History of Thailand since 1973
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1932 to 1973
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 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..
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.
The 1997 Constitution was the first constitution to be drafted by popularly elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly, and was popularly called the "people's constitution". The 1997 Constitution created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-seat House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร, sapha phu thaen ratsadon) and a 200-seat Senate (วุฒิสภา, wutthisapha). For the first time in Thai history, both houses were directly elected.
Many human rights were explicitly acknowledged, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments. The House was elected by the first past the post system, where only one candidate with a simple majority could be elected in one constituency. The Senate was elected based on the provincial system, where one province could return more than one senator depending on its population size.
The two houses of the National Assembly have two different terms. In accordance with the constitution the Senate is elected to a six-year term, while the House is elected to a four-year term. Overall the term of the National Assembly is based on that of the House. The National Assembly each year will sit in two sessions: an "ordinary session" and a "legislative session". The first session of the National Assembly must take place within thirty days after the general election of the House of Representatives. The first session must be opened by the king in person by reading a Speech from the Throne; this ceremony is held in the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. He may also appoint the crown prince or a representative to carry out this duty. It is also the duty of the king to prorogue sessions through a royal decree when the House term expires. The king also has the prerogative to call extraordinary sessions and prolong sessions upon advice of the House of Representatives.
The National Assembly may host a "joint-sitting" of both Houses under several circumstances. These include: The appointment of a regent, any alteration to the 1924 Palace Law of Succession, the opening of the first session, the announcement of policies by the Cabinet of Thailand, the approval of the declaration of war, the hearing of explanations and approval of a treaty and the amendment of the Constitution.
Members of the House of Representatives served four-year terms, while senators served six-year terms. The 1997 People's Constitution also promoted human rights more than any other constitution. The court system (ศาล, san) included a constitutional court with jurisdiction over the constitutionality of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, and political matters.
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 put his holding under the names of his servants and driver until his children were old enough to be 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.
The January 2001 general election, the first election under the 1997 Constitution, was called the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history. Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra won the election. The Thaksin government was the first in Thai history to complete a four-year term. The 2005 election had the highest voter turnout in Thai history, and Thai Rak Thai Party won an absolute majority. However, despite efforts to clean up the system, vote buying and electoral violence remained electoral problems in 2005.
The PollWatch Foundation, Thailand's most prominent election watchdog, declared that vote buying in this election, specifically in the north and the northeast, was more serious than in the 2001 election. The organisation also accused the government of violating the election law by abusing state power in presenting new projects in a bid to seek votes.
2006 coup d'état
Without meeting much resistance, a military junta overthrew the interim government of Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006. The junta abrogated the constitution, dissolved Parliament and the Constitutional Court, detained and later removed several members of the government, declared martial law, and appointed one of the king's Privy Counselors, General Surayud Chulanont, as the Prime Minister. The junta later wrote a highly abbreviated interim constitution and appointed a panel to draft a new permanent constitution. The junta also appointed a 250-member legislature, called by some critics a "chamber of generals" while others claimed that it lacks representatives from the poor majority.
In this interim constitution draft, the head of the junta was allowed to remove the prime minister at any time. The legislature was not allowed to hold a vote of confidence against the cabinet and the public was not allowed to file comments on bills. This interim constitution was later surpassed by the permanent constitution on 24 August 2007. Martial law was partially revoked in January 2007. The ban on political activities was lifted in July 2007, following the 30 May dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party. The new constitution was approved by referendum on 19 August, which led to a return to a democratic general election on 23 December 2007.
2008 political crisis
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. 
Following several court rulings against him in a variety of scandals, and surviving a vote of no confidence, and protesters blockading government buildings and airports, in September 2008, Sundaravej was found guilty of conflict of interest by the Constitutional Court of Thailand (due to being a host in a TV cooking program), and thus, ended his term in office.
Immediately following what many media described as a "judicial coup", a senior member of the Armed Forces met with factions of the governing coalition to get their members to join the opposition and the Democrat Party was able to form a government, a first for the party since 2001. The leader of the Democrat party, and former leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was appointed and sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister, together with the new cabinet on 17 December 2008.
In April 2009, protests by the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, or "Red Shirts") forced the cancellation of the Fourth East Asia Summit after protesters stormed the Royal Cliff hotel venue in Pattaya, smashing the glass doors of the venue to gain entry, and a blockade prevented the Chinese premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, from attending. The summit was eventually held in Thailand in October 2009.
About a year later, a set of new "Red Shirts" protests resulted in 87 deaths (mostly civilian and some military) and 1,378 injured. When the army tried to disperse the protesters on 10 April 2010, it was met with automatic gunfire, grenades, and fire bombs from the opposition faction in the army, known as the "watermelon". This resulted in the army returning fire with rubber bullets and some live ammunition. During the time of the "red shirt" protests against the government, there have been numerous grenade and bomb attacks against government offices and the homes of government officials. Gas grenades were fired at "yellow-shirt" protesters, who were protesting against the "red shirts" and in favor of the government, by unknown gunmen killing one pro-government protester; the government stated that the Red Shirts were firing the weapons at civilians. Red shirts continued to hold a position in the business district of Bangkok and it was shut down for several weeks.
On 3 July 2011, the oppositional Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra (the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra), won the general election by a landslide (265 seats in the House of Representatives, out of 500). She had never previously been involved in politics, Pheu Thai campaigning for her with the slogan 'Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts'. Yingluck is the nation's first female prime minister and her role was officially endorsed in a ceremony presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Pheu Thai Party is a continuation of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.
2014 Coup d'état
Protests recommenced in late 2013, as a broad alliance of protestors, led by former opposition deputy leader Suthep Thaugsuban, demanded an end to the so-called Thaksin regime. A blanket amnesty for people involved in the 2010 protests, altered at the last minute to include all political crimes – including all convictions against Thaksin – triggered a mass show of discontent, with numbers variously estimated between 98,500 (the police) and 400,000 (an aerial photo survey done by the Bangkok Post), taking to the streets. The Senate was urged to reject the bill to quell the reaction, but the measure failed. A newly named group, the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) along with allied groups, escalated the pressure, with the opposition Democrat party resigning en masse to create a parliamentary vacuum. Protesters demands variously evolved as the movement's numbers grew, extending a number of deadlines and demands that became increasingly unreasonable or unrealistic, yet attracting a groundswell of support. They called for the establishment of an indirectly elected “people’s council”—in place of Yingluck's government—that will cleanse Thai politics and eradicate the Thaksin regime.
In response to the intensive protests, Yingluck dissolved parliament on 9 December 2013 and proposed a new election for 2 February 2014, a date that was later approved by the election commission. The PDRC insisted that the prime minister stand down within 24 hours, regardless of her actions, with 160,000 protesters in attendance at Government House on 9 December. Yingluck insisted that she would continue her duties until the scheduled election in February 2014, urging the protesters to accept her proposal: "Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask that you stop protesting and that all sides work towards elections. I have backed down to the point where I don't know how to back down any further."
In response to the Electoral Commission (EC)'s registration process for party-list candidates—for the scheduled election in February 2014—anti-government protesters marched to the Thai-Japanese sports stadium, the venue of the registration process, on 22 December 2013. Suthep and the PDRC led the protest, of which security forces claimed that approximately 270,000 protesters joined. Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party reiterated their election plan and anticipate presenting a list of 125 party-list candidates to the EC.
On 7 May 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that Yingluck would have to step down as the Prime Minister as she was deemed to have abused her power in transferring a high-level government official. On 21 August 2014 she was replaced by army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
On 20 May 2014 the Thai army declared martial law and began to deploy troops in the capital, denying that it was a coup attempt. On 22 May, the army admitted that it was a coup and that it was taking control of the country and suspending the country's constitution. On the same day, the military imposed a curfew between the hours of 22:00–05:00, ordering citizens and visitors to remain indoors during this period. On 21 August 2014 the National Assembly of Thailand elected the army chief, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as prime minister. Martial law was declared formally ended on 1 April 2015. "Uniformed or ex-military men have led Thailand for 55 of the 83 years since absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932,..." observed one journalist in 2015.
2014 to present
The ruling junta led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha promised to hold new elections, but wants to enact a new constitution before the elections are held. An initial draft constitution was rejected by government officials in 2015. A national referendum, the first since the 2014 coup, on a newly drafted constitution was held on 7 August 2016. There was a 55% turnout of which around 61% voted in favour of the constitution. Under the new constitution an unelected person other than a member of parliament can be appointed as Prime Minister, which would open the post to a military official. The new constitution also gives the National Council for Peace and Order the authority to make all the appointments to the 250-member senate in the next government. The constitutional court will also have final authority in times of crisis, a power previously held by the king. King Maha Vajiralongkorn refused to put the new constitution into effect until amendments were made to the provisions concerning the authority of the constitutional court, appointment of a regent when abroad, and the need for a countersignature on all royal acts.
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