to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

10.4 Thai Democracy

Years in the making, a coup in October 1932, changed the course of Thailand (still known then as Siam). It had its origins in France and to a lesser extent England. For decades, the Chakri Dynasty kings had placed a high value on education. Rama V and VI had vastly increased the literacy rates first among the elite and royal families then into the commoners. Primary level education was quite universally available by the reign of Rama VI. The curriculum, in addition to the 3Rs, included a heavy dose of history, folklore and legends to inspire a sense of nationalism among the King’s subjects; and, of course, devotion to the King!

By the 1920s, hundreds of promising students were being sent overseas for university-level education, the stated purpose of which was to assist in the modernization and industrialization of a country that was still almost exclusively agrarian, except in the capitol city where trade and commerce abounded. This latter segment of society and business was almost the exclusive purview of those of Chinese heritage. They had also managed to maintain devotion to that heritage to the point of refusing to speak Thai at home or in their business dealings with each other. They were very much Chinese; not Siamese!

As they were on government scholarship, these overseas students were steered towards business, engineering and industrial courses, but inevitably many squeezed in political science and philosophy classes. Particularly those studying in Paris found themselves enamored of the history of the French Revolution and the political philosophies that had been born in Europe; these included Communism and Fascism.

A small, but growing, group began to meet in secret and share their thoughts for a future without an absolute monarchy. Their discussions turned into written documents that today we would call manifestos in ever greater detail defining their ideal Siamese society. It might have been quite different than one would imagine. It was heavily influenced by Communist and Fascist principles. 

By the early 1930s these young men had attained their doctorates and returned home. They continued to meet and plan. Over the course of the proceeding decades; back to the Reign of Rama V (Chulalongkorn) in the late 1800s, the Siamese populace had become disenchanted with the extravagance of the Royals. All of the efforts to instill a devotion to the sitting king were, in base fact, failing. Being able to read and write, enabled people across the country to understand the dichotomy between themselves and ‘their betters’. Thai society was at least as class-ridden as that of England and perhaps even more so. And then there were the Chinese who were extremely wealthy as they bought and sold the products of Siamese labors.

Prior to World War 1, foreign businessmen held a favored status in Siamese society as well. Due to political and economic circumstances they enjoyed a status somewhere just below the Royals in so far as wealth and privilege was concerned. This was due mainly to the need for Siam to export goods; to sell them on the international markets. The conduits for these transactions were the Foreigners (mainly British and some French) that provided the shipping and the Chinese who bought and sold the goods moving through the ports. These non-Siamese segments of society were profiting enormously off of the labor of the common Siamese peasant. And, of course, the Royals took their share in the form of taxes of all kinds; all without lifting a finger to produce anything!

For the Foreigners and the Chinese, the ‘Roaring 20s’ had been going on for decades. But the Great Depression of the early 1930s reached the streets of Bangkok if not the klongs of Buriram. Siam was ripe for a change and these French-educated plotters were ready to strike. At this point most were still fairly young and held middle-level positions across the government institutions and within the military. The self-proclaimed leader of the pack was a mere Lt Col in the Thai Army. But he had been biding his time, amassing allies and staying in contact with his more philosophically-minded student plotters.

On June 24th 1932, the People’s Party launched a full-scale coup. Tanks and armored cars filled the streets and surrounded the palace of the King in downtown Bangkok. At the same time, they had prepared thousands of copies of their manifesto which were handed out to the people and published in the newspapers across the country. King Rama VII (Prajadhipok), also an Eton College graduate who had expected to have an exalted career in the Thai military but had rather unexpectedly become king when his brother died, had seen the hand-writing on the wall for his entire (short;1925-1935) reign. Knowing the sentiment amongst the Siamese populace at large, and wishing to prevent bloodshed, he almost immediately capitulated to the demands of the People’s Party.

The leader of this group of plotters and planners went by a number of different names over his student and military careers. He is perhaps best known as Phibun and the name he had adopted: Lt. Col. Luang Phibun-Songkhram. He and his core group of plotters (known collectively as the Promoters) quickly set forth a plan of action (years in the making in secret meetings) to transition Siam from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. But a ‘democracy’ with roots in the European ideals of Communism and Fascism!

Rama VII was allowed to stay on as King but only to prevent chaos and anarchy as the planned transition progressed. But all did not go as laid out by these rather idealistic revolutionaries! The larger base of Siamese populace quickly realized that they would simply be exchanging one ruling class (the Royals) for another (the Revolutionaries / Promoters). There was unlikely to be any ‘trickled-down’ effect on the life and toils of the common laborers.

An actual Constitution was promulgated that defined the limits of power of the King and his vast network of ‘royal cousins’ who for hundreds of years has essentially run everything that was not controlled by the Chinese. Naturally, marriages had been arranged over these same decades to unite the Royals and the Chinese into a formidable force. But when faced with military force they had no reply.

The original manifesto plan was a multi-year transitional state wherein ‘enlightened’ commoners would progress to assume an ever greater role in running the various Ministries replacing the Royals who controlled all aspects of Siamese government and society. Education was a particular priority among these ‘enlightened’ intellectuals. They founded Thamasat University under the original name of the University of Moral and Political Science. Ever since, Thamasat has breed the leaders of multiple coups and revolutionary movements right up into the 21st century.

The initial ‘economic reform plan’ promulgated by the economist known as Pridi (surname Phano-myong) was immediately and overtly rejected by the newly formed (appointed not quite yet elected) National Assembly as being pure communism. It included nationalization of all industry and converting all workers and managers to State employees. Chaos and infighting rose to the level that Rama VII suspended the Assembly and took to ruling by decree once again.  

The leaders of the People’s Party were losing favor with just about everyone. They saw their grip on power waning rapidly, but before it was gone entirely, they managed to get the National Assembly re-instated and their control over many of the government ministries restored.

This new found revolution almost came to an abrupt end when in October of 1933 (barely a year after the coup), Prince Boworadet, a cousin of the king, led a counter-coup. King Rama VII was not thought to have had any role in this action but it was anything but bloodless. After only three days of intense fighting all across Bangkok, the King called a halt to the bloodshed and agreed to depart the country to lessen the friction between the Royalists and the Promoters. Within a year, while living once again in England, he formally abdicated the throne.     

This threw the royalists into a quandary. He had no heirs. They reached laterally once again (remember VII was the brother of VI) and anointed his nephew Ananda (son of his brother Mahidol) as King Rama VIII. But Ananda was only 9 years old. He had lived nearly his entire life in Switzerland with his widowed mother, older sister and younger brother. It is said that he could not even speak Thai much less the formalized version of that language spoken in the royal court. In short, the royalist were holding on by a thread!

During those years following the revolution, political power was a delicate balance between the stubborn royalists, the ‘enlightened intellectuals’ of the People’s Party and Phibun’s military faction. Phibun had spent that time consolidating his power. Over the next 5 years (1933-38) the strength and power of the military reached into every aspect of Siamese society. Even though he maintained his rank only as a Lt. Col., he was truly ‘in charge’. As to his personal political leanings, he heavyily favored the Italian line – Mussolini’s brand of Fascism! It was also heavily grounded in nationalism so favored by many military dictators over the centuries of world history. So it blended well with his military background. It was also heavily dependent on controlling the thought processes of the masses via propaganda which the wide-spread military establishment was predisposed to promulgating.

In 1937, following in the footsteps of another up and coming world leader (Adolph Hitler), Phibun stood for election as Prime Minister in the first ever country-wide election in Siam. Economist (albeit communist) Pridi was elected as Minister of Finance under his fellow conspirator Phibun.

[editors note: this is an example of the uniqueness that Thai ‘democracy’ has exhibited over the past few decades. It seems to find a way to ensure — via numerous and varied methodologies — that the ‘right’ people are ‘elected’ to the ‘right’ positions.]

Phibun immediately launched a series of ‘reforms’ that in many ways paralleled what was happening in Germany and Italy in that period. The idealism of the People’s Party was scraped for a more realistic grab for absolute power. British Baron Acton’s observation that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” could not have proven more true than during the tenure of PM Phibun. As Hitler and Mussolini scapegoated the Jews as enemies of the people, so Phibun targeted those of Chinese ethnicity. Although he stopped short of trying to actually exterminate them, he targeted them in every way possible. From taxes to forbidding the usage of the Chinese language in business and commerce, he imposed ever more burdening restrictions on their business activities so as to lessen their economic impact.  

His ally Pridi, readily played along in his role as Finance Minister to create a dichotomous system where Chinese businesses were heavily taxed and placed under burdensome regulations while Thai-owned business received generous benefits and incentives. It was under a flag of (Fascist) nationalism that all of this progressed, at least until early 1942.  

The other major change he made was to the core of society itself. He renamed the country from Siam (which he viewed as a name imposed by non-Thais as far back as the mid-13th century) to Thailand. This new name ironically translates to ‘Land of the Free’ when the country as a whole was about to enter into one of its darkest periods: Japanese occupation. The new name came with a new national anthem that proclaimed ultra-nationalism and patriotism; oddly enough including reverence of the King! It included the phrase “every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.”

As a means to instill a commonality to the country (and to side-line the Chinese), Phibun declared a movement to move to westernized dress. He abandoned centuries of traditional Thai formal dress in favor of standard coat-and-tie business suits for men and western dresses (no pants) for women. Uniforms of all sorts became a status symbol that persists even today! Each government ministry had a uniform as a means to identify both loyalty and status. Such a scheme was quickly adopted by commercial establishments like banks that decreed that employees had to dress in a formally adopted color scheme if not an actual uniform.  

He even managed to nearly eradicate the use of opium and to a lesser extent the chewing of betel nut. Two practices that were thoroughly ingrained into Siamese society. By 1940, he had adopted the Gregorian calendar and shifted the celebration of dates like the New Year from the traditional mid-April (SongKran) to 1 January.

Much of his ‘reforms’ came to an abrupt halt in the early 1940s. First in the first international foray in many years, Thailand’s rather meager military (which for these past years had been focused on internal nationalistic events) was forced into a shooting war with their Indo-Chinese neighbors under French rule. The precise events that precipitated this war are unclear. France was already occupied by the Nazis and the Indo-China colony was under the auspices of the Vichy government. As a military strategist, perhaps Phibun saw this as an opportune time to regain some of the territory in bordering Laos and Cambodia (no longer sovereign nations but part of French Indo-China). He was particularly targeting territory west of the MeKong River. Oddly enough, after a rather short shooting war, where the Thais were gaining the upper hand, the Japanese stepped into the fray as peace-keepers and brokered a deal to stop the shooting in return for the French ceding back some border areas that had been lost to earlier treaties. Of course, within a year, Japan would invade and occupy the entire area so the ‘victory’ by the Thais was somewhat short-lived. But not before Phibun managed to erect a huge obelisk to mark that (pyrrhic?) victory in the most nationalistic way possible. [see Section 13.0]

While we are on the topic of monuments, there is another linked to all of this activity. The newly empowered People’s Party erected the Democracy Monument closer to the king’s palace in the older section of Bangkok.

Surely it was an in-your-face proclamation of the ‘people’s’ victory over royal tyranny. How little the subsequent years of power struggles resembled the ideals of those early days. Ironically as well, this monument has proven over the ensuing decades to be a rallying point for countless groups who knew that their ideas and ideals were the way to plot the course for a ‘new Thailand’; year after year; group after group stood at this place and declared their new manifesto for the future of the country.

In the early months of the war, Thailand did garner some territorial gains from their alliance with the conquering Japanese. They invaded the United Shan States in NE Burma and the Japanese formally transferred back 4 ‘States’ from Malaya that had been lost to Britain in 1909. When added to the area on the west shore of the MeKong that they had occupied and kept after the Franco-Thai War of 1941, Thailand was cementing its place as a buffer state better east and west.

Part 2 the post-war years & the rise of Fascism

The Japanese occupation initiated decades of Thai political turmoil. The Japanese had seized control of the southern portion of the country but allowed the Thais to maintain control of most of the countryside in what was akin to the French Vichy government arrangement. But Phibun’s radical political concepts led to an increasingly Fascist lean to his policies. Discontent grew so bad that even in the midst of war, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister in July 1944. His replacement was another of the founding members of the People’s Party, Khuang Aphiawong, but Pridi was the real power behind the throne: literally and figuratively as he was Regent for the young King Rama VIII as well as controlling the civilian governmental structure = a very busy man!

Pridi set out to reverse many of his former leader’s policies in a way that re-instated and strengthened Thailand’s position vis-à-vis the Western Allies. Thus he positioned Thailand to benefit from the inevitable Japanese defeat.

But the People’s Party was permanently split with these three men jockeying for power over the post-war years. They settled on the Primoj brothers (Seni and Kukrit) as ‘outsiders’ who could rule but still be kept in check. They were grandsons of Rama II so they held sway with the royalist faction, but were beholden to the former People’s Party to maintain a power base in the ‘democrat’ faction. Although they never were amongst the leadership at the time, they had both supported the 1932 coup and even some of Phibun’s early efforts before he went over the Fascists cliff. Seni was Phibun’s AMB to the USA during the immediate pre-war years. He was the one who (whether on Phibun’s orders or his own initiative) refused to actually deliver the official Thai declaration of war. The Thai AMB to the UK did indeed deliver the declaration. Despite Pridi’s attempts to undo Phibun’s war-time actions, as punishment for those ‘transgressions’, the UK insisted that Thailand pay severe reparations which nearly bankrupted the government. These collapsed Seni’s first tour as PM after just a few months.

Khuang found himself once again in the revolving chair as PM. But this time as the godfather of the new Democratic Party (an off-shoot of the People’s Party) that tried to distance itself from their actions over the past decade (1932-1946). Khuang was joined by the Primoj brothers as the primary leadership in a clear and permanent split from Phibun (now in exile in Japan) and Pridi’s more radical communist-leaning economics.

But soon thereafter, in March 1946, Pridi once again managed to secure the PM’s seat in a ‘fair and impartial’ election. The July 1946 death of Rama VIII rocked the country. The Thai government and royal family have never recovered from this momentous event. To this day, no clear set of circumstances have been made public that can accurately explain that evening’s sequence of events much less who was where and when. Naturally, this gave rise to rampant rumors and all sorts of ‘conspiracy theories’ that involved everyone from the queen mother to Pridi himself. By Aug 46, his government collapsed under the pressure of rumor and innuendo. The triumvirate of Khuang, Seni and Kukrit would once again each hold the seat albeit rather briefly.

Some stability was achieved not on the civilian side but via the rise of popularity of King Rama IX (Bhumipol; younger brother of Ananda) who the people soon came to adore. Over the many decades of his reign, he provided a father-figure and a modicum of stability as Thailand continued to struggle to establish and define what a Thai-democracy was to be.

It is hard to count the number of Prime Ministers and Constitutions that the country has been shackled with since the end of WW 2. By 1947, Pridi was exiled first to China then back to France from which he waged verbal war with his home country over policies. He saw many of their policies over these decades as more fascist than democratic despite the name of the primary ruling party. But even until his death in 1983, he carried the stigma of the 1946 palace death. In the 21st century, Pridi has been more or less cleared of any involvement as the pendulum of guilt has shifted to Phibun’s corner.

General chaos, scandal and financial hardships turned public sentiment against the Democratic Party’s leadership as none of them spent long enough as PM to have any lasting effect. Throughout the ensuing years, the only faction that remained reasonably coherent and was growing in strength were the military leaders with Phibun calling the shots. It was a military coup orchestrated by Phibun and a new-comer named Phin Choonhavan that finally drove Pridi into exile in 1947. Khuang was re-installed as ‘interim PM’ pending an election. He was ‘elected’ in January 48 but that term collapsed by April of that same year.

A new triumvirate of Army Generals began to consolidate their power: Phibun and Sarit Thanarat along with Phao Siyanon. Phibun managed to hold the power as PM for nearly 10 years (1948-57) backed by the constant threat of a military crackdown. Hardly any other PM had managed 10 months in office, mainly because they did not have tanks and guns backing them. Sarit and Phao were viewed as co-PMs with Phibun as the mouth-piece, figure-head. True to form, the policies over this decade leaned more and more to a fascist, militaristic style and away from anything resembling a constitutional democracy. It was nothing short of a classic military dictatorship. They managed to actually resurrect the original 1932 Constitution that placed severe limits on the civilian-sector’s political power, thereby ensuring the place of the military as the most powerful faction, even without the tanks and guns! Their policies and programs were ultra-nationalistic (about as Fascist as anything Mussolini himself could have dreamed of). This once again was to the detriment of the Chinese business community. As homeland China slid into communism post-war, so too did sentiment swing against the Thai-Chinese as being guilty by association.

This is not to suggest that Phibun’s decade-long rule was not without it trials and tribulations. He actually survived 4 attempted cops by lower-ranking officers. But these did manage to temper the Fascist leanings and abrogate the re-instated 1932 Constitution, in favor of a somewhat more moderate one. Throughout the 1950’s, Phibun managed to ride the world-wide anti-communist wave to keep his place has head of government. Thailand deployed about 4000 troops to fight in Korea under the UN Banner; thus ingratiating themselves to the 1950’s anti-communist factions in the US Congress. This garnered Phibun international political support as well as tons of US Aid dollars. But at home, Sarit and Phao were consolidating their power-base at Phibun’s expense. The urban populace (read Chinese businessmen) were increasingly dissatisfied with his oppressive economic dictates.

Finally in September 1957, Sarit ousted his mentor and took the PM’s chair in another military coup; they could never quite bring themselves to challenging him in an open election! Sarit made no pretense about ruling as a full-on military dictator. But he soon relinquished the seat to a figure-head named Pote Sarasin in a hastily called election. But by January 1958, another ‘election’ ensued; this time installing another military man,Thanom Kittakachorn; at least until October 58 when Sarit unseated him!

And so, any stability of government that Thailand had achieved in the 1950s under Phibun was replaced by a series of cascading dominoes in the next few years. Armed with a new (and improved?) Constitution, Sarit set off on a campaign to rid the country of crime and corruption! This lasted until his death in 1963. Many of his actions and efforts bore fruit in those few years – even if the ‘corruption’ was only rooted OUT at the LOWEST levels! After all, those at the highest levels of society and government had a standard to maintain!

The opium trade (a very profitable cash crop in the northern Burmese-Laos border area) was largely eliminated; although Thailand became the western-world’s conduit for opium / heroin, it was no longer a major producer. Substantial gains were also made in up-grading the general level of literacy and education across the country, as opposed to just in Bangkok. Sarit was also instrumental in increasing the popularity of the young King Bhumipol.

Sarit used the US Aid dollars to strengthen not only his military but also local industrial development and began the shift from an almost pure agrarian economy to a more industrial base. For the first time, Thais were able to use their raw materials and convert them to consumer goods, albeit largely for export. Under the guise (if one was needed) of anti-communist activity, highways were built and electricity extended into the most rural of areas; something the communist faction in NE Thailand would never be able to deliver. But throughout all this social ‘progress’, Sarit remained a full-on military dictator. He had suspended the Parliament and any expectation of ‘constitutional rights’ or elections. He banned newspapers that dared not support his policies. He even outlawed opposing political parties! By 1963, his reign as pseudo-monarch came to an abrupt end – with his death. Even his legacy was soon tarnished as the massive levels of corruption (largely in the distribution of ‘contracts’ to spend US $) were revealed to the public. Much like the Thaksin gov’t in the 2000s, the populace benefited but the cronies became fabulously wealthy.

Once again, Thailand resurrected a former PM to the seat: Thanom Kittakachorn. This time he had as a Deputy PM a supporter (and relative) named Praphas Charusathian. They maintained the flow of US Aid dollars that soon exploded as the war in Vietnam expanded.

As the 1960s gave way to the 70s, Thanom felt his grip on power waning so he instituted a series of populace policies aimed at placating the masses while keeping in place the rampant political and economic corruption that was now firmly entrenched in Thai politics. Out of the corruption and nepotism a new triumvirate arose: Thanom, his son Colonel Narong, and Narong’s father-in-law General Praphas Charusathien became known as the “three tyrants” and shared power to some extent. PM Thanom appointed himself as the Defense and Foreign Ministers. Thus, he and he alone, controlled the most powerful (and well-funded) elements of the governmental system. All in all, Thanom’s concessions to the populace were short-lived and all his most wanton abuses were back in vogue within a period of months.

Forty-years on, Thai history repeated itself: a student-lead revolution was in the offing. But this time those students were home-grown. The university system that blossomed out of the 1932 revolution produced the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT). These were locally schooled idealists and intellectuals following the path of the 1932 French-born People’s Party. They’d had enough and weren’t gonna take it any more!

They started out in 1972 with non-violent protests. Their complaints were 1) rampant corruption; 2) mistreatment of civilians by the military; 3) what they viewed as a “American Occupation” with well over a quarter of a million US military were present supporting the war effort in Vietnam and Laos!

Drawn from the large university campuses across Bangkok, groups who might have been expected to be at odds with one another joined forces until NSCT claimed 100,000 members! Another target for their wrath was not Chinese but rather the growing influence of the Japanese in Thai commerce. At first, these ‘youngsters’ seemed rather benign and not an overt threat to the triumvirate. But that all changed in the fall of 1973. On October 14th, a huge throng of students surrounded the royal palace in downtown Bangkok demanding that the King oust the military dictators. The Thai Police (actually more of a para-military organization than a true police force) were powerless to quell first the demonstration then the rioting that ensued. As government building were burning, the military responded with reinforcements, armored cars and machine guns. Chaos engulfed the older section of Bangkok. Helicopters strafed the crowds; uncounted hundreds of protesters were wounded or killed (official KIA count 77) – many of Thailand’s more promising minds as well as many hooligans who had joined in. Reports say bodies were flung into the Chao Phraya River to be carried out to sea.

The situation escalated so fast and so far that the King finally stepped in and called a halt. He exiled the triumvirate and restored a semblance of calm and order. He appointed an intellectual leader well-known to the students: Dr. Sanya Thammasak, the former dean of the Thamasat Univ, as the interim PM. As in 1932, Sanya promised a new path to democracy, a new Constitution and elections TBA. Promised a role in these actions, the NSCT officially disbanded in November.

Although officially in exile, Thanom was somehow allowed to remain on as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and continued to wield and consolidate power from the USA and later Singapore.

As for the home-grown radical student protesters, the disbanded NSCT fractured into smaller groups pushing their own agendas. Some became openly communist and sought the means to turn Thailand into a Chinese-like Communist Regime.

On the whole, various pro- and anti-communist factions grew across the length and breadth of the country. The communist-leaning students took to the mountains in the NE near Laos and waged a guerrilla-style war against Thailand’s military and para-military establishment. They operated as the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT).  

By October 1976, discontent with the course and progress of the promised reforms resulted in another largely student-lead revolution out of which the military faction seized power once again and Thanom Kittikachorn was resurrected from exile. He did not assume an active role in the next dictatorship, but like Phibun and Pridi before him, he pulled the strings from another room! The new figure-head PM was Thanin Kraivichien, a little known (read controllable) Army General. This new incarnation of the old tried and true military dictatorship, immediately reversed or out-right abolished all that Sanya had done in his short term as PM.

Within a year (1977), Thanin was gone, replaced by a political/military twin with the name of Kriangsak Chomanan. Except that he swung the political pendulum too far in the opposite (democratic) direction. Although many of the reforms he instituted remained and had a lasting effect on the country, he was ousted by 1980.

