A Brief Political History of Thailand : 1932 - 2000
Written by Enrique Chaljub
March 22, 2019
This Sunday, March 24th, elections will be held in Thailand for the first time since the military seized power in 2014. The military coup was a result of a political crisis which gripped the country for months; a crisis that has its roots deep in the polarized center of Thai politics. A simple, but fundamental question which hasn’t achieved any real consensus in the country since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932: how should Thailand be governed?
The upcoming elections are one in a series of events which depict the protracted struggle between individuals, networks, and institutions, each with an answer to that fundamental question molded in their image. Although the individual players naturally transpose, some of the networks and institutions in play today date back to the formation of the modern nation-state of Thailand. The oldest, most politically powerful, and least democratic of these are the monarchy, bureaucracy, and military. To make sense of what shaped these institutions and the central role they play in Thai politics today, it is necessary to recognize the major shifts of power and seemingly endless coups that have plagued Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy.
The 1932 Revolution was executed by a small group of young, western-educated Thais. They were led by Pridi Banomyong, a talented law student from commoner background, who was educated in the French legal tradition. The group dubbed themselves the People’s Party and was made up of roughly one-hundred members on the day of July 24, 1932. That morning, in the span of a few hours, the small group of conspirators declared the absolute monarchy overthrown in a bloodless coup. An important feature of the People’s Party was its composition, more than half were in the military. As the party consolidated power, two factions began to appear: a civilian one led by Pridi, and a military one led by Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun).
For more than a decade these two factions jockeyed for power. The contest ended in what would become nothing short of a custom in Thailand, a military coup. In June 1946, King Rama VIII was found dead via gunshot. Rumors quickly spread that Pridi, as a part of a broader republican/communist conspiracy, was behind the mysterious death. Pridi was forced to resign and eventually fled into exile. The coup took place November of that year, purging Pridi’s allies out of power. Despite not playing a role in the coup himself, Phibun was the man entrusted with the reins of power. This was the start of an era in Thai politics dominated by the military. A notion that began with the essential role military members played in the overthrow of absolute monarchy had become a basic norm for the military. It believed itself duty-bound to guide the country’s politics, a belief it still holds today.
Another successful coup took place in 1957 when then Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army Sarit Thanarat ousted Phibun. Sarit’s new military regime had two important differences from its predecessor. First, it was heavily backed by the U.S. and a centerpiece of America’s domino strategy in Southeast Asia. Second, it chose to derive its legitimacy from the Monarchy, elevating the sidelined institution to levels it had not seen since the 1932 Revolution. The number of yearly public appearances made by the King rose from 100 to 400. Aside from increasing the Monarchy’s political and social clout, Sarit also raised its religious authority by reinstituting the King as head of the Sangha.
In October of 1973 the military’s grip on power gave way. A student-led movement came to a climax after police arrested political activist distributing pamphlets in the Democracy Monument at the heart of Bangkok on October 6. In response, students held a protest in the Thammasat University campus demanding the immediate release of those arrested. On October 13, the protest became the biggest political gathering in Thai history as an estimated 500,000 people marched towards the Democracy Monument. On October 14, riot police clashed with protesters in front of the Royal Palace. As the situation began to deteriorate, both the King and several army factions intervened. Thanom, Sarit’s successor, was forced to step down and the student movement successfully ended decades of military rule. The success, however, was short lived.
During the following three years the student movement became increasingly radicalized. The growing ideological shift to the left began to present an existential threat to the traditional ruling class which included bureaucrats, business leaders, rural landlords, royalist, and generals. The radicalization also frightened the middle class, who had initially supported the overthrow of the military. They would become the social base for a countermovement organized and financed by the upper ruling class. Through increasingly confrontational and violent tactics, as well as government inaction, this group generated enough turmoil to usher a military coup which culminated in the massacre of at least 46 students at Thammasat. Survivors claim the total casualties to be well over a 100.
The October 6, 1976 coup resulted in a short-lived civilian dictatorship which itself was overthrown via another coup led by General Kriangsak Chomanan on October 20, 1977. Kriangsak’s resignation in 1980 paved the way for palace favorite General Prem Tinsulanonda to become PM, a post he held non-elected for 8 years. Prem presided over what many have described as a “semi-democracy.” During this relatively stable period, after each election, regardless of result, Parliament would vote for Prem to continue his tenure. Although the general retained the premiership, cabinet posts would rotate between party leaders, technocrats, and generals.
Prem reestablished the symbiotic relationship between the military and monarchy that had weakened throughout the 70s. Through public displays of loyalty, rapport, and veneration, Prem once again exalted the Monarchy. This in turn cemented his legitimacy to the point of surviving several coup attempts. After being pushed out of power, Prem was offered membership in the Privy Council (which he would later chair in 1998). From there Prem would continue to reify the bond between monarchy and military.
By 1988 demands grew from the media and intellectuals for Prem to transfer the reins of power. As a result, elections that year saw the first democratically elected PM since the 1976 coup. Chatichai Choonhavan, leader of the Thai Nation Party, became PM. Through its three years in power, the Chatichai government suffered multiple political scandals involving corruption. Perhaps even more fatal to the administration were its attempts at curbing the power of the military and bureaucracy. This elected government ended once again by way of military coup in 1991, which the army justified using the corruption scandals and rumors of a murder plot against the royal family.
In May 1992, after it became clear the military intended to cling to power once more, massive street demonstrations broke out in Bangkok. As the situation became increasingly chaotic, the King once again intervened and ordered the violence to stop. The military junta stepped down on May 24 and elections were held in September.
The May 1992 demonstrations emphasized the growing demands for a new constitution free of the tools and institutions which had previously embedded military influence in politics. These demands were eventually realized in 1997, at the peak of the Asian financial crisis. This was the first constitution drafted by an elected assembly and recognized by most as Thailand’s most democratic constitution yet. For example, it was the first time in history that both the lower and upper house in the Thai legislature were directly elected. This is the framework under which Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman turned businessman turned politician, became the center of the Thai political spotlight. The political machine he created and the conservative backlash it inspired continue to dominate Thai politics to this day.
Anderson, Ben. “Withdrawal Symptoms: Social and Cultural Aspects of the October 6 Coup.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 9, no. 3 (July 1, 1977): 13–30. http://lp.hscl.ufl.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=bas&AN=BAS59325&site=eds-live.
Baker, Christopher John, and Pasuk Phongpaichit. A History of Thailand. Port Melbourne, Vic., Australia ; New
York : Cambridge University Press, 2005., 2005. http://lp.hscl.ufl.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=cat04364a&AN=ufl.022858760&site=eds-live.
Hayes, William A. “Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest and Powerlessness.” Pacific Affairs, no. 3 (2013). http://lp.hscl.ufl.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.352850282&site=eds-live.
Pasuk Phongpaichit, and Christopher John Baker. Thailand, Economy and Politics. Oxford ; New York : Oxford