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February 1991 Coup

In the late 1980s, the Thai political party system continued to evolve, albeit spasmodically. It was at a delicate stage of transition from its past status as an adjunct to the bureaucratic establishment to a more substantial role as a channel for popular representation and a provider of top political executives. The concept of party politics dated back to the early 1930s, but its impact was generally insignificant, having been overshadowed by the military-bureaucratic elite. The struggle for power was nearly always settled by coup, and the pluralistic demands of the society were accommodated through either bureaucratic channels or patron-client connections.

The perception that political parties and politicians were unworthy of trust was widespread in 1987. However, a coup was ruled out by Chaovalit, the new army commander in chief, even though he publicly castigated politicians as venal and hypocritical. In February he asserted that political parties, the Constitution, and elections alone would not make for a genuine democracy in Thailand, where, he argued, the party system and elections were controlled by a wealthy few who used the trappings of democracy for their own benefit. Appearing before a parliamentary committee in April 1987, Chaovalit maintained that to build a real Thai-style democracy with the king as head of state, the ever-widening income disparity must be narrowed first and that at the same time political parties and all government entities including the military "must join hands and walk ahead together."

The Chart Thai Party, sometimes called the "generals' party," was founded in 1974 by a group of retired generals and was led until July 1986 by Pramarn Adireksan, retired major general and former president of the Association of Thai Industries and the Thai Textile Association. Aggressively anticommunist, Chart Thai was backed by a number of prominent industrialists. After the July 1986 election, it was led by retired General Chatichai Choonhaven, whose relationship with Prem was friendly.

Choonhaven became Thailand's prime minister in 1988. On June 14, 1990 Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven visited Washington on his first state visit since being elected to office in July 1988. His visit came on the heels of a Thai diplomatic triumph with Japan in Tokyo at which the non-Communist resistance in Cambodia and the Hun Sen government in Phnom Penh agreed to form a Supreme National Council. This was no small achievement. For the first time there are hopeful signs that a peace settlement can be achieved in Cambodia that excludes the Khmer Rouge and unites the non-Communists with the State of Cambodia in a new Cambodian Government. The Thais under the leadership of Prime Minister Chatichai labored long and hard to create peace in Cambodia. Much of what they had done has occurred out of the limelight. Many times the Thais had taken positions antithetical to those of other countries in the region, including the Chinese who continue to support the Khmer Rouge and who have in the past been active supporters of the Thai Communist Party.

Premier Choonhaven was arrested February 23, 1991 in a military coup, by one count the 18th since 1932. This coup was a short-lived affair headed by army chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon and ended with a return to democratic civilian government in March 1992. Chatichai was arrested by the soldiers who were ordered by the military to intervene as he was in the airport hangar because of corruption charges and the accusation of inability against him.

Black May is a common name for the 17-20 May 1992 popular protest in Bangkok against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon and the bloody military crackdown that followed. Up to 200,000 people demonstrated in central Bangkok at the height of the protests. The military crackdown resulted in 52 officially confirmed deaths, many disappearances, hundreds of injuries, and over 3,500 arrests. Many of those arrested were tortured.

On February 23, 1991, Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon overthrew the government of Chatichai Choonhavan. The coup-makers, who called themselves the National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC), appointed Anand Panyarachun as Prime Minister. Anand's interim government promulgated a new constitution and scheduled parliamentary elections for March 22, 1992. A government coalition with 55% of the lower house was formed, which appointed General Suchinda as Prime Minister. Massive public protests immediately followed. On May 9, Suchinda responded by saying that he would support a constitutional amendment making individuals who had not been elected to Parliament ineligible for the Premiership. Tensions dissipated.

The truce was short-lived. On May 17, 1992 the two leading government parties announced that, while they supported the constitutional amendment, they also favoured transitional clauses that would permit Suchinda to serve as prime minister for the term of the Parliament. As it became clear that the government parties would not honour their word, plans went ahead for the Sunday 17 May strike Obviously concerned about the people's mounting anger, the Interior Minister ordered provincial governors to prevent people from travelling to Bangkok to join the rally. Suchinda threatened to sack the Governor of Bangkok for allegedly assisting the anti-government rallies of the previous week, while the army hastily arranged a competing "Anti-Drought Musical Festival" to be held at the Army Auditorium. In addition, radio stations were banned from playing records of several popular singers who had voiced their support for the demonstrators.

Nevertheless, the rally was the biggest since the downfall of the Thanom regime in 1973. At its peak, 200,000 people filled Sanam Luang, overflowing on to the encircling streets. At about 8:30pm, Chamlong Srimuang and Dr. San Hatthirat led the protesters on a 2-kilometre march to Government House, to demand Suchinda's resignation. As they reached the intersection of Rachadamnoen and Rachadamnoen Nok Avenues, they were halted at Phan Fa Bridge, which had been barricaded with razor wire by the police. At 11:00pm a group of demonstrators attempted to break through the barricade, but were repulsed by water cannon from four fire trucks blocking the way. The protesters then tried to commandeer one of the fire trucks, and were clubbed by riot police armed with batons. Stones and Molotov cocktails were soon flying. Chamlong used a loudspeaker to exhort the marchers not to attack the police, but his words were lost in the unrest. In this initial clash, about 100 protesters and 21 police were injured.

By midnight two fire engines had been set alight, and things were spiralling out of control. Some 700 troops had been called in and the fighting fanned out from Phan Fa Bridge. At 0:30am Suchinda declared a state of emergency, making gatherings of more than ten people illegal. The government urged people to go home, but already hospitals in the area were receiving the wounded, including four with gunshot wounds who died later that night. Chamlong remained near Phan Fa Bridge and the nearby Democracy Monument. Around 4:00am, soldiers threatened the nearly 40,000 protesters by firing M16 rifles. An hour and a half later, they began firing again. By the morning, the army moved more troops in, and crowds grew even larger at other sections of the city.

Early on the afternoon of 18 May, Suchinda publicly accused Chamlong of fomenting violence and defended the government’s use of force. Shortly later, troops, firing continuously in the air, moved in on the crowd surrounding Chamlong. The troops handcuffed and arrested Chamlong. The crowds did not disperse, and the violence escalated. After government troops had secured the area around Phan Fa Bridge and the Democracy Monument, protests shifted to Ramkhamhaeng University across the city. By the evening of 19 May, some fifty thousand people had gathered there.

Early on the morning of 20 May, Princess Sirindhorn addressed the country on television, calling for a stop to the unrest. Her appeal was rebroadcast throughout the day. In the evening, her brother, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, broadcast a similar public appeal. Then at 9:30 pm, a television broadcast of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Suchinda, and Chamlong was shown, in which the King demanded that the two put an end to their confrontation and work together through parliamentary processes. Following the broadcast, Suchinda released Chamlong and announced an amnesty for protesters. He also agreed to support an amendment requiring the prime minister to be elected. Chamlong asked the demonstrators to disperse, which they did.

King Bhumipol (Rama IX) had to lend a hand to stop the bloodshed confrontation. Afterwards, Suchinda was forced to resign and Anan Panyarchun was appointed to the temporary primer at that time. On 24 May 1992, Suchinda resigned as Prime Minister of Thailand, leading to new elections in September 1992. Over the next five years, Thailand had four elections and a variety of coalition governments.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:30:55 ZULU