History of Thailand since 1973

History of Thailand - part 5/5

1973-1976

The events of October 1973 amounted to a revolution in Thai politics. For the first time the urban middle class, led by the students, had defeated the combined forces of the old ruling class and the army, and had gained the apparent blessing of the King for a transition to full democracy.

However, Thailand had not yet produced a political class able to make this bold new democracy function smoothly. The January 1975 elections failed to produce a stable party majority, and fresh elections in April 1976 produced the same result. The veteran politician Seni Pramoj and his brother Kukrit Pramoj alternated in power, but were unable to carry out a coherent reform programme. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 led to recession and inflation, weakening the government’s position. The democratic government’s most popular move was to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand.

The wisdom of this move was soon questioned, however, when Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975. The arrival of communist regimes on Thailand’s borders, the abolition of the 600-year-old Lao monarchy, and the arrival of a flood of refugees from Laos and Cambodia, swung public opinion in Thailand back to the right.

A return to military rule

By late 1976 moderate middle class opinion had turned away from the activism of the students. The army and the right-wing parties began a propaganda war against student liberalism, by accusing student activists of being communists. In October Thanom returned to Thailand to enter a royal monastery. Two student protesters were accused of a communist conspiracy and were hung after they had protesting against his return. Students in Thammasat University held protests, and on October 6, 1976, the army unleashed the paramilitaries. Hundreds of students were tortured and killed, the constitution was suspended and the army seized power.

The army installed Thanin, an ultra-conservative former judge, as prime minister, and carried out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media and the civil service. The Minister of the Interior was Samak Sundaravej, who was to become Prime Minister in 2008. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists fled Bangkok and joined the Communist Party’s insurgent forces in the north and north-east. Others left for exile, including the Rector of Thammasat University. The economy was in serious difficulties, as the new regime proved as unstable as the democratic experiment had been. In October 1977 a different section of the army staged another “coup” and replaced Thanin with General Kriangsak. Kriangsak was forced to step down in February 1980 at a time of economic troubles. He was succeeded by the army commander-in-chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda, a staunch royalist with a reputation for being incorruptible.

The Prem era

For most of the 1980s, Thailand was ruled by Prem, a democratically-inclined strongman who restored parliamentary politics. Thereafter and until 2006 the country remained a democracy, apart from a brief period of military rule from 1991 to 1992.

General Prem Tinsulanonda
General Prem Tinsulanonda

The King and Prem acted to put an end to violent military interventions. In April 1981 a clique of junior army officers staged a coup, taking control of Bangkok, but Prem, with the King’s support, managed to recapture the capital in a bloodless counterattack. This episode raised the prestige of the monarchy still further, and also enhanced Prem’s status as a relative moderate. Another constitution was promulgated and elections were held in April 1983, giving Prem, now in the guise of a civilian politician, a large majority.

Prem was also the beneficiary of the accelerating economic revolution which was sweeping south-east Asia. After the recession of the mid 1970s, economic growth took off. For the first time Thailand became a significant industrial power, and manufactured goods such as computer parts, textiles and footwear overtook rice, rubber and tin as Thailand’s leading exports. Tourism developed rapidly and became a major earner. While Thailand did not grow as fast as the “East Asian Tigers” like Taiwan and South Korea, it achieved sustained growth.

Prem held office for eight years and remained personally popular, but the revival of democratic politics led to a demand for a more adventurous leader. In 1988 fresh elections brought former General Chatichai to power, but he proved both incompetent and corrupt.

1992: Bloody May

Suchinda kneeling in front of the King during a televised audience
Suchinda kneeling in front of the King during a televised audience

By allowing one faction of the military to get rich on government contracts, Chatichai provoked a rival faction, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon and other generals, to stage a coup in February 1991. The junta called itself the National Peace Keeping Council. The NPKC brought in a civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, who was still responsible to the military. Anand’s anti-corruption measures proved popular. Another general election was held in March 1992.

The winning coalition appointed coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon to become Prime Minister, in effect breaking a promise he had made earlier to the King and confirming the widespread suspicion that the new government was going to be a military regime in disguise. Suchinda’s action brought hundreds of thousands of people out in the largest demonstrations ever seen in Bangkok, led by the former governor of Bangkok, Major-General Chamlong Srimuang. Suchinda brought military units personally loyal to him into the city and tried to suppress the demonstrations by force, leading to a massacre in the heart of the city in which hundreds died. The Navy mutinied in protest, and the country seemed on the verge of civil war. In May the King intervened: he summoned Suchinda and Chamlong to a televised audience. The result of this was the resignation of Suchinda.

1997 Asian Crisis

Chuan Leekpai
Chuan Leekpai

The King re-appointed Anand as interim prime minister until elections could be held in September 1992, which brought the Democrat Party under Chuan Leekpai to power, mainly representing the voters of Bangkok and the south. Chuan was a competent administrator who held power until 1995, when he was defeated at elections by a coalition of conservative and provincial parties led by Banharn Silpa-acha. Tainted by corruption charges from the very beginning, Banharn’s government was forced to call early elections in 1996, in which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s New Aspiration Party managed to gain a narrow victory.

Soon after coming into office, Prime Minister Chavalit was confronted by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. After coming under strong criticism for his handling of the crisis, Chavalit resigned in November 1997 and Chuan returned to power. Chuan came to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund which stabilised the currency and allowed IMF intervention on Thai economic recovery. In contrast to the country’s previous history, the crisis was resolved by civilian rulers under democratic procedures.

Thaksin Shinawatra

From 2001 to 2006 Thai politics was dominated by the populist Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) party of telecommunications millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman, campaigned effectively against the old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. In January 2001 he had a sweeping victory at the polls, winning a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister has ever had in a freely elected National Assembly.

Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin Shinawatra

In power, Thaksin presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy and repaid all debts borrowed from IMF before due time. By 2002 Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, was once again booming. As low-end manufacturing moved to China and other low-wage economies, Thailand moved upscale into more sophisticated manufacturing, both for a rapidly expanding domestic middle class market and for export. Tourism, and particularly sex tourism, also remained a huge revenue earner despite intermittent “social order” campaigns by the government to control the country’s nightlife. Thaksin’s policies were particularly effective at alleviating rural poverty and at providing near universal access to affordable health care. His main support base was the rural poor in the north, northeast east and central part of Thailand. He won an even bigger majority at elections in February 2005, securing his second consecutive term.

However, his government was frequently challenged with allegations of corruption, dictatorship, demagogy, treason, conflicts of interest, acting undiplomatically, tax evasion, the use of legal loopholes and hostility towards a free press. Thaksin was accused of lèse-majesté, selling domestic assets to international investors, and presiding over extrajudicial killings (especially in the restive south, and during his war campaign against drug dealers).

Accusations also included the improper handling of privatization of PTT and EGAT, the unfairness of the U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement, and the corruption in the Suvarnabhumi Airport project. In January 2006, the 73,000 million baht tax free buy-out of his family holding in Shin Corporation, while legal, brought on more accusations by the media and opposition parties on the grounds of what they said was immorality and conflict of interest. Anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin mass rallies were held from January to March 2006, and Thaksin responded by calling a snap election in April. His party won but the election was later invalidated.

On September 19, 2006, with the prime minister in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin launched a coup, the 18th coup since 1932.

The 2006 coup and its aftermath

The coup followed a year-long political crisis involving Thaksin and political opponents, and occurred less than a month before nation-wide House elections were originally scheduled to be held. The military cancelled the upcoming elections, suspended the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, banned protests and all political activities, suppressed and censored the media, declared martial law, and arrested Cabinet members.

There were widespread displays of public kindness to soldiers controlling positions throughout Bangkok. People brought food, drinks and flowers to troops, and often posed for pictures next to soldiers and tanks. Yellow ribbons (yellow is the color of the King), could be seen on tanks and machine guns, and it was assumed by some Thai analysts and the international media that the coup had the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The silence of both the King and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda on the day following the coup was enough to be taken as indicating support.

Sonthi and Surayud
Sonthi and Surayud

The new rulers, led by general Sonthi Boonyaratglin and organised in a Council of National Security, appointed retired General Surayud Chulanont as Prime Minister on 1 October 2006. Surayud and Prem Tinsulanonda had played a key role in the promotion of Sonthi to the position of Army Commander.

There was a significant worsening in perceived levels of corruption during Surayud’s government. He raised the military budget by 35% and was accused of economic mismanagement, rampant human rights abuses, and flip-flopping on numerous policies. Thailand fell behind Cambodia and Indonesia in terms of freedom of expression. Thailand’s economic growth rate slowed to the lowest level in five years and was ranked the lowest in the region. In spite of Sonthi being the first Muslim ruling the army, and in spite of Surayud’s apologies for atrocities committed by the Thai military, violence continued to escalate in the south of Thailand throughout 2006 and 2007.

A new constitution, the 16th in 60 years, was drafted by a committee established by the military junta. The junta passed a law that made criticism of the draft and opposition to the constitutional referendum a criminal act. The junta also claimed to the public that general democratic elections would only occur if the draft were approved. On 19 August 2007 a referendum was held and 57.8% of the voters accepted the constitution.

On 30 May 2007, a junta-appointed Constitutional Tribunal dissolved the Thai Rak Thai Party and banned over 100 of its executives, including Thaksin, from politics for 5 years. Elections were then scheduled for 23 December 2007, but the Thai Rak Thai party was quickly refounded under a new name, People Power Party.

On December 23, elections were held and won by the People Power Party. Its leader Samak Sundaravej was elected Prime Minister by the Parliament a month later, in a period of mourning following the death of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, the elder sister of the King, in early January. Samak, 72 year-old, had been Minister of the Interior in the Thanin’s anti-communist administration in 1976, and Deputy Prime Minister in the Suchinda administration in 1992. He had then justified the military’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators by declaring that the military had the right to do so, to restore law and order.

2008: Yellow Shirt (PAD) protests against Thaksin’s successors

PAD protesters at the Government House
PAD protesters at the Government House

Thaksin made a brief come back in 2008, then returned to exile in England as he was facing a trial in Thailand.

Samak’s mandate will probably not leave any lasting memories, except the strong opposition by the PAD, the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The PAD consists of middle and upper-class Bangkokians and Southerners, supported by the conservative elite, factions of the Thai Army, and state-enterprise labor unions. Claiming that the rural population is not educated enough to vote, the PAD wants the Parliament to be a largely royally-appointed body, with only 30% of elected MP.

Led by Chamlong Srimuang, who was already at the head of the demonstrators in 1992, and media-mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, Thaksin’s old enemy, the PAD organized rallies, blocked public transports and seized the Government House, forcing the government to hold their meetings at the old Bangkok airport.

Samak declared the state of emergency in Bangkok and threatened the demonstrators, but he didn’t resort to force. In September 2008, Samak was eventually forced to resign (he was being paid to appear in a TV cooking show, which a court ruled unconstitutional). The PAD rejoiced but only for a short time, as Samak’s successor, Somchai Wongsawat, happened to be Thaksin’s brother-in-law. The demonstrations resumed and the protests escalated. On October 6 thousands of protesters, some of whom were armed, surrounded Parliament to prevent the legislature from meeting. The police charged at the demonstrators with tear gas, leaving two people dead and more than 400 injured, some severely.

On the evening of Tuesday 25 November 2008, armed PAD members forced their way into the terminal building of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and blockaded the main road to the airport. All flights were suspended, leaving thousands of travelers stranded in the airport, which remained closed for eight days. The government called on the Army to restore order, but the Army did not follow the orders. In a press conference on 26 November, Army Commander General Anupong Paochinda proposed that the PAD withdraw from the airport and that the government resign.

The chaos ended in December when the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved the governing People’s Power Party and two coalition member parties and banned leaders of the parties, including Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, from politics for five years. After this decision, many previous coalition partners of the government then defected and joined the main opposition party, the Democrat party, to form a new government. “We have won a victory and achieved our aims,” said Sondhi Limthongkul. On 15 December 2008, Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected Prime Minister by the Parliament.

2009-2010: Red Shirts protests against Abhisit

The early signs of a violent move against the new government was seen from early April. On April 7, Abhisit was attacked by a group of Thaksin’s supporters as he was in his car. The protests then expanded to Pattaya, the site of the 14th ASEAN summit. The red-shirted protesters stormed the Summit, forcing its cancellation. Visiting leaders were evacuated from the venue by helicopter to a nearby military airbase. Abhisit declared a state of emergency in the areas of Pattaya and Chonburi on April 11.

As the week-long Songkran (Thai New Year) holiday began, protests escalated in Bangkok. Protesters used cars, buses, and in one location LPG tankers to take control of several locations in central Bangkok. Small clashes then violent clashes began between anti-government and government supporters, and the general population. Arrest warrants were issued for Thaksin and 13 protest leaders. Many protest leaders voluntarily gave themselves in to police on 14 April 2009, ending the violence. Demonstrators were sent back to the provinces by government’s buses and the state of emergency was lifted on 24 April. According to government figures, over 120 people were injured in the unrest, most of them UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – official name for the Red Shirts). The UDD claimed that at least 6 demonstrators were killed, but Army chief Anupong Paochinda swore that no lives were lost.

Red shirts protests
Red shirts protests

In early 2010 a series of events occurred in which the situation escalated. On 26 February, assets worth 46 billion Thai baht were seized from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In early March 2010, “red shirt” protesters converged on Bangkok to press demands for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections. By April 15, clashes between protesters and the military had resulted in 24 people (both civilian and military) being killed and over 800 injured.

On May 3, the Thai Prime Minister announced he was willing to hold elections on November 14 should the opposition red shirts accept the offer. The following day red shirt leaders accepted the proposal to leave the occupied parts of Bangkok in return for the new election on the scheduled date, but some protesters refused to leave, causing Abhisit to take back his decision. Bangkok became a war zone, with troops setting up live fire zones and shooting anyone entering these areas on sight.

On May 19, the Army, backed by armoured personnel carriers attacked the protest camp resulting in the deaths of 11 protestors and an Italian journalist. The Red Shirt leaders all either surrender or try and escape. Arson attacks resulted in the near destruction of the Central World shopping centre and other buildings.

The casualty count as of May 22 stood at 85 dead and 1,378 injured.

2011: Yingluck Shinawatra

Yingluck Shinawatra
Yingluck Shinawatra

Elections were eventually held on July 3, 2011, and saw a landslide victory of the “red shirts party” (Pheua Thai Party), led by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Formerly a businesswoman, Yingluck is a newcomer in politics and referred to by Thaksin as his “clone” who can make decisions for him. Following the elections, Abhisit resigned from his leadership of the Democrat Party, and Yingluck became the first female Prime Minister in the history of Thailand.

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