The military has always been a major force in Thai politics. Some of the country’s most eminent monarchs, such as Taksin and Rama I, were military men who led their troops into battle.
But since the 1932 revolution when the King was deprived of his absolute powers, the role of the military has been disproportionate. To Western eyes the idea of military rule is quite appalling. One cannot overlook the fact that the Thai military have at times been particularly high-handed-shooting cold-bloodedly at student protesters, for instance. But this kind of behavior has tended to be the exception rather than the rule and for much of the time the military’s conduct has been relatively benign.
Some of Thailand’s military leaders have worked very hard for the benefit of the country, restoring order out of chaos when military intervention was needed. In addition they have promoted economic development and helped to lay the foundations for the country’s current prosperity.
Perhaps the leaders of the 1932 revolution were naive in assuming that a country that had only known absolute rule could change overnight from being an absolute monarchy to a democracy. In 1932 the country was undeveloped politically, with only a small, articulate middle class who had no real power base. With the power of the king removed, there was really only one functioning institution that could fill the void: the army. And this is what happened.
Luang Phibul Songkhram (1938-57) is one of the most significant Thai political figures of the twentieth century, despite his many faults. Of humble origins, he worked himself up through the ranks of the army, eventually moving into politics. Under his influence Thailand became more nationalistic, militarist, and xenophobic. He disapproved of the Chinese domination of industry and fostered state enterprises-“a Thai economy for the Thai people.” He also obliged the Thais-certainly those in Bangkok-to wear Western dress, feeling it to be more civilized. He allied himself with the Japanese and retook former Thai territories from the French. After the war he was forced to resign, but later returned as Prime Minister and gained American support for his tough anti-Communist stance. He was eventually deposed in a coup d’etat.
General Sarit Thanarat (1957-63) is generally regarded as a strong man who reduced crime and uprooted corruption in the police. He instituted rural development schemes, especially in the northeast, and expanded the educational system. He also encouraged the young King Bhumibol to take a more prominent part in the nation’s affairs. A notorious womanizer, he boasted some one hundred minor wives, and after his death was found to have been a good deal more corrupt than the image he projected.
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963-73) was Sarit’s Defense Minister and when he took over on Sarit’s death he allied himself with the U.S.A. in the Vietnam War, allowing the Americans to have airbases for their bombing sorties over Vietnam and Laos. He restored parliamentary democracy in 1968, but reimposed military rule in 1971. During his period in charge American money caused the economy to boom, and this was accompanied by large-scale corruption among those in power. Demonstrations against his government and loss of army support forced his resignation and exile in 1973. He returned to enter a monastery in 1976, but this caused further demonstrations that led to more bloodshed and the reimposition of martial law.
General Prem Tinsulanonda (1980-88) is regarded as having been one of the best of all Thailand’s prime ministers, and under his benign but strong influence Thailand enjoyed a period of growing prosperity.
General Suchinda Kraprayoon(l991-93) organized a bloodless coup d’etat on the pretext that the civilian government was blatantly corrupt, and promising to clean up Thai politics. But when he eventually named himself Prime Minister, there was an outcry. His period of influence came to an end after demonstrations in 1993 and intervention by the King in which he publicly reprimanded the General and the Leader of the Opposition in a live television broadcast.
The Armed Forces in Thailand today
In the old power order the king was at the top of the pyramid, ruling the kingdom with the assistance of three institutions: the civil service, commerce, and the army. Nobody else counted for much, so members of these three institutions were beholden to the king.
There has been a gradual change in attitudes since the abolition of the absolute monarchy, and the emergence of representative democracy. Nowadays these three institutions have had to learn to serve the people rather than the king- and the change has not always come easily.
One would like to think that Thailand has outgrown its need to have strong men controlling its affairs, that the days of military dictatorships are over, and that the nation has now become genuinely democratic. Thailand now possesses a sophisticated and growing intelligentsia with the organizational skills that once only the army and civil service possessed to any extent.
Although their role may appear to have diminished, army people are often found in important positions in ~~e government and commerce-on the boards of companies, for example. Serving army officers can no longer hold political appointments, so the link between the military and government is broken, but there are a number of former army officers now in civilian clothes in the cabinet.
It has been a long haul since the bloodless coup of 1932, but at last, after much trial and error, Thailand seems to be emerging as a genuine constitutional monarchy with solid democratic institutions.
The navy, although it is one of the largest in Asia, plays a less political role. Senior naval officers made a fatal misjudgment by launching a coup attempt in 1951 that went badly wrong. They kidnapped the Prime Minister, Phibul Songkhram, while he was performing a ceremony aboard the dredger Manhattan. But the army and air force stayed loyal to Phibul and when he was transferred to the navy’s flagship, the Sri Ayuthaya, the air force bombed and sank it. The Prime Minister leaped into the river and swam to the safety of the ba