This post is the third post in the series ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, covering the political history of Thailand since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. You can see the rest of this project here.
After the 1932 revolution, King Rama VII still reigned, but he no longer ruled. Power was now exercised by a new government that, for the first time in history, was not directly controlled by a monarch.
It is an irony that the Khana Ratsadon, whose name meant ‘People’s Party’, who had launched a revolution to grant democracy to Thailand, decided initially at first that the country was not yet ready to hold elections. In fact, they first proposed that elections be held only after half the country had been educated at the fifth grade level. Opposition to the idea meant that the first parliamentary elections were scheduled immediately. Power, however, rested ultimately not with the people, but with the members of the Khana Ratsadon themselves. Two members, in particular, would be the most significant people in early Thai democratic history: Pridi Panomyong and Plaek Phibulsongkram (Phibun).
Neither men would initially be the figurehead of the government. Instead, acknowledging their relative inexperience in government, the Khana Ratsadon allowed Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, a conservative official, to be chosen as Siam’s first prime minister.
It was an uneasy alliance that quickly escalated into conflict. Phraya Manopakorn had declared that “government control of the economy is too much, but no government intervention is too little.” On the other hand, many had always suspected that Pridi was a closet communist, and now Pridi’s leftist tendencies came to the fore. In a yellow dossier, Pridi submitted his plans for the economy, and it was shocking to his colleagues. This would later be known as the Yellow Dossier incident. Pridi proposed central planning of the economy, wealth and land redistribution, and even universal basic income paid by the government; his proposals reeked heavily of communism. In Pridi’s own words:
Never was there an intention to transform the political system from a monarchy to an oligarchy, which would attempt to be a democracy in name only. I focused on the substance, namely, nourishing the welfare of the people. The constitution became the key to open the door of opportunity for the ordinary people to have a voice in the country’s administration according to their needs and aspirations. Once this door has been opened, it is the duty of the government to lead the people through this door into a new land of prosperity.
High minded, perhaps, but the ideas were hardly acceptable to the government. Some would later pointedly ask whether Pridi had copied his economic plan from Stalin, or whether Stalin had done so from Pridi. The government was badly split between Pridi’s supporters and opponents. When rumors were circulated that some Khana Ratsadon MPs were carrying pistols into parliament, Phraya Manopakorn dissolved the National Assembly, suspended some articles of the constitution and exiled Pridi to France. This would later be branded a silent coup. His government released the following explanation:
There is a division of the cabinet into two factions over economic policy. The minority wishes to pursue communist policies, while the majority has disagreed as it will be harmful to national security and the happiness of the people…Since parliament and the cabinet is so divided, this is dangerous for the nation…therefore the government must suspend parliament, set up a new government and suspend certain articles of the constitution.
Phraya Manopakorn also passed an act outlawing communism, telling journalists that “You will be drastically dealt with if you fail to recognize and support the Government’s policy of excluding communism from Siam.”
However, Phraya Manopakorn did not last long either. As his government became increasingly authoritarian in nature, Siam’s first prime minister would suffer a coup directed now against himself by Phraya Phahol Polpayuhasena, the military leader who had spearheaded the 1932 revolution. He duly became Phraya Manopakorn’s sucessor; Pridi was pardoned and allowed to return to Siam to lead economic reform.
Phraya Phahol, as prime minister, immediately ran into massive problems. Most significantly, he faced the first serious challenge to the Khana Ratsadon’s rule: the Boworadet rebellion, an unsuccessful coup led by Prince Boworadet and several royalist officials. Firstly, the royalists had been severely disaffected from their fall from power after the 1932 revolution. Secondly, they had violently objected to Pridi’s Yellow Dossier economic proposals. All of this led to a deadly, but ultimately doomed, attempt of a counter-coup. Prince Boworadet’s forces moved down from Korat to Bangkok’s northern outskirts, where he issued the following demands to the government:
- There must be a guarantee that there would remain a constitutional monarchy for eternity in Siam.
- All administrative acts must be in accordance with the constitution; the forming and removal of governments must be done according to the popular will.
- Civil officials must be outside politics; the military must not have a role in politics.
- The appointment of civil officials must be done according to seniority and merit; there must be no political considerations.
- The upper house must be appointed by the monarch.
- The administration of the military should be done in a manner that would diffuse weapons to various regions in the country, instead of concentrating them in only one area.
Phraya Pahol’s government refused these demands. Instead, Phibun was appointed as commander of the government’s forces, with the task of crushing the rebels. With their proposals rejected, the Boworadet forces attempted to march to the inner city. However, various provincial armies loyal to Prince Boworadet were scuttled by government forces. Eventually, the fighting turned bloody and culminated with the rebels crashing a train into a government train before retreating to Korat, unable to beat the superior government army. In the end, the rebellion concluded in total defeat. There would be no conservative counter-revolution.
The Boworadet rebellion thus achieved the opposite of what it had intended: the Khana Ratsadon government became increasingly paranoid of counter-revolutionary movements and authoritarian as a result. An Act for the Preservation of the Constitution was passed, which allowed the government to imprison or exile suspected dissidents without trial. The expression of the popular will that was promised by the revolution did not materialize.
It was into the hands of Phibun that the machinery of this authoritarian government would eventually fall. Phibun had become increasingly powerful after the Boworadet rebellion, the suppression of which he had played a key role. A scandal erupting from Phraya Pahol’s administration led to his government’s decreasing popularity, and indeed he eventually found himself possessing only a minority in parliament. Compelled to resign, Phraya Pahol was replaced by Phibun as prime minister in 1938.
This represented the ultimate triumph of the military wing of the Khana Ratsadon over Pridi’s civilian wing. The two men were starkly different. Pridi was rooted quite firmly in the European liberal tradition. He believed that the purpose of the government was to allow citizens to flourish and “develop to their utmost capability”; there was no point in political progress if it did not become a pathway for economic progress. As such, the government should provide the not only the rule of law, but also education and healthcare. Phibun, on the other hand, admired a different sort of government entirely: right-wing fascism. He believed the state was an expression of popular sovereignty and opinion, and that the government had a duty to manage its citizens’ behavior and culture.
The two had cooperated, at the start, but the next few years would see a complete departure from Pridi’s original vision of a democratic government that led the people to prosperity. Instead, it would now be Phibun’s time, as he built an increasingly militarized, fascist state under his own dictatorship.