Battles of Thai Democracy in the 1970s

(This is a brief history of Thai politics during the 1970s. It is largely drawn from the book: History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. I am reading it in order to gain an understanding of what is occurring there today and am sharing the information I get from those books – as well as my interpretation – here. More posts on this topic may follow.)

For Thailand the 1970s saw the collapse of military dictatorship followed by a period of parliamentary rule dominated by urban business interests and then a bloody return to military dominated rule. These events go someway towards contextualising the current conflict in that nations capital, Bangkok.

From the 1950s until October of 1973 the military ruled Thailand under a program of development and order. The junta dubbed itself ‘Thai-style Democracy’ as a way of legitimating its rule beyond the effectiveness of the gun. As articulated by the first of the military rulers, Sarit Thanarat, ‘Thai-style Democracy’ was the rule of the military and it was just because the military held no interest other than the interest of the state and could thereby guarantee order, prosperity and the freedom that emerges when there are no conflicts.

Aside from its usual activities directed at order the Thai military regime also pursued an effort of nationalisation. That is, it sought to bring a cultural unity to the disparate identities that existed within Thailand. The principle tools of this effort were Buddhism, the monarchy and ‘development’ – the securing of the interests of growing businesses. Unity was achieved through the suppression of local practices thanks to the efforts of the particular form of Buddhism that was promoted, an increase in dependence on the Thai language for all within the states borders and the bounty of development as well as the force of the military.

These efforts were also their own undoing. These efforts placed the military in a positions where they were able to become personal shareholders in the success of business enterprises which resulted not only in their own extraordinary wealth when compared with their compatriots but the creation of a culture of ‘strong-men’. Aside from the tensions that this created the nationalisation efforts also tended to result increased contact between people throughout Thailand and internationally. Such contact promoted a sense that so called ‘Thai-style democracy was not that great an idea.

By the close of the 1950s the political left that had developed as a result of modernisation took a turn towards Maoism. The turn may have been motivated by the particular circumstances in which the left found itself in at that time, whatever the truth this is, these circumstances led to the expansion and organisation of a left capable of posing a violent threat to the military junta.

As Baker and Phongpaichit suggest, “The Communist Party of Thailand began to harvest not only the urban intellectuals increasingly bitter frustration against military dictatorship, but also the peasants reaction against the market, and the outer regions opposition to the imposition of the nation-state with its intrusive bureaucracy and demands for linguistic and cultural uniformity.” P183

Perhaps inspired by their patrons in the US the military had no hesitation in using napalm, looting and rape in its war against the Maoists who, nevertheless, managed to take control of a not insignificant portion of the country. Whilst, such brutality was justified to an extent through the promotion of the fear of communism it was not enough to secure support from key players and in 1973 was brought down.

The monarchy played an important role in these developments. After being set up as the symbolic source of authority for government the King’s criticism of the military in its violence and in the crassness of the Buddhism being imposed upon the country, hit hard. It might be said that such criticism authorised wider descent. The symbolic importance the military ascribed to the monarchy was in, a way, realised as reality, the fact that the monarchy was a product of the dictatorship masquerading as a source of legitimacy for that dictatorship was forgotten.

After confronting the student movement and arresting its leaders the military faced a confrontation it was unable to survive. On October 13, 1973, half a million people protested near the Democracy monument in Thailand for the release of the student leaders. The military backed down and released the leaders. But the movement was not satisfied. It moved to the palace to demand the King extract a promise from the military that constitutional rule would be developed and implemented within a year. The promise was extracted but when violence erupted in the clearing of the protest a situation was created where student lead protesters acting via the King forced the exile of the leaders of the junta known as the ‘three tyrants’.

Baker and Phongpaichit note that the major transformation as result of this related to the power of the students and the symbolic significance of the monarchy. They write: “The final collapse of military rule catapulted students into a historic role and elevated the king as a supra-constitutional force arbitrating the conflicts of a deeply divided nation.” (p188) It is unclear to me just how far such arbitration is an active reality rather than symbolic pole for legitimacy – a symbol requiring the articulation of political positions as wide ranging rather than interest group based. The historic role of the students apparently ceased after the fall of the military regime only to re-emerge in a similar conflict in 1976.

The eventual elections were inconclusive. Both the military and the socialist managed to gain significant levels of support but nowhere near enough to form an effective government. They held control in discrete geographic areas militating against a claim to rule the whole of Thailand and in any case had to share a parliament made up of many parties.

Coalition government was eventually formed behind an alliance of technocrats and businessman scared of the prospects of both military and radical rule. Their leader, Kukrit Pramoj, according to Baker and Phongpaichit, “represented a marriage of free-market capitalism, elitist democracy, exemplary monarchy, and paternalistic government which appealed to many businessmen and urban middle class as a route beyond military rule”. (P 190) This was supported by a fair dash of populism. As well charisma this coalition managed to hold power by battling communism with a program of wealth redistribution to the North as opposed to the program of napalm and rape deployed by the Junta.

Nevertheless, the allegiance formed between the military and business was still strong. Baker and Phongpaichit note that between the years of 1975-1976 parliamentary democracy was slowly abandoned in favour of tacit or open support for ‘a military solution’. The political changes as a result of October 1973 were perhaps more a change of tactics on the part of an alliance whose descendents donned the yellow shirt in 2006 rather than a concrete change in regime. Even after 1973 ‘Thai style democracy’ was still in vogue.

During this period an increasingly fascist tendency emerged. Most readily this was visible in an organisation known as “The Village Scouts Movement” much like the Scouting movement we are familiar with it involved teaching kids the codes of nationalism. It was, however, more belligerent in its an anti-communist goals.

The situation is perhaps best summed up by the slogan the pro-military Chat Thai party used in an election: “Right kill Left”. The fact that slogan was possible marks the character of the parliament regime of the 1970s.

The end of that regime and the return of ‘Thai-style democracy’ proper was to occur in 1976. Baker and Phongpaichit suggest that again as a result of modernisation pursuits a risk to the regime presented itself.
In that time the student population had increased around 10 fold. When presented with a university system shaped by 20 years of military rule and a corresponding attitude towards critical thought students acted negatively and sought to reshape the university. Their shear numbers guaranteed a degree of success. Radical journals as well as the voicing of dissent were made possible within the university grounds.

In October of 1976 things turned violent. Amidst an occupation of Thammasat University the military launched an all out assault on the students. Going beyond the secrecy we are familiar with in the suppression of dissent the military went so far as to broadcast on its public radio station that people should kill students. On 6 October the university was surrounded and bombarded. Those that sought to escape the grounds were lynched, raped and burnt alive. Eventual over 3000 were arrested.

In the immediate aftermath of these events Thanin Kraivirien became prime minister and decreed that there was to be a 12 year hiatus in parliamentary democracy.

Arguable this was just a shift in tactics. It was time to put away the carrots and bring back the sticks. The students responded in kind: those that did not flee the country went to the jungle and became guerrillas. They were set on trying to take the state and institute what is referred to today as ‘real democracy’ in violent confrontation with the military junta by surrounding them in the cities from the countryside – revolution Maoist style.

Whist ‘Thai-style democracy’ appears to be a clear intersection of specific interests and a conservative ideology (in the sense mentioned in this article) ‘real democracy’ seems somewhat more elusive.
The answer for the students had been either negative, it is not military rule, or as they increasingly turned after 1976, Maoist. Both of these approaches had their shortcomings. The negative approach, in the end, only precipitated a tactical change within Thai-style democracy. Meanwhile, the Maoist approach was to slowly ebb away during the 80s. Following the withdrawal of foreign support for the Maoists because of conflicts between China, Vietnam and Cambodia, the distaste on the part of former students for military discipline as well as the students’ distaste for the example set by the Khmer Rouge the guerrilla war against ‘Thai-style Democracy’ fizzled out.

What is occurring at the moment might be another attempt to articulate what this ‘real democracy’ is. In the context of this brief history it might be suggested that its definition might be found within the walls of the Thammasat University of 1976.


About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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