This post is the seventh 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.
The death of Sarit Thanarat left a vacancy in the post of prime minister. Aside from the scandalous stories that emerged of Sarit’s immense secret wealth and of the numerous mistresses he had, the transition of power was simple and straightforward. Thanom Kittikachorn, Sarit’s trusted deputy, became prime minister. Thanom continued Sarit’s policies and style of rule; again and again the army promoted the idea of ‘Thai-style democracy’, under an all-powerful dictator.
Problems soon mounted. Sarit had, perhaps, been too successful for his successor’s regime; the economic development from his policies, along with massive US investment during the Indochina war, led to rapid urbanisation, followed by high unemployment and greater crime. Attempting to distract public attention away from the problems, Thanom decided to promulgate a new constitution in 1968. It was based on earlier military models, for it had an appointed Senate, but it seemed to ensure a Sarit-style government: a powerful prime minister dominating a weak legislature.
It turned out, however, that Thanom did not enjoy democracy. MPs began to criticise his policies and attempted to block his budgets. “Never in my long political career”, Thanom declared, “have MPs caused such trouble to government administration as in recent times!” So exasperated was Thanom that he decided to pull another page out of Sarit’s playbook. In November 1971, he executed a coup against his own government, dissolved parliament and banned political parties. The constitution promulgated with so much fanfare was scrapped.
In 1968, students in Bangkok had begun protesting as a result of political and social discontent. By 1972, the protests had grown in size and intensity. On October 6, students began protesting to demand the return of a constitution. Thirteen of them were arrested by the police; they were dubbed the ‘constitution rebels’. This only inflamed tensions even further. By October 13, half a million people were on the streets, flooding the areas around the Constitution Monument. It marked the first time there had been such a popular uprising in Thailand.
On October 16, the government attempted to disperse the protesters: the attempt would quickly turn bloody. Soldiers began firing into the crowd. A helicopter flew above, shooting the protesters; many in the crowd believe that the man firing was no other than Narong Kittikachorn, Thanom’s son and probable successor. Bangkok had turned into a killing field, with 77 dying and 857 wounded.
With the situation completely out of hand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervened and took control of the situation. Thanom Kittikachorn resigned as prime minister and chief of the army. He, his son and his deputy Praphas Jarusatien (known collectively as ‘the three tyrants’) agreed to go into exile. Appearing on television, the king announced that he had nominated Sanya Thammasak, the chancellor of Thammasat University, as prime minister (Sanya had no idea that he was prime minister until he watched the television announcement). A new constitution would be drafted; democracy would be returned.
In the years following the 1973 uprising, Thai politics was remarkably chaotic. Sanya’s administration would be short lived; while he attempted to rule democratically and to tackle the issues of poverty, the worsening economy forced him to resign after little over a year. Meanwhile, street protests became a feature of daily life to pressure the government to continue on the road towards democracy. A constitution based on Pridi Panomyong’s version was promulgated in 1974, although an appointed Senate was included.
The return to elections only produced more flux, however, as no party managed to win a majority. Kukrit Pramoj and his Social Action party won only eighteen seats, but Kukrit still became prime minister because none of the large parties could form an acceptable coalition. Unabashedly cultured and traditional in his outlook, Kukrit led a centrist government that appealed to the urban middle class. He attempted to placate both the old elite and the newly powerful businessmen, and he allocated development funds for poorer people at the grassroots.
But the issue that plagued him was the continued growth of the communist movement in Thailand, as the Communist Party expanded its influence. This led to accusations that Kukrit was being too soft, that he was “allowing communists to roam the country”. In reaction, right-wing groups began forming around the country, with support from hardliners in the military. Vocational students were recruited to break up labour demonstrations and strikes. The fear of the left only increased dramatically when Saigon and Phnom Penh fell to communist forces in 1975. This culminated with the army chief forcing Kukrit to dissolve parliament after he attempted to bring a socialist party into his government’s coalition.
The new election saw Kukrit’s party defeated at the polls- the prime minister lost his own seat in Bangkok- but his brother, Seni Pramoj, took the Democratic Party to a victory. Seni followed Kukrit’s policies and implemented a similar agenda, but this only led to the Democrats also being called ‘communists’. The state of chaos continued. Yet this was nothing when compared to what happened when former prime minister Thanom decided he wished to return to Thailand.
Thanom had been in exile since the the 1973 uprising forced him to resign. Now he came back, wrapped in the robes of a monk. “I return here as a sick man”, he said. “All I wish for is to die in my native country.” Thanom was ordained at Wat Boworniwet. This immediately sparked massive protests from those who were against Thanom returning, for the memories of October 6th, 1973 still ran deep. Eventually, the protests began intensifying. Parliament voted to block Thanom’s return, but Seni was powerless to actually implement the act. Adding to the confusion, Seni attempted to resign in parliament, but this was not accepted.
The situation continued to escalate. Two activists protesting the return of Thanom were found dead and hung to a wall. Students protesting at Thammasat University dramatised this event with a mock hanging, images of which were published in newspapers. Soon enough, an army radio station began broadcasting a call to kill the students protesting in Thammasat. On October 1, various rightist groups, who had branded the Thammasat students as ‘communist’, published a joint declaration:
It is now clear that students, labour groups and leftist politicians are using the case of Phra Thanom to create unrest in this nation, to the point where they are threatening to destroy Wat Boworn and unseat the government. Our various groups have met and we have concluded that we will do everything we can to protect Wat Boworn.
Finally, on 6 October, the military, police and the various rightist groups moved on Thammasat. Blocking all the exits, the forces besieged the university and began shooting bullets, rockets and even anti-tank missiles. Forcing their way into the university, the students were rounded up, made to strip to the waist and were then beaten and tortured. Those who tried to escape were lynched, raped and even burned alive. In all, 43 students were killed, with 3000 arrested on that day and another 5000 later arrested.
The next day, the army seized power from the hapless Seni Pramoj. Thanin Kraivichien, a judge known for his anti-communist leanings, was appointed prime minister, along with the announcement of a 12-year period where democracy would be suspended. Political meetings were outlawed, books were banned and journals were closed. 5000 students would run off into the forests to join the growing Communist Party.
The end of the Thanom regime, a government which he inherited from Sarit Thanarat, would produce two twin tragedies: that of October 1973 and October 1976. It was the product of a toxic atmosphere: of communist paranoia, of resistance to a government mired by corruption, of economic crises and of growing calls for political participation and democracy. This deeply unstable period would soon be brought to a close.
In the next post, I’ll be covering the premiership of Prem Tinsulanonda.