History of Thailand


With the support of the king and the military membership of NARC, a new government was formed under the prime ministership of Thanin Kraivichien, a former Supreme Court justice who had a reputation for honesty and integrity. Though a civilian, Thanin was a passionate anticommunist and established a regime that was in many ways more repressive than those of earlier military strongmen. He imposed strict censorship, placed unions under tight controls, and carried out anticommunist purges of the civil service and education institutions. Student leaders, driven underground by the October 1976 violence, left urban areas to join the communist insurgency in the provinces. As a result of his harsh rule and a growing feeling within the political elite that university students, themselves members of the privileged classes, had been poorly treated, Thanin was replaced in October 1977 by General Kriangsak Chomanand.

Kriangsak was more conciliatory than his civilian predecessor and promised a new constitution and elections by 1979. He courted moderate union leaders, raising the minimum daily wage in the Bangkok area in 1978 and again in 1979. He allowed limited press freedom, and he gave verbal support to the idea of land reform, though no action in this area was forthcoming. In September 1978, he issued an amnesty for the "Bangkok 18" dissidents who had been arrested in the October 1976 violence and tried by military courts.

A new constitution was promulgated in December 1978. The 1978 Constitution established a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly, consisting of the popularly elected House of Representatives (301 members) and the appointed Senate (225 members). The military controlled appointment to the Senate, and it could block House of Representatives initiatives in important areas such as national security, the economy, the budget, and votes of no confidence. The 1978 document also stipulated that the prime minister and cabinet ministers did not have to be popularly elected. When elections were held on schedule in April 1979, moderate rightist parties--the Social Action Party, the Thai Citizens' Party, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party--won the largest number of seats, whereas the Democrats lost most of their seats.

Further changes came during 1979 and 1980, however, as economic conditions deteriorated in the wake of the second oil crisis. Uncontrolled inflation caused the standard of living to fall in urban areas, especially Bangkok, while government dilatoriness and corruption in the villages stalled policies designed to help the farmers. In February 1980, the Kriangsak government announced sudden increases in the prices of oil, gas, and electricity. This action provoked opposition from elected politicians and demonstrations similar to those of 1973 by students and workers. As opposition grew, Kriangsak resigned. In March 1980, General Prem Tinsulanonda, who had been army commander in chief and defense minister, became prime minister with the support of younger officers of the armed forces and civilian political leaders.

Prem in Power

Although a military figure, Thailand's new prime minister sought to give civilians a greater role in government and promote more stable and democratic political institutions. He enlisted the support of the Democrat Party and the Social Action Party in the House of Representatives and, in contrast to Kriangsak, appointed mostly civilians to his cabinet. He benefited immensely from the support given him by the royal family, as was especially evident in April 1981 when "Young Turk" officers launched a coup attempt in the capital region. These officers established a "Revolutionary Council," disbanded the National Assembly, and promised sweeping social changes, including land reform. Prem rushed to Khorat, where the royal family was in residence. When it became clear to regional military commanders that Prem enjoyed the king's backing in the present crisis, they offered him their support. On April 3, 1981, loyalist military units secured Bangkok and rounded up the rebellious officers with minimal fighting and casualties.

The monarch's role in politics was low key, but still pivotal. He had played a major part in the 1973 transition from military dictatorship to democracy. During the 1973-76 period, however, the king became increasingly apprehensive about the kinds of changes that were emerging because of a more liberalized political system. Communism seemed a genuine threat not only to political stability but also to the continuity of the royal family. This danger explains the king's support for extremist groups such as the Village Scouts, his controversial decision to visit ex-strongman Thanom in a Buddhist monastery on the eve of the October 1976 violence, and his backing of Thanin's repressive anticommunist regime. Bhumibol's support of Prem after 1980, however, suggests that although his basically conservative perspective was unchanged, the king was also concerned with promoting the development of stable parliamentary institutions in which the military would have a limited, and institutionalized, role.

Prem, however, faced serious problems. A major figure in the suppression of the April 1981 coup attempt was General Arthit Kamlangek, deputy commander of the Second Army Region. After Bangkok was retaken, Arthit was rewarded for his loyalty with the post of commander of the First Army Region, which encompassed the capital. In October 1982, he was appointed army commander in chief. Arthit thus seemed poised to succeed, or push aside, Prem as Thailand's prime minister. Prem's government had been severely weakened by the coup attempt and by continual dissension among the civilian members of the government. Moreover, economic problems focused popular dissatisfaction on Prem in both urban and rural areas. Students became politically more active, though the leftist extremism of the 1973-76 period was not evident. Students and workers combined forces to protest an increase in bus fares in 1982, obliging the government to rescind the increase. Demonstrations by farmers to raise the price of rice also occurred during this year with the backing of civilian politicians.

By early 1983, however, Prem had the distinction of being the longest serving prime minister since the fall of Thanom in 1973. Although the military had remained the most powerful political force in the early 1980s, civilian political institutions had shown surprising vitality. One reason for their strength was that the political parties had some success in mobilizing popular support behind economic and social issues. On a more basic level, there was evidence that the population, especially in the urban areas, had grown tired of military strongmen and wanted stable and more open political institutions.

Elections were scheduled for April 1983. A major obstacle to be overcome before the polling, however, was resolution of the heated dispute over "transitory" clauses in the 1978 Constitution. These clauses, which had ensured military control over the political system, were to become inoperative on April 21, 1983. Unless a constitutional amendment was passed to sustain the clauses, the appointed upper house, the Senate, would no longer be able to sit in joint session with the lower house and thus would lose a substantial measure of power. Also, government officials, including military officers, would no longer be allowed to serve in the cabinet. Finally, the structure of election constituencies would be radically altered. Small, single-member constituencies would be replaced by large constituencies covering entire provinces. The first two changes were naturally unpopular with the military elite, while the third alienated the members of the smaller political parties, who believed the creation of "winner take all" province-level constituencies would deprive them of parliamentary representation.

These groups supported constitutional amendments to make the transitory clauses permanent and preserve the conservative aspects of the 1978 Constitution. The amendment proposals, however, were narrowly defeated when the Chart Thai voted against them in the legislature. Prem deftly engineered a compromise by declaring that elections would be held before the transitory clauses (and the small constituency system) expired on April 21. The April 18 balloting, however, resulted in gains for the major parties. A coalition of the Social Action Party, Democrat Party, and National Democracy (Chart Prachathipatai) Party was stitched together and had a small majority in the lower house (the Chart Thai was excluded from the government because it lacked military backing). As a result of his continued military backing and image as a leader above party politics, Prem was reappointed prime minister.

Foreign Relations, 1977-83

Beginning in 1977, the Thai government under Prime Minister Kriangsak had sought a rapprochement with Indochina's new communist states. Trade agreements and a transit accord were signed with Laos in 1978. In September of that year, Pham Van Dong, premier of Vietnam, visited Bangkok and gave assurances that his government would not support a communist insurgency within Thailand. Troubles on the Thai-Cambodian border, including assaults on Thai border villages by Cambodian forces, however, continued to disrupt relations with Democratic Kampuchea.

Vietnam's invasion of Democratic Kampuchea in December 1978 initiated a new crisis. Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh in January 1979 and proclaimed the People's Republic of Kampuchea--a virtual satellite of Vietnam--a few days later. This action altered Cambodia's position as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. Thai and Vietnamese forces now faced each other over a common border, and there were repeated Vietnamese incursions into Thai territory. Moreover, a flood of refugees from Cambodia placed great strains on Thai resources despite the donation of emergency aid by outside nations.

As a frontline state in the Cambodian crisis, Thailand joined the other members of ASEAN, the United States, and China in demanding a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. In June 1982, the Thai government extended support to the anti-Vietnamese coalition formed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge's Khieu Samphan, and noncommunist Cambodian leader Son Sann. One unforeseen benefit of the Cambodian crisis was greatly improved relations between Thailand and China, as both countries found themselves in confrontation with Vietnam. By 1983 China had drastically reduced aid and support for the Thai and other Southeast Asian communist insurgencies as part of its new policy of improved relations within the region.


On April 29, 1988, King Bhumibol decreed the dissolution of the House of Representatives at the request of Prime Minister Prem, who had been faced with increasing disunity in the political parties that made up the ruling coalition. New elections were scheduled for July 24, 1988, amid calls from student and labor groups for a prime minister who was an elected member of parliament. On election day, the Thai voters gave 87 seats in the 357-seat House of Representatives to the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party, which formed a 215-member coalition government with four other parties: Social Action (Kit Sangkhom) Party, Democrat (Prachathipat) Party, Rassadorn (People) Party, and United Democracy (Saha Prachathipatai) Party. All but the United Democracy Party had been partners in the previous government. In a surprise move, Prem refused an invitation by the ruling coalition to head the new government, saying he was responding to the people's call for an elected prime minister. The coalition then selected Chatichai Choonhaven, leader of the Chart Thai and deputy prime minister under Prem, to take the number one spot, thus giving Thailand its first elected prime minister in twelve years. Chatichai, who left the military in 1958 to serve as a diplomat and cabinet official, was considered to be probusiness and not likely to change Prem's economic policies significantly.

The Thai economy continued to boom in the first half of 1988. Exports were projected to total US$12 billion for the year, up 20 percent for the second year in a row. Foreign investment in Thailand increased 30 percent in 1987 to US$210 million, with applications for investment up 140 percent to 1,057. Investor confidence was expected to continue under the new government. Tourism, the country's largest foreign exchange earner, was up 23.6 percent in 1987, which had been billed as "Visit Thailand Year." Visitor arrivals during the first half of 1988 signaled an even bigger year, and more than 3.5 million tourists were expected.

Particular attractions for visitors in 1987 and 1988 were two grand national celebrations accompanied by elaborate pomp and pageantry. On December 5, 1987, the country celebrated King Bhumibol's sixtieth birthday; and July 2, 1988, marked the forty- second year and twenty-third day of Bhumibol's reign. Passing the mark set by his grandfather, Chulalongkorn, he thus became the longest ruler of the 200-year-old Chakkri Dynasty. Both occasions were marked by an outpouring of the tremendous love and respect of the Thai people for their monarch.

The first half of 1988 was also marked by regional developments important to Thailand's sense of national security. While on a visit to Moscow in May, Prime Minister Prem was informed by the Soviets of Vietnam's pledge to withdraw 50,000 troops from Cambodia in 1988. Hanoi already had withdrawn 20,000 troops in December 1987 and, according to its own projections, would be down to 50,000 troops by the end of 1988. These forces it promised to withdraw by its previously stated timetable of the end of 1990. Thailand at first reacted cautiously to the news. By mid-June, however, with its usual flexibility in foreign affairs, Bangkok was rolling out the red carpet for visiting Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach. The following month, the Vietnamese-controlled government in Cambodia freed the first group of an estimated 120 Thai prisoners it had promised to release in order to improve relations with Thailand.

Bangkok's response to the new developments in Cambodia was also expressed in concert with the other ASEAN nations. In July the regional organization sponsored informal peace talks in Jakarta between the four warring Cambodian factions and other interested parties, including Vietnam, Laos, and the ASEAN countries. Little that was concrete came out of the Jakarta Informal Meeting other than an agreement to hold another meeting in 1989 at the senior official level. The Jakarta meeting did mark, however, the first time the various Cambodian factions had all sat down together to talk. In any event, more progress had been made in 1988 toward alleviating Thailand's most serious security concern than had been made in the previous decade.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress