Southeast Asia conjures up unpleasant images for most Americans: 50,000 US servicemen dying amid the carnage of the Vietnamese civil war; boat people fleeing the brave new world of Vietnamese Communism in flimsy, jerry-built crafts, drowning in the South China Sea; Pol Pot murdering two million Cambodians, providing ghastly, horrific evidence that the genocidal impulse did not expire in 1945.
This month, though, we focus on a Southeast Asian nation that largely averted the bloodshed and tyranny of the last two decades. Most of us know Thailand only through its fashionable cuisine and an interminable musical starring Yul Brynner. Maurice M. ("Mack") Tanner's knowledge is more intimate—gleaned from 12 years' duty in Thailand as a member of the US Foreign Service.
The 49-year-old Tanner, author of this month's cover story, is as peripatetic as the next diplomat. Since 1967, he's served in Peru, Panama, Mexico, and Thailand. He's currently stationed in the capital city of Bangkok, where he lives with his Thai-born wife, Chamnian.
If Tanner's interests are catholic—fishing, camping, astronomy, classical and country and western music, and jeep rides on back-country roads—his opinions are damn near recusant. "American business," he declares at the outset of a conversation, "has done more to improve the lot of the world than all the state-directed programs and subsidies."
Unlike many who sing rapturously of the glories of capitalism, Tanner is refreshingly skeptical of the efficacy of military assistance to nations like Thailand. "In the early '70s," he notes, "I was on the side arguing that what Thailand needed was less US military help, not more, and that they had to win [the fight against the Communist insurgents] their own way, or it couldn't be won."
The current Thai government is no paragon of Jeffersonian virtues, as Tanner is the first to admit. He describes it as "relatively repressive," though improving. It is, however and happily, inefficient. "There are laws against a lot of things," says Tanner, yet enforcement is lax enough that businessmen and energetic Thai entrepreneurs can easily evade a multitude of government dos and don'ts. (Perhaps the IRS could learn a thing or two from the incompetent statists of Thailand?)
Is the lesson of Thailand applicable to the Philippines, where new President Corazon Aquino must cope with the 20,000 insurgents of the Communist New People's Army (as well as an economy in shambles after 20 years of Ferdinand Marcos's plunder)? Tanner thinks so. He sees among Filipinos, at "the grass roots, the same sort of leave-me-alone attitude" toward government that is so common among Thais.
Certain of Aquino's early actions, particularly the appointment of ardent free-enterpriser Jaime Ongpin as Finance Minister, augur well for her People Power revolution. Ongpin speaks, with eloquence and urgency, of the need to scrap the central planning that suffocated Philippine agriculture in the days when Ferdinand, Imelda, and George Hamilton frolicked in Manila. Aquino and her advisors have a formidable row to hoe; they could, we submit, learn a valuable lesson from the Thai example Mack Tanner presents beginning on page 24.
Diplomat Tanner hasn't always held the views he expresses in this article. His appreciation of unfettered liberty is a product of experience, "of watching how the world works." And his observation has led him to conclude that "the only thing that works is freedom."
All of which borders on heresy in the US Foreign Service. But then Mack Tanner is not, we think you'll agree, a typical foreign-service officer. This is his first article for REASON; we doubt it will be his last.
Also from Thailand (and a helluva sight prettier than Mack Tanner) is this month's cover model, Malin ("Pom") Pongsapipatt. The 24-year-old Pom is a student at the Brooks Institute School of Photography in Santa Barbara. She came to California from her native Bangkok a year and a half ago—and intends to return to Bangkok, upon graduation, to open her own photography studio.
In the cover photo—shot by veteran REASON cover contributor Bill Boyd—Pom is holding flowers, incense, and one candle, traditional offerings at a Buddhist temple. Nirvana, thy name is Pom…
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Up Front: REASON Thais One On".