Coups and the Military’s Struggles for State Power

In Thailand, coups, not elections, have become the norm for change of political leadership and government (Bunbongkarn 1987a:42-52). Since 1932, political change has evolved in a cyclical pattern – starting with a coup, followed by an election and a short period of open politics, before a crisis leading to another coup. In most cases, the coups provide a channel for the Royal Thai Army (RTA) to exert influence on the political situation, and have little to do with political transformation. They reflect struggles for power among the top military officers and civil servants among the political class. Some coups have been launched to oust civilian governments; others have been the result of competition for state power between factions within the military establishment. Rarely have political norms and practices been altered.

The first coup in modern Thai political history, which took place in 1932, can be considered one of the very few military interventions which led to a regime change, since it overthrew the absolute monarchy and replaced it with a form of constitutional rule. Although a democratic government was not installed, some democratic norms and practices were introduced. Subsequent military interventions were staged simply to provide opportunities for military leaders to acquire senior political positions. The 1947 coup was a case in point. It provided an avenue to power for a new group of army officers who were not previously involved in politics (Samudavanija and Bunbongkarn 1985:83). These officers were much more traditionalist than the 1932 coup leaders. Most of them did not have the same degree of exposure to Western education and culture and they lacked political vision and a blueprint for political development. Apart from personal ambition, the motive behind the coup was to return to military rule and restore the prestige of the armed forces. At the end of World War II, the armed forces were in disarray as the government was under Allied pressure to demobilise the army which had cooperated with Japanese troops in military operations during the war. The army was humiliated and the civilian-led, anti-Japanese underground Free-Thai Movement was the hero.

After the 1947 coup, the armed forces split into factions, each competing for power. But although the military elite was divided by personal interest, the military’s political dominance remained unaffected. The group supporting democracy was small and confined to elected parliamentarians and some intellectuals. In the 1950s, the Thai public was politically apathetic and viewed politics as a matter for the ruling class. Political parties were unorganised and lacked mass support; they did not present a threat to the military.

Military rule in Thailand was further strengthened when Marshal Sarit staged a coup in 1958 (Chaleamtiarana 1979). The distinctive characteristic of this coup was the combination of conservatism and capitalism. Sarit, who had been a key member of the 1947 coup group, rose rapidly to power after this coup. He later came into conflict with senior leaders, particularly Field Marshals Pibul and Phin and Police General Phao. Sarit launched a coup to oust those three from power in 1957. A second coup the following year, however, dealt a heavy blow to all liberal and progressive elements as well as to the representative institutions. Sarit soon realised that political instability in part derived from the fact that the armed forces lacked cohesiveness. An ideology was needed to reunify the armed forces and to guide the direction of political change. Sarit’s response was a conservatism which raised the prestige of the monarchy, consolidated bureaucratic rule, abolished constitutionalism, and limited political activities.

Most analysts agree that Sarit’s military rule was detrimental to democratic development, as democratic institutions and practices were not given a chance to survive. Sarit believed that what the country needed most was not political but economic development. Nevertheless his emphasis on economic development eventually strengthened the business community and other extra-bureaucratic forces, which in turn contributed to the strength of civil society. An influx of foreign investment, more systematic national economic development plans, and the expansion of economic infrastructure strengthened the business sec- tor. The student organisation which led the historic uprising in October 1973 gained strength from the expansion of higher education initiated during Sarit’s period.