25. Thailand: Kingdom, Democracy, & Military Rule

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Southeast Asia: “We've seen how my modern countries achieved independence from the European powers that had dominated them for centuries. This transition to self-rule occurred after World War II and was certainly due in part to this international conflagration. Although attempting to establish their country as the new colonial power, the Japanese exposed the weakness of the Western powers and gave my emerging nation-states a taste of self-rule. Plus when they retreated, the Japanese left many of their weapons behind, which leveled the military playing field.

What about Thailand, the only one of my nations that was never colonized? Further they were the first Southeast Asian country to establish a democracy, even though the military took over a few years later. What happened to Thailand after World War II?”

Thailand: Phibun’s Military Dictatorship (1948-1957)

Recall that Thailand had expanded her boundaries at the expense of her neighbors during World War II. Unfortunately, this expansion came at a heavy price – subservience to Japan. With the defeat of the Japanese and the ascendancy of the West, all territories were restored to the appropriate parties. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar were the beneficiaries of this agreement. For Thailand, this meant a return to her contracted borders. But at least, the Thai people were free of the Japanese army, but not their own army. Due to political turbulence in post-war Thailand, the army under the resilient Phibun seized control of the government in 1948, an event that was already a semi-regular occurrence in Thailand’s modern history.

Remember, Phibun helped found the original Thai independence movement in 1927. It was his army that overthrew the monarchy in 1932 and then the initial Thai democracy 1938. Because Phibun’s military force aligned themselves with the Japanese, he was forced to resign in 1944 due a declining economy. After the war, he was on the verge of being charged with war crimes due to being on the wrong side of the conflict.

But the Cartel recognized Phibun’s military talents and instead recruited him to their side. In 1948 with their support, he led his 3rd bloodless coup in less than 20 years. Evidently, the Thai bow peaceably to an obviously superior military force, just as they had bowed to their absolute monarch for centuries.

Thailand’s Dictatorship: a Bastion against Communism

With Russia seizing control of Eastern Europe immediately after World War II and China’s successful communist revolution in 1949, the Cold War began in earnest. The Cold War was between the International Cartel led by the United States and International Communism led by the Soviet Union and ‘Red’ China. Instead of fighting each other, they fought for control of the nations of the world. Communism was one of the early winners in this ‘war’, when North Korea ‘went’ communist due to Chinese assistance in the early 1950s.

With tensions rising due to these relatively instant transformations, the American-led West was looking for stable allies. These allies tended to be countries with a dominant army that the West could bribe to ‘cooperate’ with them. The bribes came in the form of substantial amounts of financial assistance to both their economy and their military. Thailand was that country. The Thai army had cooperated with Japan to subjugate the Southeast Asian mainland. As such, they were an easy choice as the ally to suppress communist insurrections.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Cartel assisted Thailand to remain a military dictatorship as a bastion against the rising tide of communism in Southeast Asia. To fulfill its end of the bargain, the Thai sent armies to fight against communism in first Korea in the 1950s and then Vietnam in the 1960s. Further, the military dictatorship took actions against Thailand’s Chinese community officially to inhibit the spread of communism, unofficially to seize their wealth. The Thai army also imprisoned any opposition leaders that threatened their rule.

On the positive side, Thailand received massive amounts of both economic and military aid from the U.S. in the 1950s. These funds, of course, strengthened the dictatorship and inhibited social reform. Besides reinforcing the Thai army and police force, the financial assistance was also employed to build the nation's infrastructure. This infusion of funds laid the basis for a continuing economic boom in Thailand.

Thailand embraces Internationalism

In the first decade after the war, Thailand pursued a policy of economic nationalism. The government owned the small number of the country’s manufacturing firms, and placed a tight control on imports and exports. The military leaders became heavily involved in business and served on numerous corporate boards. However this insular approach to the economy resulted in very slow growth.

This situation proved dissatisfactory to the ambitious members of the military as well as the emergent middle class, especially businessmen of Chinese descent. In 1957 as a result of these dissatisfactions, Phibun was replaced as the head of the army and thereby the government by Sarit.

Sarit established patterns that were to define modern Thailand. Economically, he opened Thailand up to the global community. To this end, he encouraged private investment, both domestic and foreign. This led to a great influx of funds from the international community, especially the United States. As well as strengthening the military, this money fueled the Thai economy. It was employed in the construction of highways, irrigation projects, electrification of the country, and schools.

Perhaps more importantly, he withdrew the military from direct and somewhat autocratic control of the nation’s destiny. He allowed Thailand to develop somewhat naturally, rather than decide what he or the military thought was best for country. He employed a bottom-up rather than a top-down economic and political model.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1950-2014): Modern Thailand’s Father

While Phibun had distanced his government from the royal family, Sarit embraced the monarchy. He encouraged Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, to become more involved. To this end, the king and queen toured the countryside and also sponsored community activities. These projects included traditional Thai theatre, dance, arts and crafts, as well as the building and refurbishing of Buddhist stupas. By 1960, the royal family had become widely popular, and remain so to this day.

After the assassination of his brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej was coronated as king, i.e. Rama IX, on May 5, 1950. He remains the king as of this writing on July 28, 2014, almost 65 years later. It is easy to argue that this Thai King epitomizes the classic devaraja, god-king or Bodhisattva king, that has characterized Southeast Asian politics for nearly 2 millennium. At his coronation he pledged, “We shall reign with righteousness for the benefits and happiness of the Siamese people.” He definitely fulfilled this oath.

During his entire reign, he has consistently acted in the best interests of the Thai people. In the classic sense, he has created an environment that maximizes the potential for achieving merit. Achieving merit furthers the karma of the individual and thereby the greater society. By promoting traditional Thai culture, he encouraged serving the greater community rather than private ends. When asked why he didn’t travel outside his realm, his queen stated, “His majesty does not go abroad because … he would like to stay close to his subjects to help the poor.”

King Bhumibol is an amazing individual in many other ways as well. Besides encouraging Thai culture, he sponsored thousands of national projects that furthered the Thai agricultural economy, including irrigation and flood alleviation. He promoted highland agriculture through crop substitution and water resource restoration. He also developed economic theories, New Theory on Agriculture and Sufficiency Economy Philosophy, that have been widely adopted as models on how to achieve balanced and sustainable growth.

He is also an inventor, holding at least 20 patents and 19 trademarks, all of which are available to the public free of charge. His inventions include the process of how to turn palm oil and other crops into bio-gas and bio-fuel. Due to his considerable achievements he was awarded the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize in 1988.

On the occasion of his 86th birthday, a Thai reporter wrote, “Throughout his noble reign, His Majesty King Bhumibol has selflessly and indefatigably elevated the interests of the Thai nation above personal interests. For more than six decades, His Majesty has stood as a pillar of national stability and unity and dedicated himself to fulfilling the oath he made, to the benefit and happiness of the Thai people. For all Thais, His Majesty is truly ‘the King’ and our ‘Father of the Land”.

Alternation of Military-Rule & Democracy with the King mediating

Although the royal family’s influence had been on the decline since the 1932 coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadej became a significant player in Thai politics. He didn’t achieve this important role by wielding his power, but through his incredible prestige. The prestige derived from his impeccable behavior, not just from his exalted position. Instead of acting from personal agenda, he seemed to respond to the context of the situation.

For instance, in 1973 student demands for a democracy led to social turbulence. The army asked King Bhumibol for assistance. He appointed some new leaders that encouraged the growth of democratic institutions and political freedom. Bowing to popular demand, the military rulers stepped down. In 1975 just a few years later, the king encouraged the military to step in to reestablish social order after too much turbulence. This alternation of democracy and military control has continued to the current day.

Perhaps due to the king’s influence and patterns established in the early 1960s, the Thai military has tended to act primarily as a peacekeeping force to reestablish social order, rather than as an instrument of political repression. Although not so repressive, the military unfortunately has been somewhat corrupt economically. Fueled by American funding, the level of Thailand’s economic development for the most part has continued to be strong. However the simultaneous growth of corruption has meant that the prosperity has not reached the entire populace. Accordingly, there has been a rising gap in the standard of living between rich and poor. Due to this uneven distribution of funds, there has been continuing dissatisfaction, especially among the Hmong in the impoverished northeast and the alienated Muslims in the south. This dissatisfaction has frequently crystallized into outright insurgency.

Due to frequent social turbulence, the Thai army regularly asserted and continues to assert itself in political affairs. Sometimes the general becomes a military dictator and sometimes the army just establishes social order until the combatants settle down. Although the military dictators are frequently accused of corruption, rarely are they accused of violent repression, such as executing or imprisoning members of opposition parties or setting up a secret police system. While corruption seems to be a way of life in Thailand, it rarely degenerates into a police state.

As an example, in the late 70s due to the repression of the democracy movement, the Communist movement was beginning to gain ground. Instead of stepping up military action against these ‘insurgents’, a responsible faction of the army instituted a counter coup. To defuse the Communist movement, the military leaders began instituting democratic reforms. Instead of vilifying or attempting to kill or imprison the members of the rebellion, the government declared a general amnesty. With the preferred democracy beginning to establish itself, Thailand’s Communist Party disappeared from history.

Since the 1980s, Thailand has a new system of government in which the military shares power with a parliament, which is mediated by the monarchy of King Bhumibol. Instead of this being a constant state, the government has alternated between military rule and being a democracy. While Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country to establish democratic institutions, the Thai democracy has been erratic, coming and going like the wind. It seems as if the Thai people are mainly interested a strong economy. If the elected leaders can’t maintain order, they are more than willing for the army to serve that function. The Thai military, the royal government, democratic forces, and the Buddhists have been four different forces that have worked together and against each other to create modern Thailand.

 

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