Military rule (1932-1973)

History of Thailand - part 4/5

Constitutional monarchy

The coup d’état of 1932 transformed the government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Siam’s first constitution included a National Assembly, half appointed and half indirectly-elected. A prime minister and Cabinet were appointed and a facade of constitutional rule was maintained.

Conflict began to erupt among the members of the new ruling coalition. The royalists also led a revolt against the government in 1933, but the army remained loyal to the government and the royalists were defeated. The King accused the government of having no regard for democratic principles (there was indeed no debate and heavy censorship), and he finally abdicated. The government chose Prince Ananda Mahidol as the next king, who was at that time in school in Switzerland. In the eyes of some, the youth of the new King and his absence from the country were the main reasons that he was selected. For the first time in history, Siam was without a resident monarch and was to remain so for the next fifteen years.

The government carried out some important reforms. The currency went off the gold standard, allowing trade to recover. Expenditures on education was increased, thereby significantly raising the literacy rate. Thammasat University was founded, as a more accessible alternative to the elitist Chulalongkorn University. Elected local and provincial governments were introduced, and in November 1937 democratic development was brought forward when direct elections were held for the National Assembly, although political parties were still not allowed. Military expenditure was also greatly expanded, a clear indication of the increasing influence of the military.

Phibun: the pursuit of nationalism

The military, now led by Major General Phibun as Defence Minister, and the civilian liberals led by Pridi Phanomyong as Foreign Minister, worked together harmoniously for several years, but when Phibun became prime minister in December 1938 this co-operation broke down. Phibun was an admirer of Benito Mussolini, and his regime soon developed some fascist characteristics. In early 1939 forty political opponents were arrested and eighteen were executed, the first political executions in Siam in over a century. Phibun launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. Chinese schools and newspapers were closed, and taxes on Chinese businesses increased.

Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun)
Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun).

Phibun copied the propaganda techniques used by Hitler and Mussolini to build up the cult of the leader. Government slogans were constantly aired on the radio and plastered on newspapers and billboards. Phibun’s picture was also to be seen everywhere in society, while portraits of the ex-monarch King Prajadhipok, an outspoken critic of the autocratic regime, were banned. At the same time he passed a number of authoritarian laws which gave the government the power of almost unlimited arrest and complete press censorship. During the Second World War, newspapers were instructed to print only good news emanating form Axis sources.

In 1939, Phibun also changed the country’s name from Siam to Prathet Thai, or Thailand, meaning “land of the free”. This was a nationalist gesture: it implied the unity of all the Tai-speaking peoples, including the Lao and the Shan, but excluding the Chinese. The regime’s slogan became “Thailand for the Thai”. The Thais had to salute the flag, know the National Anthem, and speak the national language. Patriotism was taught in schools and was a recurrent theme in song and dance.

At the same time, Phibun worked rigorously to rid society of its royalist influences – traditional royal holidays were replaced with new national events, royal and aristocratic titles were abandoned.

World War II

Victory Monument in Bangkok
Victory Monument in Bangkok.

In 1940 most of France was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Phibun immediately set out to avenge Siam’s humiliations by France in 1893 and 1904, when the French had redrawn the borders of Siam with Laos and Cambodia by forcing a series of treaties. In 1941, Thailand invaded French Indochina, beginning the French-Thai War. The Thais, better equipped and outnumbering the French forces, dominated the war on the ground and in the air, but suffered a crushing naval defeat at the battle of Koh Chang. The Japanese then stepped in to mediate the conflict. The final settlement thus gave back to Thailand the disputed areas in Laos and Cambodia.

The war was celebrated as a great victory, and Victory Monument was erected a few months later in Bangkok. It became an embarrassment in 1945 when the Allied victory in the Pacific War forced Thailand to evacuate the territories it had gained in 1941 and return them to France.

Thailand’s campaign for territorial expansion came to an end on December 8, 1941 when Japan invaded the country along its southern coastline and from Cambodia. After initially resisting, the Phibun regime allowed the Japanese to pass through the country in order to attack Burma and invade Malaya. Convinced by the Allied defeats of early 1942 that Japan was winning the war, Phibun decided to form an actual military alliance with the Japanese.

As a reward, Japan allowed Thailand to invade and annex the Shan States in northern Burma, and to resume sovereignty over the sultanates of northern Malaya which had previously been lost in a treaty with Britain. In January 1942, Phibun declared war on Britain and the United States, but the Thai Ambassador in Washington, Seni Pramoj, refused to deliver it to the State Department. Instead, Seni denounced the Phibun regime as illegal and formed hiw own movement in Washington.

