Tuesday, March 5th 2019
History of Thailand: Thai History As Seen through Every Coup in Thailand
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It was late January of 2019, when a royal decree was announced authorizing elections in Thailand. Within a few hours, the Thai election commission had released a date—March 24th, 2019. When this day comes—after one of the longest running streaks by the Junta (or military leadership) in Thai history—Thailand will have its free democratic elections.
HISTORY OF MILITARY COUPS IN THAILAND:
This is not the first time that free elections have been held in Thailand after a military coup d’etat. In fact, there have been 12 military coups since Thailand shed its absolute monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy. In addition, there have been several attempted coups, as well as other coups that are not numbered among the 12—making Thai history over the last 85 years one of the most tumultuous on the planet. This can often come as a surprise to expats who live in Thailand, where they are only exposed to a population that is very orderly and polite.
– Before Thailand’s Coup of 1932 –
Before 1932, there had existed roughly 800 years of absolutist monarchical rule. The Siamese kings—which still hold a fundamental role in Thai society today—had united and ruled over surrounding areas for centuries, defending them from invaders like the Burmese. For more information, click here to read our article on the Patani Insurgence. These kings, called “Rama”, have formed what is called the Chakri Dynasty.
In 1868, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had succeeded to the throne. This monarch was the visionary who made the great push to modernize and Westernize Thailand. Not only did he and his sons study abroad in Western universities, but he paid for thousands of scholarship for students—many of them commoners—to attend Western academies. He valued the European approach to politics, economics, the humanities, and the sciences.
Thus, his son King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) attended Western universities like Oxford and Sandhurst. Rama VI saw the value in his father’s work and continued his efforts to modernize and Westernize the Kingdom of Siam, focusing largely on its infrastructure and institutions.
However, he also saw the value in a meritocracy and he appointed many capable commoners to government positions. In that vein, he made efforts to constitutionalize Siam. However, he only engendered resentment among the older and more conservative nobility. Curiously, he also angered the younger, more progressive radicals who felt that his efforts to modernize Siam were moving too slowly.
Therefore, the Palace Revolt of 1912 took place. This was an attempted coup by a group of young military officers seeking to replace the absolute monarchy with a more Western constitutional monarchy. After the failed coup, Rama VI abandoned his push towards modernization—instead continuing the legacy of absolute monarchy that had led Siam for over half a millennium.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1932 –
In 1925, Rama VI died and was succeeded by his brother King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). It became apparent that Rama VI had left the country in debt due to unsustainable spending practices, largely using up the country’s coffers to support a lavish lifestyle for the king and the nobility. His brother, Rama VII immediately set about to fix this issue.
Rama VII was a very progressive king who sought to be in touch with the people. He traveled the countryside speaking to peasants to see what their quality of life was like. He put together a Supreme Council of State, made up of princes who had served in ministerial positions. Unfortunately, they soon replaced personnel with their own constituents—namely replacing the commoners appointed by Rama VI with nobility and social elite. Elsewhere, they made efforts to undermine the reforms of the last two Siamese kings.
Though Rama VII cut palace expenditure, pushing to make the monarchy more financially responsible, he could not escape the economic crash of The Great Depression of 1929. By 1930, several solutions were on the table. The king favored levying taxes on property and wealth, but the Supreme Council of State feared that these measures would dip into their personal fortunes, therefore they passed measures such as cutting the military budget and civil service payrolls. This angered the educated bourgeoisie (who were the new wealthy elite from common backgrounds but had been educated in the West under Rama V’s patronage) who felt that they were being made to suffer the burden of Siam’s financial woes alone. It also inhibited their desire to climb the social ranks and form an upper-middle class.
In 1932, a small group of seven of this new class of commoners got together in Paris, France. They called themselves “The Promoters” because they would be the ones to promote change in Siam. Some of these individuals would go on to shape Thailand for decades to come. They were:
- Lieutenant Plaek Khittasangkha – Army officer and student at School of Applied Artillery in France
- Pridi Phonamyong – Law student studying in Paris
- Lieutenant Prayoon Pamornmontri – Officer in the Royal Guards under Rama VI
- Luang Siriratchamaitri – Diplomatic Officer at Siamese Embassy in Paris
- Lieutenant Thatsanai Mitphakdi –Army officer and student at the French Calvary Academy
- Tua Lophanukrom – Scientist studying in Switzerland
- Naep Phahonyothin – Law Student studying in England
In discussing how they could bring about change in Siam, and not repeat the mistakes of the Palace Revolt of 1912, it was their belief that the population largely consisted of illiterate peasants who were not ready for democracy. In that regard, they recognized that a Siamese revolution would have to descend from a military coup. In effect, the change would have to come from within the newly-educate, upper-middle-class elite. Upon returning from Paris, they recruited similar like-minded thinkers—largely disenfranchised soldiers—in specific positions, and soon they numbered 102 individuals. They called themselves the Khana Ratsadon—or the People’s Party—and they began to schedule a military coup for the 24th of June.
One of these Promoters was a man named Prayoon Pamornmontri. A man with connections, he recruited four prominent individuals, known as the Four Musketeers within the party. After the first coup, these men would go on to lead the Khana Ratsadon. One was Phraya Phahon Pholpayuhasena, Deputy Inspector of the Artillery, who was very popular among the troops. He would later serve as Prime Minister of Thailand. Another was Phraya Songsuradet, who was considered one of the greatest military minds alive, as well as Director of Education of the Siamese Military Academy. The third was Phraya Ritthaikhaney, Commander of the Artillery in Bangkok. The last individual was Phra Phrasasphithayayut, another prominent military official eager for a change in the absolute monarchy in Thailand.
Thailand’s first coup took place in a story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. On the 23rd of June, despite numerous precautions, the plan leaked to the Siamese police who then notified Prince Paribatra. The 13th son of Rama V, Paribatra held the positions: Chief of Staff of the Royal Thai Army, Commander of the Royal Navy, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Defense, Minister of the Army, Minister of the Navy, and a Privy Counselor to two Siamese kings. He had proven himself to be an exquisite officer, yet he made one crucial error. When he was brought a list of conspirators against the King of Siam, he noticed the sons of several very powerful and highly prominent figures in Siam. He decided to wait a day to see what could be done to protect these aristocratic youths. That delay would prove vital for the conspiracy and rueful for the monarchy.
Prayoon’s role in the coup d’etat was to lead a small cohort of soldiers to seize the telegram and postal centers in Bangkok, thus disabling all communications between the senior military officers and royalty. Meanwhile, Luang Sinthusongkhramchai a young naval captain from Phra Tabong Province (what is now called Pailin, Cambodia), commandeered a naval battleship the night before, and by the dawn of the 24th, he had positioned it outside the palace of Prince Paribatra. He also gathered 500 naval officers ready to storm the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.
At this time, two of the Four Musketeers—Phahon and Songsuradet—were busy carrying out their part of the plans. Phahon’s role was to also gather a cadre of followers ready to storm the Throne Room. Meanwhile, Songsuradet’s mission was to take over the First Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Guards, because this is where all the armored vehicles were kept. With a handful of armed guards, he arrived to find the officer in charge of the barracks sleeping. He promptly invented a tale that there was a Chinese uprising taking place, and used this deception to arrest the napping officer. Then he proceeded to mobilize all the guards, leading them to the Throne Hall under the pretense that they were to ‘protect the King’.
In addition, officers from the surrounding areas of Bangkok had been fed misinformation for weeks—being told that a military exercise was to take place in the coming weeks. They joined the infantry that had been mobilized by Songsuradet outside the Throne Hall, thus unwittingly supporting the coup without their own knowledge. By 06:00, the amassed troops—unsure as to whether they were conducting a military exercise or there was a Chinese attack in progress—were read the Khana Ratsadon Manifesto. Flyers and leaflets entailing excerpts from the manifesto were distributed among the streets of Bangkok, and radio broadcasts announced the end of the monarchy to civilians throughout Thailand.
The manifesto was met with cheers. Many royalists locked themselves away refusing to take sides in the coup d’etat. Soon, a group of military officers arrested 40 prominent royalist officers in the Throne Hall with practically no resistance (except the Commander of the First Army Corps who put up a light fight and suffered minor injuries—making him the only casualty in this largely-bloodless coup). Among those captured was Prince Paribatra. In the coming days, all members of the royalty were released except for Prince Paribatra who was considered too powerful.
The king was playing a round of golf with his family members while all of this happened, and after discussing it with his family, he decided to relinquish command of the Kingdom of Siam while remaining a constitutional monarch, thus ending 700 years of absolute monarchy. This coup succeeded in its goals of establishing the 1932 Constitution, which then enabled a political and social reformation in Thailand.
*Prince Paribatra was exiled to Java where he died in 1944.
*One of the most interesting events in world history, we highly recommend reading about the whole story. Click here to learn more.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1933 –
After Thailand’s Coup of 1932, the transition to democracy was supposed to unfold in a threefold plan. The first stage was for the Khana Ratsadon to appoint assembly members. The second stage was for the rural, illiterate population of Thailand to be educated in the ways of democracy and basic education. The third phase was to allow for full democratic representation when either half the population had undergone primary education, or when ten years had passed—whichever occurred first.
The government was divided into three branches, much like the American system of government. The first was the People’s Assembly which would act as a Legislative Branch. The second was the People’s Committee which would act as an Executive Branch headed by a Prime Minister. The third was the Siamese Supreme Court which would act as a Judicial Branch.
The role of Prime Minister of Thailand was offered to Phraya Manopakorn Nititada because of his neutrality and lack of involvement during Thailand’s Coup of 1932. A man regarded well by all factions, he was considered the least controversial choice. However, he and his entire cabinet were essentially puppets for the leader of the People’s Committee—which were either members of the Khana Ratsadon or they had been hand-picked by them.
One of the founding members of the Khana Ratsadon, a man named Pridi Phanomyong, was appointed as Minister of State on the People’s Committee. In March of 1933, he submitted a document entailing his plan for the future of Siam called the “Draft National Economic Plan”, yet it is known to everyone as the “Yellow Cover Dossier”. This plan was a blend of liberalism and socialism, where he wrote that the revolution was never intended to turn the monarchy into an oligarchy, and thus it should be centered around the wellbeing of the Thai people.
The Yellow Cover Dossier guaranteed employment to all citizens, improved social welfare, instilled measures to redistribute land and wealth among the Thai population, a progressive system of taxation, subsidies for farmers in rural areas, and security and social assurance for the poorest classes of society. However, the plan was not only socialist, but it also called for a centralized private bank, as well as rights and protections of private property for all citizens, both of which are liberal ideals.
Nevertheless, an immediate backlash occurred among the urban, educated elites and landed nobility. Much of the Thai population supported the Yellow Cover Dossier—especially among the young revolutionaries, the poor, and the urban middle class. Half of the People’s Committee (or the Thai Executive Branch) supported Pridi’s plan, whereas the other half condemned both him and Prime Minister Manopakorn for allowing him to publish the Yellow Cover Dossier. When the ire was directed at the Prime Minister, he himself turned on Pridi. In response, the Prime Minister was cornered into halting the Thai People’s Assembly on April 1st.
Three officers threatened Pridi and brought weapons to the Thai People’s Assembly—among them was Phraya Songsuradet. Pridi avoided the assembly, and subsequently armed supported arrived at his home. Slander was published that Pridi was a communist. On April 2nd, the government passed the Anti-Communist Act of 1933, which provided executive powers to the police for them to arrest any citizens without trial or due process for being communists. This act led to the arrest of the Communist Party of Siam, as well as it allowed for an excuse to arrest many Vietnamese refugees. Many left-wing newspapers and other publications were censored. In the end, the Khana Ratsadon itself was disbanded for containing leftists like Pridi. Pridi himself was exiled to France ten days later.
Two months later on the 15th of June, Army Colonel Phraya Phahon—one of the Four Musketeers who had been appointed Minister of State—resigned from the People’s Committee sighting health reasons. Instead, this was a ruse. Five days later, with the help of Naval Commander Luang Supphachalasai, he led the charge to surround the building of the National Assembly. Citing the fact that the Prime Minister had dissolved the People’s Assembly—though he had been politically pressured to do so by men such as Phraya Phahon—Phahon stated that the Prime Minister had acted illegally, and used this as a pretense to overthrow the standing government.
Phahon recalled the People’s Assembly and had them anoint himself as the Second Prime Minister of Siam—as well as appointing Luang Supphachalasai Minister of State. He also had the Speaker of the People’s Assembly submit to the King of Siam Rama VII stating the reasons for the coup, to which the King accepted. Lastly, Phahon recalled and pardoned Pridi—the author of the Yellow Cover Dossier. This military coup over the civilian government set a precedent which still looms over Thai politics today.
*The First Prime Minister Manopakorn fled to British Malaya where he died in 1948.
– The Rebellion of Eighteen Corpses –
In October of 1933, Prince Boworadet and several other prominent members of the royal family attempted to reinstate the absolute monarchy that had ruled Siam for hundreds of years. They did it under the guise that Pridi and Phahon had “encouraged the people to despise the king.”
The Prince mobilized an army in Korat, and he soon took control of the province. Neighboring provinces seems to react to this movement positively. Though Bangkok was aware, they were so involved with their own infighting that they were unable to quell the rebellion in its infancy. After Korat openly rebelled, garrisons from Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Phetburi, Saraburi, Pratchinburi, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Ayutthaya followed suit in joining Korat. That same day, October 11th, 1933, the first clashes took place, and government forces were defeated in Nakhon Ratchasima Province.
The government appointed Plaek Phibunsongkhram to marshall the government’s forces. On October 13th, the government army began shelling rebel strongholds. For three days, they fired at each other until the better-equipped government forces were able to drive back the rebel forces and capture the airport. Government forces led the demoralized troops on a chase and quelled the Boworadet Rebellion by the end of October.
After the Boworadet Rebellion of 1933, a period of relative stability hit Thailand. On September 11th, 1938, Phahon stepped down as Prime Minister after serving capably for over 5 years. Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) was appointed by the Khana Ratsadon to be the next Prime Minister. Due to Phibun’s role in quelling the Boworadet Rebellion five years earlier, and because of his authoritarian approach to leadership, three subsequent attempts were made on his life—twice by gunmen and once through poison.
His response was to personally go after his political enemies. It began with Phraya Songsuradet. Though he had retired from politics, the tactical genius nevertheless held a position in the military teaching at a military academy in Chiang Mai. On December 16th, he was notified that he had been stripped of his command, all ranks and titles retired without pension, and exiled from the country. Fearing for his life, Songsuradet complied and fled to Cambodia.
In the following month, another 51 prominent opponents of Phibun were arrested, many of them who had opposed him in the past or were sympathizers of Songsuradet. A drumhead tribunal was conveyed against these 51 individuals. 7 of them were deemed innocent due to lack of evidence, 25 were imprisoned for life, and 21 were sentenced to death by firing squad. However, 3 of those individuals sentenced to death were pardoned, making the overall death toll 18. It is for this reason that Phibun’s coup is known as the Songsuradat Rebellion, or the Rebellion of Eighteen Corpses, though it was not a rebellion at all.
*Songsuradet would die in extreme poverty and obscurity in Phnom Penh, scraping together what living he could by selling sweets on the street until his death in 1944.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1947 –
Plaek Phibunsongkhram served for five years until the end of the WW II. Then the tumultuous period toward the end of WW II struck Thailand. The fourth Prime Minister, a man named Kuang Aphaiwong from the Independent Party, served for a full year until the end of the Second World War—where Thailand had been forced into a reluctant alliance with Japan. At this point in Thai politics, leaders from the Independent and Free Thai political parties traded leadership of Thailand—none served for longer than half a year, the shortest serving only 17 days as an interim Prime Minister. One of these short-lived Prime Ministers was Kuang Aphaiwong, the fourth Prime Minister of Thailand, who was reinstated, but he served for less than two months before being replaced.
After this, Rear Admiral Thawan Thamrongnawasawat served for over a year. However, his administration was filled with corruption and scandals. Soon, a military-led coalition called the Coup Group ousted the standing government. During this coup, Phin Choonhavan the leader of the opposition, acted as the Deputy Prime Minister for two days while the military decided who to instill as the next leader of Thailand. They chose to reinstate Kuang Aphaiwong for a third time, making it this the third term of the fourth Prime Minister of Thailand.
This was one of the most important coups in Thailand because it solidified the role of the military in maintaining order and removing and selecting leaders during periods of great contention. This would have a lasting effect on events, leading up through the start of the 21st Century.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1951 –
After only 150 days in office, Kuang Aphaiwong was deposed by the coup leaders who installed him in the first place. In the power vacuum, the 3rd Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (commonly referred to solely as “Phibun”) took the reins.
Phibun himself survived several coup attempts during his administration. In October 1948, a coup led by a staff of army generals failed to topple Phibun. In 1949, a palace rebellion also failed to topple Phibun’s administration. Then in June 1951, a group of naval officers managed to take Phibun hostage aboard the navy flagship Sri Ayutthaya in yet another attempted coup. Known as the Manhattan Rebellion, this attempted coup would have lasting effects on the Thai political system. When negotiations broke down, fighting broke out between the Thai Navy and the Thai Army in the streets of Bangkok and elsewhere. The Thai Air Force, which supported the army, bombed the Sri Ayutthaya. Yet while it sank, Phibun was able to swim ashore to safety.
The Manhattan Rebellion was key to understanding the Silent Coup of 1951. After the army had defeated the navy, the government essentially dismantled the navy. They dismissed thousands of key personnel. Thai marines were put in charge of the army, heavy weaponry in navy command was confiscated, naval bases were moved from city centers to remote regions of Thailand, and all aircraft in naval possession was transferred over to the Thai Air Force.
Then in November of 1951, while young King Bhumibhol Adulyadej (Rama IX) was away in Switzerland, the Coup Group made several appeals to Prime Minister Phibun to amend the constitution of Thailand—which had only been drafted two years earlier in 1949—to allow for certain concessions to be made for the Thai military. Prime Minister Phibun refused several times. One member of the Coup Group, police chief Phao Sriyanond, even traveled to Switzerland to meet with the young King Rama IX who took no firm position on the matter.
By the end of November, the Coup Group knew that they had to act fast because King Rama IX was scheduled to return from Switzerland in a couple of days. Therefore, they simply announced on the radio that they were taking command of Thailand. The Silent Coup—also known as the “Radio Coup”—disbanded Thailand’s parliament and the democratic reforms which were a part of the 1949 Constitution—namely, one such reform was that military officials could not hold office.
Instead, they reinstated the 1932 Constitution which allowed for military officials to hold office. Then they formed a provisional government of military officials, effectively taking control of the government. Once Phibun was backed into a corner, he had no choice but to accept the new terms and join the new government in continuing his role as Prime Minister.
*As an aside, Phao would soon turn his police force into a paramilitary force loyal to him so as to rival his military rivals in Thailand. The CIA backed his police force, training and supplying them with funds and hardware like trucks, boats, and planes. Phao then used this equipment to transport opium to further his personal power and wealth. This continued until the Coup of 1957 when he was forced to flee to Switzerland where he died in exile.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1957 –
The military dictatorship established by the Silent Coup of 1951 soon lost its appeal in the face of militaristic authoritarianism and corruption. Political parties had been banned in the Coup of 1951, therefore a push to return to democratic ideals like free elections were heavily supported by the people.
The 1955 Political Party Bill was drafted and passed, which was followed with the creation of over 25 different political parties. What had been the Legislative Committee that had been running the government, now became a political party called the Seri Manangkhasila Party. This political party was led by Phao, Phibun, and the Commander of the Thai Royal Army Sarit Thanarat—though his involvement in the political party was peripheral at best.
In what is universally recognized as one of the most corrupt elections in history, the Seri Manangkhasila won in a victory over the main contenders: The Democratic Party. Even Sarit Thanarat was quoted saying that the elections of 1957 “were dirty, the dirtiest. Everybody cheated.”
Riots erupted on the streets of Bangkok with people upset over the rigged elections. In an attempt to preserve order, then Prime Minister Phibun declared a state of emergency, and as per protocol, Sarit Thanarat was appointed the Supreme Commander of all military forces.
By September of 1957, the public was in complete support of the removal of Phibun’s government. Sarit Thanarat—previously Phibun’s most ardent supporter—handed Prime Minister Phibun an ultimatum. Signed by 58 of the most prominent military commanders, it demanded that the government be removed and that Phibun step down. That evening, a crowd gathered outside Sarit’s residence in support of the ultimatum. There Sarit gave a short speech about how he felt vindicated in his beliefs by the overwhelming popular support that he had received.
The next morning Sarit led a bloodless coup which took over key strongholds in Bangkok. Phibun fled the country and Phao was deported soon after. Sarit then took the reins in leading Thai politics. He is known for being an anti-communist, as well as helping to secure relations between the United States and Thailand.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1958 –
Sarit instilled an interim government which failed to grab a hold of Thai politics. Sarit then chose Foreign Minister Pote Sarasin to lead the country long enough to establish fair elections in December of 1957. Pote Sarasin did his duty, serving for 100 days, and then peacefully resigned. During the elections, the people elected an entirely new Parliamentary body. Furthermore, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn was appointed by Sarit to serve the role of Prime Minister and Defense Minister while Sarit ruled from the shadows.
It was not until 1958 that Sarit demoted Thanom Kittikachorn to the role of Deputy Prime Minister, and Sarit Thanarat himself took the role of Prime Minister of Thailand. This was known as the Coup of 1958. He would serve as Prime Minister of Thailand until his death in December of 1963.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1971 –
The day after Sarit Thanarat passed away in early December of 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn resumed the position of Prime Minister which he had held so briefly five years prior. However, this time he had no one to stand in his way. He promptly appointed himself the Commander of the Thai Army. Within a year, he had taken on the roles of Fleet Admiral and Marshall of the Thai Airforce as well.
Continuing the ardently anti-communist stance put forth by Sarit Thanarat, Thanom was able to secure massive amounts of economic support and financial aid during the Vietnam War. With this support, he founded his own political party called the United Thai People’s Party (Saha Prachathai) in October of 1968. It was basically an attempt to gather parliamentary support for his junta.
Due to rising income inequality, the ire of the peasantry stoked the fires of rebellion. This led to several peasants revolts in 1970, where commoners—mostly farmers among other occupations—rose up attempting to incite change from the ground up without the help of the military as had never been done before in Thai history. Using this widespread global fear of the rise of communism in Southeast Asia, Thanom Kittikachorn took the opportunity to stage a self-coup against his own government, effectively dissolving parliament and becoming the undisputed dictator of Thailand.
– Thailand’s Popular Uprising of 1973 –
Thanom continued his rule in Thailand for another two years until a popular uprising finally took hold. As was so common globally around the turn of the decade, the Thai Popular Uprising of 1973 was led by university students. They formed a coalition of university students and faculty called the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT), representing eleven prominent universities throughout the country. The NSCT organized protests, rallies, and boycotts.
Between October 6th and 15th, 13 students in Bangkok were arrested by Thanom’s oppressive regime for passing out flyers calling for a new constitution. Protests demanding their release grew until they numbered 400,000 people. They also called for the drafting of a new constitution. As the crowd grew, the government finally met their demands, promising the release of the 13 students and a new constitution drafted by the following year. At this news, half the students disbanded, but the other half marched to the King Rama IX palace to seek his counsel.
They arrived at the king’s palace before dawn on the 14th of October. After meeting with the official spokesperson for the king—who had urged them to peacefully disband—they began to leave in peace. However, the military had corralled them into one long line with one small exit lane. Delays in evacuation took hold and the students grew increasingly frustrated as they called for the creation of another exit lane. Though no one is quite sure how it started, the military began to use violence against the peaceful crowd. Riots broke out and by early morning bombs had exploded at nearby residences and the police retaliated with deadly force against the protestors. Within a few hours, the government had brought in tanks, helicopters, and soldiers to support the overrun police. The death toll after the incident was counted at 77 dead, 857 injured.
The population was enraged at this, and soon the protesters—having swelled to half a million—took to the streets. By the evening of the 14th of October, the military pulled out and the king announced that Thanom’s government had resigned. The violence did not cease until the following day when it was confirmed that Thanom had left the country. Colonel Narong Kittikachorn and Field Marshall Praphas Charusathien (who was the father of Narong’s wife) also fled with him. Together these three men are remembered as the Three Tyrants.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1976 –
After the 1933 coup, Sanya Dharmasakti was appointed as the new Prime Minister by royal decree. As the President of the Supreme Court, he was in a unique position to rule during this time, and he served dutifully and upheld the ideals of the revolution after the “Three Tyrants” had fled the country. He called for a drafting committee to draw up a new constitution in 1974. He was instrumental in ordering the withdrawal of US forces from Thai soil after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975. After serving admirably as Prime Minister during this transitional period, he returned to preside over the Supreme Court.
A new constitution was drafted and general elections took place for new parliamentary representation. However, the new government lacked strong leadership and teeth to challenge the status quo. Some scholars have argued that the middle-class, which had lent credibility to the student protests, was also not invested enough to risk their own financial stability in the coming months. Legislators rejected any bills that would challenge the wealthy elite, offend the military, or further a redistribution of wealth. Protests, riots, and strikes would become commonplace and they increased in intensity. Taxes rose only exacerbating the animosity toward the government. Then Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam all fell to communism in 1975. With both eyes on Thailand, the world held its breath.
Curiously, Thailand’s political base leaned oppositely toward right-wing politics. Perhaps it was the reverence for their own monarch Rama IX, and fear that he would be deposed after witnessing how the 600-year Lao monarchy was deposed. In part, the flood of refugees from neighboring communist countries with horrific tales of their transition to communism disheartened the immediate desire for communist revolution in Thailand.
To replace Prime Minister Sanya, the country drew upon former Prime Minister Seni Pramoj who had served for only 136 days thirty years prior. This time, he served for only 27 days before his younger brother Kukrit Pramoj—from a different political party—was asked to lead.
Kukrit Pramoj is perhaps one of the most interesting figures in Thai history. A veteran of the Franco-Thai War of 1940, Kukrit was a scholar with degrees in politics, economics, and philosophy from Oxford University. He went on to become one of Thailand’s most prominent literary artists, writing a multitude of novels which are considered pinnacles of Thai literature—his masterpiece being the novel Four Reigns. He even acted in George Englund’s film The Ugly American. He served for a little over a year, when he was replaced again by his older brother Seni. Seni Pramoj’s third term as Prime Minister would only last 169 days until October 6th, 1976.
However, neither Seni nor his brother Kukrit would prove to be skillful leaders for the country. Though they were both academics, with professorial positions at Thammasat University, they failed to pacify the increasingly radicalized youth. Though Thailand’s political pendulum seemed to have swung to the right, student activism continued to become even more radical as they grew frustrated with the flaccid and ineffectual leadership between 1973 and 1976. Anti-communist fears continued to plague the zeitgeist of the mid-70s. With the polarization of political and socioeconomic class structure in Thailand seeming to grow exponentially, the monarchy and the military elite began to feel that their own financial assets and interests were under threat. Therefore the military decided to bring back two of the three Tyrants to maintain order over the unruly youths.
The first to return to Thailand was Field Marshall Praphas, who entered the country on August 17th, 1976. Thousands of students gathered outside Thammasat University, where they protested for four days when clashes with right-wing paramilitary and activist organizations left four dead.
In a horrendously-timed decision, 2 days later, on the 19th of August, 1976 Thanom Kittikachorn himself was brought back into Thailand. Though he was driven directly from the airport to a Buddhist monastery where he immediately was ordained as a monk in a private ceremony, this did not pacify the resentment of the population. Massive anti-Thanom and anti-government protests broke out—in particular among university-educated youths. Prime Minister Seni attempted to resign, but his resignation was rejected by the Parliament of Thailand.
Six days later, west of Bangkok in Nakhon Pathom, two student activists, who were posting anti-Thanom propaganda, were beaten to death by Thai police. The student’s corpses were posted on a wall in mockery of the propaganda they were attempting to distribute. Student activists were enraged by this, and a mock staging of the student’s hangings was reenacted at Thammasat University campus. One of the students that was hanged in this mock reenactment—either by morbid coincidence or premeditation—bore a striking resemblance to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, son of Rama IX and successor to the throne. The following day when a newspaper published a photograph of the event, the military propaganda radio stations accused the protesters of defaming the monarchy—which carries with it very severe punishments in Thailand. King Rama IX approved the mobilization of the King’s paramilitary forces. He also invited any right-wing organizations that wished to kill communists to join. At dusk of October 5th, 1976, over 4,000 police, military, and paramilitary forces organized and descended upon Thammasat University.
– The October 6th Event –
At dawn, the military and paramilitary forces blocked the exits to Thammasat University, and they began firing with pistols, carbines, M-16s, armor-piercing recoilless rifles, and even grenade launchers. No one was allowed to leave, not even wounded. Students begged for a ceasefire, yet the attacks continued. Students attempting to surrender were shot. Then the Bangkok Chief of Police gave the order to storm the complex. Students dove into the Chao Phraya River only to be fired at by naval forces lying in wait. The massacre was then halted at noon by a rainstorm.
Today, it is known to the world as the Thammasat University Massacre, though in Thailand it is only known as “The October 6th Event”. The official numbers record that 3,000 were arrested, 167 were wounded, and 46 died. However, accounts by survivors of the massacre have led scholars to believe that the numbers were far greater.
*For the sake of our readers, the full list of atrocities committed against the students was edited due to graphic violence—some so shocking that it greatly disturbed the author of this piece. To read more about these morbid atrocities, click here.
That afternoon, military factions convened; and with the blessings of King Rama IX, they overthrew Seni’s government and established a military dictatorship under the rule of Admiral Sangad Chaloryu. The new military government was dubbed the National Administrative Reform Council (NARC), and they announced on all media outlets that they had acted to prevent a communist uprising led by Vietnamese and to preserve the Thai monarchy. Admiral Sangad Chaloryu served as interim Prime Minister for two days, before King Rama IX appointed a royalist and anti-communist judge named Thanin Kraivichien.
*Thanom Kittikachorn left monkhood however he never again joined Thai politics.
*To read the article from The Guardian for the following day entailing the propaganda released at the time, click here.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1977 –
The Thammasat University Massacre might have ended the brief 3-year experimental departure from military dictatorship in Thailand, but it was not the ideal situation for the Thai military either. King Rama IX’s pick to rule, Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien, rejected any of the military government’s nominations. Instead, he hand-selected the officials himself—only two of which were from the military: the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense.
Thanin did select the first Thai female ministers to serve in his cabinet. However, despite this curiously progressive act, ideologically Thanin was an extremist. He organized police special forces units to confiscate and burn any books that he deemed leftist. He also announced that democratic rule would return to Thailand only after 12 years. All political parties were outlawed—as were any left-leaning, liberal, or progressive organizations, such as farmers’ associations, progressive students associations, and trade unions.
Instead of quelling the rebellion, this repressive government only fueled membership in underground, radical organizations such as the Communist Party of Thailand. Sabotages became commonplace in rural areas, as did clashes along the border with Cambodia and Laos. The threat of communist insurgency loomed nigh, especially when royalty became the target. One such plot was a bomb which exploded in the same vicinity as King Rama IX while he was visiting southern Thailand, or when a hijacked helicopter assassinated the secretary to the queen.
In March of 1977, General Chalad Hiranyasiri attempted to overthrow Thanin, along with a group of young army officers called the “Young Turks”. His attempt was unsuccessful and he was promptly executed.
Admiral Sangad Chaloryu became increasingly frustrated with the state of the government. The attacks on the royalty had made Thanin unpopular with the monarchy, the under-representation had made Thanin unpopular with the military, the lengthy delay of Thanin’s proposed 12-year authoritarian regime before democratic representation made him unpopular with the average citizen, the radicalized youth teetered on the brink of Civil War. To make matters worse, the economic situation in Thailand had only worsened. In other words, though staunch and honest in his ideals, he alienated everyone with his autocratic vision for Thailand.
On October 20th, 1977, Admiral Sangad led a military intervention against Thanin, along with General Kriangsak Chamanan. When pressed by the full force of the military, Thanin promptly resigned.
– Thailand’s Coup of 1991 –
Admiral Sangad would serve once again as interim Prime Minister for three weeks, while the National Administrative Reform Council (NARC) chose a new Prime Minister. Through a majority of votes by the National Assembly and the NARC, they chose General Kriangsak Chamanan to lead.
Kriangsak proved himself to be a capable leader. He is credited for defusing the polarized tensions between the left-wing population and his right-wing core base. He set about a reconciliation policy which was controversial at the time, yet it is seen in hindsight as the foundation for the depolarization of the political climate in Thailand during the 1970s. Among many reconciliatory measures, he submitted an amnesty bill to release students that were still being held from the Thammasat University Massacre. This won him the praise of Western leaders like Jimmy Carter. He even managed to start an amnesty program for Communists.
In addition, Kriangsak opened up negotiations with the People’s Republic of China’s leader Deng Xiaoping. In these talks, the Thai government allowed weapons to be shipped from China to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in exchange for an end to Chinese support for the communist insurgency in Thailand. (This has been verified by numerous sources, though the Thai government denies its involvement to this day.) In doing this, Kriangsak greatly reducing the fighting along Thailand’s northern border. In addition, these talks with China brought about the removal of amassed Vietnamese troops along their border. Kriangsak also engaged in talks with Burma (now Myanmar) to ease tension with the Burmese rebel armies. Thus he brought about a relative peace and stability to the country which had not been seen in the last decade.
Kriangsak Chamanan had served for over 2 years when he retired from the office of Prime Minister in 1980. In his place, the NARC chose Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem served for 8 years, shifting cabinets and party allegiances often. Prem continued the reconciliatory policies put forth by Kriangsak. Among them, he opened negotiations with the Communist Party of Thailand. During these negotiations, he offered amnesty to any communists who wanted to return home—many of whom were former student protesters. Due to measures like these, the fighting between the government and the communist guerilla fighters ended during the 1980s.
Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda survived two coup attempts by the Young Turks. The first attempt was on April 1st, 1981, only a year after his administration. A bloodless coup took place by the Young Turks who had grown discontent with military rule due to the military establishment’s complacency in growing fat on the spoils of corrupt politicians. They amassed an overwhelming military force and overtook Bangkok without a struggle. However, they neglected to inform King Rama IX beforehand—as had often occurred in previous coups. Without prior knowledge, the Royal Family fled with Prime Minister Prem. This immediately garnered royal support for the government. The government amassed an equally strong force and launched a counter-coup. Without the support of the royalty, the Young Turks surrendered the city peacefully in what came to be known as the April Fool’s Day Coup.
The second coup attempt occurred four years later, in September of 1985, when the Young Turks again tried to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Prem. The founders of the Young Turks—one of who was the Wing Commander—had garnered the support of prominent military officials such as: a Former Prime Minister, a Former Supreme Commander General, a Former Army Chief General, and two Former Air Force Chief Marshalls. Several hundred men armed with 22 tanks attempted to take Bangkok by force before dawn on September 9th. The attempted coup lasted 10 hours. Though the government was able to quell the rebellion, 59 men were injured, and 5 people had died including 2 foreign journalists. 40 army officials were arrested, yet most of the leaders of the Young Turks fled abroad.
In a quirk of irony, it would take Thailand the 12 years that Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien had originally insisted upon before the Thai people would have a free and clear democratic election. In 1988, the Thai National Party won the election thus ending the eight-year administration of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. In his place, they elected Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan.
In his own way, perhaps no other Prime Minister was as forward thinking as Prime Minister Chatichai. 1988 faced the end of the Cold War, and he worked to improve trade relations with Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. His vision was to turn this war-weary land into a marketplace where Asian commerce would thrive.
His political party, the Thai National Party, rebranded itself from a staunch right-wing ideology to a center-right ideology that represented the rising businessmen of all of Thailand. Chatichai expanded telecommunications throughout all of Thailand, reaching to the farthest provinces. He also developed the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand into the “Eastern Economic Corridor”, and he expanded the public transit system in Bangkok. Under this business-minded leadership, the GDP rose 13% each year.
In his efforts, Chatichai empowered provincial businessmen by offering them lucrative government contracts whenever possible, which helped to expand Thailand’s outlying provinces. However, in doing this, Chatichai engendered the resentment of the traditional military and the royal elites that had ruled Thailand from Bangkok for the past century. In addition, he boosted the Parliamentary role in political decision making—thus curtailing the authoritarian power of the Thai military and their traditional administration techniques. This only angered the military and royal elites further.
In addition, the Chatichai Administration was notoriously corrupt with public funds. Nearly any of his cabinet members were free to grab from the public coffers in what the media soon called the “Buffet Cabinet”. His responses to these allegations were the same responses he offered to any unfortunate events—such as the disastrous economic losses and loss of life from Typhoon Gay—which was to downplay any unflattering incidents. This became a point of mockery in popular culture aimed at Prime Minister Chatichai.
On February 23rd, 1991, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, a man named Sunthorn Kongsompong gathered together three prominent Generals and formed the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC). One of those generals, named Suchinda Kraprayoon, would spearhead Thailand’s Coup of 1991. Using the allegations of rampant corruption and “moral decline”, the military charged Prime Minister Chatichai and several of his cabinet members with having incurred “unusual wealth”. They alleged that the Chatichai Administration had become a parliamentary dictatorship, when in fact the actions of the National Peace Keeping Council were simply to maintain the power base within the traditional aristocratic, military, and business elites that had ruled Thailand from Bangkok for the last century.
*Chatichai went into exile for a year, yet he would return the following year when he would reenter Thai political stage.
– Thailand’s Coup of 2006 –
The months that followed showed a great shift in Thai politics. The National Peace Keeping Council elected a civilian named Anand Panyarachun to be an interim Prime Minister. His frank demeanor and anti-corruption stance proved popular among the Thai people. A general election was scheduled for March 1992.
However, the hopeful sentiment soon shifted when the winning coalition elected one of the two leaders of the coup to overthrow Prime Minister Chatichai, a man named Suchinda Kraprayoon. In effect, this established another military state under a puppet democracy like Thailand had endured so often before.
However, Thailand had changed greatly since the days of the first Siamese Coup in 1932. It was an educated, modern country with eyes toward the future. Protests immediately erupted in numbers never before seen in Bangkok. Hundreds of thousands gathered marched in the streets, and at the head of the demonstrations was Major-General Chamlong Srimuang—the former Mayor of Bangkok.
In mid-May, Suchinda tried to suppress the demonstrations by force using military personnel loyal to him, and the protests soon turned to riots. Thousands were arrested and tortured. Hundreds of injuries ensued. Though the official death toll is set at 52, far more likely died for there remain many people missing to this day. After two days of chaos and rage in the streets of Bangkok, King Rama IX called a ceasefire to the violence and summoned Suchinda and Chamlong in front of a televised audience for all of Thailand to see. Shortly after the televised public discourse, Suchinda resigned. This event came to be known as Black May or Bloody May in Thailand.
The King appointed Anand Panyarachun again to serve as an interim Prime Minister until elections could be held in September 1992. The elections that followed would see a peaceful transition of power for the next 15 years. Even in 1996, when Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa was ousted for corruption after a year, the government simply called for early elections. The following year, a constitution called the People’s Constitution was drafted for the first time by a Constitutional Drafting Assembly whose individuals had been elected by the people.
The Constitution of 1997 adjusted Parliament to a bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives and a Senate like in the United States. Measures were taken to increase the stability of elected governments, and many human rights were articulated in the constitution. Later that year, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 struck, and Prime Minister Chavilit took the brunt of the criticism for how he handled the crisis after launching a failed bid to defend the Thai Baht. He was asked to step down, and again former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai took power. Still, the transition remained peaceful through democratic means. Prime Minister Chuan would serve for over 3 years.
Afterward, when elections took place in 2001, a new face would enter Thai politics: Thaksin Shinawatra. A business mogul who had made his fortune by founding the Telecommunications and IT conglomerate Shin Corporation in 1987, and also the mobile phone provider AIS, he founded his own political party in 1998 called the Thai Rak Thai (TRT). He ran against the traditional style of Thai politics, while rallying against political corruption, drugs, and organized crime. He ran the most successful campaign Thailand has ever seen, winning in a landslide victory with 40% of the popular vote—the greatest in the history of their freely-elected National Assembly. This was the man who would lead a new modern Thailand forward into the 21st Century.
Prime Minister Thaksin launched a series of initiatives that have had a lasting effect on Thailand today, and what’s more, he had the time to do it. He was the first Prime Minister in Thai history to be elected democratically and serve out a full term of five years. His initiatives carried the torch that was first lit by Prime Minister Catichai over a decade prior. He expanded Thai infrastructure and helped to stimulate economic growth by promoting small business ventures. He created programs to help rural populations such as microcredit development funds that a village could manage together, and agricultural loans with very low-interest rates. This made him increasingly popular with the rural majority in outlying provinces. Due to these policies, in the five years that he was in office, he increased Thailand’s GDP from 4.9T THB to 7.1T THB. Thailand was able to pay off its debts to the IMF two years ahead of schedule.
Thaksin also launched programs aimed at reducing national poverty. He helped to expand subsidized universal healthcare coverage and he helped to make HIV medication affordable and readily available in Thailand. The program increased healthcare access in Thailand by twenty percent. Whereas once only 76% of the population had access to universal healthcare, now 96% of the population had security in medical care. This program spurred hospitals to seek new sources of income. Hospitals soon found these funds in medical tourism—in effect creating a new lucrative market. Thaksin’s policies ushered in the large boom in medical tourism which is seen in Thailand today.
His approach to energy development was to continue the policies of privatization started by his predecessor, though his approach allowed for conglomerate energy giants to emerge which would be able to withstand massive growth and help to forge a stronger economy. Thaksin decentralized education, breaking the long-standing tradition of the Ministry of Education’s rule over education policies in all of Thailand. He also initiated a massive administrative reform geared toward streamlining bureaucratic ministries and departments, focusing these ministries on pragmatic results and performance over bureaucratic red tape.
However, his approach to politics was not without controversy, when it came to the Southern Thailand Insurgency, his approach was militaristic and authoritarian. When the events of September 11th, 2001 shocked the world, it only motivated Muslim insurgents in the ancient region of Patani. For a historical overview, click here. In response, Thaksin took a firm hand, preferring to meet activism with violence and repression rather than discourse. In addition, Thaksin launched his own “war on drugs”, which took an equally authoritarian approach to drug addiction in Thailand. The program sought to rid the land of drugs by vastly increasing the punishment for drug offenses. Within the first 3 months, over 2,000 people had been killed—twice that of the average drug-related fatalities before him.
Thaksin would win in 2005 in another landslide victory, with even more seats in parliament than in 2001. Furthermore, this election had a higher voter turnout than the last—making it the highest voter turnout to date. However, his opposition was quick to claim that his administration was a parliamentary dictatorship.
Furthermore, he soon came under criticism when a popular talk show host named Sondhi Limthongkul, who had been an ardent Thaksin supporter after his first term, began to change his opinion. Sondhi lobbed two main accusations at Thaksin:
The first was that he had been behind the desecration of the Erawan Shrine, in hopes of furthering his political career through occult rituals. This belief is universally recognized as a blatant falsity. The attack was done by a man with severe psychological issues who was witnessed destroying the statue with a hammer by two street cleaners who then beat the man to death. Even the young man’s father—who was fully aware that his son suffered from mental illness and had received psychiatric treatment for his condition—thought the accusation by Sondhi against Thaksin was ludicrous.
The second was that Thaksin had restricted the freedom of the press when he sued Sondhi for printing the works of a highly-respected monk named Ajahn Maha Bua, who was considered the leader of the Thai Forest tradition.
After the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, in 2001 when the Thai government’s reserves ran perilously low, Ajahn Maha Bua made it his mission to help. He called upon the Thai people to donate to his Thai Forest monastery or else he would leave his earthly body. On the last day of his campaign, people lined up for 5 miles to offer up what they could. By the end of his campaign, he donated 10.2 million USD, as well as 12 tons of gold and jewelry, to Thailand’s coffers. When the government used that money to pay off its debts, Maha Bua was furious claiming that that money was for the direst of emergencies. He called the government ministers, “ravenous ghouls seeking the eat the people’s guts”.
The following year, Thaksin appointed Somdet Phra Phuttacharn to be the abbot of Wat Saket in Bangkok—a monk from a different order—making him the leader of all Thai Buddhist monks. Maha Bua criticized Thaksin, saying that this was a blatant attempt to usurp royal authority and control the Buddhist clergy. He rallied against Thaksin calling for him to resign. It was this sermon that Sondhi published. His allegations that he was sued for publishing the sermon are likely true.
Furthermore, at the start of January 2006, the Shinawatra family sold all their assets in Shin Corporation, netting the family about 73B THB. Thaksin and the rest of his family paid nothing in capital gains taxes because he amended the law to make sure that people paid nothing when selling stocks. He was even accused of selling some public infrastructure in the deal to foreign entities for privatization.
Protests led by Sudhi and Chamlong Srimuang (the former Mayor of Bangkok who had spearheaded the protests against Suchinda 15 years prior) erupted, and tens of thousands gathered outside the Government House in Bangkok. Within weeks, in February of 2006, Thaksin dissolved parliament and forced an early election scheduled in April. Calling snap elections was a political move on his part because it forced politicians to run under the same political party—most of which were under his political party the Thai Rak Thai (and many of which would have changed parties had they had the chance to do so).
He won the elections under dubious circumstances through blatant electoral manipulation by paying smaller parties to contest the elections until he got the desired result. However, the opposing major party—the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—had allegedly paid other smaller parties not to contest the elections. Three rounds of elections took place in April—each previous election getting overturned—until all elections were suspended by the Constitutional Court.
By May 2006, they had annulled the April elections based upon a technicality stating that the voting booths were positioned awkwardly. New elections were called for October of 2006, but the military stepped in before those elections could take place, and they seized power on September 19th. The Thai military forcibly removed Thaksin from politics by taking over the Government House while he was in New York attending a UN Summit. Furthermore, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) was disbanded and banned from participating in Thai politics ever again.
*Thaksin has been indicted for a multitude of charges. He and his family continue to live abroad seeking refuge in different countries around the world which agree to temporarily refuse to extradite him to Thailand. To read this fascinating story, click here.
– Political Crisis of 2008 –
In 2007, the 1997 Constitution was repealed and a new constitution was drafted called The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand Buddhist Era 2550. In December of 2007, new parliamentary elections were held. One political party gained control of the elections, the People’s Power Party (PPP). The PPP was the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) which had managed to rebrand itself and successfully reenter politics under a new name. However, complaints were filed by the other competing party—the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—against the PPP for essentially being a banned political party. Also, one of their leading members was charged with electoral fraud.
2008 would see a polarization of politics, unlike any Thailand had ever endured. On one side were those that supported Thaksin and the PPP, known as the “red shirts”. On the other side were those who opposed Thaksin known as the “yellow shirts”. The red shirts were largely comprised of the rural populace that had been benefited by Thaksin’s policies aimed at helping the impoverished communities of outlying provinces. The red shirts vastly outnumbered the yellow shirts.
The yellow shirts were a loose coalition of ultra-nationalist right-wing populists, middle-class, well-educated urbanites who oppose dictatorship by democracy, anti-government activists critical of Western-style systems run by corrupt politicians, and a minority of royalists who sought to reestablish the monarchy. Yellow shirts were critical of the military’s support for the red shirts—though the yellow shirts were comprised of factions intent on changing the status quo, which would make them the highly-influential Thai military’s natural foe.
A man named Samak Sundaravej was elected to office in January of 2008. He acknowledged being nominated by Thaksin, which only fueled speculation and criticism that Thaksin was running the PPP from exile. The PPP continued in power, aiming to amend the constitution to prevent the dissolution of the PPP—and if possible, to allow Thaksin to return to power. PAD protests erupted in May of 2008, who aimed to support the judicial system in preventing an amendment to the 2007 Constitution.
The Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court both ruled in favor of the PAD’s claims against the PPP. Several ministers were found guilty of violating the constitution, attempted bribery of Supreme Court justices, and electoral fraud—where these individuals were forced to resign. Thaksin, who had returned briefly to Thailand to settle matters and advise the PPP, jumped bail and sought asylum in the UK.
Meanwhile, the PPP’s new budget left Thailand in major debt after approving several mega-projects. So much so that the King of Thailand Rama IX and the head of the Bank of Thailand both spoke out publicly against this matter—warning the public that they were on the brink of an economic crisis due to the approved budget.
30,000 PAD protestors gathered at the Government House of the Prime Minister to protest, which forced the PPP to work from the airport. Soon, riot police delivered a court order to the PAD protesters demanding that they disperse. Instead, 45 guards—led by none other than former Bangkok mayor Chamlong Srimuang—stormed the Government House. Protestors also shut down airports across Thailand grounding flights and stranding or delaying 15,000 passengers.
On August 27th, 8 PAD leaders were charged with insurrection, unlawful assembly, and conspiracy—among them was television personality Sondhi Limthongkul. The military publicly stated that it would not support a coup, and that the Political Crisis of 2008 had to be resolved through political means. Prime Minister Samak called for a parliamentary meeting on August 31st.
On August 29th, PAD protesters laid siege to government buildings, and though Prime Minister Samak tried to use legal means to have them removed, the courts supported their right to protest. Clashes eventually broke out, and 40 people were wounded with 1 fatality.
Indictments eventually caught up to Prime Minister Samak himself, and by late September he was facing charges of slander, abuse of power, and conflict of interest because he was the employee of a private company while being the Prime Minister. Samak was removed from office.
The PPP stood behind Samak however, and they voted in a vast majority to renominate Samak to represent the PPP as the leader of the political party. Five political parties affiliated with the PPP approved the nomination. At this point, several options were on the table as to who would be the new Prime Minister, or if they were better off devising a new ruling body comprised of one single representative from each political party to act in the Prime Minister’s place. Several candidates stepped forward, and even Samak himself resigned as the leader of the PPP in hopes of regaining the premiership. However, Somchai Wongsawat was nominated to be the next PPP candidate for the premiership.
Meanwhile, the August 27th arrest warrants against the leaders of the PAD held firm, and on October 4, 2008, the leaders of the PAD were arrested under the charges of insurrection, illegal assembly, refusing to disperse, treason, and conspiracy. Nevertheless, the siege of the Government House continued. Police fired tear gas and bullets into the crowd, harming 116 demonstrators—21 of which were seriously injured. Some protesters even lost legs. For his role in the greenlighting the attack, Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned stating that he “wanted to show his responsibility for this operation.”
They dispersed, however 5,000 protesters returned to block the exits from the parliament building. In effect, the demonstrators tried to hold 320 ministers and senators hostage inside the parliamentary building. They cut the power to the building. Soon, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was forced to flee by jumping a back fence after addressing parliament.
The police took the brunt of the resentment, where many doctors across several hospitals launched a campaign to refuse treatment to police officers until the police stopped their attack on the citizenry. A counterattack by the protesters was launched against police headquarters which resulted in another wave of injuries and the death of one young female protestor. PAD leaders called for the protesters to keep the siege limited to the Government House, and they called for the mob to remain peaceful. Upon this announcement, calm finally returned to Bangkok.
On November 25th of 2008, the PAD’s siege moved to BKK airport and Don Muang airport. They commandeered the main airport terminal in BKK and held it for over a week while protesters swarmed to the airport in groves. Demonstrators stormed the control tower demanding to know when the Prime Minister’s flight would return from Peru from an APEC Summit that he was attending. PAD demonstrators easily overpowered hundreds of riot police. Appeals for the Royal Thai Army to support them were denied—though the army did issue a statement calling for protesters to disperse and for the government to resign. Neither side complied.
Then the Judicial Branch tried to evict the mob from BKK airport by posting injunction notices outside PAD leader’s homes, however, the leaders did not comply. The siege remained steadfast in its determination.
The government issued a state of emergency, and the Airforce and Navy were then called to remove the protesters from the two airports. The Commander of the Armed Forces refused the call, stating that this was a political matter that was “not appropriate” for a military response. Police set up checkpoints leading into BKK and they confiscated several weapons, however protesters overran one checkpoint forcing the police to withdraw.
On December 2nd, the Constitutional Court dissolved the PPP and the government, and the PAD protesters immediately dispersed. The incoming government was led by the PAD.
*These events are as rich a tale as any told in modern history. Click here to learn more.
– Thailand’s Coup of 2014 –
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected after the protests, and he formed a PAD-led coalition including nominating the PAD’s leader Kasit Piromya as the Foreign Minister of Thailand. During his government, unemployment increased by 63% which heavily affected rural areas accustomed to the growth and prosperity they had had during the Thaksin Administration.
April of 2009 would show another round of polarization as the red shirts protested the new government first in the streets of Bangkok, and then in Pattaya during the ASEAN Summit. When the ASEAN Summit was canceled due to protests, the red shirt leaders were arrested. This only caused the protests in Bangkok to increase in intensity.
The red shirts adopted a similar strategy as the yellow shirts the year before, laying siege in attempts to take control of the Criminal Court where the red shirt leaders were being held. They also laid siege to the Ministry of the Interior. This time, however, the PAD-led government deployed anti-riot troops equipped with armored vehicles. They fired live ammunition to disperse the crowd. Reports state that there were no fatalities, however two bodies were found, and witnesses report several injured.
On May 3rd, PAD Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced that he was willing to hold elections by the 14th of November if the red shirts would stand down peacefully. Though red shirt leaders accepted the proposal, the red shirt protesters refused to disperse. Instead, they demanded that the Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban submit himself to being prosecuted before they would fully disband. The following day, Suthep complied and turned himself into the Department of Special Investigation. Still, the red shirt protesters did not disperse demanding now that he be formally charged before they would disband. When they did not disperse, Prime Minister Abhisit took this to be a rejection of the reconciliatory measures that he had proposed.
Instead, Abhisit formally issues a statement warning the red shirts that if they did not disperse, he would issue a military response. A week later, on May 19th, the red shirts led another protest. Abhisit released the military in a swift military response that killed over 90 demonstrators. This garnered the criticism of international bodies like the United Nations who said that such a violent military response against unarmed protesters was illegal according to international law.
On May 6th of 2011, Abhisit submitted a royal decree to the king to dissolve parliament and hold elections. The date was set for July 3rd. The Pheu Thai Party—which was a third rebranding attempt of the Thaksin-backed TRT Party (which had also been known as the PPP in previous years)—won in a landslide victory. Abhisit stepped down as Prime Minister, however, he did continue to serve as the PAD party leader.
*Abhisit was formally charged with murder for his role in the actions above, but the charges were dropped in 2014.
The new Prime Minister who was elected was none other than Yingluck Shinawatra—Thaksin’s sister. Her administration ruled a relative—if reluctant—peace for two years on a platform of economic revival and reconciliation between the yellow shirts and the red shirts.
Throughout her premiership, she had debated in the House of Representatives concerning how to bring about amnesty—and if possible, how to amend the constitution in favor of the Pheu Thai Party. These attempts at amnesty were taken by yellow shirts and members of the PAD as a way to benefit her brother. Drafts were drawn up and rejected until finally the House of Representatives—who was run by a majority of Pheu Thai Party (PTP)—approved a reading of a draft of a possible amnesty bill in August of 2013.
The streets immediately erupted with yellow shirt protests led by a coalition calling itself the People’s Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism (PEFOT). However, these demonstrations lacked the fervor that had mobilized so many people in 2008.
A committee of 35 members was formed to debate the draft of the amnesty bill. They revised the bill twice, and in its final form, they released a bill that offered blanket amnesty to all parties between the years of 2004 and 2013. This would not only allow Thaksin to be absolved of his corruption charges (and to return home from his self-imposed exile) but also it would exonerate Abhisit and Suthep over their murder charges when firing upon the red shirt protests in 2010. This bill was approved by the committee on October 18th, 2013. Then it was passed by the PTP-led House of Representatives on November 1st, 2013, at a special session held quietly at 04:00.
Immediately, protests on both sides erupted, neither side happy that the other side was offered amnesty, and equally discontented with the fact that the amnesty bill had been passed in a predawn session where demonstrations were unable to take place. Institutions, organizations, and universities on both sides released statements condemning the bill. Protests on both sides erupted on the streets of Bangkok.
Despite this, the bill was not unpopular in the great scheme of the Thai population. Surveys conducted demonstrated that the Thai people had grown weary of the political upheaval, and many people thought this amnesty bill might achieve that.
With this in mind, Prime Minister Yingluck released a statement to the Senate (which still had yet to approve the bill in order to become a law) urging them to consider the people’s wishes instead of their own political vendettas. Prime Minister Yingluck also included in the statement a promise not to submit another bill if the Senate was to reject the proposed amnesty bill. On 11th of November, 2013, the Senate rejected the proposed amnesty bill unanimously.
Despite the bill’s unanimous rejection, protests continued on the streets of Bangkok. Eight PAD leaders—including Former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep himself—resigned from their political positions to lead demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok. The strikes slowly came to represent an anti-government agenda, criticizing Yingluck’s cabinet overall for being run from afar by an exiled Thaksin. A multitude of organizations formally joined the protests.
A month later, Prime Minister Yingluck—faced with violence on both sides—dissolved the House of Representatives and scheduled an election for February 2nd of 2014. In response, demonstrations disrupted the election canceling it with hopes of postponing it. Yet the election never took place.
Instead, the Constitutional Court nullified the election on March 21st, 2014. By May 7th, 2014, the Constitutional Court had voted unanimously to remove Yingluck and nine of her cabinet on the grounds that they transferred a top security officer in 2011 illegally—in reality, it was another pragmatic excuse to enact political change.
Despite Yingluck’s removal and an interim Deputy Prime Minister having been appointed, the violence on the streets of Bangkok did not subside. Less than two weeks later, on May 20th, 2014, General Prayut Chan-o-cha—citing a law decreed by Rama VI in 1914—declared Martial Law throughout Thailand.
*For a comprehensive look at a timeline of the events that led to the newest military junta, and the violence that erupted on both sides, click here.
– Looking Forward to the Thai Elections –
For the past 5 years, a military junta has governed Thailand led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha himself. This has been the longest standing military junta in Thai history. In January of this year, an election day has been scheduled for March 24th, 2019. Already, early voter registration has crashed machines due to the sheer number of people applying to register in anticipation of the 2019 election in Thailand. Three main candidates appear to be running:
- General Prayut Chan-o-cha himself is running as an Independent Candidate for a newly-fashioned pro-junta party called the Phalang Pracharat Party
- Sudarat Keyuraphan is running as the candidate for the Pheu Thai Party
- Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is running as the Democratic PAD candidate
Despite these elections, doubt remains as to whether any candidate can stabilize the erratic nature of Thai politics. Though the political magma may have cooled in the last five years, the cavern that exists in Thai politics has been well forged.
Over the last five years, the junta has taken steps to increase the likelihood of their own party winning, yet these steps also increase the likelihood of a civilian backlash should they win. Legitimacy concerns over another military dictatorship loom heavy in the memory of the people, yet neither the red shirts nor the yellow shirts can secure power without the support of the military.
Furthermore, without the stabilizing force that Rama IX set after his death in 2016, the stakes of the game seem even greater. With the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn delaying his acceptance of the title as Rama X until after a period of mourning for his father, the people may be on their own in this election—especially if the military ends up favoring their own position over the will of the people.
History has shown that Thai elections are never a destination, but another step in the tumultuous terrain of Thai politics. One thing is certain: the world is watching.
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