October 1976 Coup
The economic boom that had spurred employment and produced an apparent prosperity in the 1960s fizzled with the phasing out of United States military expenditures in Thailand. Furthermore, the impressive economic growth was insufficient to keep pace with the growth of the population, which had increased from 26 million in 1960 to 34 million in 1970. Although agricultural yield per hectare remained static, agricultural production kept up with population growth during the 1960s and 1970s because the amount of land under cultivation doubled during that period. Arable land reserves were being used up by the mid-1970s, however, except in the southern peninsula.
Maintaining order was the most pressing problem facing the parliamentary regime and the most difficult one to resolve. For one thing, the communist-inspired insurgency persisted and generated a mistrust of all dissidents. The radicalization of the student movement was attributed to communist influence, and student leaders were regularly accused of being agents for Beijing and Hanoi. Particularly after the fall of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, all dissidents were likely to be labeled communists by the military and by right-wing politicians. Even in moderate government circles, misgivings were expressed about continued student activism and the growth of militancy against the monarchy. In April 1975, fourteen labor organizers and student leaders were arrested under anticommunist legislation used for the first time since Thanom's overthrow.
Political murders and bombing became commonplace as open warfare broke out between leftist students and workers and rightist paramilitary groups, the latter openly supported by the police. In August 1975, police in Bangkok, striking to protest government weakness toward leftist students, went on a rampage through the Thammasat University campus. Several senior military officers and civilian conservatives formed the ultranationalist Nawa Phon (New Force) movement to defend "Nation-Religion-King" against the students, and by mid-1975 it claimed 50,000 members. A group of paramilitary vigilantes, the Red Gaurs (Red Bulls), recruited 25,000 members, largely unemployed vocational graduates and technical students, to disrupt student rallies and break strikes. The group was believed to have been organized by the police as an unofficial auxiliary. Another right-wing group with similar origins was the Village Scouts (Luk Sua Chaoban; literally, "village tiger cubs").
Right-wing power grew early in 1976, as pressure from the military forced Kukrit to resign after he had pressed corruption charges against army officers. Violence during the parliamentary election campaign the following April left more than thirty dead, including Socialist Party leader Bunsanong Bunyothanyan, and the new alignment in the House of Representatives brought back Seni as prime minister at the head of a four-party, right-wing coalition.
Political tensions between leftist and rightist forces reached a bloody climax in October 1976. On October 5, right-wing newspapers in the capital published a photograph of student demonstrators at Thammasat University reenacting the strangling and hanging of two student protestors by police the previous month. The photograph, which was later found to have been altered, showed one of the students as being made up to resemble the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The right wing perceived the demonstration as a damning act of lèse-majeste. That evening police surrounded the campus of Thammasat University, where 2,000 students were holding a sit-in. Fighting between students and police (including contingents of the paramilitary Border Patrol Police) broke out. The following day, groups of Nawa Phon, Red Gaurs, and Village Scouts "shock troops" surged onto the campus and launched a bloody assault in which hundreds of students were killed and wounded and more than 1,000 arrested. That evening the military seized power, established the National Administrative Reform Council (NARC), and ended that phase of Thailand's intermittent experimentation with democracy.
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.