Portion of the Death Railway
Portion of the Death Railway.

In 1942, Japanese forces, supplies and equipment transported to Burma by sea were vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and an alternative means of transport was needed. The Japanese started the Thailand-Burma Railway, also known also as the Death Railway, in June 1942. Forced labour was used in its construction. About 200,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 100,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project.

By 1944, it was evident that the Japanese were going to lose the war, and their behaviour in Thailand had become increasingly arrogant. Bangkok also suffered heavily from the Allied bombing raids. This, plus the economic hardship caused by the loss of Thailand’s rice export markets, made both the war and Phibun’s regime very unpopular. In July 1944, Phibun was ousted by the infiltrated government of Seni Pramoj. The new government hastily evacuated the British territories that Phibun had occupied.

The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. The British regarded Thailand as having been partly responsible for the immeasurable damage dealt upon the Allied cause and favoured treating the kingdom as a defeated enemy. However, the Americans had no sympathy for British and French colonialism and supported the new government. Thailand thus received little punishment for its wartime role under Phibun. In the postwar period Thailand enjoyed close relations with the United States, which it saw as a protector from the communist revolutions in neighbouring countries.

Postwar Thailand

Seni Pramoj became Prime Minister in 1945, and promptly restored the name Siam as a symbol of the end of Phibun’s nationalist regime. Democratic elections were held in January 1946. These were the first elections in which political parties were legal, and Pridi Phanomyong’s People’s Party and its allies won a majority. In March 1946 Pridi became Siam’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. In 1947 he agreed to hand back the French territory occupied in 1940 as the price for admission to the United Nations, the dropping of all wartime claims against Siam and a substantial package of American aid.

Pridi Phanomyong
Pridi Phanomyong.

In December 1945 the young king Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) had returned to Siam from Europe, but he died in 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the official explanation being that he shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun. The King was succeeded by his younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was a schoolboy in Europe. In August Pridi was forced to resign amid suspicion that he had been involved in the regicide. Without his leadership, the civilian government floundered, and in November 1947 the army, its confidence restored after the debacle of 1945, seized power. In April 1948 the army brought Phibun back from exile and made him Prime Minister. Pridi in turn was driven into exile.

Phibun’s return to power coincided with the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of a Communist regime in North Vietnam. He soon won the support of the U.S., beginning a long tradition of U.S.-backed military regimes in Thailand (as the country was again renamed in July 1949, this time permanently). Once again political opponents were arrested and tried, and some were executed. There were attempted counter-coups by Pridi supporters in 1948, 1949 and 1951, the second leading to heavy fighting between the army and navy before Phibun emerged victorious.

In 1951 the regime abolished the National Assembly as an elected body. This provoked strong opposition from the universities and the press, and led to a further round of trials and repression. The regime was greatly helped, however, by a postwar boom which gathered pace through the 1950s, fuelled by rice exports and U.S. aid. Thailand’s economy began to diversify, while the population and urbanisation increased.

By 1955 Phibun was losing his leading position in the army to younger rivals led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and General Thanom Kittikachorn. To shore up his position he restored the 1949 constitution and called elections, which his supporters won. But the army was not prepared to give up power, and in September 1957 it demanded Phibun’s resignation. When Phibun tried to have Sarit arrested, the army staged a bloodless coup on September 17, 1957, ending Phibun’s career for good. Thanom became Prime Minister until 1958, then yielded his place to Sarit, the real head of the regime. Sarit held power until his death in 1963, when Thanom again took the lead.

Sarit and Thanom were the first Thai leaders to have been educated entirely in Thailand, and were less influenced by European political ideas, whether fascist or democratic, than the generation of Pridi and Phibun had been. Rather, they were Thai traditionalists, who sought to restore the prestige of the monarchy and to maintain a society based on order, hierarchy and religion. They saw rule by the army as the best means of ensuring this, and also of defeating Communism, which they now associated with Thailand’s traditional enemies the Vietnamese. The young King Bhumibol, who returned to Thailand in 1951, co-operated with this project. The Thai monarchy’s present elevated status thus has its origins in this era.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit
King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit


The Vietnam War and the 60’s

While the war in Indochina was being fought between the Vietnamese and the French, Thailand (disliking both equally) stayed aloof, but once it became a war between the U.S. and the Vietnamese Communists, Thailand committed itself strongly to the U.S. side. The Vietnamese retaliated by supporting the Communist Party of Thailand’s insurgency in the north, northeast and sometime in the south.

The Vietnam War hastened the modernisation and westernisation of Thai society. The American presence and the exposure to western culture that came with it had an effect on almost every aspect of Thai life. The population began to grow explosively as the standard of living rose, and a flood of people began to move from the villages to the cities, and above all to Bangkok. Thailand had 30 million people in 1965, while by the end of the 20th century the population had doubled. Bangkok’s population had grown tenfold since 1945 and had tripled since 1970.

Educational opportunities and exposure to mass media increased during the Vietnam War years. Bright university students learned more about ideas related to Thailand’s economic and political systems, resulting in a revival of student activism. The Vietnam War period also saw the growth of the Thai middle class which gradually developed its own identity and consciousness.

Economic development certainly did not bring prosperity to all. During the 1960s many of the rural poor felt increasingly dissatisfied with their condition in society and disillusioned by their treatment by the central government in Bangkok. By the early 1970s rural discontent had manifested itself into a peasant’s activist movement. The protests focused on land loss, high rents, the heavy handed role of the police, corruption among the bureaucracy and the local elite, poor infrastructure, and overwhelming poverty.

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

By the late 1960s, more elements in Thai society had become openly critical of the military government which was seen as being increasingly incapable of dealing with the country’s problems. It was not only the student activists, but also the business community that had begun to question the leadership of the government as well as its relationship with the United States. Thanom came under increasing pressure to loosen his grip on power when the King commented that it was time for parliament to be restored and a new constitution put into effect. Finally in 1968 the government issued a new constitution and scheduled elections for the following year. The government party founded by the military junta won the election and Thanom remained prime minister.

Surprisingly, the Assembly was not totally tame. A number of MPs (mostly professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and journalists) began to openly challenge some of the government’s policies, producing evidence of widespread government corruption on a number of large projects. As a new budget was being debated in 1971, it actually appeared that the military’s demand for more funds might be voted down. Rather than suffer such a loss of face, Thanom carried out a putsch against his own government, suspended the constitution and dissolved the Parliament. Once again Thailand had been returned to absolute military rule.

This strongman approach which had worked for Phibun in 1938 and 1947, and for Sarit in 1957-58 would prove to be unsuccessful. By the early 1970s Thai society as a whole had developed a level of political awareness where it would no longer accept such unjustified authoritarian rule. The King, using various holidays to give speeches on public issues, became openly critical of the Thanom regime. He expressed doubt on the use of extreme violence in the efforts to combat insurgency. He mentioned the widespread existence of corruption in the government and expressed the view that coups should become a thing of the past in the Thai political system. Furthermore, the junta began to face increasing opposition from within the military itself.

The 1973 democracy movement

In the end it was the students that played the decisive role in the fall of the junta. Student demonstrations had started in 1968 and grew in size and numbers in the early 1970s despite the continued ban on political meetings. In October 1973, 13 students were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. The demonstrations swelled to several hundred thousand and the issue broadened from the release of the arrested students to demands for a new constitution and the replacement of the current government.

Democracy Monument in Bangkok
Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

On October 13, the government yielded to the public’s demand and the detainees were released. Leaders of the demonstrations called off the march, in accordance with the wishes of the King who was publicly against the democracy movement. As the crowds were breaking up the next day, the historic October 14th, many students found themselves unable to leave because the police had attempted to control the flow of the crowd by blocking the southern route to Rajavithi Road. Cornered and overwhelmed by the hostile crowd, the police soon responded with violence by launching barrages of teargas and gunfire. Within minutes, a full scale riot had erupted.

The military was called in, and Bangkok witnessed the horrifying spectacle of tanks rolling down Rajdamnoen Avenue and helicopters firing down at Thammasat University. A number of students commandeered buses and fire engines in an attempt to halt the progress of the tanks by ramming into them, with disastrous results.

With chaos reigning on the streets, King Bhumibol opened the gates of Chitralada Palace opened to the students who were being gunned down by the army. Despite orders from Thanom that the military action be intensified, army commander Kris Sivara had the army withdrawn from the streets.

The King condemned the government’s inability to handle the demonstrations, and notably condemned the students’ supposed role as well. Thanom resigned and was ordered by the King to leave the country.

The junta had fallen, at the cost of 1,577 lives.

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