Military-controlled government continued between 1957 and 1967 under Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat and his successors. There was talk of a “restoration” of the king, and a strong popular affection for the monarchy arose. The regime emphasized the kingdom’s Buddhist heritage in an effort to gain support from monks for government programs. [Source: Library of Congress]

New elections were held in December 1957 under an interim civilian government headed by Pote Sarasin, the secretary general of SEATO. No single party won a parliamentary majority, but General Sarit Thanarat organized a government party, the National Socialist Party, to contain the loose coalition of parties and individuals backing his regime. Because of poor health Sarit did not attempt to form a government but turned over responsibility to his deputy in the armed forces, Thanom Kittikachorn. Intraparty wrangling over political and economic spoils plagued Thanom's government. The situation was further aggravated by the inclusion in the government party of left-wing politicians who opposed its pro-Western foreign policy.

In October 1958, Sarit, recently returned from the United States where he had undergone extensive medical treatment, took over personal control of the government with the consent of Thanom, who resigned as prime minister. Sarit, who spoke of instilling "national discipline" in the country, justified his action on the grounds that Thailand's various constitutional experiments had not succeeded in providing the stability needed for economic development. He outlawed political parties and jailed critics of the regime — teachers, students, labor leaders, journalists, and liberal parliamentarians. A dozen or more newspapers were closed. In January 1960, Sarit decreed an interim constitution that provided for an appointed assembly to draft a new constitution, Thailand's eighth since 1932. Work on the document continued throughout the 1960s. Sarit assumed the office of prime minister provided for in the interim constitution, but his regime was clearly that of a military dictatorship.

Whatever else might be said about its political shortcomings, Sarit's government was more dynamic than the previous regimes of the constitutional era. Sarit gave ministers in his cabinet considerable independence in the affairs of their own ministries. At the same time he made all major decisions and kept members of the government responsible solely to his office. Despite recurring scandals involving official corruption, in the early 1960s Sarit seemed to have succeeded in achieving political stability and economic growth. In 1961 the government instituted the first in a series of economic development schemes that were intended to foster employment and expand production. Although military officers were frequently appointed as directors of state and quasi-governmental economic enterprises, civilian personnel gradually assumed a greater share in implementing government policies. Sarit welcomed foreign investment and assured investors of government protection. Major electrification and irrigation projects began, with aid from the United States and international agencies. In addition, Sarit initiated a cleanup campaign to improve sanitation in the cities.

Sarit revived the motto "Nation-Religion-King" as a fighting political slogan for his regime, which he characterized as combining the paternalism of the ancient Thai state and the benevolent ideals of Buddhism. He spoke of his intention to "restore" the king, a retiring man, to active participation in national life, and he urged Bhumibol Adulyadej and his consort, Queen Sirikit, to have more contact with the Thai public, which had a strong affection for the monarchy. Royal tours were also scheduled for the king and queen to represent Thailand abroad. Sarit likewise played on the religious attachments of the people. In 1962 he centralized administration of monastic institutions under a superior patriarchate friendly to the regime, and he mobilized monks, especially in the North and Northeast, to support government programs. Critics protested that Sarit had demeaned religion by using it for political ends and had compromised the monarchy by using it to legitimize a military dictatorship. They asserted that the regime's policies, rather than restoring these institutions, had contributed to the growth of materialism and secularism and to the erosion of religious belief in the country.

Move from Military Rule to Democracy Under Thanom Kittikachorn

In December 1963 Sarit died in office. His deputy, Thanom Kittikachorn, peacefully succeeded to the prime ministership and pursued without major modifications the foreign and domestic policies of his predecessor. Retaining the cabinet that he inherited from Sarit, Thanom focused his efforts on seeking to maintain political stability; promoting economic development, especially in security-sensitive areas; raising the standard of living; and safeguarding the country from the communist threat at home and abroad. [Source: Library of Congress]

A notable departure from Sarit's policies, however, was the Thanom government's decision to shorten the timetable for the country's transition from the military-dominated leadership structure to a popularly elected government. The prime minister urged the Constituent Assembly, appointed in 1959, to finish drafting a constitution as soon as practicable. The new leadership also relaxed stringent official controls on the press, an attempt that the authorities said was aimed at creating a new, relatively liberalized, political climate.

Although the leaders agreed on the desirability of establishing what they described as a more democratic political system in tune with the country's heritage, there were indications that they disagreed on the pace of the projected change. Some leading officials thought that an early resumption of political activities would broaden the base of politics and strengthen popular identification with the government, the monarchy, and Buddhism. Others argued that the restoration of party politics at a time when the country was confronted with serious internal problems was likely to aid the communists in their efforts to infiltrate civic, labor, student, and political organizations.

The constitution was finally proclaimed in June 1968, but martial law, which had been imposed in 1958, remained in effect. Party politics were legalized and resumed shortly after mid-1968, and general elections for the new National Assembly were held in February 1969. Thanom's United Thai People's Party returned 75 members to the 219-seat lower house, giving them the largest representation of the 13 parties, while the second-running Democrat Party won 57 seats.

Thailand's annual economic growth rate in the 1960s and early 1970s averaged a booming 8 percent, much of it attributable to United States military expenditures there during the years of its involvement in Vietnam. An increased flow of foreign exchange resulted from United States and multilateral aid loans as well as from foreign investment, which came primarily from Japan, the United States, and Taiwan.

Communism and Thai Foreign Policy Before the Vietnam War

Anti-communist policies shaped Thailand’s foreign affairs in the 1950s and 60s. Members of Chiang Kai-shek's army who fled China in 1949 set up shop in northern Thailand, where they took control of the opium business with some support from the Thai government. Communist activities in Laos and Malaya had begun to affect the domestic situation in the South and the Northeast of Thailand in the 1950s. By the 1960s they presented a problem of increasing magnitude. Communist guerrillas, mostly ethnic Chinese, operated in jungle areas north of the Thai-Malayan border, where they had taken refuge from Commonwealth of Nations security forces during the 1948-60 Emergency in Malaya. A more serious threat in that same region were the Muslim insurgents of the Pattani National Liberation Front, a Thai separatist group composed of ethnic Malays.

Meanwhile, in the northern provinces dissident Meo tribesmen reportedly had begun receiving training and arms from the Pathet Lao (as the leftist Lao People's Liberation Army in Laos was known until 1965) by 1950. In the Northeast, underground leftist parties took advantage of grievances over relatively poor economic and social conditions to rally opposition to the government. By the 1960s there were three active leftist insurgent organization in Thailand: 1) ethnic Chinese and Malay Muslims in the south, 2) Meo tribal people in the north and 3) Thai-Lao insurgents in the northeast. Many young people retreated to northern Thailand to join the Communist Part of Thailand. Faced with the problems in the South, North, and Northeast, the Bangkok government frequently identified regional unrest and protest against ethnic and economic policies with the genuine communist-based insurgencies that overlapped and often benefited from it. Opposition groups and critics of the regime in Bangkok were also generally labeled as communists.

Under Sarit's guidance in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Thailand's anticommunist policy stood at the forefront of Thai foreign policy. Leftist political parties were banned, books with references to communism were burned, and and steps were taken to deal militarily with the growing threat of insurgency posed by communist-inspired activities in neighboring countries. Sarit sought closer ties with Thailand's anticommunist neighbors and with the United States. In 1961 Thailand, the Philippines, and newly independent Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) formed the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA). In 1967 Thailand became a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a broader regional cooperative organization that replaced the ASA.

In the early 1960s foreign policy concerns focused on neighboring Laos, where it was believed a Pathet Lao victory would destabilize the North and Northeast and open Thailand to a direct attack by communist forces. In March 1962, the Pathet Lao moved into northwestern Laos. Shortly after that United States secretary of state Dean Rusk and Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman agreed that their countries would interpret the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty of 1954 as a bilateral as well as multilateral pact binding the United States to come to the aid of Thailand in time of need, with or without the agreement of the other signers of the pact.

Two months after the foreign ministers' agreement, President John F. Kennedy stationed United States troops in Thailand in response to the deteriorating situation in Laos. The arrival of the troops in May 1962 was seen by the Thai government as evidence of the United States commitment to preserving Thailand's independence and integrity against communist expansion. Despite United States pressure, however, Sarit refused to entertain ideas of democratic reform.

Thailand During the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War era, Thailand was a major ally of the United States in the Cold War-era fight against Communism. The United States had major military bases in Thailand, where politics was dominated by clashes between the powerful military and the left.

As Kennedy was preparing to take office, U.S. President Eisenhower recommended that America give military assistance support to Laos if the North Vietnamese intervention there continued. Within two months after taking office, Kennedy sent troops to Thailand adjoining Laos. He didn’t want to send troops directly to Laos.

During much of the Vietnamese War Thailand was ruled by a corrupt group of military leaders supported by the U.S. Thailand remained relatively calm and stable while its neighbors were torn apart by conflict and political upheaval. One U.S. diplomat described Thailand as 'a nice country in a bad neighborhood."

B-52s that conducted bombing raids in Laos and Cambodia in the Vietnam War took off from Thailand. At one time 50,000 men were stationed at Thailand's eight major air bases. The C.I.A. hired 12,000 Thai regulars to fight in Laos, and new technology was tested in Thailand before taken into Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. At the height of the war Utapao based in Thailand shook and roared as massive B-52 bombers took off for bombing runs over Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's March 1968 announcement that the United States would halt bombing in North Vietnam and seek a negotiated settlement came as a blow to the Thai government, which had not been consulted on the change in policy. Although the defense of Thailand clearly remained essential to the security of Southeast Asia in United States strategic thinking, no provision was made for Laos, whose security the Thai saw as essential to their own defense.

