The Story of Thai Democracy: Early Turmoil

This post is the third post in the series ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, where I’ll be covering the political history of Thailand since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. You can read the previous posts in this series here.

 

After the 1932 revolution, King Rama VII still reigned, but he no longer ruled. Power fell instead to the Khana Ratsadon to exercise as they saw fit.

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 at least the fifth grade level. Opposition to the idea meant that the first parliamentary elections were scheduled immediately. But power rested ultimately not with the people, but with the members of the Khana Ratsadon themselves. Two people, in particular, would be the most significant people in early Thai democratic history, both of whom we met in the previous post: Pridi Panomyong and Plaek Phibulsongkram (Phibun).

Siam’s first prime minister, Phraya Manopakorn

But neither men would initially be the figurehead of the Khana Ratsadon government. Instead, Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, a conservative but uncontroversial official, was chosen to be Siam’s first prime minister. Pridi, as the intellectual leader of the Khana Ratsadon, was made a minister and granted control over the economy.

It would turn out to be a misstep for Phraya Manopakorn. Many had always suspected that Pridi was a closet communist, but now Pridi’s leftist tendencies came to the fore. In a yellow dossier, Pridi submitted his economic plan, and it was shocking to his colleagues. This would later be known as the Yellow Dossier incident. Central planning of the economy, wealth and land redistribution, and even universal basic income paid by the government: Pridi’s 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 the conflict threatened to become violent, Phraya Manopakorn, who opposed Pridi anyway, dissolved the National Assembly and exiled Pridi to France. This would later be branded a silent coup.

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.

Siam’s 2nd prime minister, Phraya Pahol

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. Finally, they did not agree with the Khana Ratsadon administration; after all, if the revolution was supposed to bring democracy to Siam, then why was power still resting almost completely in the hands of just a few individuals? Where was the expression of the popular will that had been promised?

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:

  1. There must be a guarantee that there would remain a constitutional monarchy for eternity in Siam.

  2. All administrative acts must be in accordance with the constitution; the forming and removal of governments must be done according to the popular will.

  3. Civil officials must be outside politics; the military must not have a role in politics.

  4. The appointment of civil officials must be done according to seniority and merit; there must be no political considerations.

  5. The upper house must be appointed by the monarch.

  6. 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.

The Boworadet Rebellion

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 ended in total defeat.

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.

It was into the hands of Phibun that the machinery of this authoritarian government would 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 in a political 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’ behaviour 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 militarised, fascist state under his own dictatorship.

 

In the next post, I’ll be covering Phibun’s first premiership and Thailand during the Second World War. 

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