He was replaced by a long-time political insider GEN Prem Tinsulanonda. One of this first acts was to negotiate a settlements with the PLAT and end the insurgency. With him came a period of stability (by Thai political standards) and economic growth. He managed to circumvent a few coup attempts and hold on as PM until he called for actual elections in 1988. Thus began the next chapter in Thai political evolution.


Part 3 the new politics of the new century

The latter two decades of the 20th century saw a major shift in Thai politics. Gone (for the most party) were the narcissistic military men and the ideologist (intellectuals, communists etc). In their place were businessmen. Democratic ideals and military fascism were replaced by greed. The one thing that remained consistent, however, was the rampant corruption that seemed to run like veins of gold through the government ministries. This was an era when men ‘bought’ appointments to certain offices with the full knowledge that they 1) could steal more money than the bribe they originally paid; 2) they could sell off subordinate offices with the same promise.

The first aspiring politician to sanction such practices was Chatichai Choonhavan who won the 1988 election against Prem. And so began a new era of musical chairs for the PM seat. This time around [pun intended] there were a whole new set of players who handed off the reins like they were running a relay race [mixed metaphors aside]. Often times the most recently deposed PM would find himself at the head of a cushy Ministry under the new dude in charge.

Chatichai lasted until 1991 when he too was ousted by the military. But they immediately handed off the seat to another businessman: Anand Panyarachun. He, in due course, lost the 1992 election to a lawyer named Narong Wongwan. But prior scandals prevented him from ever taking the oath of office. Army GEN Suchinda Kraprayoon – who had led the 1991 coup – took the PM seat.

This return to a military-style dictatorship– all GENERALS expect their orders to be carried out without question – evoked a new revolt. But this time that was also headed by a businessman rather than students. Chamlong Srimuang took the lead but he was supported by a few disgruntled (had not been promoted) military officers. They orchestrated what became known as Bloody May in 1992. Not unlike the 1973 student revolution, machine guns mowed down protesters in large numbers. No official accounting of the dead and wounded was ever released. After only 3 days, King Bumiphol became appalled by the toll and summoned Suchinda and Chamlong to kneel before him. He chastised them like petulant children and ordered an end to the fighting and sent them both into exile as penance. Having re-established the dominant position and influence of the monarchy, Ananda again found himself in the PM hot seat.

That next election in 1992, established a pattern that would last over a decade. Every aspiring politician with deep-pockets would establish his own regional political party. There were five larger parties that garnered support across regional boundaries and more than a dozen tiny parties that waited in the wings to be courted to form a coalition government and secure a high salaried and high bribe-collecting Ministerial Seat. Every one of these sought to be the big fish in his self-created little pond.

Chuan Lekpai was the first to cobble together one of these LEGO-block governments. Even his formerly dominant Democratic Party could not attain enough seats for a Parliamentary majority and so needed the support of these willing (if not exactly able) tiny parties to underpin his efforts. Naturally, a structure built on such a weak foundation was prone to cracks and eventual downfall. As scheduled elections in 1995 approached, others scrambled to lure away his supporting pillars. He was replaced first by Banharm Silpa-archa then Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Both fell due to economic pressures after only months in office. The culmination of decades of rampant corruption and mis-handling of government funds was wrapped up in the world-wide 1997 economic collapse. Chuan found himself again the captain of a sinking ship until 2001.

Riding in on a white horse came Thaksin Shinawatra. He had made a fortune by establishing the first mobile phone company during the 1990s. As one of the richest men in Asia (if not the world). He was also a master manipulator and as accomplished a criminal mind as any who had preceded him. He was after all a former policeman with a degree in Criminal Justice from a US university.

He made the rounds of these tiny regional parties and promised that his vast fortune could ensure (read buy) their success in the next election. All they had to do was be absorbed into his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) Party. Two-bit politicians and aspiring businessmen lined up at his door to pledge their fealty.

Once installed in Government House, he immediately honored his pledges to enrich those who supported him and bankrupt those who did not. His populace policies were cheered by the masses who saw little wrong with the taxes paid by the rich city-dwellers building a new bridge to their area. That bridge, however, cost 3x the actual value with 2/3 going into the pockets of the contractor. “We got a new bridge / road / tractor, who cares who paid for it or how much!”

He was the first PM since Prem to serve his full term and then get re-elected! He brushed aside his opposition who took him to court time and time again to challenge the legality of his vote buying; but they always lost. He further expanded his sphere of influence by courting the friendship of the soon-to-be king. He underwrote debts and other excesses of the playboy prince. But the true royalist saw through this ploy and established the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) [Harkening back to the name of the 1930s People’s Party that deposed the king]. Thaksin’s populace appeal was read by them as a direct threat to the sitting king and the future of the monarchy itself. The aging and ill king (Rama IX) was largely silent and uninvolved except for scheduled ceremonial appearances. The PAD adopted YELLOW as their rallying color as they massed wearing yellow shirts in support of King Rama IX.

The yellow shirts organized a boycott of the 2006 election that Thaksin was sure to win and the court promptly invalidated the result. But before a new election could be held, the opposition waited for Thaksin to attend the annual UN General Assembly and staged another military coup. Thaksin found himself a PM without a country as they cancelled his Diplomatic Passport.

Surayud Chulanont took the interim seat as the 2008 election as called. A re-incarnated version of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won that election installing a figure-head named Samak Sundarawaj who was little more than a puppet of the exiled Thaksin.

Forced out of office on a thin legal pretext, Samak was replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law: Somchai Wongsawat. In opposition to all things Thaksin (this might have been a fore-runner of the US ‘never Trumpers’), the PAD-yellow shirts re-emerged and soon there were violent clashes with the red-shirted Thaksin supporters.

In 2008, the revitalized and anti-Thaksin Democrat Party prevailed in the election and a ‘new breed’ of politician found himself running the country. Abhisit Vejjajiva, was a UK educated charismatic young man but his time in office was marred by large and sometimes violent protests by the red shirt Thaksin-supporting faction calling themselves the UDD (Democracy Against Dictatorship); this despite the fact that Abhisit (aka Mark) was duly elected.    

Violence escalated until the military was mobilized to break up the large groups encamped in strategic sites around Bangkok that had disrupted the government functions and businesses for months. The ‘battle’ was reasonably bloody but brief and the red-shirts fled. Officially, 100 deaths was the toll; counting the casualties on both sides.

In the next election in 2011, the red-shirts achieved a modicum of revenge when Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, prevailed. Like Samak, she was sued multiple times in attempts to discredit the legitimacy of her position as the first female PM. The protest cycle reversed with the yellow shirts taking to the streets. Although she enjoyed some successes, her eventual downfall was precipitated by the introduction of a bill that would have granted amnesty to her brother and his cronies and allow him to return. One needs to remember how many ‘disgraced’ politicians were able to rehabilitate themselves over past decades. She was forced to resign by the vehemence of the opposition to this bill.

Her interim successor’s term was shorter than his (now forgotten) name! Within two weeks (in 2014), GEN Prayuth Chan-ocha had seized power in a bloodless coup. Needless to say, he faced many challenges to his authority but to date he has successfully, if not always peacefully, weathered them all. Under another ‘new’ Constitution, he stepped down as military dictator but was immediately re-elected as PM in 2019.

The death of the beloved King Rama IX (Bhumipol) at aged 88 shocked the nation more than any political shift had done since 1932. October 13, 2016 will long be remembered as a dark day for Thailand.  

In 2021, students – both the west-side intellectuals and the east-side hooligans — have taken to the streets once again in an effort to have Prayuth step-aside based primarily on his slow and ineffectual handling of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

August 2021 protesters hoping to oust the Prime Minister gather at the Democracy Monument to state their grievances.

Not an easy read (a bit too pedantic) but an assessment of the role of religion in civil affairs: