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Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda
Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy

The Royal Family of Thailand in the early 1980s
Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy

In 1987 Thailand was stable under Prime Minister Prem's eighth consecutive year of administration, even though his leadership was criticized for alleged indecisiveness and weakness. The country had not experienced a successful military coup since October 1977, and in 1987 few politically or economically destabilizing issues existed. As in past decades, the military continued to be influential in the political process. Significantly, however, "one of the most surprising aspects of recent Thai politics," as American political scientist Ansil Ramsay noted, "is that political change has occurred within a parliamentary framework instead of through military coups."

In January 1980, while dismissing as obsolete the flurry of seasonal rumors of an imminent coup, then-Prime Minister Kriangsak declared that "our military officers who are pursuing a democratic course" would never allow it to happen. He did not, however, rule out a coup if there were good reason, but only as a last resort. He also made the point that he would step down if there was a majority political party run by trustworthy and efficient political party executives.

At the end of February, Kriangsak stepped down, not, however, because there was a party he could trust. Rather, the factious military was unable to give the former army commander in chief the unified support he needed at the time to weather a political storm brought on by economic troubles. Predictably, he was succeeded by Prem, the army commander in chief at the time, making Kriangsak the first ex-military prime minister ever to give up power voluntarily (see table 14, Appendix). Prem survived two attempted coups and provided years of stability, which the country needed for the institutionalization of a political process based on the party system. The development of party politics was still under way in 1987, albeit with occasional setbacks.

Although Prem initially ruled through a coalition cabinet of three parties--the Democrat (Prachathipat) Party, the Social Action (Kit Sangkhom) Party, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party--his real political base was the armed forces, the traditional source and guarantor of political power (see Political Parties , this ch.). In 1980, as from the early 1970s, the military was divided into several cliques. One of the more influential cliques called itself "the Young Military Officers Group," popularly nicknamed "the Young Turks." The influential members of this group belonged to Class Seven (1960 graduates) of the elite Chulachomkhlao Royal Military Academy. Their aim was to enhance military professionalism as well as to ensure a decisive role for the military in the Thai political process. In 1980 their support was key to Prem's ascension to the prime ministership. In April 1981, however, they turned against Prem, who at that time was still army commander in chief. Apparently the Young Turks believed that Prem had betrayed their trust by consorting with political opportunists and party politicians in his coalition government and, worse yet, by taking sides with rival military cliques opposed to the Young Turks. For two days, the Young Turks controlled the capital city, but they failed to win the monarch's tacit consent, which had been crucial to the traditional legitimization of a coup. Thirty-eight coup plotters- -including their leaders, Colonel Manoon Rupekahorn and Colonel Prachak Sawangchit--were dismissed from the army. After the abortive coup, General Arthit Kamlangek, who was credited with a key role in thwarting the attempt, was promoted to commander of the First Army Region; traditionally, this post was regarded as the most strategic one in the making of coups and countercoups (see Military Structure , ch. 5). It was also noticeable that Class Five (1958 graduates) of the military academy, the Young Turks' chief rival faction, were promoted to some key army posts.

In August 1981, Prem relinquished his post as army commander in chief but continued to head his second coalition cabinet. This coalition was formed in March 1981, after a cabinet crisis brought on by the withdrawal of the Social Action Party from the ruling coalition. The second coalition comprised the Chart Thai Party, the Democrat Party, and the United Democracy (Saha Prachathipatai) Party, the latter a loose alliance of minor parties. In December 1981, this cabinet was reorganized to make room for the Social Action Party, which decided to return to Prem's third cabinet.

Another notable development of the year was Kriangsak's entry into partisan politics when he won a parliamentary by-election in August. For this purpose, he founded the National Democracy (Chart Prachathipatai) Party in June. Thus, he became the first former army commander in chief and prime minister to enter party politics through the so-called front door--the parliamentary route. Because of his background and experience, Kriangsak was often mentioned as an alternative to Prem.

Another frequently mentioned alternative was General Arthit, a palace favorite, whose rapid rise to the post of commander in chief of the army in October 1982 was unprecedented. To some Thai observers, outspoken Arthit was "the strongman of the future," destined to become the next prime minister.

It was not unusual for a Thai general to air his views publicly on socioeconomic or political issues, and such utterances were often considered important. As political scientist John L.S. Girling noted, "The power and authority of the military-bureaucratic regime, which had been so long in existence, depended not so much on the physical means of coercion that it possessed . . . as in the acceptance by extrabureaucratic elements of the inevitability of that power and their inability to challenge it."

In the 1980s, the military dominance in politics, however, seemed to be undergoing some change, partly because the officer corps was not as cohesive as it had been previously and hence was less able to impose its will. For example, the lack of unity among the officers and their allies in the Senate and the political parties was largely to blame for the failure to amend the Constitution in 1983 (see National Assembly , this ch.). Factionalism continued unabated, particularly between members of Class Seven and of Class Five of the Chulachomkhlao Royal Military Academy. The relative influence of these factions was reflected in the annual reshuffle of the military high command-- the traditional barometer of real political power--announced each year in September. By 1983 the Class Five faction, sometimes known as the "democratic soldiers" group, seemed to be particularly influential.

Another factor bearing on the military's changing political role was the generals' own growing perception that a coup was undemocratic, if not uncivilized. As a result, an increasing number of generals and colonels in retirement chose to involve themselves in party politics. In the election held on April 18, 1983, for example, the Chart Thai Party captured 73 of 324 seats in the House of Representatives--nearly twice its 1979 total (see table 15, Appendix). Led by Major General (retired) Pramarn Adireksan, this party had a large number of retired military officers. After the election, the Chart Thai Party emerged as the top party in parliament with 108 seats by absorbing independents and other minor party members. Nonetheless, it was not included in Prem's fourth coalition cabinet. This exclusion reportedly was because of the party's aggressive postelection maneuvers for what it claimed as the moral right to form a new government. Such aggressiveness antagonized other parties, which wanted Prem for another term as their consensus prime minister. Prem's fourth coalition consisted of four parties: Social Action Party, Democrat Party, Prachakorn Thai (Thai People) Party, and National Democracy Party (see Political Parties , this ch.).

The political situation was volatile during 1984, with rumors of a coup, a cabinet reorganization, and a rift between Prem and Arthit--two of the most frequently mentioned political actors. Arthit continued to project a forceful image with his confrontational approach, a sharp contrast to Prem's low-keyed, conciliatory approach. Also serving as the supreme commander of the armed forces beginning in September 1983, Arthit at times challenged the propriety of important government policies. In November, for example, he made a televised condemnation of the government's policy of devaluation. Also in 1984, apparently with Arthit's blessing, some active-duty and retired army officers pressed for constitutional amendments aimed at enhancing their political influence through the Senate and the cabinet. A showdown between Arthit's camp and Prem's ruling coalition seemed imminent. Arthit backed off, however, urging the army officers to abandon, at least for the time, the drive for amendments. It appeared that the monarchy played a key role in defusing the tension. In this context, Thai political scientist Juree Vichit- Vadakan commented that the monarchy was "likely to be the single most important force capable of holding the country together during times of chaos and crisis and of assuring the viability of a democratic process in Thailand. With a clear commitment of the monarchy to a constitutional government, democracy Thai style ultimately may have a chance to take root."

In 1985 Thailand survived another military challenge to its constitutional government in the form of an abortive coup, again led by Manoon, the Young Turks colonel who had engineered the unsuccessful coup in 1981. On September 9, a small band of army and air force officers with several hundred men and twenty-two tanks made a vain predawn bid for power. The coup collapsed after ten hours, but not before seven persons were killed and scores wounded. Manoon was allowed to go into exile as part of a deal to avert further bloodshed. Among those detained for complicity were Kriangsak, Prem's predecessor and leader of the National Democracy Party; the former army commander in chief and supreme commander of the armed forces, General Sern Na Nakorn; the former deputy army commander in chief, General Yos Thephasdin na Ayutthaya; the former deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Krasae Intharathat; and the still- serving deputy supreme commander of the armed forces Air Chief Marshal Arun Prompthep.

The facts surrounding the affair were still unclear as of mid-1987, but observers generally suggested two reasons for the failure of the coup. One was factiousness in the military. The other was the perceived obsolescence of a coup, a view shared by a widening circle of military officers, senior civil servants, businessmen, financiers, industrialists, white-collar executives, intellectuals, and, significantly, by the king as well. According to this perception, popular demand for participation and representation, whetted by the advent of industrialization in Thailand, could be better accommodated by a parliamentary government than by an authoritarian and narrowly based military regime. Despite the absence of a successful coup since 1977, however, few informed Thai seemed to believe that the country was on a steady course toward fuller democratic rule. Thai political scientist Likhit Dhiravegin observed in December 1986, "[If] one probes deeper, one would get a feeling that despite the existence of the elected assembly and a Cabinet consisting of civilians, the final say on who should be the prime minister still rests mainly with the military."

In partisan politics, the Democrat Party, the oldest and the best organized party, fared well. Of the seven seats at stake in five by-elections held in 1985, the Democrats won five, four of them in Bangkok, where they also captured thirty-eight seats in the election for the fifty-four-member city council. One of the winning Democrats was General Harn Linanond, a former commander of the Fourth Army Region who quit the army in 1984 in a dispute with General Arthit. In 1985 Harn, who was deputy leader of the Democrat Party, and his party colleagues opposed a one-year extension of service for Arthit, who was due for retirement in September 1985. The army had reportedly ordered its personnel in Bangkok to vote for former Lieutenant General Vitoon Yasawas, Harn's rival, running on the Social Action Party ticket.

Tensions between the army and the Democrat Party also surfaced in Thailand's first gubernatorial election for Bangkok in November 1985. This contest was won handily by former Major General Chamlong Srimuang, a devout Buddhist, former chief aide to Prem and former leader of the Class Seven military academy graduates. Chamlong ran as an independent but was strongly supported by Arthit, who publicly urged his subordinates and their families to vote against any party that had an antimilitary orientation. His urging was directed particularly against the Democrat Party. Arthit's support would have made little difference in the outcome of the contest because of Chamlong's immense personal appeal to nearly every segment of the Bangkok electorate.

The eventful year of 1986 augured well for the future of party politics. Prem's coalition overcame a minor cabinet crisis, reined in outspoken Arthit, held the third parliamentary election since 1979, and improved the climate for professionalization of the military. At the root of the cabinet crisis was endemic factional strife within the Social Action Party, the senior partner in Prem's four-party coalition. This problem necessitated a cabinet reorganization in January and, worse still, caused the coalition government an embarrassing parliamentary defeat on a routine legislative bill. Facing the certainty of a major parliamentary fight over a motion of no-confidence against his government, Prem consulted King Bhumibol and dissolved the House of Representatives, with an election slated for July 27--eleven months ahead of schedule. The political arena was explosive at that juncture, as a result of mounting tension between the two competing poles of power--Prem and Arthit. Relations between them had become steadily strained since Arthit's public assault on the government's fiscal and monetary policies in November 1984.

Another complicating factor was Arthit's decision to set up the army's "election-monitoring center" in connection with the forthcoming election, an action some Thai criticized as an unwarranted foray into politics. Still another complication was active lobbying by Arthit's loyalists to have the army commander in chief's term extended another year to September 1987. If these loyalists had had their way, the extension would have enabled them to influence political realignment to their advantage in 1987--after Prem's four-year mandate expired in April. A new election, to be held within sixty days from mid-April, would have been held while the army was still under Arthit's direction.

On March 24, 1986, the government announced that Arthit would be retired as scheduled on September 1. Then on May 27, the government stunned the nation by dismissing the army commander in chief and replacing him with General Chaovalit Yongchaiyut, a Prem loyalist. Prior to that, no army commander in chief had been fired before the expiration of his term. This unprecedented action came amid the flurry of rumors that Arthit was involved in behind-the-scenes maneuvers to undermine Prem's chances for another premiership after the July election. Arthit, whose largely ceremonial post as supreme commander of the armed forces until September 1986 was not affected by the dismissal order, denied any role in such maneuvers.

Chaovalit quickly set the tone of his army leadership by promising to keep the military out of politics, by dissolving the army's election watchdog center, and by pledging military neutrality in the election. Later in August, the army announced that twenty-eight of the thirty-eight Young Turks officers cashiered in the wake of the abortive coup in 1981 had been reinstated to active service; Colonel Manoon officially remained a fugitive from prosecution. The reinstatement, though mostly to nonsensitive noncommand positions, was widely welcomed as an important step toward restoring unity in the army and improving the prospect for military professionalism. In the annual September reshuffle of senior military officials, Chaovalit strengthened his power base by appointing Class Five graduates of the military academy to key senior commands.

The July 1986 election involved the participation of 3,810 candidates representing 16 parties. Candidates of the outgoing coalition parties campaigned, generally avoiding any association with Prem. The contest literally was wide open; no single party was expected to win an electoral mandate outright in the newly enlarged 347-seat House of Representatives. As in 1983, Prem declined to run in this election, citing the "need to maintain my neutrality and to let the election be held . . . free from any factor that may sway the people." Nevertheless, because he might again be picked as the compromise choice of major parties to lead the postelection government, the issue of an elected or nonelected prime minister became a focus of campaign debate. Regardless of partisanship, however, nearly all agreed that the austerity measures that had been initiated by the outgoing government should be scuttled as a major step toward accelerating economic recovery and boosting rural incomes. Evidently Bangkok's powerful banking and business families, who had suffered as a result of such measures since late 1984, effectively brought their influence to bear on many candidates. The army did not intervene, but Chaovalit warned that the military would not stand idly by if the postelection government failed the people's trust.

Predictably, no party emerged with a majority, although the Democrat Party captured the largest bloc of seats with 100, which was 44 more than it had in 1983. Most observers agreed that a coalition led by the Democrat Party would stand little chance of survival; the party had nowhere near a majority and, moreover, was traditionally the most outspoken critic of military involvement in politics. Thus, despite the lack of any ground swell for a nonelected prime minister, Prem again emerged as the compromise leader most acceptable to the army, the palace, and the major political parties.

The new coalition cabinet Prem unveiled in August consisted of four parties, with a combined strength of 232 seats distributed among the Democrat Party (100), the Chart Thai Party (63), the Social Action Party (51), and the Rassadorn (People) Party (18). These four were among the seven parties that initially agreed to support Prem; the remaining three not in the coalition were the Prachakorn Thai Party (24), the Ruam Thai (Thai Unity) Party (19), and the Community Action (Kit Prachakhorn) Party (15). The three parties later formed an opposition bloc with several other minor parties. The United Democracy Party, which commanded thirty-eight seats, agreed to support the opposition bloc in voting against the government on an issue-by-issue basis.

In September 1986, the fifty-four-year-old army commander in chief, Chaovalit, pledged his support for "the parliamentary government," adding that there would be "no more coups" as long as he was in charge of the army. Earlier, he had expressed an intention to retire in 1988 (reaffirmed in July 1987); if he did not, he could remain in his post until official retirement in 1992, or 1993 with a one-year extension of service.

On April 22, 1987, the Prem administration faced a no- confidence debate in parliament, the second one since October 1986. Eighty-four opposition members sponsored the no-confidence motion against the entire cabinet. However, amid allegations of bribery and rumors of a coup or a parliamentary dissolution, the censure bid failed. Fifteen of the sponsors, under heavy outside pressure, withdrew their names on the day the debate was scheduled to take place, leaving the motion one vote shy of the minimum seventy votes. Opposition leaders vowed to resubmit another no-confidence motion later.

Data as of September 1987

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