POLITICAL UPHEAVAL AND BLOODY PROTESTS OVER MILITARY RULE IN THAILAND IN THE 1970s

NOVEMBER 1971 COUP IN THAILAND

The government of Prime Minister Thanom that came to power after the 1968 elections had to respond to numerous issues: a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, communist guerrillas operating in jungle areas north of the Thai-Malaysian border, the successes of communist forces in Vietnam and Laos, and other regional unrest and protests against the government. [Source: Library of Congress]

In November 1971, Thanom executed a coup against his own government, thereby ending the three-year experiment with what had passed for parliamentary democracy. The 1968 constitution was suspended, political parties banned, and undisguised military rule imposed on the country. Under the new regime, executive and legislative authority was held by a military junta, the National Executive Council. Heading the council was a triumvirate that included Thanom, who retained the office of prime minister; Field Marshal Praphat Charusathian, his deputy prime minister; and Thanom's son (also Praphat's son-in- law), Narong Kittikachorn, an army colonel.

Despite stern moves to suppress opposition, popular dissatisfaction with the dictatorial regime mounted in the universities and labor organizations as well as among rival military factions. The discontent focused on United States support for Thanom, the growth of Japanese economic influence, and the official corruption that the regime made no effort to conceal. The civilian political elite joined students and workers in opposing Thanom's apparent aim to perpetuate a political dynasty through his son, Narong, whose rise the officer corps particularly resented. Thanom's aggrandizement of his family was at odds with the image he tried to project and the standards of the "civic religion" with its call for veneration of "NationReligion -King." The triumvirate also ignored the king, who had moderated his earlier enthusiasm for Thanom, and opponents charged that the junta disregarded religion. Some critics detected signs of republicanism in the regime and feared another Thanom-sponsored coup to overthrow the monarchy.

Bloody Demonstration in 1973 End of Thanom Regime

In December 1972, Thanom announced a new interim constitution that provided for a totally appointed legislative assembly, two- thirds of the members of which would be drawn from the military and police. This move led to popular dissatisfaction among university students and organized labor, accompanied by growing anti-U.S. sentiments. Some feared Thanom would even overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic.

In May and June 1973, students and workers rallied in the streets to demand a more democratic constitution and genuine parliamentary elections. Among the complaints that got the protests going was the influence of Japanese companies and the presence of American military personnel in Thailand. By early October, there was renewed violence, protesting the detention of eleven students arrested for handing out antigovernment pamphlets. The demonstrations grew in size and scope as students demanded an end to the military dictatorship.

On October 13, 1973 thousands of workers and students took to the streets in an effort to topple the government led by three dictators. More than 250,000 people rallied in Bangkok before the Democracy Memorial, in the largest demonstration of its kind in Thai history, to press their grievances against the government. By one estimate 500,000 people joined the demonstrations on Rajdamneon Avenue.

The next day—October 14, 1973— troops opened fire on the demonstrators. The violence began after a student leader was arrested. Thai troops occupied the campus of Thammasat University. Helicopters landed on city streets and soldiers opened fired indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators, killing 77 people and injuring 444 over a three day period.

King Bhumibol, who had been seeking Thanom's ouster, took a direct role in dealing with the crisis in order to prevent further bloodshed. The crisis ended, along with the Thanom government, when, against the advise of his bodyguards, the king ordered the gates of the Grand Palace to be opened to students being shot at by the army. "If the military tried to get rid of him," a Thai scholar said about the King, "you would have millions of Thais ripping them apart with their bare hands."

King Bhumibol called Thanom and his cabinet to Chitralada Palace for talks. In the evening, the king went on television and radio to announce a compromise solution: Thanom had resigned as prime minister but would remain as supreme commander of the armed forces. In consultation with student leaders, the king appointed Sanya Dharmasakti (Sanya Thammasak) as interim prime minister, with instructions to draft a new constitution. Sanya, a civilian conservative, was the rector of Thammasat University and known to be sympathetic to the students' position. On October 15, Thanom, Praphat, and Narong--dubbed Thailand's "three most hated men"-- were allowed to leave the country in secret, the king overruling student militants who wanted to put them on trial. Their departure was announced to the public only after they had left the country, Praphat and Narong for Taiwan and Thanom initially for the United States. [Source: Library of Congress]

The student demonstrations of 1973 and is now marked with a national holiday called Democracy Day and is widely seen as a key event in the movement to bring democracy to Southeast Asia. The protests had not been intended as a prelude to a revolution. They resulted, at least in part, from the frustration of large numbers of students who were unable to fulfill professional expectations after graduation, partly because university enrollment had increased dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s. Students were careful, however, to legitimize their actions against the military dictatorship by an appeal to religion and the monarchy, displaying in the streets the symbols of the "civic religion"—figures of Buddha, pictures of the king, and the national flag.

New Government After the Bloody 1973 Demonstrations

The 1973 uprising toppled the Thanom regime. It produced a brief period of democracy that was followed by another bloody uprising and crackdown at Thamasat University in 1976. Prime Minister Sanya, who was appointed by King Bhumibol after Thanon’s ouster, gave full credit to the student movement for bringing down the military dictatorship. At the state ceremony honoring those who had been killed during the 1973 demonstrations, he pledged, "Their death has brought us democracy which we will preserve forever." However, political change in Thailand did not bring the shift to the left that had been hoped for by some and feared by many. Student militants, who already felt betrayed by the king's complicity in Thanom's escape, were not satisfied with the direction taken by the new government, which seemed to have been preempted by the professional politicians. [Source: Library of Congress]

The new constitution, which went into effect in October 1974, called for a popularly elected House of Representatives and elections within 120 days. Political parties proliferated following the passage in 1974 of legislation permitting their registration. As a result, the January 1975 parliamentary elections were inconclusive. With forty-two officially sanctioned parties in the field, none won a parliamentary majority. The parties for the most part had been organized around familiar political personalities, and few had offered any ideological base or even specific programs. Only 47 percent of eligible voters cast ballots; public cynicism about politicians and improper management of voter registration were blamed for the relatively low turnout. According to observers, however, the election was not openly corrupt.

The elections were inconclusive. They put a large bloc of right-wing and centrist parties in control of nearly 90 percent of the seats. None could be described as reformist, and, to a degree, all represented the status quo. On the left, a small and inexperienced but idealistic group advocated land redistribution and favored neutrality in foreign affairs. The conservative Seni Pramoj, whose Democrat Party was the largest in the right-wing bloc, formed a shaky government that could depend on only 91 of the 269 votes in the House of Representatives.

The government of Seni Pramoj lasted less than a month, after failing to win a vote of confidence. In March Seni's brother, Kukrit Pramoj, leader of the small, right-wing Social Action (Kit Sangkhom) Party, was able to put together a more stable centrist coalition. During his year in office, Kukrit proposed such reforms as decentralizing economic planning to put development in the hands of locally elected committees, but measures of this nature were repeatedly defeated as members of the National Assembly rallied to protect their vested interests. The Kukrit government lasted until January 1976. Seni returned as prime minister but only until October 1976, when violent student demonstrations were suppressed by security forces, and Seni was ousted. A military junta then took control of the government, declared martial law, annulled the constitution, banned political parties, and strictly censored the media.

Agricultural and Economic Issues in Thailand in the 1970s

In addition to political changes, both in its own government and in its relationship with other powers, Thailand also experienced economic shifts. Kukrit's government was plagued by labor unrest and rising prices. The economic boom that had spurred employment and produced an apparent prosperity in the 1960s fizzled with the phasing out of United States military expenditures in Thailand. Furthermore, the impressive economic growth was insufficient to keep pace with the growth of the population, which had increased from 26 million in 1960 to 34 million in 1970. Although agricultural yield per hectare remained static, agricultural production kept up with population growth during the 1960s and 1970s because the amount of land under cultivation doubled during that period. Arable land reserves were being used up by the mid-1970s, however, except in the southern peninsula. [Source: Library of Congress]

Moreover, although increasing rice production had indeed brought together world and domestic rice prices, as government leaders of the 1960s had predicted, the premium nevertheless remained in effect. Its purpose now was to augment government revenues. More than US$40 million was derived from the rice premium in 1975, much of it earmarked, according to government sources, for agricultural development schemes as a form of income distribution.

The low incomes imposed by the rice premium and the lack of available credit adversely affected small owner-operated farms in the central plain's rice bowl that produced for the export market. Farmers left the land either to become wage laborers on large farms or to secure industrial and service jobs in the cities. This migration to the cities was evident in the dramatic growth of the Bangkok-Thon Buri metropolitan area, where population exploded by 250 percent in the 1960s and 1970s to exceed 4.5 million in 1980.

Political Upheaval and Chaos in Thailand in the 1970s

Maintaining order was the most pressing problem facing the parliamentary regime and the most difficult one to resolve. For one thing, the communist-inspired insurgency persisted and generated a mistrust of all dissidents. The radicalization of the student movement was attributed to communist influence, and student leaders were regularly accused of being agents for Beijing and Hanoi. Particularly after the fall of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, all dissidents were likely to be labeled communists by the military and by right-wing politicians. Even in moderate government circles, misgivings were expressed about continued student activism and the growth of militancy against the monarchy. In April 1975, fourteen labor organizers and student leaders were arrested under anticommunist legislation used for the first time since Thanom's overthrow. [Source: Library of Congress]

Adding to these political tensions were the plethora of new newspapers that came into existence after censorship and restrictions on the press were lifted in 1973. Although most were too small to be economically viable, they gave a voice to political factions of every persuasion and produced a cacophony with which many had difficulty coping. News reporting was a low priority for many newspapers, some of which operated solely as rumor mills engaging in extortion and blackmail. Government officials admitted that they were intimidated by the press.

Political murders and bombing became commonplace as open warfare broke out between leftist students and workers and rightist paramilitary groups, the latter openly supported by the police. In August 1975, police in Bangkok, striking to protest government weakness toward leftist students, went on a rampage through the Thammasat University campus. Several senior military officers and civilian conservatives formed the ultranationalist Nawa Phon (New Force) movement to defend "Nation-Religion-King" against the students, and by mid-1975 it claimed 50,000 members. A group of paramilitary vigilantes, the Red Gaurs (Red Bulls), recruited 25,000 members, largely unemployed vocational graduates and technical students, to disrupt student rallies and break strikes. The group was believed to have been organized by the police as an unofficial auxiliary. Another right-wing group with similar origins was the Village Scouts (Luk Sua Chaoban; literally, "village tiger cubs").

Right-wing power grew early in 1976, as pressure from the military forced Kukrit to resign after he had pressed corruption charges against army officers. Violence during the parliamentary election campaign the following April left more than thirty dead, including Socialist Party leader Bunsanong Bunyothanyan, and the new alignment in the House of Representatives brought back Seni Pramoj of the Democrat Party as prime minister at the head of a four-party, right-wing coalition.

Thai Communist Insurgents

The strategic headquarters of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) form 1967 to 1982 was Phu Hin Rong Kla in what is now Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park (130 kilometers from Phitsanulok). The base was only 50 kilometers from Laos where the guerillas could retreat to, and 300 kilometers from China, where they received training. The camp became especially active after the 1976 student demonstrations in Bangkok left hundreds dead and provided a steady stream of new recruits. By 1978 the groups numbers had grown to 4,000.

For nearly two decades the area was a combat zone between the Royal Thai Army and the CPT. Phu Hin Rong Kla was the perfect location for the CPT to fight the military. Its remote, closed mountainous area was superb for an elusive defense. It was not until 1982 that the conflict was overcome when the government granted amnesty to all the students who had joined the CPT. In 1984, Phu Hin Rong Kla was declared a National Park. During the peak of CPT’s power it ran a hospital and a school of political and political tactics. Living quarters, an air-raid shelter and other facilities were set up.

By the 1990s former CPT leaders were running resort hotels in towns near the jungles they once occupied. Today, visitors to Phu Hin Rong Kla can travel along the parks main road to witness the remains of a rustic meeting hall, the political school, and the administration building.

Bloody Right Versus Left Demonstrations in 1976

In August 1976 Praphat reappeared in Thailand and was received by the king. Although Seni asserted that he could not legally deport him, the former dictator's presence provoked widespread demonstrations that forced his return to Taiwan. The next month, however, Thanom was back in Thailand, garbed in a monk's robe and expressing his intention to enter a monastery. Despite renewed protests, the demoralized government allowed him to stay.

Political tensions between leftist and rightist forces reached a bloody climax in October 1976 when leftist demonstrators began staging peaceful demonstrations at Thammasat University in Bangkok to protest the return of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikajorn. . On October 5, right-wing newspapers in the capital published a photograph of student demonstrators at Thammasat University reenacting the strangling and hanging of two student protestors by police the previous month. The photograph, which was later found to have been altered, showed one of the students as being made up to resemble the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The right wing perceived the demonstration as a damning act of lèse-majeste. That evening police surrounded the campus of Thammasat University, where 2,000 students were holding a sit-in. Fighting between students and police (including contingents of the paramilitary Border Patrol Police) broke out.

The following day—October 6, 1976—police, soldiers and right-wing mobs and vigilante groups such as the Nawa Phon, Red Gaurs, and Village Scouts "shock troops" surged onto the campus and launched a bloody assault in which 46 people were killed and hundreds of students were wounded and more than 1,000 arrested. That evening the military seized power, established the National Administrative Reform Council (NARC), and ended that phase of Thailand's intermittent experimentation with democracy.

The behavior of the vigilantes, allegedly egged on by Samak Sundaravej—the prime minister of Thailand in 2008—was particularly appalling. Following the right wing motto of the time—“It’s no sin to kill communists”—they beat up and hanged students and set them ablaze, in some cases publically mutilating the bodies and dragging them around the university soccer field. In one case two labor activists working for state power plants were hung by a group of pro-government right-wing thugs to teach other workers a lesson, What was also shocking was the failure of authorities to intervene.

Military Rule and a Limited Democracy After the Bloody 1976 Demonstratiion

With the support of the king and the military membership of NARC, a new government was formed under the prime ministership of Thanin Kraivichien, a former Supreme Court justice who had a reputation for honesty and integrity. Though a civilian, Thanin was a passionate anticommunist and established a regime that was in many ways more repressive than those of earlier military strongmen. He imposed strict censorship, placed unions under tight controls, and carried out anticommunist purges of the civil service and education institutions. Student leaders, driven underground by the October 1976 violence, left urban areas to join the communist insurgency in the provinces. As a result of his harsh rule and a growing feeling within the political elite that university students, themselves members of the privileged classes, had been poorly treated. [Source: Library of Congress]

A military coup in March 1977 was defeated but another one in October 1977 successfully overthrew the Thanin government. Adm. Sangad Chaloryoo, the previous defense minister and leader of the coup was installed as chairman of a National Administrative Reform Council (NARC)—a powerful military revolutionary body.

Thanin was replaced in October 1977 by General Kriangsak Chomanand. Kriangsak was more conciliatory than his civilian predecessor and promised a new constitution and elections by 1979. He courted moderate union leaders, raising the minimum daily wage in the Bangkok area in 1978 and again in 1979. He allowed limited press freedom, and he gave verbal support to the idea of land reform, though no action in this area was forthcoming. In September 1978, he issued an amnesty for the "Bangkok 18" dissidents who had been arrested in the October 1976 violence and tried by military courts. During the late 197-s freedoms of speech and the press were curtailed and a strict curfew was enforced in Bangkok. Any person found on the streets after 1:00pm. Cummings wrote, risked being thrown into a mosquito-infested “detention center.”

A new constitution was promulgated in December 1978. The 1978 Constitution established a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly, consisting of the popularly elected House of Representatives (301 members) and the appointed Senate (225 members). The military controlled appointment to the Senate, and it could block House of Representatives initiatives in important areas such as national security, the economy, the budget, and votes of no confidence. The 1978 document also stipulated that the prime minister and cabinet ministers did not have to be popularly elected. When elections were held on schedule in April 1979, moderate rightist parties--the Social Action Party, the Thai Citizens' Party, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party--won the largest number of seats, whereas the Democrats lost most of their seats.

Further changes came during 1979 and 1980, however, as economic conditions deteriorated in the wake of the second oil crisis. Uncontrolled inflation caused the standard of living to fall in urban areas, especially Bangkok, while government dilatoriness and corruption in the villages stalled policies designed to help the farmers. In February 1980, the Kriangsak government announced sudden increases in the prices of oil, gas, and electricity. This action provoked opposition from elected politicians and demonstrations similar to those of 1973 by students and workers. As opposition grew, Kriangsak resigned. In March 1980, General Prem Tinsulanonda, who had been army commander in chief and defense minister, became prime minister with the support of younger officers of the armed forces and civilian political leaders.

Foreign Relations with Cambodia and Vietnam in the Late 1970s and Early 1980s

Beginning in 1977, the Thai government under Prime Minister Kriangsak had sought a rapprochement with Indochina's new communist states. Trade agreements and a transit accord were signed with Laos in 1978. In September of that year, Pham Van Dong, premier of Vietnam, visited Bangkok and gave assurances that his government would not support a communist insurgency within Thailand. Troubles on the Thai-Cambodian border, including assaults on Thai border villages by Cambodian forces, however, continued to disrupt relations with Democratic Kampuchea.

Vietnam's invasion of Democratic Kampuchea in December 1978 initiated a new crisis. Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh in January 1979 and proclaimed the People's Republic of Kampuchea--a virtual satellite of Vietnam--a few days later. This action altered Cambodia's position as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. Thai and Vietnamese forces now faced each other over a common border, and there were repeated Vietnamese incursions into Thai territory. Moreover, a flood of refugees from Cambodia placed great strains on Thai resources despite the donation of emergency aid by outside nations.

As a frontline state in the Cambodian crisis, Thailand joined the other members of ASEAN, the United States, and China in demanding a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. In June 1982, the Thai government extended support to the anti-Vietnamese coalition formed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge's Khieu Samphan, and noncommunist Cambodian leader Son Sann. One unforeseen benefit of the Cambodian crisis was greatly improved relations between Thailand and China, as both countries found themselves in confrontation with Vietnam. By 1983 China had drastically reduced aid and support for the Thai and other Southeast Asian communist insurgencies as part of its new policy of improved relations within the region.

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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