Thailand: Modern Thailand

Modern Thailand

In 1957 a military coup led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat overthrew Pibul Songgram and made Gen. Thanom Kittikachorn prime minister. In 1958, however, with the stated purpose of combating Communism, Sarit deposed Thanom, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law. King Bhumibol Adulyadej proclaimed an interim constitution in 1959 and named Sarit prime minister. When Sarit died in 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn was returned to power. A new constitution was finally promulgated in 1968. Under Sarit and Thanom the country's economy in the 1960s continued to boom, spurred by a favorable export market and considerable U.S. aid. Thailand strongly supported the U.S. policy in South Vietnam, providing bases for U.S. troops and airfields for strikes against the North Vietnamese; thousands of Thai troops were sent in support of South Vietnam. The nation's foreign policy was closely geared to the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and its economy became increasingly dependent upon U.S. military spending and subsidies. Thailand became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.

Economic reversals came in 1970 when the international demand for rice dropped substantially (due in part to improved farming techniques in other countries) and the prices of tin and rubber fell; for the first time since 1933, Thailand suffered a trade deficit. In addition, the security of the country appeared threatened by the spread of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos and by growing insurgencies, chiefly Communist led, in three separate areas within Thailand itself: in the south, where Malaysian Communists used Thailand as a staging base for operations in Malaysia and Thai Malay separatists mounted an insurgency that continued into the 1980s; in the north, where Communists trained in North Vietnam were believed to be organizing the hill peoples; and, most significantly, in the economically backward northeastern provinces, where a discontented minority had been active since the mid-1950s.

The increasing economic and security problems prompted a coup in Nov., 1971, by Thanom Kittikachorn and three military aides, in which they abolished the constitution and the parliament and imposed military rule. Guerrilla raids against both Thai government forces and U.S. air bases continued. Economic conditions improved throughout 1972 as large numbers of U.S. military personnel were transferred from South Vietnam to bases in Thailand; by June of that year there were more U.S. forces in Thailand than in South Vietnam.

In Oct., 1973, the military regime of Thanom was toppled after a week of student demonstrations and violence in Bangkok. King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed Sanya Thammasak as Thanom's successor, giving Thailand its first civilian prime minister in twenty years. He promised to complete a constitution and to hold general elections. In May, 1974, citing the heavy burden of the office and the sharp criticism directed against the government, Sanya resigned, but he was soon persuaded to form a new government. In June he was sworn in as the head of a revamped, all-civilian cabinet. A new constitution was promulgated in Oct., 1974. Over the next few years the civilian government made little headway in establishing its authority. In 1976, the military took control of the government once again, but repressive policies led to a second coup in 1977 that made Kriangsak Chomanan prime minister. After he resigned in 1980 amid increased economy problems, another military leader, Prem Tinsulanonda, succeeded him, presiding over economic development and surviving two attempted coups; he stepped down in 1988, refusing an additional term. He was succeeded by Chatichai Choonhavan, of the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party, who was overthrown in 1991.

From the late 1970s, Thailand's political concerns were dominated by pressures resulting from warfare in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and serious unrest in Myanmar (Burma); Thailand also experienced a massive influx of refugees from these countries. From 1975 onward, Thailand was a way station for Hmong refugees immigrating to the United States under its resettlement program. The Khmer Rouge used Thailand as a staging area after they were driven out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, and internal fighting within the Cambodian government in 1997 sent a new flow of refugees into Thailand.

In 1992 there were signs of popular opposition to continued military rule and, after antigovernment demonstrators were killed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed a civilian as interim prime minister. In the Sept., 1992, elections, parties opposed to the military won a majority, and Chuan Leekpai became prime minister of a coalition government. In Jan., 1995, parliament approved a package of constitutional reforms that lowered the voting age to 18, guaranteed equal rights for women, and reduced membership in the military-dominated senate. New elections were held in July, 1995, after Chuan's government fell because of a land-reform scandal; the Chart Thai party won a slight plurality, and Banharn Silpa-archa became prime minister, heading a seven-party coalition. His government collapsed in Dec., 1996, and he was succeeded by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. However, Chavalit resigned under pressure in Nov., 1997, and Chuan Leekpai once again became prime minister. A new constitution was approved in Sept., 1997.

Despite its unsteady political climate, Thailand appeared to have one of the strongest economies in SE Asia. However, following years of speculation in the real estate market and growing corruption in government, its currency plummeted in July, 1997, setting off a crisis in Asian financial markets and plunging the country into a deep recession. The International Monetary Fund pledged to provide Thailand with a $17 billion rescue package, and by 2000 the economy was experiencing a recovery, but the economic pain led in a loss of support for the government. Elections in Jan., 2001, resulted in a victory for the Thai Rak Thai party (Thais Love Thais; TRT) and its allies, the Chart Thai and Khwam Wang Mai (New Aspiration) parties. Thaksin Shinawatra of the TRT became prime minister, but an anticorruption commission accused him of concealing his assets, raising the possibility that he would be banned from politics for five years. Thailand's high court, however, cleared him in a close decision in August. The new government has privatized a number of state-owned companies, but it also has been marked by investigations into and disclosures of significant corruption.

In 2004 there were attacks by Muslim separatists in Thailand's three southern provinces. Muslims, who are in the majority in the provinces, complained of discrimination in education and employment. The situation there evolved into an ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the sometimes excessive response of the Thai police and military. Militant attacks against nonsecurity targets as the conflict became prolonged, however, also alienated many Muslims.

In Dec., 2004, areas of S Thailand along the Indian Ocean were devastated by a tsunami; an estimated 8,000 people, some of them foreign tourists, died. The government's response to the disaster and the nation's generally improved economic conditions resulted in strong support for the TRT and the prime minister in the Feb., 2005, parliamentary elections, and the governing coalition increased its majority in the lower house. The continuing attacks by Muslim separatists in the south led the prime minister to assume emergency powers in July, 2005.

Meanwhile, Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, a former ally of the prime minister, began publicly criticizing Thaksin for corruption and poor government performance, first on his television program and, after being forced off the air in Aug., 2005, at public rallies. Thaksin responded with libel suits, and there were attacks on Sondhi's offices. In Dec., 2005, the king, in a rare criticism of the government, rebuked Thaksin for suing Sondhi, and the prime minister subsequently withdrew his lawsuits.

A controversial stock sale (Jan., 2006) by Thaksin's children, who sold a nearly 50% stake in the family communications business to a Singapore-government-owned company and legally avoided taxes on the deal, gave new life to anti-government protests. In February the prime minister called a snap election, but the opposition boycotted the April vote. The TRT won a majority of the seats, but 10% of the constituencies failed to elect a representative (all seats must be filled for a government to be formed) and there was a sizable number of abstentions. Thaksin announced he would step aside and “rest,” but he did not resign as prime minister as demanded by the opposition. A second ballot in late April still failed to fill all the seats, leading the king to call on the courts to resolve the problem. In May the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid.

Thaksin resumed his post later in the month, and a new election was tentatively scheduled for October. Meanwhile the late April election of the senate, intended to be independent but dominated by Thaksin supporters, was marred by vote-buying. In June Thaksin said he would support the proposals by a national commission for the three southern provinces; it recommended establishing a regional administrative body to oversee the provinces, using of Malay as a local “working” government language, and avoiding military responses in favor of resolving the problems that had produced the unrest. In mid-June there was a coordinated string of some 40 bombings in the south.

In mid-September the Thai election commission postponed the October parliamentary elections, but shortly thereafter, with Thaksin abroad, the military overthrew him. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the head of the army and close to the king, led the coup. He was named head of the Council of National Security, which under the interim constitution became Thailand's most powerful body. A retired general, Surayud Chulanont, was appointed prime minister in October, and a hand-picked unicameral legislature was also appointed. The same month the new government agreed to talks with Muslim rebels in S Thailand, and then revived a former government agency for the region; the dissolution of the agency had contributed to the unrest in the south. The policy changes did not, however, reduce rebel attacks, which continued into subsequent years and increased in frequency and brutality.

Meanwhile, in Mar., 2007, Thaksin's wife and others were charged with evading taxes in a 1997 share transfer, and the following month his children were order by a Thai anticorruption committee to pay $616 million in taxes and fines as a result of their 2006 sales of stock in the family telecommunications firm. The government moved in June to seize $1.5 billion in assets belonging to Thaksin and his wife, and also ordered him to return to face corruption charges; he remained in exile. The previous month a court had ordered the TRT party disbanded for breaking the electoral laws in 2006; Thaksin was barred from politics for five years. Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of Thaksin and his wife on corruption charges.

In Aug., 2007, Thai voters approved a new constitution in a referendum, which was subsequently endosed by the king. Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukbhasuk succeeded Sonthi as national security council leader in Oct., 2007. In the parliamentary elections in December, the People Power party (PPP), led by an ally of Thaksin and drawing on Thaksin's rural support, won a plurality of the seats; the vote was seen as a repudiation of the coup. Thaksin's wife returned to Thailand from exile in Jan., 2008. In February the PPP formed a six-party coalition government, with PPP leader Samak Sundaravej as prime minister and many former Thaksin aides in key posts; later that month Thaksin returned to Thailand. In July, one party left the governing coalition because of the PPP's focus on constitutional reform. The opposition, known as Yellow Shirts (yellow being the color traditional associated with the monarchy), began mounting increasing confrontational protests against the government in mid-2008; beginning in August they occupied the grounds of the prime minister's office.

Thai government support for naming the Preah Vihear (Phra Viharn) temple a UNESCO World Heritage site stoked antigovernment demonstrations and led to tensions with Cambodia in July, 2008. Awarded to Cambodia in 1962, the temple is claimed by both nations. The nationalistic outpouring in Thailand, in which opposition groups asserted the government action had undermined Thailand's claim on the temple, led both nations to reinforce their troops along the border near the temple, creating concern about an outbreak of border fighting. In Aug., 2008, both nations agreed to reduce greatly their forces near the temple, but tensions continued. There were subsequent sporadic clashes over the site, most significantly in Feb., 2011, and in Apr., 2011, there were clashes there and at other disputed sites. In Dec., 2011, both governments agreed to withdraw their troops from the disputed areas around Preah Vihear, and a demilitarized zone was established there in July, 2012. Most of the disputed territory was awarded in 2013 to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice. Meanwile, in Aug., 2008, Thaksin and his wife fled Thailand for Great Britain after she was convicted of tax fraud; he had been charged with abuse of power and other crimes and was convicted in absentia of corruption in Oct., 2008.

In Sept., 2008, days of antigovernment protest in Bangkok sparked clashes between anti- and progovernment demonstrators; clashes also occurred in October and November. Prime Minister Samak was dismissed from office in September by the Constitutional Court; it ruled that Samak's hosting of a television cooking show violated Thailand's conflict of interest law. He was succeeded by Somchai Wongsawat, a former judge and Thaksin's brother-in-law. In late November antigovernment protesters also began a blockade of Bangkok's airports, with damaging consequences for Thailand's tourist industry and agricultural exports. Early the following month the Constitutional Court ruled that the PPP and two smaller coalition parties had engaged in vote buying in the last election; Somchai was barred from politics and the three parties dissolved. Yellow Shirt activists subsequently ended their protests and blockades. The opposition Democrat party succeeded in forming a governing coalition later in December; party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister.

Thaksin supporters, known as “Red Shirts” for the color they used to distinguish themselves from the Yellow Shirts, subsequently mounted demonstrations against the new government. In late March the protests in Bangkok became significant, and in mid-April protestors forced the cancellation of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit; demonstrations were also reported in northern and northeastern provinces. Abhisit declared a state of emergency (which lasted two weeks), and used the military to suppress the protests in the capital. In Nov., 2009, Cambodia's naming of Thaksin as a government adviser strained relations between the two nations again.

In Mar., 2010, Thaksin supporters again mounted signficant demonstations in the capital against Abhisit in an attempt to force him to resign and call new elections; the government again declared a state of emergency. In April the ongoing protests erupted into fighting between the Red Shirts and security forces, and hundreds were injured. Abhisit subsequently placed the army commander in chief in charge of national security. In May, after increasing tensions, the government forcibly reestablished control over Bangkok; in response, protesters set fire to a number of buildings, and there were also riots in a number of cities in NE Thailand (a Red Shirt stronghold). The government subsequently also issued an arrest warrant for Thaksin, on terrorism charges relating to the two-month protest. Not until December was emergency rule lifted in all provinces.

In the June, 2011, elections for the House of Representatives, the pro-Thaksin For Thais party (Phuea Thai party, PTP), led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won a majority of the seats and subsequently formed a coalition government with a number of smaller parties; Yingluck became Thailand's first woman prime minister. In the 2011 monsoon season (August–October) unusually heavy rains resulted in weeks of significant flooding in three quarters of the country's provinces; it was the worst flooding in half a century. More than 750 persons died, and some areas continued to be affected into early 2012; the disruption to manufacturing caused an economic slowdown.

In Nov., 2013, the amendment of a political amnesty bill to include Thaksin led to a legislative walkout of opposition Democrats, and sparked demonstrations against the government that continued into 2014 despite the failure of the bill to pass the Senate. In December Yingluck dissolved parliament and announced new elections, which the PTP was expected to win; the Democrats announced a boycott of the elections, and demonstrators attempted to disrupt the preparations for them. In Jan., 2014, the government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces.

The Feb., 2014, elections were blocked by protests in a number of districts, and the constitutional court subsequently declared the voting invalid as a result. Yingluck and nine cabinet members were ordered to step down in May, 2014, after the constitutional court ruled the government had acted illegally in transferring the national security chief in 2011. Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, the commerce minister, became caretaker prime minister, but the army, led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, subsequently seized power in a coup.

An interim constitution, adopted in July, led to the appointment by the junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, of a legislative assembly. Ultimate power, however, remained with the military, and in August Prayuth became prime minister. Elections under a new constitution were slated for late 2015, but the National Reform Council rejected a proposed constitution in Sept., 2015. In Jan., 2015, Yingluck was impeached (despite no longer being in office) and banned from office for five years, ostensibly over corruption in a financially unviable subsidy program for rice farmers; she was later fined (2016) and then convicted of negligence (2017) in the case but fled Thailand before the 2017 verdict.

A new draft constitution was widely criticized for giving too much power to the military and weakening the major political parties, but it was adopted in an Aug., 2016, referendum; the southern Muslim Malay regions opposed it. The king died in Oct., 2016. After delaying his accession until December for a period of mourning, the crown prince succeeded his father as King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun; he endorsed the new constitution, with some modifications to preserve royal perogatives, in Apr., 2017. The new king was officially crowned two years later, in May, 2019. The postponed elections were finally held in Mar., 2019. Palang Parcharath, aligned with Prayuth, won a plurality of the votes, while the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai won a plurality of the seats, but opposition parties failed to win a lower house majority. Prayuth remained (June) prime minister, due to the military's control of the upper house and the support of many smaller parties. The third largest party, the opposition Future Forward, was banned in Feb., 2020, after the constitutional court ruled that a loan to the party by its leader was an illegal donation. Beginning in July, there were recurring student-led protests calling for Prayuth to resign and for reform of the monarchy.

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