This post is the eighth 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.
The period between the twin October tragedies had been chaotic even by the standards of Thai politics. True, government had been remarkably democratic between the collapse of the Thanom Kittikachorn regime and the removal of Seni Pramoj. But it had not been stable. Now, stability would return to Thailand.
Thanin Kraivichien, the anti-communist judge who had been installed as prime minister, did not last long. He pursued hardline policies against the Communist Party of Thailand and cracked down on trade unions. Instead of weakening the communists, his policies produced the opposite effect: it hardened their will to resist. Many in the military began to grumble that Thanin was being too harsh. The government, which had lacked public support in the first place, fell easily when the military launched a coup d’état; Kriangsak Chamanan, the supreme commander of the armed forces, became prime minister.
General Kriangsak’s administration was a major change from Thanin’s. He moved his policies back towards the centre, even adopting some that had been implemented by Kukrij Pramoj when he was premier, such as normalizing relations with China. Kriangsak decided to adopt a notably softer line towards the Thai communists in particular. In 1978, Kriangsak approved an amnesty bill for students who had been jailed following the October 6, 1976 events; later, this amnesty bill was extended to cover all those who had defected to the Communist Party. Many students who had ran away into the forests to join the Communists following the bloody crackdown of 1976 began to leave the jungle. (In any case, many had become severely disillusioned with the Communist Party and its disciplinary strictness anyway, with one decrying the fact that they had to ‘fight for democracy all over again in the jungle’).
Kriangsak would be prime minister for three years; during this time, he was backed by an alliance of progressive forces and young military officers. Discontent began bubbling when the economy took a downward turn, with high stagflation and a large current account deficit. Surprisingly, given the track record of former prime ministers who had been removed and exiled, Kriangsak voluntarily resigned, explaining that he felt that he had lost too much public support.
To preserve our system of parliamentary democracy, I have decided to resign from the post of prime minister so that a better figure can govern the nation and serve the people.
The political parties were well aware that military support was still instrumental in making and breaking a prime minister, and to replace Kriangsak, parliament elected Prem Tinsulanonda, the army commander, as premier.
Prem, a southerner who had rose in the ranks of the army, had previously been Minister of Defense. He had a reputation for being incorruptible and for honesty. Single, he had declared that he was “married to the army” and even once declared that he had no ambition to be prime minister. Yet this was precisely the role that he now found himself in.
After the democratic deficit of the previous years, observers have branded Prem’s era a time of ‘semi-democracy’. Prem’s time as the prime minister would be the first since 1973 that parliamentary politics was fully stable, and the first time parliament actually sat through a complete four-year term. Democracy during the dictatorship of Thanom and between 1973-1976 had been an almost oppositional force; Prem, however, was always elected by parliament and turned democracy into support for his position. But at the core of Prem’s government was still the basic logic of a military government: Prem was a strongman and retained control over the armed forces, which backed his leadership.
The prime minister was not a true fan of parliamentary democracy; it would be more accurate to say that he merely tolerated it, and dissolved parliament three times when bickering within his coalition government. But Prem did choose to give political parties a greater role in policymaking. This was important for parliamentary support was imperative to ensure his administration’s legitimacy. Every cabinet Prem formed would have fewer technocrats and more elected politicians; eventually he even asked his trusted ally Siddhi Savetsila to try and get elected if he wanted to remain foreign minister. (Siddhi duly got himself elected as a Social Action Party MP.)
Prem, however, was still fundamentally wary of politicians. In the end, what was produced was a compromise: Prem’s appointees were granted control over the economy, public finances, interior and foreign affairs. However, the parties were free to run some ministries, such as Education and Agriculture, as they saw fit.
Prem described his own government in a cabinet meeting as follows:
This government is a government that goes beyond political parties, factions, and group interests.
The prime minister was sometimes criticized for being aloof and at times, indecisive. But that supposed aloofness also allowed Prem to retain his popularity. Controversies within his government felled individual ministers instead of the premier. But that did not mean Prem’s rule was never challenged. In fact, he would be the target of no less than two military coups.
In 1981, a coup attempt, now known as the ‘April Fools’ Coup’ because it was launched on the 1st of April, was made by a group calling themselves the ‘Young Turks’. They succeeded in capturing Bangkok and Prem had to flee to the city of Nakhon Ratchasima. The presence of the royal family with him, however, showed that Prem retained the support of the king. Eventually, forces loyal to Prem recaptured the capital, ending the insurgency. Four years later, some of the same coup-attempters tried again and similarly failed.
Meanwhile, Prem’s eight-year rule would give him plenty of time to pursue his policy objectives. He had become famous for being successful at negotiations with communists, and during his time as prime minister, he pursued the policy of “politics before military activity”, through which communist activities was essentially eradicated. In 1982 and 1983, the armed units of the Communist Party had left the jungles and surrendered, and in 1987, the final rump of the party was arrested when they attempted to hold a party congress. The constitutional monarchy in Thailand now became fully secure. At the same time, Prem’s focus on improving the economy and making it more inclusive, leading to large gains in economic growth and the expansion of the middle class.
Ironically, Prem’s economic success would become a part of his premiership’s undoing. The growing size of the middle class meant that more and more students were enrolled in universities, exposing them to new thinking. Accelerating urbanization meant people were finding new, more liberal lifestyles than that of the provinces. Some began clamoring for a popularly elected prime minister. Successive parliamentary general elections continued to weaken Prem’s grip on power, and the Democrat Party, one of Prem’s coalition partners, was gripped with infighting. By 1988, Prem decided that his position was too tenuous. He, like his predecessor before him, voluntarily resigned. “I’ve had enough,” he said, rejecting yet another invitation to continue as prime minister.
Kriangsak and Prem had presided over a period of increasing democratization, with expanded roles for political parties and parliament. Their governments had still depended essentially on military support, however, as the coups against Prem had made all too clear. But it was still a remarkably stable period, a pax semi-democratica of sorts. And indeed, Prem’s premiership represented a truce of sorts between Thailand’s competing tendencies towards democracy and authoritarianism. The system of an unelected prime minister supported by an elected legislature allowed these tendencies to remain in equilibrium.
But with Prem leaving government, Thailand would find itself shortly returning to tragic instability.
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