How Tyranny Returned to Thailand

Dr. Puey Ungpakorn is one of Thailand’s most distinguished economists and, until the military coup of October 6, was rector of Thammasat University in Bangkok. He himself narrowly escaped death at the hands of a right-wing lynch mob and managed to get on a plane to London, where I talked to him. He believes that “civil war is now inevitable” in Thailand. Thai democracy has been destroyed—in part by the institutions and the attitudes which the United States created in order, ostensibly, to “save the country for the free world.” Dr. Puey believes that “disputes within the army will increase, so will the gap between rich and poor. Relations with our neighbors will deteriorate and thousands of people who tried to make democracy work will join the insurgents in the hills.”

Other Thai democrats, such as Pansak Vinyaratyn, editor of the liberal paper Chaturath, have been arrested and face years of detention in the new re-education camps the government has set up. The long-range intentions of the government, and the extent to which the army is united behind it, are still uncertain. So are the precise plots and ploys of all the interested generals and politicians in the weeks, days, and hours before and after the coup took place. Thai politics are not simple.1

The rallying cry of the plotters was “the communist threat.” But, as is usual in Thailand, that threat was somewhat slighter than the forces marshaled against it. Indeed, an important aspect of the coup is that it illustrates the self-fulfilling nature of the policies of anti-communist containment and counterinsurgency that Washington has thrust upon this and other nations since the late 1940s. Even before all the facts are available, the way in which Dr. Puey’s students were murdered should be recorded.

Thailand is a monarchy which has been governed for most of the last forty years by right-wing military dictatorships. But the royal family has remained among the strongest cohesive forces in this mainly Buddhist nation. Absolute devotion to the throne, together with a commitment to Thailand’s territorial integrity, has been the watchword of all political groups, save the illegal Communist Party. Until recently, political power remained the perogative of a small bureaucratic elite.

In 1947 a left of center, democratically elected government was overthrown by supporters of Field Marshal Pibul Songgrom, the country’s wartime leader who had allied Thailand to the Japanese and declared war on the US and Britain. Pibul himself returned to power in 1948. The next year the CIA commenced America’s long, warm, and inglorious relationship with Thailand’s security forces, by equipping and training Pibul’s police.2 One police specialty became the murder of democratic politicians.

Through the 1950s and 1960s extensive, if often covert, US aid helped to create a new and very cozy class of army and police officers who understood just how much they owed Washington. By the time American soldiers and civilian advisers began to arrive en masse in May 1962, Pibul, the ally of the…

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