History of Thailand

RETURN OF PHIBUN AND THE MILITARY

As a result of Pridi's fall from grace and the manner in which the civilian government that succeeded him handled the investigation of the king's death, Phibun's military faction regained some of the stature that it had lost through its wartime association with the Japanese. Reviving the nationalistic theme of its years in power, Phibun's group played on intense public resentment of the war reparations Thailand had to pay and the economic dislocation the payments were believed to have caused. Army officers also blamed the civilian government for a humiliation the military suffered in 1946 when their units, facing expatriated Chinese Guomindang (Kuomintang--KMT) forces in the north, were ordered to disband in the field and were left without supplies or transport. They also criticized the civilian government's conciliatory policy toward minorities--Chinese, Muslims, and hill tribes.

Phibun had been arrested as a war criminal in 1945 but was released by the courts soon afterward. Always an efficient leader and known as a staunch anticommunist, Phibun had retained his constituency of supporters in the officer corps. Even the civilian elite, dismayed at the economic disorder and frightened at the rise of communist insurgencies in neighboring countries, regarded him as an attractive candidate for office. Some observers contended that his rehabilitation had been due to United States influence.

November 1947 Coup

In November 1947, the so-called Coup d'Etat Group, led by two retired generals and backed by Phibun, seized power from the civilian government. Pridi, who had recently returned from his world tour, fled the country again and eventually took refuge in China. The coup leaders appointed an interim government headed by Khuang and promised a new constitution. General elections held in January 1948 confirmed support for the junta, particularly the Phibun faction. In order to placate conservative civilian supporters, Khuang was retained as prime minister until he proved too independent in his policies. In April 1948, Phibun--by then a field marshal--forcibly removed Khuang from office and took over as prime minister.

For the next three years Phibun struggled to maintain his government against numerous attempted coups by rival military factions. To build support, he allowed disaffected political groups, including Khuang's conservative Democrat Party, to participate in drafting a new constitution, which was promulgated in 1949. When leaders of an anti-Phibun army group were arrested in October 1948, supporters of former prime ministers Pridi and Khuang in the navy and the marines were not seized. In February 1949, a revolt allegedly sponsored by Pridi supporters in the marines and navy was suppressed after three days of fighting. In June 1951, marine and navy troops again rebelled and abducted Phibun. The revolt, which was put down by loyal army and air force units, resulted in a serious cutback of navy strength and a purge of senior naval officers.

Phibun's policies during his second government (1948-57) were similar to those he had initiated in the late 1930s. He restored the use of the name Thailand in 1949. (In reaction to extreme nationalism, there had been a reversion to the name Siam in 1946.) Legislation to make Thai social behavior conform to Western standards--begun by Phibun before the war--was reintroduced. Secondary education was improved, and military appropriations were substantially increased. The Phibun regime was also characterized by harassment of Chinese and the tendency to regard them as disloyal and, after 1949, as communists.

Phibun's anticommunist position had great influence on his foreign policy. Thailand refused to recognize the People's Republic of China, supported UN action in Korea in 1950, and backed the French against communist insurgents in Indochina. Phibun's Thailand was regarded as the most loyal supporter of United States foreign policy in mainland Southeast Asia.

November 1951 Coup

By 1951 Phibun had begun to share political power with two associates who had participated with him in the 1947 coup that overthrew the civilian regime. One of these was General Phao Siyanon, director general of police and a close associate of Phibun since the original coup of 1932. The other, more junior, partner was General Sarit Thanarat, commander of the Bangkok garrison. As time passed, Phibun's stock within the military declined as a result of the plots against him. Phao and Sarit grew more powerful than Phibun, who was able to retain the prime ministership only because of their rivalry for the succession.

In November 1951, military and police officers announced in a radiobroadcast that the 1949 constitution was suspended by the government and that the 1932 constitution was in force. The reason given for restoring a unicameral parliament with half its membership appointed by the government was the danger of communist aggression. Shortly after the government-engineered coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was called back to Thailand, and for the first time since 1935 an adult monarch resided in the palace in Bangkok. A revised constitution was promulgated in February 1952, and an election was held for seats in the new, single-house legislature, half of the members of which were to be appointed. Nearly all the appointed parliamentary members were army officers.

The Phibun-Phao-Sarit triumvirate continued to operate along the policy lines of the previous five years. In November 1952, the police announced the discovery of a communist plot against the government and began a series of arrests of Chinese. Many Chinese schools were closed and Chinese associations banned. The campaign against communists, with its anti-Chinese emphasis, gathered momentum throughout 1953.

In 1954 Thailand participated in the Manila meeting that resulted in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, of which the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was the operative arm. The next year SEATO, which made its headquarters at Bangkok, was offered the use of military bases in Thailand. Relations with the United States continued to be cordial during this period, and substantial amounts of American economic, technical, and military aid were provided.

In 1955 the Thai government had imposed a restrictive export tax on rice--the controversial rice premium--and required that traders purchase rice export licenses. The ultimate goal of this tax was to nurture Thailand's developing industries and to discourage rice production. The government hoped the tax on tonnage of rice exported would drive the price of Thai rice in the world market beyond a competitive level, thus discouraging exports. The government then purchased the rice that could not be sold abroad to create a public rice reserve and sold it on the domestic market at artificially low prices.

By providing low-cost rice, the government hoped to hold down the cost of living in urban areas and prevent demands for higher wages, thereby making Thai industrial production more competitive on world markets. It also argued that the rice policy would encourage diversification in the agricultural sector as traditional rice farmers in the central plain turned to other cash crops--maize, sugarcane, and pineapple. Export controls had no effect however, on rice farmers in the North and Northeast, who produced glutinous rice for local consumption only. Introduction of the rice premium fundamentally altered the liberal policy toward free trade that had been in place since the Bowring Treaty, and it cast the Thai government in an activist economic role, such as that advocated by the nationalists since 1932.

Opponents of the rice policy charged that the rice premium was an excessive tax that ultimately placed the heaviest burden on small farmers in the central plain engaged in growing rice for export, who were deprived of an increase in real income and were prevented from sharing in the benefits of Thailand's economic boom in the 1960s. Lacking incentive to increase their production, farmers planted less and refrained from introducing improved seeds or using costly fertilizers. Government officials, however, predicted that as rice production increased abroad, world and domestic prices would come together and end the need for the rice premium.

Phibun's Experiment with "Democracy"

The struggle for control of the Thai government continued, meanwhile, and Phibun attempted to offset Sarit's advantage among the military by generating popular support for himself. In 1955 he toured the United States and Britain and, on his return to Thailand, articulated a policy of prachathipatai ("democracy"), which he stated he was giving to the country as a gift. Encouraging the public to feel free to criticize his "open regime," he set aside a portion of a central park near the royal palace in Bangkok for public debate, in emulation of Hyde Park in London, and gave the press free rein in covering the dissent expressed there. Criticism, especially as it appeared in the press, was outspoken and often extreme in its attacks on the government. In addition to encouraging criticism, Phibun halted the anti-Chinese campaign, made plans to increase the responsibilities of local government, and again permitted political parties to register. Phibun intended more to convey the appearance of democracy, however, than to allow for its functional development.

Phao and Phibun devoted much effort to ensuring a government victory in the general election scheduled for February 1957. Phao headed a newly founded government party, the Seri Manangkhasila, which was the largest and best funded of the twenty-five parties that had sprung up in response to prachathipatai. Sarit, on the other hand, kept out of the campaign and, after the election, dissociated himself from the disappointing results, which gave the Seri Manangkhasila a bare majority but saw half of the incumbent party members defeated. Sarit and others questioned even these returns and accused the government party of stuffing ballot boxes. When university students came out in great numbers to protest the government's handling of the elections, Phibun declared a state of emergency and shelved prachathipatai.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress