History of Thailand


Phibun had failed to win the popular support that he had sought, and the effort cost him what remained of his standing among the military faction. As a result of the election, Phibun formed a new government in March 1957, appointing Phao as interior minister with responsibility for internal security. However, it was Sarit, whose prestige had not been at stake in the election, who as newly named armed forces commander in chief emerged as the strongest member of the ruling group. In September he openly broke with his colleagues, ordered tanks into the streets, and displaced Phibun and Phao in a bloodless coup d'etat. He suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. The king approved Sarit's action; the royal family had opposed Phibun since the 1930s.

New elections were held in December under an interim civilian government headed by Pote Sarasin, the secretary general of SEATO. No single party won a parliamentary majority, but Sarit organized a government party, the National Socialist Party, to contain the loose coalition of parties and individuals backing his regime. Because of poor health Sarit did not attempt to form a government but turned over responsibility to his deputy in the armed forces, Thanom Kittikachorn. Intraparty wrangling over political and economic spoils plagued Thanom's government. The situation was further aggravated by the inclusion in the government party of left-wing politicians who opposed its proWestern foreign policy.

Sarit's Return

In October 1958, Sarit, recently returned from the United States where he had undergone extensive medical treatment, took over personal control of the government with the consent of Thanom, who resigned as prime minister. Sarit, who spoke of instilling "national discipline" in the country, justified his action on the grounds that Thailand's various constitutional experiments had not succeeded in providing the stability needed for economic development. He outlawed political parties and jailed critics of the regime--teachers, students, labor leaders, journalists, and liberal parliamentarians. A dozen or more newspapers were closed.

In January 1960, Sarit decreed an interim constitution that provided for an appointed assembly to draft a new constitution, Thailand's eighth since 1932. Work on the document continued throughout the 1960s. Sarit assumed the office of prime minister provided for in the interim constitution, but his regime was clearly that of a military dictatorship.

Whatever else might be said about its political shortcomings, Sarit's government was more dynamic than the previous regimes of the constitutional era. Sarit gave ministers in his cabinet considerable independence in the affairs of their own ministries. At the same time he made all major decisions and kept members of the government responsible solely to his office.

Despite recurring scandals involving official corruption, in the early 1960s Sarit seemed to have succeeded in achieving political stability and economic growth. In 1961 the government instituted the first in a series of economic development schemes that were intended to foster employment and expand production. Although military officers were frequently appointed as directors of state and quasi-governmental economic enterprises, civilian personnel gradually assumed a greater share in implementing government policies. Sarit welcomed foreign investment and assured investors of government protection. Major electrification and irrigation projects began, with aid from the United States and international agencies. In addition, Sarit initiated a cleanup campaign to improve sanitation in the cities.

Sarit revived the motto "Nation-Religion-King" as a fighting political slogan for his regime, which he characterized as combining the paternalism of the ancient Thai state and the benevolent ideals of Buddhism. He spoke of his intention to "restore" the king, a retiring man, to active participation in national life, and he urged Bhumibol Adulyadej and his consort, Queen Sirikit, to have more contact with the Thai public, which had a strong affection for the monarchy. Royal tours were also scheduled for the king and queen to represent Thailand abroad. Sarit likewise played on the religious attachments of the people. In 1962 he centralized administration of monastic institutions under a superior patriarchate friendly to the regime, and he mobilized monks, especially in the North and Northeast, to support government programs. Critics protested that Sarit had demeaned religion by using it for political ends and had compromised the monarchy by using it to legitimize a military dictatorship. They asserted that the regime's policies, rather than restoring these institutions, had contributed to the growth of materialism and secularism and to the erosion of religious belief in the country.

Under Sarit's guidance, Thailand's anticommunist policy continued, and steps were taken to deal militarily with the growing threat of insurgency posed by communist-inspired activities in neighboring countries. Sarit sought closer ties with Thailand's anticommunist neighbors and with the United States, and in 1961 Thailand and another SEATO member, the Philippines, joined with newly independent Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) to form the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA). The Pathet Lao (as the leftist Lao People's Liberation Army was known until 1965) moved into northwestern Laos in March 1962. United States secretary of state Dean Rusk and Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman agreed that their countries would interpret the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty of 1954 as a bilateral as well as multilateral pact binding the United States to come to the aid of Thailand in time of need, with or without the agreement of the other signers of the pact. Two months after the foreign ministers' agreement, President John F. Kennedy stationed United States troops in Thailand in response to the deteriorating situation in Laos. The arrival of the troops in May 1962 was seen by the Thai government as evidence of the United States commitment to preserving Thailand's independence and integrity against communist expansion. Despite United States pressure, however, Sarit refused to entertain ideas of democratic reform.

Thai Politics and Foreign Policy, 1963-71

In December 1963 Sarit died in office. His deputy, Thanom, peacefully succeeded to the prime ministership and pursued without major modifications the foreign and domestic policies of his predecessor. Retaining the cabinet that he inherited from Sarit, Thanom focused his efforts on seeking to maintain political stability; promoting economic development, especially in security-sensitive areas; raising the standard of living; and safeguarding the country from the communist threat at home and abroad.

A notable departure from Sarit's policies, however, was the Thanom government's decision to shorten the timetable for the country's transition from the military-dominated leadership structure to a popularly elected government. The prime minister urged the Constituent Assembly, appointed in 1959, to finish drafting a constitution as soon as practicable. The new leadership also relaxed stringent official controls on the press, an attempt that the authorities said was aimed at creating a new, relatively liberalized, political climate.

Although the leaders agreed on the desirability of establishing what they described as a more democratic political system in tune with the country's heritage, there were indications that they disagreed on the pace of the projected change. Some leading officials thought that an early resumption of political activities would broaden the base of politics and strengthen popular identification with the government, the monarchy, and Buddhism. Others argued that the restoration of party politics at a time when the country was confronted with serious internal problems was likely to aid the communists in their efforts to infiltrate civic, labor, student, and political organizations.

The constitution was finally proclaimed in June 1968, but martial law, which had been imposed in 1958, remained in effect. Party politics were legalized and resumed shortly after mid-1968, and general elections for the new National Assembly were held in February 1969. Thanom's United Thai People's Party returned 75 members to the 219-seat lower house, giving them the largest representation of the 13 parties, while the second-running Democrat Party won 57 seats.

Thailand's annual economic growth rate in the 1960s and early 1970s averaged a booming 8 percent, much of it attributable to United States military expenditures there during the years of its involvement in Vietnam. An increased flow of foreign exchange resulted from United States and multilateral aid loans as well as from foreign investment, which came primarily from Japan, the United States, and Taiwan.

Foreign policy concerns focused on neighboring Laos, where it was believed a Pathet Lao victory would destabilize the North and Northeast and open Thailand to a direct attack by communist forces. Thailand allied itself closely with the United States position in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), permitting bases in Thailand to be used for raids on both the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and Cambodia. Although more than 45,000 United States troops and 500 combat aircraft were stationed in the country by 1968, their mission was not officially acknowledged for fear of possible communist retaliation against Thailand. Sarit also committed a division of Thai army troops to the war in South Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's March 1968 announcement that the United States would halt bombing in North Vietnam and seek a negotiated settlement came as a blow to the Thai government, which had not been consulted on the change in policy. Although the defense of Thailand clearly remained essential to the security of Southeast Asia in United States strategic thinking, no provision was made for Laos, whose security the Thai saw as essential to their own defense.

While remaining loyal to its commitments, Thailand thereafter determined to restore flexibility to its foreign policy by moving away from one-sided dependence on the United States. The military, however, was anxious to continue Thailand's active involvement in South Vietnam and in Laos, where several thousand Thai "volunteers" were engaged against the Pathet Lao. Thanom urged United States backing for the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia in 1970 and proposed a formal alliance linking Thailand with Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam that would give the conflict in Southeast Asia the appearance of a war being fought by Asian anticommunists for Asian security. The plan failed to get United States support.

Communist activities in Laos and Malaya had already begun to affect the domestic situation in the South and the Northeast in the 1950s, and by the 1960s they presented a problem of increasing magnitude. Communist guerrillas, mostly ethnic Chinese, operated in jungle areas north of the Thai-Malayan border, where they had taken refuge from Commonwealth of Nations security forces during the 1948-60 Emergency in Malaya. A more serious threat in that same region were the Muslim insurgents of the Pattani National Liberation Front, a Thai separatist group composed of ethnic Malays. Meanwhile, in the northern provinces dissident Meo tribesmen reportedly had begun receiving training and arms from the Pathet Lao by 1950. In the Northeast, underground leftist parties took advantage of grievances over relatively poor economic and social conditions to rally opposition to the government. Faced with the problems in the South, North, and Northeast, the Bangkok government frequently identified regional unrest and protest against ethnic and economic policies with the genuine communist-based insurgencies that overlapped and often benefited from it. Opposition groups and critics of the regime in Bangkok were also generally labeled as communists.

November 1971 Coup

In November 1971, Prime Minister Thanom executed a coup against his own government, thereby ending the three-year experiment with what had passed for parliamentary democracy. The 1968 constitution was suspended, political parties banned, and undisguised military rule imposed on the country. Under the new regime, executive and legislative authority was held by a military junta, the National Executive Council. Heading the council was a triumvirate that included Thanom, who retained the office of prime minister; Field Marshal Praphat Charusathian, his deputy prime minister; and Thanom's son (also Praphat's son-in- law), Narong Kittikachorn, an army colonel.

Despite stern moves to suppress opposition, popular dissatisfaction with the dictatorial regime mounted in the universities and labor organizations as well as among rival military factions. The discontent focused on United States support for Thanom, the growth of Japanese economic influence, and the official corruption that the regime made no effort to conceal. The civilian political elite joined students and workers in opposing Thanom's apparent aim to perpetuate a political dynasty through his son, Narong, whose rise the officer corps particularly resented. Thanom's aggrandizement of his family was at odds with the image he tried to project and the standards of the "civic religion" with its call for veneration of "NationReligion -King." The triumvirate also ignored the king, who had moderated his earlier enthusiasm for Thanom, and opponents charged that the junta disregarded religion. Some critics detected signs of republicanism in the regime and feared another Thanom-sponsored coup to overthrow the monarchy.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress