About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos


Thailand - Government


THE RELATIVE STABILITY of the Thai political system in the 1980s may prove to be a political watershed in modern Thai history. This stability, which resulted after several decades of spasmodic experimentation with democracy, could be attributed to the growing support of the monarchy and the traditionally dominant military-bureaucratic elite for parliamentary democracy. Evidently an increasing number of educated Thai had come to believe that a "Thai-style democracy" headed by the king and a parliament representing the people through political parties was preferable to excessively authoritarian rule under military strongmen. The future of parliamentary democracy was not a certainty, however, as many Thai continued to believe that democratic rule was not the most effective option in times of incompetent national leadership, prolonged civil and political disorder, or external threat to independence.

Under the Constitution of 1978, Thailand has a British-style cabinet form of government with King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) reigning as constitutional monarch and Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda heading the government. Unlike the British prime minister, however, Prem was not a leader of or even a member of any political party in the nation's parliament, the National Assembly, nor did he run for election in the July 1986 election that led to the formation of his four-party coalition government. This was his fifth cabinet and seventh year in office--no mean accomplishment in a country that had witnessed numerous coups, countercoups, and attempted coups during its sporadic experiments with parliamentary government since 1932.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Prem became prime minister in March 1980 not by a coup, the traditional route to power, but by consensus among key politicians. At that time he was the commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army, a post that was long considered to be the most powerful in the country. With little dissent from any quarter, he succeeded Kriangsak Chomanand, who had resigned as prime minister amid mounting economic and political tensions. A group of disgruntled officers, popularly known as "the Young Turks," attempted coups against Prem in 1981 and 1985. These attempts, however, had no disruptive effect on political stability.

Despite these failed coups, in 1987 the military as a whole continued to play a major role in Thai politics. Increasingly, this role was tempered as so-called "enlightened" officers realized that a coup was no longer acceptable to the public and that the military could bring its influence to bear politically by working within the constitutional system. The military continued to believe, nonetheless, that politics and government were too important to be left entirely in the hands of civilian politicians, whom they tended to disdain as corrupt, divisive, and inefficient.

Barring early dissolution or resignation of his cabinet, Prem's mandate was scheduled to lapse in July 1990. Who would succeed him and, more important, how it would happen were the key questions because of their far-reaching implications for parliamentary democracy in Thailand. A related question concerned the future role of the monarchy and whether or not it would continue to command the reverence and loyalty of all segments of society and maintain its powerful symbolism as the sole conferrer of political legitimacy.

In the 1980s, a growing number of Thai favored a constitutional amendment requiring that only an elected member commanding a parliamentary majority could become prime minister. Citing Prem as an example, others argued that, even in the absence of a constitutional amendment, orderly succession was possible if a nationally reputable figure were acceptable to a majority of the country's political leaders. In any case, many observers agreed that, rather than imitating a foreign political model, Thailand should develop the political system best suited to the kingdom's particular needs and circumstances. The quest for a so-called "Thai-style democracy" was still under way in 1987, although the form and process of such a democracy remained largely undefined.

During the 1980s, Thailand pursued three major foreign policy objectives: safeguarding national security, diversifying and expanding markets for Thai exports, and establishing cordial relations with all nations. On the whole, Thailand conducted what it called "omni-directional foreign policy," and it did so in a highly pragmatic and flexible manner. Relations with such major powers as the United States, China, and Japan were increasingly cordial, and relations with the Soviet Union were correct. The Thai were suspicious of Soviet intentions because Moscow was perceived to be aiding and abetting Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Indochina had come to be viewed as the major threat to Thailand's security. The normalization of relations with these Indochinese neighbors remained the principal unresolved issue for Bangkok, which continued to address the problem directly as well as indirectly through a regional forum called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

<"76.htm">The Constitution
<"79.htm"> CIVIL SERVICE
<"80.htm"> THE MEDIA
<"81.htm"> POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS, 1980-87


Thailand - The Constitution


The Constitution, promulgated on December 22, 1978, is the country's twelfth such document since 1932, when Thailand, then called Siam, first became a constitutional monarchy. Thailand's numerous constitutions resulted, in part, from various coup leaders revoking an old constitution and announcing an interim one in order to legitimize their takeover until a permanent constitution could be promulgated. Political maneuvers aimed at amending constitutional provisions have often shed light on the interplay of Thai political forces and the personalities and issues involved.

The Constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government with the king as titular head of state. In theory, the monarch exercises popularly derived power through the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers, and the courts. In reality, power is wielded by the prime minister--the head of government-- who chairs the Council of Ministers, or cabinet.

The Constitution includes a long chapter on the rights and liberties of the people, in which are guaranteed due process of law; sanctity of the family; rights of property and inheritance; freedom from forced labor, except by law in times of national emergencies or armed hostilities; and the inviolability of the person and private communications. Censorship is banned except by law for the purpose of "public order or good morals, public safety, or for maintaining the security of the state." Also guaranteed are freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religious worship, and the right of peaceful assembly; freedom of residence and movement within the kingdom; the right to organize voluntary associations; the right to establish a political party and engage in political activities within a democratic framework; and the right to petition against public institutions. These rights and liberties, however, are not to be used against the interest of "the Nation, religion, the King, and the Constitution."

Affairs of state must conform to a set of principles, which, among other things, obligate the state to maintain the monarchy, provide compulsory and free education, and promote public understanding of and belief in a democratic form of government with the king as its head. The state is also directed to ensure that the people enjoy the right of self-government as prescribed by law. Other directive principles urge the state to encourage private economic initiatives, raise the economic and social status of the citizenry to the level of "comfortable livelihood," and secure either landownership or land use rights for all farmers by means of land reform or other appropriate measures. The state is also called upon to promote culture, environmental protection, planned parenthood, and public health.

The power of the state, exercised through a centralized form of government, is divided into legislative, executive, and judicial categories. The state revolves around the king, the bicameral legislature, the cabinet, the judiciary, the local government, and the Constitutional Tribunal.

The Constitution may be amended by motions introduced either by the cabinet or by one-third of the members of the lower house of the National Assembly; in the latter case, a motion must be in accordance with a resolution adopted by the political party to which the proponents of the amendment belong. This provision is designed to encourage responsible party politics by prohibiting motions by members acting in defiance of party discipline. An amendment bill is deliberated in three readings and must be approved by more than one-half of the total members of both houses.

The interpretation of the Constitution is under the jurisdiction of both the National Assembly and the Constitutional Tribunal. Except for matters reserved for the Constitutional Tribunal, questions relating to the power and duty of the legislature are resolved by the assembly sitting in joint session. The tribunal is responsible for deciding the legality of a bill passed by the National Assembly. If at least one-fifth of the National Assembly members object to a given bill before it is given royal assent, they may request the president of either chamber to refer the disputed bill to the tribunal for adjudication. The prime minister also may raise an objection to the tribunal directly. Decisions by the Constitutional Tribunal are final and cannot be appealed.




In the 1980s, the governmental system remained unitary, with all important decisions emanating from the traditionally powerful bureaucratic elite in Bangkok. Composed of senior members of the civil and military wings of the bureaucracy, this elite dominated the governmental process from the national level down to the district level. In this process, the Ministry of Interior continued to play a key role as the administrative framework of the state, resisting reforms and changes.

The King

The Constitution stipulates that the king is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" and is not to be exposed "to any sort of accusation or action." As ceremonial head of state, the monarch is endowed with a formal power of assent and appointment, is above partisan affairs, and does not involve himself in the decision-making process of the government. In the 1980s, King Bhumibol Adulyadej remained the nation's most respected figure because he was popularly perceived to be the embodiment of religion, culture, and history. He ensured political stability and unity by lending legitimacy to important government actions and, in potentially destabilizing situations, as during the abortive coups in 1981 and 1985, by discreetly signaling his support of the incumbent government.

In discharging his formal duties, the king was assisted by the Privy Council, whose president and not more than fourteen members were royal appointees. These members could not hold other public offices, belong to political parties, or show loyalty to any partisan organization. Also assisting the king were the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary and the Bureau of the Royal Household, agencies responsible for organizing ceremonial functions and administering the finances and logistics of the royal palace.

The mode of succession was set forth in the Palace Law on Succession. In the absence of a crown prince, or if the crown prince declined succession, a princess could succeed, subject to parliamentary approval. When the throne became vacant, an heir was to be appointed by the Privy Council. Until the heir formally ascended the throne, the president of the Privy Council would act as regent. Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, was designated as heir on December 28, 1972, at the age of twenty.

National Assembly

In the 1980s, the bicameral parliament, unable to successfully challenge the tradition of bureaucratic dominance over state affairs, was overshadowed by the executive branch. The National Assembly continued to be an instrument of cabinet rule, with its legislative agenda issuing for the most part from the executive branch.

Under the Constitution, the National Assembly was structured to accommodate both the military and civilian bureaucratic elite and the electorate. The influence of the traditionally powerful bureaucracy was channeled through the Senate, whose members were nominated by the prime minister for pro forma appointment by the king. Up to 85 percent of the Senate membership in the late 1980s was drawn from the armed forces and the police. The intent of this arrangement was to encourage the military to play its traditional political role through the upper house rather than through a coup or countercoup.

Senators served a term of six years, and one-third of them were retired every two years. Retirees could be reappointed for an unlimited number of terms. A senator was required to be at least thirty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and not a member of any political party. Other membership qualifications were broadly phrased, including the requirement that appointees have "knowledge and experience in various branches of learning or affairs which will be useful to the administration of the state."

House of Representatives members represented the populace. They were elected for a four-year term by direct suffrage and secret ballot at the ratio of a member to each 150,000 inhabitants. Each province (changwat), regardless of population, was entitled to at least one seat. A constituency with a population in excess of 75,000 also qualified for a seat. A candidate had to be at least twenty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and a member of a political party. As a rule, an election had to be held within sixty days from the expiration of the four-year term of the lower house. When the House was dissolved by royal decree (on the recommendation of the prime minister), a new election was required within ninety days.

The two chambers conducted their business separately under their respective presidents (speakers) and vice presidents, who were chosen from among the membership. Under the Constitution, the president of the Senate was automatically the speaker of the National Assembly and in that capacity was empowered to play a strategic role in the selection of the prime minister.

In the 1980s, lower house members demanded that their president, rather than the president of the upper house, have a decisive role in the process of selecting the prime minister. This policy was necessary, they said, because the House of Representatives, not the military-dominated Senate, collectively represented the will of the electorate. A bill to amend the Constitution to make the lower house speaker the president of the National Assembly was introduced in 1986 but failed to pass.

In 1987 the customary role of the Senate as a major vehicle for the power of the bureaucracy and a counterweight to the elective lower house remained little changed, even though its stature seemed to have diminished somewhat after April 1983. At that time, certain senatorial powers granted under temporary clauses of the Constitution expired despite the army's efforts to have these clauses extended. Under these clauses, the Senate had had the power to deliberate jointly with the lower chamber on annual appropriation bills, on "an important bill relating to the security of the Kingdom, the Throne, or the national economy," and the power to vote on no-confidence motions. The army and its political allies in parliament failed to have the clauses extended because of factious squabbles. If they had succeeded, the military's political power would have been enhanced greatly.

The lapse of the transitory provisions, however, did not affect the Senate's power to address such matters as the appointment of a regent, the royal succession, reconsideration of a bill vetoed by the prime minister, constitutional interpretation, a declaration of war, the ratification of treaties, the appointment of members of the Constitutional Tribunal, and constitutional amendments. In joint sessions senators also could render their opinion on any aspect of affairs of state to the prime minister when requested to do so by the latter. Such opinion was advisory and nonbinding.

Bills could be introduced only by the Council of Ministers or the members of the House of Representatives. Major legislation originated mostly in the cabinet, but only the lower house, with the prior endorsement of the prime minister, could initiate an appropriations bill. An ordinary bill had to be sponsored by a political party and endorsed by at least twenty party members. Bills were passed by a majority, the quorum being not less than one-half of the total members of either house in which the bills originated.

A bill passed by the House was sent to the Senate. The Senate was required to act on an ordinary bill within ninety days and on an appropriations bill within sixty days. If the Senate failed to act in either case, the bill was considered to have been consented to by the Senate, unless the lower chamber had extended the time. Disagreements between the two houses were resolved by a joint committee. When the dispute pertained to an appropriations bill and the lower house voted to reaffirm the bill it had originally passed, the prime minister was required to present the bill to the king for his assent and promulgation. At that point, the prime minister could exercise his important legislative role. He might advise the king to approve or veto the bill; in the latter event, the National Assembly needed two-thirds of its total membership to override the royal objections (actually the prime minister's objections).

Members of the assembly, who had parliamentary immunity, could question formally a cabinet minister or the prime minister on any appropriate issue except one in which executive privilege was involved. A motion of no-confidence against either an individual minister or the cabinet en masse could be initiated only by members of the lower house. Such a motion required an affirmative vote of at least one-half of the lower house membership. Senators could not take part in no-confidence debates.

Council of Ministers

The cabinet, the center of Thai political power, consisted of forty-four members, including the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, and deputy ministers. Individually and collectively the members were accountable to the House of Representatives and had to retain its confidence. The cabinet was required to resign en masse if a no-confidence motion against it was passed by the House. The four-party coalition cabinet formed in August 1986 had no civil servants or active-duty military officers. Under the Constitution, cabinet members were not allowed to hold political posts as part of an effort to strengthen the political party system.

Under the customary rules of parliamentary government, Thailand could have a prime minister whose party or electoral alliance had earned the mandate of this office outright by winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Whether or not anyone would command a majority in the next election was uncertain, given the highly fragmented political party system. In any case, a public opinion survey conducted in March 1987 by the Social Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University showed that 91 percent of those interviewed in Bangkok favored an elected prime minister. For a requirement that the prime minister be elected, however, the Constitution would have to be amended. In 1987 the Royal Command appointing the prime minister had to be countersigned by the president of the National Assembly, the leader of the military-dominated Senate, who had the power to block the installation of anyone unacceptable to the military establishment. Until the basic law is revised, the selection of the prime minister will continue to be determined by behind-the-scenes power brokers, including the military (especially the army), the monarchy, and leaders of various political parties representing business groups.

The prime minister held the real powers of appointment and removal, which he exercised in the name of the king. He countersigned royal decrees and wielded a wide range of executive powers, including the power to declare a national emergency to ensure "national or public safety or national economic security or to avert public calamity." The legality of an emergency decree had to be validated by the next session of the National Assembly. The prime minister could also proclaim or lift martial law, declare war with the advice and consent of parliament, and conclude peace treaties, armistices, and other treaties--all in the king's name.

As of mid-1987, the executive branch had thirteen ministerial portfolios: agriculture and cooperatives; commerce; communications; defense; education; finance; foreign affairs; industry; interior; justice; public health; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs. The heads of these ministries (except for justice; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs) were aided by one or more cabinet-rank deputy ministers. Each ministry was divided into departments, divisions, and sections. Traditionally, the ministries of defense, interior, and finance were regarded as the most desirable by aspiring politicians and generals. In the 1980s, the ministries of agriculture and cooperatives, industry, and communications grew in stature as the economic value of resources steadily increased.

In 1987 the Office of the Prime Minister continued to be the nerve center of the government. With the assistance of several cabinet-rank ministers attached to the office and of the Secretariat of the Prime Minister, this office monitored, coordinated, and supervised the activities of all government agencies and state enterprises. The secretariat was headed by a cabinet-rank secretary general, who supervised the work of sixteen agencies attached to the prime minister's office. Among these agencies were the Bureau of the Budget, the National Security Council, the Department of Central Intelligence, the Civil Service Commission, and the National Economic and Social Development Board. In August 1986, the secretary general was also placed in charge of a new unit called the National Operations Center established in the Office of the Prime Minister to provide essential data for efficient decision making. Specifically, the task of the National Operations Center was to handle crisis management, cope with threats to internal and external security, and keep the prime minister informed of public sentiment throughout the country.

Outside the regular administrative structure, but subject to its control and supervision, approximately sixty-eight state enterprises were engaged as of 1987 in commercial and economic activities of major importance. In these enterprises, the government was either the sole owner or the dominant partner. Managed by senior civil servants, retired military officers, or politicians, the state enterprises permitted a major government role in virtually every facet of the economic life of the country. In fiscal year ( FY) 1986, their total budget was 9 percent more than the total budget of the government and accounted for 65 percent of external public debt. The inefficiency of these enterprises continued to affect the government's fiscal stability. Privatization of the enterprises was listed as one of the ten major programs of the country's Sixth Economic Development Plan, for 1987-91.


The legal system remained an amalgam of the traditional and the modern. In several southern provinces, for example, Islamic law and custom were applicable to matrimonial and inheritance matters among the Muslims. A large part of the modern legal system was made up of criminal, civil, and commercial codes adopted from the British and other European legal systems with some modifications borrowed from India, Japan, China, and the United States. Also, an extensive body of administrative law consisted of royal decrees, executive orders, and ministerial regulations.

The judiciary provided for three levels of courts: the courts of first instance, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. The courts came under two separate jurisdictions. The Ministry of Justice appointed and supervised the administrative personnel of the courts and instituted reform in judicial procedures; the Judicial Service Commission, which was responsible for the independence of the courts, appointed, promoted, and removed judges. As a rule, judges retired at age sixty, but their service could be extended to age sixty-five.

The country was divided into nine judicial regions, which were coextensive with the nine administrative regions (phag), in contrast to the four geographic regions (North, Northeast, Center, and South). At the base of the judiciary system were the courts of first instance, most of which were formally known as provincial courts with unlimited civil and criminal jurisdiction. Petty civil and criminal offenses were handled by magistrates' courts, which were designed to relieve the increasing burden on provincial courts. Offenses committed by Thai citizens on the high seas and outside the country were tried before the Criminal Court in Bangkok. Labor disputes were adjudicated by the Central Labor Court established in Bangkok in 1980. Offenses by persons under eighteen years of age were referred to the Central Juvenile Court and its counterparts in several regional centers.

The Court of Appeal in Bangkok heard cases from all lower courts (except the Central Labor Court) relating to civil, juvenile, criminal, and bankruptcy matters. At least two judges were required to sit at each hearing. Cases of exceptional importance had to be heard by plenary sessions of the court. The appellate court could reverse, revise, or remand lower court decisions on questions of both law and fact.

The Supreme Court, which was the highest court of appeal, also had original jurisdiction over election disputes. Although decisions of the court were final, in criminal cases the king could grant clemency. A dispute over court jurisdiction was settled by the Constitutional Tribunal.




Local government comprised both regular territorial administrative units and self-governing bodies. Local autonomy was limited, however, by the high degree of centralization of power. The Ministry of Interior controlled the policy, personnel, and finances of the local units at the provincial and district levels. Field officials from the ministry as well as other central ministries constituted the majority of administrators at local levels.

In 1987 there were seventy-three provinces (changwat), including the metropolitan area of Bangkok, which had provincial status. The provinces were grouped into nine regions for administrative purposes. As of 1984 (the latest year for which information was available in 1987), the provinces were divided into 642 districts (amphoe), 78 subdistricts (king amphoe), 7,236 communes (tambon), 55,746 villages (muban), 123 municipalities (tesaban), and 729 sanitation districts (sukhaphiban).

The province was under a governor (phuwarachakan), who was assisted by one or more deputy governors, an assistant governor, and officials from various central ministries, which, except for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, maintained field staffs in the provinces and districts. The governor supervised the overall administration of the province, maintained law and order, and coordinated the work of ministerial field staffs. These field officials carried out the policies and programs of their respective ministries as line administrators and also served as technical advisers to the governor. Although these officials were responsible to the governor in theory, in practice they reported to their own ministries in Bangkok and maintained communication with other province-level and district-level field staffs.

The governor also was responsible for district and municipal administration, presiding over a provincial council composed of senior officials from the central ministries. The council, which served in an advisory capacity, met once a month to transmit central government directives to the district administrators. Apart from the council, an elected provincial assembly exercised limited legislative oversight over provincial affairs.

District administration was under the charge of a district officer (nai amphor), who was appointed by the minister of interior and reported to the provincial governor. Larger districts could be divided into two or more subdistricts, each under an assistant district officer. The district or the subdistrict was usually the only point of contact between the central authority and the populace; the central government had no appointed civil service officials below this level.

The district officer's duties as overseer of the laws and policies of the central government were extensive. He supervised the collection of taxes, kept basic registers and vital statistics, registered schoolchildren and aliens, administered local elections at the commune and village levels, and coordinated the activities of field officials from Bangkok. Additionally, the district officer convened monthly meetings of the headmen of the communes and villages to inform them of government policies and instruct them on the implementation of these policies. As the chief magistrate of the district, he also was responsible for arbitration in land disputes; many villagers referred these disputes to the district officer rather than to a regular court.

The commune was the next level below the district. An average of nine contiguous, natural villages were grouped into one commune, whose residents elected a headman (kamnan) from among the village headmen (phuyaibun) within the commune. The commune chief was not a regular government official, but because of his semiofficial status, he was confirmed in office by the provincial governor. He also was entitled to wear an official uniform and receive a monthly stipend. Assisted by a small locally recruited staff, the kamnan recorded vital statistics, helped the district officer collect taxes, supervised the work of village headmen, and submitted periodic reports to the district officer.

Below the commune level was the village government. Each village elected a headman, who generally served as the middleman between villagers and the district administration. The headman's other duties included attending meetings at the district headquarters, keeping village records, arbitrating minor civil disputes, and serving as village peace officer. Generally the headman served five years or longer and received a monthly stipend. In the 1980s, the importance of a village headman seemed to be declining as the authority of the central government expanded steadily through the provincial and local administrations.

Municipalities in Thailand included Bangkok, seventy-two cities serving as provincial capitals, and some large district towns. According to the 1980 census, municipalities had a combined population of 7.6 million, or about 17 percent of the national total. The municipalities consisted of communes, towns, and cities, depending on population. Municipal residents elected mayors and twelve to twenty-four municipal assemblymen; the assemblymen chose two to four councillors from among their number, who together with the mayors made up executive councils.

In theory, the municipal authorities were self-governing, but in practice municipal government was an administrative arm of the central and provincial authorities. The Ministry of Interior had effective control over municipal affairs through the provincial administration, which had the authority to dissolve municipal assemblies and executive councils. Moreover, such key officials as the municipal clerk and section chiefs were recruited, assigned, and retired by the ministry, which also had the power to control and supervise the fiscal affairs of the perennially deficit-ridden municipalities.

Until 1985 Bangkok's governor and assemblymen were appointed by the central government. In November of that year, however, for the first time an election was held as part of the constitutionally mandated effort to nurture local selfgovernment . Chamlong Srimuang, a former major general running as an independent, won the governorship by a landslide.

At the next lower level of local government, every district had at least one sanitation district committee, usually in the district capital. This committee's purpose was to provide services such as refuse collection, water and sewage facilities, recreation, and road maintenance. The committee was run by exofficio members headed by the district officer. Like municipalities, the sanitation districts were financially and administratively dependent on the government, notably the district administration.




A civil service career continued in 1987 to be widely regarded as a desirable route to financial security, social status, and power. As a result, despite the universal complaint about the inadequacy of government salaries, and despite many well-paid jobs becoming available in the commercial and industrial sectors, the civil service continued to attract many of the most promising young men and women.

Personnel administration was in theory centralized under the Civil Service Commission, which reported to the prime minister. In actuality the commission's functions were limited to standardization, general guidance, coordination, and record keeping. Recruitment, assignment, promotion, and discipline were handled by each ministry and other public entities. After 1975 government service was divided into eleven position classifications. The top five grades (seven through eleven) were "special grade officers"--the elite of the civilian wing of the bureaucracy. Entry level for college graduates was grade two, and, for those with master's degrees, grade three. Ordinarily, the district officer was either grade five or six, and the district section head was grade three. The provincial governor, deputy governors, and assistant governors were special grade officials, as were mid- to top-level managerial officers of the central ministries. Provincial section chiefs were grade four.

An informative study by Thai political scientist Likhit Dhiravegin revealed that as of 1977 the Ministry of Interior had the largest bloc of special and first grade officials (29 percent and 26 percent, respectively) because of its role as the backbone of the country's far-flung administrative system. This study indicated that the administrative service continued to be elitist, dominated by families of government officials and businessmen. In 1977, although these families accounted for only 10 percent (1 percent and 9 percent, respectively) of the national population, they claimed 41 percent and 33 percent, respectively, of the special grade category and 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of the first grade category. This meant that these families produced a combined total of 74 percent of the special grade officers and 58 percent of the first grade functionaries.

Geographically, a strong bias favored the Center (including Bangkok), which had 32 percent of the total population but had 68 percent and 63 percent, respectively, of the special and first grade officers assigned there; Bangkok alone had 39 percent and 33 percent of these two categories. In terms of male-female ratio, of the special grade and first grade officers, only 11 percent and 23 percent, respectively, were women. Many of the female officers were in the ministries of university affairs, education, and public health. Likhit pointed out that, insignificant as it might seem, the number of women in managerial positions was impressively high when compared with other Asian countries.

In terms of education, about 93 percent and 77 percent of the civil servants in the special and first grade categories, respectively, had college educations, which compared favorably with other Asian countries such as Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Singapore, and Burma. The Likhit study also showed that 33 percent and 20 percent of the elite categories had foreign training, the United States accounting for 71 percent and 78 percent and Britain for 11 percent and 9 percent. The BritishUnited States connection was attributable to Thailand's close relationship with Britain before World War II and with the United States since that time.

According to the Likhit study, foreign influence was least evident in the ministries of interior, justice, and public health--ministries that had the largest number of locally trained civil service officials at the elite level. Most of the locally trained senior judges, public prosecutors, lawyers, district officers, and provincial governors were graduates of Thammasat University. In the 1980s, several other Thai universities were expected to have an increased share of graduates applying for government service.

Civil service promotion was based on merit, but many observers believed that favoritism was an important factor in career advancement. A civil servant normally retired at age sixty. In 1980, however, the law was changed to permit extension of tenure up to age sixty-five in cases of extreme necessity for the benefit of the country.


Thailand - THE MEDIA


In the mid-1980s, the media played an important role as the principal source of domestic and foreign news and, to a lesser degree, as a source of public entertainment. All major daily newspapers were privately owned, but radio and television stations were controlled by the government and operated as commercial enterprises. Newspapers were generally regarded as more credible than the government-controlled broadcast media.

Mass media were under the broad supervision of the Public Relations Department in the Office of the Prime Minister. This department served as the principal source of news and information about the government and its policies. It issued daily news bulletins on domestic and foreign affairs for use by the print and electronic media. News bulletins were also issued by other government agencies, including the Thai News Agency, established in 1976 under the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand, a state enterprise under the Office of the Prime Minister. The Thai News Agency concentrated mostly on domestic affairs; foreign news was gathered from international wire services, which maintained offices or representatives in Bangkok.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, which may not be curbed except by law "for the purpose of maintaining the security of state or safeguarding the liberties, dignity or reputation of other persons or maintaining public order or good morals or preventing deterioration of the mind or health of the public." Most observers agreed that the Thai press enjoyed considerable freedom. Nevertheless, in the 1980s editorial writers and reporters continued to exercise self-censorship, mindful that there were unwritten but real government constraints, especially on coverage relating to the monarchy, government affairs, internal security matters, and Thailand's international image. The existing statutes gave broad powers to the director general of the Thailand National Police Department, including the authority to revoke or suspend the license of an offending publication. The severity of penalties varied, depending on the political climate and the sensitivity of an issue. In 1987 a new press bill was pending before the National Assembly, the intent of which was to give the press as much autonomy as possible except in time of war or in a state of emergency, in which case the press officer would be allowed to exercise censorship.

