The Story of Thai Democracy: Premier Prem

This post is the eighth 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 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.

Kriangsak Chamanan

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 normalising 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. The political parties realised 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 Tinsulanonda

Prem, a southerner who had rose in the ranks of the army, had previously been Minister of Defence. He had a reputation for being incorruptible and for honesty. Single, he had declared that he was ‘married to the army’ and had even once declared that he had no ambition to be prime minister. Yet this was precisely the role that he now found himself in.

In retrospect, some have called the Prem era a period of ‘redemocratisation’, after the democratic deficit of the previous years; others have branded it 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.

In what has been termed the ‘pork-policy compromise’, Prem chose to give political parties a greater role in policymaking. This was important for parliamentary support was imperative to ensure his administration’s legitimacy. Prem was not, however, willing to grant regular politicians control over key functions of government, after the instability of the 1973-1976 period. 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.

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.

Prem meeting with Deng Xiaoping, following Kriangsak’s normalisation of relations

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, communism 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. Democracy under a constitutional monarchy in Thailand now became fully secure. At the same time, Prem’s focus on improving the economy and making it more inclusive led to large gains in economic growth and continually expanded 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 urbanisation meant people were finding new, more liberal lifestyles than that of the provinces. Some began clamouring for a popularly elected prime minister. Successive parliamentary general elections continued to weaken Prem’s grip on power, and by 1988, Prem decided that his position was too tenuous. He, like his predecessor before him, voluntarily resigned.

Kriangsak and Prem had presided over a period of increasing democratisation, 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. With Prem leaving government, Thailand would find itself shortly returning to tragic instability.

 

In the next post, I’ll be covering the events of Black May and Thailand’s democratic period in the final years of the 20th century. 

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