MILITARY RULE IN THAILAND AFTER WORLD WAR II

MILITARY RULE AND COUPS IN THAILAND

In Thailand, even when a civilian government is in power the military plays a powerful role behind the scenes. Military officers have staged by one count 20 coups—11 of them successful—since parliamentary democrat was established in 1932. By most counts The military has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy as of 2014. The last ones were in 1991 and 2006. Between 1932 and 2012 there have been 23 military governments and nine military-dominated governments. Political or economic problems were usually offered as an excuse for staging the coups.

After the death of Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat in 1963, Field Martial Thanom Kittikachorn and military commander Prapas Charusathiara established the "Thanom-Prapas System," in which they controlled appointments to major positions in the government and military. In 1971, Thanon seized power in a military coup, established a dictatorship, disbanded political parties, and abolished the constitution.

Military governments have been given credit for improving education and health. Literary increased and infant mortality decreased during the years in power. However, they could be quite brutal when they felt violence was necessary. Thanom was blamed for the bloody crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1970s. He served three terms as prime minister and ruled mostly under martial between 1963 and 73 and was a staunch ally of the United States during the Vietnam War.

A military coup in March 1977 was defeated but another one in October 1977 successfully overthrew the government of Thanin Kraivichien, appointed in 1976. Adm. Sangad Chaloryoo, the previous defense minister and leader of the coup was installed as chairman of a National Administrative Reform Council (NARC)—the military revolutionary body that claimed leadership of Thailand. In April 1981, an attempted coup led by Gen. Sant Chipatima, deputy commander in chief of the army, was suppressed by forces loyal to the government. In September 1985, a coup was attempted by Cl. Manoon Roopkachorn. A number of senior officers were later arrested.

Although there was high economic growth during the years of military rule the Thai generals stayed out of the fray during times of economic crisis. Explaining why military stood by the sidelines during the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, Gen. Chettaa Thanajaro told the New York Times, "The coup d'état is outdated. The more time passes, the more it is obsolete. My soldiers must stay completely out of politics." Harvey Couch, a military expert at the Australia national University, added, "these economic troubles are complex, global matters that are well beyond them. So they defer to the technocrats."

Thailand After World War II

A new government that came to power at the end of World War II was headed by Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian linked politically with conservatives like Seni. The most influential figure in the regime, however, was Pridi, whose anti-Japanese views were increasingly attractive to the Thai. In the last year of the war, Allied agents were tacitly given free access by Bangkok. As the war came to an end, Thailand repudiated its wartime agreements with Japan. The civilian leaders, however, were unable to achieve unity. After a falling-out with Pridi, Khuang was replaced as prime minister by the regent's nominee, Seni, who had returned to Thailand from his post in Washington. The scramble for power among factions in late 1945 created political divisions in the ranks of the civilian leaders that destroyed their potential for making a common stand against the resurgent political force of the military in the postwar years. [Source: Library of Congress]

Postwar accommodations with the Allies also weakened the civilian government. As a result of the contributions made to the Allied war efforts by the Free Thai Movement, the United States, which unlike the other Allies had never officially been at war with Thailand, refrained from dealing with Thailand as an enemy country in postwar peace negotiations. Before signing a peace treaty, however, Britain demanded war reparations in the form of rice for shipment to Malaya, and France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations (UN) until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned. The Soviet Union insisted on the repeal of anticommunist legislation.

The government set up an agency to manage the delivery of rice as part of Thai war reparations. These reparations were initially to total 1.5 million tons, or approximately 10 percent of the annual yield, but the figure was adjusted downward, and the reparations were paid off within two years. However, the government retained the policy of regulating the rice trade as an income-producing device.

Civilian Thai Government Under Pridi After World War II

Shortly after World War II, Seni Pramoj briefly served as prime minister. The Seni government survived only until the peace treaty with Britain was signed in January 1946. Public discontent grew—the result of inflation, the reparation payments to the British, the surrender of territorial gains that many Thai considered to have been legitimate, and mismanagement at every level of government. Pridi restored Khuang to office for a time but in March 1946 was obliged to assume the prime ministership himself in an effort to restore confidence in the civilian regime. [Source: Library of Congress]

Pridi, who argued that the strength of any civilian regime depended on a functioning parliament, worked with his cabinet to draft a new constitution that established parliamentary structures. The constitution, promulgated in May 1946, called for a bicameral legislature. The lower house the House of Representatives, was elected by popular vote; the upper house, the Senate, was elected by the lower house. This constitution was tailor made for Pridi's purposes, ensuring him a parliamentary majority that would support his programs.

The 1946 election, which had in fact preceded enactment of the constitution, was the first in which political parties participated. Two coalition parties--Pridi's own party, the Constitutional Front, and the Cooperation Party--won a large majority of seats in the lower house and, in turn, sent a proPridi majority to the upper house. Parliamentary opposition was led by the Democrat (Prachathipat) Party, headed by Seni and Khuang.

Tragic Death of King Rama VIII

Pridi's prestige suffered permanent damage two weeks after the election of the upper house, when King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII, ruled 1935–46), who had returned from Switzerland a few months earlier, was found dead in his bed at the palace, a bullet wound through his head. Although the official account attributed the king's death to an accident, there was widespread doubt because few facts were made public. Rumors implicated Pridi. Two months later, in August, Pridi resigned on grounds of ill health and went abroad, leaving Luang Thamrongnawasawat as prime minister. [Source: Library of Congress]

The circumstance of Ananda’s death have never been properly explained. I guess neither a suicide or a murder or even an accident looks good. Some Thais believe he was assassinated by a Japanese spy. The dead king’s pearl-handled revolver was found nearby. King Bhumibol himself said, “It was not an accident, not a suicide, but what happened is very mysterious...it is political.”

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Although there was apparently no physical evidence to suggest assassination, three of Ananda’s attendants were arrested two years after his death and executed in 1954. No public charges were ever filed, and the consensus among historians today is that the attendants were ‘sacrificed’ to settle a karmic debt for allowing the king to die during their watch.... Nowadays no-one ever speaks or writes publicly about Ananda’s death – whether it was a simple gun accident or a regicidal plot remains unclear. A booked entitled A Short History of Thailand by David Wyatt had to remove a chapter on the matter before it was allowed to be published in Thailand in 1993. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

The late king's younger brother, nineteen-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, ruled 1946-), was chosen as successor to the throne. The new king was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927, had spent the war in Switzerland and returned there after a brief first visit to Thailand in 1945. He did not return to Bangkok to take up his kingly duties until 1951, following a government-engineered coup.

Rise of Phadun After the 1946 Election

As a result of Pridi's fall from grace and the manner in which the civilian government that succeeded him handled the investigation of the king's death, Phibun's military faction regained some of the stature that it had lost through its wartime association with the Japanese. Reviving the nationalistic theme of its years in power, Phibun's group played on intense public resentment of the war reparations Thailand had to pay and the economic dislocation the payments were believed to have caused. Army officers also blamed the civilian government for a humiliation the military suffered in 1946 when their units, facing expatriated Chinese Guomindang (Kuomintang--KMT) forces in the north, were ordered to disband in the field and were left without supplies or transport. They also criticized the civilian government's conciliatory policy toward minorities--Chinese, Muslims, and hill tribes.

Phibun had been arrested as a war criminal in 1945 but was released by the courts soon afterward. Always an efficient leader and known as a staunch anticommunist, Phibun had retained his constituency of supporters in the officer corps. Even the civilian elite, dismayed at the economic disorder and frightened at the rise of communist insurgencies in neighboring countries, regarded him as an attractive candidate for office. Some observers contended that his rehabilitation had been due to United States influence.

A coup in November 1947 ousted the civilian leaders, and Phibun took over as prime minister in April 1948. In 1951, Phibun lead another military coup and restored the 1932 version of the constitution. Phibun ruled with an iron fist and made few excuses for his iron rule. In 1958, following a coup led by Gen. Sarit Thanarat, politician Pote Sarasin was appointed leader of the interim government.

November 1947 Coup and Phibun’s Policies and Struggle to Hold on to Power

In November 1947, the so-called Coup d'Etat Group, led by two retired generals and backed by Phibun, seized power from the civilian government. Pridi, who had recently returned from his world tour, fled the country again and eventually took refuge in China. The coup leaders appointed an interim government headed by Khuang and promised a new constitution. General elections held in January 1948 confirmed support for the junta, particularly the Phibun faction. In order to placate conservative civilian supporters, Khuang was retained as prime minister until he proved too independent in his policies. In April 1948, Phibun--by then a field marshal--forcibly removed Khuang from office and took over as prime minister. [Source: Library of Congress]

For the next three years Phibun struggled to maintain his government against numerous attempted coups by rival military factions. To build support, he allowed disaffected political groups, including Khuang's conservative Democrat Party, to participate in drafting a new constitution, which was promulgated in 1949. When leaders of an anti-Phibun army group were arrested in October 1948, supporters of former prime ministers Pridi and Khuang in the navy and the marines were not seized. In February 1949, a revolt allegedly sponsored by Pridi supporters in the marines and navy was suppressed after three days of fighting. In June 1951, marine and navy troops again rebelled and abducted Phibun. The revolt, which was put down by loyal army and air force units, resulted in a serious cutback of navy strength and a purge of senior naval officers.

Phibun's policies during his second government (1948-57) were similar to those he had initiated in the late 1930s. He restored the use of the name Thailand in 1949. (In reaction to extreme nationalism, there had been a reversion to the name Siam in 1946.) Legislation to make Thai social behavior conform to Western standards--begun by Phibun before the war--was reintroduced. Secondary education was improved, and military appropriations were substantially increased. The Phibun regime was also characterized by harassment of Chinese and the tendency to regard them as disloyal and, after 1949, as communists.

Phibun's anticommunist position had great influence on his foreign policy. Thailand refused to recognize the People's Republic of China, supported in action in Korea in 1950, and backed the French against communist insurgents in Indochina. Phibun's Thailand was regarded as the most loyal supporter of United States foreign policy in mainland Southeast Asia.

November 1951 Coup

By 1951 Phibun had begun to share political power with two associates who had participated with him in the 1947 coup that overthrew the civilian regime. One of these was General Phao Siyanon, director general of police and a close associate of Phibun since the original coup of 1932. The other, more junior, partner was General Sarit Thanarat, commander of the Bangkok garrison. As time passed, Phibun's stock within the military declined as a result of the plots against him. Phao and Sarit grew more powerful than Phibun, who was able to retain the prime ministership only because of their rivalry for the succession. [Source: Library of Congress]

In November 1951, military and police officers announced in a radiobroadcast that the 1949 constitution was suspended by the government and that the 1932 constitution was in force. The reason given for restoring a unicameral parliament with half its membership appointed by the government was the danger of communist aggression. Shortly after the government-engineered coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was called back to Thailand, and for the first time since 1935 an adult monarch resided in the palace in Bangkok. A revised constitution was promulgated in February 1952, and an election was held for seats in the new, single-house legislature, half of the members of which were to be appointed. Nearly all the appointed parliamentary members were army officers.

Anti-Communism, Rice Policy and Thailand Under Phibun in the Early 1950s

The Phibun-Phao-Sarit triumvirate continued to operate along the policy lines of the previous five years. In November 1952, the police announced the discovery of a communist plot against the government and began a series of arrests of Chinese. Many Chinese schools were closed and Chinese associations banned. The campaign against communists, with its anti-Chinese emphasis, gathered momentum throughout 1953. [Source: Library of Congress]

Phibun’s traditional anticommunist position led to Thailand’s continued recognition of Taiwan. Thailand also provided ground, naval, and air units to the United Nations (UN) forces fighting during the Korean War (1950–53; Thai forces continued to serve in South Korea until 1972). Phibun brought Thailand into the new Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. In 1954 Thailand participated in the Manila meeting that resulted in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, of which the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was the operative arm. The next year SEATO, which made its headquarters at Bangkok, was offered the use of military bases in Thailand. Relations with the United States continued to be cordial during this period, and substantial amounts of American economic, technical, and military aid were provided.

In 1955 the Thai government had imposed a restrictive export tax on rice--the controversial rice premium--and required that traders purchase rice export licenses. The ultimate goal of this tax was to nurture Thailand's developing industries and to discourage rice production. The government hoped the tax on tonnage of rice exported would drive the price of Thai rice in the world market beyond a competitive level, thus discouraging exports. The government then purchased the rice that could not be sold abroad to create a public rice reserve and sold it on the domestic market at artificially low prices.

By providing low-cost rice, the government hoped to hold down the cost of living in urban areas and prevent demands for higher wages, thereby making Thai industrial production more competitive on world markets. It also argued that the rice policy would encourage diversification in the agricultural sector as traditional rice farmers in the central plain turned to other cash crops--maize, sugarcane, and pineapple. Export controls had no effect however, on rice farmers in the North and Northeast, who produced glutinous rice for local consumption only. Introduction of the rice premium fundamentally altered the liberal policy toward free trade that had been in place since the Bowring Treaty, and it cast the Thai government in an activist economic role, such as that advocated by the nationalists since 1932.

Opponents of the rice policy charged that the rice premium was an excessive tax that ultimately placed the heaviest burden on small farmers in the central plain engaged in growing rice for export, who were deprived of an increase in real income and were prevented from sharing in the benefits of Thailand's economic boom in the 1960s. Lacking incentive to increase their production, farmers planted less and refrained from introducing improved seeds or using costly fertilizers. Government officials, however, predicted that as rice production increased abroad, world and domestic prices would come together and end the need for the rice premium.

Phibun's Experiment with "Democracy" Ends with His Ouster in a 1957 Coup

The struggle for control of the Thai government continued, meanwhile, and Phibun attempted to offset Sarit's advantage among the military by generating popular support for himself. In 1955 he toured the United States and Britain and, on his return to Thailand, articulated a policy of prachathipatai ("democracy"), which he stated he was giving to the country as a gift. Encouraging the public to feel free to criticize his "open regime," he set aside a portion of a central park near the royal palace in Bangkok for public debate, in emulation of Hyde Park in London, and gave the press free rein in covering the dissent expressed there. Criticism, especially as it appeared in the press, was outspoken and often extreme in its attacks on the government. In addition to encouraging criticism, Phibun halted the anti-Chinese campaign, made plans to increase the responsibilities of local government, and again permitted political parties to register. Phibun intended more to convey the appearance of democracy, however, than to allow for its functional development. [Source: Library of Congress]

Phao and Phibun devoted much effort to ensuring a government victory in the general election scheduled for February 1957. Phao headed a newly founded government party, the Seri Manangkhasila, which was the largest and best funded of the twenty-five parties that had sprung up in response to prachathipatai. Sarit, on the other hand, kept out of the campaign and, after the election, dissociated himself from the disappointing results, which gave the Seri Manangkhasila a bare majority but saw half of the incumbent party members defeated. Sarit and others questioned even these returns and accused the government party of stuffing ballot boxes. When university students came out in great numbers to protest the government's handling of the elections, Phibun declared a state of emergency and shelved prachathipatai.

Phibun had failed to win the popular support that he had sought, and the effort cost him what remained of his standing among the military faction. As a result of the election, Phibun formed a new government in March 1957, appointing Phao as interior minister with responsibility for internal security. However, it was Sarit, whose prestige had not been at stake in the election, who as newly named armed forces commander in chief emerged as the strongest member of the ruling group. In September he openly broke with his colleagues, ordered tanks into the streets, and displaced Phibun and Phao in a bloodless coup d'etat. He suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. The king approved Sarit's action; the royal family had opposed Phibun since the 1930s.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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