Daily newspapers were concentrated heavily in Bangkok, where at least 65 percent of the adults read a daily paper, compared with about 10 percent in rural areas. Newspapers were generally independent, and many were financially solvent, deriving their income from sales and advertising. The government was forbidden by law to subsidize private newspapers. Foreign ownership of newspapers was also banned as a safeguard against undue foreign or subversive influence.

In the 1980s, Thai journalistic standards improved steadily, as reflected in the print media's growing emphasis on political and economic issues, as well as on major foreign news events. This could be attributed to the emergence of a more discriminating readership. On the negative side, sensationalist coverage and insufficient professional training continued to mar the reputation of the Thai press.

There were about 150 newspapers, including 30 dailies in Bangkok and 120 provincial papers in 1985. Some Bangkok dailies were considered to be national newspapers because of their countrywide distribution. Most provincial papers appeared every two, five, seven, or ten days. In Bangkok twenty-one dailies appeared in Thai, six in Chinese, and three in English. Of an estimated daily circulation of 1.6 million for all Bangkok dailies in 1985, Thai Rath (800,000 circulation) and the Daily News (400,000 circulation) together claimed about 75 percent of the total circulation. These two newspapers reportedly were popular among white-collar groups. The most successful among the remaining newspapers were Ban Muang, Matichon, Siam Rath, and Naew Na. The English-language dailies were the Bangkok Post, The Nation, and the Bangkok World, which were popular among the well-educated and influential members of Thai society and were regarded by many as more reliable than the Thai dailies. Some of the editorial positions on the Bangkok Post and the Bangkok World were held by foreigners, mostly British; The Nation, on the other hand, was almost entirely staffed by Thai and tended to view the world from a Thai perspective.

Unlike the English-language dailies, whose circulation was increasing in the early 1980s, Chinese-language dailies were declining in readership. Their total circulation was probably around 70,000. Two leading Chinese-language dailies were Sing Sian Yit Pao and Tong Hua Yit Pao. These dailies were noted for responsible coverage of domestic and international affairs, but they refrained from taking strong stands on local political questions.

All aspects of radio and television broadcasting, such as operating hours, content, programs, advertising, and technical requirements, were set by the Broadcasting Directing Board, which was under the Office of the Prime Minister and headed by a deputy prime minister. In 1987 the country had 275 national and local radio stations. The Public Relations Department, under the Office of the Prime Minister, was responsible for Radio Thailand and the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT). NBT was the official government broadcasting station, which transmitted local and international news mandatorily broadcast on all stations. News was also broadcast daily in nine foreign languages over Radio Thailand's World Service. Radio stations were run also as commercial enterprises by such government agencies as the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand; units of the army, the navy, and the air force; the police; the ministries of communications and education; and several state universities. In 1985 there were 7.7 million radio sets in use.

As a major official channel of communication, all television stations avoided controversial viewpoints and independent political comment in their programming. The Army Signal Corps and the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand directly operated television channels 5 and 9. Two other channels were operated under license by private groups, the Bangkok Entertainment Company, which ran Channel 3, and the Bangkok Television Company, in charge of Channel 7. Channel 11 was operated by the government primarily as an educational station.

By 1980 television had become the dominant news medium among urban Thai. Household television set ownership (about 3.3 million sets in 1984) was as widespread as radio in all urban areas of the country. As of 1984, television exceeded radio ownership in the Center and South and was about even with radio ownership in the North and the Northeast. Nine out of ten Bangkok households had at least one television set. Ownership of color television was also widespread among urban Thai in the South (58 percent), Bangkok (54 percent), the Northeast (49 percent), the central plain (47 percent), and the North (43 percent).




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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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.




In the late 1980s, the Thai political party system continued to evolve, albeit spasmodically. It was at a delicate stage of transition from its past status as an adjunct to the bureaucratic establishment to a more substantial role as a channel for popular representation and a provider of top political executives.

The concept of party politics dated back to the early 1930s, but its impact was generally insignificant, having been overshadowed by the military-bureaucratic elite. The struggle for power was nearly always settled by coup, and the pluralistic demands of the society were accommodated through either bureaucratic channels or patron-client connections. For decades political parties had an uncertain status. When they existed, they did so at the sufferance of generals, who abolished or revived them at will. Parties were unable to maintain continuity, nor could they develop a mass base. Part of the problem was the bad image of partisan politics, which the politicians brought on themselves through their unscrupulous pursuit of self-interest.

Party politics received a major impetus from the student uprising of October 1973. Forty-two parties participated in the 1975 parliamentary election, and thirty-nine participated the following year. The freewheeling partisan politics during the so-called democratic period of 1973-76 ended in the coup of October 1976. Kriangsak, the army commander in chief, appointed a civilian-led government, but the Thanin Kraivichien regime turned out to be overly repressive and was overthrown in 1977. Assuming the office of prime minister himself, Kriangsak permitted the resumption of party politics banned by Thanin. Of the 39 parties that took part in the April 1979 election, 7 parties captured about 70 percent of the 301 contested seats.

As a result of the confusion stemming from the proliferation of minor parties, a new political parties act was passed in July 1981. The act, which became effective in 1983, specified that to participate in an election, a party must have a minimum of 5,000 members spread throughout the country's four geographical regions. In each region, at least five provinces must have members, the minimum per province being fifty. The membership requirement was designed to foster the development of mass-based parties catering to broad national interests rather than narrow, sectional interests. Another provision of the act stipulated that a party must put up candidates for at least half the total lower house seats, or 174 seats. As a result, in the 1983 and 1986 elections, the number of participating parties was reduced to fourteen and sixteen, respectively. In order to satisfy the legal requirements, some parties fielded candidates recruited from among recent college graduates.

In the 1980s, the country's multiparty system continued to suffer from traditional long-standing problems. These included organizational frailty and lack of discipline, endemic factionalism, the emphasis on personalities over issues, and the politicians' penchant for vote-buying and influence-peddling. Parties were formed, as before, by well-known or wealthy individuals to promote their own personal, familial, parochial, or regional interests. Observers expressed concern that failure to improve the party system could result in a return to authoritarian military rule.

The perception that political parties and politicians were unworthy of trust was widespread in 1987. However, a coup was ruled out by Chaovalit, the new army commander in chief, even though he publicly castigated politicians as venal and hypocritical. In February he asserted that political parties, the Constitution, and elections alone would not make for a genuine democracy in Thailand, where, he argued, the party system and elections were controlled by a wealthy few who used the trappings of democracy for their own benefit. Appearing before a parliamentary committee in April 1987, Chaovalit maintained that to build a real Thai-style democracy with the king as head of state, the ever-widening income disparity must be narrowed first and that at the same time political parties and all government entities including the military "must join hands and walk ahead together."

The major Thai parties, which Chaovalit had criticized, were mostly right-of-center. Their numerical representation in the House of Representatives varied considerably from one election to another. Of the four ruling coalition parties in 1987, the Democrat Party was considered to be somewhat liberal, despite its beginning in 1946 as a conservative, monarchist party. Seni Pramoj, prime minister in 1946 and again in 1976, led the party from its inception until 1979. In 1974 the party suffered major fragmentation and lost some key figures, including Kukrit, Seni's brother, who formed the Social Action Party that year. In the 1979 election, the Democrats suffered a major setback but rebounded in 1983. Over the years, this party consistently opposed military involvement in politics and actively sought to broaden its base of support across all social segments and geographical regions. In recent years, particularly after July 1986, the Democrats were racked by internal strife. Their leader Bhichai Rattakul, deputy prime minister in Prem's coalition, was reconfirmed in a factional showdown in January 1987. Afterward, retired Lieutenant Colonel Sanan Khachornprasart was named secretary general, in place of Veera Musikapong, whose faction had been backed by wealthy Bangkok businessman Chalermphan Srivikorn.

The Chart Thai Party, sometimes called the "generals' party," was founded in 1974 by a group of retired generals and was led until July 1986 by Pramarn Adireksan, retired major general and former president of the Association of Thai Industries and the Thai Textile Association. Aggressively anticommunist, Chart Thai was backed by a number of prominent industrialists. After the July 1986 election, it was led by retired General Chatichai Choonhaven, whose relationship with Prem was friendly.

The Social Action Party, a 1974 offshoot of the Democrat Party, was led by Thai statesman Kukrit Pramoj until he stepped down in December 1985. The party was led thereafter by the former deputy party leader and minister of foreign affairs, Siddhi Savetsila, a retired air chief marshal. More than any other party, the Social Action Party was identified with a free enterprise economy. In the 1986 election, the party suffered a severe loss, brought on in no small part by its own internal strife. In May 1986, a splinter faction led by seventy-four-year- old Boontheng Thongsawasdi formed the United Democracy Party with financial support from big business--amid a spate of rumors that General Arthit was also among the party's behind-the scenes backers. In the July 1986 election and afterward, the United Democracy Party was outspokenly critical of the Prem administration.

The Rassadorn Party, the fourth member of the ruling coalition, was formed only a few months before the July 1986 election; until May 1986 it was known as the National Union (Sahachat) Party. Its leader was Thienchai Sirisamphan, retired deputy army commander in chief. Rassadorn came to be known as a pak taharn (military party) because its key party posts were held by retired generals. Its entry into partisan politics was welcomed by many for providing a constructive channel for military involvement in parliamentary government.

The exclusion of the United Democracy Party from the fifth coalition government was predictable in light of its anti-Prem stance. However, it probably came as a surprise to Samak Sundaravej, leader of the Prachakorn Thai Party formed in 1978, that his right-wing and monarchist group was not invited to join the coalition. Before the election, master orator Samak stated that the new postelection government should continue its strong military ties and should once again be led by outgoing Prem. In so doing, he rejected the suggestion that Kukrit Pramoj, who had retired from party politics altogether in May 1986, should head the new postelection regime.

The Ruam Thai Party and the Community Action Party, both formed in 1986, were also among the seven parties supporting Prem for continued premiership; but they, too, were left out of the coalition. The leader of the Ruam Thai Party, Narong Wongwan, was a former member of the Social Action Party and outgoing minister of agriculture and cooperatives. The Community Action Party was led by its founder Boonchu Rojanasathien, one-time deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, ex-deputy leader of the Social Action Party, and former president of the Bangkok Bank.

The remaining seven parties with one or more elected House of Representatives members formed the "Group of Nineteen," so named because of their combined total of nineteen members. These parties agreed in August 1986 to join with other noncoalition parties to form a united front in an attempt to ensure efficient and systematic monitoring of the government. In a crucial showdown over a no-confidence motion against the Prem government in April 1987, however, the opposition bloc suffered a major political embarrassment because of the last-minute defection from the censure debate by fifteen of its members. Boonchu, chief strategist of the five-member opposition leadership team, expelled five members from his Community Action Party for their action.




Diplomacy has served Thailand well, enabling the kingdom to manage its foreign affairs flexibly and relatively unencumbered by intrusions of major foreign powers. Remarkably adaptive to shifts in international currents, Thailand has almost always aligned itself with the dominant power in the region in its effort to ensure security, increase trade, and preserve national independence. In the 1980s, its primary concern was to normalize relations with Cambodia and Laos--relations that were complicated by the Vietnamese military presence in these countries.


Since World War II, no single factor has shaped the style and substance of Thai foreign relations more than the establishment of a communist-run government in China in 1949. The communist triumph aroused a Thai fear of southward Chinese expansion, in which the economically powerful and ethnocentrist Chinese minority in Bangkok might serve as a potential fifth column. Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 and growing evidence of clandestine communist Chinese roles in local insurgencies in Southeast Asia reinforced Thai resolve to act in concert with other anticommunist nations. The formal installation of a communist administration in Hanoi after the decisive defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 set the stage for Thailand's signing of the Manila Pact, a collective security agreement, in September 1954. The resulting Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), as the regional body was formally called, had as its members Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. SEATO headquarters was in Bangkok.

Nevertheless, Thailand viewed the effectiveness of collective security with some degree of skepticism. On March 6, 1962, in an attempt to allay Thai apprehensions, the United States and Thailand reached a new understanding under what came to be known as the Rusk-Thanat agreement (named after then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk and then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Thanat Khoman). Under the agreement, the United States pledged that, in the event of aggression it would help Thailand unilaterally without prior agreement of all other parties to the Manila Pact.

During the 1960s, Thailand maintained close economic and security ties with the United States, while at the same time striving to foster regional cooperation with its noncommunist neighbors. Its assumption was that regional solidarity and national security were mutually reinforcing and would provide an effective deterrence to communism. In 1961 Thailand joined Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) and the Philippines in launching the Association of Southeast Asia as a nonmilitary, nonpolitical vehicle for consultation and mutual assistance in economic, cultural, scientific, and administrative matters.

In 1967 the Association of Southeast Asia was replaced by a broader regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The members agreed to cooperate in food production, industry and commerce, civil aviation, shipping, tourism, communications, meteorology, science and technology, and Southeast Asian studies. Consultation and cooperation were to take place through an annual ministerial conference held in each of the five ASEAN countries in alphabetical rotation. As a result of the formation of the regional organization, consultation between Thailand and the other ASEAN countries on external problems increased greatly in the 1970s.

The Thai response to the external uncertainties of the 1970s was a graphic demonstration of the flexibility of its foreign policy. The external catalyst was an apparent shift in American strategic thinking with regard to China and the Vietnam conflict. The shift was sensed in Bangkok in the late 1960s--in March 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his intention to seek a negotiated peace in Vietnam and again in July 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon told Thai leaders in Bangkok of his intention to lower the future American military profile in Asia without undertaking any new security obligations. At that time, Nixon reaffirmed the United States resolve to "honor its present commitments in Southeast Asia" and to continue its support of Thai efforts in the areas of security and economic development. Not surprisingly, in 1968, before the "Nixon Doctrine" was proclaimed in 1969, Thailand hinted at its desire to open channels of communication with China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). These channels were considered necessary by the Thai in order to solve difficulties and achieve peaceful coexistence. In late 1970, a government committee was set up to explore the possibility of normalizing relations with China.

After 1971, as the United States and China moved toward reconciliation and detente, Thai soul-searching began in earnest. In 1972 Thailand sent sports teams to China, and in 1973 Thailand made overtures to Hanoi for a dialogue shortly after the United States and North Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement. In 1974 a Thai delegation conferred with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing on measures to improve bilateral relations. At that time Zhou was reported to have assured the Thai delegation that China would stop aiding communist insurgents in Thailand, while underlining his concern over increasing Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. In December 1974, the Thai government lifted a fifteen-year ban on trade with China. In March 1975, a month before Saigon fell, Thailand announced its decision to recognize and normalize diplomatic relations with China.

In the wake of communist takeovers in Phnom Penh and Saigon in April 1975, Thailand moved expeditiously to realign its foreign policy. Thailand's security ties with the United States-- the pillar of Bangkok's foreign relations for nearly three decades--were downplayed as part of accentuating a policy of friendship with all nations. In July 1975, the Thai revoked a military accord with the United States under which American troops had been allowed on Thai soil. Thailand also agreed with the Philippines in principle that SEATO, having outlived its usefulness, should be phased out as early as possible. The crowning moment of the policy of readjustment came in July 1975, when Thailand and China signed a formal agreement on establishing diplomatic relations. Noteworthy was the absence of a Chinese demand for the prior removal of American troops from Thailand, in striking contrast to Hanoi's insistence that Thailand should first renounce its policy of "collusion" with the United States before any reconciliation could take place.

The normalization of relations with its Indochinese neighbors became pressing as refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam streamed across the Thai frontier, straining Thai resources and raising tensions in the border regions. Relations with Laos, bound to Thailand by a shared history, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language, were tense. Much of the problem centered on Laotian Meo tribespeople who had taken refuge in Thailand after the communist-led Pathet Lao forces gained control of Vientiane in May 1975. For years the Meo and some Thai irregular troops had waged clandestine operations against the Pathet Lao forces, reportedly with the knowledge and cooperation of the government of Thailand. After intermittent clashes on the Mekong River, Thailand in November 1975 closed the frontier with Laos, causing hardship in Vientiane; this action prevented oil, food, and other essential goods from reaching Laos through Thai territory, the historical transit route to the landlocked country. Tension eased somewhat after January 1976, when the border was reopened following Thai recognition of the new Laotian regime. In August 1976, the two countries signed an agreement on the transport of Laotian goods through Thailand in exchange for Thai air routes over Laos to Vietnam and Hong Kong. Nonetheless, recurring border incidents led to a temporary Thai economic blockade of Laos in late 1977. By the end of the year, Laotian refugees accounted for 73,000 of about 95,000 Indochinese refugees encamped in Thailand.

In April 1975, Thailand was the first country in Southeast Asia to recognize the new regime of the communist Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. In October the two countries agreed in principle to resume diplomatic and economic relations; the agreement was formalized in June 1976, when they also agreed to erect border markers in poorly defined border areas.

Meanwhile, the withdrawal of all American troops from Thailand by July 1976 paved the way for the Thai-Vietnamese agreement in August on normalizing relations. In January 1978, Bangkok and Hanoi signed an accord on trade and economic and technical cooperation, agreeing also to exchange ambassadors, reopen aviation links, resolve all problems through negotiations, and consult on the question of delimiting sea boundaries. Progress toward improved relations with the Indochinese states came to an abrupt halt, however, after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, and in January 1979 installed in Phnom Penh a new communist regime friendly to Hanoi.

This invasion not only provoked a Chinese attack on Vietnam in February 1979 but also posed a threat to Thailand's security. Bangkok could no longer rely on Cambodia as a buffer against Vietnamese power. Bangkok was forced to assume the role of a frontline state against a resurgent communist Vietnam, which had 300,000 troops in Cambodia and Laos. The Thai government began increasing its defense capabilities. While visiting Washington in February 1979, Prime Minister Kriangsak asked for and received reassurances of military support from the United States. His government also launched a major diplomatic offensive to press for the withdrawal of all Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and for continued international recognition of Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. As part of that offensive, Kriangsak also journeyed to Moscow in March 1979--the first visit ever by a Thai prime minister--to explain the Thai position on the Cambodian question and to reassure the Soviets that Thailand's anti-Vietnamese position was neither anti-Soviet nor pro-Chinese. Such reassurances were believed to be necessary in view of Vietnamese accusations that Thailand collaborated with China and the United States in aiding and abetting the Khmer Rouge forces against the Heng Samrin regime.

The Thai offensive, backed by Bangkok's ASEAN partners, was rewarded in a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution adopted in November 1979. The resolution called for immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Cambodia, asked all nations to refrain from interfering in, or staging acts of aggression against, Cambodia, and called on the UN secretary general to explore the possibility of an international conference on Cambodia.

Foreign Relations since 1980

In the 1980s, the Cambodian-Vietnamese question was a principal concern of Thai foreign policy makers, who found common cause with countries that also opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Security once again became an important consideration in the determination of Bangkok's foreign policy.

In 1979 the ASEAN members were apparently divided over the Cambodian-Vietnamese situation. Indonesia and Malaysia were reportedly more conciliatory toward Hanoi than Thailand and Singapore, viewing China rather than Vietnam as the principal threat to regional stability. Indonesia and Malaysia wanted a strong and stable Vietnam as a potential ally, or at least as a buffer, against Chinese expansionism. They were inclined to tolerate to a degree the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and to recognize the Heng Samrin regime, provided that some Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and the political base of the regime was reconstituted more broadly.

The ASEAN differences were turned aside in June 1980, when Vietnamese troops crossed the border into Thailand. The incursion, which coincided with an annual ASEAN ministerial conference in Kuala Lumpur, was contrary to earlier Vietnamese assurances that they would not encroach on Thai territory. The ASEAN foreign ministers strongly condemned the incursion as "an act of aggression" and reaffirmed their undivided support for the UN resolution of November 1979. They also reaffirmed their recognition of the deposed government of Democratic Kampuchea-- their rationale being that to recognize the Heng Samrin regime would be tantamount to rewarding Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia. At the first UN-sponsored international conference on Cambodia held in New York in July 1981, Thailand and its ASEAN allies played a key role in seeking a political settlement of the Cambodian question. The conference was attended by delegates from seventy-nine countries and observers from fifteen others, but it was boycotted by Vietnam, Laos, the Soviet Union and its allies, and some nonaligned nations. The conference adopted a resolution that, among other things, called for a cease-fire by all armed Cambodian factions, the withdrawal of all foreign troops under the supervision of a UN observer group, the restoration of Cambodian independence, the establishment of a nonaligned and neutral Cambodia, and the establishment of an ad hoc committee comprising Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Thailand to advise the UN secretary general on ways to implement the resolution.

Relations between Thailand and China improved steadily in the 1980s, with Beijing sharing Bangkok's opposition to Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia and affirming its support for the Thai and ASEAN stance on the Cambodian question. China sought to reassure Bangkok of its withdrawal of support for the Communist Party of Thailand and offered military assistance to Thailand in the event the latter was attacked by Vietnam. In the mid-1980s, Chinese arms and supplies for the Khmer Rouge resistance forces reportedly were being shipped through Thai territory. In 1985 a telephone hotline was established between Thailand and China in an effort to coordinate their activities in the event of a major Vietnamese incursion into Thailand. Cordiality in Thai-Chinese relations was evident in a military assistance agreement signed in Beijing in May 1987. This agreement allowed Thailand to purchase, on concessional terms, Chinese tanks, antiaircraft guns, missiles, ammunition, and armored personnel carriers.

Despite some friction over trade issues, Thai relations with the United States were very close, especially from 1979 onward. The United States reassured its commitment to Thai security under the Rusk-Thanat agreement of 1962 as well as the Manila Pact of 1954. In addition to backing the ASEAN position on Cambodia, Washington steadily increased its security assistance to Thailand and also took part in a series of annual bilateral military exercises. Spurred by Vietnamese incursions in 1985 and the arrival in Vietnam of Soviet-piloted MiG-23s, Thailand decided to buy twelve F-16 fighter-bombers from General Dynamics in the United States. Moreover, under an accord reached in October 1985, the two countries began to set up a war reserve weapons stockpile on Thai soil, making Thailand the first country without a United States military base to have such a stockpile. The stockpile, subject to approval by the United States Congress, was to be used only in a "nation-threatening emergency" or to repulse possible armed invasion by Soviet-supported Vietnamese and other forces from Cambodia.

Trade was an irritant in Thai-American relations, but many observers agreed that the trade problems would not likely affect the long-standing friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The United States was a major trading partner and by 1985 had become the largest and most important export market for Thai goods. Thailand enjoyed a trade surplus with the United States, which grew from a modest US$100 million in 1983 to about US$1 billion in 1986. Meanwhile, there was growing Thai criticism that the United States had become protectionist in trade relations with Thailand. By 1987, however, many informed Thai had come to believe that problems in Thai-American trade relations would be temporary.

In 1987 Thailand continued to express its desire for mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union and to affirm its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Relations with Moscow, however, were merely correct, if not cool, as a result of Thai apprehension over Soviet intentions toward Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. Thai concern was prompted by Moscow's military aid to Vietnam and its continued support of Hanoi's involvement in Cambodia. During his visit to Moscow in May 1987, Minister of Foreign Affairs Siddhi Savetsila of Thailand told his Soviet counterpart that Cambodia was "the test case" of Soviet intentions toward Asia and the Pacific region. He urged the Soviet Union to use its "immense influence and prestige" to bring about a quick and durable settlement of the Cambodian question. Such settlement, according to Siddhi, entailed an early withdrawal of some 140,000 Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, Cambodian exercise of the right of self- determination, and the formation of a neutral and nonaligned Cambodia posing no threat to its neighbors. At the end of the May visit, a protocol was signed establishing a Thai-Soviet trade commission.

As Thailand and Japan celebrated the centennial of their relationship in 1987, Japan continued to be Thailand's principal trading partner and largest foreign investor. The generally cordial relations between the two countries--dating back to 1887, when Japan was the first country to set up a foreign embassy in Bangkok--were marred in the 1970s and 1980s by a continuous imbalance of trade. In 1984 Thailand's trade deficit with Japan accounted for 62 percent of its total trade deficit for the year, up from 46 percent in the previous year. Japan's economic dominance was much criticized as exploitive and, in late 1984, was the target of a campaign against Japanese goods launched by university students. The Thai government stated that such a campaign offered little or no solution to the deficit problem. Thailand's preferred solution was for Japan to open its market to Thai products, increase its aid and loans to Thailand, set up export-oriented industries in Thailand, and enhance economic cooperation through more active transfers of technology. In 1986 Thailand's trade deficit with Japan decreased 32 percent from the 1984 figure.

In 1987 a major foreign policy goal for Thailand was the restoration of its traditionally cordial ties with Laos, strained since 1975, when Bangkok came to perceive Laos as a client state of Vietnam. In 1979 Thailand and Laos agreed to improve their relations by promoting bilateral trade and allowing free access to the Mekong River by border residents. Nonetheless, relations between Bangkok and Vientiane continued to be tense, marred by frequent shooting incidents on the Mekong. In 1981 Thailand banned 273 "strategic" commodities from export or transshipment to Laos. In mid-1984 armed clashes occurred over the status of three remote border villages. Laos raised this issue in the UN Security Council, rejecting Thailand's proposal to determine the territoriality of the villages through a joint or neutral survey team. Meanwhile, one important economic link continued to be unaffected by political or security matters: Laos sold electricity to Thailand, earning as much as 75 percent of its annual foreign exchange from this transaction.

On the initiative of Laos, the two sides met in November 1986 to reaffirm their commitment to the 1979 accord on neighborly relations. At about the same time, Thailand began to relax its trade embargo, thereby decreasing the number of banned items to sixty-one. Apparently, this action was taken under pressure from Thai businessmen, whose exports to Laos had dropped sharply from 81 percent of the total imports of Laos in 1980 to 26 percent in 1984. Thai exports to Laos increased in 1985 and 1986, but the future of economic links between the two countries was uncertain. With Soviet assistance, the Laotians planned to complete by 1988 a major highway from Savannakhet across Laos to the Vietnamese port of Danang, thus lessening the traditional dependence of Laos on Thailand for access to the sea for foreign trade.

In March 1987, the two sides met again to discuss matters of mutual concern but made no progress. Although 40,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese troops were still present on Laotian soil, Laos continued to accuse Thailand of harboring its historic ambition to dominate the region. Moreover, Vientiane accused Bangkok of being in collusion with the United States in engaging in unfriendly acts to destabilize the Laotian government. The alleged acts, along with Thai occupation of the three "Lao villages," were stated by Vientiane to be the main barriers to improvement of Laotian-Thai relations. For its part, Thailand charged that Laos was aiding the Pak Mai (New Party), a small, pro-Vietnamese, Thai communist insurgent group that had split from the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Thailand in 1979. Furthermore, Thailand accused Laos of turning a blind eye to heroin production inside Laos and of refusing to cooperate in the suppression of narcotics trafficking between Laos and Thailand. In March 1987, the Bangkok Post lamented in an editorial, "It is strange but true that the country with which Thailand has just about everything to share except ideology should happen to be one of the hardest to deal with."

Nevertheless, Thailand was committed to solving its problems with the neighboring states of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The Thai flexibility in foreign policy that had enabled the country to avoid conquest or colonization by foreign powers included a dedication to maintaining good relations with all nations, great and small. Given this commitment and adaptability, it was likely that Thailand, perhaps in concert with its ASEAN partners, would soon reach a mutually agreeable accommodation with its Indochinese neighbors.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com