History of Thailand

BEGINNING OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL ERA

Early in his reign, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1925-35) showed a tendency to share responsibility for political decision making with his ministers. He also appointed an advisory council to study the possibility of providing the country with a constitution, but its royalist members advised against such a measure. The civil bureaucracy, by contrast, considered the time ripe for such a move. Siam faced severe economic problems because of the world depression, which had caused a sharp drop in the price of rice. Discontent among the political elite grew in reaction to retrenchment in government spending, which necessitated severe cutbacks in the numbers of civil servants and military personnel, the demotion in rank of others, and the cancellation of government programs.

1932 Coup

The long era of absolute monarchy was brought to a sudden end on June 24, 1932, by a bloodless coup d'etat engineered by a group of civil servants and army officers with the support of army units in the Bangkok area. The action was specifically directed against ministers of the conservative royal government and not against the person of the king. Three days after the coup a military junta put into effect a provisional constitution drawn up by a young law professor, Pridi Phanomyong. Prajadhipok reluctantly accepted the new situation that had stripped him of his political power but in principle had left the prestige of the monarchy unimpaired.

The coup leaders, who were known as the "promoters," were representative of the younger generation of Western-oriented political elite that had been educated to be instruments of an absolute monarchy--an institution they now viewed as archaic and inadequate to the task of modern government. The principals in the coup identified themselves as nationalists, and none questioned the institution of the monarchy. Their numbers included the major figures in Thai politics for the next three decades. Pridi, one of the country's leading intellectuals, was the most influential civilian promoter. His chief rival among the other promoters was Phibun, or Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram, an ambitious junior army officer who later attained the rank of field marshal. Phahon, or Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena, the senior member of the group, represented old-line military officers dissatisfied with cuts in appropriations for the armed forces. These three exercised power as members of a cabinet, the Commissariat of the People, chosen by the National Assembly that had been summoned by the promoters soon after the coup. To assuage conservative opinion, a retired jurist, Phraya Manopakorn, was selected as prime minister.

A permanent constitution was promulgated before the end of 1932. It provided for a quasi-parliamentary regime in which executive power was vested in a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, of which half of the members were elected by limited suffrage and half appointed by the government in power. The constitution provided that the entire legislature would be elected when half of the electorate had received four years of schooling or after ten years had elapsed, whichever came first. The National Assembly was responsible for the budget and could override a royal veto. Real power resided with the promoters, however, and was exercised with army backing through their political organization, the People's Party.

A rift soon developed within the ranks of the promoters between civilian technicians and military officers. As finance minister, Pridi proposed a radical economic plan in 1933, calling for the nationalization of natural resources. This plan was unacceptable to Manopakorn and the more conservative military members in the cabinet. The prime minister closed the National Assembly, in which Pridi had support, and ruled by decree. Accused of being a communist, Pridi fled into exile, but army officers opposing the civilian prime minister's move staged a coup in June 1933 that turned out Manopakorn, restored the National Assembly, and set up a new government headed by Phahon. With sentiment running in his favor, Pridi was permitted to return to Bangkok and was subsequently cleared of the charges against him.

In addition to factionalism within the cabinet, the government was also confronted with a serious royalist revolt in October 1933. The revolt was led by the king's cousin, Prince Boworadet, who had been defense minister during the old regime. Although the king gave no support to the prince, relations between Prajadhipok and the political leaders deteriorated thereafter.

The first parliamentary elections in the country's history were held in November 1933. Although fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots, they confirmed Pridi's popularity. Pridi and his supporters in the civilian left wing of the People's Party were countered by a military faction that rallied around his rival, Phibun. In 1934 Phibun was named defense minister and proceeded to use his ministerial powers to build his political constituency within the army. Campaigning for a stronger military establishment in order to keep the country out of foreign hands, he took every opportunity to assert the superior efficiency of the military administration over the civilian bureaucracy, which looked to Pridi for leadership. Prime Minister Phahon had to maintain a precarious balance between the Pridi and Phibun factions in the government.

The civilian conservatives had been discredited during the Manopakorn regime and by the support some had given to the royalist revolt. Their loss of influence deprived the king of effective political allies in the government. In March 1935, Prajadhipok abdicated without naming a successor, charging the Phahon government with abuse of power in curtailing the royal veto. He went into retirement in Britain. His ten-year-old nephew, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII, 1935-46), who was attending school in Switzerland, was named king to succeed him, and a regency council, which included Pridi, was appointed to carry out those functions of the monarchy retained under the constitution. The new king did not return to his country until 1945.

Phibun and the Nationalist Regime

The promoters, both civilian and military, had given their political movement a nationalist label, but unanimity among them went no further than acceptance of the official ideology. Although it was essential for the stability of any cabinet that they work together, relations between the civilian and military factions steadily deteriorated as more civil offices went to military personnel. Sensing a tendency toward military rule that he could no longer contain, Phahon retired in December 1938. Phibun took office as prime minister, with his rival, Pridi, as finance minister.

The Phibun regime sold nationalism to the public by using propaganda methods borrowed from authoritarian regimes in Europe, and nationalism was equated with Westernization. To make clear to the world--in Phibun's words--that the country belonged to the Thai, in 1939 the name of the country was officially changed to Muang Thai (Land of the Free), or Thailand. That same year Pridi introduced his "Thailand for the Thai" economic plan, which levied heavy taxes on foreign-owned businesses, the majority of them Chinese, while offering state subsidies to Thai-owned enterprises. The government encouraged the Thai to emulate European fashions, decreeing, for example, that shoes and hats be worn in public. Betel chewing was prohibited, and opium addicts were prosecuted and, if Chinese, deported.

Although nationalism was equated with Westernization, it was not pro-Western, either politically or culturally. Thai Christians, especially those in government service, as well as Muslims, suffered official discrimination. The clear inference of government statements was that only Buddhists could be Thai patriots. At its source Thai nationalism was anti-Chinese in character. Regulations were enacted to check Chinese immigration and to reserve for the Thai numerous occupations that had formerly been held predominantly by Chinese.

Phibun's nationalist regime also revived irredentist claims, stirring up anti-French sentiment and supporting restoration of former Thai territories in Cambodia and Laos. Seeking support against France, Phibun cultivated closer relations with Japan. The Thai nationalists looked to Japan as the model of an Asian country that had used Western methods and technology to achieve rapid modernization. As Thailand confronted the French in Indochina, the Thai looked to Japan as the only Asian country to challenge the European powers successfully. Although the Thai were united in their demand for the return of the lost provinces, Phibun's enthusiasm for the Japanese was markedly greater than that of Pridi, and many old conservatives as well viewed the course of the prime minister's foreign policy with misgivings.

World War II

Thailand responded pragmatically to the military and political pressures of World War II. When sporadic fighting broke out between Thai and French forces along Thailand's eastern frontier in late 1940 and early 1941, Japan used its influence with the Vichy regime in France to obtain concessions for Thailand. As a result, France agreed in March 1941 to cede 54,000 square kilometers of Laotian territory west of the Mekong and most of the Cambodian province of Battambang to Thailand. The recovery of this lost territory and the regime's apparent victory over a European colonial power greatly enhanced Phibun's reputation.

Then, on December 8, 1941, after several hours of fighting between Thai and Japanese troops at Chumphon, Thailand had to accede to Japanese demands for access through the country for Japanese forces invading Burma and Malaya. Phibun assured the country that the Japanese action was prearranged with a sympathetic Thai government. Later in the month Phibun signed a mutual defense pact with Japan. Pridi resigned from the cabinet in protest but subsequently accepted the nonpolitical position of regent for the absent Ananda Mahidol.

Under pressure from Japan, the Phibun regime declared war on Britain and the United States in January 1942, but the Thai ambassador in Washington, Seni Pramoj, refused to deliver the declaration to the United States government. Accordingly, the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. With American assistance Seni, a conservative aristocrat whose antiJapanese credentials were well established, organized the Free Thai Movement, recruiting Thai students in the United States to work with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS trained Thai personnel for underground activities, and units were readied to infiltrate Thailand. From the office of the regent in Thailand, Pridi ran a clandestine movement that by the end of the war had with Allied aid armed more than 50,000 Thai to resist the Japanese.

