In some ways, the Thai student rebellion of 1973 mirrored student rebellions around the world that began with “The Prague Spring,” in 1968. I was briefly a part of this more militant approach at changing the status quo, in
in 1970, and wrote about it in my book Sunshine Revolutionaries,
aka “Don’t Bank On
The events of October 1973 amounted to a revolution in Thai politics. For the first time the urban middle class, led by the students, had challenged the ruling junta, and had gained the apparent blessing of the king for a transition to real democracy. The leaders of the junta were forced to step down and took refuge in the
United States and Taiwan.
Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975. The threat of the communists in the neighboring countries soon led to a mild panic among Thai people. The arrival of communist regimes on
borders, the abolition of the 600-year-old Lao monarchy, and the arrival of
a flood of refugees from Laos
and Cambodia swung public
opinion in Thailand
back to the right, and conservatives did much better in the 1976 elections than
they had done in 1975.
By late 1976, moderate middle class opinion had turned away from the activism of the students, with their base at Thammasat University. The army and the right-wing parties began a propaganda war against student liberalism by accusing student activists of being 'communists' and through formal paramilitary organizations such the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs many of those students were killed. Matters came to a head in October when former Prime Minister Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn returned to
to enter a royal monastery, Wat Bovorn.
Tension between workers and factory owners became fierce, as the civil right movement became more active after 1973. Socialism and leftist ideology gained popularity among intellectuals and the working class. The political atmosphere became even more tense. Workers were found hung in Nakhon Pathom after protesting against a factory owner. A Thai version of anti-communist McCarthyism spread widely. Whoever staged a protest could be accused of being part of a communist conspiracy.
In 1976, students in
held protests over the violent deaths of the two workers hung in Nakhon
Pathom. They staged a mock hanging of the two, one of whom bore a
resemblance to the Crown Prince. Some newspapers the following day, including
Post, published a version of a “doctored” photo (what we would call in this
day and age as “photoshopped”), suggesting that the students had committed lese
majeste (criticism of the Thai Monarchy, which is still against the law).
Rightist and ultra-conservative icons such as Samak Sundharavej blasted
the students, instigating violent means to suppress the movement of the
students, culminating on October 6, 1976. Thammasat University
The army unleashed its unofficial and clandestine paramilitaries. Subsequently, the army used the resultant mob violence, in which hundreds of students were tortured and killed, to suspend the constitution and resume power. Immediately after the incident, an amnesty was issued to soldiers to prevent any of those responsible for the massacre from coming to justice.
In the evening, a junta staged a coup, declaring the end of the Democrat Party led-coalition government. The army installed Thanin Kraivichien, an ultra-conservative former judge, as prime minister, and carried out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media and the civil service. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists fled
Bangkok and joined the Communist Party's insurgent forces in
the north and north-east (Isaan), operating from safe bases in Laos.
Others left for exile, including Dr. Puey
Ungphakorn, the respected economist and Rector of Thammasat University.
(Photos we took in 2010 of the area of Phu Chan where communist insurgents had a base camp not an hour away from our village, back in the late 1970s, earliest '80s)
The economy was also in serious difficulties, in no part due to Thanin's policies, which frightened foreign investors.
The new regime proved as unstable as the democratic experiment had been. In October 1977 a different section of the army staged another "coup" and replaced Thanin with General Kriangsak Chomanand. In 1978 the government offered an amnesty to Thai communists willing to "work with us to build a prosperous nation". The offer included housing, family reunion and security.
By this time, Thai forces had to deal with the situation resulting from the Vietnamese invasion of
Cambodia. There was another flood
of refugees, and both Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge
forces periodically crossed into Thai territory, sparking clashes along the
borders. A 1979 visit to Beijing earned Deng
Xiaoping's agreement to end support for Thailand's
communist movement; in return, the Thai authorities agreed to give safe haven
to the Khmer
Rouge forces fleeing west following the invasion of Cambodia.
Revelations of the tremendous crimes of the defeated Khmer Rouge also sharply reduced the appeal of communism to the Thai public. With no one he could blame, Kriangsak's position as prime minister soon became untenable and he was forced to step down in February 1980 at a time of economic troubles. Kriangsak was succeeded by the army commander-in-chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda, a staunch royalist with a reputation for being incorruptible.
In 1979-88, Vietnamese occupation forces in Kampuchea made incursions into Thai territory, often seeking rebel guerrillas supposedly hidden in refugee camps (where many Laotians and Vietnamese refugees had also settled). Sporadic skirmishes continued along the border. From 1985 to 1988, Vietnamese troops in
periodically made raids to wipe out Khmer Rouge
border camps in Thailand,
which remained, along with China,
major supporters of Khmer Rouge resistance.