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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 Imperial Sun, had been replaced by General Sarit Thanarat; he was succeeded by two more officers, Thanom Kittikachorn and Prapas Charusathien. They were all equally obliging.

In 1964 the US began to build in Thailand the bases that were essential to the prosecution of the Vietnam war; the country was transformed into “a land-based aircraft carrier.” The bombing of Vietnam began from Thai bases in 1965; Thai troops (paid by the US) “volunteered” to fight in Vietnam and Laos. The use of Bangkok as a lucrative rest and recreation center for GIs began to corrupt the other classes as Washington had corrupted the military.

The US ambassador then was Graham Martin. As he was later to do in both Rome and Saigon, Martin enthusiastically supported the right-wing militarists against the center and left democrats and urged an extended counterinsurgency program. The centralized Communist Suppressions Operations Command (CSOC) was established at his suggestion.

In his book War Without End Michael Klare describes how Thailand now became the site where the US “could develop weapons and strategies for Vietnam-type wars without risking interference from the local population.”3 The first act of armed insurgency by the Thai Communist Party, which has links with both Peking and Hanoi, was reported only in 1965. So, as the US government jargon of the time put it, “this program will mark the first time that R and D has been given a major role in supporting a counterinsurgency in a comprehensive way from the earliest stages of the conflict.” Thailand was to be a showplace of containment.4

By now there are about 10,000 insurgents under arms in the north, northeast, and southern provinces of Thailand. Not a very fast rate of growth, but one which has allowed the “research and development” to continue. Between 1967 and 1972, by contrast, the US trained almost 30,000 Thai police and army officers. In April 1973 Richard Moose and James Lowenstein (whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports on Indochina and Thailand are among the best chronicles of the Nixon doctrine) observed: “It is difficult to imagine how US-Thai relations would be structured if the insurgency did not exist.” Nor, indeed, would the military have found it so easy to justify their own control of government. The insurgents were a very convenient spot of bother.

Throughout the 1960s, the main activities of the Americans in Thailand were to emphasize the threats from Peking and Hanoi, and to teach the methods of counterinsurgency. Between fiscal year 1967 and fiscal year 1972, AID invested $53.2 million in the Thai police forces. One of the institutions set up was the Border Patrol Police, whose communications system was devised by the Stanford Research Institute. This system worked very nicely in October when the BPP were summoned to help kill the students.

But Nixon’s dĂŠtente with Peking and the Paris Agreement undercut the basis of the military government. In 1973 politics was taken, for the first time, away from the narrow bureaucratic elite. Students began to demand a democratic constitution and in October 1973 they staged the largest demonstrations in Thai history.

The police fired upon the demonstrators, killing at least sixty-five, and the military seized Thammasat University. But then the commander in chief of the army, Kris Sivera, refused to allow further bloodshed, arguing, “These are our children. They want democracy. We cannot shoot them.” More important still, he received the crucial support of the king. Thanom and Prapas were forced to flee. After forty years of political control, the military was out of power. Some officers around Kris Sivera accepted the new situation; but others began to conspire to return.

An interim government was formed, the immense personal property of the dictators was confiscated, political parties (except the Thai Communist Party) were legalized, and the brutality of CSOC was publicly investigated and condemned. The prime minister said of the students killed in October 1973, “They did not die in vain. Their death has brought us democracy which we will preserve forever.”

But the preservation of democracy requires at least some agreement on its basic value, and this did not exist. Democratic politicians were unable to work out a stable relationship with the military men they had replaced. Until his unexpected death in April 1976, Kris Sivera maintained some sort of equilibrium; indeed it was only his support of the democratic experiment that allowed politicians, army, students, and unions to coexist at all. Thai politicians, unused to power, were often indecisive.

In March 1975, after the first free elections since the late 1940s, the new premier, Kukrit Pramoj, called for the withdrawal of all US troops within a year. (Kukrit had acted a similar role, opposite Marlon Brando, in the film The Ugly American, which throughout 1975 played to delighted audiences in Bangkok.)

Prime Minister Kukrit discovered how serious were the country’s real problems (to which less R and D had been given). Among them were 24 percent inflation, widespread corruption, and failures to deal with land reform and unemployment. All were aggravated by a fall in foreign investment. Foreign corporations decided that since gold and ribbons had disappeared from ministerial jackets, “stability” must have been lost as well. Worst of all was the increase in political violence as the Thai military and political right responded to the student triumph of 1973 by promoting its own mass movements to counter the students, divide them, and split the king off from them.

Among these groups was Nawapol, formed by officers of the Internal Security Operations Command, ISOC (as CSOC had been renamed). Its swaggering front man, Watana Kiewvimol, is a self-proclaimed champion of the monarchy, Buddhism, and territorial integrity. He has described the student demonstrations of 1973 as KGB inspired, has blamed all labor unrest and political assassinations on international communism, and warned that Hanoi is about to seize the northeast. In fact, after April 1975 Hanoi showed little inclination to increase support for the insurgents.

Last year Watana declared that he wanted to polarize Thai politics so as to produce conditions that would make a coup d’ĂŠtat possible in 1976. In January 1976 he called for a military-backed government to preserve order. He claims to have studied at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey, and Thai exiles in London believe he has links to the US government.

Another right-wing paramilitary group is the Red Gaurs (bison), which contains veterans from the Thai units that fought for the US in Indochina. It also includes civil servants and vocational students. The latter have particularly resented their fellow students in the academic departments since the academic students led the demonstrations of 1973. The Red Gaurs are controlled by Colonel Sudsai Hasdin of the ISOC. They have, according to a statement by one of their leaders last August, more than 100,000 members. He claimed that both ISOC and the Special Police supported and trained his men. In the past three years the Red Gaurs has actively broken up urban strikes and peasant demonstrations.

The third main group is the Village Scouts, a strident patriotic group which appeals to popular love for the king and, in fact, enjoys his patronage. The king’s position has been vital; in the last eighteen months he is reported to have become alarmed at the revolutionary successes elsewhere in Indochina. He is said to have been personally horrified by the deposition of the king of Laos in December last year, and can have been no less concerned at Prince Sihanouk’s “retirement” in April this year.5

One source of influence for all these groups was the support of dozens of the army radio stations throughout the country. During the last year the stations have become increasingly venomous in their attacks upon the left and the students, particularly during this year’s election campaign. More than thirty people were killed during that campaign. The most prominent was Dr. Boonsanong Punyodhana, a graduate of Cornell and leader of the Thai Socialist Party, who passionately believed that parliamentary government must be made to work. His murder was never solved, although many people in Bangkok attribute it to one of the vigilante groups.

  1. 1

    For a detailed account of the coup itself see Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, London, October 27 and 28, 1976.

  2. 2

    The Indochina Resource Center, Washington, DC and The Thailand Information Project of the Southeast Asian Studies Department at Cornell recently published pamphlets on US-Thai relationships. Both are used here.

  3. 3

    Michael Klare, War Without End (Knopf, 1972), p. 226.

  4. 4

    War Without End, pp. 227-228, quoting Defense Appropriations 1968, pp. 175-176.

  5. 5

    The IRC’s study by Thadeus Hood of Santa Clara University has considerable information on these groups; it quotes from Pansak Vinyaratyn’s weekly paper Chaturath.

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