Monday, July 28, 2014

Democracy Falters, 1974-80

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 California, in 1970, and wrote about it in my book Sunshine Revolutionaries, aka “Don’t Bank On Amerika.”

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.

Thailand, however, had not yet produced a political class able to make this bold new democracy function smoothly. The January 1975 elections failed to produce a stable party majority, and fresh elections in April 1976 produced the same result. The veteran politician Seni Pramoj and his brother Kukrit Pramoj alternated in power, but were unable to carry out a coherent reform program. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 led to recession and inflation, weakening the government's position. The democratic government's most popular move was to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand. Significantly, the communist insurgency in Thailand, led by the Thai communist party, gradually became more active in the countryside, allying with urban intellectuals and students.

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 Thailand’s 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 Thailand 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 Thammasat University 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 the Bangkok 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.

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".[1] The offer included housing, family reunion and security.[1]

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).[1] Sporadic skirmishes continued along the border. From 1985 to 1988, Vietnamese troops in Kampuchea periodically made raids to wipe out Khmer Rouge border camps in Thailand, which remained, along with China, major supporters of Khmer Rouge resistance.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Democracy Movement, 1973

Although the Thai absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 and a constitutional monarchy instituted in what was the country’s first coup d’etat, the Democracy Movement did not begin until the late 1960s with Thai student demonstrations calling for changes in the military government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. These started in 1968 and grew in size and numbers in the early 1970s despite the continued official ban on political meetings.

(front patio orchids)

The following is mostly taken from the Wiki on the History of Thailand:

In June 1973, nine Ramkhamhaeng University students were expelled for publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the government. Shortly after, thousands of students held a protest at the Democracy Monument, in Bangkok, demanding the re-enrollment of the nine students. The government ordered the universities to shut, but shortly afterwards allowed the students to be re-enrolled.

In October 1973, another 13 students were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. This time the student protesters were joined by workers, businessmen and other ordinary citizens. The demonstrations swelled to several hundred thousand and the issue broadened from the release of the arrested students to demands for a new constitution and the replacement of the current government.

On October 13, the government released the detainees. Leaders of the demonstrations, among them Seksan Prasertkul, called off the march in accordance with the wishes of the King who was publicly against the democracy movement. In a speech to graduating students, he criticized the pro-democracy movement by telling students to concentrate on their studies and leave politics to their elders [military government].

As the crowds were breaking up the next day, on October 14, many students found themselves unable to leave because the police had attempted to control the flow of the crowd by blocking the southern route to Rajavithi Road. Cornered and overwhelmed by the hostile crowd, the police responded with teargas and gunfire.

The military was called in, and tanks rolled down Rajdamnoen Avenue and helicopters fired down at Thammasat University. A number of students commandeered buses and fire engines in an attempt to halt the progress of deployed tanks by ramming into them. With chaos on the streets, King Bhumibol opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to the students who were being gunned down by the army. Despite orders from Thanom that the military action be intensified, army commander Kris Sivara had the army withdrawn from the streets.

The King condemned the government's inability to handle the demonstrations, ordered Thanom, Praphas, and Narong to leave the country, and notably condemned the students' supposed role as well. At 06:10 p.m., Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn resigned from his post as Prime Minister. An hour later, the King appeared on national television, asking for calm, and announcing that Thanom had been replaced with Dr. Sanya Dharmasakti, a respected law professor, as prime minister.

(The Democracy Monument in Bangkok, built in 1940 to commemorate the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932, was the scene of massive demonstrations in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010).

 References for this section:

1932: Revolution in Siam by Charnvit Kasetsiri; Thammasart University Press, 2000 ISBN 974-85814-4-6
The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam by Benjamin A. Batson; Oxford University Press, 1984 ISBN 0-86861-600-1
History of the Thai Revolution by Thawatt Mokarapong; Thai Watana Panich Press, 1983 ISBN 974-07-5396-5
The Free Thai Legend by Dr. Vichitvong na Pombhejara; Saengdao, 2003 ISBN 974-9590-65-1
Siam becomes Thailand by Judith A. Stowe; University of Hawaii Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8248-1394-4
Thailand: A Short History by David K. Wyatt; Yale University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-300-08475-7
Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism by Thak Chaloemtiarana; Thammasart University Press, 1979
Thailand's Secret War: OSS, SOE and the Free Thai Underground During World War II by E. Bruce Reynolds; Cambridge University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-521-83601-8

Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Thai Coup

About a month after Songkran, the Thai combined military forces took control of the country in Thailand’s 19th coup d’etat since 1932.

The Wikipedia coverage of the “2014 Thai Coup” appears pretty accurate except that it left out the fact that the latest political developments not only come out of failures of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, but has its roots in the problems incurred in previous governments lead by her brother Taksin Shinawatra.

I believe the coup is generally considered a good thing by most Thai people, no matter their political party, both for the stability it brings and the reforms it has pledged to bring about. Yet, the coup is poorly understood by Western governments. I was actually amazed at the United States’ response decreeing that the coup is a threat to Thai democracy. Here we have a country (the U.S.) that, on paper and in many ways is a democracy, but fundamentally operates as an oligarchy. It’s like that expression: “the pot calling the kettle black.”

Of course, family and friends were concerned about me especially at the very launch of the coup, but, really we have been little affected by it and the military has moved swiftly to try to correct some glaring wrongs, including the infamous Rice Pledging Scheme.

As with all things, time will tell.

(Village Chief  Gamnan’s big strand of bamboo, butt-up against our backyard eastern fence; shot taken from our upstairs south-facing window)

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Songkran is the Lao and Thai New Year. It begins in mid-April and is officially a few days long, but khon Thai usually stretch it out to about a work week and two weekends.

Even if you had no idea what time of year it is, you would know when it is Songkran in Thailand. A tell-tale sign is a noticeable increase in the number of people packed in truck beds, visiting relatives and friends and “vacationing.” Teenagers and young adults with backpacks whom you’ve never seen before will walk into the village quietly. These are the kids who have been away at school and are returning home for what amounts to an annual reuniting of all Thai families – kaupkua.

When Somkran gets under way, you absolutely know it by the number of kids on the side of roads throwing water at passers by; not just kids, either. It is traditional for everyone to at least sprinkle water on relatives and friends.

And not even traffic police are exempt from a dousing (that’s white powder that’s also been applied presumably by passersby, which is also traditional):

When Thai New Year gets into full swing, you can also tell it’s that time of year because some Kon Thai get absolutely, positively “drunk as a skunk” is the expression I grew up with. There are many other expressions for it. It translates: stay away from these people.

It’s in large part because of the extreme imbibing of alcohol that each Thai New Year, I retreat further and further into the back reaches of our home and properties. I mean, I’ve been no shining example of sobriety, myself, and there are stories told. But, at age 65, I like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two.

“Been There, Done That.”

A further reach into our home: Thip's stove, back kitchen:

(Rice cooker on left, wok in middle. On the right: wooden plate for spreading and cooling the sticky rice; bamboo rice containers on extreme right; water jugs and Beer Chang under the counter)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Favorite Time of Year

At the end of my first year retired in Northeastern Thailand (2012), I decided my favorite time of year was after Ohpensa (the end of Buddhist lent or Vassa) and the rice harvest. I like this time of year because of the cooling temperatures and the end of the Monsoon Season.

Now that I’ve completed my second year and working on my third (2014), however, I’ve changed my mind. My most favorite time in the Isaan is the very short springtime (Feb-Mar) and on into the beginning of summer (Apr-May), before the rains really get going. Even though these later two months are the hottest months of the year, it is not the heat that bothers me.

It’s the nyoong.

Yeah, you’ve read me complaining about mosquitoes before and it is certainly true that these insects are my enemies – I think my only ones, although they are formidable.

The nice thing about February thru May is that it is so dry, there are very few areas of standing water for the nyoong to breed in. The period of rapid heating-up (Feb-Mar) and the hottest months of the year (Apr-May) are virtually mosquito-free. I love it!

Here’s some shots of our downstairs living room:

Looking inside from the front doorway: our seldom used dining table (because we’re outside most all the time); book shelf/cupboard and closet in the background, and the doorway to the kitchen beyond that.

Panning left from the doorway: Our seldom-used bamboo bed (we sleep upstairs) Thip got to take care of her mother. Family likes to have Khun Mae stay at the family house, so she is rarely here and never overnight. Also visible: windows and doors to bathroom and closet/laundry room.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lao Trip 6.9 - Visa Out

Day 6 of my 6th trip to Lao.

As the Thai Consulate in Savannakhet takes applications in the morning of one day and then issues visas the following day, in the afternoon, I had a fair amount of killing time to do, waiting to pick mine up that afternoon. I suppose I could have gone and seen some of the city’s sights, but I’m not a very good tourist, really. My head’s just in a different space. I’d rather try to engage people than view “objects” – ah, except if they’re female and pretty!

I logged some more Internet time and hung around the riverside vendors area. I was approached by more than one manicurist wanting to do my finger and toe nails. Sometimes they were very persistent. I think some sell sex on the side, too.

After I got my one year Thai visa that afternoon, I was left with a major choice to make: continue south or go back home?

My original plan had been to continue south to Pakse, Champasak and the Thousand Islands area of Southern Lao. This would have put me smack dab in the middle of the tourist track and I wasn’t looking forward to that; after already being in Lao for nearly a week. I was tired, so that night I did another short evening at the Savankhaimkhong and, next day, headed back home.

I was back in my village before nightfall that same day, completing a full week's trip.

Here’s a map of the return bus trip: