Students Revolt in Thailand 1973

[ 1973 ]

In December 1972, Thanom announced a new interim constitution that provided for a totally appointed legislative assembly, two- thirds of the members of which would be drawn from the military and police. This move provoked widespread protest, however, especially among students and led to Thanom's eventual removal. In May and June 1973, students and workers rallied in the streets to demand a more democratic constitution and genuine parliamentary elections. By early October, there was renewed violence, protesting the detention of eleven students arrested for handing out antigovernment pamphlets. The demonstrations grew in size and scope as students demanded an end to the military dictatorship. On October 13, more than 250,000 people rallied in Bangkok before the Democracy Memorial, in the largest demonstration of its kind in Thai history, to press their grievances against the government.

The next day troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing seventy-five, and occupied the campus of Thammasat University. King Bhumibol, who had been seeking Thanom's ouster, took a direct role in dealing with the crisis in order to prevent further bloodshed and called Thanom and his cabinet to Chitralada Palace for talks. In the evening, the king went on television and radio to announce a compromise solution: Thanom had resigned as prime minister but would remain as supreme commander of the armed forces. In consultation with student leaders, the king appointed Sanya Dharmasakti (Sanya Thammasak) as interim prime minister, with instructions to draft a new constitution. Sanya, a civilian conservative, was the rector of Thammasat University and known to be sympathetic to the students' position. On October 15, Thanom, Praphat, and Narong--dubbed Thailand's "three most hated men"-- were allowed to leave the country in secret, the king overruling student militants who wanted to put them on trial. Their departure was announced to the public only after they had left the country, Praphat and Narong for Taiwan and Thanom initially for the United States.

The student demonstrations of 1973 had not been intended as a prelude to a revolution. They resulted, at least in part, from the frustration of large numbers of students who were unable to fulfill professional expectations after graduation, partly because university enrollment had increased dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s (see Education and the Arts , ch. 2). Students were careful, however, to legitimize their actions against the military dictatorship by an appeal to religion and the monarchy, displaying in the streets the symbols of the "civic religion"--figures of Buddha, pictures of the king, and the national flag.

Prime Minister Sanya gave full credit to the student movement for bringing down the military dictatorship. At the state ceremony honoring those who had been killed during the 1973 demonstrations, he pledged, "Their death has brought us democracy which we will preserve forever." However, political change in Thailand did not bring the shift to the left that had been hoped for by some and feared by many. Student militants, who already felt betrayed by the king's complicity in Thanom's escape, were not satisfied with the direction taken by the new government, which seemed to have been preempted by the professional politicians.

The new constitution, which went into effect in October 1974, called for a popularly elected House of Representatives and elections within 120 days. Political parties proliferated following the passage in 1974 of legislation permitting their registration. As a result, the January 1975 parliamentary elections were inconclusive. With forty-two officially sanctioned parties in the field, none won a parliamentary majority. The parties for the most part had been organized around familiar political personalities, and few had offered any ideological base or even specific programs. Only 47 percent of eligible voters cast ballots; public cynicism about politicians and improper management of voter registration were blamed for the relatively low turnout. According to observers, however, the election was not openly corrupt...

The overthrow of the Thanom regime had brought on a more vocal questioning of ties with the United States. Nationalist sentiment, which was frequently expressed in terms of anti- Americanism, ran high among students, who protested alleged American involvement in domestic Thai affairs and called for the speedy withdrawal of United States forces. Moreover, the changed geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia refocused the issue of the United States presence. Many Thai concluded that the country could not be reconciled with its communist neighbors as long as United States personnel were stationed on Thai soil.

Related Conflicts

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