November 1971 Coup
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.
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 "Nation-Religion-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.
In December 1972, Thanom announced a new interim constitution that provided for a totally appointed legislative assembly, two- thirds of the members of which would be drawn from the military and police. This move provoked widespread protest, however, especially among students and led to Thanom's eventual removal. In May and June 1973, students and workers rallied in the streets to demand a more democratic constitution and genuine parliamentary elections. By early October, there was renewed violence, protesting the detention of eleven students arrested for handing out antigovernment pamphlets. The demonstrations grew in size and scope as students demanded an end to the military dictatorship. On October 13, more than 250,000 people rallied in Bangkok before the Democracy Memorial, in the largest demonstration of its kind in Thai history, to press their grievances against the government.
The next day troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing seventy-five, and occupied the campus of Thammasat University. King Bhumibol, who had been seeking Thanom's ouster, took a direct role in dealing with the crisis in order to prevent further bloodshed and called Thanom and his cabinet to Chitralada Palace for talks. In the evening, the king went on television and radio to announce a compromise solution: Thanom had resigned as prime minister but would remain as supreme commander of the armed forces. In consultation with student leaders, the king appointed Sanya Dharmasakti (Sanya Thammasak) as interim prime minister, with instructions to draft a new constitution. Sanya, a civilian conservative, was the rector of Thammasat University and known to be sympathetic to the students' position. On October 15, Thanom, Praphat, and Narong--dubbed Thailand's "three most hated men"-- were allowed to leave the country in secret, the king overruling student militants who wanted to put them on trial. Their departure was announced to the public only after they had left the country, Praphat and Narong for Taiwan and Thanom initially for the United States.
The student demonstrations of 1973 had not been intended as a prelude to a revolution. They resulted, at least in part, from the frustration of large numbers of students who were unable to fulfill professional expectations after graduation, partly because university enrollment had increased dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s. Students were careful, however, to legitimize their actions against the military dictatorship by an appeal to religion and the monarchy, displaying in the streets the symbols of the "civic religion"--figures of Buddha, pictures of the king, and the national flag.
Prime Minister Sanya gave full credit to the student movement for bringing down the military dictatorship. At the state ceremony honoring those who had been killed during the 1973 demonstrations, he pledged, "Their death has brought us democracy which we will preserve forever." However, political change in Thailand did not bring the shift to the left that had been hoped for by some and feared by many. Student militants, who already felt betrayed by the king's complicity in Thanom's escape, were not satisfied with the direction taken by the new government, which seemed to have been preempted by the professional politicians.
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