History of Thailand since 1973
Thousands of students gather at Ratchadamnoen Avenue, Bangkok, October 1973.
|Preceded by||Thailand Military period|
|Monarch||Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX)|
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|History of Thailand|
The history of Thailand since 1973 saw an unstable period of democracy, with military rule being reimposed after a bloody coup in 1976. (The previous military rulers had been removed, as a result of the revolution of 14 October 1973.)
For most of the 1980s, Thailand was ruled by prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, a democratically-inclined strongman who restored parliamentary politics. Thereafter the country remained a democracy apart from a brief period of military rule from 1991 to 1992. The populist Thai Rak Thai party, led by prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, governed from 2001 until 2006. In 2006 mass protests against the Thai Rak Thai party's alleged corruption, prompted the military to stage a coup d'état, in September. A general election in December 2007 restored a civilian government,but in May 2014 another military coup returned the absolute power to the army.
The events of October 1973 amounted to a revolution in Thai politics. For the first time the urban middle class, led by the students, had challenged the ruling junta, and had gained the apparent blessing of the king for a transition to democracy. The leaders of the junta were forced to step down; they took refuge in the United States or Taiwan.
Thailand, however, had not yet produced a political class able to make this bold new democracy function smoothly. The January 1975 elections failed to produce a stable party majority, and fresh elections in April 1976 produced the same result. The veteran politician Seni Pramoj and his brother Kukrit Pramoj alternated in power, but were unable to carry out a coherent reform program. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 led to recession and inflation, weakening the government's position. The democratic government's most popular move was to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand. The communist insurgency led by the Thai communist party gradually became more active in the countryside, allying with urban intellectuals and students.
South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975. The threat of the communists in the neighboring countries soon led to panic among the people. The arrival of communist regimes on Thailand’s borders, the abolition of the 600-year-old Lao monarchy, and the arrival of a flood of refugees from Laos and Cambodia swung public opinion in Thailand to the right, and conservatives did much better in the 1976 elections than they had done in 1975.
Return to military rule
By late 1976 moderate middle class opinion had turned away from the activism of the students, who had moved increasingly to the left. The army and the right-wing parties began a propaganda war against student liberalism by accusing student activists of being 'communists' and through formal paramilitary organizations such the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs many of those students were killed. Matters came to a head in October when Thanom returned to Thailand to enter a royal monastery, Wat Bovorn.
Tension between workers and factory owners became fierce, as the civil right movement became more active after 1973. Socialism and leftist ideology gained popularity among intellectuals and the working class. The political atmosphere became even more tense. Workers were found hung in Nakhon Pathom after protesting against a factory owner. A Thai version of anti-communist McCarthyism spread widely. Whoever staged a protest could be accused of being part of a communist conspiracy.
In 1976, students protesters occupied the Thammasat University campus and held protests over the violent deaths of the workers and staged a mock hanging of the victims, one of whom allegedly bore a resemblance to the Crown Prince. Some newspapers the following day, including the Bangkok Post, published an altered version of a photo of the event, which suggested the protestors had committed lese majeste. Rightist and ultra-conservative icons such as Samak Sundaravej blasted the protestors, instigating violent means to suppress them, culminating in the 6 October 1976 Massacre. The army unleashed the paramilitaries and mob violence followed, in which many were killed.
The same evening, a junta staged a coup, declaring the end of Democrat Party led-coalition government. The army installed Thanin Kraivichien, an ultra-conservative former judge, as prime minister, and carried out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media and the civil service. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists fled Bangkok and took refuge with the Communist Party's insurgent forces in the north and north-east, operating from safe bases in Laos. Others left for exile, including Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, a respected economist and Rector of Thammasat University.
The economy was also in serious difficulties, in no small part due to Thanin's policies, which frightened foreign investors.
The new regime proved as unstable as the democratic experiment had been. In October 1977 a different section of the army staged another "coup" and replaced Thanin with General Kriangsak Chomanand. In 1978 the government offered an amnesty to Thai communists willing to "work with us to build a prosperous nation". The offer included housing, family reunion and security.
By this time, Thai forces had to deal with the situation resulting from the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. There was another flood of refugees, and both Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces periodically crossed into Thai territory, sparking clashes along the borders. A 1979 visit to Beijing earned Deng Xiaoping's agreement to end support for Thailand's communist movement; in return, the Thai authorities agreed to give safe haven to the Khmer Rouge forces fleeing west following the invasion of Cambodia. Revelations of the crimes of the defeated Khmer Rouge also sharply reduced the appeal of communism to the Thai public. Kriangsak's position as prime minister soon became untenable and he was forced to step down in February 1980 at a time of economic troubles. Kriangsak was succeeded by the army commander-in-chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda, a staunch royalist with a reputation for being incorruptible.
Between 1979 and 1988, Vietnamese occupation forces in Kampuchea made incursions into Thai territory, allegedly seeking rebel guerrillas they claimed were hiding in refugee camps (where many Laotians and Vietnamese refugees had also settled). Sporadic skirmishes continued along the border from 1985 to 1988, as Vietnamese troops periodically made cross border raids to wipe out Khmer Rouge border camps in Thailand, which along with China was a major supporter of the Khmer Rouge resistance. At times this led to direct combat with the Royal Thai Army, which drove back the intruders.
Coups and elections
Much of the 1980s saw a process of democratisation overseen by the King and Prem. The two preferred constitutional rule, and acted to put an end to violent military interventions.
The Prem era
In 1980, Kraivichien voluntarily retired, allowing Prem Tinsulanonda to become Prime Minister. In April 1981 a clique of junior army officers popularly known as the "Young Turks" staged a coup attempt, taking control of Bangkok. They dissolved the National Assembly and promised sweeping social changes. But their position quickly crumbled when Prem accompanied the royal family to Khorat. With the King's support for Prem made clear, loyalist units under the palace favourite General Arthit Kamlang-ek managed to recapture the capital in an almost bloodless counterattack. On 3 April 1981, the Young Turks were able to settle a deal with Prem, ending the April Fool's Day coup.
This episode raised the prestige of the monarchy still further, and also enhanced Prem’s status as a relative moderate. A compromise was therefore reached. The insurgency ended and most of the ex-student guerillas returned to Bangkok under an amnesty. In December 1982, the Thai army Commander in Chief accepted flag of the Communist Party of Thailand at a widely publicized ceremony held in Banbak. Here, communist fighters and their supporters handed in their weapons and swore allegiance to the government. Prem declared the armed struggle over. The army returned to its barracks, and yet another constitution was promulgated, creating an appointed Senate to balance the popularly elected National Assembly. Elections were held in April 1983, giving Prem, now in the guise of a civilian politician, a large majority in the legislature (an arrangement which came to be known as "Premocracy").
Prem was also the beneficiary of the accelerating economic revolution which was sweeping south-east Asia. After the recession of the mid-1970s, economic growth took off. For the first time Thailand became a significant industrial power, and manufactured goods such as computer parts, textiles and footwear overtook rice, rubber and tin as Thailand’s leading exports. With the end of the Indochina wars and the insurgency, tourism developed rapidly and became a major earner. The urban population continued to grow rapidly, but overall population growth began to decline, leading to a rise in living standards even in rural areas, although the Isaan continued to lag behind. While Thailand did not grow as fast as the "Four Asian Tigers," (namely Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) it achieved sustained growth.
Prem held office for eight years, surviving two more general elections in 1983 and 1986, and remained personally popular, but the revival of democratic politics led to a demand for a more adventurous leader. In 1988 fresh elections brought former General Chatichai Choonhavan to power. Prem rejected the invitation offered by major political parties for the third term of premiership.
The Prem era also marked the end of violent struggle between the Bangkok government and the communist insurgents by issuing the general amnesty. Former students who fled the cities, joined the communist party, returned eventually and resumed their lives.
The NPKC and Bloody May
By allowing one faction of the military to get rich on government contracts, Chatichai provoked a rival faction, led by Generals Sunthorn Kongsompong, Suchinda Kraprayoon, and other generals of Class 5 of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy to stage a coup in February 1991, charging Chatichai's government as a corrupt regime or 'Buffet Cabinet'. The junta called itself the National Peace Keeping Council. The NPKC brought in a civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, who was still responsible to the military. Anand's anti-corruption and straightforward measures proved popular. Another general election was held in March 1992.
The winning coalition appointed coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon to become Prime Minister, in effect breaking a promise he had made earlier to the King and confirming the widespread suspicion that the new government was going to be a military regime in disguise. However, the Thailand of 1992 was not the Siam of 1932. Suchinda’s action brought hundreds of thousands of people out in the largest demonstrations ever seen in Bangkok, led by the former governor of Bangkok, Major-General Chamlong Srimuang.
Suchinda brought military units personally loyal to him into the city and tried to suppress the demonstrations by force, leading to a massacre and riots in the heart of the capital, Bangkok, in which hundreds died. Rumours spread out as there was a rift in the armed forces. Amidst the fear of civil war, King Bhumibol intervened: he summoned Suchinda and Chamlong to a televised audience, and urged them to follow the peaceful solution. This meeting resulted in Suchinda's resignation.
The King re-appointed royalist Anand as interim prime minister until elections could be held in September 1992, which brought the Democrat Party under Chuan Leekpai to power, mainly representing the voters of Bangkok and the south. Chuan was a competent administrator who held power until 1995, when he was defeated at elections by a coalition of conservative and provincial parties led by Banharn Silpa-Archa. Tainted by corruption charges from the very beginning, Banharn’s government was forced to call early elections in 1996, in which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party managed to gain a narrow victory.
Soon after coming into office, Prime Minister Chavalit was confronted by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. After coming under strong criticism for his handling of the crisis, Chavilit resigned in November 1997 and Chuan returned to power. Chuan came to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund which stabilised the currency and allowed IMF intervention on Thai economic recovery. In contrast to the country's previous history, the crisis was resolved by civilian rulers under democratic procedures.
During the 2001 election Chuan’s agreement with IMF and use of injection funds to boost the economy were a cause for great debate, whilst Thaksin’s policies appealed to the mass electorate. Thaksin campaigned effectively against the old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. In January 2001 he had a sweeping victory at the polls, winning a larger popular mandate (40%) than any Thai prime minister has ever had in a freely elected National Assembly.
While Thaksin himself owned a large portion of shares in Shin Corporation (formerly Shinawatra Computer and Communications), one of Thailand's major telecommunications companies, he moved his holding to under the names of his servants and driver until his children were old enough to able to hold shares. The shares eventually transferred to family members. The share issue went to court and the court ruled in his favor, acquitting him from the legal clause that a prime minister cannot hold shares. Even though this legally freed him, political opposition parties and many Thai people did not accept the court ruling on this matter.
In power, Thaksin has presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy and repaid all debts borrowed from IMF before due time. By 2002 Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, was once again booming. As low-end manufacturing moved to China and other low-wage economies, Thailand moved upscale into more sophisticated manufacturing, both for a rapidly expanding domestic middle class market and for export. Tourism, and particularly sex tourism, also remained a huge revenue earner despite intermittent "social order" campaigns by the government to control the country's nightlife. Thaksin won a majority at elections in February 2005, securing his second consecutive term.
However, Thaksin became one of the most controversial premiers in the democratic Thailand. While he was applauded as an able leader, his critics became more severe. From the very beginning of his power, he was charged with hiding assets. He was 'at war' with journalists. His relationship with Myanmar's junta was also criticized. His policy of 'war on drug' led to the non-judicial killing of thousands 'suspects', inviting critics from human right groups domestically and internationally. Reports of his abuse of power and the conflict of interest were heralded.
In December 2005 media proprietor Sonthi Limthongkul launched an anti-Thaksin campaign, after his news analysis TV program, sharp critic of Thaksin, was removed from the channel. Sondhi's movement was based on accusations of Thaksin's abuse of power, corruption, human right violation, and immorality. Accusations included the improper handling of privatization of PTT and EGAT, the unfairness of the U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement, the corruption in the Suvarnabhumi Airport project, and conflicts of interest due to the Shinawatra family's continued ownership of Shin Corporation.. In January 2006, the Shinawatra family sold its shares in Shin Corporation, but due to a condition in Thai law, they did not have to pay capital gains tax. Although legal, Sonthi, his Peoples Alliance for Democracy, and the opposition claimed that the tax-free sale was immoral. Sonthi and the PAD held mass protests for months. In February 2006 Thaksin responded by calling a snap election in April. The opposition boycotted the elections, causing the Constitutional Court to later nullify the election results. Another election was scheduled for October 2006.
On 19 September 2006, with the prime minister in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin launched a successful coup 'd'etat. The October election was cancelled, the 1997 Constitution was abrograted, some key ministers arrested, and Parliament dissolved. Thaksin's diplomatic passport was cancelled, and he took up exile in the UK. The new constitution was promulgated with junta's support. The general election took place in December 2007.
2008 Political Crisis
The politics of Thailand after the 2006 coup still concerned the two fighting factions, supporters and opponents of the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The anti-Thaksinists formed the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as The Yellow Shirts, as they included the defense of the Crown as the symbol of the constitutional monarchy. The pro-Thaksinists aimed at lessening the royal power; combined with anti-2006 coup activists, they formed UDD, known as The Red Shirts', supporting the overthrow of the current constitution and an amnesty for Thaksin and his allies.
In mid-2008, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) renewed its large protests against the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who was the declared nominee of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The protesters were also against the ruling parties's plan to amend the constitution. On 26 August 2008, the protesters occupied government buildings, including Government House. Samak refused to resign, but also elected not to use force to remove the protestors. Beginning 29 August, protesters disrupted air and rail infrastructure. The protests have caused one confirmed death, on 2 September. Later that day, Samak declared a state of emergency, banning gatherings and the use of media by the PAD. As of 8 September, the protesters are still occupying Government House.
On 9 September 2008, the Constitutional Court of Thailand delivered a decision that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had performed acts in breach of Section 267 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (2007) which prevents conflict of interest. Sundaravej, after assuming the premiership, had engaged in a cookery show business through being the emcee for TV shows. According to the procedure for termination of a premiership, the entire Council of Ministers needed to step down together with Sundaravej. The ruling, however, did not bar him from standing again for prime minister. All the ministers other than Sundaravej remained in a caretaker position until a new administration was installed. Karn Tienkaew, deputy leader of Samak's People's Power Party, said it planned to propose a parliamentary vote Wednesday on returning Samak to power: "Samak still has legitimacy. The party still hopes to vote him back unless he says no. Otherwise we have many other capable candidates."
On 5 and 4 October 2008, respectively, Chamlong Srimuang and rally organiser, Chaiwat Sinsuwongse of the People's Alliance for Democracy, were detained by the Thai police led by Col. Sarathon Pradit, by virtue of 27 August arrest warrant for insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse (treason) against him and 8 other protest leaders. At the Government House, Sondhi Limthongkul, however, stated demonstrations would continue: "I am warning you, the government and police, that you are putting fuel on the fire. Once you arrest me, thousands of people will tear you apart." Srimuang's wife, Ying Siriluck visited him at the Border Patrol Police Region 1, Pathum Thani. Other PAD members still wanted by police include Sondhi, activist MP Somkiat Pongpaibul and PAD leaders Somsak Kosaisuk and Pibhop Dhongchai.
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This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.
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