Thailand was rewarded for Phibun's close cooperation with Japan during the early years of war with the return of further territory that had once been under Bangkok's control, including portions of the Shan states in Burma and the four northernmost Malay states. Japan meanwhile had stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous "death railway" through Thailand using Allied prisoners of war.

As the war dragged on, however, the Japanese presence grew more irksome. Trade came to a halt, and Japanese military personnel requisitioning supplies increasingly dealt with Thailand as a conquered territory rather than as an ally. Allied bombing raids damaged Bangkok and other targets and caused several thousand casualties. Public opinion and, even more important, the sympathies of the civilian political elite, moved perceptibly against the Phibun regime and the military. In June 1944, Phibun was forced from office and replaced by the first predominantly civilian government since the 1932 coup.

Pridi and the Civilian Regime, 1944-47

The new government was headed by Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian linked politically with conservatives like Seni. The most influential figure in the regime, however, was Pridi, whose antiJapanese views were increasingly attractive to the Thai. In the last year of the war, Allied agents were tacitly given free access by Bangkok. As the war came to an end, Thailand repudiated its wartime agreements with Japan.

The civilian leaders, however, were unable to achieve unity. After a falling-out with Pridi, Khuang was replaced as prime minister by the regent's nominee, Seni, who had returned to Thailand from his post in Washington. The scramble for power among factions in late 1945 created political divisions in the ranks of the civilian leaders that destroyed their potential for making a common stand against the resurgent political force of the military in the postwar years.

Postwar accommodations with the Allies also weakened the civilian government. As a result of the contributions made to the Allied war efforts by the Free Thai Movement, the United States, which unlike the other Allies had never officially been at war with Thailand, refrained from dealing with Thailand as an enemy country in postwar peace negotiations. Before signing a peace treaty, however, Britain demanded war reparations in the form of rice for shipment to Malaya, and France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations (UN) until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned. The Soviet Union insisted on the repeal of anticommunist legislation.

The government set up an agency to manage the delivery of rice as part of Thai war reparations. These reparations were initially to total 1.5 million tons, or approximately 10 percent of the annual yield, but the figure was adjusted downward, and the reparations were paid off within two years. However, the government retained the policy of regulating the rice trade as an income-producing device.

The Seni government survived only until the peace treaty with Britain was signed in January 1946. Public discontent grew--the result of inflation, the reparation payments to the British, the surrender of territorial gains that many Thai considered to have been legitimate, and mismanagement at every level of government. Pridi restored Khuang to office for a time but in March 1946 was obliged to assume the prime ministership himself in an effort to restore confidence in the civilian regime.

Pridi, who argued that the strength of any civilian regime depended on a functioning parliament, worked with his cabinet to draft a new constitution that established parliamentary structures. The constitution, promulgated in May 1946, called for a bicameral legislature. The lower house the House of Representatives, was elected by popular vote; the upper house, the Senate, was elected by the lower house. This constitution was tailor made for Pridi's purposes, ensuring him a parliamentary majority that would support his programs.

The 1946 election, which had in fact preceded enactment of the constitution, was the first in which political parties participated. Two coalition parties--Pridi's own party, the Constitutional Front, and the Cooperation Party--won a large majority of seats in the lower house and, in turn, sent a proPridi majority to the upper house. Parliamentary opposition was led by the Democrat (Prachathipat) Party, headed by Seni and Khuang.

Pridi's prestige suffered permanent damage two weeks after the election of the upper house, however, when Ananda Mahidol, who had returned from Switzerland a few months earlier, was found dead in his bed at the palace, a bullet wound through his head. Although the official account attributed the king's death to an accident, there was widespread doubt because few facts were made public. Rumors implicated Pridi. Two months later, in August, Pridi resigned on grounds of ill health and went abroad, leaving Luang Thamrongnawasawat as prime minister.

The late king's younger brother, nineteen-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ), was chosen as successor to the throne. The new king had been born in the United States, had spent his childhood in Switzerland, and had gone to Thailand for the first time in 1945 with his brother. He returned to Switzerland to complete his schooling and did not return to Bangkok to take up his duties until 1951.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress