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Thai Country Studies

Thai Political Developments, 1980-87




In 1987 Thailand was stable under Prime Minister Prem’s eighth consecutive year of administration, even though his leadership was criticized for alleged indecisiveness and weakness. The country had not experienced a successful military coup since October 1977, and in 1987 few politically or economically destabilizing issues existed.

As in past decades, the military continued to be influential in the political process. Significantly, however, “one of the most surprising aspects of recent Thai politics,” as American political scientist Ansil Ramsay noted, “is that political change has occurred within a parliamentary framework instead of through military coups.”

In January 1980, while dismissing as obsolete the flurry of seasonal rumors of an imminent coup, then-Prime Minister Kriangsak declared that “our military officers who are pursuing a democratic course” would never allow it to happen. He did not, however, rule out a coup if there were good reason, but only as a last resort. He also made the point that he would step down if there was a majority political party run by trustworthy and efficient political party executives.

At the end of February, Kriangsak stepped down, not, however, because there was a party he could trust. Rather, the factious military was unable to give the former army commander in chief the unified support he needed at the time to weather a political storm brought on by economic troubles. Predictably, he was succeeded by Prem, the army commander in chief at the time, making Kriangsak the first ex-military prime minister ever to give up power voluntarily (see table 14, Appendix). Prem survived two attempted coups and provided years of stability, which the country needed for the institutionalization of a political process based on the party system. The development of party politics was still under way in 1987, albeit with occasional setbacks.

Although Prem initially ruled through a coalition cabinet of three parties — the Democrat (Prachathipat) Party, the Social Action (Kit Sangkhom) Party, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party — his real political base was the armed forces, the traditional source and guarantor of political power. In 1980, as from the early 1970s, the military was divided into several cliques. One of the more influential cliques called itself “the Young Military Officers Group, ‘ ‘ popularly nicknamed “the Young Turks. ‘ ‘ The influential members of this group belonged to Class Seven (1960 graduates) of the elite Chulachomkhlao Royal Military Academy.

Their aim was to enhance military professionalism as well as to ensure a decisive role for the military in the Thai political process. In 1980 their support was key to Prem’s ascension to the prime ministership. In April 1981, however, they turned against Prem, who at that time was still army commander in chief. Apparently the Young Turks believed that Prem had betrayed their trust by consorting with political opportunists and party politicians in his coalition government and, worse yet, by taking sides with rival military cliques opposed to the Young Turks. For two days, the Young Turks controlled the capital city, but they failed to win the monarch’s tacit consent, which had been crucial to the traditional legitimization of a coup. Thirty-eight coup plotters — including their leaders, Colonel Manoon Rupekahorn and Colonel Prachak Sawangchit — were dismissed from the army. After the abortive coup, General Arthit Kamlangek, who was credited with a key role in thwarting the attempt, was promoted to commander of the First Army Region; traditionally, this post was regarded as the most strategic one in the making of coups and countercoups (see Military Structure, ch. 5). It was also noticeable that Class Five (1958 graduates) of the military academy, the Young Turks’ chief rival faction, were promoted to some key army posts.

In August 1981 , Prem relinquished his post as army commander in chief but continued to head his second coalition cabinet. This coalition was formed in March 1981 , after a cabinet crisis brought on by the withdrawal of the Social Action Party from the ruling coalition. The second coalition comprised the Chart Thai Party, the Democrat Party, and the United Democracy (Saha Prachathipatai) Party, the latter a loose alliance of minor parties. In December 1981 , this cabinet was reorganized to make room for the Social Action Party, which decided to return to Prem’s third cabinet.

Another notable development of the year was Kriangsak’s entry into partisan politics when he won a parliamentary by-election in August. For this purpose, he founded the National Democracy (Chart Prachathipatai) Party in June. Thus, he became the first former army commander in chief and prime minister to enter party politics through the so-called front door — the parliamentary route. Because of his background and experience, Kriangsak was often mentioned as an alternative to Prem.

Another frequently mentioned alternative was General Arthit, a palace favorite, whose rapid rise to the post of commander in chief of the army in October 1982 was unprecedented. To some Thai observers, outspoken Arthit was “the strongman of the future,” destined to become the next prime minister.

It was not unusual for a Thai general to air his views publicly on socioeconomic or political issues, and such utterances were often considered important. As political scientist John L.S. Girling noted, “The power and authority of the military-bureaucratic regime, which had been so long in existence, depended not so much on the physical means of coercion that it possessed … as in the acceptance by extrabureaucratic elements of the inevitability of that power and their inability to challenge it.”

In the 1980s, the military dominance in politics, however, seemed to be undergoing some change, partly because the officer corps was not as cohesive as it had been previously and hence was less able to impose its will. For example, the lack of unity among the officers and their allies in the Senate and the political parties was largely to blame for the failure to amend the Constitution in 1983. Factionalism continued unabated, particularly between members of Class Seven and of Class Five of the Chulachomkhlao Royal Military Academy. The relative influence of these factions was reflected in the annual reshuffle of the military high command — the traditional barometer of real political power — announced each year in September. By 1983 the Class Five faction, sometimes known as the “democratic soldiers” group, seemed to be particularly influential.

Another factor bearing on the military’s changing political role was the generals’ own growing perception that a coup was undemocratic, if not uncivilized. As a result, an increasing number of generals and colonels in retirement chose to involve themselves in party politics. In the election held on April 18, 1983, for example, the Chart Thai Party captured 73 of 324 seats in the House of Representatives — nearly twice its 1979 total (see table 15, Appendix). Led by Major General (retired) Pramarn Adireksan, this party had a large number of retired military officers. After the election, the Chart Thai Party emerged as the top party in parliament with 108 seats by absorbing independents and other minor party members.

Nonetheless, it was not included in Prem’s fourth coalition cabinet. This exclusion reportedly was because of the party’s aggressive postelection maneuvers for what it claimed as the moral right to form a new government. Such aggressiveness antagonized other parties, which wanted Prem for another term as their consensus prime minister. Prem’s fourth coalition consisted of four parties: Social Action Party, Democrat Party, Prachakorn Thai (Thai People) Party, and National Democracy Party.

The political situation was volatile during 1984, with rumors of a coup, a cabinet reorganization, and a rift between Prem and Arthit — two of the most frequently mentioned political actors. Arthit continued to project a forceful image with his confrontational approach, a sharp contrast to Prem’s low-keyed, conciliatory approach. Also serving as the supreme commander of the armed forces beginning in September 1983, Arthit at times challenged the propriety of important government policies. In November, for example, he made a televised condemnation of the government’s policy of devaluation. Also in 1984, apparently with Arthit ‘s blessing, some active-duty and retired army officers pressed for constitutional amendments aimed at enhancing their political influence through the Senate and the cabinet. A showdown between Arthit ‘s camp and Prem’s ruling coalition seemed imminent. Arthit backed off, however, urging the army officers to abandon, at least for the time, the drive for amendments. It appeared that the monarchy played a key role in defusing the tension. In this context, Thai political scientist Juree Vichit-Vadakan commented that the monarchy was “likely to be the single most important force capable of holding the country together during times of chaos and crisis and of assuring the viability of a democratic process in Thailand. With a clear commitment of the monarchy to a constitutional government, democracy Thai style ultimately may have a chance to take root.”

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