While remaining loyal to its commitments, Thailand thereafter determined to restore flexibility to its foreign policy by moving away from one-sided dependence on the United States. The military, however, was anxious to continue Thailand's active involvement in South Vietnam and in Laos, where several thousand Thai "volunteers" were engaged against the Pathet Lao. Thanom urged United States backing for the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia in 1970 and proposed a formal alliance linking Thailand with Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam that would give the conflict in Southeast Asia the appearance of a war being fought by Asian anticommunists for Asian security. The plan failed to get United States support.

Foreign Policy in Thailand in the 1970s

The overthrow of the Thanom regime had brought on a more vocal questioning of ties with the United States. Nationalist sentiment, which was frequently expressed in terms of anti- Americanism, ran high among students, who protested alleged American involvement in domestic Thai affairs and called for the speedy withdrawal of United States forces. Moreover, the changed geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia refocused the issue of the United States presence. Many Thai concluded that the country could not be reconciled with its communist neighbors as long as United States personnel were stationed on Thai soil.

The pullout of the 27,000 United States military personnel in Thailand began in March 1975 and was completed in mid-1976. The Thai government stressed the need for continued United States military commitment in Southeast Asia, but from Bangkok's standpoint, the emphasis in relations between the two allies clearly shifted from one of military cooperation to economic and technical cooperation. United States-Thai relations were dealt a setback, however, by the Mayaguez incident in May 1975, when the United States used the airfield at Ban U Taphao without Thai consent as a staging base for the rescue of an American freighter detained by the Khmer Rouge. The incident was seen as a blow to Thai sovereignty and touched off anti-American demonstrations in Bangkok.

When South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia came under communist control in the spring of 1975, the Thai government's initial reaction was to seek an accommodation with the victors, but feelers extended to Hanoi met with a chilly reception. In July, however, Thailand established diplomatic relations with China, after two years of negotiations. That same year, Thailand became active in regional technical and economic cooperation as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it had been a member since the organization's founding in 1967.

In the 1970s and 80s Thailand dealt with the influx of three million refugees, which included boat people from Vietnam, and people fleeing the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, the Communist regime in Laos and the generals in Burma. In 1979, the government offered amnesty to Communist, many who had become disillusioned because the ties of the Communist with the Khmer Rouge.

Boat People

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

Many of refugees crowded onto unseaworthy boats. Large ships with over 2,500 passengers were organized by Vietnamese racketeers. Smaller ships were purchased by people who pooled their money. Life savings were paid for a place on a boat. Families split up. Fat people were sometimes denied a spot because they took up as much room as two smaller people that paid as much.

People died of thirst, hunger, exposure. Some people who got very sick were pushed over the edge. Some boats had engines that conked out at sea. Some of the boats lost more than half their passengers to exposure, drowning, starvation and attacks from pirates.

About 90 percent of the boats didn't make it. Those who made it to Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia were often turned back, driven from shore or towed back to sea. In Hong Kong authorities tried to prevent the ships from landing. One ship was moored in Hong Kong harbor for 20 weeks until someone cut the anchor. When the boat drifted into shore hundreds of people jumped overboard and fled to the hills where they were later rounded up and placed in a camp.

Boat People and Pirates

Piracy surged during the boat people exodus for Vietnam in the 1970s. Boat people were robbed, raped and even murdered by pirates. They were easy targets. The women on these boats were often raped, and men were robbed of everything they had. There were reports of being people being killed so gold teeth could be ripped out their mouth.

Many of the pirates were Thai fisherman who took up piracy because it was easier and more profitable to prey on fleeing Vietnamese than fishing. Vietnamese boat people that escaped from pirates often attributed their good fortunes to large fish or whales that they believe saved them. Whales are considered sacred to the Vietnamese.

Most of the time the victims of piracy were dropped on shore. Sometimes however the boats were cast adrift, drifting into land by chance was the only hope of survival that the passengers had. Sometimes all the passengers were shot or stabbed out right. Survivors that somehow made it to shore had horrible stories to tell.

A Vietnamese painter who painted my house told me about how pirates stripped all men naked on a boat he was on. They were shown a Playboy magazine foldout. If a man got an erection he was shot. There is no way to tell if this story is true. Most pirates carried fishing nets so that if were tracked down by police it was difficult to distinguish them from fisherman.

Boat People Refugees

During the Boat People saga many Vietnamese refugees in camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong were denied political asylum in the U.S. and other counties and were were forced to return to Vietnam. Some refugees were dragged kicking and screaming on to planes which carried them back to their homeland. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

As of 1979, 65,200 boat people went to Hong Kong, 9,500 to Thailand, 49,500 to Malaysia 49,600 to Indonesia, 5,900 to Philippines. Some countries turned away the boats and made them go back to sea. Overland, 233,000 went to mainland China. At that time 233,300 were resettled in the United States, 53,700 in France; 23, 500 in Australia and 16,400 in Canada. Germany repatriated 40,000 mostly North Vietnamese in East Germany

In Hong Kong the Orderly Departure Programme started in 1979 and implemented in the 1980s, was set up to deal with the boat people that arrived there, When the boats arrived in Hong Kong harbor they were first checked for rats because Vietnam at the time was having a problem with the the plague.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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