this page of Thai history? Or will they return to their own people -- in the slums or the villages or the compounds with drivers polishing the cars? Just as Corazon Aquino disappointed many who believed democracy meant social change, Thais are likely to remain rooted in their sense of caste despite their latest heroic struggle for key political freedoms.
Even Chamlong -- a gentle prophet fasting in the choking pollution of downtown Bangkok traffic until his arrest Monday -- is likely to be no more than a briefly-appearing player on the stage of the traditional Thai drama called "likay." The really fascinating and powerful actors in likay are princes, warriors, wives and second wives. For all its modernity, in Thailand, traditions that go back centuries still seem to determine present events.
Ben Barber was based in Thailand in 1987-88 as a reporter for the London Observer and since 1982 has written free-lance articles about Thailand for USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and other newspapers.